I’ve just started working on an apartment remodel in Kips Bay Towers, a complex on East 30th Street built in 1960 by I. M. Pei. These are two immense, slab-like towers with concrete frames and distinctive rounded window openings that set them apart from typical white brick modern buildings in Manhattan. They’re designed in a style called “Brutalism” that was popular at the time but that quickly fell out of fashion. Brutalism doesn’t sound like much fun, and certainly not like a nice place to live, but the style is being appreciated once again for its sculptural and geometric boldness.
Though they’re fifty years old the towers still have a strong, modern image. Every time I visit the complex, which has wide walkways and colonnades at ground level, I feel terribly modern. You need to walk down several feet to reach the main building entry and from here the slab towers above you, crowding out the rest of the city view. The immense, repetitive facades don’t feel oppressive but inspiring. You wish that, like in Paris, Milan or Rotterdam, more parts of our city were built in a progressive, modern way.
When you walk into the lobby, which takes up the entire ground floor, you get a sense of how huge the buildings really are. There are some stone benches and area rugs near the elevator banks, but other than that there’s no furniture at all, just an endless expanse of tile. These lobbies could use a bit of sweetening.
The courtyard is unexpectedly lush, with a flat lawn, low trees, and hydrangea bushes. The Towers at the sides shape a quiet retreat from city streets.
The apartment that I’m working on is a north-facing one-bedroom on the nineteenth floor. It feels much larger and warmer than you’d expect from the outside. The full-height windows in the Living Room and Bedroom showcase amazing views down into the city and let in tons of light. The owner told us that the only drawback to the apartment design is that the large single-glazed windows let in drafts in the winter.
A wit once observed that the best thing about the view from the Eiffel Tower was that the Eiffel Tower wasn’t in it. You could make the same claim about Kips Bay Towers. If you’re put off by the endlessly repeteitive facades, the rough concrete frames, and the sheer size of them, once you step inside one of the large, comfortable apartments you’ll find that all of that is easily forgotten.