Robert A.M. Stern

Power at the Top
C-Lab in conversation with Robert A.M. Stern

The penthouse is doubly speculative: a real estate device used to luxurize up-and-coming neighborhoods, it is also an opportunity for architectural speculation, an urban island for the architectural imagination.

C-Lab: What defines a penthouse?

RS: I don’t think there is a real definition of a penthouse. There’s the real estate term, which is some kind of structure more or less surrounded in whole or in part by an outdoor space. Penthouses in New York originally were rather temporary or casually built structures that I believe were intended to house resident superintendents or building staff on the roofs of apartment houses.

C-Lab: How much of this definition is based on real estate and how much on architectural distinctions?

RS: Some of it is real estate, but in truth there are spectacular pieces of penthouse architecture, with wonderful terraces around them, sometimes because of the freedom of planning that is possible at the top of a building, and that is not possible on lower floors. You can have special fireplaces, unique glazing patterns, interesting and dynamic spatial arrangements. The city does abound in these very special kinds of structures. Of course in these responses I’m referring principally to residential apartment buildings.

C-Lab: What are the most notable penthouses in New York City?

RS: Well, aside from the ones we’re currently designing at Fifteen Central Park West, which are pretty snappy, there are so many I can’t really pick – but if you just stand in Central Park, for example, and look at the tops of very many apartment buildings that ring the park, you’ll see spectacular penthouses. For example, at the tops of the twin towers of the San Remo, there are remarkable apartments that have largely been created out of what was in fact rhetorical or wasted space in the original design. Now, are they penthouses? I’m not sure, because they have limited outside space; but they are remarkable structures. The setbacks that prevailed in New York architecture between 1916 and 1960 created at the tops of very many buildings amazing opportunities for unique apartments, which are called penthouses.

C-Lab: What’s the minimum number of floors that a building must have for it to claim to have a penthouse: for example, the Rudolph penthouse on Beekman Place?

RS: I think there is no minimum number in that sense. I think a penthouse can be built atop a low building like the one where the Rudolph penthouse was built, or a loft building or a tenement or a townhouse, which might be converted and have a rooftop structure put on it. So long as it conforms to my earlier description by taking advantage of certain opportunities for spatial invention, formal freedom, and so on, it is a penthouse; that’s a true use of the term.

C-Lab: Is there a maximum number of penthouses a building can sustain? Is it possible that the proposed 80 South Street tower by Calatrava is a tower of penthouses?

RS: As soon as I heard the question, I thought immediately of the claims of 80 South Street. I don’t think you can say that’s a tower of penthouses. It’s a tower of stacked villas – an old idea that goes back to the early twentieth century at least, the fact that the structural frame of the tall building allows you to build any kind of style you want, and I believe if you look in Delirious New York you’d find a sketch made in 1909 of that very idea. I think the Calatrava building is very interesting, but I don’t think those apartments are penthouses.


Top Floor

How many penthouses can a building have and still preserve the myth of exclusivity?

1. 2 East 70th St, Rosario Candela, 1928
2. The Pierre Hotel, Schulze & Weaver, 1928
3. 133 East 80th St, Rosario Candela, 1930
4. 23 Beekman Place, Paul Rudolph, 1977
5. 484 Greenwich St, Peter Himmelstein, 2000
6. 80 South St, Santiago Calatrava, 2008

Proportion. With the increasing demand for luxury, penthouses occupy more and more of a building's height.

Inverted City. As the proportion of penthouses to standard floors increases, an inverted New York begins to emerge, a city that grows from the top downward in an ever-expanding domain of luxury.

The View from the Top. The penthouse is the ultimate architectural status symbol.

Suspension. The penthouse exercises a limited autonomy, existing outside the architectural laws that govern the building as a whole. Since the penthouse is conceived as the apex of a purely vertical typology, contextualism between penthouses is irrelevant. Separation works to the advantage of these competing monomanias: in this ideological suspension, the penthouse becomes an incubator for new architectural realities.




Architecture of Power, Part 2
Robert A.M. Stern Architects