A meditation on mediocrity: Architecture review

SLCE-designed Dylan rentals underscore NYC’s design problem
By James Gardner | July 12, 2013 01:00PM

Lest I should be arraigned on a charge of occasionally writing about boring buildings, a claim that, for the record, I neither challenge nor endorse, I would make the following defense: This is New York City, where, throughout nearly four centuries of existence, buildings have tended to err on the side of mediocrity. Built by a hard-headed merchant class, rather than by princes and potentates, our buildings are rarely the follies or triumphs that are found elsewhere in the world.

Yet even our mediocrities deserve attention — at least once, when they are new — because they will be standing there, in all likelihood, for the next century and more, and because, despite the proliferation of media, it is unlikely that they will otherwise be subjected to critical scrutiny. Like so many other buildings in New York, they will simply be there.

Which brings us to 309 Fifth Avenue, which has recently been renamed the Dylan and serves as an object lesson in what happens when architectural designs are passed through the wringer of New York City.

Originally conceived according to some vigorous designs by the distinguished firm of Ismael Leyva, this 34-story, 452-foot-tall, 165-unit building was cast firmly in the deconstructivist idiom. But what it lacked in beauty and originality it certainly made up in drama: Interlocking parts, jagged, almost serrated sides, and pointy outcroppings along the top. But developer Urban Development Partners, apparently worried that something interesting might be afoot, demanded a revision, which Leyva supplied. Although this new design was certainly boring, apparently it was not quite boring enough. So SLCE Architects had to be called in to tweak the second design to the form it now reveals.

The result is a thin tower with curtain-wall on all sides, but as weary and value-engineered a curtain-wall as it is possible to imagine. A flimsy tissue of glass and steel, it lacks all sense of a base or a summit. The only attempt — and a feeble one — to invest the façade with any interest is the way in which the Fifth Avenue façade folds modestly inward, perhaps as an homage to the deconstructivist style that it has so thoroughly betrayed.

Such is the way in which buildings are designed in New York. Whether there is any imaginable reason to go see the Dylan, surely there is no rush: It will remain where it is for the next century or so.

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previously published version of this article called the Dylan a condominum project. In fact, it is made up of rentals.