599 LEXINGTON AVENUE
(between 52nd and 53rd Streets)
Developer: Boston Properties (Mortimer Zuckerman)
Architect: Edward Larrabee Barnes
By Carter B. Horsley
In the 1980's, context became the architectural
buzzword. Here, the developer and architect clearly heeded the
theme and took definite notice of its large neighbor to the north
across the street, Citicorp Center (see The
City Review article on that tower).
When Citicorp Center, shown at the left in the photograph
at the left, was erected in the previous decade, it defiantly
ignored its environment and contemporary urban design common sense
by raising its tower on stilts, employing an irregular form and
reviving, rather successfully, the often vilified sunken plaza.
This new mammoth, 47-story office tower paid
homage to Citicorp Center by creating a large, triangular plaza
to broaden the southern approach to Citicorp Center and played
with the same angularity in its setbacks to enliven its skyline
appearance. Although its roof is flat, unlike Citicorp Center's
slanted top, this tower's form and its horizontal fenestration
pattern well complement Citicorp Center even if they do not significantly
mitigate its ungainly bulkiness.
Strongly to its credit, however, is the slanted,
glass-enclosed entrance to the subway station in the middle of
its triangular plaza, the best new subway entrance in decades
in the city. The glass wedge canopy floats above a circular base
and is an appropriate outdoor work of art for the buildings
large plaza. The circular base also provides seating for the plaza.
Moreover, the immense, well-lit lobby, shown
below, fronting on the plaza represents the best of mainstream
corporate design in its conservative endorsement of art and rich
It rises above that level, though, because
it makes the very nice, public gesture of letting it be visible,
very visible to anyone who passes by, even, and especially, at
The art in question here, shown below, is an
enormous painted sculpture by Frank Stella, one of his best works
and its setting, exploding out from the south wall of this marble
room, banded in blue-green and white, is terrific.
This is not static, but electric, energizing
art that is best suited for exactly this kind of space.
The entire north lobby wall, opposite the Stella,
is glass so that at night when the lobby is lit the art is like
the molten heart of a volcano, which is most welcome here directly
opposite the usually dirty but silvery facade of Citicorp Center.
In his book, "Privately Owned Public Spaces
The New York City Experience," (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,
2000) Jerold S. Kayden
correctly notes that "although not a public space, the private
lobby nonetheless engages the passing pedestrian," adding
that "visible through the glass-walled, two-story arcade
is a colorful Frank Stella artwork, entitled Salto Nel Mio
Sacco (1985), adorning the lobby wall." "Such transparency
into normally invisible lobbies and the intent ot display art
for passersby as well as building tenants can, as here, greatly
enhance the experience of the exterior public spaces," Kayden
wrote, making an excellent point.
The lobby and its Stella also go a long way,
especially at night to excuse the putrid, pale blue-green facade
of this bulky tower, one of the worst color selections in the
city's facade history. Nevertheless, the developer and the architect
should be praised for attempting to add to the citys palette
and the facade is nicely detailed.
The alert staff at the concierge/security desk,
discretely placed at the west side of the lobby, do not permit
photographs inside the lobby. Of course, the glass walls ease
the urban photographer's problems.
A slimmer, more silvery tower with a roofline
slanted in a different direction than Citicorp Center's would
have been a better corporate office showcase. Citicorp Center's
owners should probably pay Boston Properties a handsome "light-protector"
and "good neighbor" fee for its generous, deferential
architectural gesture. By itself, 599 Lexington Avenue is less
than beautiful, despite its marvelous lobby and street-level urban
design treatment. But as an unofficial expansion of the Citicorp
Center enclave of rakish modernity it deserves good marks, certainly
far better than the official expansion of Rockefeller Center across
the Avenue of the Americas back in the 1960's.