ODA’s Eran Chen on Eliot Spitzer, Gentrification and Those Crazy “FLOATING GARDENS”

You’re also working on an ambitious residential skyscraper for Triangle Assets at 303 East 44th Street in Midtown that features exposed “floating gardens,” occupying gaps within the building itself, hundreds of feet in the air. It seems like a logistical nightmare.

[Laughs] This was sort of an experiment. Slender towers are exactly the opposite form of what ODA and I believe in. Slender towers touch the city in the smallest, most insignificant way but impact the skyline in the most significant way.

When we were approached to design this, the immediate reaction was, What is it that we’re going to do with this? But then came the thought of the advantage of living in the suburbs: Why are people still drawn to that? And partially, it’s the formula of a house with a backyard or a front yard—the idea that you can be in your living room, open the door and the kids can play out in the garden. And that’s something that obviously cannot exist in the city.

But the nice thing about slender, vertical towers is that they have no height limit. So we thought, if we can stretch this building beyond its program, we can create, literally, gaps in the building—and that gap could become, instead of a backyard, a “down-yard” or an “up-yard.” And that would be fascinating, because that could really change our perception of how we can accommodate that kind of experience in cities.

Everybody thought it was a crazy idea in the beginning. First of all, people said, it’s going to count as floor area. Well actually, a covered outdoor space does not count against FAR [or floor area ratio] if it’s more than 67 percent open on all sides—and obviously, if this [space] is open all the way around, it’s not floor area.

Number two, people said, who needs outdoor space at 600, 700 feet in the air? Everything is going to fly off from the wind. This is probably true if you have a balcony or an open roof.

But the fascinating thing about this—which we didn’t know in the beginning and which we learned through testing in wind tunnels—is that when that gap in the building exists that high up, there is air that is captured within the building envelope. And that air, when the wind hits it, kind of diverts the wind to the other side [around the building]. The results were amazing! Because at any given point, even in the worst conditions, the maximum wind speed was 15 miles per hour—the maximum, throughout the year.

That says that if you compare these outdoor spaces at 600 feet in the air to a roof on the seventh floor of a building, it’s exposed to less wind throughout the year than the roof on the seventh floor. Which means that they’re not only beautiful, but they’re usable. We made them 16 feet high so the sun would come through, and we have a buffer zone for dirt so people can plant their own gardens.

The real question is, What’s the added value of this non-FAR area? I made a prediction once—and I still stand behind it—that in like 15 to 20 years, even high-rise apartments with views, without outdoor spaces they’ll be hugely devalued. It’s going to feel like, Why would I ever live in an apartment without properly designed outdoor space?