One Madison, 432 Park Avenue, 277 Fifth, 520 West 28th Street, 56 Leonard. To many, these addresses mean absolutely nothing. To some, they may have a hint of familiarity. To a select few, they are home (or a second home, or a third, or just a little nest egg). These are the Manhattan addresses that cater to the extraordinarily wealthy and privileged.
The buildings tower over the city, flaunting their exclusivity, luxury amenities, and unbeatable views—views that most people will never be able to take in. That is, until now.
Budapest-based visual artist and architect Andi Schmied has documented the views from Manhattan’s most exclusive real estate on and off since 2016. But she couldn’t exactly walk into these buildings, camera in hand, and take the elevator up to the penthouse, she needed a reason to be there. And so Gabriella—a fictional house-hunting Hungarian billionaire with a child and husband—was created. Posing as Gabriella, Schmied contacted high-end real estate agencies and asked to tour their most exclusive properties. Surprisingly, gaining access wasn’t that difficult, and the result is Private Views: A High-Rise Panorama of Manhattan, Schmied’s new book which documents her experience touring these buildings.
I spoke to Schmied about her new book, luxury amenities, and reactions from the real estate community.
VICE: How did you come up with the character of Gabriella? Were you channeling anyone in particular?
Andi Schmied: Her persona evolved very organically. First of all, I needed a name that would not lead to me when it was Googled, since I have art projects that would have made me a bit suspicious as a potential buyer of luxury real estate. I ended up using my middle name and keeping my surname, which worked perfectly when my passport was checked at the entrance of certain developments. In order to be able to look for huge apartments and penthouses—I needed a child, so I ended up having a son. In 2016, it was just a background pic on my phone; a baby picture of my nephew. But by 2020 I actually had a son in real life. I used his real name when agents asked about him. And they had a lot of questions about him since that is somehow a convincing technique to create these personal imaginaries, like, “Imagine your son would run around in this apartment, coloring books, singing...”
The rest just developed as I went along. The agents asked me about all aspects of life: how many of us were moving, what we do, about my husband’s business, if I liked to cook, and what kind of fashion items I was wearing. And the urgency with which these questions needed to be responded required spontaneity in all my answers. One agent asked me if we had a nanny, and I quickly responded “sure,” so, from that point on, Gabriella had a nanny. She also asked me who designed my clothes, and lacking a better answer, I said it was a Hungarian designer. So later, everything Gabriella wore became the product of Hungarian haute couture. What I found most comfortable—within the frame of being a non-existent person—was to be as straightforward and honest as possible. This is why Gabriella is an architect, for example. And so, her persona is based on all these spontaneous answers—as well as some reality.
I guess I was channeling an ultra-rich version of myself somehow... Anything else would have required far better acting skills.
Was gaining access to these grand addresses easier than you had anticipated? What was that process like?
I actually had no doubts that I could get in. I only started to think it might not be possible when friends from New York (including a real estate agent) said that they would never let me in without a proper financial background check. But as it turns out, they only do that for cheaper properties, since the ultra-rich would never disclose bank papers before things get serious. So, agents are left with a Google-check or calling up one percenters in the client’s country of origin.
The first real estate agent I called asked for my background—but mainly my husband’s—so I needed someone who seemed authentic at the price point I was looking at, which was around $20-90 million. My good friend Zoltán has a few businesses with attractive websites, which were just about good enough for the purpose. After they checked him, they would get back to me, or to Coco—my fictional personal assistant—to arrange the time of the viewing. From that point on, no one ever doubts you anymore.
Was there one apartment that stood out as being the most ridiculous?
I find especially horrendous all the buildings of the architect Robert A.M. Stern. They all sell out in an instant, and [marketing material about his buildings] claim that the towers that he designs are “inspired by the historic residences of New York.” They are built with his signature limestone-clad facade, golden details everywhere, but ultimately, they feel like some sort of yearning for a past of gentlemen’s clubs, horse races, and royalty.
Was there a luxury object or offering that seemed to be the kind of insane thing that only the uber wealthy would think they need?
Since all these buildings are pretty much the same, one of the ways they still try to stand out is by offering totally crazy amenities. An absolute standard now is the golf-simulator room. Also, there is a huge race about who has the most exclusive private residential restaurant in house. Three years ago, at 432 Park Avenue, they proudly told me that the restaurant is overseen by a Michelin starred chef, Shaun Hergatt. Last year, in Central Park Tower, the agent explained to me that in the private residential restaurant there will be a rotating chef—every two months a new one, all Michelin starred.
A few years ago the amenities were tucked on the lower floors, since apartments under the 30th floor are difficult to sell because of the lack of view. Now, these cigar rooms, ball rooms, wine tasting rooms, and all the other ludicrous things are on the 100th floor, so you can impress your guests with the highest view over Manhattan.
Since your project has come out and received coverage, have any of the real estate agents gotten back in touch with you?
It is very strange because many, many real estate agents got in touch with me, but none that I had viewings with. The ones that contacted me did it only to say that they loved the project, which surprised me but felt good. Some [realtors] considered themselves privileged because they can see those places, and they thought that everyone should be able to see them. Others are just simply frustrated with the industry they are in. The book reveals quite a lot about all the marketing crap about these buildings and many realtors find this segment of their profession as problematic as I do, I think. Agents at these levels can gain millions from only one sale, therefore they themselves are also part of the so called ultra-high-net-worth individuals and live the same deluxe lifestyle as their clients. They have this strange celebrity culture around those specific agents (even TV series), and as I understood from the responses I got in emails from some of them, they hate this, and it's great to reveal how much bullshit is going on in this sphere.