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Norman Foster's Hearst Building

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View from the northeast corner of 57th Street and Eighth AvenueView of tower from northeast corner of 54th Street

View of Hearst Building from the northeast corner of 57th Street and Eighth Avenue, left, and from the northeast corner of 54th Street and Eighth Avenue, right

By Carter B. Horsley

The Hearst Corporation commissioned Sir Norman Foster, the Pritzker Prize-winning English architect, to design a 42-story office tower to rise above its low-rise building occupying the west blockfront on Eighth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets, an Art Deco-style structure originally designed by Joseph Urban in yellow stone with theatrical sculptures.

Original Urbann building

Original Hearst Building designed by Joseph Urbann was planned as a tower, but construction stopped during the Depression

William Randolph Hearst was not only a major publisher but a fledging real estate developer with major ambitions. At one point, he hoped to locate the Metropolitan Opera to the far reaches of West 57th Street at a time when the Rockefellers were trying to lure it what would become Rockefeller Center. He acquired the west blockfront of Eighth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets and planned a major Art Deco tower designed by Joseph Urban. There was talk of a new Hudson River Bridge at 59th Street, talk that never came to fruition, but Hearst's interest in the area continued and he wanted to redevelop the Columbus Circle area as an entertainment complex. The Hearst Building at 959 Eighth Avenue was originally known as the International Magazine Building. Its architect, Urban, came from Vienna and had designed the Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, the New School for Social Research on West 12th Street and some sets for plays and movies starring Marion Davies, Mr. Hearst's mistress.

base of pylon

Urbann's original designed called for a tower of about 20 stories setback on its 6-story based highlighted by corner and mid-block pylons topped by large vase/finials and anchored on pedestals at the third story with large sculptural figures

The pylons extended almost two stories above the low-rise base and began on pedestrals on the third floor. The tops of the pylons had large vase/finials and the bases had large sculptural figures.

The truncated Urban building, which was built in 1928 and landmarked in 1988, has always been something of an anachronism. Its yellow stone is something of a surprising departure from the traditional use of limestone in major buildings. Perhaps more importantly, the building seemed too important for its site, which for a long time was not one of the most desirable or elegant in the city as Eighth Avenue was best known for its tenements with porno stores for most of the latter half of the 10th Century and 57th Street's elegance began to run out of steam as it approached Eighth Avenue. Actually, 57th Street's elegance did cross Eighth Avenue to some mid-block buildings on the north side and the very impressive through-block apartment complex known as the Parc Vendome on the south side at Ninth Avenue.

What destroyed its ambience was the terrible Sheffield, a 50-story apartment tower of dark brown brick that was typical of a lot of construction of the late 1960s and the 1970s, the nadir of architecture in New York City. The Sheffield, which has hundreds of small apartments, did have a paddle-tennis court of the roof as well as a health club and many of its apartments had very impressive views, but the building had no redeeming aesthetics, was completely out of context with its surroundings and was ugly. In 2005, it was acquired for conversion to condominiums by a group led by Kent Swig, who had recenty been assembling a very, very distinguished collection of important buildings in the Financial District.

View from the Top of the Rock observatory

The Hearst building's distinctive facade, center left, holds it own against the Random House headquarters/Park Imperial apartment tower in the center foreground, and the glossy and tall twin towers of the Time-Warner Center one block to the north, at the upper right

The blight of the Sheffield was somewhat alleviated about a generation ago by the erection of the light-green-metal-clad Central Park Place Tower on the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue and 57th Street, which affords spectacular views through very large bay windows of Central Park over the mid-rise, gray-brick tower of the very bland and unattractive New York Coliseum that sadly dominated Columbus Circle at the southwest corner of Central Park. Central Park Tower was designed by William Zeckendorf Jr., then the city's most important pioneer of development whose projects such as World-Wide Plaza, Zeckendorf Towers at Union Square, and the Columbia at 96th Street and Broadway subsequently led to the significant improvement of their then less than chic neighborhoods. Central Park Tower, which was designed by Davis Brody & Associates, is one of the city's best post-war residential towers with a fine, rugged form and a superb rooftop enclosure that would be much more admired if its facade were much darker.

High hopes for something architecturally important or at least interesting on the New York Coliseum site were bogged down by civic groups screaming about shadows in Central Park. While no one was looking, Donald Trump got Philip Johnson to design a very snappy and very glossy and very good bronze-reflective glass, piered facade for the former Gulf & Western Building on the north side of Columbus Circle, a very dreary office tower. Mr. Trump divided his new project into a fancy hotel and fancy condominiums and would subsequently take great pleasure in posting a large sign near the top of the building on its western facade to inform residents of the just completed Time-Warner Center that his building had better, unobstructed views of the park.

Skyline view from Central Park

Seen from Central Park, the Hearst Building, Central Park Place, the Sheffield, Time-Warner Center, Trump International and the Century, from left to right

The Time-Warner Center's final design by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is impressive, but not great (see The City Review article). With its very expensive apartments, a Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the headquarters of Time-Warner, a four-story curved up-end retail atrium anchored by a great Whole Foods store in the basement and with a jazz facility for the nearby Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Time-Warner Center was reduced in height somewhat by community critics but was still tall enough to be very influential for the area.

The controversial redevelopment of the New York Coliseum site gave hope that this important quadrant of midtown might improve, but the real influence gave from the south, from the remarkable renaissance of Times Square and the Theater District and Zeckendorf's formidable World Wide Plaza full block development on a former site of Madison Square Garden. Indeed, in recent years, several attactive new apartment towers have sprouted on Eighth Avenue north of Arquitectonica's strange multi-colored, multi-angled hotel on the northeast corner of the avenue and 42nd Street, an appropriate "book-end" to the Hearst Building in midtown on Eighth Avenue.

Sir Norman Foster ranks up there with Frank O. Gehry (see The City Review article) and Santiago Calatrava (see The City Review article) as the most famous and successful architects of their time. He is not the world's only high-tech architect, but certainly the most successful and prolific.

The Hearst organization deserves great credit for commissioning Lord Foster, since great architecture was in evidence around the globe but New York City was a backwater without representative works of the many great international architects.

Lord Foster subsequently has gotten a couple of more important New York commissions from Aby Rosen, the owner of the Seagram Building and Lever House.

Lord Foster's project portfolio is immense and varied and includes many of the best buildings of the last generation, and a few that have a rather odd geometry.

His solution for the Hearst organization falls in the oddball category.

The tower is highlighted by its fine stainless-steel diamond pattern and notched corners that give its form a dramatic and crystalline shape that has nothing to do with any other building, or neighborhood in the city.

The tower, however, ends abruptly and is not svelte. If it had been 8 to 16 stories taller, its proportions would be finer and its squared-off top not so much at odds with the facades.

Angled escalators cross stepped waterfall created by Jamie Carpenter

Angled escalators cross stepped waterfall created by Jamie Carpenter

In recent years, New York City has become too obsessive about the notion of "contextual" architecture that wants everything to be nice and compatible with its neighborhood. Many of the city's most important architectural gems could never have been built if they had been forced to be "contextual," a concept that might make sense on a sidestreet in Queens but not in Manhattan.

When one is "adding-on" to an existing building, however, context assumes a greater importance (see The City Review article on Paul Byard's excellent book, "The Architecture of Additions"). "Add-ons" are fairly uncommon, if one forgets about the "roof-top additions" for small and medium-size residential buildings that occupy much of the time of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. New York City has had its share of very controversial "add-on" plans involving Grand Central Terminal and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Entrance atrium

Entrance atrium

Lord Foster's solution at the Hearst Building is quite good. He preserved the entire facade of the low-rise base, but gutted it and filled with space with a good size atrium highlighted by a three-story-high stepped and slanted waterfall with angled escalators.

The main entrance on Eighth Avenue is impressive as the waterfall and escalators pick up the angled dynamic of the tower's facade and are very elegant.

On the outside, Lord Foster's new tower makes a good transition with the base over which it almost appears to float. To remark that the stainless-steel-and-glass tower overwhelms and dominates the base is obvious. Perhaps if the tower were an sandstone notched obelisk, the context might be improved, but we have no objection at all with stainless steel buildings. Many museum curators believe that restorations should be clearly delineated and not covered up, a purist approach that has lots of merit. In architecture, a clean-break is often better than a half-hearted compromise. Each project, of course, is different and there is not necessarily only one excellent solution to such problems.

The Urban building was not the only high-rise casualty of the Depression in New York: the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company had planned a mammoth tower at 11 Madison Avenue facing on Madison Square Park just to the north of its great 50-story campanile-like headquarters and stopped construction after erecting its very impressive scalloped limestone base that is occupies a full block and is today a very large office building as is.

The tower at 7 World Trade Center that was demolished in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks was erected over a power plant that was designed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to support a skyscraper.

The Port Authority also designed the northern end of its bus terminal on the southwest corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street to support a skyscraper and is actively marketing the site now.

The selection of Foster for the Hearst site was a coup for Hearst and the city as he is one of the world's most important and famous "high-tech" architects and it reinforces the recent trend in the city to import some famous architectural "names": Renzo Piano, the architect of the Georges Pompidou Center (Beaubourg) in Paris, for example, was chosen by The New York Times to design a new headquarters skyscraper on Eighth Avenue at 40th Street (see The City Review article) and also to design an expansion of The Morgan Library on Madison Avenue between 35th and 36th Streets; LVMH commissioned Christian Portzamparc to design an angled tower on 57th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues; and the Austrian Government commissioned the very interesting, narrow and angled mid-block tower on 53rd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. All of these projects are significant departures from the routinely bland box forms that have typefied most new commercial construction in the city with very rare exceptions in the post-World War II-era and led to New York City being considered a backwater of modern architecture in recent decades.

Famous names, of course, do not guarantee great buildings and developers have generally shied away from them because of concern that their perceived flamboyant egos might result in costlier structures and also because local architects are more likely to be familiar with the city's very arcane and complex zoning and building regulations.

It should be noted that the city's own stable of architects includes many of the world's most famous architects such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, among others, as well as many other firms that have produced extremely good work such as Kohn Pedersen Fox, Fox & Fowle and Emery Roth & Sons.

Foster has picked up three major new commissions in New York following his work on the Hearst project: Larry Silverstein has chosen him for one of the office towers to rise at Ground Zero and Aby Rosen has chosen him for a tall mixed-use tower on Lexington Avenue behind the Seagram Building (see The City Review article) and for a redevelopment of the west blockfront on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th Streets.

The selection of Foster by Hearst probably was based in large part on his experience in high-rise buildings and historic structures, most notably the Reichstag in Berlin and the Great Court at the British Museum.

Foster's Reichstag's dome in Berlin

Foster's new dome atop the Reichstag in Berlin

Foster and Partners was one of 14 non-German practices invited to enter the competition to rebuild the Reichstag in 1992 and it won the completion in 1993 and work on the project began in 1995 after Christo's famous "Wrapped Reichstag" project was finished.

Foster's firm provides the following commentary about this famous project:

"The building's transformation is rooted in four issues: the Bundestag's significance as a democratic forum, a commitment to public accessibility, a sensitivity to history, and a rigorous environmental agenda.

"As found, the Reichstag was mutilated by war and insensitive rebuilding; surviving nineteenth-century interiors were concealed beneath a plasterboard lining. Peeling away these layers revealed striking imprints of the past, including graffiti left by Soviet soldiers. These scars are preserved and historical layers articulated; the Reichstag has become a 'living museum' of German history.

"The reconstruction takes clues from the old Reichstag; for example, the original piano nobile and courtyards have been reinstated. In other respects it is a complete departure, opening up the interior to light and views. Within its masonry shell it is transparent, its activities on view. Public and politicians enter together through the reopened formal entrance. The public realm continues on the roof in the terrace restaurant and the cupola - a new Berlin landmark - where helical ramps lead to an observation platform, allowing the people to ascend above the heads of their political representatives.

"The building's energy strategy is radical. It uses renewable bio-fuel - vegetable oil - which, burned in a cogenerator to produce electricity, is far cleaner than fossil fuels. The result is a 94 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Surplus heat is stored as hot water in an aquifer, 300 metres below ground; the water can be pumped up to heat the building or to drive an absorption cooling plant to produce chilled water; that too can be similarly stored below ground. The Reichstag's modest energy requirements allow it to perform as a power station for the new government quarter.

"The Reichstag's cupola is also crucial to its lighting and ventilation strategies. At its core a 'light sculptor' reflects horizon light into the chamber; a moveable sun shield blocks solar gain and glare. As night falls, this process is reversed. The cupola becomes a beacon, signalling the strength and vigour of the German democratic process."

The Reichstag project was completed in 1999 to wide acclaim for its sensational space within the dome.

At the British Museum, Foster again created a spectacular roof-top public space by enclosing in glass the building's dome.

Foster attracted attention in 1971 when he was able to deliver a permanent office building to IBM in Cosham, at the cost and within the time-frame of temporary quarters. In 1975, Foster's modernist solution for an office structure in Ipswich, England for Willis Faber & Dumas brought the first international attention to his work. The three-story, glass-clad building followed irregular street patterns, reflecting its surroundings by day, but becoming transparent at night. Within two years, he confirmed his ability to bring innovation in both materials and design to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Foster first gained fame for his Sainsbury Center, a huge, hangar-like, high-tech museum of contemporary art in England that was erected in the 1970s.

Sainsbury Centre

Sainsbury Centre

Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury donated their art collection to the University of East Anglia with an endowment for a new building for the visual arts. Foster's solution was a clear-span structure that was glazed at both ends and had its services within the double layer of the walls and roof and the walls and roof used three different and interchangeable cladding panels and were also lined with motorized louvres to modulate light. The building was completed in 1978 and was widely acclaimed for its clean-cut and high-tech aesthetics.

In 1999, Foster was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize and the citation noted that "Sir Norman has produced a collection of buildings and products noted for their clarity, invention, and sheer artistic virtuosity. His work ranges in scale from the modest, but exquisite new addition of the Sackler Galleries to the existing galleries of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and the serenely simple limestone addition to the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, Nebraska — to a pair of grand mega-projects, both in Hong Kong, the world's largest air terminal, and the much-acclaimed Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. Proof of his ability to produce remarkable solutions for diverse programs in urban settings is his sensitive placement and design of the Carré d'Art, a cultural center next to a revered Roman temple, dating from 500 BC, in the heart of Nîmes, France. Such a juxtaposition of contemporary and ancient architecture has rarely been achieved so successfully. His transformation of more recent historic icons — the Reichstag in Berlin and the new Great Court of the British Museum — are brilliant redesign-renovations."

Foster first major skyscraper design in New York City was for the Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison Avenue at 75th Street. An Italian development team,
SGI/Sogene, had asked him, Derek Walker, a planner of the new town in England known as Milton Keynes, and engineer Frank Newby to put together a plan for an expansion of the museum. Deyan Sudjic wrote about the plan in the July 1979 edition of Building Design.

Design for skyscraper expansion for Whitney Museum

Design for skyscraper expansion for Whitney Museum of American Art in late 1970s

Foster was involved in late 1970's design for mixed-use tower expansion of the Whitney Museum of American Art and this is one of the versions of that project. Another version had a more "solid" tower comprised of large black metal panels with different geometric cutouts and the panels were interchangeable and the tower's top was a crystalline jewel box, one of the great high-tech skyscraper designs of the 20th Century and certainly the best expansion design ever put forward for the Whitney Museum. According to some accounts, this was Foster's first skyscraper design.

According to a February 8, 1980 article in Building Design From Building Design, the plan was presented by a "consortium of architects including Derek Walker, Norman Foster, and Frank Newby." The design was published in the 1989 "Norman Foster Buildings and Projects Vol. 3, 1978-1985."

Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building in Hong Kong

The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Headquarters in Hong Kong

On a much larger and international scale, in 1979, he received the commission for the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation's headquarters, for which he designed a tower 47 stories above a ground floor plaza. This tower was the world's most high-tech architecture project since Beaubourg, the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Its aesthetic appears more attuned to air-craft carriers than urban towers but its fame catapulted Foster to the highest ranks of his profession.

Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt

Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt

A less complex and more attractive skyscraper design was Foster's 53-story Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, which became Europe's tallest building when it was completed in 1997. The building has a full-height atrium and four-story gardens are set at different levels on each of the tower's three sides.

Swiss Re tower in London

Swiss Re tower in London

Foster's designs vary wildly and are not always sleek or svelte.

Foster's Swiss Re tower at 30 St Mary Axe in the City of London, for example, is a 40-story phallic symbol, at least at first glance. Its form, however, is not arbitrary. The architecture firm,'s provides the following rationale:

"The tower has a circular plan that widens as it rises from the ground and then tapers towards its apex. This form responds to the specific demands of the small site. The building appears less bulky than a conventional rectangular block of equivalent floor area; the slimming of the building’s profile at its base reduces reflections, improves transparency and increases daylight penetration at ground level. Mid-height, the floor-plates offer larger areas of office accommodation; the tapering apex of the tower minimises the extent of reflected sky.

"The aerodynamic form encourages wind to flow around its face, minimising wind loads on the structure and cladding, enabling the use of a more efficient structure. Wind is not deflected to ground level – as it is with rectilinear buildings – helping to maintain pedestrian comfort and safety at the base of the building. Wind tunnel tests have shown that the building will improve wind conditions in the vicinity. Natural air movement around the building generates substantial pressure differences across its face, which can be used to facilitate natural ventilation within the building."

Being green does not preclude pleasure and the top of the buiding has dining and events facilities for the building’s occupants and their guests and beneath the glazed dome a restaurant offers spectacular westerly views and its mezzanine has a full 360-degree panorama over the city and beyond. The building was completed in 2004.

Foster does not have a "signature" style and is one of the wilder experimenters in form. Santiago Calatrava has greater flair and elegance in his highly sculptural engineering feats, and several Japanese architects such as Shin Takematsu and Arato Isozaki have more poetry generally in their projects, but Foster is noted for his vigorous and often eccentric designs that at first glance may appear ungainly but that are usually very exciting spaces.

His design for the Hearst tower certainly falls into the eccentric and ungainly class, but it is certain to become a midtown marvel and will greatly reinforce the quite incredible shift of "power" in midtown from the East Side to the West Side.

Foster has designed a multi-faceted façade for the new Hearst tower that is likely to become the city's most aggressive looking skyscraper. It looks like the "bit" for some giant ore-mining drill.

In a review in the June 9, 2006 edition of The New York Times, Nicolai Ourousoff notes that Foster's "cheiseled glass form rises from blunt force" from the 1928 building: "Past and present don't fit seamlessly together here; they collide with ferocious energy."

"The 46-story tower may be the most muscular symbol of corporate self-confidence to rise in New York since the 1960's, when Modernism was in full bloom, and most Americans embraced technological daring as a sure route to social progress," according to Mr. Ourousoff who seems to have overlooked Citicorp Center (see The City Review article), the IBM Building (see The City Review article), and the A. T. & T. building (see The City Review article). Mr. Ourousoff maintains that the new Hearst tower "dovetails with another major success, Renzo Piano's expansion of the Morgan Library, another sign that the city's energy is reviving," a viewpoint not universally shared as some critics think that Piano's expansion is bland and disrespective of the Morgan's rich heritage.

A column by Mr. Ourousoff's predecessor as architecture critic for The New York Times, Herbert Muschamp, had forecast that the Hearst tower "will reveal to disbelieving eyes that architecture is still a possibility in New York," adding that "The skyline has been waiting for this."

Millennium Bridge in London

Millennium Bridge in London

The Millennium Bridge in London was completed in 2002 and it was developed with sculptor Anthony Caro and Ove Arup and Partners, engineers. It is the first new bridge over the Thames in London since Tower Bridge i 1894 and it is London’s only pedestrian bridge.

The bridge links the City and St Paul’s Cathedral to the north with the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern on Bankside to the south. On its first weekend in public use, about 100,000 people crossed it the bridge had to be closed because of its movement due to "synchronised pedestrian footfall" that was eventually resolved by the addition of dampers.

Greater London Authority

Greater London Authority Headquarters

Foster's plan for The Greater London Authority Headquarters, which was completed in 2002, "expresses the transparency of the democratic process and demonstrates the potential for a wholly sustainable, virtually non-polluting public building." It is another example of how Foster discovers new high-tech forms, in this case, a lop-sided squeegee ball.

"The headquarters," as described by the architecture firm, "occupies a prominent site on the Thames beside Tower Bridge. It houses an Assembly chamber, committee rooms and public facilities, together with offices for the Mayor, Assembly members, the Mayor's cabinet and support staff, providing 18,000 square metres of accommodation on ten levels.The Assembly chamber faces north across the river to the Tower of London, its glass enclosure allowing Londoners to watch the Assembly at work. The public are also invited to share the building: a flexible space on the top floor - 'London's Living Room' - can be used for exhibitions or functions, and the public commands the rooftop, where a terrace offers unparalleled views across London. At the base is a piazza with a cafe, from which the riverside can be enjoyed. Lifts and gentle ramps allow universal access throughout the building.

"The building has been designed so that it has no front or back in conventional terms. Its shape is derived from a geometrically modified sphere, developed using computer modelling techniques. This form achieves optimum energy performance by minimising the surface area exposed to direct sunlight. Analysis of sunlight patterns throughout the year produced a thermal map of the building's surface, which is expressed in its cladding.

"A range of active and passive shading devices is employed. To the south the building leans back so that its floor-plates step inwards to provide shading for the naturally ventilated offices. The building's cooling systems utilise cold ground water pumped up via boreholes from the water table. These energy-saving techniques mean that chillers will not be needed and for the majority of the year the building will require no additional heating. Overall, it will use only a quarter of the energy consumed by a typical air-conditioned office building."

"With faceted corners that bump in and out, architect Norman Foster's skyscraper shimmies as it rises, adding welcome panache to the gritty tenement blocks at Midtown's western edge," observed James S. Russell in a July 6, 2006 article on the new Hearst tower on Bloomberg News, adding that "The passerby at Eighth Avenue and 57th Street may regard the building's diagonal pattern as a cheerful bit of frippery, but with Foster & Partners, no visual gesture is gratuitous. That pattern, called a diagrid, echoes an arrangement of columns and braces behind the facade that reduces the steel needed by one-fifth, saving Hearst a bundle and conserving energy in the bargain."

Elevators are placed on the western side of the tower and the dramatic corners are open offices, a very nice touch for the workers.

Foster's buildings are tricky in the best sense of surprise and accomplishment. They may not win beauty contests, but they invariably have some fine architectural magic and virtuosity.

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