140 EAST 57TH STREET
Developer: Harry Macklowe
Architect: Schuman, Lichtenstein, Claman &
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.
This 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.
The 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
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
This 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
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
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
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
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,
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.
What 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.