Modern Midtown gets makeover

By James Gardner | January 15, 2009 11:49AM

It is one of the underappreciated paradoxes of Modernism, especially of the International style, that the newest generation of architects is actually better at it than were most of its originators 50 years ago.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the secret of the International style, at least in Midtown, was cladding: the glass skin that covers the steel bones of a building. Some will say that it is also about proportion and detail, which may be true for Ludwig Mies’ Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue, but not for most of the other examples of Modernism in New York.

There could be no better instance of this than at 1095 Sixth Avenue at the corner of 42nd Street. Completed in 1974, this work by the firm of Kahn & Jacobs was known originally as the New York Telephone Company Building. A $260 million renovation, by the accomplished firm of Moed de Armas & Shannon, together with the firm of Gensler, is all but completed.

One of the rare things that all New Yorkers seemed to agree on was that the original building represented an unconscionable eyesore. Typical of the period, in a half-hearted attempt to break free from the restraints of glass and steel, and add a touch of class to the project, the architects covered it in thick bands of white and black marble, with relatively few windows. The result was a plodding, lifeless affront.

Now the entire facade has been reconceived as a lustrous and perfectly smooth skin of slightly greenish glass. Like one of those heavy-duty makeovers that form the basis of more than one reality TV program, the result is so successful that many a jaded pedestrian may never imagine that this is the same building that was once greeted with universal contempt.

As it happens, Moed de Armas & Shannon recently worked its magic on another modernist building just up the street at 1120 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street. This completed building, which rises over the ghost of the fabled Hippodrome, is structurally more complex than 1095 Sixth Avenue, because the original’s complex amalgam of slab and base has been preserved in Moed de Armas & Shannon’s new design. The skin as well, with its infill of opaque glass, is more textured than its neighbor to the south.

One block further north, another such intervention is approaching completion at 1140 Avenue of the Americas at 44th Street .This mid-century building is being reclad by lu + Bibliowicz Architects, whose most eminent achievement to date in New York is the graceful Joan Weill Center for Dance, home to Alvin Ailey at 405 West 55th Street, completed three years ago. In its new incarnation, 1140 Avenue of the Americas is being reclad in a sheer darkened glass and the lobby is being reconceived as well.

If the truth be told, it is slightly too early to rate the success of this renovation. What cannot be denied is that this, and similar interventions, are gradually transforming Midtown into a far more pleasant place.

James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.