Irregular – in a good way

A glassy new Madison Square-area tower from Kohn Pedersen Fox

Nov.November 01, 2014 07:00 AM
From left: KPF's Hugh Trumbull, 45 East 22nd Street and KPF's Robert Whitlock

From left: KPF’s Hugh Trumbull, 45 East 22nd Street and KPF’s Robert Whitlock

Madison Square has long been distinguished by its building stock, starting with the late, lamented Madison Square Garden, designed in 1890 by McKim, Meade & White, and demolished in 1925. By 1909, there emerged the Metropolitan Life Building, at the time the tallest building in the world. It would be nearly a century, however, before the arrival of the next important installment, One Madison, that distinguished (and unfairly maligned) structure conceived by CetraRuddy.

And now a new building, 45 East 22nd Street, is set to rise, not exactly on Madison Square Park, but close enough that it will be, in essence, an important player on the square.

This newest structure was conceived by Kohn Pedersen Fox, which has designed prolifically in New York over the past generation. And even if the firm has not been quite as prolific as, say, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill or Costas Kondylis, it has probably done more than any other firm to improve and dignify the building stock of the five boroughs. Indeed, it deserves to be said in passing that a good building, a building that is well-designed, and, even more importantly, that is well-made, not only serves as a worthy achievement in itself, but also casts a glow of refinement over everything else within the radius of at least a city block. Such, invariably, has been the case with the projects completed by Kohn Pedersen Fox.

At 777 feet, its newest project, a 65-story condominium tower, will be 150 feet taller than One Madison, whose arrival some six years ago was controversial. Developed by Ian Bruce Eichner of the Continuum Company, 45 East 22nd Street will contain 83 units, ranging in size from a 1,072-square-foot one-bedroom offered for $2.5 million to a 7,000-square-foot duplex on the 64th and 65th floors, priced at $42.5 million. The residential section of the building will begin on the ninth floor, with no more than two units per floor. From the 55th floor through to the 63rd, however, there will be only one unit per floor, culminating in that sizable duplex at the top.

The building will also have a private dining area on the 54th floor, which, in a sign of the times, is to be called the “Upper Club.” In addition to the usual fitness center and children’s playroom, other amenities will include a golf simulator, a half-court basketball court, and a yoga studio. The interiors are being designed by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio. As of now, move-in is scheduled for December 2016.

In contrast to the studious rectilinearity of One Madison, with its distinctive composite of inlaid passages, each six stories tall, and its generally modernist modules, 45 East 22nd Street offers us a Deconstructivist design, in the sense that it courts asymmetry and syncopated irregularities. Paul Katz, a principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, and one of the architects most involved in the design of the new building, described it in the New York Times as “a flaring, Brancusi-esque sculptural form.”

And just as Brancusi was as interested in the pedestal as he was in the sculpture itself, so the shaft rises over a five-story base that is very different in spirit from the rest of the building. To judge from the rendering — which concentrates more on the tower itself — this will be a resolutely cubic affair, a solid masonry presence of limestone or granite up to the springing of the shaft, with a passage of curtain wall in its center. Good neighbor that it is, this base will preserve the low-lying roof line of the brick buildings immediately to the west of it.

45 East 22nd Street

45 East 22nd Street

From this point, the shaft, created by assembling a composite of air rights purchased from nearby buildings, rises up from a relatively narrow 72-foot base that cantilevers over the low-lying buildings immediately to the west. Widening in an eccentric and irregular fashion as it rises all the way to the top, it suddenly attains, once there, a width of 125 feet. We must hope that the architects know what they are doing.

As though in contrast to the lithic massiveness at street level, the tower itself is all curtain wall, that sheer, well-made curtain wall that has become something of a signature for the firm, as is evident at its office tower at 505 Fifth Avenue. Although the southern façade seems fairly flat and uniform, the curtain wall bulges to the north, while the almost non-existent western exposure is little more than a chamfered facet, several windows wide at the top, but narrowing to a needle-like point when, finally, it makes contact with the base.

For most of its existence, the firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates has been renowned for its corporate or institutional projects, especially in New York City. These have included the Baruch College Vertical Campus on Lexington and 25th Street, as well as Two Court Square in Long Island City and the various phases of the ABC headquarters on 67th Street, between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West.

This last, together with NYU’s Furman Hall, was conceived in a restrained language of postmodern contextualism that is very different from the glossy, glassy language that is employed at 45 East 22nd Street. (Another project that deserves our full attention is 55 Hudson Yards, whose renderings, at least, promise a building that will be among the firm’s most distinguished projects.)

But in fact, the firm has also been active in residential developments all along. This is most evident in One Jackson Square, on 13th Street and Ninth Avenue, one of the more distinguished buildings in Manhattan in recent years, as well as the surprisingly successful 1055 Park Avenue, a slip of a building whose curtain-walled surface has been improbably tucked into the southeast corner of 87th Street and Park Avenue.

And yet, for all the distinction that this firm has achieved, a distinction that will surely be borne out at 45 East 22nd Street, one has the powerful impression that the firm has been playing it safe in New York City. Like so many other firms, it seems to experience a rush of liberation the moment it steps outside the five boroughs. Its forms become freer and more prepossessing, more agile and striking.

“Iconicity” is perhaps an overused concept when applied to buildings in Manhattan, but it is precisely what is generally lacking in the borough, surely due to all the municipal constraints placed on architectural creativity. And that observation holds true for Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, as much as for any other firm. Nothing the firm has created in Manhattan has the definitive charm or music that one finds, for instance, in their Shanghai World Financial Center. For all the clamorous talk of celebrity architects in our midst in recent years, even our best architects — among whom Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates surely deserve to be included — are not immune to a certain cultural timidity that has defined our developments for much of the past half-century.

James Gardner is the architectural critic for The Real Deal

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