THE CBS BUILDING
51 WEST 52ND STREET
Architect: Eero Saarinen & Assocs.
By Carter B. Horsley
In Stanley Kubrick's film masterpiece, "2001 -
A Space Odyssey," a mysterious black monolith puzzles and
mystifies prehistoric apes and man.
In midtown Manhattan, the "Black Rock,"
as this headquarters building of CBS is popularly known, has befuddled
and confounded architecture critics since its inception.
Is it great architecture or bad urbanism?
Like most real-life either/or questions, it
isn't that simple.
This 38-story, sheer, freestanding tower set
in its own shallow sunken plaza is unquestionably great architecture
because it is original, consistent, boldly expressed and daring.
Initially, some observers did not like its dark coloration, and
considered sunken plazas anathema and its aloofness rather condescending
and disrespectful of the common man, that is, the pedestrian.
These attributes, however, were not really negatives given its
context of fronting on an avenue whose smile then displayed many
broken and missing teeth because of the existing irregular pattern
of nearby public plazas. Moreover, its context along the Avenue
of the Americas was generally undistinguished design.
The CBS Building's proportions and rhythmic
facades are, in fact, far better than those of the celebrated
Seagram Building across town on Park Avenue. This is a powerful
building, whose angled piers thrust skyward with great energy,
assertively expressing its dynamic structuralism in a manner that
makes the Seagram Building almost seem dainty and frail. An important
key to its cohesive expression is the equal division of its facades
into five-foot-wide sections of piers and large, vertical, single-pane
windows. Simplicity and focus are this building's bywords.
The angled piers are actually load-bearing
and not curtain-wall applications. The piers are concrete and
hollow to contain ducts for the building's heating, ventilating
and air-conditioning (HVAC) equipment. They are clad in Canadian
black granite and meet at the building's corners where they make
a 45-degree angle with the plane of each facade. The granite cladding
of the piers is not polished which flattens and breaks up the
reflectively of the windows. It would be interesting to envision
the effect had the cladding been polished. Such a treatment would
have made the building appear much more faceted with interesting
reflective patterns, but it would also have lessened the tower's
boldness as the duller, unpolished granite creates a denser and
deeper facade appearance and not necessarily a "deader"
The east side of the ground floor is occupied
by a restaurant that originally was called The Ground Floor and
now has been redesigned by the very elegant China Grill, which
is one of the most attractive in the city.
The shallow plaza is bereft of public seating
although a low perimeter wall fulfills part of that need. The
Deutsche Bank Building's through-block plaza directly to the east
of the CBS building, fortunately provides more open space and,
indeed, is one of the most attractive in the city. The Deutsche
Bank Building, however, significantly blocks most of the views
from the east of the CBS Building and its pink granite cladding
and exterior design does not relate at all to the CBS Building
and pales in comparison. Inasmuch as the historic character of
midtown is a chaotic melange of contrasting styles, CBS's arrogant
tower cannot be faulted terribly on account of its great strength,
which is simple a challenge for its neighbors to meet and, indeed,
the owners of the former J. P. Penney directly across the avenue
reclad their tower and added three large, bright green bronze
sculptures of women by Jim Dine that enliven the streetscape and
actually would be fine sitting in front of the CBS Building. The
wonderful sculpture, "Lapstrake," by Jesus Bautista
Moroles, in the Deutsche Bank Building Plaza actually is a better
foil to the CBS Building than its own building.
View from the southwest
The building is often referred to as the "Black
Box," but the black granite more often appears to be dark
gray. Like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank
Lloyd Wright at Fifth Avenue and 88th Street, this building needs
more space to be appreciated as a sculptural object. When it was
erected, CBS was a very powerful television network headed by
William Paley and the building was clearly meant to be an architectural
competitor to the former RCA Building, now the GE Building at
30 Rockefeller Plaza, which houses many facilities of the NBC
television network. Obviously, a much smaller project, nonetheless
it was intended to be an important architectural statement. Its
arrogant posturing has been diminished by the renaissance in the
late 1990's of Times Square and the flamboyance of some later
towers such as Citicorp Center on Lexington Avenue at 63rd Street.
It really is not a masterpiece because its
proportions are a bit bulky and its massing falls short of being
brutalistic enough to be truly memorable. Brutalism was an architectural
style of the period, best personified by the Whitney Museum of
Modern Art on Madison Avenue at 75th Street, designed by Marcel
Breuer, and the former PanAm, now MetLife Building straddling
Park Avenue at 55th Street, designed by Walter Gropius. Still,
this building has an elegance that is neither under- or overstated,
something that was very much needed for this avenue.