The Greenwich Street Project by Dutch architect Winka Dubbeldam is an 11-floor-tall symbiosis of renovation and new construction in the heart of Manhattan’s West Village. The project adds a form of modernist organicism to the 1990s discourse on digital architecture.
Winka Dubbeldam opened her office Archi-Tectonics in 1994. She rose to prominence with contributions to exhibitions such as 'The Unprivate House' (1994) at the MOMA and Archi-Lab (2000) in Orléans. She also compiled a body of quality architecture with her office. Projects have included offices for Gear Magazine and the Digital Imaging Facility in New York, the Eniac Museum in Philadelphia, and in 2003 the Gipsy Trail Residence in New York. The concept and construction of the Greenwich Street Project, scheduled for completion in August 2004 after a difficult period of gestation, form the subject of an exhibition entitled Metamorph at the next Venice Architecture Biennale (September 12 – November 7).
Dubbeldam's design philosophy is indebted to the 1990s discourse on 'folds, motion-based environments, constraints of parameters in performance envelopes that enclose but do not exactly define limits, the kinematic frame'. Archi-Tectonics deploys the computer during the design process as an active, generative tool. The result is an architecture in which programmatic mapping, fields of force and smart systems overlap, influence and generate 'meaning forms' that freeze, determine and depict instability and dynamics. The resulting energetic forms are the structural sum of a hybrid steel skeleton and a unique skin. Whereas the reality of such architecture usually remains in the realm of publication, exhibition, symposium and pavilion, Dubbeldam has the opportunity to test her philosophy in the city.
The Greenwich Street Project is a clash between an existing six-floor brown-brick building and an eleven-floor blue-green extension. The programme consists of 22 apartments, a gallery and a restaurant. Archi-Tectonics' philosophy can be read directly from the street: the concepts of the vertical and static stand here in apposition to formalist mutation and change. The glazed curtain wall – Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times compared it to a waterfall – is the building's outward symbol. The merit of Dubbeldam's intervention therefore lies first and foremost at the level of its presence in the city. The stringent building regulations that apply in Manhattan mean that the façade is rarely viewed as anything more imaginative than a flat surface full of openings. The question is whether a spatial paradise lies behind this waterfall.
Dubbeldam recently explained the motivation for the 'meaning form' and her meticulously measured ornamental detailing of the façade as follows: 'The continuous glass skin is the perfect reflection of the blurring of the urban and the domestic.' And admittedly, the glass skin isn't a blank screen between house and city, but the openness works in one direction only. The one-way mirrored-glass façade turns the future resident into a metropolitan voyeur but not into a domestic exhibitionist. The destabilising effect of the façade on the experience of space is best experienced during this phase of construction, amidst the pleasant bustle of people at work on a sunny afternoon. The apartments are not yet fitted with disrupting elements like walls, doors or furniture, and so the cascading glass façade reads as a perfectly shiny skin stretched over a metal skeleton. The hybrid and heavily heaving façade visible outside is counterbalanced by the homogeneous space inside. There's a constant feeling that something has been set in motion somewhere overhead and it can only stop down below on the sidewalk. Behind the façade, particularly on the upper three floors, there is the permanent visual attraction of the ever-present masses of the metropolis. A light shaft at the back allows light from the east to penetrate the interior. This vertical façade is made of grey-black blocks of concrete and aluminium-framed openings.
The pronounced and extremely sensuous form of the Greenwich Street Project relegates the underlying oppressive digital and flexible philosophy to the background. That is anything but a lost opportunity. Quite the contrary: it enhances the visual and spatial aspects of the scheme.