By Carter B. Horsley
New York City is beginning
to get interesting architecturally again.
Not across the board, of course.
Only isolated examples. Still, this is encouraging news.
The new Austrian Cultural Forum,
whose façade is shown above, in the middle of the north
side of 52nd Street between between Fifth and Madison Avenues
is a splendid example.
This is a sliver building.
It is 24 stories tall but only 25 feet wide, the width of a large
townhouse. Sliver buildings, you may remember, have been bete
noirs in New York for about two decades, loathed by some community
groups concerned about "context." The community groups
were strong enough to convince the city to enact "sliver"
zoning to prohibit such spindly incursions, despite the fact that
the city's greatest architectural jewels, such as the Chrysler,
A. I. G., Chanin, Empire State and 570 Lexington Avenue, among
others, are spindly and could not be built under the city's current,
and long-standing zoning.
No one is protesting loudly
about this building's "sliverness," but perhaps they
should be loudly proclaiming it. While the rest of the world has
been enjoying exciting new architecture for a couple of decades,
the city, with very rare exception has been not just a backwater
but a brakish swamp as far as nurturing excellent design.
A couple of years ago, LVMH
completed a new tower on the north side of 57th Street between
Fifth and Madison Avenues whose design by Christian Portzamparc
was a rakishly angled glass tower of considerable interest and
élan. It and the Austrian Cultural Forum, which has been
designed by Atelier Raimund Abraham, share the distinction of
shattering the box with intriguing flair and both, not too surprisingly
were built by European clients. Another stunning, but smaller
new building also opened in early 2002, the American Folk Art
Museum on 53rd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, designed
by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Associates, a building that also
has a very unusual and angled façade (see The City Review article).
The "box," of course,
has been the rectinilearity of most of the city's built environment.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue
at 88th Street and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's sloping skyscrapers
at 9 West 57th Street and 1114 Avenue of the Americas are the
most obvious exceptions and the impact of Frank Gehry's great
sinuous complex for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao,
Spain, completed in 1997, has kindled tremendous new interest
in non-traditional urban forms. Gehry, who has since designed
the similarly flamboyantly metal-clad Walt Disney Hall in Los
Angeles and an expansion for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington,
D.C., as well as a mammoth proposed facility on the East River
near the South Street Seaport for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
(see The City Review
article), is now the
world's most sought-after architect for major projects (see The City Review article of a major
retrospective on Gehry at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in
Both the Portzamparc and Raimund
towers are not highly visible as they are mid-block buildings
and not free-standing, and in comparison with the above-mentioned
projects relatively modest.
Neither the Portzamparc nor
the Raimund towers are perfect. The former has eccentric fenestration
and a very interesting illumination scheme that unfortunately
is not often "in play." Its flat top is a bit abrupt,
given the soaring angularity of its 57th Street façade.
The Raimund tower is remarkably aggressive, which is perhaps fitting
for its "battleship" grayness, but its entrance is surprisingly
understated, presumably overwhelmed by the sculptural pyrotechnics
above it. The building might have been more striking if it were
clad in a silver-like material, or black. These comments, of course,
are nitpicking and these buildings are smashing additions to midtown,
demonstrating complete obviousness to their "context,"
and very rightfully proud of their high individuality.
The Raimund building looks
fabulous from directly across the street, but seen from the side,
as shown above, is less alluring, although its slanted silhouette
is boldly original and quite gripping. In contrast, the Portzamparc
tower, which has higher visibility because it is on a major cross-town
street and rises above its neighbors on its side of the street,
has a more finished appearance.
The zig-zag profile interrupts
the soaring slant but also adds a good deal of dynamics. The profile
is also interrupted near the base with a projecting element whose
geometry is echoed vaguely in a smaller projection at the top
of the tower and the overall effect from directly across the street
is abstractly totemic.
The building contains only
30,000 square feet and includes public galleries, library and
auditorium, offices, and a four-level apartment near the top for
the organization's director.
Abraham Raimund, the architect,
was born in Austria in 1933 but has worked in New York since 1964
and retired recently from teaching architecture at the Cooper
Union. He entered a competition for the project and was chosen
over more than 200 competitors. In a fine article on the project
by James S. Russell in the August, 2002 issue of Architectural
Record magazine, Kenneth Frampton, who teaches architecture
at Columbia University and was a member of the jury for the project's
1992 design competition, is quoted as saying that the key to Raimund's
selection was his sacrificing north daylight by placing scissor
fire stairs on the building's north side to free up interior space.
In his article, Mr. Russell
quotes Mr. Raimund as explaining that his decision to "hide"
the cross-supports behind the windows by stating that "In
the kind of skin I envisioned glass not about transparency but
about weight," adding that "I wanted to suspend glass
and layer it. You perceive its platelike qualities and the knifelike
edge." The cascading "zip" of the façade
definitely impresses one with gravity, and one should remember
that at 9 West 57th Street and 1114 Avenue of the Americas, Skidmore,
Owings & Merrill opted to place a large "gutter"
above the first floor to mitigate the intense verticality at street-level.
Mr. Russell also noted the
following in his Architectural Record article:
"Abraham fought with the
contractor and subcontractors. New York's corruption-ridden concrete
firms couldn't meet the specs, it is said. the curtain wall had
to be fabricated in Austria because American makers couldn't achieve
the quality Abraham demanded, it is said. Abraham refused to give
a building tour to a prominent Austrian official because he disagreed
with the political direction of the country, it is said. Neither
these nor numerous other similar stories can be verified because
of pending legal actions or fear of Abraham's temper."
The Austrian Cultural Forum
building is boldly brilliant and the large "screen"
in front of the rooftop watertank is a fine scultural element.
The "mask" and "totemic" elements on the façade
offer vigorous proof that "glass" skyscrapers are not