BIG finishes designing the Smile in NYC

Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG’s) first residential building in Harlem, New York City, welcomes residents to the Smile. Image courtesy Thomas Loof and Pernille Loof
Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG’s) first residential building in Harlem, New York City, welcomes residents to the Smile.
Image courtesy Thomas Loof and Pernille Loof

Designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the Smile is a mixed-use residential development in New York City.

In 1912, the Equitable Building in Lower Manhattan was designed to be the largest building that could fit its site and rose skyward from the street lot-line without any setbacks. The building has since served as a prime example of the perils of unregulated development and as a result, the first building regulation was enacted in the United States. The landmark 1916 Building Zone Resolution enforced the construction of ‘stepped façade’ towers to allow light and air back into the streetscapes. BIG’s reinterpretation of the resolution is demonstrated in the Smile with its scalloped façade. Draped between two existing buildings, the Smile gently curves inward as it rises upward to bring daylight into the residential streets while enlivening and connecting to the neighborhood.

The Smile is BIG’s first collaboration with Blumenfeld Development Group (BDG) to design a 24,155-m2 (260,000-sf) residential building in Manhattan’s East Harlem neighborhood. The building’s façade gently slopes inward, deviating from the hard, linear street edge in an elegant gesture and forming its namesake curved ‘smile’ in bird’s eye view. In turn, the curve allows the building form to be contained within the allowable zoning envelope, while giving the residential street more access to direct sunlight. The Smile has 233 units, with one third of the apartments reserved for affordable housing, all designed with a minimal palette of warm wooden interiors, and with access to amenities, such as a gym, wet spa and sauna, co-working spaces, and rooftop pools.

Conceived as a three-pronged ‘Y’ structure, the Smile transforms from a traditional block at street level to one side cantilevering over an existing commercial building. The Smile’s unique form allows locals to enjoy and inhabit the space over the commercial offices previously left unbuilt and creates visual connections between the two streets to form a more cohesive neighborhood experience.

“The façade of the Smile drapes gently between the building’s two neighbors and leans inward to allow sunlight and air to reach the street, thus fulfilling the century old set-back requirements in a new way. Like a good neighbor, it fits into the existing neighborhood, feeding from the community’s energy to add new sparks to the community of East Harlem,” said Bjarke Ingels, BIG founder.

The Smile’s façade takes inspiration from the textured surface of the moon, and blends with the black and red brick of the existing buildings in the neighborhood. Its windows mirror the same shape of those characterizing Harlem, while the blackened stainless-steel panels were handmade in Germany and produced by a combination of mechanical, chemical, and electro-chemical treatments that, without any lacquer, create a natural and durable surface. The interlocking panels are all straight, yet configured so that each element reflects the sky and light slightly differently, resulting in varying shades of black. The interlocking checkerboard pattern façade panel system allows for floor-to-ceiling windows in each unit, creating exciting views in all directions of the city.

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