One of the great charms of glass-and-steel Modernism is that for months, even years, you can pass a construction site and see nothing more than a hole in the ground — and then, as though from one day to the next, a real and powerful structure emerges and is quickly topped out and substantially clad. Before the advent of modern engineering, nothing of the sort was even imaginable.
And so as I was walking near Wall Street last month, I was delighted to see that the Fulton Center, designed by Grimshaw, the firm led by British architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, is already making its presence felt.
Formerly dubbed the Fulton Street Transit Center, this $1.4 billion project began in 2005. But let it be said that what modern New York has gained in the speed of its construction technology, it often loses in delays and red tape. From start to finish, the Empire State Building took all of 15 months to complete. That’s a pace that’s rarely met now. The Fulton Center, for example, suffered substantial work stoppages and shortages of money (even before the financial debacle). Originally slated for completion in 2007, the project is now slated to be finished in June 2014, according the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is constructing it.
However, the Fulton Center, which recently put out a request for proposals to find a private manager for its 70,000 square feet of retail space, is evidence that, in a general way, architecture is getting somewhat better in New York. By that I mean that one has the very distinct impression that the architect is at least trying, something that was not always the case in the past.
Improvements in the city’s residential and commercial architecture are old news, but the story is less often told with regard to our government-built infrastructure. A case in point is the subway station at 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue, which opened in 1989. This project was striking for two reasons: First, because it was so new, and second, because it looked so old.
From the moment it opened it was, as it remains, startlingly ugly, most memorable for walls arrayed in glazed brick burnished to a shrill shade of radioactive tangerine. The reason it looked so old is that it was planned in a Mod style as far back as the 1960s, and once the powers that be signed off on the design (which had been unlovely to begin with), no one was able, or willing, to alter it.
Things are far better now. Our infrastructure is probably more efficient, and it certainly looks better. This is evident in the South Ferry subway station — a glittering, Europhile undertaking that was completed in 2009 and is arrayed with high-concept, topographically inspired murals by the Starn Twins, the artists and identical twins of the Chelsea gallery fame.
Then, of course, there is Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub at the corner of Church and Fulton streets. That project is not scheduled for completion until 2014, but with its brilliant exteriors and its spiked skeletal frame, it is destined to become one of the most striking structures of any sort in the city.
And now Sir Nicholas’s Fulton Center, just a block away, is already making an important contribution to the streetscape of Lower Manhattan — even in its state of partial completion.
Conceptually, the project is fairly easy to describe: a rectangular box out of whose center rises an irregular dome-shaped configuration, with a flattened summit that sits on its base like the top of a fedora emerging from a hatbox. The base itself, arrayed in glass and pale steel, houses a soaring atrium. It has been conceived in an unapologetically Modernist idiom as a four-story curtain wall divided into six identical sections that are each subdivided into four bays that march majestically along Broadway.
As befits the modular units dear to the International style, there is no orientation from right to left or top to bottom. The architect’s website describes the fedora part of the structure as a glass oculus “defined by a hyperbolic paraboloid cable net” — whatever that means, exactly. Still, as you look up into the dome, which was designed in partnership with the artist James Carpenter, you will see an elegant network of cables converging upon the flattened top at the center.
Various precedents have been suggested for this new building. One that comes up fairly frequently is the Pantheon in Rome, since both buildings have openings at the top to admit light, even though the Fulton Center’s is glazed over. That creates one striking difference: The rain will not be pouring into the building as it does into its Roman counterpart.
Another comparison has been found in London’s recently completed City Hall, also known as the Onion or, in the words of London’s Mayor Boris Johnson, the Glass Gonad. The main point of similarity with this strange and off-kilter oval structure, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is the London building’s central stairway, which spirals in asymmetrical orbits.
I believe, however, that a more germane comparison can be found in the energetic buildings of such French Enlightenment architects as Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, with his Rotonde de la Villette in Paris, or the even more exorbitant structures of the Neoclassical French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée, who made use of radically simplified forms so daring that they were rarely built.
One of his boldest ideas, a huge circular structure in a square, was realized only 200 years after his death at the Rose Air and Space Center at the American Museum of Natural History, which opened in 2000. That design was conceived by Todd Schliemann (who was at the firm then known as Polshek Partnership) and the execution was more centered and symmetrical than the Fulton Center. That, I believe, is the most direct precedent for the transit hub.
Sir Nicholas is already well known to New Yorkers, even if his name will not be immediately recognized. For it is his firm that designed, several years ago, much of the city’s new street furniture, especially those glassy bus-shelters and newsstands that approach ubiquity in the five boroughs. In these, as well as in many other projects, Sir Nicholas displays a powerful and original sense of Modernist design with a high level of craftsmanship all too rare even in New York in recent years.
It often happens that architectural firms specialize in one type of building over another. Sir Nicholas seems most interested in infrastructure, especially transportation buildings. Everything from Terminal 3 and Pier 4A at London’s Heathrow to the entirety of Pulkovo Airport in Saint Petersburg has come out of his workshop, not to mention a bus station in Bilbao, Spain, and the international terminal at London’s Waterloo train station.
In general, British architects have led the world recently in the quality and beauty of their contributions to infrastructure. It is good to know that, with the imminent completion of the Fulton Center, Manhattan will benefit from their highly developed skills in this area as well.