Publishers Note: Architect and urban planner Barry Benepe surprised me when he announced thathe wanted to do an article on 150 Charles. Barry is fiercely independent and dryly contradicts me if he does not agree with my conclusions. The fact that the developer of 150 Charles is an advertiser and friend of WestView did not, I am sure, enter into Barry’s head.
How can one build a relatively large building in the West Village while still maintaining its character? The new building designed by Rick Cook nearing completion at 150 Charles Street is the most recent new major residential development in the West Village.
Occupying the shell of the former Whitehall warehouse between West 10th and Charles Streets, it manages to retreat from the street walls while rising in the center. It is appropriate for a building, a block from the waterfront, to appear as a ship in a dock rather than a dominating urban tower. In fact, one of Cook’s favorite photos is by Bernice Abbot showing the last of the wooden sailing ships at the foot of Charles Lane.
The current C1-7 commercial zoning (R8 residential equivalent) would permit a 35-story tower. Instead, the architect showed his client a drawing of five figures. Three of them are standing erect like sentinels in white tuxedos. They represent the three existing 16-story Richard Meier towers to the north. The fourth and fifth are crouched modestly below them, deferring to the formal presence of the tall standing trio to the north. The duo represent a more humble presence in earthy brown tones, more in character with the Village where 150 Charles “comfortably cascades back from the street,” in the words of Mr. Cook. The resulting experience to a passerby is a modest scale with the building rising only three stories before it sets back. The entire building contains 91 dwelling units on a lot of just under 47,500 square feet.
“We wanted an intimate connection to street life,” said Cook “by providing individual street level entrances to the ten three-story town houses.” The building then steps back in a careful composition of stacked volumes that preserve the neighborhood’s scale and romantic character. These surround 30,000 square feet of landscaped space distributed throughout lush green rooftops, planted terraces, and courtyards. The east and west end of the one acre site are capped with existing buildings, East Village houses to the east and commercial buildings to the west. The project is described by the architect as “incorporating ideas of biophilia, our inherent connection to the environment, access to nature throughout the building is related to themes of prospect (wide, open views) and refuge (safe and protected interior spaces).”Despite the architect’s desire to play a modest retiring role alongside the Meier towers, the view from the Hudson River Park shows a building as high as those towers as a very dominating presence in the surrounding neighborhood.
Rick Cook’s own office on the top floor at 242 Sixth Avenue is surrounded by curving glass windows facing toward the Empire State Building and the Metropolitan Life Tower overlooking Madison Square. A perennial seasonal flowering meadow surrounds the office, providing a green roof wildlife habitat. Cook sees his roof and the one at 150 Charles as parts of a growing future urban ecosystem supporting the migratory and feeding patterns of bird life.
The office is adorned with hundreds of carefully sculpted project models, delicate works of jewel-like architectural art. Each project is approached with individual care and sensitivity to its surroundings. Rick Cook’s own narrative is rich in historic references told with the experience of a thoughtful teacher. 150 Charles Street reflects this thoughtfulness.