THE METROPOLITAN TOWER

140 EAST 57TH STREET

Developer: Harry Macklowe

Architect: Schuman, Lichtenstein, Claman & Efron

Erected: 1987

By Carter B. Horsley

To many Westerners, Chinese pottery from the Sung Dynasty is too simplified and understated, but to many Eastern eyes its restraint and subtlety is superb refinement. Some connoisseurs take special pleasure in the exquisite patterning of minuscule crackling, an influence, no doubt, of their fascination and love for the flourishes of calligraphy.

Metropolitan Tower seen from the eastThis reflective, black-glass tower, shown at the left, is not, of course, a Sung piece. One of the city's great skyscrapers, it is not dainty, but it has the essence of Oriental sensibility. It is mysterious and harkens to a Darth Vader world and the monoliths of Stanley Kubrick's great film, "2001."

It is overwhelming, aggressive, dominant, defiant, proud, and extremely competitive.

While not perfect, it is awesome, especially in New York where such assertiveness had been largely abandoned for about two decades.

In the post-war period, only Lever House, Citicorp Center and the former Pan Am (now MetLife) Building in midtown and Chase Manhattan Plaza and the World Trade Center downtown had as much chutzpah.

Lever House (see The City Review article) gave us glass facades. Citicorp Center (see The City Review article) gave us stilts and a rakish top. Pan Am (see The City Review article) gave us unrepentant Brutalism. Chase Manhattan Plaza utterly destroyed the legendary and romantic Lower Manhattan skyline. And the World Trade Center tilted the table of Manhattan and drove two stakes, not merely one, in the heart of skyline symmetry while all the while professing its glory of the oxymoronic uniqueness of twinness.

There are, of course, some other tall buildings in midtown that might be called bold and daring: the former IBM Building (see The City Review article) by Edward Larrabee Barnes on the same street at Madison Avenue, or Der Scutt's Trump Tower (see The City Review article) on Fifth Avenue at 56th Street, or even Johnson Burgee's former A. T. & T. (now Sony) Building (see The City Review article) on Madison Avenue at 56th Street. But such buildings are relatively tame and offered highly visible and good public amenities.

Tower seen from across 57th StreetThe Metropolitan Tower, on the other hand, is unmitigated, ferocious, belligerent and narrow-focused in its blasting-off from the domain of the street, as shown below in photograph at the right, and its penetration of the sky.

With this blade, developer Harry Macklowe smote the timid, the churlish, the hesitant, the doubtful, the nostalgic, the weak and reclaimed Manhattan's heritage as the awesome, towered isle. Of course, he also alienated many of the city's civic groups, which tend to be rather timid architecturally.

What makes this building great is its form, its proportions, its color and its finish. It is not the city's, or the country's, first reflective glass building, nor the first black glass building, nor the first sharply angled tower. Just the best.

Its form is quite simple: From a mid-rise base that essentially maintains the existing cornice line to the west on the block, it rises sheerly up like a large cleaver with its sharp wedge point directed north. A few stories from its flat top, its northern edge slants inward for one story and then continues straight up again. The angled setback, however, is so slight and shallow that it almost vanishes especially depending on a viewer's perspective as the building's vanishing point is difficult from street level because it is almost 800 feet high.

This little slant/setback is what graces the form, the merest of design flourishes that forces a reconsideration: Oh, look....I wonder what that signifies and why it's there. Great architecture often should seem to come together in a rush of wondrous joinery, but it can also be quixotic, bedeviled and mysterious and the latter category is far harder to achieve and stand the test of time.

One could easily debate whether the top should also have been slanted somewhat, or a lot, but in the end a great work of art makes one conjure alternatives and respect and accept the artist's decisiveness. Would an old lady in a great Rembrandt portrait look better with one more, or less, wrinkle? Would a Giacometti bronze statue be better with one more or less little bump? The question here is not style, but excellence of solution that supports and encourages a myriad of variations.

All black-glass buildings are not alike. I. M. Pei's 499 Park Avenue at 59th Street (see The City Review article), for example, has some chamfers, but is basically a utilitarian shoebox (albeit with a very nice lobby joyfully decorated with a bright Dubuffet painting) and merely pleasant.

Metropolitan Tower has sharp edge on 57th StreetThis soaring monolith is bursting with energy. Its dynamism, of course, comes from its angled tower and Pei's freestanding Allied Plaza tower in Dallas is actually far more spectacular and dramatic. But this building is an intrusive midblock object cutting through the grid of streets, rather than a superb geometric and sculptural, freestanding exercise.

Such robust, undiluted strength of form coupled with its ominous color of black not surprisingly met with very widespread disapproval from many vocal civic activists and some critics.

Ever since the City Beautiful movement that begun before the turn of the century, the Beaux Arts mentality of light-colored, if not limestone, buildings has been pervasive and black is popularly associated sometimes in the United States with villainy. In American, or at least Spielbergian, culture, black is best represented by Darth Vader, an evil force, and white is the color of the President's home. Surely, an all-black physical environment would most likely be considered alien by most human beings, but that does not mean all black buildings are BAD, and most concert-goers at nearby Carnegie Hall probably have heard of counterpoint.

Black is best used as an accent and here it is used as one heck of an exclamation point!

The proportions here are, let's say, elongated. This is a sliver building in a city with a rich tradition of sliver buildings, which are very tall and very thin in relationship with their height. If this were shorter and squatter, it would be more like the bulky former IBM Building on Madison Avenue. If it were taller, well, we'll get to that shortly.

Much of the hue and cry directed against this building was over its seemingly inordinate height for a midblock building, especially as it went up at a time in the city when many vocal groups were castigating almost any building over 20 stories as being inimical to their neighborhood and the old petard of "light-and-air," a pre-air-conditioning social concern, gained wide adherence, especially among the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) set of well-to-do self-appointed, anti-development, no-growth do-gooders/naysayers.

Such an argument was, of course, patently absurd at the time, as the General Motors Building (see The City Review article) across from the Plaza Hotel (see The City Review article), Sheldon Solow's huge, sloping skyscraper at 9 West 57th Street and Johnson Burgee's looming former A. T. & T. Building and even Donald Trump's Trump Tower had already "violated" the mid-rise ambiance of the Plaza district.

And, more to the point, Macklowe's monument is the smallest of three towers at this location, edged out by Cesar Pelli's Carnegie Hall Tower and Ian Bruce Eichner's CitySpire, designed by Helmut Jahn, directly across 56th Street from the other two through-block towers.

This "tuning fork" triumvirate is the most vertiginous cluster in the city and, not surprisingly, was accomplished without any planning by the city.

This trio is, without question, the most interesting architectural assemblage to study imaginable. Serious architectural historians and real estate writers would salivate at an opportunity to rehear the reactions of each architect and developer to the other projects, to say nothing of some city officials allegedly responsible for planning and landmarks, and to ask not a few questions about the design and planning process.

This is a cantankerous cluster, to be sure with plenty of potential for barbs and epithets. Is Pelli's comb-like abstract minimalist cornice really a claw eager to rip into the other two? Is Eichner's "whistling" dome atop CitySpire, the tallest of the lot, winding up to a victory chant? Is Macklowe's blackness mourning its loss of isolation?

It might be funny, but it is not because of the hundreds of millions of dollars involved and that fact that these buildings can't change their dresses whimsically.

To many observers, these three buildings are an unmitigated planning disaster.

The results, at best, are mixed.

Before any final assessment can be made, it should be noted that the real villain, if there is one, was Faith Stewart-Gordon, the proprietress of the Russian Tea Room, which occupies a low-rise building stuck between the Metropolitan and Carnegie Hall towers.

After Macklowe had assembled his current site, he entered discussions with Carnegie Hall, which was eager to develop its vacant lot just to the east of the fabled concert hall and just to the west of the Russian Tea Room. The Carnegie Hall management was amenable, according to Macklowe, to a joint venture of both sites since it would permit it to earn substantially more revenues, which it needed, than just development of the vacant lot. All that was needed, of course, was the small "holdout" plot between them, the Russian Tea Room.

Macklowe approached Stewart-Gordon with many offers, but in the great New York tradition of "hold-outs," none came close to her demands, Macklowe said.

In frustration, Macklowe went ahead finally on his own site and Rockrose Associates, the new developers of the Carnegie Hall site then did battle, unsuccessfully, with Stewart-Gordon. In the end, Stewart-Gordon made no deal, walking away from millions, and remaining in situ. She did eventually sell it to Warner Leroy, the restauranteur who proceeded to demolish all of it except its facade on 57th Street to create a new restaurant in this area that abounds in theme restaurants.

Macklowe's tower was completed the same year as Eichner's CitySpire, but Carnegie Hall Tower was not finished until 1990.

Clearly, there was the potential here probably to build the world's tallest building, even without Eichner's property, which was encumbered by complex negotiations with the adjoining City Center for The Performing Arts. Such a solution would have been inappropriate, an adjective used by Norval White and Elliot Willensky in their description of Macklowe's finished tower in their "A.I.A. Guide to New York City," 3rd edition (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988). At that time, however, Macklowe's tower had not yet begun to resonate with the soon-to-come Carnegie Hill Tower and for admirers of the building that was the time to really appreciate it.

Pelli's Carnegie Hill Tower was not intimidated by the Metropolitan Tower and brilliantly just blocks it out almost entirely when viewed from the west. Pelli's commercial campanile to the cathedral of music is the finest instance of contextual urban architecture in the country, when seen from the west, with a richly and warmly patterned facade that complements the exterior of Carnegie Hall magnificently. Both towers wisely put their elevator banks facing one another.

Seen from across 57th Street the two towers are overwhelming in the most exhilarating sense. And in the narrow slit between them over the minuscule Russian Tea Room looms the western third of CitySpire, a comparatively drab facade, but mightily imposing because it is bigger and so close. Even the harshest high-rise critics must concede that this "Henge" excites the imagination, even if it terrifies. This is cosmopolitan wonder, or wonderment.

Cosmetics aren't everything. The Metropolitan Tower and CitySpire are mixed-use buildings with offices in the base and condominium apartments on top. The apartment layouts in the former are surprisingly interesting and good and most have incredible views while the latter has unimaginative and rather small apartments but a sensational, tall and richly paneled lobby that puts Metropolitan Tower's to shame. Needless to say, many apartments at CitySpire have frustratingly blocked views of Central Park, which are one of the reasons one might decide to build a super high-rise apartment tower in this neighborhood.

56th Street facade of tower is set back in landscaped plazaWhat could have been done here?

That is difficult to say clearly, but, assuming that Stewart-Gordon could have converted to capitalism earlier and sold her building to later reopen in the new, joined, complex, one very large building could have been built adjacent to the concert hall with considerably more office space and more and larger apartments. At the same time, such a tower could have been massed to provide views for Eichner's CitySpire and conceivably he could have shifted his mass to the west a bit to also maximize his major views to the north, and/or could have sold some of his air rights to the joint venture across the street, which would have required the transferability of such rights that is now severely restricted, although in 1998 the city began to liberalize its regulations in the nearby theater district and conceiveably Carnegie Hall could have gotten a lot more space for its needs.

A stumbling block, of course, would have been who would design the big tower. Pelli's treatment is almost impossible to fault. If Macklowe's design were inflated, much of its elegance might be lost, a very real concern. Ideally, Pelli should have won such a contest, but such rules haven't been written in the New York real estate game.

By itself in isolation, Macklowe's tower is smashing, but in the real world as it has been developed it is now diminished, though it is still formidable and impressive. It would be nice if Macklowe would replace the cornice on the adjacent building to the east as its absence is offensive and thereby detracts from the Metropolitan Tower.

For more information on Metropolitan Tower check its entry at CityRealty.com

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

 

Home Page of The City Review