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Metal Shutter Houses

Shigeru Ban

New York City

A shut-and-open case: Shigeru Ban transports his unique Japanese sensibility to a Chelsea condominium with High Line views.

By By Naomi R. Pollock, AIA

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Whipping around the globe, Shigeru Ban designs everything from major museums to modest relief projects when and wherever disaster strikes. And the Japanese architect regularly wields his craft to make walls that move, rooms that roll, and entire buildings that can be packed up in shipping crates. The realization of Metal Shutter Houses marks another feat for Ban — this time in the heart of Manhattan.

Located on a quiet street between the High Line and the Hudson River, the 11-story condominium features a layered facade — one that opens completely. Enclosed by perforated-steel shutters that roll, and hangarlike bifold doors that fold up, the building front literally peels away, so that its eight units are filled with daylight, air, and marvelous city views. According to Ban, “I wanted to open the living room to the cityscape because most apartments in New York are very closed.” But it took five years to bring his unconventional idea to fruition.

The project began in 2005 when gallery owner Klemens Gasser, impressed with Ban’s Nomadic Museum — a traveling structure on view in New York that year made of stacked shipping containers and showcasing photographs by artist Gregory Colbert — contacted the architect for a potential two-story building renovation. The scope of the job changed when the High Line’s refurbishment triggered rezoning in the surrounding West Chelsea area and local property owners were granted special development rights. Taking advantage of the revised legal restrictions, the client decided to team with a developer and rebuild instead.

There was no getting around the site’s tight conditions. Just 50 feet wide and hemmed in by the Frank Gehry IAC building on its west side and Annabelle Selldorf apartments on the east, the project was saddled with a 120-foot height restriction, plus setbacks front and rear. “That’s when Ban’s creativity took over,” says Jeffrey Spiritos, who partnered with Gasser to form HEEA Development. Making the most of the property’s assets for his clients, Ban proposed dividing the permissible building volume into duplex units that run the lot’s full 92-foot depth and benefit from both northern and southern exposures.

Sites with a height restriction of this size often hold 10-story buildings. But Ban needed an even number of floors for the duplexes in addition to a ground-floor lobby and gallery. So he incorporated mezzanine levels into the apartment plans, and created minimized 8-inch-deep floor slabs. In so doing he was able to redistribute the allotted space for the necessary horizontal levels, providing the units with dramatic double-height living rooms to boot. Vertically, he sliced the permissible volume into three bays. The result is a mixture of three-, four-, or, in the penthouse, five-bedroom apartments — every one facing the street with retractable walls and an engawa-like indoor-outdoor veranda.

A signature element of Ban’s architecture, shutter walls are common in Japan, where he grew up, and California, where he went to graduate school. However the idea is foreign to New York City. “Metal security shutters are a common element [for commercial businesses] in the West Chelsea area, but never before have they covered an entire building,” says Dean Maltz, New York City–based partner at Shigeru Ban Architects. Made of off-the-rack components, the 16-by-20-foot screens open and close using a standard, motorized rolling mechanism. Yet they needed a customized perforation pattern with a 50/50 aperture ratio to comply with city regulations for a building facade that encloses habitable space.

Five and a half feet behind the shutters, a curtain wall system integrating the bifold doors protects the residences from drafts, dirt, noise, and rainwater. Normally used for industrial buildings and airplane hangars, these hybrid doors comprise double-glazed window sashes (rather than metal panels) with a central horizontal hinge, and are operated by motorized belts that cause each steel-framed door to jackknife up and out of the way. Ample gaskets and a mechanized latch maintain an airtight seal when they are closed. “We took a standard [door] system and improved it acoustically and thermally,” says Ban.

When the doors and shutters are raised, the loftlike units are unlike any other in the city. Each is a fluid space with lower-level living, dining, and kitchen areas as well as a library or bedroom set apart by sliding glass doors. Stairs with transparent glass rails ascend to private bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs. “The apartments are so unique that they don’t feel like apartments, they feel like houses,” says Maltz, explaining the building’s name.

Two built-in elements underscore the north-south axis in most of the apartments: a cantilevered kitchen island and a functional wall that houses the adjacent kitchen cabinets and appliances, the stairs, and full-height storage (in the dining/library areas). The tall white lacquer doors of the latter also conceal HVAC ducts and plumbing chases. By concentrating the mechanicals here, and by embedding the sliding-door tracks and recessed downlights directly into the slab, the design team was able to eliminate the need for a plenum, which enabled maximum room height.

The cantilevered counters and multifunctional built-in housing for storage and equipment are details Ban devised for Japanese homes he designed, many of which (as stated previously) blur the lines between indoors and out. Though Ban had to adjust to the style and ability of New York construction crews, and U.S. liability concerns spooked some of his overseas suppliers, Metal Shutter Houses evokes the spirit of his Japanese buildings — a feat that, in New York, is nothing short of heroic.

Naomi R. Pollock is RECORD’s Tokyo correspondent and the coauthor of New Architecture in Japan (Merrell, 2010).

Size: approximately 35,000 square feet

Cost: undisclosed

Completion date: May 2011

Shigeru Ban Architects + Dean Maltz Architect
330 West 38th Street Suit 811
New York, NY 10018
Tel: 212.9252211

September 2011
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