A new perspective

With the recent unveiling of our two Penthouses at London City Island, we delve into the fascinating history, enduring appeal and elevated status of these architectural marvels

In 1922, Swiss-French architect and city planner Le Corbusier presented a seminal version of his revolutionary model for urban planning. The Ville Radieuse (or Radiant City) was a proto-Brutalist, utopian vision of a city arranged in a geometric pattern. In this model, a central business district comprised a cluster of identical skyscrapers, with a transportation hub linking commuters to outlying residential zones via underground trains. In the peripheral residential districts were high-density, prefabricated apartment blocks called “unites”, which were interspersed with green spaces and catering and laundry facilities on their ground floors.

Sound familiar? Le Corbusier’s vision did indeed have a major influence on urban planning, one that’s still felt a century on. Consider, for instance, Wall Street, LA’s Financial District, London’s Canary Wharf or, similarly, Hong Kong’s Central District. 

With the advent of high-rise living came another architectural marvel: the penthouse. In fact, Le Corbusier is credited with designing what is believed to be Paris’s first penthouse in the 1930s; a grand top-floor residence on the Champs-Élysées commissioned by the eccentric French-Mexican millionaire Carlos de Beistegui. Talk about a dream client. De Beistegui was famed for his lavish and outlandish interiors, and the pièce de resistance of his top-floor home was a landscaped terrace, which included surrealist touches such as an electronically operated hedge dreamt up by Salvador Dalí.

A grand Penthouse terrace on the Champs-Élysées, designed by Salvador Dalí. Photo courtesy Fondation Le Corbusier

Penthouses actually originated a decade earlier in New York City. Their true origin is a little hazy, but the birth of the penthouse is often credited to architect Emery Roth, who designed many top floor apartments and hotel towers with expansive roof terraces, including the 15-storey Myron Arms and Jerome Palace towers on Broadway and 82nd Street. It was for these buildings that Roth’s biographer, Steven Ruttenbaum, coined the term “penthouse”.

The word penthouse, however, is much older than the modern architectural term we know today. It is derived from the French “apentis”, meaning attached building or “appendage”. Centuries ago, the word would have been more commonly used to describe an outbuilding. Hardly the glamorous association we have today.

From my Window at an American Place, North by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, 1931. Image: Alamy

‘Penthouses offer the best of both worlds: a city residence and tranquil sanctuary that provides a physical and mental detachment from the hectic world outside.’ 

But, interestingly, living at the apex of a high-rise building wasn’t always desirable. Penthouses became fashionable due to improvements to elevators and to the highest floors of the skyscrapers that began springing up all over Manhattan in the 1920s and 30s. Hitherto, these kinds of spaces had been grimy and uncomfortable – reserved primarily for workers and servants. But architects quickly realised that, with the luxury of an elevator and better design, wealthy residents could enjoy unspoiled views, oodles of space and tranquillity; literally towering over the hustle and bustle of the city below. 

An early example of this gentrification of top-floor apartments was the lavish penthouse duplex built at 1040 Park Avenue in 1924, where publishing entrepreneur Condé Nast hosted soirées for celebrities and artists. Another was the 54-room triplex built in 1925 for the excellently named heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post Hutton at 1107 Fifth Avenue. The socialite and philanthropist was allegedly thrilled that she would no longer hear or smell the outside traffic. 

Penthouses such as these soon became revered for providing novel perspectives of the city. Hence by the 1930s, photographer Alfred Stieglitz and modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe were making art of New York’s roofscape and skyscrapers from penthouses of their own.

Since its inception a hundred years ago, the penthouse has been synonymous with luxury. They tend to be lavishly decorated with state-of-the-art appliances and fittings, and their elevated position on the top floor makes them the largest and most desirable residence in the entire building. But they also imbue luxury in the sense of offering the best of both worlds: a city residence and tranquil sanctuary that provides a physical and mental detachment from the hectic world outside.

It is in this vein that London City Island has recently unveiled the crown jewels of the residential development. The two Penthouses, located on the 25th floor of the Corson building, have been finished to exquisite standards. The open-plan design is spread across two floors with double-height ceilings at 6.7 metres. The huge terraces offer stunning panoramic views across London and a spiral staircase highlights the sheer vastness of space. The Penthouses were designed by Glenn Howells Architects with interiors by award-winning studio Amos & Amos as the ‘culmination of our City Island design journey,’ according to co-founder Jaki Amos. 

‘The penthouses are entirely unique in their nature,’ she continued. ‘Every aspect of these spaces has been revisited, reimagined and customised to reflect the most elevated design narrative on the Island. The result is a series of spaces that feel both vast, yet intimate, tough, yet comfortable, and personal yet aspirational.’