Harry Macklowe’s inspirations? Matisse and Bottega Veneta

Developer also recounts early lessons in labor relations

TRD New York /
Nov.November 21, 2017 02:20 PM

From left: Bottega Veneta bag, the base of 200 East 59th Street, Harry Macklowe, 610 Broadway and Matisse’s Blue Nude II

Harry Macklowe received an important lesson in labor relations on his first project of the 1960s — a loft-to-office Conversion On 28th Street. With plans to renovate the building — and raise rents from $1 per square foot to $4 per square foot — the developer drove his station wagon to the Bowery, hired six laborers and put them to work with five- and 10-pound sledgehammers.

He thought nothing of it when the workers begged off for lunch at 11:30 a.m. with their morning wages in hand. “They never came back,” the developer recounted Monday night during a one-on-one chat with architecture critical Paul Goldberger. He was left with a half-demolished building and a lasting realization. “I couldn’t do everything I wanted on my own,” he said.

The event — held at the sales center for Macklowe’s condominium at 200 East 59th Street — was part-promotional for the 67-unit condominium and part-introspective, touching on six decades worth of projects spanning an office building at 610 Broadway to the supertall condo at 432 Park Avenue.

Regarding 432 Park, Macklowe recalled enlisting the opinion of famed Italian architect Renzo Piano, who reportedly said: “Harry, the building is square. You cannot fuck up a square.” (Macklowe considered Piano for the job, but tapped Rafael Vinoly. The exterior design was ultimately inspired by a trash can, Macklowe revealed in 2015.)

The 80-year-old developer, who got his start as a leasing broker with Julien Studley, said that experience “awakened a nascent desire to understand architecture, planning and how to better use the space.” He admitted to being “very, very timid” when asserting his design ideas early on, though he was emboldened when he felt his concepts were not only functional, but also told a story. “The latter part of my career has been devoted to design,” he said.

By the 1970s, Macklowe recounted sketching alongside his engineers and architects. A project completed that decade — 2 Hammarskjold Plaza — was meant to be a “mini Seagram building,” he said. “I always thought it would stand the test of time and not what I call the 57th Street beauty parlor.”

Back then, the word “starchitect” didn’t exist and few developers knew anything about design. Macklowe said the industry was further constrained by the limits of crane technology, availability of building materials and the prevalence of nickel-and-diming in the industry, which kept creativity in check.

Macklowe recounted that in the 1980s, when he was building the 241-unit Metropolitan Tower, he visited a laboratory in Miami to test a newly-developed silicone glaze that he ultimately applied to the building’s curtain wall. “You gambled on it first,” Goldberger agreed.

In other cases, Macklowe said he was inspired by art, fashion and film. At 610 Broadway, a 125,000-square-foot office building, Macklowe said he was inspired by Henri Matisse’s nude drawings, and he tried to emulate those lines in the building’s 200 feet of frontage on Houston Street. “I wanted it to be subtle and graceful,” he said. The base of 200 East 59th Street — with a woven aluminum façade — mimics a Bottega Veneta pocketbook whose color is “androgynous” and its “constantly changing” color reflects the sky. “I was extremely Catholic in my taste,” he said, describing the aesthetics of the building’s exterior columns and glass-enclosed balconies.

True to form, the developer’s comedic side was also on display. Asked by Goldberger if he wanted to say “a word” about the 67-unit condo, he replied: “I’m glad you asked… Only one?” Macklowe ended up conjuring seven: “I’d like everyone to buy an apartment.”

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