(between 43rd and 44th Streets)

Developer: Olympia & York (USA)

Architect: Murphy/Jahn Associates

Erected: 1987


By Carter B. Horsley

Heere's Jahn-y!

In the late 1980's, after a very long drought, New York began getting projects by major architects who had been poorly represented here, or had not yet worked here at all.

The most notable new star at the time was Helmut Jahn of the Chicago architectural firm of Murphy/Jahn.

Jahn is one of the world's most flamboyant architects and perhaps the rightful heir, at least in terms of personality, to the ambitious mantle of Frank Lloyd Wright, although Jahn's star subsequently was outshone by Frank Gehry.

Jahn's greatest achievement to date, and perhaps his most controversial, is the sensational State of Illinois Center Building in Chicago, a totally original, curved, inclined, stepped form with a dazzling circular atrium and a giant protruding slanted skylight.

This was one of five big projects he got built in New York at the end of the 1980's and all were not as good as three others that were far more ambitious, but never executed: Television City with the world's tallest building for Donald Trump, and designs for the Coliseum site on Columbus Circle and the redevelopment of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. His four other finished projects in the city are CitySpire, the mixed-use tower at 150-6 West 56th Street, International Plaza, the office building on the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 59th Street, the Park Avenue Tower on 55th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, and the America apartment tower on Second Avenue and 84th Street.

What his completed, relatively modest and not very pyrotechnical New York buildings lack in drama, however, they make up in subtle innovation and detailing.

This is not the best of the bunch, but, nevertheless, it bears the stamp of genius.

Jahn has tried to vary the traditional somber palette of many American cities and here employed a blue and buff color scheme. Jahn's colors are always unusual and special, but they do not always work well, as here.

What's most important here, however, is the building's shape. Clearly, Jahn attempted a modern interpretation of the cornice with flared, cutoff corners on the top three floors, giving an unusual, if not downright disconcerting, roofline geometry.

Despite an interesting facade treatment, the building's zany top looks Roto-Rooterized, a squished foil to the irrepressible upward thrust of the Chrysler Building just across 43rd Street. The effect might have been more successful if the cantilevered top projected further out and was not cutoff, or chamfered, at the corners.

Even to a drunk, this top is dreadful: one wants to blink and refocus and hope it will snap into some sort of alignment.

At the time, Olympia & York was the premier developer of office buildings in the world, riding high on the success of its spectacular World Financial Center at Battery Park City. It's testimony to Jahn's reputation and argumentative persuasion that the Reichmann brothers of Olympia & York, conservative and very refined men, let him get away with this monstrosity right next to the Chrysler Building! Because it is only 31 stories tall, however, it only slightly mars the vistas of the Chrysler Building from north on Lexington Avenue and then only minimally.

The shaft of the setback tower is nicely patterned and angled at the corners.

Surprisingly, upfront at street-level, the impact is not only not bad, but actually rather impressive because of the high quality of craftsmanship and rich materials and newness at what had been a drab and not bright location.

Furthermore, the base of the building provides a closer look at the facade panels, which are very interesting perforated honeycombs, whose subtlety is wasted a little, and at Jahn's comb-like detailing around the top of the base, which is repeated at the top of the building and at the ceiling lines within the lobby, a very fine modern interpretation of the all-important cornice line.

The lobby itself is very luxurious, very bright and very good, so good, in fact, that it would have suited the Chrysler Building, whose richly marbled lobby is incredibly dark, quite well.

Top of 425 Lexington AvenueThe assertiveness of the top of this building, shown in the center of the photograph at the left, is an abrupt and inappropriate neighbor to the soaring glory of the Chrysler building. One wonders if there was a crazy slip of the pen here as Jahn's architectural drawings are generally the finest of his generation.

Hopefully, New York developers will continue to let Jahn do his thing until he gets it right for he's formidable. He is a fine high-tech stylist.



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