Norman Foster vs. New York

The unique challenges of building here can confound even the giants.

Norman Foster has come to Manhattan, and the city is eating him alive. Not as it did, say, during the World Trade Center follies, when he offered up a set of dramatically twinned and triangulated towers (conceived the week of the attack) that captured the imagination of the press and public but fared poorly with politicians. Two out of three ain’t bad—and Foster did warm the architecture-averse heart of developer Larry Silverstein, who gave him a nearly meaningless commission at Ground Zero last fall—but, to the chagrin of thousands (and the editors of the New York Post), it was not enough to land the WTC job. No one at the time, three years ago, was more surprised than the architect himself, who seemed to have swept into New York preceded by trumpeters and surrounded by courtiers and sycophants. Lord Foster had arrived. The city would finally get its “world-class architecture.” All was well.

Since then architecture types have been waiting impatiently for the completion of Foster’s consolation to the city—his first Manhattan tower, a headquarters for the Hearst Corporation near Columbus Circle. The tower had been designed prior to September 11, and it was one of the first tall office buildings (Renzo Piano’s New York Times tower, now rising, was another) to move forward after that brief moment of post-attack skyscraper apprehension. At the time of the groundbreaking in 2003, Governor Pataki—then in high Ground Zero booster mode—said, “Hearst and its planned headquarters are fitting symbols of the strength, permanence, and innovation of New York.”

That’s true, perhaps, for Hearst, an enormous media conglomerate and parent to magazines such as Popular Mechanics, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and O, The Oprah Magazine; as Mayor Bloomberg also pointed out at the time, the company exists only by feeding on the cultural ferment of the city. But the tower itself, now that it is substantially complete in advance of its opening this summer, reveals itself to be quite far from the innovative, high-tech nirvana many expected when Foster was first tapped. It is amply green, sure, but that is true of so many towers these days. And nothing in the building’s environment-friendly package approaches the sophistication of Foster projects overseas, such as his “Gherkin” for Swiss Re in London, a marvel so in tune with the planet that it even boasts operable windows.

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Still Hearst has been roundly praised in the early reviews, with critics in full swoon over its departure from the steel-frame vernacular. For this building, you should know, breaks the mold, shocks the Manhattan system, points the city and indeed the art of architecture itself on a bold new course! Yes, Lord Foster has come, bravely substituting triangles for rectangles.

Leaving aside for a moment the structural heroics and theatrics at the base, where the tower had to integrate with an existing low block designed in 1926 by Joseph Urban, the fuss over Foster’s tower boils down to his use of a diagonal structural grid—what some insist on calling a “diagrid”—in lieu of standard column-and-beam moment framing. Though it saves a certain amount of steel (Foster’s office claims a full 20 percent), the efficiencies in time and money were more than overwhelmed, one top architect on the job acknowledged, by the higher fabrication and labor costs associated with going so far off the conventional reservation of American construction. The steel subs predictably balked at first—contractor after contractor said “no way”—but came to have great pride in the novelty of their work; at some point in the last few years, nearly every Brooklyn bar and Staten Island barbecue must have been treated to a proud description of that crazy, newfangled building going up on Eighth Avenue.

So it didn’t save any time or money; indeed Hearst spent a good bundle, but being a private enterprise, we don’t know how much. The structural system also did no wonders for the experience of the interior, a stack of standard open-plan offices, indifferently fitted out and, in turns, charmingly (the sun-shade systems are a trip) and terrifyingly (acrophobes should avoid looking down through the overhanging “zeppelin” windows) affected by the in-and-out contour of the tower and its novel use of steel. So we can also agree that there was no spatial impulse driving the decision.

Why did Foster do it? To lessen the spatial and structural impact on the little building below, it does make sense to limit the number of vertical members carrying down to bedrock. The diagrid does this nicely, gathering the load into a handful of megacolumns on the perimeter. But as the architect’s own studies show, a conventional frame could have done so just as well, leaving the same soaring space for the corporate atrium (home to elevators, reception spaces, a cafeteria) that has reinhabited the husk of Urban’s Art Deco gem. Was it perhaps—gasp—merely about aesthetics and exterior effect? There certainly was pressure to wow from clients well aware that their own signature headquarters would be compared to the flashy (and famously green) Condé Nast Building designed by Fox & Fowle for their chief rival. Hearst did hire Norman Foster, after all, and it is not a reach to imagine that, in return, they expected to get a Norman Foster.

But New York City—particularly Midtown Manhattan, where the Hearst Tower now stands in all its incongruous glory—is an uncompromising place, one that doesn’t easily accommodate the architectural tricks, tics, and fillips that distinguish the “world-class” from the merely useful. Passing over the best-known hurdles—oddball zoning rules, penny-pinching developers, mobbed-up construction sites, hidebound trades—there is also the simple fact that towers there are built cheek by jowl, one great erection butting against the next as close as any two lowly tenements downtown. The Hearst Tower gives itself some breathing room, set back as it is within the frame of its borrowed podium, but it can’t quite detach enough from the truly abominable presence of the tall brown-brick mass of The Sheffield apartments, adjacent to the west. And then there’s the little issue of the meritless green-glass apartment tower across 57th Street to the north, rising with Hearst for most of its modest 42 stories—in which, incidentally, residents have still not learned to lower their shades before undressing.

Foster has inserted as much signature “Foster” as he could—as much as he needed to gull the critics—but against the massif of these homely, honest New York buildings near and far, his polygonal bulges and chamfered edges rub angrily. The result is a spectacle for those who love architectural diversity, even incongruity, and I would happily claim a spot in that camp. But with its structural grid revealed to be elaborate whimsy, its office floors offering no salvation for the Dilberts within, and that corner of Midtown seeming to devour in fascia and cheap brick the pricey effects of Foster’s effete glass—effects provided primarily to further the branding efforts of architect and client—it’s hard to join in the chorus of praise that has greeted the building to date. Foster did okay: the thing looks pretty good; its structural frame is kinda interesting. Hearst Tower is fine. Just fine.

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