By Carter B. Horsley
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.
On November 14, 2007, Hines, the Houston-based
development concern headed by Gerald D. Hines, announced that
Jean Nouvel had designed a 75-story tower for it that will 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. 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
Nouvel's design is quite breathtaking, bold
and a bit bizarre. It is definitely not in context, which is not
Is it a deconstructed obelisk? Is it a hanger
for a 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 press release did not indicate the building's
height in feet and commentators on the Internet were euphoric
about the design and especially about its height that some suggested
was as tall as the Chrysler Building, which apparently was based
on a drawing published the day before in The New York Times
in a rave review by its architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff.
The renderings published in The New York
Times and others that could be found on the Internet the next
day, and reproduced below, added to the initial confusion as some
indicated that the building would have an open crown and the more
finished renderings indicated an enclosed, sharply angled top.
The source of many of the renderings is www.dezeen.com.
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."
Nouvel designed the residential condominium
project that was completed in 2007 at 40 Mercer Street in SoHo
for Hines and André Balasz. The initial renderings for
the project indicated its facade would have some bright red and
bright blue windows, but the overall color of the project is 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
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,
as shown above. It is directly across from Frank O. Gehry's headquarters
building for IAC and the juxtaposition is one of the city's choicest.
It is being developed by Alf Naman and Cape Advisors.
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."
The color rendering released with the announcement
indicated that the building will have a very complex façade
with many diagonal braces, a design that one surfer at skyscraper.com
likened to the "the Chicago Hancock Center after being beaten
by a blacksmith, hammered and stretched to fit into its site."
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 will 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
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 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 undulated residential
condominium project known as One Jackson Square at 122 Greenwich
Avenue that has been designed by William Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen
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.
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 facade 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-à-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. Unfortunately, it does not stand
alone like the Eiffel Tower but it is likely to become a signature
element of the midtown skyline.
The base of the new tower on 53rd Street rises
straight up for a few floors and passersby can 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
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 a proposed
mixed-use tower designed by Jean Nouvel at 53 West 53rd Street
adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art.
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
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 facades and diagonal
bracing. It would contain a 100-room, "seven-star" hotel,
and 120 "highest-end residential condominiums."
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."
The museum recently completed a major redevelopment
that was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi.
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.
An 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. (3/14/08)
The Landmarks Preservation Commission held
a 3-hour meeting April 8, 2008 on the proposed transfer of air
rights from St. Thomas Church on the northwest corner of Fifth
Avenue and 53rd Street and the University Club on the northwest
corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street to a proposed, 1,155-feet-tall,
mixed use tower designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel at 53 West 53rd
Street adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art.
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 27 to 1 with two abstentions
and 1 present not entitled to vote by Community Board 5 March
13 that asked the commission not to recommend the transfers.
Jean Nouvel, the French architect who recently
was awarded the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, 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 "élan,"
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
A statement submitted yesterday 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"
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
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. (4/9/08)
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 to 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 unequivocally
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. 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 prods and 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. (4/19/08)
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted
in May, 2008 to approve by a vote of 7 to 0 applications for the
proposed transfer of air rights from St. Thomas Church on the
northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street and the University
Club on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street to
a proposed, 1,155-feet-tall, mixed use tower designed by Ateliers
Jean Nouvel at 53 West 53rd Street adjacent to the Museum of Modern
The planned tower would also use 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 hearing at the commission last month were
residents from the neighborhood and civic organizations that were
opposed to the air rights transfers and supportive of a resolution
passed Community Board 5 March 13 that asked the commission not
to recommend the transfers.
The tower would provide MoMA with about 50,000 square feet of
exhibition space and about 10,000 square feet of basement storage
space in the proposed tower. It would be a dramatic addition to
the skyline as it has angled, tapered north and south facades
and diagonal bracing. It would contain a 100-room, "seven-star"
hotel, and 120 "highest-end residential condominiums"
in addition to MoMA expansion.