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53W53, 53 West 53rd Street

Between Fifth Avenue & Sixth Avenue

Carter Horsley
Reviewed by Carter Horsley
Carter Horsley Carter B. Horsley, a former journalist for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Post. Mr. Horsley is also the editorial director of CityRealty.com.
 

The November 14, 2007 announcement by Hines Interests that it had commissioned Jean Nouvel, the French architect and a winner of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, to design a major mixed-use tower to the west of the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan was greeted with considerable enthusiasm.

Hines, the Houston-based development concern headed by Gerald D. Hines, announced that the tower would rise 75 stories and combine an expansion for the Museum of Modern Art in its base, a 100-room, "seven-star" hotel and 120 high-end residential condominium apartments.

In a review of the new Nouvel tower, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in the November 15, 2007 edition of The New York Times that it promises to be the most exhilarating addition to the skyline in a generation," adding that "Its faceted exterior, tapering to a series of crystalline peaks, suggests an atavistic preoccupation with celestial heights. It brings to mind John Ruskin's praise for the irrationality of Gothic architecture: 'It not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle.'"

Noting that the new tower's façades have "a taut, muscular look," Mr. Ouroussoff maintained that the tower's "contorted forms are a scream for freedom." He also noted that "The top-floor apartment is arranged around such a massive elevator core that its inhabitants will feel pressed up against the glass exterior walls. (Mr. Nouvel compared the apartment to the pied-a-terre at the top of the Eiffel Tower from which Gustave Eiffel used to survey his handiwork below.)"

The comparison to the Eiffel Tower may be apt for Nouvel's tower is sculpted structure whose aesthetic is based in large part on its engineering. Although it will not stand alone like the Eiffel Tower it is likely to become a signature element of the midtown skyline.

Hines had acquired the small plot of about 17,000 square feet at 53 West 53rd Street in January, 2007 for about $125 million. The L-shaped plot runs through the block to 54th Street where it is just to the west of the American Museum of Folk Art.

It was not clear from the announcement if the project was "as-of-right," that is, a development that needs no public approvals and falls within existing zoning and building regulations.

The tower would certainly be substantially higher that the Museum Tower, which is 588 feet tall and was designed by Cesar Pelli in an earlier expansion by the museum. The Museum Tower is the east of the planned new building, which is just to the west of the American Folk Art Museum. The Museum of Modern Art undertook a major expansion designed by Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004.

It was also not clear at first how such a tall building could rise on such a small and narrow plot.

It subsequently became clear that the developer had acquired air rights to augment his buildable envelope.

Community Board 5 voted 27 to 1 with 2 abstentions and 1 "present not entitled to vote" March 13, 2007, to recommend that the Landmarks Preservation Commission not give a certificate of appropriateness to the transfer of air rights from above St. Thomas Episcopal Church on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street and the University Club on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street to the proposed mixed-use tower.

Hines Interests, one of the nation's foremost developers, had signed a contract to acquire the vacant lot at 53 West 53rd Street from the Museum of Modern Art and provide the museum with about 50,000 square feet of exhibition space and about 10,000 square feet of basement storage space in the proposed tower.

As designed by Jean Nouvel, the new tower would utilize the air rights to rise 1,155 feet high, more than a hundred feet taller than the Chrysler Building.

Under the proposal, the church, which is located at 678 Fifth Avenue, would transfer about 275,000 square feet of air rights and the club, which is located at 1 West 54th Street, would transfer about 136,000 square feet.

The site at 53 West 53rd Street, which extends through the block to 54th Street, can be developed with about 210,000 square feet without any air rights transfers. The plan also calls for about 7,000 square feet of air rights to be transferred from the museum for a grand total of 628,238 square feet if the transfers are allowed.

The proposed building, which is to be known as the Tower Verre, would be a dramatic addition to the skyline as it has angled, tapered north and south façades and diagonal bracing.

In its resolution sent to Robert Tierney, the chairman of the landmarks commission, the community board noted that the developer "has not provided a written preservation plan and independent Shadow Studies, as requested by the Committee, which are imperative in order to assess if there is an adequate preservation plan in place" and for the commission to report whether "the new tower will 'relate harmoniously to the subject landmark buildings'" including the "stained glass windows of St. Thomas Church which face west to the Development site."

The resolution also said that the museum's famous sculpture garden is not a landmark, "but an eventual candidate for Scenic Landmarking, very likely the most adversely affected open space in the vicinity of the proposed tower."

In addition to creating new spaces for the museum to use, the deal is expected to provide it with about $65 million for its endowment.

The Museum of Modern Art's architectural history has been steeped in sleek, elegant modernity but its last couple of major expansions have been widely seen as rather bland and not in the forefront of contemporary architecture.

Nouvel's design is quite breathtaking, bold and a bit bizarre. It is definitely not in context, which is not necessarily bad.

Is it a deconstructed obelisk? Is it a hanger for an ungainly spacecraft designed for a landing on Pluto? Is it a prickly 21st Century urban thorn?

It does not conform to any known building style and that's just what New York City needs more of.

A completely asymmetrical design, it has no traditional setbacks and tapers to a point.

The announcement indicated that the "project will likely commence pre-sales in late 2008.

Gerald D. Hines, the chairman of Hines, said that "Nouvel's exciting concept has the potential to become an international architectural design icon."

Hines had already worked with Nouvel.

Nouvel designed the residential condominium project that was completed in 2007 at 40 Mercer Street in SoHo for Hines and Andr? Balasz. The initial renderings for the project indicated its façade would have some bright red and bright blue windows, but the overall color of the project turned out something like a bland battleship gray. The project, of course, is notable for its huge windows that slide up and down and a strong Lever House-like modernity whose rectilinearity is not out of place in SoHo.

Far more exciting is Nouvel's design for 100 Eleventh Avenue, a residential condominium tower now under construction in Chelsea that is notable for its very faceted fenestration. It is being developed by Alf Naman and Cape Advisors. It is directly across from Frank O. Gehry's headquarters building for IAC and the juxtaposition is one of the city's choicest.

Both 40 Mercer and 100 Eleventh Avenue have relatively conventional forms in sharp contrast to 53 West 53rd Street whose angularity far outstrips Sir Norman Foster's Hearst Building tower a few blocks away on the southwest corner of Eighth Avenue and 57th Street.

The announcement stated that "Nouvel's design maximizes the site while considering the city's zoning envelope," adding that its "unique silhouette tapers as it rises to a distinctive spire" and that "its steel and glass façade reveals the diagrid structural design."

One Internet surfer at skyscraper.com likened the design of Nouvel s proposed 53rd Street tower to the "the Chicago Hancock Center after being beaten by a blacksmith, hammered and stretched to fit into its site."

Mr. Nouvel is the architect of the recently completed Quai Branly Museum, the Arab World Institute, the Cartier Foundation in Paris, and the Lyon Opera House.

Two of his most interesting designs that were not built in New York called for a hotel projected over the East River in Brooklyn and a tall tower with a bridge to an angled low-rise building in the Meat-Packing District.

His first New York City project was a design in 1997 for a "River Hotel" on the Brooklyn riverfront between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. The cantilevered design was appealing but the unbuilt project threatened to interrupt famous vistas of the two wonderful bridges.

Hines built the "Lipstick" office building at 885 Third Avenue that was designed by Philip Johnson, who also designed major skyscrapers for him in many American cities. Hines is also the developer with Aby Rosen of the horizontally undulating residential condominium project known as One Jackson Square at 122 Greenwich Avenue that has been designed by William Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox.

In a January 3, 2007 article in The New York Times, Carol Vogel observed that the museum's expansion into the Hines tower "opens the way for the museum to address wide criticism of the exhibition spaces in the Taniguchi building," adding that "When the Modern reopened in 2004 many faulted its curators for showing fewer artworks in its expanded galleries than it had before."

Hines Interests partnered with Whitehall Street, the Goldman Sachs group in acquiring the site, part of which had previously been occupied by the historic City Athletic Club on West 54th Street. The club closed in 2002 and was acquired by the museum out of bankruptcy.

The base of the new tower on 53rd Street rises straight up for a few floors and passersby will be able to look in and down onto museum space.

It may not mesh perfectly with the cool minimalism for which the museum is known but it is gutsy and robust and a definite head-turner.

A on-line petition imploring that city officials approve the proposed tower was started at Wirednewyork.com.

The petition noted that New York City "has not been at the forefront of skyscraper design for many years now," adding that Nouvel's design "is every bit as great as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, which is no small claim."

"Although it is designed in a modern vernacular, every inch of it strives to be tall, it has a Gotham feel and it has Art Deco flourishes, it is a modern landmark. This is what New York essentially is all about; big, bold, and proud," the petition continued.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission held a 3-hour meeting April 8, 2008 on the proposed transfer of air rights from St. Thomas Church and the University Club on the northwest corner to the proposed Nouvel site. It did not take any action at the meeting.

The planned tower would also use some unused air rights from the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of American Folk Art, which is adjacent to the site.

Most of the speakers at the hearing were residents from the neighborhood and civic organizations that were opposed to the air rights transfers and supportive of a resolution passed by Community Board 5 that asked the commission not to recommend the transfers.

Mr. Nouvel told the commission that his design would "enrich the neighborhood and open the sky to the street," adding that "You can look at the skyline of the city and you can say 'The MOMA is here.'" He said the very narrow building would be open at the top and illuminated at night, describing the design as "?lan," which means thrust.

Michael Sillerman, a lawyer representing the developer, Hines Interests, told the commission that the proposed tower is about 500 feet away from the church and the club and the project moves bulk away from them and toward the higher density of the Avenue of the Americas.

The transfers are being sought under zoning provisions known as 74-711 and 74-79 that permit them if they provide for preservation maintenance programs for the properties transferring them and if the receiving property is "harmonious" with them.

A statement submitted by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects said that "we feel that New York City will gain much architecturally from having an example of recent Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel's work so prominently displayed on the skyline," adding that they "feel that the design and materials are 'light' enough that the height is not oppressive and does 'relate harmoniously.'"

David Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, whose projects include the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, spoke in support of the transfers, stating that the proposed tower was "an important project of design excellence."

A statement submitted to the commission by the Historic Districts Council maintained that "there is no harmonious relation...between the proposed and the University Club and St. Thomas," adding that "there is really no way a building so tall could do anything but tower over, eclipse and distract from its neighbors." "Both individual landmarks," the statement continued, "are hardly the dilapidated, abandoned buildings 74-711 and 74-79 were created to help." The statement also noted that while the two landmark buildings "are willing to suffer whatever side effects there may be from the construction" it "should be remembered that there are other individual landmarks just across the street that will not enjoy such benefits...as well as many historic, non-designated low and mid-rise buildings, [that] will endure all of the pain, and none of the gain."

Christabel Gough, the executive director of the Society for the Architecture of the City, told the commission that "one of the great landmark enigmas of New York has always been the landmark status of the Modern Museum," adding that "if the Modern Museum had been landmarked, even if the area around it, full of distinguished buildings, had become a Modern Museum Historic District, it might be easier to argue that there was a harmonious relationship of some kind, at least historically,...as it is, 'harmonious relationship' seems elusive, and while the University Club and St. Thomas Church as landmarks are entitled to take advantage of their rights under zoning, the likelihood of their falling into disrepair appears remote."

Ken Lustbader read a statement from The New York Landmarks Conservancy that stated that "both landmarks are for the most part already in sound, first-class condition," adding that his organization finds "it troubling that a portion of the proposed building will impinge on a City Planning Commission's Special Midtown Preservation Subdistrict that was specifically put in place to restrict over-development on the side streets surrounding MOMA."

Lisa Kersavage, director of advocacy and policy for The Municipal Art Society, told the commission that "the design of the proposed building is certainly handsome," but added that "we believe there will be shadow impacts on historic resources, especially on the low-rise landmarks and light-sensitive open spaces like MOMA's sculpture garden." She also said that the area is rich with landmarks "and unprotected landmark-quality buildings" and "there's a sense that we seem to be losing rapidly significant buildings in the area just north of this tower" and urged the commission to "focus energy on designating" such buildings.

A statement submitted by State Senator Liz Krueger "strongly" used the commission to deny the applications for the project, which she said "would be grossly out of scale" and "would overwhelm the area's infrastructure and services." The statement said that "the materials, design, scale and location of bulk in the proposed building would not relate to the adjacent landmark buildings."

One resident in the area told the commission the tower's needle-like design was "disjointed," another said it was a "stab in the heart of the neighborhood" and another said it was like a "parachuted" building.

In an article in the April 17, 2008 edition of New York Magazine, Justin Davidson described Nouvel's tower as "an ecstatic reproach to Manhattan's regularity," adding that "It would be the skyline what Broadway is to the street grid: an indispensable violation and a zagging flourish."

"Its athletic, muscular contortions recall Daniel Libeskind's original concept for 1,776-foot skyscraper at ground zero that would echo the Statue of Liberty's raised arm. No other high-rise in New York reaches its pinnacle with such kinetic precision," according to Mr. Davidson.

Mr. Davidson description of Nouvel's tower as muscular is right: it's on steroids and stretches its body to the bursting point. His notion of "indispensable violations" is poetic but stretched too far as the top of Citicorp Center and the Bank of America Building now nearing completion at Bryant Park and Sixth Avenue have sharply angled roofs.

What the Nouvel designs clearly and unequivocably is how horrible and inadequate MOMA's recent expansions have been. It does not solve the problem as it certainly makes no contextual gestures towards it or anything else and probably will still not provide sufficient space for the museum's expansion needs. It is, nevertheless, a grand project, a tour de force.

Despite the power of the design, it is one of the hardest proposals to truly visualize and fairly comprehend.

Critics are right to suggest that The University Club and St. Thomas Church are not in truly desperate need of the preservation "maintenance program" that the air rights transfers will provide. The bugaboo about shadows has already gone out the barn door since the real perpetrator is Cesar Pelli's Museum Tower that does significantly block afternoon sun from warming the museum's great garden. The Nouvel tower may darken some mid-block buildings on the north side of 54th Street but they are nowhere near as important as the garden.

It will be interesting to see what the Landmarks Preservation Commission does with this case since the applicants are so classy and pre-eminent and merely trying to achieve what the laws permit.

The tower is ornery and ungainly and certainly not simple and sleek but in a city that has suffered from an absence of fine architectural projects, despite an abundance of architectural talent, for more than a generation until the past few years it is welcome because it is very provocative and any building that is provocative makes us consider our environment more carefully and that is not a bad thing. A city comprised only of provocative structures, of course, would surely begin to exhaust its excitement. A little provocation can go a long ways, which is not to say that the provocation should be little.

Hines Interests is a privately owned real estate firm involved in real estate investment, development and property management worldwide, with offices in 15 countries on four continents, including New York (since 1982), Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, London, Paris, Milan, Madrid, Sao Paulo, Beijing, and Shanghai.

Other Hines properties in the city include 31 West 52nd Street, 383 Madison Avenue, 425 Lexington Avenue, 750 Seventh Avenue and 140 Broadway.

An article in The Slatin Report June 19, 2007, said that Mr. Nouvel had won a design competition for the new tower and that the other competing architects has been Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, Reiser and Unamoto, Morphosis and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

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