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Can a Private Residential High-Rise Be a Good Neighbor to the Public?

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A new book about Robert A. M. Stern Architects' work explores the question

"The past fifteen years have lifted the high-rise residential apartment ... to center stage as a building type," writes Robert A. M. Stern in the foreword to his stalwart firm's latest monograph, City Living: Apartment Houses by Robert A. M. Stern Architects (The Monacelli Press, 360 pages). These buildings "[challenge] the commercial office building for pride of place on city skylines worldwide."

He's right: In New York, where the firm does much of their work on such projects, some of the city's tallest, shiniest—and most controversial— new towers rise above even those turn-of-the-20th-century symbols of American economic prominence, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. But to what end? And can a high-end, private residential tower be a good neighbor to the broader public?

The monograph's four authors, among them Stern himself and partners Paul L. Whalen, Daniel Lobitz, and Michael D. Jones, argue that such residential high-rises can, in fact, be upstanding citizens (pardon the pun), meeting the street and joining the skyline in ways that are sensitive to and enhance the surrounding cityscape.

The book examines this question, and provides a retrospective of the firm's work in New York City, Boston, Dallas, and Shanghai, as well as a look forward toward projects in development for cities elsewhere in China. "We're really interested in urbanism and we think New York's brand of urbanism has developed over the 20th century in a really genius way," Whalen told Curbed in a recent phone interview. "We like [buildings with] a sense of legibility."

What this means in practice is the sum of a series of design choices: Windows of varying heights, widths, and styles help indicate what's happening beyond those facades; a vibrant material palette incorporates stucco, granite, and stone, alternating between smooth and delicately detailed surfaces to create visual interest on the ground.

In San Francisco, where the firm has also been developing new projects, this means embracing the city's dramatic topographic changes and merging the firm's neoclassical sensibilities with the modern lines of many of the city's newest construction, explains partner Daniel Lobitz.

Stepping towers down to the street, like multi-tiered cakes, also helps in New York, as this minimizes sunlight loss on sidewalks and helps mitigate a sense that high-rise towers are hulking over the city, explains Whalen. When asked if developers balk at such strategies, often mandated by zoning codes—after all, a stepped building means less sellable space on higher floors—Whalen says that most understand the value of a building that plays nice with others, so to speak. "Not since the 1920s," he adds, "have we seen buildings that give back to the urban fabric of New York in the way we have now."

Going forward, the firm plans to apply some of the lessons learned at home, especially in New York, at residential work under way across China, where New York-style urbanism is coveted. Though Robert A. M. Stern Architects's work may not have the gestural beauty of other such towers cropping up in major U.S. urban centers, the Chinese market has turned to the firm for what they excel in: projects designed with classic looks and modern living in mind.

"There are certain types of buildings that are going to seem like last year’s perfume bottle," Whalen says. "What we’re doing is going to really hold its value."

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