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“Everything will become infrastructure bathed in artificial light and energy,” wrote French theorist Jean Baudrillard in America, part-travelogue, part-cultural critique, in 1989. “The brilliant superstructure, the crazy verticality will have disappeared. New York is the final fling of this baroque verticality, this centrifugal eccentricity, before the horizontal dismantling arrives, and the subterranean implosion that will follow.”
On a humid afternoon in Soho, New York feels less in a state of finality than of inexorable expansion. Overhead, construction works to digest remaining slivers of space. Seated in a corner booth in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, the Pritzker prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel recalls the work of his friend. “Jean … had a strong influence,” he says in French, via a translator. “Whether it’s fatality or seduction, those are notions that never leave me. I try to fight one with the other.”
It’s been two years since Nouvel last visited New York, which he calls “the prototype of the modern vertical city”. “Do you know an architect who doesn’t love New York and is not bowled over by New York?” he asks. “To build in New York, for a European architect, is a dream.”
Nouvel is here to launch his most significant contribution thus far: 53W53, or 53 West 53rd Street, a 1,050ft tower containing 139 residences and three new gallery levels of the adjoining Museum of Modern Art. Although not as tall as One World Trade Center, 53W53 will surpass the Chrysler Building, once the world’s tallest, and challenge the Empire State – a dramatic insertion into the midtown skyline, on a site only about half the size of Central Park’s Wollman Rink. […]