Developer Harry Macklowe recently unveiled one from Manhattan newest trophy residential buildings, One Wall Street — and by his side was Lilla Smith, director of architecture and design at Macklowe Properties, who oversaw nearly every aspect of the $1.5 billion conversion of a landmark Ralph Walker office tower into 565 apartments .
Ms. Smith, a 12-year veteran of the company, also led the design for Macklowe’s 432 Park Ave., 737 Park Ave. and 150 East 72nd St. luxury condo projects. Until 2009, Smith was a senior associate at Gwathmey Siegel & Associates in New York, planning and designing residential and commercial projects.
Ms. Smith, who lives with her family in Brooklyn Heights, spoke to Mansion Global about leading the largest office-to-apartment conversion in New York history, why materials matter and why tranquility is the new luxury.
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Mansion Global: One Wall Street was Macklowe’s largest residential project in New York. How challenging was it to design?
Lilla Smith: One Wall Street is huge. I had never come across a project of this magnitude. I came from a practice with Charles Gwathmey where we had done academic campus buildings and libraries, but the residential projects were mostly private homes. One Wall has 190 different layouts. Managing that and getting your head around it was daunting. Harry and I approached it as creative one-off private homes. There are bathroom and kitchen designs that no one in their right mind would carry out for several families.
MG: On such a big project, were you able to stay involved with the details?
LS: I was in the weeds of everything. Together with a consultant, I came up with the mix of apartments and facilities and then the actual layouts. After we created those spaces, we continued to develop details in bathrooms and kitchens. There were site visits around the world to select and source materials. With the team, I also visited stores in New York City to make fabrications. For a developer like Macklowe to employ an architect, getting into this weed is highly unusual.
MG: What are some of the more memorable materials you’ve used?
LS: The travertine we used for bathrooms came from Tivoli outside Rome, from the same place Bernini came from for the St. Peter’s colonnade. You won’t find anything more timeless than that. Our Bianco Dolomite marble came from Turkey. Our supplier bought a warehouse so we could see the consistency of veins on a white background. We sourced grooved glass from the Czech Republic and wood for the lobby panels from Africa. But we also had to oversee much of the manufacturing in local stores. The tiered fluted glass chandelier in the lobby was assembled in Long Island City. The mosaics in our pool are made in Italy and we used people who have been in the New York tile business for 50 years.
MG: Has the pandemic led you to make big changes at One Wall Street?
LS: We were pretty much all bought in March 2020, so there were no significant changes. But we had doubts about secondary bathrooms, which were planned in stone. The user of a secondary bathroom may not be the most conscientious user. So we went for porcelain, which is essentially indestructible. It’s popular now and has a bit of a green aspect to it. It’s much more advanced than it used to be.
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MG: What are buyers looking for on the luxury side in terms of materials?
LS: There’s a warmth and a casualness that people want right now. It’s not luxury. For example, leather should feel natural. Stone must have something sensual.
MG: What does the luxury buyer expect from kitchens and how do you design them?
LS: Understanding the practical needs of a kitchen and the importance of how the appliances, sink, cutlery and utensil drawers and cabinet storage are arranged to have the right adjoining spaces is paramount to its success. Personally using kitchens in my own home on a daily basis, from initially a studio size to now a four-bedroom apartment, was an important part of the learning process and formed the basis for the design for the various sized apartments in One Wall Street.
The preferred location of the kitchen within a home has also changed. What was once considered a luxury in New York City, having the kitchen remotely located in the apartment, often with a separate entrance from the service elevator corridor and perhaps staffed with help, has evolved into a central location of the kitchen in the home, operating as a meeting place for friends and family. Good company in your kitchen is a true luxury.
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MG: Which architect was your biggest inspiration or influence?
LS: Experiencing Louis Kahn’s buildings was the best education as a student. From the age of 15 it was intellectually stimulating to work at the Exeter Library, while taking a summer course in architecture, and later in graduate school, to visit and explore the Yale Art Gallery and the British Arts Center in New Haven . Studying his use of simple geometric shapes that yielded monumental readings, the use of daylight, the hierarchy of spaces and the integration of natural materials such as concrete, brick, stone, zinc and teak formed an important architectural foundation for me. There is a beauty and integrity to the forms, a truth to the use of natural materials, and a tranquility to the spaces that flows through Kahn’s architecture that is timeless and inspiring.
MG: Is there a common thread in the luxury residential buildings you design?
LS: I’d say it’s clean modernism and honest about materials. I try to be truthful about how those materials intersect and what they reveal between them. As architects, we also pride ourselves on quality design that pays attention to proportion, the scale of rooms and the use of light.
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MG: With One Wall Street, you remodeled a building that was over 90 years old. How complicated did that make the project?
LS: The adaptive reuse was worth it, but it was much more challenging than new construction. You will always be faced with surprises. There are things buried in the walls. You have to constantly adjust. We had to demolish 30 elevators, escalators and stairs and reconfigure everything for the best light and air in the apartments. But from a sustainability perspective, it was important.
MG: What is your definition of luxury?
LS: Luxury in architecture is the well thought-out of spaces. You’ve been trained in the classic lessons of proportion, scale, and aligning things. It’s how materials come together, the quality of the construction, the quality of the light. Masterful use of light is a luxury, and how you manipulate it… One Wall Street is also incredibly quiet. Everyone makes that comment about the units. Solitude in your apartment is a real luxury.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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