By Carter B. Horsley
The Landmarks Preservation
Commission held a hearing January 13, 2009 on the second revision
of plans by Aby Rosen to enlarge the low-rise building that occupies
the west blockfront on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th Streets.
The new plan is quite similar
to the first revision that was submitted last year except that
the façade color of the addition will now be silvery rather
than champagne. Both "as-of-right" proposals were significantly
downscaled from Mr. Rosen's initial proposal, designed by Sir
Norman Foster, that called for a reflective-glass, curved tower
to rise 22-stories above the northern end of the existing building
with the remainder of the existing building's large roof being
converted to a sculpture garden.
All of the proposals would
restore the existing 5-story, limestone-clad building designed
in 1950 by Walker & Poor to house the Parke-Bernet auction
house, that was later bought by Sotheby's, and a Schraff's restaurant.
The building had been modified several times.
The commission did not vote
on the first design offered by Mr. Rosen and his architect, Sir
Norman Foster, who has also designed the revised plans. The first
and second revisions would contain about 18 condominium apartments.
Whereas the first design (see
The City Review
article) did not comply
with existing zoning and building regulations, the first and second
revisions do and only require approval from the landmarks commission
because it falls within an historic district.
The façade of the addition
in the revised designs is very unusual and consists of a "veil"
of thin horizontal strips several feet in front of glazing. Many
of the strips can open as shutters at a 90-degree angle and then
several of them can be moved, like an accordion, to one side to
create a quite broad opening.
Brandon Haw of the Foster +
Partners office said at a previous hearing (see The City Review article) that this part of the façade of the addition
will add "a mysterious feeling" and would be a "contemporary"
addition to the "elegance" of the Upper East Side.
Lord Foster is also designing
a mixed-use tower for Mr. Rosen at 610 Lexington Avenue.
Commissioner Steven Byrns said
that the restoration of the former Parke-Bernet Building is "very
important" and said that the current plan "overwhelms"
it. He suggested that the "addition" should be recessed
and have only two full floors and then one more setback from them
and possibly one more setback even further.
Commissioner Margery Perlmutter
said that the new plan "is a good piece of architecture"
and was "elegant."
Pablo E. Vengoechea, the commission's
vice chair, said he would like to see a better "transition"
between the old and new sections of the project," adding
that while he had no problem with the previous color the new plan
was "very top heavy." Furthermore, he suggested that
the developer should "eliminate the artificial recess"
in the center of the avenue frontage of the addition so that the
addition would become more "abstract." Mr. Haw, however,
had explained that the "recess" was mandated by the
Commissioner Joan Gerner said
that the plan's materials were "exquisite" and that
"the only problem is that it is too high" and that she
could "support three stories with a setback."
Commissioner Diane Chapin said
that the addition should have its own character to serve as a
Commissioner Roberta Brandes
Gratz did not attend the meeting but submitted a statement in
which she expressed concerns about precedents relating to the
scale of additions.
Robert B. Tierney, the commission
chair, described the revised plan as "brilliant," but
urged the applicant to consider the commissioner's concern about
reduction in scale and no vote was taken.
Mr. Rosen, who is an owner
of Lever House and the Seagram Building, two of the city's most
famous world-class modern landmarks, told thecityreview.com after
the hearing in January that he will "consider" returning
to the commission with a design that takes into account many of
the commissioners' comments.
Most of the commissioners have
argued that the scale of the proposed addition is too big because
the nature of the avenue within the special district is one that
alternates low and high very consistently. While that is almost
accurate, it is an exaggeration and one that has little to do
with quality but sheer bulk that may be stylistically competely
out of "context."
It is true that Madison Avenue
has a quirky character on the Upper East Side but one that comes
primarily from its ever-changing retail spaces more than its architecture
that is not particularly distinguished nor consistent.
Common sense tells you that
restoring the building to its original architecture is not particularly
an improvement. It may be historically correct, but aesthetically
not very pleasing. The commission usually does not take notice
of such niceties and is a stickler strict conformity with history,
a position that is not necessarily always untenable.
The first Foster scheme remains
the best of those offered so far. It offered not only a very thorough
and good restoration of the original building, which is a substantial
project, but also a rooftop sculpture garden and a svelte new
curved glass tower setback at the north end of the building near
77th Street across from the Mark Hotel. That tower would, of course,
have blocked some southern views from The Mark and some eastern
views from the Hotel Carlyle across the avenue, but certainly
not all and moreover because of the curved and reflective quality
of the tower would have offered rather interesting vistas.
Perhaps more importantly, it
would also have given the avenue a decent new "modern"
building that was cleancut and brutal and not overwhelming.
The two revisions are rather
surprising because they deprive the developer of the opportunity
to offer potential buyers apartments with great vistas because
of their significantly lower heights and because they are almost
too demure and discrete. The silver color does make more sense
than bronze and the accordion shutters are very intriguing, but
one wonders how the developer to eek out a profit if he has to
reduce the bulk of the addition even further especially since
he is only utilizing a fraction of the available development rights.
The suggestion by some commissioners
that Foster take off one or two floors of the four-story addition
and then set it back substantially is certainly throwing down
a very nasty gauntlet, one that smacks of NIMBY and circle-the-wagon
Neanderthalism in the face of the most exciting architectural
age in history.
The Foster designs here are
not masterpieces but they are also not monsters. The first and
second revisions are interesting but the first plan remains the
best because it will help the Upper East Side regain its architectural
footing without sacrificing classiness. Apart from Fifth and Park
Avenues, the Upper East Side's avenue architecture is generally
abysmal and desperately in need of a dynamic infusion of energy
As one who has many fond memories
of listening to John Marion at his rostrum in the Parke-Bernet
galleries, I would be one of the first to fend off the philistines
storming his palace if it were a palace, but the building never
was and just because it is in an historic district does not make
it a legitimate architectural landmark.