An Architecture Tour of New York City's West Side

How Manhattan’s once decrepit Hudson riverfront gave way to a game of architectural one-upmanship

New York has rediscovered its waterfront over the past couple of decades. The six-mile stretch of the Hudson River Greenway between the southern tip of Manhattan and its Midtown bulge was once a strip of oily piers and derelict sheds. It has now become a showcase of 21st-century architecture that reflects the shifts in New York’s tempestuous relationship with its shores.

This used to be the working heart of a city whose whole reason for existing was moving stuff. For centuries, dockworkers hoisted coffee, sugar, rubber, and peppers off ships, onto the docks, and into warehouses, before those exotic imports were repackaged or refined and sent back out to the world as products. The waterfront was a zone of noise, toil, and danger that seemed always to defeat the city’s attempts to civilize it. The original Chelsea Piers complex, designed by the firm of Warren & Wetmore and completed in 1910, was meant to bring grace and dignity to the rough waterfront, so that transatlantic passengers could disembark in style. As ships got bigger, the facility quickly became obsolete and suffered years of abandonment and neglect.

A few brooding relics of that age endure—the Starrett-Lehigh Building, for instance, whose streamlined Moderne style suggested lightness and motion but whose structural heft allowed freight-laden railway cars to roll right onto elevators that hoisted them upstairs. But in the mid-20th century, a combination of trucking and containerized shipping killed off the working waterfront along the Hudson River. Decay sealed most New Yorkers off from the area, and the river became something they viewed from high-rise windows. The people who frequented the collapsing piers came looking for drugs, anonymous sex, or just a moment of freedom from society’s constraints.

Eventually, the state reclaimed that dilapidated DMZ as a green ribbon of parkland. Deluxe residences, office towers, and the appurtenances of leisure soon followed. New York now exists to move money instead of cargo. And so the clangor of stevedores’ yells and ships’ horns has been replaced by the quiet hum of the real estate market, the thrum of traffic on West Street, and the whoosh of bicycle tires. In the evening, when the setting sun flames across the river and paints the façades with a flattering reddish glow, the architectural parade celebrates a city that early on suffered the miseries of deindustrialization and found a way to reinvent itself in glamour.

The West Side Highlights

The bright new things along the West Side, from south to north

1. SeaGlass Carousel
WXY architecture + urban design (2015)
The Battery, where the Dutch erected America’s first fortifications and where immigrants disembarked, also has a history of whimsy. For instance, Castle Clinton, originally a fort, served as an entertainment venue and an aquarium—a legacy recalled by the charmingly translucent sea creatures that circle the SeaGlass Carousel, inside a spiraling pavilion shaped like a chambered nautilus. At State and Water Streets.

2. World Trade Center Memorial Plaza
Michael Arad and Peter Walker (2011)
No site testifies to New York’s resilience more than this landscaped plaza, with its twin memorial voids, which does far more than commemorate the 9/11 attacks. The grove of trees covers an underground museum and provides a shaded buffer between zones of quiet contemplation and the profane, chaotic city beyond. At West and Liberty Streets.

3. Goldman Sachs
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (2009)
After 9/11, when it seemed as though New York might lose some of its economic might to suburban office parks and other cities, Goldman Sachs recommitted to Manhattan with a $2.4 billion office tower. Bulky and sleek enough to cultivate astronomical fortunes, it greets the street with an immense, ebullient mural by Julie Mehretu. 200 West St.

4. Pier 25.
Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (2010)
The creation of Hudson River Park meant rescuing the disintegrating piers and fitting them out for the postindustrial age. Armed with a graceful design sensibility and saltwater-resistant plants, the architects crammed a beach volleyball court, a mini-golf course, and assorted spaces for sunset-gazing onto a 1,000-foot jetty. At West and North Moore Streets.

5. DSNY Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage and Spring Street Salt Shed
Dattner Architects and XY architecture + urban design (2015)
A few new buildings along the old industrial corridor recall its grittier days. The city has lately turned to top-shelf, civic-minded architects to design its least glamorous facilities, and here they produced a concrete beauty of a salt shed, fashioned like a crystal rock. Across the street is a garbage truck depot disguised by a fetching metal skin and, after dark, a colorful play of lights. At Spring and West Streets.

6. 160 Leroy Street
Herzog & de Meuron (2017)
The notion that anyone would pay a fortune to live on the West Village waterfront would have struck a mid-20th-century dockhand as absurd. And yet here, where Manhattan’s rectilinear grid meets the coastline’s natural curves, the celebrated Swiss architects designed a pair of upended waves, creating wraparound river views for those lucky—and rich—enough to be on the inside looking out.

7. 173–176 Perry Street and 165 Charles Street
Richard Meier & Partners Architects (2002 and 2006)
Richard Meier brought his wizardry of white steel and weightless glass to a trio of towers that fused the L.A.-style midcentury modern house with the East Coast apartment building. A boon to voyeurs and paparazzi (Calvin Klein and Nicole Kidman, among other celebrities, have called the towers home), these buildings raised the bar for the see-through urban residence.


Courtesy Iwan Baan

 

8. Superior Ink
Robert A. M. Stern Architects (2009)
Robert A. M. Stern reinterpreted the 20th-century factory as 21st-century luxe. The memory of a now-demolished ink plant lingers in the base of the blond brick tower, and a whiff of old Greenwich Village clings to the new townhouses along 12th Street. 400 W. 12th St.

9. Whitney Museum
Renzo Piano Building Workshop (2015)
Rising above the southern end of the High Line, the new Whitney continues the urban experience with a set of outdoor balconies and staircases that tie the galleries to the city beyond. Looking a bit like a beached tanker or a levitating factory, with a vast gallery window facing west toward the heartland, the museum sings of the neighborhood’s— and the nation’s—machine-age past. 99 Gansevoort St.

10. The Standard
Ennead (2009)
Squeezing the High Line between concrete legs, the muscular, sexy hotel dominates the low-rise skyline, giving every room a sweeping view and passersby regular glimpses of intimate life in a New York hotel. 848 Washington St.

11. IAC
Frank Gehry (2007)
Known for his creations in crinkly titanium, Frank Gehry made his New York debut with this low-rise lovely in bending glass. The milky-white tint and the arrangement of sail-like billows give this new-media-company headquarters an air of seafaring panache. 555 W. 18th St.

12. 100 Eleventh Avenue
Jean Nouvel (2010)
Jean Nouvel’s faceted apartment tower sweeps around the corner like a whirling disco ball. The façade panels of various sizes and hues suggest a building in the process of assembling itself before your eyes.

13. 200 Eleventh Avenue
Selldorf Architects (2010)
At the island’s elbow, where Eleventh Avenue jogs inland, Annabelle Selldorf placed a rippling metal tower on an earthy terra-cotta-clad base. The airy building contains a piece of brawny machinery that recalls the industrial age and yet typifies the absurdity of the New York real estate market: a drive-in elevator that wafts a resident’s car to its aerial garage, right outside the apartment door.

14. 10 Hudson Yards
Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) (2016)
For decades, the West Side train yards hardly even figured on the mental map of most New Yorkers—they were just a no-go blank. That is changing. Some of the tracks have been covered over by a vast platform, and a forest of skyscrapers is rising above. The first office building, known as Coach Tower for the fashion house that moved its headquarters there, looks like it was blithely hammered together from three different kits.

15. The Shed
Diller Scofidio + Renfro and David Rockwell (under construction)
Even before construction is complete and the exhibitions and concerts get going, the West Side’s next cultural juggernaut is already putting on a hell of a show. In an echo of a shipyard gantry, a steel superstructure fits over the glass-walled building, or rolls out on massive wheels to enclose a plaza and create a venue big enough for a major pop star. 545 W. 30th St.

16. VIA 57 West
Bjarke Ingels Group (2016)
The parade ends with a gesture of architectural bravado from Danish wunderkind Bjarke Ingels: an apartment building whose curving façade swoops up to a mountain peak. In its efficient flamboyance, the building announces that, at least at the edge of a city that once hooked its dreams to the sea, architects can still make something urgent and grand. 625 W. 57th St.

 

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