5 Manhattan West
In New York City, architecture aficionados know the building that sits at 450 West 33rd Street.
Af Finn MacLeod
Completed in 1969, the 16-story austere brutalist urban ziggurat was designed by Davis Brody Bond as an office building, spanning a railyard connecting to nearby Penn Station. In the 1980s, the building’s then-owners attempted to ‘beautify’ its austere brutalist exterior by painting its grey concrete exterior beige and adding metal siding. Today, the building bears little resemblance to its first incarnation, having been completely rehabilitated and integrated into the sprawling Manhattan West development under the auspices of a more contemporary name: 5 Manhattan West.
The first development to be completed as a part of the multi-million-square-foot redevelopment and expansion of Manhattan’s far west side, 5 Manhattan West was designed by Joshua Ramus of New York-based REX. Once under threat of demolition, in recent years 5 Manhattan West became the touchstone of a development marathon in Manhattan. Physically bridging the space between two of the city’s biggest new developments — Hudson Yards and Manhattan West — the building is located within the SOM-designed Manhattan West development. The building’s re-positioning was intended to appeal to the city’s fast-growing technology sector, with its expansive, raw, and open-concept floor plates wrapped in an innovative, cascading glass facade.
Most notable in REX’s rehabilitation of 5 Manhattan West is its pleated facade. Shedding its opaque concrete skin, Ramus’s design reveals the building’s inner workings—a challenge when working with a structure that was never intended to be seen. The resulting effect is exciting both inside and out: bringing new shape to the structure, the glass reveals a new building altogether, celebrating its concrete core while inviting daylight deep into the interior.
Designed to optimize environmental conditions, the facade underwent myriad iterations — a continuous incline, a vertical stepping system, and so on — before settling on a pleated and inclined system that simultaneously reduced the building’s energy usage while maximizing views and daylight for building occupants. Notably, despite a dramatic decrease in concrete and an increase in glass used on the building’s surface, REX’s self-shading facade design allows for no net loss of insulation value or energy performance, while minimizing solar heat gain.
Modeled to replicate the cascading, rippled texture of a fresnel light (a type of spotlight used in theater to produce wide coverage and a soft beam), the facade serves double duty as an aesthetically pleasing design feature and a highly functional building element. Chosen initially for its ability to maximize leasable floor space (previous iterations limited adjacent space due to regulations against leasing space near inclined facades), the pleated design was also selected to increase comfort for building occupants by inclining out-and-upward to allow for more headspace, with the two planes meeting just above the six-foot seven-inch mark, decreasing gradually in inclination with the facade’s ascent. For REX’s client, Brookfield Properties, the facade created maximum leasability, while for office occupants, it establishes a sense of expansiveness in dense Manhattan.
REX’s redesign also incorporates an upgraded lobby, new street-level access, and new public thoroughfares and outdoor gathering spaces where Davis Brody Bond’s building once housed private, concrete-enclosed areas. In the lobby, REX facilitated an extensive renovation, transforming the space to meet the needs of modern business while preserving its unique cast-in-place concrete ceiling. Outside, the “breezeway” — a south-facing public arcade — was designed at the same height as the nearby Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed High Line in the hope of eventually connecting the building to the famed pedestrian system, as well as Manhattan West’s central plaza.
Pivoting from an inaccessible, opaque fortress to a fully transparent and active contemporary office building, REX’s redesign of 5 Manhattan West proves the true value of adaptive reuse. Previously considered obsolete, the building is now home to industry-leading companies like Amazon and J.P. Morgan, and in its ground-floor retail space, a Whole Foods Market opens the building up to the street. Now a sought-after property in the district, 5 Manhattan West — a building once described as a model of imposing brutalism — is now a prime example of urban reuse and renovation.