885 THIRD AVENUE

(BETWEEN 53RD & 54TH STREETS)

Developer: Gerald D. Hines Interests

Architect: John Burgee with Philip Johnson

Erected: 1986

This telescopic tower’s red and stainless steel facade earned it the sobriquet of "The Lipstick Building."

One of the city’s most controversial buildings, not only because of its vivid color, but also because of its elliptical plan, this is one of the city’s few important modern towers.

This building manages to stand out well despite being in the afternoon shade of Citicorp Center across the avenue and being dwarfed by two large bulky towers to the north.

In the 1980’s, Third Avenue lost its adolescent ungainliness and began to enter the full blossom of its maturity as the city’s sprightliest and glossiest avenue. The red accents of the office building across 53rd Street at testimony to this building’s magnetic beauty.

This is Burgee and Johnson’s sexiest project and the lavish richness of its materials is only matched by its design consistency, well reflected in its large lobby, which is an ellipse intersected by the rectilinear elevator bank.

One of the city’s most beautiful restaurants, Toscano, occupied much of the north sidestreet wing of this project and for a while ran an attractive cafe in the north end of the lobby. Unfortunately, Toscano closed and the new Lipstick Cafe that replaced it is a poor, but popular successor.

The curtain wall and the columns in this 34-story building are most unusual and superb. The strong horizontal expression of the facade is stunningly emphasized by the continuous strip of two-paned windows. The double-paned windows add a zippy laciness to the curtain wall. Alternating with the lacquer-like bands of red, the stainless mullions and spandrels project a pronounced high-tech air that clashes dramatically with the typical ambiance of midtown Manhattan. Such boldness is softened however, by the building’s curves. We do not normally associate high-tech with curves. We expect it to be razor-sharp, like Citicorp Center across the avenue.

Burgee and Johnson, therefore, are having great fun with counterpoint, posing their modest project as a surprisingly foil to the bright silvery arrow of Citicorp Center. This building is obviously brash, but also very sophisticated.

Interestingly, the architects moved their offices here from the Seagram Building and their office’s own elliptical lobby is surrounded by walls of shattered glass. Smashing and very striking, indeed.

Oddly, architects have long fiddled with trying to reinvent basic objects, like chairs, but few have tackled the column and those that have with rarely as much success as Burgee and Johnson have had here. The dark polished trunks of the columns are in sharp contrast with the textured granite surface of the lobby’s walls just as is the rectilinear elevator bank with the building’s shape and plan. The rear base of the building, visible primarily only from the sidestreets, is also rectilinear.

The building has two major setbacks that result in a rather bulbous form, but one that is interesting and is a relatively successful departure when viewed from many different angles. The roof is designed to almost appear like a floating bridge on an oceanliner and is only visible from a distance. Ideally, there should have been a few more setbacks, not to recall wedding-cake designs, but to animate the proportions better. As it is, the base of the building is too tall and the setbacks too small. Perhaps the intent was to minimize the setbacks to minimize the building’s slick eccentricity. Of course, the answer is bound to lie with the city’s arcane zoning regulations, which most likely dictated the ungainliness.

The urge to have a Claes Oldenburg-like large lipstick sculpture lying abandoned on the lobby’s floor is irresistible, a point not missed by the owner who at Christmas time tosses several gigantic golden-colored Christmas tree ornaments across the highly polished lobby floor.

Here is bravado and finesse.

The result is not always graceful, but definitely stunning.