October 1, 2006
By resisting easy temptations Renzo Piano has accomplished something rare: unstrained symbolism.
When Renzo Piano won the invited competition to design a new building for the New York Times Company, the air was full of invective. Frank Gehry had been the front-runner—indeed some said the project had been promised to him before a mysterious conflict led him to withdraw—and the selection of his Italian rival was seen as a safe choice: the Times at its most stolid. No one doubted that the building would be decent—has Piano ever designed a bad one?—but hopes for a masterpiece were kept well in check.
That was exactly six years ago. And now after significant delay—attributable to financing woes and post−September 11 nerves—Piano’s 52-story tower is topped out and its distinctive exterior substantially complete. It rises over a difficult stretch of Eighth Avenue with all the taut propriety of the newspaper that will make a home in it. Bravo, Renzo.
Still, after all this time some doubting, mumpish pro-Gehry chatter remains. Was the nation’s paper of record too timid to build the design offered up by the reigning genius of American architecture, then in the full flush of his post-Bilbao stardom? Remember that Gehry tower-that-might-have-been. And if you can’t, call to mind his more recent New York work: “Miss Brooklyn” (the signature focal point for his mammoth Atlantic Yards project) or the mixed-use skyscraper planned for Beekman Street, in downtown Manhattan. With the exception of some pinstripes and the presence of an enormous Gothic-type NYT logo at its crown, the design he produced for the Times was much the same: a conventional skyscraper with a funny skin. Herbert Muschamp, who advised the selection committee, wrote that he liked the concept Piano developed with what was then Fox & Fowle—he declared it rational and classic, his second choice in a field that included Norman Foster and Cesar Pelli—but he was madly in love with the Gehry. The Times went with rational, and Piano has delivered a classic with grace, in a graceless corner of the city.
Lying just outside the particular zone of the Times Square business improvement district—where the public face of buildings must, by code as well as convention, speak loudly of the fun to be had within—that stretch of Eighth Avenue has come into the new century with all the pregentrified grit so much of Manhattan boasted in the last. Though there are a few new luxury residential towers stitched in among the ramps to the Lincoln Tunnel a few blocks west, and the new Penn Station in the old post office will likely lead to a general spruce-up of the area just to the south, very little of New York’s new spirit can be seen in the immediate vicinity of the Times tower, around the corner and a block south of the nonstop faux carnival of 42nd Street.
Piano’s building faces off against the brutish Port Authority bus terminal, directly opposite. The upper garage levels of that infamous street-spanning megastructure are distinguished by steel-beam crossbracing, a series of giant Xs marching up the avenue. As if in sympathy—and to resist the wind—the new tower uses the same motif on every floor of its side-street facades, elegantly rendered in steel cables that anchor into the main columns on alternate floors. Along with the much touted and elegantly realized ceramic-tube sun-breaks that rise to screen the full height of the building (diminishing in density at regular intervals to allow views out), the wind bracing gives the newspaper’s new home exactly the right airs to suit the earnest but forward-looking Times: it is businesslike without being boring, stable but not too staid.
The building also brings a quiet dignity to its lowly surroundings without importing to them the pixel-thin effects of Times Square. This is no place for that sort of gaiety, however easy it might be to reproduce, and Piano and his patrons were wise to buck local convention and find another way. People forget that the “Times” in Times Square is the New York Times. The paper preceded the square as we know it—and as it exists now, legislated into 24/7 celebration of itself. That history certainly gives the Times the right, if not the responsibility, to dig deeper than the glib for architectural expression. And in Piano it found one of the few architects working today who could pull it off.
Gehry’s much bemoaned design would have taken the easier course. His building was itself a sign, a tower seemingly enfolded in newsprint, with that cheeky Times logo on high to ram the point home. The architect might have proposed it for any site—so all-consuming and evolution averse is his personal vision—but here, a short hot-dog toss from the faux bawdy of 42nd Street, it would have looked a lot like the path of least resistance. While retaining all the familiar tics of his style, Gehry tried to say “New York Times” in the new language of the New Times Square: in signs and symbols, loudly but only on the surface. In contrast, the Piano design employs the very stuff of architecture—the same steel that makes the building stand, the glass that shields it—to create a whole that says, with appropriate rigor, the New York Times resides here, if you please.
The tension between applied symbolic and what might be called integral expression has been raging within the profession since Venturi et al decided that the frippery and marquees of the Las Vegas strip might serve as a universal model for American building. Buildings have to speak at times—clients and the public demand it—but decorating sheds has always seemed to me a simple and cynical way to meet that need. The sheds of 42nd Street, housing their revenue-generating wax museums and Applebee’s behind blinding signs, are no-brainers, in the worst sense, and should be corralled where they are. Arquitectonica’s spirited attempt to bring that formula up into the skyline in its Westin hotel, the Times tower’s nearest neighbor to the north, is famously botched—by broad consensus the ugliest new building in town.
The other way to express the purpose and aspirations of a structure—the way towers as distinct as Eero Saarinen’s Black Rock or the Empire State Building have done it—is devilishly hard. How, after all, does one make the necessary skin and bones of a building—already so busy meeting the needs of climate and gravity, function and budget—combine to create a palpable effect that will reliably communicate something as dimly understood as a feeling? An aspect? An idea? The triumph of Piano’s new Times tower is that he pulled off that neat, rare trick: he gave it an appropriate reading, specific to the nature of its tenant, without recourse to symbols of any sort. And he did it in the very heart of sham.