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The Solomon R. Guggenheim Plans A Giant, Sprawling Edifice Designed by Frank Gehry for Lower Manhattan East River Waterfront

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Proposal is Similar to the Same Team's Great Building in Bilbao, Spain

Very large model of proposed project with downtown skyline in background

Huge model of proposed waterfront project on view at the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue is checked out by museum visitor. Skyline in background is photograph.

By Carter B. Horsley

Manhattan has been a backwater of modern architectural design for more than a generation, indeed, with few exceptions such as the Lever House and the Seagram and Citicorp Center Buildings, and the United Nations complex, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue since World War II.

Now the Guggenheim museum has offered to erect a gigantic and ultra-modern mixed-use complex with museum, shown above in a model on view at the Fifth Avenue museum, on the East River waterfront in Lower Manhattan south of the South Street Seaport. It has been designed by Frank Gehry, whose sprawling, sinuous and silvery project for the same museum in Bilbao, Spain, completed in 1999, has been widely hailed as one of the very greatest buildings of the 20th Century.

Unfortunately, the museum, which was encountering financial difficulties, abandoned this ambitious plan at the end of 2002.

Gehry is widely recognized as the greatest living architect whose combination of plastic, poetic and high-tech designs have broken the rigid hold of rectilinear design that has dominated most modern architecture until very recently. (Some expressionistic architects like Mendelsohn experimental with curves early in the century, some super Art Deco-skyscrapers like the Chrysler and Chanin Buildings and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and 570 Lexington Avenue were initiated in the late 1920s and some angled buildings have been erected by some Deconstructivists in the 1990's, but these are rather rare exceptions.)

Gehry's work is very complex but also inviting and just plain spectacular. There have, of course, been some very fine "conventional," "corporate" designs of considerable refinement erected in recent decades by Kohn Pedersen Fox, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, I. M. Pei & Partners and Cesar Pelli and some flamboyant structures by Helmut Jahn and some quite complex works by Peter Eisenman, among others, as well as very fine and interesting projects by Arquitectonica, Legoretta, Eric Owen Moss and S.I.T.E., but none have had the glamour and glory of Gehry's recent work that employs silvery metals and computer modeling to achieve very intriguing designs. The Japanese stable of articles is formidable and Arata Isozaki, Kenzo Tange and Shin Takematsu are just the most obvious of many fabulous architectural talents that have dominating the architectural world for a generation and there is a new generation of European architects that also show great promise including Daniel Liebeksind, whose work now places him second only to Gehry in the race for title of most innovative and dramatic designer of memorable spaces.

The state of architecture world-wide, indeed, is at an historic high, but Manhattan, despite the presence of many very fine architects, remains a back-water, mired in Not-In-My-Back Yard community activists and virtual design ignorance on the part of most of its political leaders.

View of proposed project from the south

View of the proposed project as seen from the south with FDR Drive on the left

The new Guggenheim-Gehry proposal is sensational, which is not to say perfect, and desperately needed for New York to both demonstrate that it can once again foster great design and to give a significant boost to Lower Manhattan.

Lower Manhattan was the city's main corporate center until after World War II and the start of a major exodus to midtown and, worse, the suburbs. By the start of the 1960's, the downtown office market was in dire trouble despite the fact that it boasted the world's most famous and romantic skyline. David Rockefeller, then head of the Chase Bank, tried to stem the exodus by erecting a huge new headquarters, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, but its great bulk and boxy design severely clashed with the existing skyline, but it was sufficient to reduce the flow out of the market and would lead to the far greater black skyscraper nearby at 120 Broadway, both designed by S. O. M. The state and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey also recognized the need to bolster downtown and the authority would erect in the early 1970's the twin towers of the World Trade Center and use its excavated material to create a huge landfill adjacent to it along the Hudson River that would become Battery Park City. With 10 million square feet of office space, however, the World Trade Center depressed the downtown office market for some time and the original bold designs for the landfill development were significantly modified and toned down. In the 1980's, however, Olympia & York, the Canadian developers, won the contract for the major commercial section of Battery Park City and commissioned Cesar Pelli to design its World Financial Center, a huge cluster of large office buildings, all with different rooftops and mixed-facades with a spectacular, enormous skylit Wintergarden as its centerpiece fronting on a large-yacht marina. While the development of the rest of Battery Park City has been accomplished according to design guidelines developed by Alexander Cooper and Stanton Eckstut that tried to recreate the niceties of good pre-war residential construction in the city, the result has been very pleasing but still conventional - such a result, of course, could be considered exciting and excellent given the city's poor record in quality design, but some admirers of modern design considered it a lost opportunity.

In the 1970s, some very interesting mid-size office buildings were erected by the William Kaufman Organization on the east side of Lower Manhattan - 77 Water Street and 127 John Street, and a bit later, the beautiful curved, reflective glass tower at 17 State Street, but these paled in comparison with the scale of the silvery twin towers of the World Trade Center, the strong vertical piers of One Chase Manhattan Plaza, and the ungainliness of the huge tower at 60 Wall Street for the Morgan bank.

In the meantime, the South Street Seaport struggled to expand throughout the 1970's and 1980s and become a very nice but not terribly successful tourist attraction. Once Battery Park City had been launched, city planners envisioned a similar development along the East River south of the South Street Seaport, a project that was known as Manhattan Landing and would have erected several major office towers and possibly some residential uses on landfill in the East River.

Despite all this rather significant activity, downtown's health was precarious as landlords were only able to obtain rents that were a good 20 to 25 percent below those in Midtown as many workers found getting to downtown added to their commute and downtown did not have comparable shopping, dining and transportation amenities. The stock market crash of 1987 gave downtown a major shock and by the early 1990s many older office buildings there began to be converted to residential uses. That trend was quite healthy in that it preserved many wonderful older builders and significantly reinforced and expanded downtown's residential component, attracting more amenities and making it a more rounded "community" that did not shut down at 5PM. The boom of the late 1990s, however, coupled with the lack of new construction, halted that trend and some conversion plans were withdrawn as the office market and office rents tightened considerably.

Meanwhile, the city got in a large battle with New Jersey over Ellis Island, eventually losing most of it and the city also got mired in plans to redevelop Governor's Island, just off the tip of Lower Manhattan near Brooklyn where plans to significantly upgrade DUMBO, the waterfront area in Brooklyn across from Lower Manhattan between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, got mired.

In 1999, the Guggenheim Museum, flush with world-wide praise for its new museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Gehry, and under the very dynamic leadership of its director, Thomas Krens, proposed an immense mixed-use project for the former Manhattan Landing site that would be designed by Gehry.

The city's response was to ask for other proposals and in September, 2000, it was still considered the Guggenheim proposal and another one that proposed a hotel and office complex. The second proposal's designs have not been publicly shown, but the Guggenheim opened a spectacular exhibition at its Fifth Avenue museum of its proposal.

One could say that downtown's great skyline of the 1930's was ruined by much of the post-war development, although the pleasant towers of the World Financial Center did mitigate somewhat the imbalance created by the World Trade Center's twin towers.

view of proposed project from the north

View of the proposed project from the north with the FDR Drive on the right

The Guggenheim/Gehry plan will, if built, usher in a new era for downtown while shifting the balance of interest quite a lot to the east side of Lower Manhattan. This is no small plan, but a very flamboyant project of great magnitude that will be highly visible for not only will parts of reach be about 40-stories high, containing condominium apartments or offices, but it will several blocks long on the river side of the East River Drive with very broad, curved open plazas and esplanades beneath its flurling canopy of silver-colored, asymmetrical, curved museum spaces.

When the Whitney Museum of American Art initiated its "satellite" museums in the 1970s in such places as the first floor of the Philip Morris Building on Park Avenue across from Grand Central and in the basement of the castle-like office building known as Federal Reserve Plaza downtown, they were fine but conventional, box-like spaces and not terribly large.

View of the proposed project from the northeast showing large plazas

View of the proposed project from the northeast showing very large plazas. Tall, angled column at right is not part of the project but existing office building on the other side of the FDR Drive

The Guggenheim/Gehry project is huge and will contain more than a half-million square feet of space, but that figure is deceiving as most of this space will contain very high ceilings and thus be a much large structure than a conventional half-million-square-foot office building.

The Guggenheim Museum's Frank Lloyd Wright building on Fifth Avenue has been attracting visitors for more than four decades to gawk at and admire its daring inverted spiral rotunda design.

A world landmark, it is very, very modest in comparison with the new Gehry museum. Gehry's Bilbao Museum has probably attracted more interest and attention than any new building in the world since the Chrysler Building and its silvery spire was unveiled in 1931.

The museum's exhibition on the proposed downtown Gehry-designed museum is overwhelming in its inclusion of hundreds of preparatory studies, sketches and models and it includes a very large model of the present design as well as a very large model of Lower Manhattan with the museum project model in place, in scale, shown below. The latter model of downtown is in wood, but the museum project model on it is silver-colored.

Large model of Lower Manhattan

Guggenheim/Gehry project in shown in silver color along East River next to a large wooden model of Lower Manhattan in exhibition at the Fifth Avenue museum

Some unusual buildings have different facades on their four principal sides so that views of it have perhaps 16 or so different representations. The Gehry design explodes such architectural simplicity and will look different from hundreds of different angles and it will absolutely change the experience of driving along the FDR drive as it rises to its full height at its edge with the elevated highway creating a very dramatic canyon.

More importantly, the promenades along the river and the interior spaces are likely to become the city's most sensational architectural experiences. Gehry's recent designs are great sculptural art, imbued with the energy of Kandinsky, the metallic skins of David Smith and Brancusi and the imaginativeness of Piranesi and Gaudi. Because of their scale and complexity, they offer even richer experiences and make the public art of architecture truly a great art form. The great Gothic cathedrals enthrall, awe and enchant, but Gehry's new spatial environments entice, intrigue and bewilder. Bewilderment, as opposed to mere confusion or chaos, is not easy to find or define, in terms of architecture, or the other arts. Architecture is not just about facades, or interiors, but is multi-faceted and interactive with the viewer and user. Surprise has always been a good architect's tool, the processional fusillade of doors that ends in a giant room, or a meandering arcade that ends into a grotto. It is the disorienting adventure that opens up the user's perspective and mindsets, that encourages environmental shifts and emotional departures. These are the guts of Gehry's designs, the substance that many designers dream of and rarely create, the spatial shifts that are exciting but not extraneous, or mere folly.

Much has been written recently of Krens's magisterial, megalomaniac kingdom-building as if he were a sane, but brash Ludwig. Ambitious and very intelligent, Krens at least has visions, grand visions, and unfortunately most New Yorkers have not for a long time have not had the latter. Still, the recreation of Times Square in barely a decade after many years of neglect and despair has kindled hopes that the city need not be static and may be able to compete and regain its pride as the exciting center of the world.

What is quite extraordinary is one source familiar with the project has indicated that the Guggenheim already has very, very significant funds committed to this specific project from outside New York as well as commitments of significant private art collections specifically for it.

Despite its gargantuan scale, the project may well be realizable in the very near future, if, of course, the city gets off its duff and approves it.

None of the public discussions and reports so far have bothered to recall the city planners' previous Manhattan Landing plan for the site. The old plans were rather conventional in nature but at least large-scale, even larger than the Guggenheim/Gehry plan. Given the wonderful new vistas of architectural drama that are sprouting around the world, new plans are called for and it is exceeding doubtful that the city planners and other developers would come up with anything to rival the Guggenheim/Gehry proposal in concept.

It is, of course, the responsibility of the Guiliani Administration to protect the best interests of the city and to not make special deals that preclude fair competition. At the same time, history has demonstrated time and again that "requests for proposals" often lead to decisions based on immediate direct economic return as well as to a very long development cycle due to community involvement and environmental reviews and the like and that architectural merits and quality often are not given their due priority.

It should be clear to most reasonable people that a grandiose facility like the Guggenheim/Gehry proposal would pyrotechnically alter downtown. It would become an incredible magnet for tourists from around the world and the nation and would therefore greatly boost the livelihood of the adjacent South Street Seaport as well as revitalize all of Downtown, which is sorely lacking in cultural amenities.

In the fall of 2000, the Giuliani Administration apparently is preoccupied with a plan to build a sports stadium over the exposed, open train yards to the west of the former General Post Office Building that is planned to be converted partially into an expanded Penn Station. That plan completely overlook and ignores a prior plan by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to build a massive, mixed-use development of residential and commercial towers over the yards, a plan that would significantly enhance the resurgent Chelsea neighborhood immediately to the south and hark back to the brilliance of the Terminal City plan that created Grand Central Terminal by surrounding it with high quality hotels and office buildings. These plans are complicated, of course, by the city's perceived needs to expand the Javits Convention Center to the north and recent published reports have indicated that many planners believe that the city's shortage of available development sites requires a coordinated plan and one that focuses strongly on the Far West Midtown area.

A new sports arena should not be largely subsidized by the city and even more importantly should not be cited over the West Side train yards. Thought should be given to other locations where it will have less impact on traffic and more long-term economic development potential for the city. Ideally, one should have been considered for Battery Park City and perhaps still could be. Other sites that should be strongly considered are Central Park North, the Lower East Side, East Harlem and Harlem or Randall's Island, or even East River locations in Brooklyn or Queens. In no case, of course, should it be a giveaway to the owner of a professional sports team, but a world-class, spectacular facility that will provide real revenues to the city from its users as well as being capable of accommodating many uses. In short, it should follow the architectural lead of the Guggenheim/Gehry proposal and provide the city with a very major new landmark of great distinction.

The Guggenheim/Gehry proposal, moreover, is real and at hand and should be the focus of the Guiliani Administration's development attention.

It is not, however, something that should be swallowed whole immediately.

Model of proposed project with its unusual tower

Model of proposed project with its unusual tower

Unlike the Bilbao project, this Gehry design seems a bit wild, or rather, ungainly. Wildness is by no means a negative in design. The Bilbao design, however, "comes together" in a grand, albeit abrupt, way and its thrusts and waves and curves seem to make some sort of visually organic sense.

The downtown scheme, on the other hand, appears much more haphazard, and even hazardly in its swoops and loops and exploded tower. Without doubt, Gehry has fashioned wild and wonderful interiors that justify this almost amorphous project, and without doubt Gehry is absolutely competent and capable of tinkering with the design a bit more. It needs a bit of taming. The basic notion of huge, silvery ribbons cascading as if in rapids is fine, but the very large advertising signs at the north end and the rather strange tower are not in context with the rest of the design, nor the surroundings. One would have thought that Gehry might place the project's tower at the end closest to the South Street Seaport and applied a bit of Deconstructivist flourishes to conjure the tall masts of old sailing ships about its pinnacle or whatever. Also the northernmost and southermost components of the project are treated different architecturally, and therefore appear rather awkward.

View of tower from northwest

Tower of project is unusual as seen in this photo of large model at the museum in a view from the northwest

Apart from the sensational façade treatment, which hopefully will have equally spectacular illumination effects at night, the greatest aspect of the design would appear to be the very, very large esplanades/promenades along and into the East River not far south from the Brooklyn Bridge.

The thought of these great, curved esplanades, of course, suggests the need for the city to do something about their vistas, that is, to encourage the development of really spectacular new landmarks on the other side of the river. Apparently, the city is not going to give Governor's Island to the United Nations for a major new project (see The City Review article), but the Brooklyn waterfront just to the south of the Brooklyn Heights esplanade surely has plenty of development potential and other areas in downtown Brooklyn could hopefully become the site of a few more great towers so that Brooklyn's great Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower will not be its own great skyscraper.

Certain projects by merits of the strength of their design become defining "moments" for their cities. The Eiffel Tower, of course, for Paris. "Big Ben" and the Houses of Parliament for London. Trinity Church, the Woolworth Building, the demolished Singer Building, the MetLife Building on Madison Square Park, The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Buildings in New York, for example, as well as Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal and the United Nations - projects that escalate the ambiance, style and ambitions as well as pride of the city.

Not all such projects are immediately or forever successful as history has shown, but their contribution to the city is incalculable, or at least obviously extremely beneficial. The Solomon/Gehry proposal, even if not modified as suggested above, is such a project that will catapult the redevelopment of such long neglected areas as the Lower East Side and much of Brooklyn and do so with an exceeding high and exciting design standard.

The legacy of the Guiliani Administration depends on this project.

At a press conference, November 28, 2000, the Guiliani Administration announced that it was backing the proposal and Mayor Guiliani said that "Civic leaders have a responsibility to leave their city far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."

See The City Review article on the rotonda of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

 

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