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Moneymaking Machines #5: 100 East 53’rd Street

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The building known as 100 East 53’rd Street stands behind the hallowed Seagram Building which, at $36 mil. (not inc. tax) was the most expensive building in the world when completed in 1958. This is $300 mil. in today’s money. $36 mil. construction cost ÷ 830,000 sq.ft lettable  area = $43/sq.ft. and is equivalent to $360/sq.ft today even though 2,376 sq.ft recently rented at $125/sq.ft.)


Property developers develop property – they don’t care what kind. If office space gives higher profit then office space it is. If residential does, then it’s suddenly all about lifestyle. Forgetting the $8,100/sq.ft for the penthouse and the $5,300/sq.ft for the duplex, the average price per square foot at 100 East 53rd is $4,000

This studio apartment is 13.7% circulation space which is not bad, but the bathroom has additional area with no known purpose other than giving an excellent view of the backside of the Seagram Building. That space represents 2.9% of the floor area and a similar percentage of the purchase price.


The planning is okay if you don’t mind entering into the kitchen. However, there is a hallway as the entrance area closet recreates the conventional public-to-private sequence of spaces even though it severely cramps the living area.


Surely it would have been better to enter this space where the bedroom closet is, into a small hallway with the bathroom directly in front, the bedroom where the current bathroom is, and the living/dining/kitchen where it is but larger? Something like this. You can now lie in bed admiring that crazy space. 11.5%. Max.


Notice those little operable vents permitting natural ventilation and allowing occupants to savour those New York street noises? Imagine something like these vents in Keck & Keck’s 1957 Hohf House.

Keck & Keck 1957 Hohf House

Cross ventilation must complicate the wind loading but is a good idea if there aren’t  balconies. These vents may even be a market-driven innovation for even rich Middle Eastern folk don’t like living in sealed environments all year round.


Anyway, the percentage of floor area used to access every space in any apartment increases with area because larger apartments have more places that need getting to. You have to pass by more rooms to get to other rooms. One fifth of the area of this apartment is used to get from one place to another.

1 bed

Again there’s that strange window space but this time it’s an extension of the kitchen and represents only 2.3% of the apartment’s floor area. The living area is poor, and poorly located. This apartment is all about waking up and getting a coffee.


Here’s that coffee.


That living area is inexcusable. It’d be better to forsake the east-west light thing and have the bedroom, bathroom and entry the same as the previous apartment and to put the kitchen/dining in that space restricted by the structure. It’s not ideal, but the living area is larger and the circulation is around it, not through it. 16.4%.


26.1% – more than a quarter – of this next two-bedder is circulation space. There would have been more if I hadn’t taken that short-cut through the kitchen.

2 bed

Again, the living area is tiny. There’s not much that can be done to improve this, apart from put the kitchen immediately in front of the hallway, so that one passes by it, the dining table and the living area to get to the master bedroom. 24.9%. It’s not much less, but the kitchen is now neither thoroughfare nor obstacle. With windows on two sides, the living room is now in the best corner of the apartment. There’s no wall for a flatscreen though. Alternatively, just do without the stupid island, treat the kitchen like the sideboard/bar it is, and do with the rest whatever.


The two floors of the penthouse average circulation space of 34.2% – a third! – and not counting the double height lobby twice, although I’ve counted both ways to get to the dining room. Nothing can be done to improve this. It is what it is. Making the central core space into a feature and selling it as some sort of grand lobby is probably the best option. Sad.


The kitchen is the same as we saw for the 1-bed, and now we can see that those weird spaces are behind the service elevator which is outside the grand structural plan.


As a sequence of spaces it’s not horrible but there’s not that many places for maybe five people to be. A third of the space is used to get from A to B, and C and D, etc. but it doesn’t matter. Who’s to say an owner-occupier wouldn’t get pleasure from going from A to B? If circulation is The Forgotten Function then why not make a fetish of it? It’s been done before. Every room on the lower level has more than one door so perhaps in some weird revival of Victorian country house planning, the apartment has been designed for the host’s pleasure in showing off the apartment to visitors. It makes an impression. Realtors also like this. It’s easy to imagine a realtor stepping out of the elevator and saying to prospective purchasers “Let’s view the living room first” and opening those double doors that exist for no other purpose but to be opened.

One-Hundred-East-Fifty-Third-Street-Foster-and-Partners-New-York-Residential-Tower_dezeen_1568_6 (1)

The plans can be better but it’s pointless wasting time getting indignant over what other people spend their money on, or worry about where they consider value to lie. Some people spend an enormous amount of money on Swiss watches but who’s to know if it’s to tell the time or to brazenly carry small fortunes through customs? We know these buildings are giant moneymaking machines. I’m interested in the priorities and the sequence of decisions that produced such poor layouts.


Basically, the problem is the building is too thin, or ‘slender’ as we now say. The fire escape stairs and elevators are in the middle off to one side and each floor has an almost central corridor in front of the elevators. This leaves insufficient space for a room and an internal corridor on the other side. No matter how large the apartment, all the action gets pushed towards the ends of the building.


With its central fire escape stairs and core, 432 Park Avenue was starting from a far better position in terms of structure and planning.

And because its floorplate is square, WSP the engineers were able to propose a tube external structure as the main stiffening element. [It’s a beautiful solution, and beautifully unclad!]


The engineers of 100 East 53rd were DeSimone. They don’t have much to say about it apart from “the structure primarily consists of a rigid central core with eight perimeter columns in the tower.” One third of the building is core, in other words.


DeSimone solved the structure with brute force rather than the elegance WSP were able to show at 432 Park. The first nine levels are podium with the usual retail and amenities.


If we look back along Lexington we can see evidence of some height vs. setback tradeoff. Someone in Battersea made the decision to have a tall skinny building. 


I don’t think this decision was made for the views across Queens, or to facilitate apartment layouts. My guess is it was made because Foster & Partners have a problem with setbacks. F&P’s default way of designing is to determine volume by a single, rigid, extrudable structural concept.

Out of these, the least successful visually is the last one, Deutsche Bank Place in Sydney. It’s another attempt to force a structure onto something that can do without one – the sky, in this case. In Manhattan alone, Foster & Partners’ proposal for 2 World Trade Center was a vertical extrusion fine at the time but ultimately dumped in favour of BIG’s structurally and volumetrically messy 14% larger volume.


It’s swings and roundabouts as F&P did win the 425 Park Avenue Celebrity Shoot-out. With an office building and a property developer client, it would have been suicidal to not follow setbacks and maximise lettable volume. F&P tried their best to tame the setbacks within a unifying structural concept. It’s a dog.


The columns of the top box align with those of the base box but unfortunately, the columns of the middle box are off-grid. Hello-o? Something’s fundamentally wrong with this idea. The middle box could have been supported by an extra line of off-grid columns (appearing like the middle dots of five on a dice) but that’s not what ‘premium office space’ looks like. Besides, at ground level, those columns would block our way instead of a classy Calderesque stabile.


What can we conclude from all this as we wander in our minds three blocks south from 425 Park Avenue to 100 East 53’rd Street?

  • Foster & Partners did a simple structural object because that’s what they do. It’s how they think. They think any deviation from that looks less like a F&P building.
  • The extruded structure made for one of those tall slender buildings that are all the rage now. To not make a statement behind the Seagram Building was unthinkable.

And that’s about it. The rest falls into place. Poor layouts don’t reduce value. Good layouts don’t add value. Why bother?

It’d be nice to think somebody at Foster & Partners would’ve tried to get it right even if they knew no-one was ever going to notice or, if they did, care.

But perhaps we’re/I’m wrong to think that because a buyer is paying an average of $4,000/sq.ft they might want to make the most of that space? After all, the greater proportion of buildings known as the history of architecture are prized for the display of excess, not the display of efficiency or value for money.

Besides, we did learn to appreciate the unusable space of double-height living rooms as a new kind of luxury so maybe in a few years we’ll come to appreciate unusable slivers of space the same way. Inefficient layouts and poor layouts could just be a new type of decadence – in which case these ones are perfect.


• • •

East 53rd looking west towards Lexington, circa 1960



    • I did ponder that. I counted it as circulation when it was adjacent to a corridor not wide enough for anything else. When it’s next to a living space though it’s just a serrated edge neither good nor bad, although the angled panels would facilitate views up and down Lexington (and also not directly at the back of Seagram) so in that sense they’re actually a good idea and not the design affectation I first thought.

      Speaking of the back of Seagram, here’s something I just remembered having.
      East 53rd circa 1960

      • It seems quite obvious that this sliver of space is there to keep the facade symmetrical. Look at this picture There is a lighter stripe running the whole length of the facade, from top to bottom, judging by the plan at the top of this post (// it’s the staircase/lift core. If the service elevator extended until the curtain wall like rest of the core, this stripe would be lopsided. This silver of space doesn’t have any function for the apartments themselves, it is subservient to the facade.

        It must have been a conscious decision to make it like this. They could have just as easily added the service elevator and the staircase into one core and shifted it a bit upward to make it centered again. The way it is now, the is more space on the side of the core in the upper apartment versus the lower apartment. With the core added together, the space would be the same. There must have been some reason in the planning of the apartments to make it like this. I cannot see what it is however, because the only apartment that actually makes full use of the large space is the duplex penthouse- in all the other apartments there is a room and something more (powder, toilet etc) in this space.

      • Absolutely! The desire for structural symmetry is a good thing. This building has it and it’s totally understandable F&P would want the facade to show it. It’s the chain of decisions resulting in the strange window space that intrigues me. Even though it looks clumsy and artless, it was probably the best decision/compromise to make in the circumstances. The length of the central structural bay is set by the width of two elevators with the stairs behind. Where it meets the facade on each side, the concrete structure is thickened to be exactly two panels wide. I like how these things are important to F&P. And I also like the way the columns on the other side of the building deal with this.

        The problem with the service elevator is that there’s only one of them. It’s always going to cause a problem for symmetry unless it’s on a central axis but, being a service elevator in a luxury building, it can’t be. With such a small building, I think it’s external to the structural system to prevent its dimensions determining any other dimensions (for the sake of symmetry).

        What’s really causing those weird areas is not so much the service elevator but the lobby in front of it where the garbage chute must be. I guess certain hard decisions have to be made to maximise sellout in a 220 metre high building little more than 12 metres wide. This current quest for slenderness seems to be driven by the value added by getting the bigger apartments as high up there as possible. I’m curious to see how this one will turn out.

  • It would be interesting to know what was FP role in the project;
    _site use?
    _skin only?
    _apartment planning?
    _interior decorating?
    Likely to be skin + marketing
    As in (most xxxx) NYC apartment buildings, interior planning is subservient to the skin and cost to build. Plus you need the circulation space walls for the Picasso, Matisse or Pollock…………..s

    • Agree. It’s unlikely to be the full works. Although F&P do have their own line of bathroom products. They also have a way with kitchens, and over the years have refined the parallel counter + island arrangement into a good and marketable item even if it doesn’t always fit. Truthfully, I didn’t think too much about the placement of art even though the promotional views are dripping with it. Looking again at the plans, there aren’t many walls to hang even a small Pollock and take a step back to look at it. It seems that views really are the new indicators of wealth and, rather than framing them as paintings, new ways of relating to them (along corridors, in bathrooms) are where it’s headed.