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NYC’s best new architecture of 2016, from Governors Island to the Oculus

Take a trip through the year in architecture

Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus, which opened to the public in March
| Max Touhey

It's time to make up a bunch of awards and hand them out to the most deserving people, places and things in the real estate, architecture and neighborhood universes of New York City! Yep, it's time for the 13th Annual Curbed Awards! Up now: the year in architecture.

As ever, there was plenty of activity in New York City’s architecture world this year. The supertall towers that have long dominated the conversation have cooled off (though plans for Brooklyn’s first superscraper were confirmed), but some huge projects finally inched forward. This year has also delivered on some long-awaited projects deserving of some praise (or, in some cases, shade). Here now, the best new architecture——reveals, makeovers, and conversions included——of 2016.

The rehabilitated P.S. 186/Boys & Girls Club of Harlem building.
The Residences at P.S. 186, housing created from a former elementary school
Courtesy Dattner Architects and David Sundberg /Esto.

Best conversions

3) A/D/O: nArchitects worked on transforming a Greenpoint warehouse (once used as the HQ of Brooklyn Night Bazaar) into a creative space sponsored by BMW, and while the pedigree is corporate, the building itself is anything but bland. The revamped space, which is open to the public, retains its industrial feel while bringing light and air (courtesy a large skylight) into the space.

2) Met Breuer: After the Whitney vacated its former Upper East Side headquarters in 2015, it didn’t sit empty for long. After a careful restoration, the building reopened as the Met Breuer, the iconic institution’s outpost for contemporary art. Beyer Blinder Belle worked on revamping Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist icon, and as Curbed archicritic Alexandra Lange noted when it reopened, “it has been some time since the original building looked this good.”

1) P.S. 186: As recently as a few years ago, this former Harlem elementary school was a crumbling, dilapidated mess. But thanks to a careful renovation by Dattner Architects, it’s become a true community resource once again. The building is now home to 79 apartments earmarked for low- to middle-income New Yorkers, as well as an outpost for the Boys and Girls Club of America—more proof that affordable housing and lovely architecture can be compatible.

Dattner’s Spring Street Salt Shed, designed for the Department of Sanitation
Max Touhey

Best new addition to New York City

Too often, New York City buildings intended for not-so-sexy uses—infrastructure, storage, and the like—sacrifice form in the name of function. Need proof? Look no further than the MTA’s new ventilation plant at Mulry Square in Greenwich Village, a weird mutant hybrid of townhouse (sort of, anyway—if you consider six brick panels “townhouse-like”) and bunker.

But head south for a mile and you’ll stumble on the Department of Sanitation’s new Spring Street Salt Shed, which does a pretty spectacular job of marrying form and function. A collaboration by Dattner Architects and WXY architecture + urban design, the concrete structure (see, it can be used in a lovely way) is meant to resemble a grain of salt, a playful nod to the building’s intended purpose and an excuse to create something unique and eye-catching, rather than bland and boring. MTA, take notes.

Carmel Place
An apartment at Carmel Place, NYC’s first all micro-unit building
Max Touhey

2016’s coolest innovations in housing

3) Boston Road: Supportive housing can be as well-designed and considered as market-rate apartments, and this colorful South Bronx development is proof. Designed by Alexander Gorlin Architects, the complex has 154 bright, modern apartments, along with plenty of much-needed communal space.

2) PERCH Harlem: The city’s first rental designed to passive house standards finally debuted, bringing a batch of eco-friendly apartments made with sustainable materials (recycled wallpaper, triple-pane windows) to the market. Of course, green living doesn’t come cheap: Rentals start at around $2,600.

1) Carmel Place: Four years after it was crowned the winner of Mayor Bloomberg’s citywide micro-housing competition, Carmel Place welcomed residents to its itty-bitty apartments. Yes, they’re expensive, and but the micro units are comfortable and thoughtfully designed (nArchitects was the building architect)—something that can’t be said for many of the more traditional market-rate pads you’ll find in the city. Micro housing may not be a perfect solution to NYC’s housing ills, but Carmel Place is proof that it can be done in a way that’s quite livable.

NYPL Rose Main Reading Room Finished
The refurbished Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Max Touhey

Best makeovers

2) The Beekman Hotel: Finally, the stunning Temple Court is open to the public again. The building and its glorious atrium are now part of the larger Beekman Hotel complex, and its architectural features—decorative iron railings; a large skylight—have been restored to their former glory. Plus, hotel staff don’t seem to mind if you’re just there to gawk at the beauty of it all.

1) NYPL Rose Main Reading Room: After a two-year renovation, the city’s most beautiful public space finally reopened to the public—and it’s as stunning as ever. The changes are subtle, but that’s precisely why this makeover is so successful; who would want the Rose Main Reading Room to change?

DS+R’s Columbia University medical building, which opened in August
Field Condition

Fun to watch rise award

4) 53W53: Construction began on Jean Nouvel’s Midtown supertall last year, but it wasn’t until this spring that the building’s distinctive diagrid—the steel exoskeleton that will encase the skyscraper—started to take shape. We can’t wait to see what it looks like once it hits its superlative heights.

3) 3 World Trade Center: The building itself isn’t the most glamorous on the WTC site, but it is the tallest aside from One WTC—and its topping out brought yet another supertall to New York’s skyscraper-filled landscape.

2) American Copper Buildings: The former First Avenue Mud Pit shed its formerly dingy reputation as SHoP’s curved, copper-clad rental towers rose on the site. The building’s design is funky and fun, but its skybridge—which sits 300 feet above ground—is what made this truly interesting to see rise.

1) Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s “study cascade” is one of the more playful designs we’ve seen for a university building. Its zig-zagged facade came together over a period of years, and as one commenter noted, it’s one of the rare buildings where the finished product is way nicer than the renderings. How often can you say that?

The busiest starchitect award

Fresh off his success with the Whitney Museum in 2015, Renzo Piano barreled forward with two more huge New York City projects. The Italian starchitect’s first residential project in New York City, 565 Broome Street, hit the market in the fall, with apartments asking under $1 million. And up in Manhattanville, his contribution to the Columbia University expansion—the imposing Jerome L. Greene Science Center—is thisclose to being finished.

Runner-up: Bjarke Ingels was arguably in more places (and announced more fantastical buildings) than any other starchitect this year, but he’s still got only one completed New York City building under his belt so far.

The “please, please let this finally happen” award

Governor Andrew Cuomo focused heavily on New York’s infrastructure this year, announcing improvements or renovations for everything from subway cars to LaGuardia Airport. The one we most want to happen: the revamp of Penn Station, which was trotted out yet again this year, with a projected end-of-2020 opening date. We’re not getting our hopes up, but hey, wouldn’t it be nice if it really did happen this time?

Governors Island’s lovely man-made hills, which debuted over the summer
Max Touhey

Best reason to get outside

It was a good year for New York City’s parks—Bushwick Inlet Park is finally moving forward; Liberty Park finally opened at the World Trade Center; the Brooklyn Navy Yard debuted a serene green space on a former cemetery—but for our money, the park of the year is Governors Island. Its four man-made hills, one of the centerpieces of the island’s years-long revamp, opened to the public, and serve as both a gorgeous park and a reminder of what innovative urban planning can accomplish when given a chance to think outside the box.

The “Oh my god, finally!” award

2) It may have taken four years (and that’s just from the groundbreaking), several lawsuits, a name change, and the creation (and dissolution, and creation again) of a company, but 461 Dean Street, Forest City Ratner’s modular tower within the Megaproject Formerly Known as Atlantic Yards, finally opened. Apartments in the 32-story skyscraper are now renting from $2,300. (Oof.)

1) In Manhattan, Bjarke Ingels’s courtscraper/tetrahedron/whatever-you-want-to-call-it finished up and welcomed residents this year. The building’s design may not be universally beloved, but it’s certainly distinctive, upending conventions about what a tall building can and should look like. Its amenities, including a beautifully landscaped courtyard (hence the whole “courtscraper” thing), are nothing to sneeze at, either.

Williamsburg’s William Vale Hotel, this year’s biggest head-scratcher
Max Touhey

Biggest head-scratcher

Williamsburg’s brand new William Vale Hotel is a quirky addition to the urban landscape, especially when considered alongside its more straight-laced Wythe Avenue neighbor (and standard-bearer of Brooklyn hipness), the Wythe Hotel. It sticks out like a sore thumb, with its chevron-covered tower rising from a wide, blocky retail base. But look past the oddball exterior and you’ll find well-manicured public spaces, including an outdoor pool with lovely views of the city. Perhaps it’s one of those buildings that’s better experienced inside than out.

Building of the year

Let’s be clear: Santiago Calatrava's Oculus is not our favorite addition to New York City’s built environment this year. The structure finally opened this spring after a decade of delays, cost overruns, and political tomfoolery, and the reaction—including at Curbed HQ—was the IRL equivalent of the shruggie emoticon. Sure, it’s impressive; it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe walking into the cathedral-like, light-filled space. But that awe is underscored by upscale stores lining either side of the atrium, and digital displays that are an assault on the senses, an unfortunate side effect of turning what’s meant to be a sacred space into a shopping mall.

But even with all of those caveats, the “glorious boondoggle” (as New York memorably called it) is still our building of the year. Why? It’s hard to find a piece of NYC architecture that caused more chatter this year, for better or worse.

And furthermore, as Paul Goldberger noted in his review, “this is the first time in a half a century that New York City has built a truly sumptuous interior space for the benefit of the public.” Yes, it was too expensive; yes, it’s basically a really, really overblown mall; but it’s also quickly become a place where New Yorkers (and tourists, but that was a given) go to hang out, or commute, or fill time when they’re between appointments downtown. And that’s gotta count for something.

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