(Northwest corner at Lexington Avenue

Developer: Madison Equities

Architect: Kohn Pedersen Fox

Erected: 1987

View of tower from the east on 57th Street

By Carter B. Horsley

Madison Equities, headed by Robert Gladstone, emerged in the 1970's as one of Manhattan's more adventurous developers, and this is its flagship, a Post-Modem building of considerable originality.

It is also the one of the best New York buildings by Kohn Pedersen Fox, a New York-based architectural firm that since the beginning of the 1980's has been The best high-rise architectural firm in the nation, although it is far from that firm's best work, which reflects only the terrible restrictive and inane building and zoning regulations of New York.

As Elliot Willensky and Norval White correctly observe in their "AIA Guide To New York City," published in 1988 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, this building is "New York's response to the French architecture of Spaniard Ricardo Bofill and his arcuated housing for Paris," if "arcuated" means what I think it means, arc-employing. Bofill's grandiose classicizing, of course, has been perhaps the best and highest expression yet of the Post-Modern movement in architecture as he created very handsome housing projects on a monumental scale rather than mere pastiches of historical allusion best suited for cardboard beach houses.

Kohn Pedersen Fox has consistently experimented with form and facade treatments with a master's refined touch, although the detailing sometimes, as here, looks as if it were filled in by some studio assistant. (The firm's only other completed New York building is the impressive and quite original office tower 712 Fifth Avenue (see The City Review article) that incorporates the new Bendel's store and considerable preservation of three existing small Fifth Avenue office buildings.)

Here the concave corner arc of the office tower is majestic and gives lie to the rule that midtown Manhattan's streetwalls must be sacrosanct. The rounded arc of the corner plaza is gracious and inviting and quite well needed in this very dense neighborhood of narrow sidewalks and very high pedestrian and automobile traffic generated by nearby Bloomingdale's and the Queensborough Bridge.

The building's form is complex. The 32-story tower's facade facing the plaza rises without setback except near the top where it is slightly angled at the south and east interfaces before the large curved arc. The subtle effect lessens the sharpness of the arc's edges and modulates the crown in a simple, but interesting way. Along 57th Street, the building almost seems to be split into two with a shorter western wing with a different treatment of its top. In essence, the building is creating its own mini-environment of urbanity.

The vertical fenestration patterns are strong, rhythmic and fine, although the detailing of the mullions is a little poor.

The greatest problem with the overall design is the plaza's tempietto.

The concept is intriguing: a tall, open ring supported by columns over a circular seating area with side fountains. The ring obviously ties in with the curved arc of the tower's main entrance facade facing the plaza and was properly left open to afford dramatic, framed views of the tower, as shown below.

Looking up at the tower from beneath the tempietto

What's wrong is its detailing.

The tempietto has the same light gray coloration of the building's facing and the sidewalks. One desperately wishes that the buildings budget could have been stretched for better materials here, namely, burgundy colored marbles or polished granite for the columns or red poryphry, and a bright large patterned sidewalk, perhaps modeled after Michelangelo's swirling, elliptical piazza designs for the Campidoglio at the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

Notwithstanding its basic drabness, the tempietto is a wonderful folly. Perhaps someday someone will erect nice, abstract, classically draped statues of major tenants or the like around the tempietto's crown.

The developer certainly had antiquarianism in mind for the project created a three-level antiques center with its own very handsome entrance in the middle of the block on 57th Street. Known as the Place des Antiquaires, the center had its own elegant glass-enclosed elevator to provide access to the first basement level and escalators from there to a second basement level. The large facility opened with several major antique dealers and was the best of several such centers in the city. But such centers have had difficult times because many important dealers like their own individual street-level presence. Nevertheless, this center's ambiance and excellent location gave it a good shot at success. The building opened, however, at the beginning of the city's worst depression since the 1930's, so the center has had problems, but it still was a major reinforcement and expansion of 57th Street's traditions of being a major art gallery center.

Madison Equities, of course, was also the developer of the Galleria, the very tall, setback, mixed-use tower in the middle of the same 57th Street block (see The City Review article). Its new office building makes no contextual effort towards the Galleria, although it does have a very small attractive mid-block plaza adjacent to the Galleria's incredibly dramatic entrance.

That decision was well-founded for the Galleria's dark-brown tower festooned with glass-enclosed "wintergarden' balconies and its very complex and ungainly, custom-designed penthouse is less than glorious. Fortunately, its substantial setback means that the really important contest is the wonderful Ritz Tower (see The City Review article) at the other end of the block on Park Avenue and its motif if neoclassical so there is no problem with the new tower.

By breaking the traditional rectilinear mode at such an important location, and doing so with style and elegance, Madison Equities and Kohn Pedersen Fox deserve praise. The plaza and the tempietto can always be upgraded, but the project has already substantially upgraded Lexington Avenue and the eastward expansion of the elegant part of 57th Street.

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