Macklowe’s 510 Madison rises above base concerns

<i>New office building makes the best of bad zoning</i>

510 Madison Avenue
At first glance, the nearly completed 510 Madison Avenue, designed by the firm of Moed de Armas & Shannon and developed by Macklowe Properties, might look like just another example of the sort of building that already abounds in Midtown Manhattan. This office tower, rising 30 stories from a six-story base, is a structure of glass and steel much like 20 others that have adorned the avenue over the past 50 years. But to the experienced student of architecture, there is a barely definable quality to the building that distinguishes it from its neighbors. The quality that I speak of is quality itself, the sense that the architectural firm involved knew what it was doing, and that it refused to cut corners in its design or in the cost of materials.

If the truth be told, 510 Madison has made the best of a bad thing: zoning so restrictive it encourages ugly buildings. With the noblest intentions in the world, the city is now at war with its own architecture. Some of the guidelines for building in Midtown essentially prohibit new office buildings from rising in an uninterrupted ascent from the base to the summit. Instead, there is a rather strictly enforced typology of a low-
lying base that covers the site, and then resumes its ascent only in the form of a narrow setback.

Everyone acknowledges that we cannot allow developers to construct monoliths that occupy their entire lot from the base all the way to the top, thus creating the sort of hulking goliaths of the early 20th century. The civil ordinance of 1916 dealt with that, much to the enlivenment of our architecture and to the enhancement and livability of our city. But when, in 1961, a subsequent law encouraged the further division of buildings into towers and bases, the result was a chewed-up street wall that created a whole host of fissures along our finest avenues.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1961 ordinance, this prevalent division into base and tower, after the example set by Lever House in 1953, created many a drab and unlovely building that in no way improved the situation. At least the developer and his architect once had a choice as to how they wished to design their building. Now that choice has been largely taken away, since the zoning laws have become far more restrictive. This is a shame: If you really look at the building type in question, there is a reason why, through all the centuries, architects have not been building a slab or tower on a base. Despite some handsome exceptions, like Lever House itself, there is something a little off about the whole thing.

The prospect of one structure after another taking this form is distinctly dispiriting. Unless this typology is handled with the utmost care, the unity of the building is almost certain to be destroyed, all the while depriving it of the iconic thrust that cathedrals and older skyscrapers possessed as they rose up in uninterrupted ascent. One of the best buildings to rise in Manhattan in recent years is the Weill Cornell Medical Center, designed by Todd Schliemann of Polshek Partnership, which soars up in giddy ascent to an undifferentiated summit. However, what is possible for a research center on York and 70th Street is, in practice, no longer possible for an office building in Midtown, because of the strictures that the city places on design.

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But if the city handed a bag of lemons to Dan Shannon, the man in charge of the design of 510 Madison, he had the wit to make it one of the more satisfying new buildings in Manhattan. Its elemental geometries admit of little or no personal touch, so the beauty and individuality of the building exists in the details. This building (the subject of bitter and ongoing foreclosure proceedings between Macklowe Properties and SL Green, which recently purchased the debt on the project) is fully of a piece with other projects from the estimable firm of Moed de Armas & Shannon. For some years now, this firm, one of the pioneers of neo-Modernism, has specialized in elemental shapes, rectangles mostly, whose unadorned right angles are set in glass and steel.

For much of the past decade, they have been on a mission to redeem Midtown by transforming aging Modernist structures by covering them in newer and sheerer cladding that, for the first time ever, brings out their hidden beauties. Among these are 1095 and 1120 Avenue of the Americas; 340, 540 and 545 Madison Avenue; and 100, 300 and 430 Park Avenue — all of them splendidly reborn.

But 510 Madison Avenue is not a reworking of a preexistent structure: It is an entirely new building, whose grace and tact fully live up to the expectations created by this firm’s many previous projects. The first thing one notices about this building is the signature skill with which the glass skin has been applied to the steel skeletal structure. As with so many other projects realized by this firm, experientially, it feels as though a fine film of water were cascading silently down the sides of the building. The window modules, without spandrels or infill, form a delicate fretwork that gives modular definition to the structure, but without interrupting the flow of the curtain wall.

As suggested above, the success of the building as a whole is qualified by the requirement that it be divided up into a tower and a base. As such, it could not achieve, ex hypothesi, the monolithic drama that is so stunningly played out in this firm’s reworking of 1095 Avenue of the Americas, formerly the universally disparaged New York Telephone Building and now one of the ornaments of Bryant Park. But its redemption comes in the form of such small elegancies as the separation of the base from the tower through a series of X-shaped girders that are surrounded by a tasteful arrangement of planters in a garden designed for the building’s employees.

The inside of the building is fully equal to the exterior. Soon to be equipped with a swimming pool and a restaurant, it is entered through a vast hall clad in austere but richly textured granite. Sparely appointed, it culminates in a minimalist marble desk. Meanwhile, the office floor plates are uninterrupted by columns and rise to an opulent ten and a half feet.

Standing beside 510 Madison Avenue, one has the same feeling that one gets beside Moed de Armas & Shannon’s other projects in Midtown: that the whole area has been improved by this new arrival.