The Real Deal New York

The bling building: A review of the Gem Tower

A jazzy surface — but not architectural form — will distinguish the International Gem Tower
By James Gardner | March 01, 2012 07:00AM

A rendering of the Gem Tower

Midtown is hardly the loveliest part of Manhattan, and few parts of Midtown are quite as unlovely as the stretch of 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. This corner of creation is known worldwide as the Diamond District and, with the possible exception of the city of Antwerp in Belgium, it’s home to the biggest diamond emporium in the world.

Indeed, if you’ve been on this dreary street at all, there’s a good chance you’ve been buying or selling gems. The entire block is a hive, an ecosystem in which diamond buyers and stone cutters interact with wholesalers, shippers and security firms to create New York City’s fabled diamond trade.

But it’s quite paradoxical that although a diamond’s main purpose is to be an object of lustrous beauty, its industry’s headquarters are located on a street where there doesn’t seem to be the slightest effort to achieve beauty — or even any visual distinction to speak of.

As with so much of Midtown, the block is a crude hodgepodge of late-19th-century row houses that have somehow survived, several more-ambitious-than-successful buildings from the 1920s and 1930s, and a few half-hearted efforts from the late 1970s that are not only crude in themselves, but clash with everything around them.

Into this mix now comes the International Gem Tower, a 34-story colossus designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill that has just topped out, and is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

Just about the biggest structure on the street, it brings a blast of contemporaneity to this tired and superannuated part of the city. The form is dully conventional, but the jazzy surface treatment may yet achieve the distinction that is promised in the renderings.

Also known as 50 West 47th Street, the International Gem Tower has been a long time in the making.

Gary Barnett’s Extell Development Company — the developer behind the project — and SOM unveiled the plans for the building some five years ago, but the project suffered numerous delays. While it’s no secret that the real estate and development industries were hit hard by the recession, so was the diamond business — a double whammy that put the project on hold for several years.

But Barnett, a former diamond dealer, started up construction on the tower around April of last year. Now, $46.9 million in tax breaks later, the cladding is being added to the six-story base of the tower as well as to the 28-story setback.

The $750 million, 750,000-square-foot building, which has already secured the Antwerp-based Eurostar and the Gemological Institute of America as tenants, will include commercial condos for diamond and jewelry industry businesses on the first 20 floors. (Those condos are reportedly 65 percent sold.) Above the condos will be commercial space available for other office tenants to lease.

In erecting the tower, Barnett is clearly aspiring to supplant the nearby 580 Fifth Avenue, which sits at the corner of 47th Street, and has long been viewed as the center of New York’s diamond trade. (Known as the World Diamond Tower, the older building, like the Gem Tower, is 34 stories.)

What will ultimately distinguish the newcomer is not its form, but rather the jazzy treatment of those surfaces. In terms of form, the architects have made no effort whatsoever to venture beyond the most conservative reenactment of a setback tower upon a base — which has been standard fare in Midtown for the past half-century. Indeed, the form is so undistinguished that its very commonality, one suspects, is part of an aesthetic ruse to draw all of the viewer’s attention to the surface.

In this respect, SOM seems to have taken a page from the Swiss architectural team of Herzog & de Meuron, another firm that is known more for their surfaces than their forms. In the present case, the steel-and-glass surfaces of the Gem Tower bristle with regular, yet zigzagging, patterns in two shades that are presumably supposed to resemble the diamonds sold within. Those patterns create a curious effect upon the eye and their ultimate success will be known only when the building is completed. As for the base, it is more regular, but there is still a syncopated funkiness to the design. In both cases, the eye experiences an almost tactile appreciation of the change in the surface.

The type of Midtown office tower to which this new building conforms was largely invented in the postwar years by SOM, which was and remains one of the most prolific firms in Manhattan and beyond. Buildings from Lever House to the Time Warner Center are a product of its never-idle architecture studios.

Once, nearly half a century ago, the firm created apartment complexes and banks with much distinction. Since then, under its leading architect, David Childs, it appears neither to have sought nor to have been solicited to create museums, the sort of commissions that, if nothing else, tend to call for a certain measure of creativity and originality.

Although SOM’S activity extends to many domains, it tends to specialize in office buildings and education centers, as is attested in the soon-to-be-topped-out One World Trade Center as well as at 7 World Trade, which was finished several years ago.

In a sense, SOM may well be the most grown-up architectural office in the city, which is not necessarily a compliment, since it also suggests a hesitancy toward taking risks. That said, the august firm has made some efforts and has seen some success in casting off its generational torpor.

In the case of One World Trade Center, whose present form is largely a revision of Daniel Libeskind’s original version, the firm has exhibited a certain dexterity in honing the original, Deconstructivist forms into a kind of resonant order. For the most part, however, after a brief flirtation with Classicism in the former Bear Stearns Building at 383 Madison Avenue, the firm’s vocabulary has returned to a general Modernism, but with a few flourishes like those seen at the International Gem Tower.

Whether the sense of surface treatment in the renderings of the Gem Tower will be fully borne out in the building remains to be seen. It’s certainly clear that the building, however fanciful, will not harmonize with the rest of the Diamond District, which will require more than baubles on an old-fashioned setback form to make it look good.