Why should we save the Union Carbide Building in New York? The main reasons that are currently being used to argue for its preservation from demolition by its owner and occupant, JPMorgan Chase—namely that it was designed by a woman (Natalie de Blois) and that it is a great piece of architecture—are both spurious. The only good reason to save this particularly banal box is that tearing down any serviceable structure, especially one of this size, is an inexcusable waste of resources. In addition, we need to ask whether the densification and optimization of the site that its replacement promises to introduce would in fact make the proposed project logical from a sustainability standpoint.
The Union Carbide Building (also known as 270 Park Avenue) is one of the many boxes that line Park Avenue. Built in the 1960s and 1970s, this row of slabs consists of specimens of corporate containers that are better than the next generation of such homes for capitalist bureaucracies that rose mainly on adjacent and less grand streets, such as Lexington and Third Avenues, and later Sixth and Seventh Avenues. In this first row of reasonably well-designed but unremarkable buildings, what distinguishes de Blois’ particular design is, more than anything else, the clarity of its proportions. By the time the architect penned this structure for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), she was a seasoned designer and her firm knew how to control the grid both in detailing and in terms of the overall consistency of the structure. You can see this from the ways in which the structure translates into the visual organization of the façade to the way that formative grid reverberates in the office interior, with its luminous ceiling and partitions all following that overall order.
Unfortunately, good bones do not make for a perfect building. From its minimal setback, it rises from a base that contains a banking hall whose void makes the whole building look slightly unbalanced. The first floor is rather squat in relation to the overall bulk. The window wall is heavy-handed in its use of the Miesian trick of applied steel elements meant to remind us of the building’s inner skeleton. The mechanical core at the top, hidden by dark metal panels, does not provide a particularly strong cap to the 50 stories of what ended up being, for all their sophistication, not particularly humane office interiors. (This last point, however, I have to infer from photographs and plans, as those office floors disappeared a long time ago, and with them some of de Blois’ most important contributions.) But the worst part of the building is the lower rear addition—exactly the part that will allow the developers to maximize the site with a new 70-story tower—a blob of the same grids shoehorned into what was left over on the site.
Likewise, to argue that the building is an example of a particular kind of office design that we need to save seems odd to me. These kinds of structures were exactly the ones that destroyed the urban fabric, privatized public space, and replaced a previous generation of rather generic building (in this case the Hotel Marguery). We hated them for those reasons, and it is only recently that they have achieved a certain Mad Men-like retrospective glamour. Sure, there is a charm that I also find seductive, having always loved both the clarity of such structures as well as their ability to be monumental. And they are without a doubt impressive representations of larger (in this case, corporate) forces, and a reminder of the power of one particular institution. But for all that, the Union Carbide Building is not a particularly good example of the type, due to all of the reasons I outlined above.
The next argument would have us retain mediocre designs just because they are old and familiar. I think not.
Finally, though, we have come at long last to the idea that we should recognize the importance of de Blois to SOM’s oeuvre and postwar architecture in general. Should we not save this building as a large example of a design of hers that was executed with great care and complete attention? Again, I think not. Saving the Union Carbide Building would be preserving and highlighting what is not her best work—the Pepsi Building further up Park Avenue or the Connecticut General Life Insurance Building in Bloomfield, Conn., are better tributes to her talents. From an aesthetic and cultural standpoint, we need to save what is good, not just what is there.
But there is one compelling reason to keep the Union Carbide Building: Tearing it down would just be an incredible waste. Think of all the metal and glass, not to mention all the other material, that would have to be removed with great difficulty and at great cost from the center of Manhattan. I am sure that some of it could be recycled, but the pollution from the demolition and construction alone, let alone the waste that will wind up in landfill, make it very difficult to justify the whole operation.
The counterargument from an environmental standpoint would be that the extrusion of a much taller and denser tower on the site would allow for the further intensification of Manhattan, which, we’re told, is a good answer to sprawl. However, the highly stressed infrastructure of New York’s central island—along with the difficulty of getting goods and people in and out of the location, no matter how proximate it is to Grand Central Station—makes it difficult to justify building a new tower that will house 15,000 workers (only during the day, of course) doing the kind of work they could do anywhere, even at home.
That is the larger message to me: The Union Carbide Building is a monument, above all else, to a certain kind of work. Its form represents and memorializes a type of economic activity beyond which we have progressed and that was not particularly great from a moral, ethical, social, or even economic standpoint to begin with. The logical thing to do here would be to reinvent the building in a manner that reflects the way we now use cities as control centers, networking opportunities, and cultural capitals, and to let JPMorgan Chase build its back offices and support services wherever it is appropriate and less of a burden on our landscapes. Let this be a site where all the new technologies and techniques we have developed over the last few decades to build onto existing structures find a showcase. The Union Carbide Building should be a prospective monument to a new kind of urban life, not a monument to soulless corporatism or a bland box to today’s corporate power.