November 1, 2008
Completing the Circle
After more than 100 years of indifference and indecision, New York’s most famous traffic circle is finally finished.
I sit on a bench in the middle of Columbus Circle, amazed at how lovely it is. Sure, traffic is roaring all around this concrete island that was enlarged and landscaped and made hospitable to human life about three years ago. The fountains that ring the circle drown out most of the noise, and flowers, shrubs, and skinny saplings form a psychological buffer. People are hanging out in the brilliant late-summer sunshine (as though this were Paris), sitting on the benches or on the stone steps that form the base of the navigator’s pillar. This renewed Columbus Circle feels exotic to me. For most of my life, this spot was not a destination but an obstacle, a gauntlet of difficult intersections between the subway station and somewhere unpleasant, like the radiologist’s office. It was never a place to en-joy or linger.
From this vantage point, I admire the building that I regard as the end of a very long story, the new home of the Museum of Arts and Design, or MAD, which opened in September. Edward Durell Stone’s 1964 building, commissioned by the A&P heir Huntington Hartford as a rebuke to MoMA, has been newly clad in iridescent ceramic tile by Brad Cloepfil, of Allied Works Architecture (see “Selective Recall” ). The plan, when announced in 2002, engendered the wrath of many preservationists. Today, the facade and the building’s concrete structure are pierced by a series of horizontal and vertical gashes that bring daylight into the galleries. It’s a buttoned-down, understated design, with a few notable quirks—like a banker wearing war paint. The eccentric Stone building has now become the eccentric Cloepfil building.
The story, however, isn’t about this one building but about the transformation of a part of town that was never well thought through. Unlike Paris, New York is not comfortable with traffic circles. We’re a grid town, not a hub-and-spoke town. Nonetheless, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux installed one at this corner of Central Park, and so, since the late 19th century, we’ve lived with it. In its heyday, the first decades of the 20th century, Columbus Circle was a northern extension of the theater district. By the time The WPA Guide to New York City appeared in 1930, it had “a somewhat abandoned appearance.”
Two decades later, Robert Moses furthered the misuse of the city’s most prominent circle. In the name of slum clearance, he demolished a theater and a bank building that fronted the circle between West 58th and 60th Streets, tore down the tenement apartments directly to the west, and demapped a block of West 59th Street (a.k.a. Central Park South). On his assembled superblock, Moses erected the grandly named New York Coliseum, a convention center that, even when new, was despised. “It’s all right for New York,” Frank Lloyd Wright famously said. “But I hope it stays there.”
The glacial rebirth of Columbus Circle began more than twenty years ago, when it was determined that the Coliseum, made obsolete by the 1986 opening of the Jacob K. Javits Center, should be replaced. The first plan for the site involved a bulky 68-story tower by Moshe Safdie. Most people remember that the plan was undone by a 1987 demonstration, in which the shadow the building would have cast on Central Park was represented by a line of protesters (including Jackie Onassis) opening their umbrellas. Most people forget that on October 19, the day after this demonstration, the stock market crashed and the real estate market crumbled, and the developer Mortimer Zuckerman eventually pulled out of the deal. The Time Warner complex now standing came out of a second request for proposals issued by the site’s owner, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, in 1996.
Completed in 2004 and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Time Warner Center is only marginally smaller than the Safdie design (2.8 versus 2.9 million square feet), but it’s more decorous. The SOM architect David Childs likes to point out how the facade hugs the curve of the circle, how the gap between the two towers marks a symbolic reopening of West 59th Street. “The fundamental idea,” Childs told me in 2004, “was to return Central Park South to the city. The right thing to do would have been to take the street all the way through the project. But that wasn’t going to happen.” To Childs, even the shopping-mall atrium, with its glass walls, was a symbolic extension of the street.
I admire the poetry of the idea, but I don’t buy it. This large-scale agglomeration—with a corporate headquarters, luxury condos, a Mandarin Oriental hotel, a cluster of high-end restaurants, a jazz theater (mandated by Mayor Giuliani), and a mall—is more the product of the Moses demapping than its undoing. It is one of those buildings that are at their best when you’re inside, looking out at the city through the 50-foot-high glass wall of the theater’s Allen Room. From where I sit at Christopher Columbus’s feet, however, the building’s base is a smooth, unremarkable contemporary composition. But for its curve, it could be almost anywhere.
When the Time Warner Center was nearing completion, I had a conversation with the Municipal Art Society’s president, Kent Barwick, who said of Columbus Circle: “It’s always had more potential than reality.” He added, “One of the goals of the Municipal Art Society one hundred years ago was to make it like the circles in Washington or Rome, to be a Beaux Arts creation.” At the time, I thought, Yeah, right. But in September, inside MAD for the first time, I looked down from one of those horizontal gashes in the facade, and there it was, the landscaped circle, looking as if it had been meticulously preserved since the 1890s.
On the day of the MAD press opening, I emerged from the dungeon of the Columbus Circle subway station and thought, I’ve never seen the circle look this beautiful. One of my colleagues tried to convince me that the beauty I sensed was just the quality of the sunlight, not my surroundings. When Cloepfil spoke about his design, he explained that he was trying to respect and reaffirm the original building’s role as a “memory marker.” He said the building’s function in the urban landscape was to take light and give it back. Cloepfil worked with the ceramist Christine Jetten and the Dutch manufacturer Royal Tichelaar to “create a glaze that would change the color and character of the building” so it “would be alive through the light.” His words reinforced the impression I’d had. What I saw wasn’t just the quality of September sunlight but the architect’s recladding at work.
I returned to Columbus Circle after dark and sat at the base of the statue. Even at night, this reinvented circle is a pleasant place to linger. The fountains are illuminated, and the museum is a patchwork of light. The terra-cotta facade picks up the glow of surrounding streetlamps, and the reflections have a multicolored tint. As I sat watching the facade play with light, what amazed me was not that I liked this second incarnation of Stone’s oddball building, or even that this understated redo appeared to complete the circle. What I found hard to believe is that the 100-plus-year saga of one of New York’s perennial trouble spots is over. And that the story has a happy ending.