New colours on the block

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MVRDV’s first completed major US project is a mixed use scheme including a boutique hotel, which makes a bold architectural diversity statement in a range of colours and scales to help it blend with the locality. Tom Boddy reports

In New York City’s Washington Heights, at the very top of Manhattan Island, adjacent to the Bronx, sits the first major project in the US by Netherlands-based architects MVRDV. Named Radio.181, the 22-storey mixed use high-rise incorporates office, hotel, retail, and event space, assembled in a colourful composition of asymmetrically-stacked blocks intended to express the vibrancy and diversity of the surrounding neighbourhood.

This has been, during design and construction (and will be in operation, once opened this summer), a high profile project, being a large volume on the thinnest part of Manhattan, and one which also fulfilled a local need due to Washington Heights’ previous lack of hotel and office space. The project started on site in 2018 and is due to open to the public this summer.  

The scheme was initiated by developers Youngwoo & Associates, who identified the site, next to Washington Bridge, as being ideal for such a scheme. Having established a robust relationship over the years, Youngwoo approached the architects to come up with a design concept that was at once “bold and fitting” for the practice’s first big statement in New York City. While the pair of firms had already developed various concepts and designs for multiple locations across the States, Radio.181 was the first to reach the construction stage.

The building sits on Amsterdam Avenue, between 180th and 181st Street, at a bustling intersection opposite the bridge, which is a major link connecting Manhattan to the Bronx. Having been occupied by an automotive repair shop/gas station for over six decades, the site had deteriorated and was in dire need of rejuvenation, and a “spark” in terms of design that would ignite regeneration in Washington Heights, say the architects. “It felt like a scar on the neighbourhood that such a prominent location, facing the bridge and Amsterdam Avenue, lacked any sense of community,” says Fedor Bron, associate director at MVRDV. 

Community first 

From the outset, and in particular because of its prominent location at the junction terminating the bridge, a huge emphasis was put on designing a build that served and prioritised the local community. The goal therefore was a building that had the ability to accommodate multiple functions, while being formed carefully to fit the surrounding context. 

In the early stages, MVRDV explored several concepts, all of which were “very different in size,” says Mick van Gemert, associate architect at the practice. Incorporating a diverse programme on the ground floor with room for food and beverage establishments, local retail, and publicly accessible in- and outdoor spaces was always part of the plan. However, later down the line, once more of the community’s needs were established, the brief and design evolved to include a hotel, in addition to office facilities.

With there being two major institutions nearby – the New York Presbyterian Hospital, and Yeshiva University – the Washington Heights district is visited by many thousands of people every year. However, as these were in both cases lacking accommodation facilities, there was a high demand for a new facility that offered users a place to stay. Additionally, according to the architects there was also a local lack of Class A office space in a high-rise, which would provide the “astonishing views” that this scheme would deliver. 

Once the architects began to integrate a hotel and office programme into the design, “the project really took off,” Bron tells ADF.  The briefing and approval process was reportedly characterised by a strong collaboration between all parties, with MVRDV and developer Youngwoo hosting regular workshops in NYC. Due to the project’s sensitive nature, it was vital that the team worked “hand in hand with local leaders,” says Bron. 

Via partnering with several community organisations in New York such as the Local Community Boards, Business Improvement District representatives, and local community stakeholders, MVRDV ensured that from an early stage the project’s agenda was to firmly “articulate the philosophy of the building as a community-first development.”

Vertical village 

Being situated in a relatively low rise section of Manhattan, it was imperative that a new development on this scale (26,500 m2 of floor area) didn’t overwhelm its surroundings. Van Gemert tells ADF that while there are some high rises in this part of the city, they are mainly just “extrusions of the same floorplate.” Ensuring they took a different approach to this, MVRDV’s aim was to produce a form that replicated some of the design elements of the nearby structures, which resulted in an asymmetrical stack of eight differently coloured boxes. 

The local neighbourhood is home to a “diverse and vibrant” community of around 150,000 people including a mix of families, creative professionals, and institutions, and typical urban blocks are composed of different building typologies, but of similar dimensions, arranged side by side. “The individual buildings vary in size a little, but overall the buildings nearby are quite uniform in terms of their dimensions,”
says Van Gemert.

To help this large new addition fit within the area’s urban landscape, it “replicates a typical composition of a Washington Heights block, deconstructs it, and then reassembles it into a stack of boxes,” say the architects. Each of the eight different blocks within the development takes its inspiration “directly from the adjacent buildings” explains Van Gemert, so that the window lines and overall facades replicate the look of the neighbourhood. 

MVRDV’s original concept was to design all of the different components using the same “narrow range of dimensions” of nearby existing structures, states Bron. But because of the density required by the client, this more “horizontal” approach wasn’t feasible. “So in order to work with similar-sized blocks, we needed to stack them,” which enabled the designers to reflect the local scale while building higher to incorporate the different facilities.

The staggered stacking of the different boxes – and the splitting up of the hotel and office programme into several sections within that composition – provided MVRDV with the opportunity to diversify the spaces even more, and introduce a greater number of roof terraces. “The expression of different functions and the stacking of indoor and outdoor spaces makes it a vertical village,” says Bron.

Facades 

Not only are the different components of the building such as the hotel and office space clearly defined through its geometry, but each section – and function – has its own colour. There’s a precedent in the diversity of local architecture: “Walk the streets of Washington Heights and you sense that diversity. Radio.181’s colour scheme is just an abstraction of this experience, taken directly from the streetscape,” says Van Gemert.

Bricks were the chosen material for the building’s multi-coloured exterior, to tie in with local facades. But as the team wanted the elevations to also reflect the vibrancy of the neighbourhood, they opted for glazed bricks, and this unusual specification across such a composition has “worked to quite an impressive effect,” says Bron. He adds: “Most people aren’t really used to seeing glazed bricks in large blocks of solid colour like this, so people are surprised by how colourful it is.”

The bright colours have captured people’s attention, including on social media, where one commenter criticised the building based on an image taken at a distance. They assumed the brightly coloured building facades were made of plastic. “We had to show them a close-up of the bricks – to prove that our design was not that unsustainable!” 

Although its composition reflects the local built vernacular, Radio.181’s height and variety of bright colours, while achieving the client’s brief of being bold, means it still makes a substantial architectural statement in the area. However at the same time, this very mixed composition – “the diversity, scale, window patterns, facade material, the diversity in all of these elements – already existed in Washington Heights,” says Bron.

Programme

The client’s decision to provide the varied range of facilities within was made as an attempt to resolve a number of challenges within the local community. Each section has been carefully placed to optimise its functionality, and thereby provide locals and visitors with truly valuable amenities.

The red, purple and turquoise blocks facing south towards West 180th Street and Amsterdam Avenue houses the hotel. Serving the high demand for temporary accommodation in Washington Heights, MVRDV’s hotel design incorporates 212 rooms, plus a restaurant, a bar, and a courtyard space.

Inside, the hotel’s compact floorplans contain typical double-loaded corridors, but the overarching sentiment of the interior aims to be a less standard, more boutique offer, “to provide a more informal, festive, and diverse atmosphere compared with typical offerings in more southern parts of Manhattan,” says Van Gemert. The buildings’ facade colours have been replicated in their interiors, reinforcing the separate identities of each of the functions.

On entering the hotel on the ground floor, which also boasts “a very colourful mix,” both users of the building and neighbourhood residents can walk through to a courtyard space, where they can enjoy a coffee and the community garden.

Also at ground floor level is the project’s 8,345 ft2 of retail space, – providing an “active street level” on both 181st Street and Amsterdam Avenue. “Having an engaging street presence is the essence of Radio.181,” says Van Gemert. Adding a variety of retail on 181st street, already a thriving corridor in the Washington Heights neighbourhood – will “attract young professionals who value convenience and a relaxing shopping experience.”

The yellow, orange and grey blocks facing north at West 181st Street serve the office floors. This section comprises 20 floors and 167,000 square feet of Class A office space. Bron asserts that the extra commercial space will “enable local businesses to scale up and take their next steps.” The interior offers flexible floor plates with 12 to 19 feet ceiling heights, and great views of Manhattan. To achieve a high level of security and efficiency, the office will be served by a dedicated entrance and lobby.

On floor 12 sits the long, flat blue block which connects both the hotel and office and houses an event space which is accessed via the hotel. This space, connecting to a terrace offering further panoramic views, will provide “flexible food and beverage possibilities” as well as a leisure programme for the neighbourhood. Also, it will provide a space for locals to host weddings and other events. This is just one of many ways Radio.181 adds an amenity that did not previously exist in Washington Heights. 

Details

Designing the building with such an irregular assemblage of forms didn’t come without its challenges. For example, says Fedor Bron, “The location of the vertical cores, with the stairs and elevators, was tricky to make the composition work, as they need to serve all the differently shaped blocks in a functional manner.”

Overarching this, ensuring the building provided health and comfort to its occupants was fundamental in the design. For example, designing the office floorplates to be “relatively small,” allowed workspaces to be filled with daylight throughout the day. Another way the design contributed to the wellbeing of the building’s users was that the architects made sure each of the blocks has its own accessible, dedicated outdoor terrace, or terraces. 

The architects assert that Radio.181 also represents a scheme that is a marked contrast with other new buildings for commercial clients in the key area of energy efficiency, thanks to its brick materiality: “As we opted for a brick-based facade, we are much more energy efficient in comparison to other new developments.”

With the client having a projected opening date for this vibrant new addition to the area of this summer, both they and the architects are anticipating a positive response from the community,
and beyond.