Neighbourhoods change fast in New York. One week’s Skid Row can be next week’s hipster hang-out and the thrill of the city is its constant invention and reinvention of areas that, despite being built on the same urban grid, manage to remain unique and exude a kind of stubborn localism.
Most intriguing are the constantly shifting boundaries, the fluid demarcation between distinct neighbourhoods and ethnic centres that rub up against each other, creating the kind of frictions on which the city seems to thrive – as well as the gentrification against which New Yorkers love to rail. Nolita is situated in one of these border zones, the flux between old Little Italy, an inflating Chinatown, a Bowery in which commercial kitchen supply stores nuzzle incongruously up to high art and the gentrifying tentacles of SoHo.
The area (North of Little Italy) was only named in the 1990s and now it has been concretised by the opening of a hip new hotel. The Nolitan is a tough chunk of concrete and glass, as robust as the industrial buildings that make up the area’s solid streets. Designed by young neighbourhood architects Grzywinski and Pons, the steel framework of the façades echoes the iron fire-escapes of the characteristic local vernacular while the corner melts into blocky industrial glass, giving the rooms the most archetypally New York views you can imagine.
More open, more urban and less self-consciously boutiquey than some of the city’s new hotels, the lobby is built to appeal to a cool clientele. Very visible from the street, the sunken lobby is enveloped in concrete, timber and the best collection of book titles I’ve ever seen in a design hotel. The rooms are generous, bright, hard-wearing, some with balconies, all with gritty street views that allow you to lie in bed watching the city lead its life outside.
The Nolitan is also just about the most convenient place I’ve stayed anywhere in the city. I could walk to almost every one of my meetings, from the New Museum to Chinatown, from Chelsea to SoHo, to see friends in the East Village and movies in Tribeca. I saved a fortune on cabs. And with the garish lights of Little Italy, the cool bars of Mulberry, Mott and Elizabeth, and the early morning hustle of the Chinese wholesalers, the Nolitan feels at the heart of a 24-hour city that once seemed to be disappearing.
It was this same city buzz that formed the background to The Standard, set against the gristly grid of the meatpacking district. Hotelier André Balazs had noticed the synchronicity of early-hours activity between the area’s chilled meat trucks and chilled-out clubbers. Opened in 2009, The Standard showed what could be done with a hotel built from scratch. The surprising building, which looks as if it has been there since the mid-1950s, gives the most extraordinary views of the river and the perpetual motion of the streets. Its position at the end of the High Line linear park (which also opened in 2009) has made it the default terminus of the city’s urban wanderers. Its success kicked off a trend for new hotels that has been picking up ever since as boutique operators move into emerging neighbourhoods.
Chelsea, however, is hardly emerging. Its huge industrial blocks are now more likely to house model and ad agencies than factories or warehouses but mostly it has become the city’s commercial centre for art. Streets that once catered for workers with cheap diners and tool-hire stores have been adapted to provide high-end bistros and souped-up gourmet burger joints briefly interrupting the runs of galleries which are expanding so fast that it seems that if you take a leisurely walk through the district there’ll be a new gallery by the time you get back to where you started.
The Hotel Americano, which opened last month, has positioned itself as the party place for the arty crowd, a solid block of louche pleasure. Its façade is covered in steel mesh that looks rather like a net curtain, a device that allows the building to remain visible and the rigid Chelsea streetline to continue uninterrupted but hints at the idea that there might be things going on inside that you’re not supposed to see. Situated on W 27th Street, this is another self-conscious palace of cool.
Raw concrete surfaces and columns (the remnants and echoes of the building’s former life as a 10-storey parking garage) are leavened by sculptural light fittings and funky furniture. A courtyard café looks on to a Manhattan canyon of brick and fire escapes yet is made somehow intimate, a basement bar looks like a retro-dream departure lounge and the hotel’s restaurant animates a street that, although it is in the midst of the city’s art world, is still, for now, defined as much by its metal-yards and workshops as its galleries and photo-studios.
The Americano is the first US property for the young Mexican hotel group Habita. It was designed by Mexican architect Enrique Norten’s Ten Arquitectos and there are Latin touches throughout. A pool bar up top (converting to hot tub in winter) has a rooftop view framed through a Miami-style bar serving Greek food in the summer, Argentinian in the winter. The interiors are flamboyantly French. They are the first foray into the US by French designers MCH (whose best known work is the Parisian lifestyle superstore Colette), who have tried a little too hard. The rooms attempt refuge, beds on low platforms floating like rafts, each room giving ultra-New York views of hip industrial harshness, light and bright. The melange of influences, from retro to Miami, Japan to industrial is a little overcooked but it remains a hugely enjoyable set of spaces.
For decades now New York has suffered a lack of good new architecture. The arrival of the High Line and, in its wake, the new condo buildings by international architecture superstars from Jean Nouvel to Shigeru Ban, the completion of Frank Gehry’s twinkling, crumpled downtown skyscraper and the continuing renaissance of the Brooklyn and Dumbo neighbourhoods are making it interesting again. Now, you don’t need to go just to look at good new architecture, you can stay in it.
The Nolitan: www.nolitanhotel.com; doubles from $370. The Standard: www.standardhotels.com; doubles from $385; Hotel Americano: www.hotel-americano.com; doubles from $395
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent