By Carter B. Horsley
The curves of a circular window,
or oculus, conjure voluptuous softness, a quality that is missing
from a lot of normal, rectilinear architecture.
In some cases, such as the
residential conversion of the commercial building at 141 Fifth
Avenue, such windows, or oculi, reinforce curves elsewhere on
the building such as at the corner and on its dome. The rendering
above is of the penthouse, roof terrace and dome of the building,
which was designed by Robert Maynicke in 1897 for the Merchant's
Bank of New York. 141 Fifth Avenue was one of lower Fifth Avenue's
most beautiful commercial buildings with a stunning Beaux-Arts
facade. This fourteen-story building was originally the Merchant's
Bank of New York in 1897. It was smartly covered during the conversion
in a faux representation of what the façade will look like
as opposed to the usual glaring construction site. The New York
City Landmarks Conservation commended the design, by architectural
firm Cetra/Ruddy. The lower two floors are for commercial use;
with the above ten floors housing 38 condominium units.
Manhattan has many oculi, some
simple and some multi-paned. Most are circular, but some are elliptical.
Oculi have been used in a wide
variety of architectural styles.
All the windows are oculi on
the top floor of the very handsome, Georgian-style mansion at
1130 Fifth Avenue on the northeast corner at 94th Street that
was built by Delano & Aldrich for Willard Straight, who married
Dorothy Paine Whitney. It subsequently housed the International
Museum of Photography and was converted back to single-family
use a few years ago by Bruce Kovner.
The mid-block apartment building
known as Eagle Court at 215 West 84th Street also has oculi as
all its top floor windows, but adds two more at the sides of the
building on the second floor, one of which, one of the more ornately
framed in the city, is shown above.
The Eagle Court oculi are single-paned
in contrast to the multi-paned ones at the corners of the top
floor at 1040 Park Avenue, one of which is shown, above. The building
was designed in 1923 by Delano & Aldrich and was famous for
its penthouse that was initially occupied by Condé Nast,
While such oculi topped off
a building just beneath its cornice, some others are used to "break
up" a building's mass.
The six-story apartment building
at 1324 Lexington Avenue on the northwest corner at 88th Street,
for example, has pairs of oculi on the second through the sixth
floors in the center of the building above its entrance.
A lot of oculi, in fact, are
used to highlight entrances.
The townhouse building at 55
East 77th Street has an elliptical, multi-paned oculus just to
the east of its stoop and the front of the building was used as
the house where Robert Redford's CIA colleagues were murdered
in "Three Days of The Condor." Interestingly, the less
ornate, adjacent building at 57 East 77th Street has a prominent
oculus just above its entrance.
The mid-block apartment building
at 60 East 88th Street has a very large oculus on the second floor
above its entrance. The 15-story building was designed in 1986
by Beyer Blinder Belle and it has only 18 apartments.
The red-brick 308-unit apartment
building at 225 West 83rd Street, which is known as the Bromley,
is most notable for its oculi on its top five floors and around
much of its base above the retail spaces and in the middle of
a three-story, white-colored base. Designed by Costas Kondylis
of Philip Birnbaum & Associates, it was developed by William
L. Haines and Haseko Inc.
In their definitive "A.I.A.
Guide to New York City, Third Edition," (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1988), Elliot Willensky and Norval White remark that this building
is "a chunky filler of Broadway's belly," adding that
"Post Modern green glazing with limestone gives a graceful
edge to West 83rd Street and a serrated neo-Dutch profile."
Although the oculi are something of a design gimmick, they and
the building are quite attractive. This is one of the more desirable
buildings in the area, which is pretty desirable because of a
nearby a major Barnes & Noble bookstore and Zabar's. It is
also across Broadway from a popular Chinese restaurant, Ollie's.
Perhaps the city's most controversial
oculi can be found at the Sony Buildig at 550 Madison Avenue that
was erecgted in 1984 as the A. T. & T. Building. It was designed
by Philip Johnson/John Burgee with a large oculus over its mid-block
entrance on the avenue and three oculi on the base of the buidling
on the sidestreets atriums.
The announcement of this project
made the front page of The New York Times not because of its size
or economic impact, but because of its heralding of a new architectural
With its eye-catching, Chippendale-style,
broken-front roof pediment, the tower became the most famous "Post-Modern"
building in the country.
It was not the first building
of its time to base its style on historical allusion, of course,
but it was the most prominent and most publicized. Because Johnson
and Burgee were the nation's most favored corporate architects
at the time and because A. T. & T. was not a minor company,
the design took on even greater significance and clout.
Its 37-stories belie its considerable
height largely because its entrance is about 7 stories tall and
had been specifically designed to accommodate and house the spectacular,
large gilded statue, "The Spirit of Communications,"
by Evelyn Longman Batchelder, that had formerly been perched atop
A. T. & T.'s former headquarters building at 195 Broadway
in Lower Manhattan overlooking historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
The statue was the city's finest and most elegant skyline ornament
since August St. Gaudens's great gilded statue of Diana that had
stood atop the tower of the old, demolished Madison Square Garden
on Madison Avenue and 26th Street.
The decision to remove the
statue from the downtown building and put it in the new building's
lobby surprisingly did not become a major public controversy even
though it desecrated the integrity of the great building downtown
and violated the artistic intentions of the sculptor. Such concerns
were largely forgotten because of controversies over the Post-Modern
design of the tower and over the tower's looming bulk without
setbacks on such a narrow avenue in such a congested area. The
statue controversy also was ameliorated somewhat by Johnson's
rather spectacular entrance setting for it which placed it on
a pedestal beneath a gilded vault and behind a very large, arched,
multi-paned window. The window gave the statue visibility from
across the street.
The window's panes, however,
made it seem imprisoned, much like a saint in a famous Raphael
mural in the Vatican. For the public daring enough to enter the
high-security lobby, the view of the statue was dramatic but awkward
because of the relatively narrow lobby space, as shown in the
picture below, that precludes any full appreciation of the tall
statue even though one could walk around it.
Indeed, it was Post-Modern rape, twice over, since the excellent
statue, gay or not, and probably not, was abducted to New Jersey
when A.T.&T. abandoned this building to Sony.
When the building was sold
to Sony, furthermore, the city agreed to let the new owner enclose
the galleries with windows that were similar to the multi-paned
treatment used at the building's entrance, as shown in the picture
above. The newly enclosed galleries, however, were no longer available
as public open space and were permitted to be converted into showrooms
for Sony products. Sony also blocked oculi openings, which were
the nicest feature of the spaces as seen in the picture at the
right. It did not, however, lower the ceilings, but did fill the
high spaces with large banners and lighting fixtures heralding
their products and the redesign resulted in a very cluttered appearance
that hopefully, and likely, will be redesigned.
At the same time, the city
permitted Sony to partially enclose the formerly open but skylit,
through-block atrium behind the tower, as shown at the left. The
atrium separates the tower from a low-rise building that was part
of the original A. T. & T. development. The low-rise building
originally was designed to contain a showroom for A. T. &
T. products and exhibitions and some retail space. The showroom
was opened, but never was very successful, a reflection more on
the quality of its exhibitions than its design. Part of the retail
space was rented for several years to The Quilted Giraffe, one
of the city's most expensive French restaurants that had been
formerly located several blocks away. The restaurant changed its
cuisine to incorporate a lot of Japanese cuisine and its new interior
design was very modern and very handsome. The restaurant, however,
closed after several years. The atrium also had kiosks and large
hanging lanterns that were bulbous and looked like they were transplanted
from some 1960's hotel atrium's outside elevator bank.
The city's acquiescence with
the Sony designs was an incredulous and egregious error as the
changes violated the building's original design integrity and,
more importantly, appropriated for commercial use the public space
of the original gallerias for which the project had received a
substantial zoning bonus that enabled the building to contain
more office space. There was a little public debate that did not
change the result substantially. A new, unattractive banner proclaims
that the new Sony Plaza is public and there is some public seating
that resulted from the fact that the new corporate showrooms do
not extend all the way back to the through-block atrium.
In an ideal world, every public official who voted to approve
this change should never be re-elected.
Presumably, part of the rationale
in approving the new Sony Plaza was that the old A. T. & T.
Plaza had been neither successful nor popular, particularly in
contrast to the adjacent IBM atrium. The buildings, of course,
were developed independently and had never been coordinated with
one another. The IBM Building, however, had been coordinated to
a certain extent with the Trump Tower/Bonwit Teller buildings
that abut its atrium.
The three towers, however,
cannot be considered in total isolation as their visual impact
on the skyline and on the plaza district's economy and liveliness
Regardless of their individual
merits, these three towers significantly upgraded the Plaza district
with the high quality of their designs and rich materials. Their
proximity intensified vertiginous impact on pedestrians while
adding character and color to the neighborhood. The Sony Building
is clad in unpolished, pink granite while the IBM facade is polished,
dark green granite and Trump Tower is clad in reflective, bronze-tinted
glass. Because of the spacing provided by the low-level Bonwit
Teller Building, which became the Galleries Lafayette Building
and then was rebuilt in 1996 into a Nike store, this tower trio
is less vibrant but more successful than the tower troika consisting
of Carnegie Hall Tower and the Metropolitan Tower, both on 57th
Street between the Avenue of the Americas and Seventh Avenue,
and CitySpire behind them, across 56th Street. Both of these "tuning-fork"
trios bring to midtown the staggering, cliff-hanging precipitousness
that defined the Financial District's romantic skyline and heady,
canyonesque pedestrian experience.
Johnson/Burgee devoted a great
deal of their design efforts in many major projects to fenestration
experimentation. Here, they stressed the tower's verticality by
recessing the narrow windows and their spandrels and omitting
corner windows to let the handsome and finely detailed pink granite
facade convey a powerful sense of monumentality. While the fenestration
pattern is a bit fussy, the overall effect of the shaft portion
of the tower is quite attractive because the minimalization of
windows augments its substantiality.
The famous Chippendale-like
top is simple and very bold and even better at night when its
curved cutout is well-illuminated, adding a kind, emanating mystery,
and occasionally steam. The analogy to a highboy, however, is
so apt and unavoidable that it is hard not to be overcome by the
trivializing association. Giganticism can often have wonderful
shock value, but buildings, if not owners, are relatively permanent
and not toy building blocks, especially at such a prominent site.
There is nothing inherently
wrong with appropriating forms from other disciplines and the
thought of a childlike "toy city" has entered our culture
with Disneylands and "Learning From Las Vegas" insights
from architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven
Isenour. It is an undeniable plus for a city to have a major corporation
erect a major edifice and when the city, or midtown district,
already has a chaotic melange of styles, it is alright to encourage
new "design statements." The city is unquestionable
better off for A.T. & T.'s investment and venture. It should
be noted, however, that its castration, or rather beheading, of
its former headquarters was despicable, more so than Sony's bastardization
of the public spaces.
A. T. & T. had actually
moved most of its headquarters operations to an enormous and very
impressive facility in Basking Ridge, N.J., where it presumably
absconded with its great statue when it sold the Madison Avenue
building to Sony, which now uses the lobby for a modern sculpture.
The Basking Ridge facility does not actively encourage public
visits and hopefully the company will see fit at some future enlightened
moment to return the statue to its rightful home in Manhattan.
A fitting solution might be to place it on some high, elegant
pedestal at an extremely important and prominent public site that,
conceivably could be renamed A. T. & T. Plaza. Such a site
could be at Battery Park City, or Battery Park, or the promenade
at Ellis Island, or Bryant Park, or even putting it back on its
original perch where the new owner of the building, Peter Kalikow,
put up a gilded orb, which was pleasantly thoughtful, but not
as inspiring. Such a solution would go a long way to clearing
up the company's ignominy with regard to urban amenities and civic
What inspired Sony to purchase
such a Post-Modern landmark, which is still too young to be considered
for designation as an official city landmark because of the city's
archaic and timid landmark regulations, is very hard to understand.
Sony's product innovations and elegant product design would lead
one to assume that its major facilities would have a somewhat
consistent design philosophy, or motif, namely, something high-tech,
modern, dazzling, and maybe even abstract.
Presumably, the sun will rise
someday on a new owner of this "abused" building and
nurture it back to normalcy and Sony will entice and enchant the
city with some of the brilliance that has made Japanese design
and architecture the world's most fascinating for almost two decades.
This story needs a happier ending.
In January, 2000, A. T. &
T. offered to return "Golden Boy" to New York, but in
April, 2000 announced it had decided to keep it. A spokesman for
the company, John Heath, was quoted in an article by Shaila Dewan
in the April 4, 2000 edition of The New York Times as stating
that "We were not able to find a suitable home for him elsewhere."
The same article quoted New York City Parks Commissioner Henry
J. Stern as stating that the city would "put him on a pedestal
with the Statue of Liberty" and that the city had offered
A. T.& T. three sites, one at the Washington Market Park,
one atop 195 Broadway, its original home, and one at 346 Broadway
that had once been topped by a large bronze eagle.
Since the products in the retail
spaces are made by Sony, the showrooms are by and large well-designed
and interesting, but they completely violate the architectural
integrity of Johnson/Burgee's famous design for the building and
make a mockery of the city's overseeing and guidance of proper
In his book, "Privately
Owned Public Spaces The New York Experience," (John Wiley
& Sons, 2000) Jerold S. Kayden, to his great credit, discusses
Sony's 1992 proposal at length, noting that it "bluntly raised
the question when, if ever, privatization of public space should
be formally allowed":
"Specifically, Sony proposed
to eliminate 10,560 square feet of arcade, reducing it from 14,102
to 3,542 square feet, and to replace it with 6,050 square feet
of indoor retail space, much of it along the Madison Avenue frontage.
Were this all to the proposal, the answer would be easy, since
Sony not only would be decreasing public space but would also
be increasing private floor area. What made this a matter for
legitimate public debate was Sony's sweetener: its offer to enlarge
its covered pedestrian space, located at the rear of the building
and connecting East 55th and 56th Streets, from 5,625 square feet
to 9,731 square feet and to render it climate controlled. Sony
was offering an additional 4,106 square feet of covered pedestrian
space and a general enhancement of its qualities in exchange for
a reduction of 10,560 square feet of 'as-of-right' arcade. Sony
also proposed to eliminate 1,324 square feet of retail space fronting
the covered pedestrian space, and to replace the AT&T Infoquest
Center with its own exhibit center, called SonyWonder Technology
Lab, in the annex. The zoning arithmetic worked out as follows.
Reflecting the judgment that, square foot for square foot, a covered
pedestrian space is more valuable to the public and more expensive
to construct than an arcade, the Zoning Resolution generally authorized
a substantially greater bonus per square foot of covered pedestrian
space. In the Sony case, at a rate of 11 square feet of bonus
floor area for every square foot of covered pedestrian space,
the additional covered pedestrian space would generate a bonus
of 45,166 square feet. At a rate of three square feet of bonus
floor area for every square foot of arcade, the lost 10,560 square
feet of arcade would reduce the building's zoning floor area entitlement
by 31,680 square feet. Thus, even after Sony would have constructed
6,050 square feet of new retail space in the old arcade space,
that would still leave it with an unused entitlement of more than
7,000 square feet of building. And that would be before counting
the 1,324 square foot reduction of retail space in the covered
pedestrian space. In short, in the arcane world of zoning bonuses
for privately owned public spaces, it could be argued, the public
woule emerge more than whole, with less, but more valuable, public
space. The City agreed with this reasoning and approved Sony's
application in 1992, concluding that the public benefit associated
with the changes exceeded the public benefit associated with the
Kayden goes on to argue that
as completed the spaces work well, but concludes that "As
for the lost arcade spaces, it would be a mistake to romanticize
them," adding that "during much of the year, they were
cold, dark, and windy."
Kayden neglects to discuss
the utter prostitution of the building's architecture, nor the
fact that perhaps the city gave in to Sony because it did not
want to antagonize such an international powerhouse especially
when the city was in the midst of a very, very severe recession.
The city's decision to grant these changes was and is unconscionable
and outrageous and inexcusable even though the Sony retail spaces,
designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, are pleasant because
of Sony's great products on display.
Albert C. Ledner
designed three buildings for the National Maritime Union in New
York in the 1960s with porthole facades that Christopher Gray
described in a November 25, 2007 article in The New York Times
as "impudent in the face of doctrinaire modernism."
Two of the buildings were on Ninth Avenue at 17th Street and both
were converted, separately, to hotels. The third building was
eventually acquired by St. Vincent's Hospital and converted to
the O'Toole Medical Services Building on Seventh Avenue at 12th
Street. The hospital decided it needed to expand and wanted to
replace the O'Toole Building with a major new hospital and sell
its existing complex of buildings to the Rudins who would convert
many of the buildings to apartments as well as erecting some new
residential buildings. The hospital's plan became a major controversy.
The O'Toole building did not have true oculi but its scalloped
lower edge of its cantilevered floors evoked portholes, which,
of course, are oculi. Eventually, the city approved the demolition
of the O'Toole Building and the hospital's expansion plans but
only after forcing several design revisions.