Architectures Battle of the Modernisms
. . . and what it means for Gothams future
The glowing limestone 15 Central Park West next to the acrid brown Trump International Hotel
If you want to know what Gothams twenty-first-century skyscrapers ought to look like, go over to 15 Central Park West and gaze at the brilliant apartment building Robert A. M. Stern is just completing on the entire block from Central Park West to Broadway, between 61st and 62nd Streets. And while youre there, stand on 62nd Street and look south between the structures two towers. In one glance, youll see the best that recent urban modernism has to offerand the worst. Its an instant object lesson in the right and the wrong ways to build the New York of the future.
Modernist architecture almost from the start had two chief strains. The one that produced Manhattans greatest icons, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, as well as Rockefeller Center, flows from Paris: from the classical massing, symmetry, and proportion that Gotham architects learned at the École des Beaux-Arts, and from the astonishing vocabulary of ornament that they learned from the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs that gave us the art deco style. The other current, the International Style, flowing from the Bauhaus art and design school founded in Germany in 1919, gave the world the glass and steel box, which arrived in New York at the start of the 1950s in the relatively refined forms of the UN Secretariat and Lever House on Park Avenue. For the next half-century, that style didnt so much develop as degenerate, producing such creations as the Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle, which we see to our left as we look south from 62nd Street.
This grandiosely named building is a fine example of what not to do. In fairness, developer Donald Trump began with an awful International Style edifice, the 1967 Gulf and Western Building, whose structural flaws caused it to sway enough to make visitors seasick. Trumps rebuilding three decades later, by architect Philip Johnson, made the tower stop blowing in the wind, but in other respects it merely put lipstick on a pig. Johnson had promised a latter-day Seagram Building, International modernisms mid-fifties holy of holies. But that Park Avenue shrine, the excitement of its newness long gone, looks good half a century later chiefly in relation to the thousands of mediocre or downright execrable imitations it spawned, right up to the Trump International Hotel.
The Seagram Building was soulless and antihumanist, not only in aspiring to be a stripped-down, undecorated machine for living, as if human beings did not always need to adorn their living with such transforming mystiques as marriage, manners, and art. It was soulless also in its implication that individuals are interchangeable units to shove into a bureaucratic grid of identical cubicles imposed on them from above. But such austere elegance as the Seagram Building managed to achieve by covering its spare, almost anorexic frame with a grid of bronze mullions and by standing aloof in its chilly but expensive plaza vanished entirely in the imitations run up block after block by developers happy to rename cheapskate cost-cutting minimalism and functionalism. When Johnson sheathed the Trump International Hotel in bronze-colored glass, a smear of acrid brown against the sky, perhaps he really did produce the ne plus ultra of the International Stylepure Trumpery.
The International Styles practitioners loved to issue manifestos proclaiming theirs the authentic architecture of the Machine Age. Turn your eye slightly to the right of the Trump International Hotel and youll see an up-to-the-minute example of the architecture of the Computer Age, Norman Fosters Hearst Tower, completed a year ago at Eighth Avenue and 57th Street and seemingly conceived not by a human being but by state-of-the-art design software. Thanks to microchip power, the two-dimensional grid has evolved in the new millennium into a whole garden of abstract, rationalist three-dimensional shapes, from Lord Fosters London City Hall, whose appearance of a stack of dishes teetering on the verge of tumbling down provides a perfect setting for Mayor Ken Livingstone, to his Swiss Re headquarters, also in London, which Londoners inevitably dubbed the Crystal Phallus.
Like the Phallus, the new hub of the Hearst publishing empire looks like a rocket ship that has invaded an unsuspecting metropolis, an impression heightened on 57th Street because the Thing from Outer Space seems to have chosen as a perfectly shaped landing pad the old, six-story International Magazine Building, out of whose limestone shell it rises. Formed of external, crisscrossing diagonal beams, like a scissor lift or a scissor jack for your car, the building ought to look as though it is straining upward toward the sky. But strangely, it looks instead as though it is transmitting its tremendous force not heavenward but downward into the earth, with such brute and resentful force that in time the ground will crack from river to river, and who knows what slimy alien creatures will slither out of the fissures.
Buildings once expressed some human value or aspirationand I dont mean just Greek temples or Gothic cathedrals that proclaimed the immanence of the sacred, but also structures like the old GE building on Lexington Avenue and 51st Street, with its riot of moderne decoration magnificently celebrating mans mastery of electric power. By contrast, the Hearst Tower is as soulless as any International-Style edifice, and to make up for that defect, it has appropriated an artificial soul. Like a growing number of twenty-first-century buildings in the same plight, it declares itself a temple of ecology that treads lightly and reverently upon the earth, despite its oppressiveindeed, elephantinefootprint, despite the wholly manufactured appearance of its shiny stainless-steel exoskeleton and four-story-high glass scales, despite housing a corporation that gobbles up forests, and despite standing in a metropolis that is triumphantly a work of art, not nature. Nevertheless, though neither civilization nor capitalism has anything to apologize for in the use it makes of the earth, the buildings entrance proudly sports the seal of the U.S. Green Building Council, and the Hearst Corporations website coos about the buildings environmental sustainability, including its recycled steel (like most steel nowadays), its energy efficiency, and its harvesting of rainwater, which, among other wonders, bubbles down the atrium waterfall, believed to be the nations largest sustainable water feature.
Dominating the dramatically high and light-suffused atrium from the place of honor above the waterfall is Riverlines, Richard Longs 50-foot-high . . . well, finger painting. I am not kidding. Long, noted for his artworks of stones laid out in circles, spirals, and lines, has scooped up mud from the banks of the Hudson and the Avon Rivers and smeared it all over the Hearst Corporations wall like a baby smearing his nursery walls with doo-doo. Dribbles of mud even remain where they dried on the wall below. This mural expresses, as a gracious and well-informed security guard told me, reverence for the eartha bit too literally, perhaps, for my metropolitan taste. It expresses as well the truth of the dictum, ascribed to Chesterton, that in a secular age people dont believe in nothing but in anything.
Worse than all this, the Hearst Tower is an act of vandalism, smashing as it does through the gutted shell of the old International Magazine Building, an art deco masterpiece by the extraordinary Vienna-born Joseph Urban, an architect of genius as well as a first-rate set designer and theater and opera director. The six stories finished in 1928 were to have at least seven more added to them, had the Depression not intervened. Though no plans for these survive, Urbans dramatic, almost histrionic, urn-capped giant columns literally point the way upward. Imagine what a great architect and an enlightened municipal historic-preservation policy could have achieved merely by following Urbans lead in a creative way.
Turning again to the right, we move from this grunting Caliban of a building to something more in graceful Ariels realm of the spirits: David Childss upward-aspiring 2004 Time Warner Center, on the western edge of Columbus Circle. Childs employs the International Styles grammar to speak in art decos vocabulary, with a down-home New York accent. His structure is steel and glass, yes; but its form, with two soaring towers, echoes the much-loved twin-spired art deco apartment buildings that march northward up Central Park West: the Century, the Majestic, the San Remo, and the El Dorado, all built (like the Empire State Building) in 1930 and 1931.
Like these precursors, the Time Warner Center soars heavenward. Its two towers, crowned with glass crenellations like the masonry buttresses that top its art deco models, lighten the 69-story buildings huge bulk by dividing it in two, and draw the eye ever upward. Because of the buildings site, with Columbus Circle and Central Park to the east and mostly low-rise structures to the west, the gray-blue glass skin doesnt reflect neighboring buildings but in effect holds a mirror up to nature. Its a new Manhattan pleasure to drive down Fifth Avenue or up Tenth and watch the two towers change mood and color with the shifting clouds and sky. Their crowns, lit up at night, are the latest Gotham landmark.
The two towers echo but dont ape their art deco forerunners, and its important to acknowledge what a marvel of city planning Childs has accomplished with them. His first problem was to close the vista looking west along Central Park South without blocking it. Voilà, the two spires perfectly frame the western sky. But even more difficult, Childs had to square the circle: to conform to the shape of Columbus Circle while also fitting the structure into the New York grid. He did this by making the towers parallelograms instead of squares (which further lightens their apparent bulk) and by building them with setbacks, rotating each segment away from the circle and into the square as they rise one upon another. This twisting strengthens the buildings impression of dynamic power, and it creates as well a series of planes and angles more interesting than those in a cubist painting because they are necessary rather than arbitrary.
If only the base along Columbus Circle werent so banal, and the atrium, lined by four stories of shops, didnt resemble a suburban shopping mall that seems more Manhasset than Manhattan! If only the interior finishes werent so tacky and the ceilings so cheeseparingly low, even in the so-called Grand Ballroom of the hotel that takes up part of the building! Nevertheless, to get so many things right in what is in effect a little city, with apartments, a corporate headquarters, fancy restaurants, a concert hall, and a supermarket in addition to the hotel and the shops, is a gift and a wonderand a happy start for the new millennium.
If Norman Foster brushed aside New Yorks distinctive modernist heritage and David Childs embraced it in part, Robert Stern has mobilized all its resources to produce a great building that is utterly of our own time while evoking our nostalgic love for the greatness of the pastnot of Greece or Rome but the ideal past of our own city as embodied by the suave urbanity of Cole Porter or Fred Astaire and the glamour of the Stork Club or the Rainbow Room. At 15 Central Park West, we are not in Kansas any moreand not in Houston either. This is Gotham.
Perhaps inspired by the full-block Waldorf-Astoria, Stern has divided his vast structure into a 20-story part consistent in height with its Central Park West neighbors and a 43-story tower on the Broadway side of the site, all sheathed sumptuously in limestone from the same quarry that provided the Empire State Buildings stone. The 40-foot-wide space between the two sections gives every major room in the building plenty of light and air, and Sterns inventiveness turns this ample plot of ground into an amenity. A stone passage, centering on a copper-topped pergola, connects the buildings two sections and divides this space in half. To the north lies a garden with a reflecting pool that serves as a skylight for the swimming pool below; to the south, a gated cour dhonneur with a central fountain, similar to the swanky car entry to the River House on 52nd Street, will let visitors know that theyre arriving somewhere special and exclusive even before they walk through the door at the center of the pergola.
In this part of town, Broadway runs on a diagonal to the city grid, and in a subtly urbane city-planning gesture Stern has aligned the tower on the Broadway side of the site with the grid rather than the street. An asymmetrical five-story section of shops, their show windows framed in exquisitely detailed bronzereal, heavy bronze, not Trumperyfans out from the grid and carries the structure out to Broadway, turning this entire block into a graceful pivot pointing the way from midtown to the Upper West Side.
Part of this buildings fun lies in recognizing its quotes from some of Manhattans grandest and most romantic art deco buildings. The elegant neo-baroque shape of the dramatically molded Central Park West door and the Broadway shop windows, for instance, is pure River House, a 1931 building that, before the FDR Drive intervened, boasted a private dock for Harold S. Vanderbilt and other resident yachtsmen. Ditto the stacks of bow windows that impel the eye up to the top of several of Sterns facades, and the pilasters on the south side, which echo not just the River House but also the doorways of the Empire State Building and John D. Rockefellers 740 Park Avenue, as well as the International Magazine Buildings unforgettable columns. Beneath the windows overlooking the park are scalloped decorative panels that invoke the devices that Emery Roth and Irwin Chanin used on their art deco apartments to the north. No one is better at playing this game of spot-the-quote than Stern, dean of the Yale architecture school and lead author of an indispensable five-volume, 5,407-page catalog of New York buildings from 1880 to the present.
Like the great art deco buildings, this one rewards you, as it leads your eye upward through a subtly varied development of windows and embellishments, with something worth seeing. The climax is not a crown but a flamboyant colonnade flanked by a console-shaped buttress and a three-story-high apse, like the bridge of an ocean liner, reminiscent of the colonnaded, bow-windowed crest of 10 Gracie Square and of Rosario Candelas famous roofline at 1040 Fifth Avenue, once home to Jacqueline Onassis. Its the ultimate stage set in New Yorks theater of ambition. On the terraces of this empyrean realm, one imagines, tycoons in dinner jackets will clink martini glasses with slim girls shimmering in silk and Shalimar, to the tune of Cole Porters Youre the Top.
This is, to be sure, the architecture of plutocracy. Only moguls like Sandy Weill and Goldman Sachs boss Lloyd Blankfein or celebrities like Denzel Washington and Sting can afford price tags up to $45 million for such stylish opulence, including a monumental, half-block-long lobby with wine-dark marble door frames and columns, and enormous, classically laid-out apartments whose lofty, light-flooded rooms cry out to be filled with party guests and children. Part of this buildings importance is that enough such buyers want to live in New York again (and on the West Side, at that) to support so ambitious a venture, after decades of decline that began in the Depression, when the Hampshire House stood unfinished and boarded up for five years and when the Alwyn Court, its mortgage foreclosed, cut up its 22 grand apartments into 75 modest ones. Not only do the mega-rich who paid over $2 billion for these 201 new condos want to live in Gotham; they also want to participate in its spectacle. Hence the almost floor-to-ceiling windows, up to 16 feet wide, that look out on the gorgeous panorama of Central Park, which few residents will know was once a dangerous dustbowl, until Mayor Giuliani cleared up its crime and private philanthropy restored its heart-melting magnificence. Few will know that they are part of Gothams new golden agelong may it endure.
Famed architecture critic Vincent Scully once asked City Journal readers (Autumn 1994) to consider how much they would like the Guggenheim Museum if it stood in a street of similar structures. Does not the power of Frank Lloyd Wrights masterpiece depend in part on the civility of the urban fabric in which it stands? he asked. Would not several Guggenheims turn the street into a strip? As New York builds again, we should think hard about whether we really want a city of Hearst Towersor even of Time Warner Centers, which would look very different in a glass-towered city. When another Norman Foster Thing from Outer Space rises 78 stories high on the World Trade Center site, along with the other Houston-style monsters now on the drawing boards of architects loved only by Gothams planning mandarins and the almost infallibly wrong Pritzker Prize committee, New Yorkers are likely to respond with a universal Bronx cheer. And if the proposals for redeveloping the Far West Side in a similar style come to fruition, Gotham will cease to be a metropolis primarily of stone skyscrapers in the classical Beaux-Arts and art deco styles and will become a city of glass behemoths that could be anywhere.
For myself, Ill take Manhattan.
Myron Magnet is the author of The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties Legacy to the Underclass. He is City Journals editor-at-large and was its editor from 1994 through 2006.