“You have to be willing to take risks, to lose money and to walk away from something,” Mr. Barnett said by way of explaining his success, as the rickety lift made its way up the eastern flank of the concrete shell that is One57, looming over Essex House. “You also have to be patient.” He pointed out that this project began in 1998. “There have been 15, 20 transactions to get to this point,” he said, buying everything from buildings to air rights, and bringing in new investors, among them the royal family of Abu Dhabi. At one point, Mr. Barnett was close to buying a neighboring plot that would have squared off what ended up being an unusual L-shape site. When that did not materialize, he went ahead and built anyway.
“Sometimes you have to work with what you have,” he said.
There is something to that beyond bluster. The first thing one sees upon entering the One57 showroom is an Oscar-worthy marketing film, projected inside a wide black granite hallway. (“These are actual lobby finishes,” Mr. Barnett notes.) In the video, the wall, displaying the One57 logo, transforms into an iridescent moon pool, which the viewer realizes is actually a bead of dew or a rain drop on a leaf of grass in Central Park. As the camera pulls out, the droplets are sucked skyward, we get our first glimpse inside the apartment, of a willowy woman standing before floor-to-ceiling windows, gazing out at the park. Now a shot of the skyline, those droplets are swirling, shooting, cascading down the steeply sloping facade of One57.
The waterfall, oft-invoked by Christian de Portzamparc, the project’s architect, is a more than apt metaphor for this aquapomorphic building. Indeed the unusual site and the challenging setbacks help create, rather than hinder, the artistry, and it is these unusual shapes that help create the perfect layouts.
This is what Mr. Barnett said drew him to the business. “I like the creativity of the work, from assembling the site to picking the architect, the finishes, coming up with the marketing,” Mr. Barnett said. “It’s headache after headache after headache, so if anything, the design process is the enjoyable part. I like to build.”
“He’s probably the best marketer in the business,” said Adam Schwartz, Angelo Gordon’s head of real estate and Mr. Barnett’s partner in the Carlton House.
Mr. Barnett might deserve pride of place were it for his singular One57 alone, but he has so much more going on, it is amazing he, or anyone, can keep track. While some of his rivals and compatriots might have bought and sold more in recent years, no one is building more, and more different, projects. “He’s very focused on what he does, more than some of the others,” REBNY president Steven Spinola said. “Not that they don’t focus, but he seems to focus in his own way.”