425 LEXINGTON AVENUE
(between 43rd and 44th Streets)
Developer: Olympia & York
Architect: Murphy/Jahn Associates
By Carter B. Horsley
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
The most notable new star at
the time was Helmut Jahn of the Chicago architectural firm of
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
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,
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.
The 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.