By Carter B. Horsley
The Seagram Building (see The
City Review article) is one of the monuments of modern architecture
in part because it only uses just over half of its site.
Almost half a century after its erection, somebody
has thought what to do with that other half, or at least the unused
That somebody is Aby Rosen, who owns the Seagram
Building, and Lever House (see The City Review
article) cattycorner across the avenue as well. Mr. Rosen,
an active art collector, commissioned Sir Norman Foster of Foster
and Partners, whose stainless-steel-and-glass notched tower addition
to the Hearst Building on the southwest corner of Eighth Avenue
and 57th Street, is nearing completion, to design a tower utilizing
the unusued air rights.
Sir Norman Foster is widely regarded as one
of the worlds foremost "high-tech" architects
and his famous projects include the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank
Headquarters in Hong Kong, the Commerzbank Headquarters in Frankfurt,
Germany, and the Great Court at the British Museum in London.
He and Mr. Rosen and a slew of associates appeared
before the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission November 22,
2005 for a declaration supporting an an application by RFR Realty
LLC, Mr. Rosen's company, to the City Planning Commission for
a special permit waiving setback and height regulations for the
transfer of air rights from the Seagram Building, an official
individual landmark, at 375 Park Avenue, which it owns, to an
adjacent site at 610 Lexington Avenue for the erection of a 709-foot-high,
In their presentation, they concentrated on
the visual impact the new tower might have on the "iconic"
view of the Seagram Building from across Park Avenue. From street-level
in front of the Racquet & Tennis Club (see The
City Review article) directly across the avenue, they demonstrated
that the new tower would not be visible and from the 53rd Street
corner it would only be slightly visible and not appear taller
than the 515-foot-high Seagram Building, which, in fact, it dwarfs.
In a large model and numerous renderings, the
new tower appears as an extremely slender and tall building with
a light-colored facade and not setbacks. Sir Norman recalled that
Mies van der Rohe, the architect of the Seagram Building, was
focused very much on the "purity" of form and noted
that the Seagram Building has a low-rise, mid-block "bustle."
His new tower is setback 10 feet from 53rd Street and its "bustle"
is a low-rise "pavilion" on Lexington Avenue, where
it maintains the streetwall and has retail spaces and it is separated
from the tower by an atrium with entrances to hotel facilities
in the lower portion of the tower and condominium apartments on
the upper floors. The new tower will be separated from the tower
of the Seagram Building by about 117 feet.
Sir Norman also argued that the most harmonious
way to relate to the Seagram Building was by contrast and using
a light facade. Although he said that final details of the facade
was still being explored, he indicated that the current plan calls
for a "faceted" approach, one that recalls to a certain
extent the unrealized Frederikstrasse project by Mies van der
Rohe. The plan for the new tower, therefore calls for "faceted"
facades on the east and west facades. He said that the north and
south facades, however, would be straight. The tower's dimensions
in plan are very small, only 90 feet on the east and west facades
and 46 feet on the north and south facades. As a result, the new
tower would only rise above the northern portion of the Seagram
While it was not discussed or mentioned at
the commission's hearing, the light facade would obviously be
in context with the 915-foot-high Citicorp Center (see The
City Review article) that is cattycorner across Lexington
Avenue from the new tower, and with the stainless steel top of
the Chrysler Building (see The City Review
article) further south on the avenue. (It could be noted that
Sir Norman's stainless-steel facade bracings at the new Hearst
tower pay a degree of homage to the diagonal elements at the top
of the Chrysler Building.) Furthermore, his facade design would
also to a certain extent be harmonious with the light-colored
facades of Cesar Pelli's One Beacon Court, five blocks up the
Mr. Rosen, one of the principals of RFR Realty
LLC, said in an interview that the building will contain 80 to
90 condominium apartments and 45 to 50 hotel rooms.
Mr. Rosen said that the new tower will only
utilize about 90 percent of the available, unused air rights from
the Seagram Building, which only occupies 52 percent of its site
and is widely regarded as an icon of modern architecture. If the
tower had been designed as-of-right, that is, within existing
zoning and building regulations, and utilized all of its air rights,
it could rise another 100 feet or so. Sir Norman told the commission
that if the building were erected "as of right" it would
be about 811 feet high, but he termed that scheme "not entirely
Mr. Rosen said that Hines, the Houston-based
developer and real estate owner that owns the third property on
the block, the 36-story, black-glass-clad tower formerly known
as Manhattan Tower at 600 Lexington Avenue will be the construction
manager for the new tower.
RFR Realty LLC recently bought the mid-rise
building at 610 Lexington Avenue, the former home of the YWCA,
on the southwest corner of 53rd Street, cattycorner to Citicorp
Center, which is 915 feet high. RFR also has developed 425 Fifth
Avenue and are nearing completion of Park Avenue Place at 60 West
Under the terms of the "74-79" application
that will go before the City Planning Commission, the developers
will pledge to restore and maintain the landmark Seagram Building
and will establish a covenant with the New York Landmarks Conservancy,
a civic organization, to that effect. Spokespersons for the Municipal
Art Society and the New York chapter of the American Institute
of Architects, told the landmarks commission that their groups
A spokesperson for the Historic Districts Council,
however, told the commission that "the new, enormous building"
will have "a negative impact" on the Seagram Building
and that her organization therefore does not support the project.
Roberta Brandes Gratz, a member of the commission,
remarked during the hearing that the new project was "quite
exciting" given the horror of images of how wrong this
could be," adding that the design "almost feels natural."
The new design, however, is hardly "natural."
It will become one of the city's slenderest towers, a mid-block
"sliver" almost without peer. Although the city adopted
anti-"sliver" zoning sometime ago, it was aimed primarily
at largely residential neighborhoods, and while it had the support
of many neighborhood groups it was a conservative attempt to rally
around the architectural flag of "contextualism," then
The mood in the city has changed somewhat and
in the past couple of years there is a growing constituency for
somewhat more architectural daring as well as a growing "charm"
with "celebrity" architects. Sir Norman is every bit
the "celebrity" architect not afraid to wear boldly
patterned shirts and ready at the drop of a t-square to wax poetic,
and mellifluously, about form and the virtues of technology. He
bears a slight resemblance to Gerhard Richter (see The
City Review article), the painter.
It will be interesting to see the final design.
One suspects it will be elegant, a word that Sir Norman dropped
several times during his presentation at the commission.
Given the tower's slenderness, one is prone
to wonder whether its "bustle" pavilion along Lexington
Avenue will take away a bit from its drama and whether it should
have a plaza at the corner, or, perhaps, mid-block. Given that
599 Lexington Avenue (see The City Review
article), the blue-green tower has a very large and handsome
triangular plaza directly across the street at the 53rd Street
corner and that Citicorp has a substantial sunken plaza at the
same corner and that Mr. Rosen, an active art collector, obviously
is enchanted with beautiful buildings, one can most likely not
worry about the project having a plaza.
One thing is certain, the new tower will add
significantly to the glamor and drama of Lexington Avenue even
though the building it is replacing was a quite pleasant mid-rise
The tower's slender form really will not be
"harmonious" with any of its neighbors, but that is
not necessarily bad. This is a case where arguments could reasonably
be made for different shapes, siting and colors, and Ms. Gratz
was on the mark when she suggested that a lot of bad designs could
The commission unanimously approved a declaration
in support of a special permit from the City Planning Commission,
which will hold its own hearings on the project, and the commissioners
were obviously delighted by Sir Norman as well as greatly impressed
with the intent of the developers to give the New York Landmarks
Conservancy a covenant assuring the maintenance of the Seagram
Building in the future.
There was little discussion of aesthetics at
the commission's hearing, which was a bit odd, but its decision
to support the project is very encouraging and a bit a courageous
given the anti-high-rise sentiment of so many planners and civic
groups in the city over the past few decades, a sentiment that
had it cropped up earlier would have deprived the city of the
Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building (see The
City Review article), 20 Exchange Place, 30 Rockefeller Center
(see The City Review article), 570 Lexington
Avenue (see The City Review article),
and 70 Pine Street (see The City Review
article), just to name the most obvious skyscraper glories
of the city.
So, onward and upwards.