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(750 Lexington Avenue at 59th Street)

Architect: Murphy Jahn Associates

Developer: Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation

Erected: 1989

Blue tower overlooks Bloomingdale's to the east

Blue tower overlooks Bloomingdale's to the east

By Carter B. Horsley

Tower seen from the eastWith its ringed Sumerian-style cap, angled wings and bowed storefronts, this 31-story office building is the most interesting work in New York of Helmut Jahn, one of the world's most experimental and bold designers. Of course, New York reins in its architects through its complex and very restrictive zoning regulations so while this is good New York Jahn it's not great architecture.

But if its whole is not a masterpiece by international standards, it deserves very high marks for many of its parts.

The crown, for example, is spectacular and very effective.

Circular or cylindrical architecture is surprisingly disappointing and rather rare. The Coliseum in Rome, of course, is an exception, but its ragged ruins have a romantic appeal far greater than that city's better preserved Pantheon, which is impressive in its circular form but less satisfying. A perfectly round form has no discernible boundaries or accents and represents stability rather than momentum: it's just less interesting than a form that ends abruptly or is more complex, at least when considering its exterior presentation for circular interiors can be comforting and intimate and quite effective.

John Portman has achieved the most success with cylindrical forms, especially in his tall, slender hotel in Atlanta and then with his more complex bundling of cylinders at Bonaventure Plaza in downtown Los Angeles and Renaissance Plaza in Detroit.

The main curved shaft of Jahn's building here, above the angled wings, actually is far more refined than Portman's towers because of the delicate thinness of the mullions and narrow vertical windows permitting a less jagged curve. If the wings were removed, the tower here would be most graceful, although the wonderful roof cap would become too fussy. Jahn's handling of the wings is effective in that the protruding curve of the center section energizes the composition frontally. The wings, however, are too clipped, that is, they need, ideally, to be unfurled, open out more, which would enhance the overall composition. Of course, here that would necessitate a far larger site, which was not possible, or a narrower center shaft, which would not suit the developer's marketing of space.

Retail windows are curvedThe building has been set back considerably along Lexington Avenue providing desperately needed pedestrian space at one of the world's most crowded intersections. That setback alone would entitle this project to wide acclaim. Jahn, moreover, has focused a lot of effort on creating a distinctive retail frontage by using curved windows, as shown at the right, and doors for the double-height store spaces and topping each bay with a protruding rectilinear small window to create a rippling, textured streetfront and putting to shame the itsy-bitsy sidewalk across the street at Bloomingdale's.

Moreover, the bays are separated by smoothly curved lozenge rustication of polished dark gray granite that looks good enough to eat and is the best modem rustication in the city.

Sadly, however, Jahn has trimmed the bays with pale blue-green metallic banding. In his megalomaniacal search for individuality and distinction, Jahn has consistently employed a strange palette of unusual colors that have rarely translated well into the urban fabric. The upper part of the building is trimmed with a slightly deeper bluish tone that works better, in large measure because of the thinness of the mullions. The base would have been far more effectively had he used black throughout, which also would have complemented the base of Bloomingdale's.

Sidestreet entrance to the tower

The building's entrance, shown above, is on 59th Street beneath a boxy canopy that is totally inappropriate with the rest of the design. Fortunately, it is tucked next to the adjacent building and is relatively minor and hopefully one day will be removed or replaced with something better.

The lobby, shown below, however, is wonderful, repeating the polished granite rustication, this time, correctly, in black but also the stepped cone top of the building, a very, very elegant space of great dignity and good, but not overwhelming size. The building, therefore, gives the city a marvelous new skyline element and a vastly improved pedestrian ambiance at one of its most congested and heretofore unattractive intersections, and demonstrates convincingly if not perfectly that rustication and bay windows need not be things of the past.

Lobby of tower

Furthermore, it is bold enough to attempt an original form with reasonable success and to try to introduce into the urban palette new colors with somewhat less success.

Lexington Avenue retail facade at night

For a relatively modest-size office building, by Manhattan standards, that's a pretty positive record.

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