James Gardner: Gehry undone

Spruce Street building billows to nowhere

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Why is it that the nearly completed 8 Spruce Street, a silvery pylon formerly known as the Beekman Tower, seems so thoroughly sad and unimpressive? Say what you will about Frank Gehry’s previous projects; at least they were never dull — until now. His latest effort, which bids fair to be the tallest residential tower in the city, as well as the eighth-tallest building in the city, beetles above the main campus of Pace University and glowers across the expanse of City Hall Park over at the Woolworth Building.

Developed by Forest City Ratner, the firm that previously teamed up with Gehry in an attempt to develop the Atlantic Yards, the building is not set to open until early in the new year, though the exterior is close to completion. As of now, plans are for its 903 luxury residential units to be rentals.

The development, also called the New York Gehry at 8 Spruce Street, will include 25,000 square feet of space for New York Downtown Hospital, public parking below grade, retail at street level and two public plazas to the east and west of the building. There will also be a 100,000-square-foot public school (for 630 students from pre-K through eighth grade) occupying the first five floors of the building, with 5,000 square feet of outdoor space on the fourth floor.

Like all of Gehry’s work, the building is conceived in the Deconstructivist style, which presumes to disrupt and disturb traditional architectural forms. But it just doesn’t have the feeling, the conviction, the antic sense of fun that this style is supposed to have, and that Gehry’s earlier projects certainly did. That may be because the implementation of the style is only skin-deep. The metallic cladding of 8 Spruce Street, which seems to be slipping off the surface like grease that puckers, puddles and undulates in its descent, comes off as little more than a big gimmick. Underneath it is a rather orthodox box.

While the new building has about 20 more stories than Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building, it is only about 70 feet taller. Indeed, given that the new tower, due to its height and proximity, will inevitably be compared with the Woolworth, it is interesting to note that it uses the Deconstructivist style in much the same relation as the Woolworth Building uses the flamboyant Gothic style on which it was ultimately based.

Which is to say that it uses it only to a minor degree. The Woolworth, a 1913 skyscraper over which a thin film of Tudor detailing has been thrown, knows little about the logic or structure of Gothic architecture. Similarly, with 8 Spruce Street, the Deconstructivist part of the project is not deeply rooted in the structure of the building. Unlike, say, Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the structural legibility and integrity of the project do not appear to be imperiled.

Instead, the Deconstructivisit trappings that adorn the surface of the new building are like the plumage of a peacock: Just as a peacock, under its feathers, is no different from a turkey, so 8 Spruce Street — shorn of its trappings, and notwithstanding a slight asymmetry in the massing — is not greatly different from most other high-rises in the city. There are many of the same old rigid right angles to it, lurking under all the fuss and feathers of its shiny cladding.

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As to that cladding, which covers a skeleton of reinforced concrete, it has been fashioned from stainless steel, but clearly it is intended to suggest the famed metal titanium that adorns the faÁade of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This is Gehry’s signature material, and it has been reported that even he is sick of it by now.

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8 Spruce Street and Frank Gehry

Unfortunately, whenever developers approach the architect to work with them on a new project, they will probably want those billowing sheets of titanium, or — in the case of “the Sails” (the headquarters of Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp on 18th Street and 11th Avenue) — billowing sheets of fritted glass.

But it is not clear to me what all this billowing is about. With a few exceptions, like the Sydney Opera House and a few Bedouin tents, buildings were not in the habit of billowing before Frank Gehry came along to puff them up, and I suspect that there is a good reason why they did not: The structure of said billows is counterproductive to the fulfillment of any function — other than a purely ceremonious or ornamental function — that the building might have. Beneath the billows there is always the drab armature of reinforced concrete that has been contorted into a shape that often serves no purpose. (In the case of, say, Bilbao, the swollen volumes could at least be accounted for as a space in which to display oversize works of art.)

On Spruce Street, however, no such claim can be made, and the undulations along the surface look like halfhearted wavelets. Here you see the typical Gehry idiom depleted and reduced to absurdity. This is as much as admitted by the architect and the developer, who have thoroughly abandoned this design element on the entire southern faÁade of the building.

How could this have happened? Well, there is little mystery to that. It has been said of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz that all the best architects have gone there to build their worst buildings. Let it be said in the same spirit that New York City is where the world’s most daring architects come to complete their dullest projects. Indignant community boards and the various, ever-nervous municipal entities conspire with unimaginative developers to clip the wings of the architect’s inspiration, all the while deriving such satisfaction as they can from the architect’s fame. Norman Foster, Herzog & de Meuron, Shigeru Ban and all too many other out-of-towers can attest to that sinking feeling that anything too striking or out of the ordinary may fly in another city or in another country, but that here in New York it never stood a chance.

Surely the fullest proof of what New York’s architectural culture does to its architects is the five-story base of 8 Spruce Street. This boxy, unadorned pile, which will house the school, is covered in red brick that is entirely alien and inappropriate to the metallic waves that cover the 70 stories above it.

It will be clear from this review that I am no energetic supporter of Frank Gehry. But even for an unsympathetic observer, there is something depressing in the spectacle of this lionized star on the international scene thoroughly defanged and declawed by the forces of dullness that in Gotham always, or nearly always, carry the day.