The Real Deal New York

Architecture review: Cutting corners

Pei Cobb Freed’s Seven Bryant Park will probably not achieve design renown, but it could be worse

January 01, 2013
By James Gardner

Architect Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Some years back, when the formidable One Bryant Park was just a mock-up in the offices of the architectural firm of Cook + Fox, I wrote a somewhat dismissive assessment of it that I have subsequently come to regret. Indeed, once built, the Bank of America Tower, as it’s also called, turned out to be far better than I had expected.

For that reason I understand the perils of judging a building when it exists only in renderings. There’s an impulse for renderings to promise too much; 49 out of 50 buildings look better as renderings than they do in reality.

One would hope that the reverse were true at Seven Bryant Park, which will soon rise opposite the southwest corner of the park, just as One Bryant Park stands opposite the northwest corner.

To judge from its renderings, this new building will not, by any means, disgrace the neighborhood, but I doubt that it will add much to it either. That is to say that it is good enough, but one would have hoped for something far better for New York.

Rendering of the lobby

The 470,000-square-foot office tower — which is being developed by international real estate firm Hines and designed by Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners — will rise 28 stories. It will include outdoor terraces on the 10th and 17th floors.

The building’s generally Modernist aesthetic is defined by a curtain wall whose vertical ascent is interrupted on each floor by horizontal bands that serve to qualify the sense of height. The building rises from the street to the 10th-floor terrace, which is formed by a setback in the rest of the building.

The most obviously striking element of the design is a tilted chamfer, or scooped out incision, at the corner of 40th Street and Sixth Avenue. That incision narrows as it reaches that terrace, at which point it meets, at the spring of the setback, an equal and opposite motif that begins as a narrow point and expands as it rises.

Rendering of Seven Bryant Park

The structure bears a glancing resemblance to two other recent office buildings also designed by Pei Cobb Freed: the Tour EDF in the Défense section of Paris and the recently completed Hyatt Center in Chicago, which won the “Outstanding Building of the Year” award for 2012, bestowed by the Building Owners and Managers Association. Both of those towers recall the chamfered corner on 40th Street, which is doubtless supposed to be the iconic element of Pei Cobb Freed’s design.

Regrettably, those two buildings turned out far better than I suspect will be the case at Seven Bryant Park. The excellence of their manufacturing distinguishes the Chicago and Paris buildings, but they are also marked by the evocative curvature of their parabolic curtain walls. Though Seven Bryant Park is also clad in a curtain wall, the irregular angularity of its shape is far less pleasing.

The problem seems to be the chamfered corner. Unlike the earlier buildings, which rise in an uninterrupted ascent and have smaller, less aggressively treated corners, the corners of the new structure look like they will be far more emphatic and far less subtle. That’s not only because the tower will be twice the size of its predecessors, but also because of the messy way in which the chamfered corner struggles to accommodate the setback.

Unlike the graceful, sensitive legato of Pei Cobb Freed’s other buildings, there is simply too much going on at that corner.

To confuse matters further, the entrance is marred by a massive metallic canopy that seems to hover above the street like a stainless-steel UFO. The idea, one gathers, is that the convexity of the entrance will serve as an evocative counterpoint to the concave corners of the building.

This interplay of rhythms has been a favorite device of architects since the days of Borromini, the Roman Baroque master, if not before. But it does not look promising in connection with the new building, not the least because the rhythms of the steel infill suddenly shift at the corner, due to the complexity of its curvature, to form a rather unlovely pattern.

It is difficult to escape the impression that someone — and I suspect it was the developer — was so chuffed with the prospect of creating an iconic building, simply on account of that chamfered corner, that he went to immoderate lengths to make it seem all the more emphatic. This was accomplished by delineating the corner, at the level of each 21,000-square-foot floor plate, with a stripe of light that obviously comes into play only at night. I am sorry to say that the effect looks like it will be a disappointment. Indeed, it looks a little awkward and even cheap, especially since this device emphasizes what is already the awkwardness in the treatment of the chamfered corner.

It is likely as well that the urgent interests of real estate have taken precedence over those of architectural aesthetics: The curvature of the corner, as we experience it from the inside out, will apparently coincide with the public area of each office space and offer thrilling views of the beautifully restored Bryant Park. Other than that tour de force, the interior — which is being designed by global architecture and design firm Gensler — appears modest and unobjectionable.

The pale, polished stone of the lobby looks exactly as you might expect, while the terrace on the 10th floor affords the obvious satisfactions of air and light, without introducing any brilliant novelty into the equation.

Since its founding in 1955, Pei Cobb Freed has made important contributions to the streetscape of Manhattan, from the Silver Towers on Houston Street to Kips Bay Plaza in the East 30s.

Abroad, the firm has been responsible for such distinguished projects as the Pyramid of the Louvre in Paris and the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong. Given that distinguished record, it is very much to be regretted that a better design was not conceived for this important corner of Midtown.

At the same time, however, Pei Cobb Freed gave New York the deplorable Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and, more recently, the somewhat dowdy Fiterman Hall for the Borough of Manhattan Community College, near the World Trade Center site.

Good architecture surely can be built, and has been built, in New York City. But the forces of timidity and questionable taste win out more often than not. It is by this point an old story. And at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 40th Street, it has been told again.

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