A building erects the present in the midst of a nostalgic dream.
51 Astor, a new building on the eastern edge of Astor Place in New York City, looks like something Will Smith would kill in a movie. It is mirrored, angular, black, and malevolently futuristic. Critics ranging from the New York Times to parents of NYU students, as they carry sleek TVs from Volvos to dorm rooms, have lambasted the building. Many activists and developers think the building brings a dash of midtown to an area that ought to be bohemian. At the end of an eloquent critique of 51 Astor, Justin Davidson of New York magazine says it “obliterates the personality of an open-skied funky square.” A fake Twitter account for the building, @51deathstar, which loans it a lonely, hollowly needy persona, recently tweeted in its voice: “Hey East Village! Sorry I had to destroy you. My dad made me do it and he’s kind of a dick.”
To understand why people ascribe this building so much power, a few facts are helpful. In 2011, the building received a $160 million construction loan from Bank of America, rare these days for speculative office spaces in New York City. Its flagship tenant is IBM, which plans to bring Watson, the Kasparov-beating hero to young iPads everywhere. In the lobby is a sculpture by Jeff Koons called Balloon Rabbit. It stands 14 feet tall and weighs 6,600 hundred pounds and is made of genially stacked shiny, semi-tumescent metal parts. The building’s first retail tenant is Ian Schrager, who as the founder of Studio 54, was once the don of decadent, Warholian nightlife in New York. Then he was convicted as a tax evader; now he’s a hotel magnate. One thing is clear: This building isn’t bashful. Its commitment to its attitude is total.