Rediscovered Masterpiece: The Ford Foundation

Anticipating many of today’s environmental and workplace issues, the 41-year-old Ford Foundation Building, by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, remains a remarkably prescient piece of civic architecture.

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When people talk about midcentury office buildings in New York City, two projects tend to hog the limelight. The Seagram Building and Lever House, Park Avenue’s neighboring icons of the International Style, certainly deserve their renown. But their impact has been dulled by the dozens of inferior glass-and-steel ­skyscrapers that have taken over the city in the subsequent decades; what was innovative about those austere towers now seems commonplace. People who know their archi­tecture history may point to the CBS Building, Eero Saarinen’s dark-granite-clad monolith a few avenues away, which is less familiar but also, arguably, less successful. Head a dozen blocks southeast, however, to a nondescript stretch of East 42nd Street just west of Tudor City, and you will find an often overlooked masterpiece of commercial architecture, a building that succeeds both as a corporate headquarters and as a civic monument, and one that seems as relevant today as when it was built 41 years ago.

I’m talking about the Ford Foundation, 12 stories of glass, rusted steel, and pink-flecked Canadian granite designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA) between 1963 and 1967. More than four decades after its completion, the Foundation is still a remarkably prescient piece of architecture. It excels in several areas where many architects continue to struggle: how to integrate natural light and decent views into the workplace; how to provide privacy to workers without sacrificing a feeling of community (or sequestering them in bland cubicles); and how to create a daring, iconic form that is a good neighbor and a true contribution to the city. Visiting the Foundation today is still a unique and thrilling experience, one of those New York moments that should not be missed.

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To compensate for the meagerness of exterior views in midtown Manhattan—where most offices look out, depressingly, on the windows of other offices—the architects turned the building inside out. Instead of facing the neighborhood’s dull commercial architecture, many of the offices look inward to a soaring 160-foot-tall atrium stocked with a lush subtropical garden and a small, burbling pool. Two ten-story glass walls and a glass ceiling pour light into the atrium; beyond the east wall sits one of Tudor City’s stately little parks. It’s a magical space, a building that represents a remarkably humanistic view of the workplace.

The Ford Foundation was one of the first projects completed by KRJDA, the firm that evolved out of Eero Saarinen and Associates after Saarinen’s sudden death from a brain tumor in 1961. One morning in September, I met Kevin Roche, now 86, at his Hamden, Connecticut, office, which occupies a handsome 1906 mansion just outside New Haven. This is where Eero Saarinen and Associates was in the midst of relocating to (from its headquarters in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan) when Saarinen died, leaving Roche and John Dinkeloo (who died in 1981) to complete the move and realize the firm’s 12 major projects already under way—including not only the CBS Building but also the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the TWA terminal at JFK International Airport.

Dressed in black corduroys and a black sweater over a black button-down shirt, Roche projected a soft-spoken, gentlemanly presence. His sentences carry a slight Irish lilt, a remnant of his first 26 years, spent in Dublin, which he left in 1948 to do postgraduate work at the Illinois Institute of Technology with Mies van der Rohe. (“Mies just sat there smoking his cigar, never said anything,” Roche recalls. “And when he did, occasionally, he would say, ‘You could do that…but I would not do that.’”) After about a semester and a half, Roche ran out of money and moved to New York, where he briefly worked at the United Nations planning office before joining the Saarinens in 1950, the year Eliel died. At Eero Saarinen and Associates, he gradually took on the role of organizer of the master’s freewheeling creative chaos (see “Team Eero,” November 2008). “He was always very contemplative, always very intense, always wanted to research the project to its ultimate point,” Roche says.

This research-exhaustive approach was firmly ingrained in Roche by the time he got to the Ford Foundation in 1963. In Hamden he showed me a PowerPoint version of the slide show he presented to the clients at the time, which briskly reviews the challenges of the program and the site. “I started off talking about ‘What is the nature of the office environment?’” he says, showing slides of a typical office plan, where “all the chieftains get to sit on the outside wall.” That was the case with the Foundation’s temporary digs, which spanned several floors of an office building on Madison Avenue. “The only way people would meet each other is if they happened to be in the elevator or if they were going to the toilet,” Roche says. “What I was trying to say was that in an organization, if you don’t develop a sense of community, you don’t have a real, working organization.”

But how do you do that in an office building housing 400 employees working in about a dozen different divisions? This is where the presentation picks up: Roche shows a series of six models, depicting all the various forms that could work on the site. You could build a low-slung building with windows lining the exterior; a ten-story rectangle with a courtyard plaza; a skinny 16-story tower with a park to one side. But then, what if you put the courtyard inside, and opened it up so that it looked out onto Tudor City? And put the main entrance on East 43rd Street, away from the noise and banality of 42nd? Roche arrives at a model that looks remarkably like the building now ­standing. “They accepted it,” he says. “They liked it because it wasn’t another office building. They liked it because it was a special identity. They liked it because we weren’t relating to 42nd Street. And they liked it because its intent was to create a community.”

Even before it opened, the Ford Foundation was a critical success. When the design was unveiled in 1964, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times that it was “an object lesson in the possibilities opened by fresh thought and a creative approach to the city’s most important commercial building problem: the provision of ample and impressive headquarters for large corporations or equivalent organizations, in structures that have some civic conscience as well.” And just prior to the project’s completion in December 1967, Huxtable gave it a rave review, praising its “original, highly romantic beauty” and calling the atrium “a horticultural spectacular and probably one of the most romantic environments ever devised by corporate man.”

That same month, the New Yorker published a Talk of the Town piece on the new building, tagging along with Roche, Charles Eames, Florence Knoll Bassett, and others as they visited it shortly before Christmas. The author, Alan Temko, called the Foundation a “resplen­dent and generous” work of architecture and “an ­altogether new kind of urban environment.” Architectural Record concurred, describing it as a “new kind of urban space.” But the building had its detractors too. Architectural Review wrote: “It is another instance of the firm’s preoccupation with the sim­plified structural statement leading to a kind of gigantism in architecture.” One year later, in his book Amer­ican Architecture and Urbanism, Vincent Scully crit­­icized Saarinen’s late work and KRJDA’s early work for “the willful forcing of the structure, the total abstraction of the scale, and the science-fiction character of the image.” He added, “The Ford Foundation in New York is more complex but no less ominous: military scale on the street, sultanic inner garden.”

Since then, the Foundation has mostly been the object of reverence; it was awarded an American Institute of Architects Twenty-five Year Award and, in 1997, granted landmark status—then largely for­gotten. So why is it worth a second look now? In one important regard, it is still an anomaly in New York City: an office building that uses less space than the site’s zoning allows. Reached on the telephone recently, Huxtable remembers the Foundation largely for this reason. “We were still fighting the battle with developers of that stupid mantra: ‘Highest and best use of the land’—which simply means the most money you can wring out of it,” she says. “It was simply accepted that there was no other way to build. We were still fighting that, and for Ford to do this was just magnificent. And I must say, when it opened it was so ­beautiful.”

It remains beautiful today, thanks in part to a dedicated building-management department that works to keep the Foundation as faithful to the original design as possible. Walking its floors today is like stepping into another era: the generously sized offices are still stocked with the original furniture by Warren Platner—mahogany desks, wall-mounted bookshelves and cabinetry—which prompted Huxtable, in her 1967 review, to call the interiors “a virtual hothouse of suave, standardized elegance.”

The handsome, light-filled offices; the 11th-floor dining room looking out at the United Nations and the East River; the plush auditorium and grand conference rooms—all are gorgeous spaces that convey a feeling of seriousness about work, and the sense that there is an organizational intelligence behind the scenes. To find out what it’s actually like to work there, I talked to a few of the Foundation’s current employees, who had nothing but praise for the architecture and space planning. “I’m very positive about the place,” says David Chiel, the deputy vice president of program management. “When I used to come in from working overseas, I always felt a sense of home and welcoming. I never found it overwhelming or austere or too august or whatever—some people sometimes talk about it that way. But even though it’s a big building with a big soaring atrium, I still felt it was a certain kind of human scale that they captured well.”

KRJDA also struck a rare balance between privacy and openness in the interiors, which the firm designed itself. Despite all the recent improvements in workplace design, it often seems that the American worker is buffeted by a limited number of subpar options: the totally open office, now the au courant mode in workplace design, is a poor fit for many types of work (and many types of workers). Cubicles provide some welcome privacy, but they’re often ugly and can create a rat-maze effect. At the Ford Foundation, workers can close their doors and have almost total sound isolation. Yet being able to see others across the atrium really does foster a sense of community and an instant, intuitive feeling for the size and scope of the organization. Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of the New Yorker, notes that the effect goes beyond simple visibility. “The fact that there is a kind of ambiguity between public and private is really interesting,” he says. “There certainly was nothing before that that had quite that quality. And not that much after, either.”

This ambiguity extends from individual offices to the entire building. Designers love to talk about context-sensitive architecture, but rarely has anyone achieved this level of urban integration. From the corner of 42nd Street and Second Avenue, the only part of the Foundation you see is a blank granite wall, positioned to match the first ­setback line of a neighboring tower. On approach, the glass walls and the garden within are gradually revealed, but by the time you get to Tudor City, the 12-story building is hardly noticeable. Seen through the glass, the atrium garden blends in with the adjacent park, and this massive corporate headquarters practically disappears.

Ultimately, it may not be entirely fair to hold up the Ford Foundation as a model for contemporary architects. In many respects, the building was the result of a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of conditions: an enlightened and adventurous cli­ent, a plum site, and a young firm just coming into its own, full of confidence and ambition. Yet at the heart of the program is a refreshingly basic concern: a fundamental interest in the people who work in the building, from the chieftains in the executive offices all the way down to the lowliest clerk. “I’ve been accused of being a corporate architect, but I think that’s unfair because, really, my interest is in the people, not the corporation,” Roche says. “My interest is in bringing some interest to the lives of the people who work eight hours a day in this dulling, dulling, dulling office work of most businesses. I think Ricky Gervais makes a wonderful comedy out of it, but it’s all too true, you know? It’s this dumb, dumb, dumb work, there’s no relief, and, you know, what can you do to make these environments better for people?” Even if no project is likely to match the Ford Foundation’s uniquely innovative solution, this is a question that one wishes would trouble more architects, interior designers, and corporations today.

Jonathan Marvel on the Architecture
Architects today are as much involved in designing the environment within which their buildings fit as they are the buildings themselves. There’s a real dialogue between architecture and landscape, when the two disciplines were once completely separate. That’s exactly what interests me about this building. Because of its tiny footprint, it sits on the ground delicately. Many of the programmatic parts of the building actually float over either the garden or the walkways. You feel the entire building is a landscape. The offices feel like part of the garden. From the cafeteria, you feel part of the roofscape, and the fact that the president’s office literally floats above a curtain wall of glass without any space below it is just wonderful. When you’re inside the garden and look up, you see four red-granite columns rising up like the trunks in a redwood forest, with the Cor-Ten steel and the glass branches coming off of the trunks. It’s like a tree house.

The building is one of the first green buildings in New York. It was designed in the sixties, when we were thinking of alternative lifestyles, like living on houseboats or in geodesic domes, and alternative practices that were getting close to issues of sustainability that we’re incorporating in our buildings and landscapes today. To have this kind of building take on a corporate character is a reminder of how early it tries to deal with issues like passive solar ­energy—with the whole south wall of glass, the collection of rain­water on the roofs that then create a pond and irrigate the garden, and the borrowing of natural light for the interior spaces so you don’t have to turn on electric lights. All these issues were clearly there as a model for how to build in the twentieth century.
—As told to Paul Makovsky

Shashi Caan on the Interiors
In graduate school, I made the argument that the three core design ­fundamentals are light, color, and form­ making. While my two decades of design experience have confirmed this, the interior of the Ford Foundation is living proof. Its neutral color palette is intimately related to the materials. Too frequently, interior designers who must relate to trees and foliage will seek patterns ‘inspired by nature,’ often resulting in literal translations. Here the result is far more subtle, with its very careful balance of light, medium, and dark tonal values. They’re warm and neutral and work exceptionally well. The interior color and textures accent what’s happening out in the atrium with the trees and the earthy color of the weathering Cor-Ten steel. It’s all very organic and cohesive, as if the atrium could have been designed by an interiors person. This is why I don’t think of that space as a conventional atrium but as the dominant room—the primary reception room—for the Ford Foundation.

The building also has an abundance of natural light, which, seen in today’s perspective, is progressive and was ahead of its time. But it’s more than that. I am really struck by the visual connections. Because people have their own offices, they have a sense of place, a sense of belonging within their own space, but visually they have a sense of a larger community. With the transparency of the atrium, they have the ability to connect with colleagues, so much a part of the organization’s institutional culture. It is those issues—the balance between acoustical and visual privacy—that we’re still trying to resolve in our open-office planning. Some forty years earlier, the Ford Foundation building came pretty close to resolving them perfectly.
—As told to Martin C. Pedersen

Peter Walker on the Landscape
Dan Kiley and Kevin Roche had worked on a number of projects together, and there was a certain amount of trust between them. I don’t think you could do a building that was so interdependent if you didn’t have a certain amount of trust in the landscape architect, because the garden was so important to the building. Except for the Oakland Museum [also by Kiley and Roche], I don’t know of another building where the interaction between landscape and building is so integrated. You can’t really see the one without the other. I think these two projects are very important to the history of landscape architecture and architec­ture. They both exhibit a kind of faith between building and landscape.

Up until the Ford Foundation, Dan would either do formal expressions, or what I would call softening or decorating. In this one, though, Dan produced a forest. And if you knew him, you know that he was a mountain man and a skier. If you ever heard him talk about moving through the forest, he would use the idea of an Indian moving through the forest and not touching anything, not being heard. He felt strongly about the woods, not just the ecology but the complexity of it. I don’t know if there’s another project of Dan’s where he used this complexity as the primary design idea for the garden. This is not a formal garden, though I know he loved the work of Le Nôtre and even the more formal aspects of Olm­sted. But this was clearly not that. It was playing the wildness of the landscape against the precision of the building. In Oakland it was very architectonic. The plants softened but extended the architecture. Here it’s a play of opposites, and I think it’s a very sophisticated move, one that would not have suggested itself to too many landscape architects of the time.
—As told to Martin C. Pedersen

Sheila Hicks on the Textiles
Warren Platner, who worked on the furniture and interiors for the building, asked me to look over the plans. He had two commissions in mind, so he visited me in Paris, and we came up with lots of designs and possibilities. I took him to the Vorwerk factory in Germany, but the ideas became too complex to make in that factory without having someone continually oversee them. Warren pushed me to open my first studio, so I hired people and oversaw the whole thing.

I rented space from the Parisian architect Henri Tranquoy, and we constructed fifteen-foot-wide embroidery racks to make the two pieces. We stretched Belgian linen on these racks that revolved from top to bottom so that you could roll, then embroider, and then roll down. Since it was relief, it had to go into shipping crates in an accordion-style construction so that the faces of the embroidery wouldn’t touch each other. In the end, we had to lift the plate-glass windows out of the building in order to get the shipping crates out. They hang now in the boardroom and the auditorium of the Ford Foundation.

I think it was the first time that someone conceived of a contemporary textile tapestry as an entire wall—not as a tapestry hung on the wall. This was a real breakthrough. The Bauhaus always defined ­textile as a “pliable plane.” This one became a pliable plane that was then brought into tension and became the actual wall. I call it a bas-relief in linen and silk. Later, when Monique Lévi-Strauss wrote a monograph on my work, she called it macrobroderie.
—As told to Paul Makovsky

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