Standard Deviants: Voyeurism and Design Above New York’s High Line
There’s an unforgettable scene in Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse.” Monica Vitti, playing Vittoria, is standing at night by a long row of flagpoles that rattle sinisterly in the high wind. Vaguely spooked, and on edge, she turns as if to verify the source of her unease and bewilderment only to see these wobbling, sibilant poles. I always think of this scene whenever I am within architectural settings determined by the International Style. The film used the fascist and mid-century architecture of Rome as its emotional language, perfectly and subtly conveying the continuity between spatial brutality and human malaise. But one wonders if it is loved as much by architects as by those of us who entertain a distrust of mid-century architecture.
If you recall this peerless film, it’s a depiction of the doomed love affair between a self-absorbed stockbroker played by Alain Delon and a pathless Vitti character who has wandered out of one love affair into another without knowing what she is doing or why. The couple meet regularly at a crossroads shadowed by terrifying buildings; a horse and buggy pass by inexplicably at the same moment. And then, with the gathering inertia of most love affairs, the couple cannot be bothered to meet there anymore. Still, the architecture remains. It is space that has created human personality, not the other way around.
What does all of this have to do with New York’s Standard hotel? Well, that depends on your mood. When Andre Balazs‘s boutique hotel opened to acclaim in January of this year, there was a great deal of press loquacity on the topic of its design and architectural meanings. It was readily compared to in-town Internationalist icons like Lever House and the U.N., to the works of Eero Saarinan and Mies van der Rohe. Fair enough: Todd Schliemann of Polshek Partnership Architects, the architect who boldly raised this cement-and-glass, book-shaped tower above Manhattan’s new High Line park, was making exactly that statement. It’s a beautiful statement, too, precisely because we have been spared more meat-and-potatoes developer schlock engineered to maximize space (that is, other people’s money) and instead given something — rare in contemporary New York — to think about and enjoy speculatively. It is a question of which is to be enjoyed: inside or out?
There is a difference. From the outside, an impression of grim muscularity and determined assertion. From the inside, a feeling of lightness and spacious Barbarella whimsy. The mood is a little strange — nostalgic and slightly uneasy, bold and solitary at once. We are being thrown artfully back to the Sixties in the grand manner. But which Sixties?
Staying here in a ninth-floor suite with views over the Hudson and the towers of New Jersey (more beautifully sinister than we realize when seen from a pronounced elevation right by the water), I couldn’t help thinking not of the New York of Lever House but of the Rome of Moravia and Antonioni.
The impression is reinforced by the hotel’s interiors, designed by Hollywood set designer Shaun Hausman, and I dare say that it’s quite deliberate. Accordingly, I took the Italian girl, who coincidentally bears more than a passing resemblance to Monica Vitti, and the first thing she said was, “I love it, it’s all Rome 1960.” Which may not be quite true, of course, but there it is.
Balazs’s hotel is marvelously integrated with the High Line, which rolls underneath its muscular concrete vaults (Rome, again). Whether it works or not is secondary to the fact that they have tried to make something unusual work. Stay at the hotel, take your passeggiata on the High Line — there is some Italian ice cream on offer — and lounge on the wooden sun beds with your amore. Is this not an improvement in the city’s landscape?
Secondly, I like it when hoteliers go design-crazy for the hell of it. It is usually a bit tacky and adolescent, but so what? Despite parochial expressions of surprise and amazement from the New York press about the Standard’s high-concept minimalism and “attention to detail,” such concept hotels are pretty common in Asia. Think of the Dream Hotel or the S15 in Bangkok, or any number of places in Tokyo. The trick is to offset the slight cheapness of the materials with dazzling gobs of design. It’s hotels as DWR.
The only trouble with this concept in America is that many Americans don’t really understand luxury or service in the way that Asians do — it’s all four notches down, so it teeters on a finer knife-edge. New York design hotels love to staff their lobbies with leggy models and air-brushed pretty boys who seem pained by the idea of, well, working in a hotel. I am always dying to touch them with an electric cattle prod to see what will happen. But at least staying at the Standard you are not trapped inside the ghastly no-service Gansevoort nearby. Here, they at least raise their dreamy eyes.
Now to the rooms. We took a $625 a night suite with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. Gorgeous atmosphere of light and water and air. My first thought was: Why have Hong Kong hoteliers grasped this synergy all along while their New York counterparts are only getting it now? This city is surrounded by water, by sea, by vast skies. The Standard, finally, uses them.
I have to confess that I actually felt moved by New York’s skyline all over again. Romantic energies took over. The interiors are like ship cabins, elegantly utilitarian and ergonomic, with white plastics and metals, wooden slats, beige materials, enameled tiles, and rather austere looking in-house bath materials. It’s the hotel equivalent not just of DWR but of arte (or is it cucina?) povera.
Personally, I like this sort of thing, in a certain mood at least. Here, it matches the overpowering sense of luminous space. The beds are capacious and deep. You can watch the sunset without feeling that you are in a city at all. It’s like pretending to be poor, and perhaps that is what design hotels are all about. They awaken an atavistic purist within us.
This even extends to their breakfast policy, i.e. there isn’t any outside of room service. I was told that I could, at a pinch, have a cup of coffee — as long as it was black. Oh, dear. This is one area of minimalism that might be usefully revised. When in New York I really don’t want to be dreaming wistfully of breakfasts in Shanghai. Or walking around the Meat Packing district like a lost soul looking for somewhere to eat. I noticed some Japanese girls doing the same, a kind of polite fury in their eyes.
But now let’s consider some nicer things about this home away from home on Washington Street. Take the question of voyeurism, for example.
Notoriously, the Standard’s rooms are so open-plan, so full of glass, that you are automatically exposed not just to the elements but to thousands of other less fortunate New Yorkers milling below you. Not least those people who are strolling innocently along the High Line. Or are they so innocent as they appear? The architect is quoted in a New York Observer article from several months ago as having seen a Standard maid from the High Line dressed in a tight little dress and stockings pressing her adorable bum against one of the windows. “Fabulous!” he cries. “This is it!” So at least we know that it was all planned. I wonder if he would feel the same, seeing one of the guests taking a crap in the open plan bathroom? But chacun
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