If two of the 20th century’s most influential architects—the Swiss-French Le Corbusier and the German-American Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—landed in 21st-century Manhattan, they would immediately know whose ideas had prevailed. There are hundreds of Miesian buildings in the city: skyscrapers with elegantly detailed glass skins over otherwise unadorned boxes.
But what of Le Corbusier’s progeny? On a famously gridded island, where facades of glass, brick, or stone aim straight for the sky (or, occasionally, step back in orderly layers), there isn’t much room for the kind of eccentrically shaped concrete edifices for which he was known. Yet at the southern tip of Chinatown, two very Corbusian apartment towers—a pair of concrete totem poles—have been beguiling architects (and architecture buffs) since 1965.
For more than 12 years, says architect Lyn Rice, “I lived across the street above a very smoky mahjong parlor, looking at Chatham Towers and being seduced by them.” In 2011, he and Astrid Lipka, his partner in Rice + Lipka Architects, bought an 800-square-foot one-bedroom with a terrace at 180 Park Row.
Chris Andreacola, an architect at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, was also seduced by Chatham Towers. “I had my eye on these buildings for a long time,” he says. Starting in the early ’90s, “whenever one came up in the paper I would look.” He and his partner, Sandra Chuck, a landscape architect who works for Dlandstudio, bought a one-bedroom apartment, also at 180 Park Row, in 2003.
If Chatham Towers aren’t better known outside the architecture world, it may be because their unpainted concrete exteriors, typical of the Brutalist style, aren’t for everyone. “People sometimes say, ‘When are they going to finish the buildings?’” says Jason Lee, an architect who has lived there since 2003. Or it may be because they are dwarfed by a vast federal courthouse—which was designed by William C. Louie, an architect at Kohn Pedersen Fox, who has lived in Chatham Towers for 48 years.
Louie and the other architects speak almost reverentially of the catty-cornered 25-story buildings, which sometimes feel like a pair of architecture school dormitories. Indeed, getting board approval to buy one of the 240 units (which these days go for about $1,000 per square foot) may require using words like “parti” and “pilotis.”
Architect Richard Moschella says, “I fell in love with Chatham Towers for their austere beauty,” in particular the buildings’ “muscular” facades. In 2015 he gut-renovated an apartment upstairs for the actor Grover Dale and the composer Marc Elliot, who relocated from Beverly Hills. And in 2017 he moved his firm, Moschella + Roberts Architects, to a commercial space at the base of the towers.
But as much as architects like looking at the buildings, they like looking from the buildings even more. The towers’ vast, mullion-less windows capture views as confidently as an Iwan Baan photo. Jean Lo, a real estate broker who has sold several apartments in Chatham Towers (where she has lived for 30 years with her husband, architect Sun-chang Lo), calls the buildings “observatories with giant avant-garde apertures.”
Those observatories were designed by Kelly & Gruzen, a firm known mainly for civic and academic structures (including the cubelike One Police Plaza just a few hundred yards south). For Chatham Towers, the firm worked with the renowned Cuban expat Mario Romanach, who had moved to the U.S. in 1959 to teach architecture at Harvard. Belmont Freeman, an architect and architectural historian, says Chatham Towers resemble several Romanach buildings in Havana, adding, “He was absolutely the best of the Cuban modernists of the 1950s.”
According to the modernist preservation group DoCoMoMo, Chatham Towers were the first residential buildings in the city clad entirely in poured-in-place, board-formed concrete. And, lest that seem like an obscure technical point, it’s not: The use of load-bearing concrete walls eliminated the need for interior columns, making the apartments feel bigger than they are.
Outside, at each of the buildings’ corners, two floors with terraces alternate with two floors without, producing serrated silhouettes (and a doubly serrated void between the buildings). Rooftop mechanical equipment is enclosed in concrete cubes with trapezoidal openings, recalling similar rooftop embellishments by Le Corbusier.
The buildings share a one-acre private garden by the celebrated landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, whose crisp modernist plan was meant to look good both from street level and from high up in the buildings. Rice, speaking like the architect he is, said he loves their “small-scale, cast-in-place concrete elements (lightwell, garden shed, etc.) that negotiate the scale between tower and body.”
Southerly views from the towers are protected by the Friedberg garden, while views to the north are protected by the city’s Columbus Park, a multi-block swath of Astroturf. Along with the views, the windows provide abundant light, even on the north side of the building. There, one of the city’s under-appreciated resources—reflected light—can be dramatic and delightful.
Indeed, at around 4:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon, the sun’s rays hit 10 Hudson Yards, part of the new development about three miles north, in Midtown, and bounced directly into the 17th-floor apartment owned by Andreacola and Chuck. The blazing light turned the light-gray wall of their hallway orange.
But the views and light come with a cost. The buildings’ unusual windows were made by a Swedish company that went out of business decades ago, and keeping them operating is a challenge. Residents speak of the windows incessantly, perhaps even obsessively. “They’re like antique cars; you have to maintain them,” says Shawn Watts, a partner at the architecture firm Leroy Street Studio. “But if you do, they give you a lot back.”
Each of the windows consists of two layers of glass in an aluminum frame, with Venetian blinds between the layers. Turning a handle allows the window to tilt at about 12 degrees, creating openings at top and bottom.
Rice says that when he and Lipka bought their apartment, “the guy who had maintained the windows for the last few decades had just retired.” When the internal blinds stopped working, Rice and Lipka simply chose to remove them. They also added a neoprene seal to limit air flow around the glass, something not all residents have done.
Indeed, on a windy afternoon in January, air hissed through the windows of several apartments. That’s one problem; another is that dirt gets between the layers of glass. Luckily, special tools allow the windows to tilt 180 degrees; the two layers of glass, independently hinged, can then be separated like the pages of a book and cleaned. (Watts says the previous owner of his apartment, an elderly woman, left him the precious tools in a Ziploc bag.)
Bill Louie, who has worked for Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) for more than 40 years, and his wife, May, recall the time that the plastic wand that controls the Venetian blinds—which is normally inside, but is outside when the window is flipped—flew off. Says Bill: “My heart skipped as I watched the wand hit my friend Alex’s car parked on the driveway.” He adds: “Alex was very forgiving.”
Some residents fantasize about getting new windows; others are vehemently opposed. A member of the co-op board is looking into replacements, but the outcome is far from certain. “Some people say, ‘Why can’t we have regular windows?’” reports Lee, “but most of the architects and designers” are not in that camp. “The windows are important to the character of the buildings,” adds Lee, who with his wife, Dragana Zoric, also an architect, and their two children, is preparing to move from a one-bedroom to to a three-bedroom apartment in the complex.
Living in Chatham Towers, Watts says, has taught him how to make the most of views. One trick is to put seating right against the windows, as he and his wife, Rosemary Suh, did with the sofa in their apartment. “You want to have proximity to the view and treat it like an extension of the space,” he says.
Another trick is to use colors and textures that create connections to outside. The orange of that sofa resonates with the red bricks of nearby Confucius Plaza and the Alfred E. Smith Houses, while a blue accent wall picks up Bernard Tschumi’s cobalt condo tower on Norfolk Street.
At the time they were built, Chatham Towers were not just technically and formally inventive, but socially innovative as well. The triangular, two-acre site was chosen in 1954 by New York City’s housing commissioner, Herman T. Stichman, who hoped to replace tenements with a housing complex he called “China Village.”
The developer, the Association for Middle Income Housing, built affordable co-ops for middle-income families. Residents bought shares at a fixed price and could sell their shares back at the same price when they left. (The Towers “went private,” allowing owners to sell their units on the open market, in 1991.)
To architect Richard Moschella, the buildings are “aesthetic justice—a relic of the time when the best architects, like Le Corbusier, built housing for average people. They’re the perfect example of an endangered species,” he says. “Great architecture for the middle class.”
Many early buyers were Chinese Americans, like the Louies. The son of immigrants, Bill Louie grew up in the Bronx, but on Sundays he often visited family in Chinatown. Watching Chatham Towers go up, he recalls, “I knew it was only a matter of time until I moved there.” In the 1970s, after he married the former May Thom, he went to work for KPF, while she worked as the architect Araldo Cossutta’s office manager.
The Louies bought a one-bedroom apartment at 180 Park Row in 1971. In those days, they recall, you had to present tax returns to qualify for an apartment—there was an income cut-off—and continue showing returns every year. When their next-door neighbor moved away in 1996, they bought her unit and removed its red brocade wallpaper and pink floor tiles. Then, knocking down the wall between the units, they created a nearly symmetrical two-bedroom apartment with a 48-foot living room.
In the late 1980s, KPF was chosen to design a federal courthouse directly west of Chatham Towers, on a site that was then a parking lot. Louie’s partners asked him if he wanted to design the building. “I said yes, because I didn’t want anybody else to do it,” he remembers. But there was opposition to the new building from many Chatham Towers residents, some of whom would lose sunlight and views.
That put Louie in a tough spot. “As a resident, I could not realistically represent or present KPF’s design without being ostracized by my neighbors,” he says. His partner Gene Kohn became the public face of the project.
The resulting 1 million-square-foot, vaguely postmodernist Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse was completed in 1994. It couldn’t be more different from Chatham Towers’ other neighbor, a bustling, low-rise section of Chinatown. Observes Rosemary Suh, “Sometimes, during the day there’ll be a big trial on one side of the building and a big Chinese funeral on the other, and it’s unbelievable, all these things happening at the same time.”
But longtime residents recall a time when there was even more happening. Immediately after 9/11, the city—looking to protect its police headquarters, which is just south of the complex—closed Park Row to traffic. Seventeen years later, the wide street is still barricaded (though police recently began letting bicyclists and pedestrians through). The closing had two effects: First, it “destroyed a certain amount of vitality in this part of Chinatown,” Bill Louie observes. Second, traffic on Worth Street, the alternative to Park Row, is oppressive. “Crossing the street is taking your life in your hands,” May Louie says. Other residents agree.
On a similar note, as beautiful as the Friedberg-designed private park is, some residents complain that there are so many restrictions (no dogs, no ball-playing, no food) that it goes unused.
These days, Chatham Towers isn’t quite middle-income housing. Last year, a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment created out of two smaller units sold for $1.35 million, almost exactly $1,000 a square foot. (It might have helped that Lo, the real estate broker, enlisted the L.A. design firm Bureau Spectacular to “virtually renovate” the apartment.). That’s almost 30 percent less than the average per-square-foot price in Manhattan, but a lot for Chinatown.
Will prices rise? Says Lo, “With midcentury Brutalist architecture back in vogue, I expect a lot more interest in Chatham Towers.” And a lot more talk of windows.