By Carter B. Horsley
How do you judge a building?
The answer, of course, depends on who is the
If you are the developer, the main criterion
is how successful it is being leased and that is measured by how
quickly it leases and at what rents (adjusted for fix-up costs
and various discounts).
If you are the architect, the main criterion
is how much of your style survives in the finished product and
how well appreciated that style is by the developer and other
developers, the press and your peers and the public.
If you are the public, the main criterion is
whether the project has enhanced or worsened its neighborhood
and this criterion is measured both aesthetically and economically.
If you are a politician, the main criterion
is how the project's economic impact on your district and this
is measured in short- and long-term changes in tax revenues, jobs,
If you are a lender, the main criterion is
how safe the investment in the project is.
If you are a real estate broker, the main criterion
is how efficient, prestigious and economic its spaces are as compared
with current market inventory.
If you are an architecture critic, all of these
considerations should be measured as much as possible and balanced
and the main criterion is producing lively copy and that the length
of the copy is often not at the discretion of the critic, but
his editor or publisher, and the length will often influence the
content of the copy. Unfortunately, the quantifiable considerations
are often very hard to come by. Depending on when it was initiated,
a project's financing might vary considerably and depending upon
the developer's tax situation and strategy, its economics might
not be easily replicated or indicative of real value. In the early
1990's, for example, some lenders took back foreclosed properties
and sold them to new owners for a fraction of their current reproduction
costs. Often, furthermore, owners will give highly favorable leases
to a major anchor tenant in depressed markets to get some revenue
and attract other tenants on the basis on the anchor's prestige.
In addition, the complexities of commercial leases can often involve
off-site responsibilities and escalation clauses that may or may
not adequately protect all parties' interests over the course
of a long-term lease.
Developers, lenders and tenants generally do
not like disclosing financial information and when they do is
rarely highly detailed. Sometimes the information comes to light
in litigation, but even then it is not necessarily accurate or
If one is writing architectural criticism for a newspaper or periodical,
one is constrained greatly by contemporariness, placing the project
in the context of its importance when it is built, and by newsworthiness,
placing the project in the context of what is unusual about it.
Depending upon the critic's venue, a substantial portion of the
commentary might be consumed by consumer-oriented details such
as the number of floors, the total square footage, the floor-to-area
ration, the special "amenities," the asking rents, and
Books, of course, are theoretically free from
constraints about advertising concerns, and length of entries,
but they are shaped and focused towards the writer's conception
of his audiences' interests. The writer's conception of his audience,
of course, must also be balanced with his publisher's and the
latter is generally interested in clearly defining what the audience
is to minimize risk, a perfectly good notion of market research.
This writer believes that his audience is quite
broad and consists of architects, planners, developers, lenders,
managers and brokers as well as a substantial number of public
interest groups and politicians and plain citizens concerned about
their environment. Unfortunately, that is not a cast of millions,
but it is sufficiently large enough to impose some broad editorial
guidelines to keep the size of the book somewhat manageable as
well as the reader's interest.
This is not a book by committee and while it
is full of facts it is also full of subjective opinions, mine.
Who am I? I am 57 years old (as of spring,
1998) and have lived all my life in Manhattan. I worked in the
newsroom of the New York Times for 26 years, 14 of which were
spent covering real estate in the city and the New York metropolitan
area. Most of my real estate stories were about commercial real
estate, urban planning and architecture. For seven years, in addition,
I traveled across North America to write North American Real Estate
and Architecture Annual Supplements for the International Herald
Tribune. I left The Times in 1987 to become the architecture critic
and real estate editor of The New York Post, a position I held
until 1991. I did not study architecture and real estate in schools,
but learned about by interviewing architects and developers and
the like and walking through their blueprints and their buildings
for a generation. I also, of course, interviewed civic activists
and planners and politicians and a few lenders. My news values
were shaped by The Times, of course, but my aesthetic values were
shaped on my own and reflected to a certain extent my personal
interests in art of Antiquity, the Italian Renaissance and the
Hudson River School of Painting and in computers, but they were
also honed by my interviews with the architects and developers
to whom I was always asked why a project was designed this way
and not that way. (I was not always convinced by the answers,
but often surprised at their rationality.)
My criterion for selecting the individual buildings
included in this book is that these are the buildings that I consider
either worthy of preservation or too important to ignore.
There is a surprising number of very good and fine buildings in
midtown as the size of this book indicates, but there are many
undistinguished ones and, not surprisingly, many bad buildings.
I have tried to include all the very good buildings, none of the
undistinguished and several of the bad. The very good ones are
the foundations on which any critical examination of midtown must
be based. Many are not official landmarks and should be.
If one is going to criticize, one should not
only be able to buttress one's opinions with persuasive arguments,
but also be able to offer constructive suggestions. It's relatively
easy to put thumbs up or down on a project's aesthetics, but it
takes a little more reflection and energy to try to begin to find
solution to some of its design problems. It takes a fair bit of
arrogance to do so, of course, but I think that is the responsibility
of an architecture critic, indeed, any critic. One need not agree
with a critic's judgments, but hopefully one will be enlightened
by the discussion, made aware of alternatives, and aided in formulating
one's own opinion.
What if the stainless steel facade at the top
of the Chrysler Building had been applied to the entire structure?
What if the center column at the base of Citicorp
Center did not exist?
What if the former McGraw-Hill Building was
What if SONY building were white marble?
What if the Seagram's Building were blue?
What if the MetLife Building had a reflective
What if the Lipstick Building were circular
rather than elliptical?
What if the sloping building at 9 West 57th
Street were free-standing?
What if West End Avenue was recreated in the
What if all the tenements in the Clinton district
were converted to single-family townhouses and had their fire-escapes
What if Lewisohn Stadium were created in the
What if the convention center had a public
waterfront esplanade and escalators over the West Side Highway?
What if One Times Square were restored to the
original design of the Times Tower?
What if Times Square was decked over with a
huge public piazza?
What if all cabs and buses had skylight roofs?
What if all private cars except for the disabled
were banned from Manhattan?
What if developers could build whatever size
building they wanted except for individual landmark sites?
What if commercial property were assessed at
the same rates as residential property?
What if 20 percent of the workers in the suburbs
wanted to move back to midtown?
What if Manhattan were a separate country with
What if most of Lower Manhattan's office buildings
were converted to residential use?
What if no more development were allowed at
all in midtown?
What will be the great civic monuments created
in midtown by this and the next generation?
Virtually every building can teach lessons
and every site has its own contextual problems and opportunities.
There are by definition very few masterpieces.
This book discusses more than 275 projects and certainly not all
are architectural masterpieces. Virtually all of them, however,
are significant visual elements in the cityscape and were created
over the last century so the number is not really that big.
Lever House, the University Club, St. Patrick's Cathedral and the United
Nations are masterpieces, but that does not mean they are perfect
as is or even as originally planned. It means simply that they
are glorious achievements of their kind, sublime manifestations
of the man-made environment - they work well and make definitive
Some buildings like the Chrysler
and Empire State Buildings and Carnegie Hall Tower and the original
Rockefeller Center complex are spectacular
even if they perhaps fall a little short of being masterpieces.
And many others, such as the Chanin
Building or Trump Tower, are wonderful
because of their details - the René Chambellan metal grilles
at the former and the landscaped corner setbacks and atrium waterfall
at the latter - rather than their wholes.
Some buildings are really not very attractive,
but are very interesting and innovative such as the forceful entrance
and complicated atrium at the Galleria at
115 East 57th Street or the stacked atria at 875 Third Avenue,
or the stilts of Citicorp Center,
or the staggered plan of the Republic National
Bank Building at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street.
Some projects are terrible such as Madison
Square Center or the office tower at 650 Fifth Avenue at 52nd
Street and should be given over to grafittists.
And many buildings are simply eccentric or
delightful such as the New York Yacht Club at 43 West 44th Street.
(I have included a short annotated list, for
impatient people too fidgety to flip lots of pages, of the more
interesting/important buildings. It follows this section.)
Midtown is a shameless, chaotic maze of egos
and power and aggressiveness and pride and problems. Any of its
major avenues or cross-streets on their own would suffice for
many cities. For the first two-thirds or so of the century, it
seemed as if New York was in a world of its own without competition
as a bustling, dynamic, overpowering and awesome center
New skylines are springing up not only across
the country but around the world. They are still paltry in comparison
with New York's but nonetheless impressive, and New York is facing
stiff competition for new development because of demographic and
technological changes. But in its aggregate, New York, and midtown
Manhattan, has assets that cannot be easily replicated, or, here,
catalogued. It is not inexhaustible, but thankfully for many it
is simply irresistible.
Although it is unquestionably the world's premier
city, New York has not fostered much great architecture in recent
decades. Indeed, not even much good architecture. In contrast,
great new, stunning architecture abounds, almost, in Japan, Europe
and in some newer cities in the United States. Anyone who meanders
through midtown Manhattan is confronted with the incongruity of
good buildings crowded by mediocrity, if not trash.
Midtown Manhattan is far from perfect. It may
be mature, but it can still evolve and improve.