Black stainless-steel forms the shape of a colorful smile

Designed by the Danish architecture office BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, the monumental smile made of black blasted stainless steel extends along the 126th Street in the Manhattan district of East Harlem. Inspire by the surface of the moon and the cultural influence of the district, the T-shaped building integrates perfectly into the surrounding red and brown brick buildings. The interlocking chessboard like facade panels were manufactured in the Cologne factory POHL Facade Division. Flanked by room-high windows, The Smile reflects sunlight and vastness into the everyday lives of the residents.

East Harlem or also “El Barrio“ is a lively neighborhood with Puerto Rican roots. The architecture of The Smile is the result of a painstaking analysis of the contemporary life and combines urban specifications with cultural esteem and modern design.
"The Smile" facade construction, stainless steel, New York | © Pernille Loof
"The Smile" facade design, stainless steel, New York | © Pernille Loof

Project data

The Smile
BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group
Stainless Steel
"The Smile" facade cladding, stainless steel, New York | © Pernille Loof

Right in the heart of East Harlem

The Smile nestles perfectly between the surrounding buildings. With a view of the “Main Street”, it is not over exaggerated to speak about the heart of the neighborhood. Towards the south, the residential complex towers over the existing buildings on the 125th Street. Along the 126th Street, the building inclines gently to the inside, deviates from the hard linear kerb of the road in an elegant gesture and as result, appears like a smile from above. Due to the curved front, the building moves optimally in the permissible development plan from 1916, which specifies a tiered facade for the design of high-rise buildings in order to give the streets more access to wind and direct sunlight.

“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.” Bjarke Ingels, Founder and Creative Director, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group.

A chess board made of black stainless steel

The interlocking chess board-like facade panels made of 2.5 mm stainless steel are flanked by the room-high window, which ensures for plenty of natural light and a feeling of vastness. In many individual sizes of 1,750 x 4,000 mm to maximum 1,750 x 5,500 mm, each sheet metal panel has its own fixed position in the curved facade shape. Through the dark coloring, the building merges weightlessly into the black and red bricks of the surroundings. The windows also take up the characteristic form of the neighborhood.

Facade made in Germany

For the surface refinement, BIG was inspired by the structures of the moon surface. A random pattern of fine black shades with sufficient depth in order to reflect the sunlight. For these complex requirements, BIG cooperated with the metal construction specialist POHL in Cologne. More than 700 stainless steel panels with different dimensions were manufactured and refined at the location in Cologne. The lunar-like surfaces were created by a combination of mechanical and chemical processing, where the work of art lies in its details. Each finished sheet metal panel was photographed by POHL and sent to BIG for approval. The result is a durable and harmonic surface with profoundness.

“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. 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 electro-chemical 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.” Kai-Uwe Bergmann, Partner-in-Charge, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group.
"The Smile" stainless steel facade, New York | © Pernille Loof

Colorful accents with cultural reference

El Barrio is a hotspot for Latin American and Caribbean restaurants and well known for a lively atmosphere in the streets. Colorful street arts tell a story about the historical personalities and carry political messages to the world. BIG integrates the illuminating colors as well as paintings inspired by culture and thus creates a coherent balance to the more down-to-earth concrete elements and black stainless steel.
In the entrance area, colorful fish bone tiles run past the reception counter occupied around the clock. Behind the colorful letterboxes, the residents access the moon black stainless-steel elevators. One third of the 223 one to two room apartments should be made available as socially promoted living area. The remaining units are rented at the market prices. In February 2021, the first residents have already moved in.

Design influenced by industry, with comfort

The interior of the apartments on the north side have been designed in an industrial style with exposed concrete. On the south side, exposed steel beams and kitchen cabinets made from Italian steel dominate the minimalistic design.
The Smile offers its residents comprehensive amenities. In addition to a fitness center, spa area and co-working spaces, the roof terrace is an inviting place to stay. The panoramic view over the Harlem river and Manhattan skyline are an ideal venue for having a barbecue, an open-air cinema and relaxing hours at the swimming pool.