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Old Posted Feb 26, 2008, 2:45 PM
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Hot High Line Park Brings Breakthrough Condo by Denari: Review

The HL23 condominium tower, designed by architect Neil Denari and to be built in Chelsea's High Line Park in New York, as seen in an undated artist's rendering. Prices range from $2.65 million for a two-bedroom, 1,870 square-foot unit to $10 million for the two-floor penthouse.

By James S. Russell
Feb. 26 (Bloomberg)

Manhattan's west Chelsea, where meatpacking plants once sat next to leather bars and prostitutes trolled under an elevated rail line, is now the city's hottest real-estate market and a laboratory for new architecture.

As the High Line Park takes shape atop that long-abandoned freight line, it has inspired a condo boom. Yet only HL23, one of the smallest of the current artsy crop, channels the inner beauty of the High Line and puts it in elegant vertical form. It's a breakthrough by Neil Denari, a Los Angeles architect who's much favored by aficionados yet little known outside his home city.

Thank the park -- which won't even open till late this year -- for shifting a longtime neighborhood transformation into overdrive. The rusting viaduct hosted an unknown urban meadow on its long-abandoned tracks as it cut through 17 blocks. The crazy contrast between dandelioned green and industrial grit caught everyone's imagination.

Though a couple of big design names (Jean Nouvel, Shigeru Ban) are attached to a few of the two dozen nearby condo projects in various stages of planning or construction, none so specifically extends the old freight line's aura as the HL23 condominium.

Denari compares his design to a plant reaching for a shaft of sunlight from out of a crack in the sidewalk. The 13-story building rises out of a skinny, seemingly unbuildable 25-foot- wide slot of land. It unfurls in faceted planes of glass and metal, held in place by diagonal braces that look like sinews.
The diminutive tower seems to wave gently, bending just a bit east over the old elevated railroad, while the south-facing side tilts back at the top.

Look-at-Me Condos

It's suave when many of its neighboring galleries, self- consciously chic stores, celebrity restaurants and look-at-me condos catch the eye with nervous, tacked-on touches.

Denari makes his design look preordained -- which is amazing, considering that every angle and setback was worked out according to what zoning would permit.

With its elegantly tooled diagonal braces and shiny, embossed metal-panel surface, HL23 is as fluidly feline as a sports car. Denari eases the planar facets of the structure into one another with gentle curves. In wrapping the metal panels around expanses of glass, you see the finesse of a great auto- body designer like Pininfarina.

Italian Influence

Denari has honed this style over 20 years, primarily in stores (L.A. Eyeworks) and interiors of sleek theatricality (Endeavor Talent Agency). On a tour of the Chelsea site, he said he was influenced by Italian design of the 1960s and 1970s and especially by one of its stars, Joe Colombo, whose boldly futuristic, industrial-style chairs and lamps were leavened by rounded corners and a sly Pop Art sensibility.

Since HL23 is neither tall nor sold with the pet spas and fancy fitness rooms that larger projects offer, it differentiates itself primarily by design. Denari opens diagonal vistas through the blocks that others wouldn't see. With one unit per floor (11 total), many of the rooms have multiple exposures.

Perhaps the biggest risk the project takes is employing a level of architectural detail rarely permitted by the corner- cutting culture of real-estate development -- like the pattern of ceramic dots fused onto the glass that echoes the line of the diagonal braces inside. It lends a subtle visual depth.

With prices ranging from $2.65 million for a two-bedroom, 1,870 square-foot unit to $10 million for the two-floor penthouse, developers Naiman and Heher are gambling that Denari's discreet bravura will win over buyers usually wooed by lifestyle bathrooms and layouts crammed with boxy little rooms.

Recent condos by big-name architects have at last put design quality in Manhattan's hidebound real-estate equation. HL23's most radical move may be to do it without a big name and spectacular views.

(James S. Russell is Bloomberg's U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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