Designed by the Danish architecture office BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, The Smile made of black blasted stainless steel extends along 126th Street in East Harlem, Manhattan. Inspired by the surface of the moon and the cultural influences of the city district, the T-shaped building fits seamlessly into the surrounding red and brown brick buildings. The interlocking chessboard-like facade panels were manufactured in Cologne, Germany by POHL Facade Division. Flanked by room-high windows, The Smile aims to reflect sunlight and amplitude into the daily lives of its residents.
East Harlem, commonly referred to as “El Barrio," is a lively neighborhood with strong Puerto Rican roots. The architecture of The Smile is the result of a comprehensive analysis of the contemporary life of the district, which combines urban specifications with cultural esteem and modern design.
The Smile nestles perfectly into the surrounding streetscape. With a view of the “Main Street”, the building is located directly in the heart of the bustling district. Facing South, the residential complex rises above the existing buildings on 125th Street. Along 126th Street the building curves gently inwards - deviating from the hard linear curb of the road with an elegant sense of pliancy - appearing like a smile from above. Permissible development plans from 1916 specify a tiered facade for the design of high-rise buildings, in order to give the streets more access to wind and direct sunlight. Due to the curved front, BIG has designed the building to meet these specific criteria.
Bjarke Ingels, Founder and Creative Director, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group states “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 on the community’s energy to add new sparks to East Harlem.”
The interlocking chess board-like facade panels made of 2.5 mm stainless steel are flanked by a room-high window, which ensures plenty of natural light and a feeling of vastness in the interior residences. In varying individual sizes of 1,750 x 4,000 to a maximum of 1,750 x 5,500, each sheet-metal panel has its own fixed position within the curved facade shape. With its dark coloring, the building merges comfortably into the black and red bricks that surround it. The angular windows also reflect the characteristic architectural forms of the neighborhood at large.
For the facade, BIG was inspired by the textures of the moon's surface: an irregular pattern of fine black shades with sufficient depth in order to reflect sunlight. For these complex requirements, BIG collaborated with German metal construction specialist POHL. More than 700 stainless steel panels with different dimensions were manufactured and refined at the location in Cologne. The lunar-like surfaces were created using a combination of mechanical and chemical processing, where each finished sheet-metal panel was photographed by POHL and sent to BIG for approval. The result is a durable and harmonic surface that stimulates a profound impact.
El Barrio is a hotspot for Latin American and Caribbean restaurants and is well known for a lively atmosphere in the streets. Colorful street art tells stories about historical personalities and carries impactful political messages. BIG integrates illuminating colors as well as paintings inspired by the district's culture, thus striking a distinct balance between the more sober concrete and black stainless steel elements of the building. In the entrance area, colorful fishbone tiles run past the reception counter, and behind the letterboxes, as the residents make their way to the black stainless-steel elevators. One-third of the 223 apartment units are set to be made available as social housing, while the remaining units are to be sold and rented at market prices. In February of 2021, the first residents began to move in.
“Our team of collaborators and manufacturers have worked closely with us every step of the way to achieve the vision we dreamt up together and to ensure The Smile becomes a significant contribution in this historic Harlem neighborhood," says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, Partner-in-Charge, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group. "The Smile’s façade takes inspiration from the black and red brick of the existing buildings in the neighborhood. Its blackened stainless-steel panels were handmade in Germany and produced by a combination of mechanical, chemical, and electrochemical treatments that, without any lacquer, create a natural surface reflecting the sky and light slightly differently in each panel, resulting in varying shades of black."
The interiors of the apartments located on the Northern side of the building have been designed in an industrial style with exposed concrete. On the South, exposed Italian steel beams and kitchen cabinets harmonize with the minimalistic design. The Smile offers its residents comprehensive amenities - in addition to a fitness center, the building provides a spa area, co-working spaces, and an inviting roof terrace. The panoramic views of the Harlem River and Manhattan skyline set an ideal backdrop for activities such as barbecuing, open-air cinema, and relaxing by the swimming pool.