By Carter B. Horsley

How do you judge a building?

The answer, of course, depends on who is the judge.

If you are the developer, the main criterion is how successful it is being leased and that is measured by how quickly it leases and at what rents (adjusted for fix-up costs and various discounts).

If you are the architect, the main criterion is how much of your style survives in the finished product and how well appreciated that style is by the developer and other developers, the press and your peers and the public.

If you are the public, the main criterion is whether the project has enhanced or worsened its neighborhood and this criterion is measured both aesthetically and economically.

If you are a politician, the main criterion is how the project's economic impact on your district and this is measured in short- and long-term changes in tax revenues, jobs, and image.

If you are a lender, the main criterion is how safe the investment in the project is.

If you are a real estate broker, the main criterion is how efficient, prestigious and economic its spaces are as compared with current market inventory.

If you are an architecture critic, all of these considerations should be measured as much as possible and balanced and the main criterion is producing lively copy and that the length of the copy is often not at the discretion of the critic, but his editor or publisher, and the length will often influence the content of the copy. Unfortunately, the quantifiable considerations are often very hard to come by. Depending on when it was initiated, a project's financing might vary considerably and depending upon the developer's tax situation and strategy, its economics might not be easily replicated or indicative of real value. In the early 1990's, for example, some lenders took back foreclosed properties and sold them to new owners for a fraction of their current reproduction costs. Often, furthermore, owners will give highly favorable leases to a major anchor tenant in depressed markets to get some revenue and attract other tenants on the basis on the anchor's prestige. In addition, the complexities of commercial leases can often involve off-site responsibilities and escalation clauses that may or may not adequately protect all parties' interests over the course of a long-term lease.

Developers, lenders and tenants generally do not like disclosing financial information and when they do is rarely highly detailed. Sometimes the information comes to light in litigation, but even then it is not necessarily accurate or timely.

If one is writing architectural criticism for a newspaper or periodical, one is constrained greatly by contemporariness, placing the project in the context of its importance when it is built, and by newsworthiness, placing the project in the context of what is unusual about it. Depending upon the critic's venue, a substantial portion of the commentary might be consumed by consumer-oriented details such as the number of floors, the total square footage, the floor-to-area ration, the special "amenities," the asking rents, and the like.

Books, of course, are theoretically free from constraints about advertising concerns, and length of entries, but they are shaped and focused towards the writer's conception of his audiences' interests. The writer's conception of his audience, of course, must also be balanced with his publisher's and the latter is generally interested in clearly defining what the audience is to minimize risk, a perfectly good notion of market research.

This writer believes that his audience is quite broad and consists of architects, planners, developers, lenders, managers and brokers as well as a substantial number of public interest groups and politicians and plain citizens concerned about their environment. Unfortunately, that is not a cast of millions, but it is sufficiently large enough to impose some broad editorial guidelines to keep the size of the book somewhat manageable as well as the reader's interest.

This is not a book by committee and while it is full of facts it is also full of subjective opinions, mine.

Who am I? I am 57 years old (as of spring, 1998) and have lived all my life in Manhattan. I worked in the newsroom of the New York Times for 26 years, 14 of which were spent covering real estate in the city and the New York metropolitan area. Most of my real estate stories were about commercial real estate, urban planning and architecture. For seven years, in addition, I traveled across North America to write North American Real Estate and Architecture Annual Supplements for the International Herald Tribune. I left The Times in 1987 to become the architecture critic and real estate editor of The New York Post, a position I held until 1991. I did not study architecture and real estate in schools, but learned about by interviewing architects and developers and the like and walking through their blueprints and their buildings for a generation. I also, of course, interviewed civic activists and planners and politicians and a few lenders. My news values were shaped by The Times, of course, but my aesthetic values were shaped on my own and reflected to a certain extent my personal interests in art of Antiquity, the Italian Renaissance and the Hudson River School of Painting and in computers, but they were also honed by my interviews with the architects and developers to whom I was always asked why a project was designed this way and not that way. (I was not always convinced by the answers, but often surprised at their rationality.)

My criterion for selecting the individual buildings included in this book is that these are the buildings that I consider either worthy of preservation or too important to ignore.

There is a surprising number of very good and fine buildings in midtown as the size of this book indicates, but there are many undistinguished ones and, not surprisingly, many bad buildings. I have tried to include all the very good buildings, none of the undistinguished and several of the bad. The very good ones are the foundations on which any critical examination of midtown must be based. Many are not official landmarks and should be.

If one is going to criticize, one should not only be able to buttress one's opinions with persuasive arguments, but also be able to offer constructive suggestions. It's relatively easy to put thumbs up or down on a project's aesthetics, but it takes a little more reflection and energy to try to begin to find solution to some of its design problems. It takes a fair bit of arrogance to do so, of course, but I think that is the responsibility of an architecture critic, indeed, any critic. One need not agree with a critic's judgments, but hopefully one will be enlightened by the discussion, made aware of alternatives, and aided in formulating one's own opinion.

What if the stainless steel facade at the top of the Chrysler Building had been applied to the entire structure?

What if the center column at the base of Citicorp Center did not exist?

What if the former McGraw-Hill Building was orange?

What if SONY building were white marble?

What if the Seagram's Building were blue?

What if the MetLife Building had a reflective glass facade?

What if the Lipstick Building were circular rather than elliptical?

What if the sloping building at 9 West 57th Street were free-standing?

What if West End Avenue was recreated in the Clinton district?

What if all the tenements in the Clinton district were converted to single-family townhouses and had their fire-escapes removed?

What if Lewisohn Stadium were created in the Clinton District?

What if the convention center had a public waterfront esplanade and escalators over the West Side Highway?

What if One Times Square were restored to the original design of the Times Tower?

What if Times Square was decked over with a huge public piazza?

What if all cabs and buses had skylight roofs?

What if all private cars except for the disabled were banned from Manhattan?

What if developers could build whatever size building they wanted except for individual landmark sites?

What if commercial property were assessed at the same rates as residential property?

What if 20 percent of the workers in the suburbs wanted to move back to midtown?

What if Manhattan were a separate country with free-trade zones?

What if most of Lower Manhattan's office buildings were converted to residential use?

What if no more development were allowed at all in midtown?

What will be the great civic monuments created in midtown by this and the next generation?

Virtually every building can teach lessons and every site has its own contextual problems and opportunities.

There are by definition very few masterpieces. This book discusses more than 275 projects and certainly not all are architectural masterpieces. Virtually all of them, however, are significant visual elements in the cityscape and were created over the last century so the number is not really that big.

Lever House, the University Club, St. Patrick's Cathedral and the United Nations are masterpieces, but that does not mean they are perfect as is or even as originally planned. It means simply that they are glorious achievements of their kind, sublime manifestations of the man-made environment - they work well and make definitive design statements.

Some buildings like the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings and Carnegie Hall Tower and the original Rockefeller Center complex are spectacular even if they perhaps fall a little short of being masterpieces. And many others, such as the Chanin Building or Trump Tower, are wonderful because of their details - the René Chambellan metal grilles at the former and the landscaped corner setbacks and atrium waterfall at the latter - rather than their wholes.

Some buildings are really not very attractive, but are very interesting and innovative such as the forceful entrance and complicated atrium at the Galleria at 115 East 57th Street or the stacked atria at 875 Third Avenue, or the stilts of Citicorp Center, or the staggered plan of the Republic National Bank Building at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street.

Some projects are terrible such as Madison Square Center or the office tower at 650 Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street and should be given over to grafittists.

And many buildings are simply eccentric or delightful such as the New York Yacht Club at 43 West 44th Street.

(I have included a short annotated list, for impatient people too fidgety to flip lots of pages, of the more interesting/important buildings. It follows this section.)

Midtown is a shameless, chaotic maze of egos and power and aggressiveness and pride and problems. Any of its major avenues or cross-streets on their own would suffice for many cities. For the first two-thirds or so of the century, it seemed as if New York was in a world of its own without competition as a bustling, dynamic, overpowering and awesome center

New skylines are springing up not only across the country but around the world. They are still paltry in comparison with New York's but nonetheless impressive, and New York is facing stiff competition for new development because of demographic and technological changes. But in its aggregate, New York, and midtown Manhattan, has assets that cannot be easily replicated, or, here, catalogued. It is not inexhaustible, but thankfully for many it is simply irresistible.

Although it is unquestionably the world's premier city, New York has not fostered much great architecture in recent decades. Indeed, not even much good architecture. In contrast, great new, stunning architecture abounds, almost, in Japan, Europe and in some newer cities in the United States. Anyone who meanders through midtown Manhattan is confronted with the incongruity of good buildings crowded by mediocrity, if not trash.

Midtown Manhattan is far from perfect. It may be mature, but it can still evolve and improve.


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