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The Austrian Cultural Forum

North side of 52nd Street between Fifth & Madison Avenues

Main midblock facade

Main midblock façade

By Carter B. Horsley

New York City is beginning to get interesting architecturally again.

Not across the board, of course. Only isolated examples. Still, this is encouraging news.

The new Austrian Cultural Forum, whose façade is shown above, in the middle of the north side of 52nd Street between between Fifth and Madison Avenues is a splendid example.

This is a sliver building. It is 24 stories tall but only 25 feet wide, the width of a large townhouse. Sliver buildings, you may remember, have been bete noirs in New York for about two decades, loathed by some community groups concerned about "context." The community groups were strong enough to convince the city to enact "sliver" zoning to prohibit such spindly incursions, despite the fact that the city's greatest architectural jewels, such as the Chrysler, A. I. G., Chanin, Empire State and 570 Lexington Avenue, among others, are spindly and could not be built under the city's current, and long-standing zoning.

No one is protesting loudly about this building's "sliverness," but perhaps they should be loudly proclaiming it. While the rest of the world has been enjoying exciting new architecture for a couple of decades, the city, with very rare exception has been not just a backwater but a brakish swamp as far as nurturing excellent design.

A couple of years ago, LVMH completed a new tower on the north side of 57th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues whose design by Christian Portzamparc was a rakishly angled glass tower of considerable interest and élan. It and the Austrian Cultural Forum, which has been designed by Atelier Raimund Abraham, share the distinction of shattering the box with intriguing flair and both, not too surprisingly were built by European clients. Another stunning, but smaller new building also opened in early 2002, the American Folk Art Museum on 53rd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Associates, a building that also has a very unusual and angled façade (see The City Review article).

The "box," of course, has been the rectinilearity of most of the city's built environment. Frank Lloyd Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue at 88th Street and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's sloping skyscrapers at 9 West 57th Street and 1114 Avenue of the Americas are the most obvious exceptions and the impact of Frank Gehry's great sinuous complex for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, completed in 1997, has kindled tremendous new interest in non-traditional urban forms. Gehry, who has since designed the similarly flamboyantly metal-clad Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and an expansion for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., as well as a mammoth proposed facility on the East River near the South Street Seaport for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (see The City Review article), is now the world's most sought-after architect for major projects (see The City Review article of a major retrospective on Gehry at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York).

Model of building

Model of forum showing cross bracing behind windows and cutaway of lower floors

Both the Portzamparc and Raimund towers are not highly visible as they are mid-block buildings and not free-standing, and in comparison with the above-mentioned projects relatively modest.

Neither the Portzamparc nor the Raimund towers are perfect. The former has eccentric fenestration and a very interesting illumination scheme that unfortunately is not often "in play." Its flat top is a bit abrupt, given the soaring angularity of its 57th Street façade. The Raimund tower is remarkably aggressive, which is perhaps fitting for its "battleship" grayness, but its entrance is surprisingly understated, presumably overwhelmed by the sculptural pyrotechnics above it. The building might have been more striking if it were clad in a silver-like material, or black. These comments, of course, are nitpicking and these buildings are smashing additions to midtown, demonstrating complete obviousness to their "context," and very rightfully proud of their high individuality.

View from Fifth Avenue looking east

View of building from Fifth Avenue looking east

The Raimund building looks fabulous from directly across the street, but seen from the side, as shown above, is less alluring, although its slanted silhouette is boldly original and quite gripping. In contrast, the Portzamparc tower, which has higher visibility because it is on a major cross-town street and rises above its neighbors on its side of the street, has a more finished appearance.

The zig-zag profile interrupts the soaring slant but also adds a good deal of dynamics. The profile is also interrupted near the base with a projecting element whose geometry is echoed vaguely in a smaller projection at the top of the tower and the overall effect from directly across the street is abstractly totemic.

The building contains only 30,000 square feet and includes public galleries, library and auditorium, offices, and a four-level apartment near the top for the organization's director.

Abraham Raimund, the architect, was born in Austria in 1933 but has worked in New York since 1964 and retired recently from teaching architecture at the Cooper Union. He entered a competition for the project and was chosen over more than 200 competitors. In a fine article on the project by James S. Russell in the August, 2002 issue of Architectural Record magazine, Kenneth Frampton, who teaches architecture at Columbia University and was a member of the jury for the project's 1992 design competition, is quoted as saying that the key to Raimund's selection was his sacrificing north daylight by placing scissor fire stairs on the building's north side to free up interior space.

In his article, Mr. Russell quotes Mr. Raimund as explaining that his decision to "hide" the cross-supports behind the windows by stating that "In the kind of skin I envisioned glass not about transparency but about weight," adding that "I wanted to suspend glass and layer it. You perceive its platelike qualities and the knifelike edge." The cascading "zip" of the façade definitely impresses one with gravity, and one should remember that at 9 West 57th Street and 1114 Avenue of the Americas, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill opted to place a large "gutter" above the first floor to mitigate the intense verticality at street-level.

Mr. Russell also noted the following in his Architectural Record article:

"Abraham fought with the contractor and subcontractors. New York's corruption-ridden concrete firms couldn't meet the specs, it is said. the curtain wall had to be fabricated in Austria because American makers couldn't achieve the quality Abraham demanded, it is said. Abraham refused to give a building tour to a prominent Austrian official because he disagreed with the political direction of the country, it is said. Neither these nor numerous other similar stories can be verified because of pending legal actions or fear of Abraham's temper."

The Austrian Cultural Forum building is boldly brilliant and the large "screen" in front of the rooftop watertank is a fine scultural element. The "mask" and "totemic" elements on the façade offer vigorous proof that "glass" skyscrapers are not passé.


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