Constructed within a previously unoccupied four-story penthouse structure at the summit of one of the earliest surviving skyscrapers in New York City, SkyHouse is a unique private residence suspended midway in the vertical cityscape of Lower Manhattan.
The original penthouse –completed in 1895- was essentially a hollow ornament for the skyline. Beneath a steep hipped roof bristling with chimneys and dormers, the enormous carved angels spreading their wings across the four corners of the penthouse were an advertisement for the publisher of religious pamphlets which commissioned the original building in the late 19th century. When architect David Hotson first encountered the penthouse over eleven decades after its completion, the interior was a raw shell, with oddly configured partial floors and no services other than an industrial gas heater and the minimal bathroom and kitchenette required for it to be sold as a residential condominium unit. Only the original riveted steel structural frame, the arched windows and the upward tapering volume of space under the enormous roof provided evidence of the late 19th century when the building was built.
These few elements from another era established one pole for a residential interior otherwise anchored unmistakably in the present. The owners wanted a residence that was rigorous yet playful, uncompromising in the precision of its conception and execution, yet filled with spatial surprises which continually refresh the experience of living at the summit of a skyscraper surrounded -above and below- by the extraordinary cityscape of Manhattan.
In transforming this raw 19th century shell into a 21st century residence, Hotson restructured the complex interior volume of the penthouse to create multi-level living spaces distributed between four levels and a intricate web of pathways and vistas passing between the interior levels of the apartment and out into the surrounding three-dimensional cityscape. In completing the project, Hotson collaborated with celebrated interior designer Ghislaine Vinas www.gvinteriors.com
The project pairs Hotson’s crisply delineated volumes, richly choreographed spatial sequences, and rigorous architectural detailing with the vibrant colors, playful references and startling juxtapositions that are signatures of Viñas’ work.
At the entrance to the penthouse, accessed from the private elevator stop through a phosphorescent red-orange door, Hotson created a luminous white entry vestibule that tapers upward to a seamless glass skylight framing the rippling stainless steel summit of the adjacent skyscraper. For the visitor arriving here from the frenetic sidewalks of New York, this austere monochromatic space is like an ablution, cleaning the sensory palette at the threshold of the private residence.
From this luminous threshold space, the visitor steps into a four-story tall entry hall which twists and splays upward, tapering as it rises, creating an incomprehensible impression of indeterminate height. The sideway shifts of this tall shaft of space, the mirror-polished stainless steel edging around openings providing fragmentary glimpses of the surrounding rooms, the transparent surfaces of the glass bridges spanning the space overhead, the original riveted steel structure which weaves upward disappearing into the spaces beyond, and the hidden sources of daylight spilling in from ingenious skylights borrowing light from upper level windows, all serve to suspend the attention of the arriving visitor in a moment of uncomprehending perception while suggesting -without fully revealing- the scale of the penthouse residence.
Not until the visitor proceeds down the gallery and steps into the main living space is the full dimension of the residence clearly revealed. Here Hotson has created another space that momentarily confounds the visitor. The entire north end of the penthouse has been transformed into a spectacular living room surrounded by panoramic windows set at the base of a quadruple-height volume of space tapering upwards through all four levels of the penthouse to the apex of the roof forty-five feet (14m) above the main floor level. The converging lines of the pyramidal space create a forced perspective exaggerating the already dizzying height of the room. Within this space an interior balcony is suspended in the steel framing over the main living level, its fireplace reflected in the polished stainless steel surround and visible from below through a glass floor. A bridge accessing the balcony, an open home office at the second level, and a third level bedroom each provide a different perspective into the space below and out into the city through the surrounding windows.
For any visitor intrepid enough to attempt the ascent, the central column is fitted with a harness, belaying reel and climbing holds, facilitating a still more visceral experience of the four-story-tall living space.
And at the apex of the living room, set under the original steel truss which supports the roof ridge, an outward sloping glass window fills the entire end of the uppermost Attic level and provides a vertiginous view directly down to the main living space expanding outward four stories below.
To provide an equally visceral path of descent through the four-story penthouse, Hotson installed an eighty-foot (24m) long mirror-polished stainless steel slide. Entered through a circular opening in a matching outward sloping glass window at the south end of the Attic, the slide sweeps down, coiling over rooms, through interior windows and over stairways before flaring out to form a distorted wall at one end of the entry gallery.
A series of vistas at a wide range of scales have been passed through the penthouse to frame familiar New York landmarks and present them to the visitor in surprising and intimate locations. The living room balcony is positioned to capture the view of the summit of the adjacent Municipal Building precisely at the center of the dormer window. A built in desk in a bedroom is likewise positioned to present the Woolworth Building in the as an object of contemplation. A visitor opening a mirrored door over the lavatory in a guest bathroom discovers the Brooklyn pier of the Manhattan Bridge –framed through a window at the opposite side of the penthouse- sitting on the self inside the medicine cabinet like a vacation souvenir. Holding an eye to the glowing circle of light in the intense aquamarine glass enclosure surrounding the shower at another bathroom reveals the tiny shining stainless summit of the Chrysler Building four miles (6.5km) up the island of Manhattan.
Collaboration with Interior Designer Ghislaine Viñas:
Vividly in evidence throughout the penthouse are the interior furnishings and appointments created by interior designer Ghislaine Viñas '>http://www.gvinteriors.com'>
Viñas’s incandescent colors, startling over-scaled floral patterns, whimsical menagerie of animal forms, tongue-in-cheek lighting fixtures, and sly pop-cultural references create a startling, playful and lighthearted foil to the austere, vertiginous architectural spaces.
The effect of the SkyHouse project is to create an immersive spatial experience which fills the awareness of the visitor, creating a narrative impression too rich and varied to be captured in images. The enveloping spaces, the ascending and descending vistas, the shifting relationships to the cityscape at a wide range of scales and distances, the sensation of suspension in luminous space high above the city, the experience of the meandering path of ascent diverging so dramatically from the sweeping path of descent – all of these experiences resist reduction to images, and coalesce into a vivid first-person present-tense impression which cannot be reproduced or represented. The shaping of this vivid interior experience, accessible only to the visitor in real time, is the ultimate end product of the SkyHouse project, and is perhaps the greatest luxury that this project affords its owners – a domain of living space which cannot be re-presented but can only be experienced directly, within the intimate, immediate, present reality of the visitor stepping across the threshold.
The ‘architect’s cut’ of the SkyHouse film is a wordless spatial narrative, following dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Lily Baldwin '>http://www.lilybaldwin.com'>
as she makes her way through of the SkyHouse project.