In an industrial section of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where the street ends at the waterfront, an unassuming door opens to a cold and cavernous warehouse. There, beyond a labyrinth of boxes and dark hallways, lies an unexpected piece of Midtown Manhattan: a full-scale mock-up of a $10 million apartment planned for 53W53, an ultraluxury residential tower being built next to the Museum of Modern Art.
Complete with a gleaming metal and glass facade, the prototype seems as if it had been sliced from a skyscraper and plunked down on the gritty warehouse floor. But prospective buyers won’t be touring this model unit. It was built as a laboratory of sorts, to work out any kinks presented by the unusual architectural elements of 53W53, an asymmetrical 1,050-foot high tower designed by Jean Nouvel that will taper as it rises like a shard of glass.
Thierry W. Despont, the French-born designer based in TriBeCa whose résumé includes the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and, currently, the interiors of the Woolworth Tower Residences, is crafting the interiors of the 140 condominiums for 53W53, which will rise at 53 West 53rd Street.
Welcome to our playground,” he said, during a recent visit to the Brooklyn warehouse. “Many people do model apartments when they have a finished product. This is way beyond that.”
Unlike most buildings, which hide support columns within their interiors, 53W53 will have an exposed diagonal structural network, known as a diagrid, incorporated into a sloping glass facade. From the outside, this geometric pattern makes for a striking architectural statement. On the inside it causes windows to tilt inward, blinds to hang off-kilter, and columns to traverse exposures at a slant. Further complicating design matters is the tower’s tapering effect, which occurs at varying angles, shrinking each floor by roughly two feet as the building gets taller.
“Can you imagine?” said David Penick, the managing director at Hines, which is developing the tower with partners, Goldman Sachs and the Pontiac Land Group of Singapore. “As the walls taper up, you can’t even keep the same basic plan. You have to move a bathroom or a kitchen. It’s very complicated.”
Hence, the warehouse model, or “the lab,” as the design team refers to it.
Set on a plywood platform, the model unit approximates what a two-bedroom two-and-a-half-bath apartment on the 32nd floor will look like. The developers chose to build this particular unit because they felt it would allow them to examine most of the challenges posed by the building’s unusual design. At one end, stage lights shine on the exterior facade. At another, a carpenter’s workshop sits adjacent to the entryway to the model — a tall, thick walnut door with an onyx side panel backlit to give off a warm glow.
“This is going to be a bronze frame,” said Mr. Despont, describing the entryway. “This will be a little model of the building,” he added, pointing to the entry doorknob.
Inside the unit, a sprawling living and dining area, encased in glass, connects to a kitchen, which can be sectioned off with sliding pocket doors. Bedrooms are nicely split off the foyer. The en-suite master bath features dual vanities with round medicine cabinets and a deep soaking tub, lit from underneath to create a floating effect.
But like a stage set for a play, and unlike actual model units, many of the details are purely cosmetic. Whitewashed plywood stands in for high-end kitchen appliances. A wall in the master bath, splashed with paint for effect, represents one of three marbles that will adorn the space.
The point of the laboratory was more about function than finish, said Mr. Despont, who compared the process to haute couture. “Before a couturier does the real dress they wrap and stitch the models in muslin, pinching there and saying, ‘No, let’s loosen the pins in the back,’ ” he said. “That’s what we’re doing here.”
Movable columns that lean slightly askew were constructed to allow Mr. Despont and his design team to see how they might fall across a window and make tweaks wherever necessary to floor plans to capitalize on views and layouts. Automatic window shades were fitted with guide wires and calibrated to eliminate any gaps created at the base of angled windows — a technique borrowed from high-end yachts. The air-conditioning was concealed behind a detailed cornice to make sure it fit in the ceiling of the adjoining room.
Three samples of parquet flooring were laid out and stained to see which worked best next to the geometry of the windows. Herringbone was nixed in favor of straight, wide oak panels with a border running perpendicular and stained a slightly different hue.
“The challenge was to find a vocabulary that befit the architecture of Jean Nouvel,” Mr. Despont said. “I think we’ve been successful. You have all the function of a classically designed apartment in a very contemporary building.”
Decisions were also made about more subtle issues. So as not to interrupt the large windows, which measure 11 feet high and nearly 6 feet wide and cannot be opened, a ventilation system was designed for the adjacent wall panels. A recessed panel was rejected in favor of one that is flush with the wall. Similarly, ceiling lights designed to create a halo effect were placed in the kitchen and hallway. The original ones in the hallway, which revealed their light source, were rejected in favor of those placed in the kitchen that were more easily concealed.
“We thought the shower didn’t feel wide enough,” said Jerome S. Karr, a tall and broadly built real estate investment consultant for Goldman Sachs, stepping inside for effect. By moving the nozzles to the right and setting the body sprays into the wall, he said, “we basically picked up another two or two and a half inches in terms of the perception of depth — just by rearranging things.”