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Lobby Design Pivot

We had a project at 785 Fifth Ave. that started out in 2018 as a simple refresh of the original 1960s lobby. Over the course of a year of design development, the co-op was able to increase its budget to really transform this simple design into a remarkable one. All the finishes were removed. It was a full gut renovation everywhere in the lobby, except for one critical area: an existing water wall. Everyone really liked this feature, and the thinking was that as long as it was cleaned and polished, it would be the ideal element to tie the original lobby to the new one. The wall was a plane of granite, about 25 feet wide by 12 feet high, perfectly vertical, with water gently trickling over the top edge into a pool at the bottom.


Color Clash

The project went through a series of aesthetic changes. The original lobby was a dark walnut color that worked very well with the gray tones of the granite water wall; initially the redesign included a similar dark walnut wood paneling in the lobby. Over time, through negotiations with different board and team members, the finishes went from dark walnut to an oak and limestone with neutral colors. The water wall was also a neutral color, but on the opposite end of the color spectrum: a cool gray versus a light beige. We recognized there could be an issue with integrating the two colors, but by the time the general contractor was selected, COVID happened. When construction in the city resumed in June 2020, the board didn’t want to further delay the project by trying to resolve the color issue, so the work went ahead.


Demolition began, and the water wall was covered up with plywood and plastic to protect it. The intention was to restore it with slight modifications. Toward the end of December 2020, installation of the new finishes was underway, with the limestone arriving from Italy and wood paneling being installed on the walls. In January 2021 the protection around the water wall was removed so the board and the lobby redesign committee could look at everything together. 

That’s when all the stakeholders involved recognized the conflict between the old water wall and the new finishes of this really contemporary lobby. The water wall looked completely out of place, like it was left unfinished. You could have put a picture frame around it, and that might have helped, but the only real way of dealing with it was either accepting this uncomfortable contrast or coming up with a change that everyone could agree on quickly. 


Planting a Seed

We had weekly site meetings with the board representatives and shareholders as well as Zoom meetings. It was very quickly understood that the solution had to be something simple and easily implemented, but also as impactful as this water feature. One option was to remove all of the granite and replace it with a stone that would complement the beige tones of the oak and the limestone, but that wasn’t too exciting to anyone. 


We all recognized that the lobby had very crisp, clean lines. The details were elegant and simple, but there was really no texture to soften the space. Early on we had explored the concept of creating a green wall in a different area of the lobby to balance some of the contemporary details, so we brought back that idea. Everyone instantly loved the green wall concept. The full board agreed that an indoor garden, or green wall, was a fantastic direction to take this, and that’s where we ended up. We took what was once a waterfall and converted it into a mini-garden.


Maximum Impact

When you enter the building, the wall is directly across from you about 50 feet away, but it’s the first thing you see. If the granite had been replaced with something neutral that blended with the other finishes, the impact would have been minimal at best. But with the greenery it’s really powerful because there’s a bright pop of color, even from a distance. This building faces Central Park, so it really feels like you just left the park to enter a new park when you step into the building. It was probably the most impactful thing that could have been done other than commissioning a piece of artwork, which of course is probably the most contentious thing you can do in a building lobby.


The key to getting this project done was that the project committee and the board moved quickly and entrusted their professionals to get it done right. If they had teetered on a decision for more than a few days, it would have posed an immense problem to get this done in a timely manner, especially during COVID. By the time the final decision was reached in March 2021, shipping containers were hard to find, and the stone that we had to use was coming from Italy. If we had waited another week or two, the project could still be going on now.

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