A rendering of 51 Astor Place, viewed from the south. (Sciame/Fumihiko Maki)

Developer Edward Minskoff's obsidian and silver edifice at 51 Astor Place will soon mark the latest transformation of New York's East Village.

Pritzker Prize winner Fumihiko Maki designed the unconventional structure, which is composed of three fused forms: a rectangular wall on the west side attached to an angled triangle on a quadrilateral base on the east side. (Maki's other New York project is 4 World Trade Center, the Silverstein Properties-controlled tower that is progressing steadily up the skyline.)

When it is completed in 2013, 51 Astor Place will be the latest space-age construct in an area long known for its grimier low-rise buildings, but one that has become a showcase for bold -- and controversial -- modern architecture.

Across the street is the late Charles Gwathmey's Sculpture for Living tower, an azure set of glassy curves that commands the triangle's view. Observers -- most prominently, Paul Goldberger of The New Yorker -- criticized the design for being at odds with its earthier surroundings.

But whatever public misgivings may exist, the building at 445 Lafayette St. has become a financial boon for its builder, the Related Companies. At its base is a Chase bank, topped by expensive condominium apartments. Fittingly, the luxury real-estate brokerage Town recently opened an office on the building's second floor.

A bit further south, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the former owner of 51 Astor Place, has its new academic building at 41 Cooper Square, designed by Thomas Mayne. Its irregular steel curves clad one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the city, having earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification.

The gleaming hotel at 25 Cooper Square, recently rebranded as The Standard, East Village, looms over the remains of 35 Cooper Square, a nearly 200-year-old Federal-style building that was demolished last year by its new owner, developer Arun Bhatia. As preservationists mourn the loss, plans for the site remain unpublicized.


Charles Gwathmey's Sculpture for Living (jwilly/Flickr) and the Cooper Union building (Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia Commons)

In a city known for its perpetual change, the East Village's evolution has been one of the most dramatic. The days of crack dealers and graffiti have given way to a still-vibrant, but decidedly more sanitized environment.

However, the area's most sweeping change is still to come. The city's Department of Transportation is spearheading an effort to close a portion of the site to car traffic and create a pedestrian walkway, filled with trees. The plan to demap the street dates back over a decade, when Cooper Union first suggested it, and many residents remain opposed.

Preservationists cite Astor Place's history, which begins with its use as an Indian trail and, according to a 1639 map, as a path bordering a nearby farm. Others believe that a demapping would cement the area's status as a playground for the wealthy, creating a pastoral backyard for the newcomers.

Minskoff's 51 Astor Place will inevitably change the streetscape. But beyond the design, it symbolizes the return of another boomtime practice: the speculative office building. Despite having no committed tenants, the developer was able to secure a $160 million construction loan, a rarity in today's economic climate.

Both the IBM and Microsoft corporations have reportedly expressed interest in becoming tenants, drawn to its location and modern features. Top floors in the building are said to be seeking rents of more than $100 per square foot, representing the top prices in Manhattan's lofty office market.

It's a bold financial gamble, but one that could prove lucractive. With Manhattan's dearth of new modern office space and tightening vacancy rates, there are definitive trends that favor a new construction. A greater uncertainty is whether 51 Astor Place's unusual design will be embraced by the public, or if it will be ultimately dismissed as another architectural experiment gone awry.