The Real Deal New York

SOM's Manhattan West channels medieval towers -- in a good way: Architecture review

By James Gardner | October 01, 2013 07:00AM
Manhattan West rendering

Manhattan West rendering

Recent architecture in New York City has tended to vacillate between the staid and the iconic. Half of the buildings of note in Manhattan aspire to be the sort of tame comfort fare that New Yorkers have been steadily served since the dawn of the post-war era. (With all the requisite updates, of course.) The other half seek, and sometimes find, a gimmick that sets them apart. Examples of both are provided by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the venerable and dependable firm that once defined the cutting edge of the Modernist movement, and that was responsible for seemingly half of everything built in Manhattan from around 1950 to 1975.

SOM’s design of Manhattan West — a 5.4 million-square-foot office, residential and hotel development planned for Ninth Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets — is an example of the latter, given the idiosyncratic way in which the project’s two structures interact.

Here, the developers have been given leave to revise the Manhattan grid to their liking: with the Related Companies’ Hudson Yards development also in the works, the mile from the eastern edge of Madison Square Garden all the way to the Hudson River will ultimately constitute a sequence of superblocks.

For most of its existence, this part of Manhattan has been a throwaway zone, into which few locals (and fewer tourists) ventured.

The two new buildings — the 2.2-million-square-foot North Tower and the 3.2-million-square-foot South Tower — that will make up Manhattan West are intended to face the western façade of the Farley Post Office Building and will be separated by Dyer Avenue from 450 West 33rd Street, that blunted Brutalist pyramid, designed in 1970, which until recently housed the Daily News.

The massive new development, which will provide a foretaste of the development of Hudson Yards, is being undertaken by Brookfield Office Properties. The firm has just begun construction of a 120,000-square-foot deck that will be situated over the Amtrak rail yards and will serve as the foundation for the towers that will rise above it. That deck is due to be complete in 2014. (Brookfield has said it will not start construction on the towers until it locks in an anchor tenant.)

At more than 60 stories each, the North and South Towers — which will be separated by an outdoor landscaped plaza — will be very similar (though not identical) in shape, size and function. Each of the two office towers will be covered in floor-to-ceiling glass.

Bruce Mosler, chairman of global brokerage at Cushman & Wakefield, which is marketing the space for Brookfield, had previously told The Real Deal that his firm has largely finalized the design of the North Tower, but that the order in which the towers would be built would depend on the needs of the anchor tenants.

The towers themselves resemble nothing so much as the famous Two Towers of Bologna — the Torre degli Asinelli and the Torre Garisenda. And like those medieval towers, their more contemporary counterparts promise to exert an equally powerful sense of personality, conveyed by the genial and ingenious trick of seeming to sheer off, at irregular angles, a few feet from the sides of the towers.

The irregularity of the buildings’ resulting shapes is, of course, a response to the Deconstructivist style of recent years. A similar irregularity occurs in the trapezoidal footprint of 7 World Trade Center, which was also designed by SOM, and which is similarly conceived as a pale, curtain-walled tower. But the feel of the two projects could not be more different. Seven World Trade Center reads as the rationalist, symmetrical structure that one usually associates with SOM, and especially with its principal architect, David Childs. (One thinks of the Freedom Tower or the Worldwide Plaza.) By contrast, the towers that are planned for Manhattan West have a self-effacing humility to them, and each subtly promises to project its unique personality.

The interaction between the two suggests that of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” They seem alternately to shuffle along or to stand loitering, as though with their hands in their pockets, given the wayward massing of the curtain walls.

If 7 World Trade Center is an instance of heroic neo-Modernism, the two towers of Manhattan West imply a very different and welcome anti-heroism.

The entire project looks very promising, invoking the Deconstructivist idiom responsibly to achieve a unique identity, but not at the cost of harmony or functionality.

The renderings suggest the buildings will have a clear, slight bluish hue. More detailed renderings of the base, however, suggest that the curtain-walled skin of the buildings will be clearer and more traditional.

The floor plates promise to provide a staggered ascent along a horizontal axis throughout the building, relieved by steel girders, which draw the eye vertically. The base of the building will reveal a central core, flanked by a series of pillars around the edges in a way that recalls the conservative office tower typology with which SOM is most often associated, and that derives ultimately from the famed Seagram Building.

The design is comparable, with its two dominant towers, to SOM’s Time Warner Center, except that it’s more syncopated and less symmetrical than the Columbus Circle complex. In addition, its two towers will exert a greater autonomy from one another and from their common base.

With the ever accelerating pace of development in this part of the borough, we must wonder how much of Manhattan West will be visible from the rest of the city, especially when Hudson Yards is completed. Still, if the buildings live up to the promise of the renderings, the city will be better off.