Azure: Dock Star

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Published in Azure, May 2019

Once a bustling colonial-era harbour, New York City’s South Street Seaport underwent a gradual decline over much of the past few decades, becoming little more than a tourist trap with a lacklustre shopping mall. But a new “anti-mall” has replaced the latter on South Street’s rebuilt Pier 17, drawing visitors and re-attracting locals to the area like moths to a … lantern, it turns out.

Conceived as a public amenity, the 27,870-square-metre building offers dining, shopping, programmed events, a winter skating rink (on the rooftop no less) and, thanks to innovative glass applications, an indoor-outdoor experience. Among other interventions, the project designer, New York’s SHoP Architects devised 16 operable “pier doors” using multiple double-paned glass lites. The six-metre-wide-by-9.7-metre-high walls retract upward on the north and south elevations to create a connection between the building interior on the ground level and the pier’s promenades. In inclement weather, the doors can be lowered, but still command views of docked historic sailing vessels and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

More prominent in the design, however, is the green-grey channel glass mounted onto the building envelope. The material functions as a rainscreen, but its primary role is an aesthetic one: It establishes a distinct linear rhythm as it alternates with recessed clear-glass windows, even when dark falls. “The channel glass allows the building to both reflect and embody the deep colours of the East River waters surrounding the project, while also producing an ethereal glow at night,” says Scot Teti, a project director at SHoP. LEDs within the channels beautifully and evenly diffuse light, reinforcing the dynamic pattern while illuminating the promenade for restaurant patrons and nighthawks.

The application, however, wasn’t so straightforward, say SHoP and its glass supplier Bendheim. The architects wanted the lit channel cavities to have a crisp appearance, yet long spans of the lightweight material would have required cross-bracing and mid-point clips to manage riverfront wind loads of roughly 220 kilograms per square metre, resulting in shadows within the channels. For the first time, Bendheim—working with German-based glass manufacturer Lamberts—custom-engineered channels with an atypically deep flange of 9.5 centimetres, enabling fabrication of six-metre lengths capable of withstanding the wind pressure without clips. Glass installer Enclos then unitized these—26 channels to a single panel—to speed up installation. Discreetly placed perforated metal panels provide access to the light sources for maintenance, as well as ventilation to help prevent overheating and condensation (which could also have ruined the visual impact).

In the end, the collaboration between architect and manufacturer proved successful. Whether emitting white or coloured light, the lantern-like building brings energy back to the seaport neighbourhood, and its exploration of glass demonstrates one of SHoP’s many strengths. “We use materials that have been well trotted through time but temporarily forgotten,” says Teti, “and we reinvent them, employing them in ways that make them relevant for today’s context and design ethos.”