How Alvar Aalto’s Undulating Glass Curves Inspired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Stunning New Manhattan Skyscraper

On the eastern end of Billionaire’s Row—the corridor of ultraluxury high-rises along Midtown Manhattan’s 57th Street—stands an elegant glass tower with an undulating façade. Located at 252 East 57th Street, on the corner of Second Avenue, the building joins the ranks of the city’s most elite residential addresses, coveted for their exclusivity and palatial amenities, yes, but more crucially for their unparalleled vistas of Central Park, the Hudson, the East River, and the expansive city itself.

Not that the considerable amenities aren’t also worth mentioning. Developed by World Wide Group and Rose Associates, the property includes a 75-foot pool, a spa, and a high-concept carport with an automated parking system. The 95 luxury condominiums—which begin on the 36th floor and culminate in the $29.75 million penthouse on the 65th floor—were outfitted by celebrated interior architect Daniel Romualdez with features like walnut cabinetry and six-foot bathtubs designed by Romualdez himself. Romualdez also conceived the interiors for the 34th Floor Club, a private gathering space for residents that comprises a lounge, a billiards room, and a library curated by the famed Strand bookstore, as well as a dining room, a screening room, a conference room, a fitness center, and two guest suites for visitors.

Courtesy of 252 EAST 57.

The project was designed by Roger Duffy, a partner at venerable architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Duffy’s New York credits include the New School’s University Center at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street and the Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan. For 252 East 57, the architect sought to maximize the 715-foot tower’s perspective on the city with curving walls of windows that echo the wave-like form of Alvar Aalto’s iconic vases. We talked with Duffy about his exacting approach and how he melds architecture with art.

The panoramic views are obviously a tremendous part of the building’s appeal. How does the design take advantage of this in ways that other buildings might not?

It has to do with the expanse of glass. Many buildings in the city of a residential nature are more rectilinear in shape, so more orthogonal, let’s say. This one starts life as an orthogonal shape, an extruded rectangle of sorts, but then amplifies the amount of perimeter area by creating these curvilinear indentations in the building so that every unit actually has more perimeter area than if it were a rectilinear box. So that was one way that we helped amplify the views. The other way was how the layouts—the living spaces and the sort of habitable spaces in the apartments—were situated relative to the glorious views that you can have around the building on different floors. We mapped it out floor by floor in terms of view potential and tried to have that inform the layouts. The combination of those things, I think, produced something that’s pretty stunning when you’re in the building. Looking out, it’s amazing, really.

Alvar Aalto Vase. Photo: Maija Holma, courtesy of the Alvar Aalto Museum.

You’ve said that the building was partly inspired by Alvar Aalto’s vases.

Yes, I’m a big fan of Alvar Aalto and did a few pilgrimages to Finland to see some of his works early in my career. A real master. Sort of modernist in what he did, but with a human touch, I would say, is what distinguished him from other modernists of that time. He designed buildings that are wonderful, but he also designed furniture that’s amazing and sculpted to the form of human beings, so not only good looking but comfortable furniture. And he also designed other things, [such as] these vases, for flowers or whatever you choose to put in them, and they have this undulating shape that is characteristic of some of his work, and they’re typically cast in glass. Once we came upon the idea of the views and amplifying the façade perimeter, it became a reference point for us to look at his vases because they’re so elegant and curvaceous.

Left: Alvar Aalto Vase. Photo: Maija Holma, courtesy of the Alvar Aalto Museum. Right: Courtesy of 252 EAST 57.

In the past, you’ve actually collaborated with artists like James Turrell, Robert Whitman, and Lawrence Weiner. How does art inform your work generally?

We’re very interested in art of a particular type. I’d call it conceptual art. Back in the founding years of the firm, there were many collaborations with significant artists of the time, like Picasso and Miró, Giacometti, and Noguchi, to name a few. So yes, we’ve collaborated with James Turrell and Lawrence Weiner and Bob Whitman, and also Rita McBride on the New School, and attempted many other forms of collaboration with artists that have or haven’t worked out. But I see it as a continuation of a legacy that is long-standing at SOM and a commitment to bringing art into projects in ways that are considered along with the design so they’re not imposed on a building design after the fact—they’re integral with the design process. It’s been fun and rewarding, and we’ve learned a lot doing it, but it also comes with challenges. But you learn from all those things, and it helped inform the design of this building, which we’re proud of and think is a nice addition to New York City.

The Porte-cochère, courtesy of 252 EAST 57.

Do you have favorite design details—ones that you’re particularly proud of?

The car park is a great part of the project. You can actually drive into an internal courtyard drop-off area. The car entrance is really clever. I think the metal sliding doors that create a degree of privacy but still [allow it to] be open-air make that special. The column that you drive around is very special. And the robotic parking is quite interesting. It’s really cool.

I think the curvilinear shape of the apartment fronts and shape of the building is really special when you’re inside the apartments. It really works well in not only enhancing views but providing some degree of separation between open-plan living spaces. We also have an exterior wall group here, and they did a magnificent job detailing the exterior wall and the balconies in particular, so the details are extremely refined and of a high quality, which I think we’re really proud of as well. We spent a lot of time on the curvilinear glass and getting that just right, to make the glass as transparent as possible. No easy trick in our profession.

Courtesy of 252 EAST 57.

How do you hope residents and visitors will experience the building? Is there a feeling that you were striving for?
In the end, any building in the city you hope forms a community of people that love being there and consider it a home. And I think that that’s all you can hope for, to have it be a healthy community of people.

 

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