Alexandra Lange | Essays

Up in the Air

Driving north on the FDR Drive this weekend, I saw again from the slow spot just before Waterside Plaza (definitely not ugly) the twin spires of Times Square, One Bryant Park and 4 Times Square. They were rather indistinct against the haze, because both stabs at tallest status devolve into an array of openwork struts as they reach their peak. If you didn’t know the skyscraper below you’d barely be able to tell them apart, but for OBP’s asymmetric white-glass wrap. (Isn’t that about the dullest image you’ve ever seen? When you Google OBP the renderings rather than the reality pop up first.)

I suppose the idea was dematerialization. The Times tried it with their tower, extending the white (but look gray) rods past the glass curtain wall. But it doesn’t work. Next to the solidity and sculptural qualities of the Chrysler spire, they all just look lazy and unfinished. They don’t fade into the ether. They clutter our skyline with pseudo-techy masts. And from most angles, you can’t even tell which is tallest. Tallest is for the blogs, completely immaterial on Manhattan’s streets.

In May in New York Magazine, Justin Davidson argued we needed Jean Nouvel and his Tower Verre to save our skyline from the uninspired spires. I love Jean Nouvel’s work. Its too muchness, its one-thing-at-a-time, its themes all remind me of Eero Saarinen and make me smile. But I couldn’t agree with Davidson that Nouvel needed the extra unzoned height to make his contribution. For spires in New York, height doesn’t matter, style does. And a real architect can design something wonderful within the parameters. Bowing down (and offering variances) for institutions with good taste, like MoMA, or starchitects from abroad, like Nouvel, begs developers to bait-and-switch a la Atlantic Yards, and turns the city into a free for all.

I agree the skyline needs to grow and change, and I’d like someone to make something better than the Chrysler Building. But that building was beautiful because of, not despite, zoning. I’m with Ada Louise Huxtable.

‘It is the wrong building in the wrong place,’ she writes in an e-mail message. ‘I have watched the town houses and brownstones on 53rd Street go down like dominoes over the years — it was one of the loveliest streets in the city — but the fact that they are gone does not make this building right. What I see is an enormous real-estate deal with cultural window dressing, a case history of how the zoning rules can be used to do something they were never meant to encourage.’

It’s ironic that the Westin Times Square, which is one of the ugliest buildings in New York, actually managed to do what its neighbors do not: create a distinctive top. The Hearst Building eschews a spire. That flat top is, I think, a suggestion of infinity and a refusal to play the game of extra feet sans architecture. Does anyone think less of Norman Foster’s achievement because it doesn’t overreach? True, you can’t see it from everywhere, but what’s the point if the spire is a stranger?

Posted in: Architecture

Jobs | July 15