We’ve all wondered how the other half lives, but how many of us have fabricated an identity to find out? That’s what Hungarian artist Andi Schmied did: As “Gabriella,” an ultrawealthy European socialite searching for a New York apartment, Schmied was granted access to more than two dozen of New York’s most luxurious properties, many on the southern end of Central Park along what’s affectionately called Billionaires’ Row.
Her limited-edition book Private Views: A High-rise Panorama of Manhattan presents photos from excursions to places like 432 Park Avenue, the Ritz-Carlton Residences at 50 Central Park South, and the Steinway Tower at 111 West 57th Street, superimposed with text from realtors’ over-the-top sales pitches.
To pass as a convincing buyer, Schmied enlisted an antiquarian friend in Budapest to serve as her “husband,” and invented a 21-month-old baby, a personal chef, and a personal assistant named "Coco." She also blew the entire allowance from her residency at Dumbo’s Triangle Arts Association on manicures, makeup and clothes.
“I wasn’t really worried [about getting caught],” Schmied confesses. “What’s the worst thing that can happen—they tell me to leave? I was more worried about not getting in.” Surprisingly, none of the brokers asked for a credit check or proof of net worth. “I think at that level, they don’t bother with financial information,” she explains.
Some of the book’s photographs, shot with an old-school Nikon F-601 camera, could be used in a brokers’ marketing campaigns: A shot taken from an upper floor of Cetra Ruddy’s One Madison juxtaposes a tastefully staged living room with a view of the Empire State Building through the floor-to-ceiling window. Others, like one from an upper-floor apartment at Kohn Pedersen Fox’s Madison Square Park Tower, present a gray, rainy vista.
“I’m not much of a photographer,” Schmied, who studied architecture and urban design, modestly explains. “Some of the pictures are pretty ugly.” She toured sales galleries, staged residences, and places still under construction, including a “scary” trip to the unfinished 100th floor of Central Park Tower, the tallest residential building in the world. (In 2020, an 82nd-floor penthouse was listed for $90 million.)
But despite the breathtaking views, Schmied says the multi-million-dollar condos were dishearteningly dull. “They’re all pretty much all the same. They stick out because they’re so big, not because they’re interesting,” she says. “The engineering—these towers being so tall and thin—means there’s little room for play or experimentation. They’re so boring; and the architects who accept the jobs are boring, too.”
Realtors would struggle to outdo each other when talking up a property: If one building had a private restaurant, another had a private restaurant with a Michelin star chef, and another had rotating chefs every month that were all Michelin star chefs.
‘The most special thing’ was always the same,” Schmied says. “You’ve never seen Chinchilla Mink marble like this,’ she explains, imitating an eager realtor. “‘It’s the greatest in the world, from the quarry where Michelangelo’s David was carved.’ And then the next apartment would have Calacatta Tucci marble counters, ‘the best in the world.’ Sometimes it was even the same agent talking to me in both places, just a few hours apart.”
“They all talked about having a golf simulator room—I’ve never heard of this thing before, but they all had it,” she admits. It’s not luxury living Schmied had a problem with, it’s the purpose of these super-prime properties: “They’re investments, not really meant for living in. They cast these huge shadows and block views—really change the skyline—just so they can stand empty.”
People who pay $50 million for a condo want to have a hand in every aspect of their home, she says. “But these apartments are turnkey—the kind of person they’re trying to appeal to would never live there.” Schmied did praise 56 Leonard, the 57-story Tribeca skyscraper designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron as a “coherent building.”
“I think, in great part, because the architects also designed the interiors, too,” she says. “There were a lot of nice details.”
Only 1000 editions of Private Views were published, but Schmied’s project has definitely made waves in the industry: She’s received 50 or 60 emails from realtors—though none that gave her a tour.
“Most were really positive,” she said. “Some of them actually had problems with the industry and were glad someone was addressing it. But some said they always felt like they were privileged to see the city like this and felt like other people should be able to share in it.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest