Beyond Buildings


Not Quite Scraping the Sky

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Many, many years ago (actually decades), I began what I thought was going to be my career as a bard of Manhattanism by writing an article for the then-brand-new Metropolis about the new skyscrapers planned for Manhattan. The city was just coming out of a rather unpleasant economic spell (sound familiar?), and developers were raring to go, especially on the until-then neglected West side of town. Sixth Avenue was to be the site of at least half a dozen projects, and the prospects were not good. Neither were the results. Instead of the hulking banality of the few decades before that, we either got decorated boxes, or buildings with various skin diseases masking their stultifying sameness.

One Bryant Park
Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park

A scroll down Sixth Avenue this week showed me that things have not gotten much better since then. Elsewhere, there have been some notable new skyscrapers that are worthy of that name, soaring into tapered points in Dubai (Burj Khalifa) or standing as enigmatic icons in the urban landscape (Mori Building's Shanghai World Financial Center, or the Swiss Re Tower in London). There is one nice big new building on Sixth Avenue that soars—a bit. It is One Bryant Park, otherwise known as the Bank of America Tower after its principal tenant, and designed by Cook+Fox Architects. Tapering its way to a spire that reaches up to 945 feet (not much lower than the Empire State Building), it manages to mask its bulk (over two million square feet), while stretching its fifty-four floors to full advantage. On top of that, it is also a LEED Platinum number, thanks to the use of very low transmission glass, high slag content in the concrete that forms its frame, a lot of recycled gray water, and the sourcing of most of its material from the metropolitan area.  

Now this behemoth is not quite “every inch a proud and soaring thing,” as Louis Sullivan thought skyscrapers should be. It meets the ground in a rather pedestrian manner, welcoming those pedestrians with the most minimal of lobbies, both in design and space, while making little contribution to the overall composition of the street. Its detailing is adequate, not expressive, and its basic conceit is just to restyle the tall office building into something that recalls the chiseled and abstracted forms Hugh Ferriss promised us in his prospective renderings of Manhattan as it was shaped by zoning.

Hugh Ferris
Hugh Ferriss

One Bryant makes an interesting contrast to the much more modest 15 Union Square West, designed by Eran Chen of ODA. This band of ex-Perkins Eastman designers has essentially re-clad what was once the home of Tiffany & Co., designed by John Kellum in 1870, with a glass skin of 17-inch-by-16-inch sheets of dark-tinted glass they hold two feet away from the original cast-iron structure. They also added seven new floors to make room for a total of thirty-six condominiums.


15 union square west


This tower does not so much soar as it composes itself with a certain amount of grace among the jumble of disparate structures lining Union Square. The dark frames are heavy and assertive, posing a new grid over what is left of the original building. That historic relic only truly comes out at dusk to haunt the new building, visually waylaying its steel jacket with something much more refined. The two aspects of the building, which come into play at other times when you look at it askance, play well together to ground 15 Union Square West in the past, while making it into a proper player in New York forest of hybrid loft-yuppie dwellings that reach from here over to Richard Meier’s more refined boxes on the Hudson River.

This building also forgets to mind its metropolitan manners, giving even less back to the street than its bigger, uptown brother, and its rear façade confronts its neighbors (such as David Rockwell in the building to the South) with a face that is truly horrid. So New York City still waits for a truly sky-scraping structure, or a respectful rethinking of its high-reaching past, while its streets become more and more crowded and the material out of which it is built becomes thinner and thinner.  



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.