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When the City Became a Stage


Another century, another roaring decade, and Hearst’s corporate heirs decided it was time to build that missing high-rise. Norman Foster designed one that, in its geometric rigor and unwavering modernity, matches Urban’s feel for the spotlight. Hearst Tower bursts from the Magazine Building like a stripper from a cake, flaunting its corset of diagonal steel beams. But beyond showmanship, the design bespeaks a brutal optimism about the client’s business. Magazines may be struggling and print dying, but Hearst Tower represents a declaration of permanence and modernity. Foster scooped out the print-era relic, leaving an evocative shell, and bound the new tower in latticework. The first is an empty façade; the second is naked structure. New media, born from the old.

The media industry enjoys acting out its internal conflicts in public, and its bipolar decade produced a crop of extroverted architecture. Time Warner remapped Columbus Circle with its glowering slabs. Condé Nast and Reuters jazzed up Times Square. Bloomberg erected an understated silver tower with dazzling offices that overlook an open-air oval, evoking an eighteenth-century theater. The Times built a tower so enticing to attention-seekers that three of them scaled its exterior ladder of ceramic rods and wound up in court—and on TV.

The media company that thrust itself most energetically into the architectural limelight is IAC, which has no physical presence at all except for its headquarters. Frank Gehry’s white-glass bloom is a simultaneously coy and spectacular building, turning the heads of drivers on Eleventh Avenue and hinting at a transparency it never delivers. All that’s visible through its strata of milky frits is the fluorescent-lit ceilings. Gehry reveals nothing about what goes on within, and the floral form and creamy skin endow the company with loveliness by association. For branding, that’s all we need to know.

Glass is a morally tricky material: It promises honesty but it can also deceive and misdirect—making it ideal for creating theatrical illusion. Perhaps the most honest building in New York is the cube atop the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, because it shows off nothing but a logo. Walls, ceiling, and floor are all glass, as are the spiral staircase and the elevator leading to the subterranean depths where actual products are sold. The cube is very nearly invisible architecture, a statement of transparency for its own sake.

Theatrical architecture depends on sleight of hand. In their pristine rectilinear whiteness, Richard Meier’s suite of West Village apartment buildings intimates a coolly neoclassical sensibility, but their overt staginess—the suggestion of life lived in public—makes them as baroque in spirit as Gehry’s curvy IAC up the road. The two condos on either side of Perry Street went up in 2002, and their influence was immediate and widespread. Meier had pried glass free from its associations with commerce and made it stand for a quintessentially urban lifestyle. Mies van der Rohe had already gestured in that direction in the forties, with his curtain-wall towers on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. But whereas Mies segmented the exterior with a heavy black grid of steel, Meier frames his façade in a vanishing white matte that makes the curtain wall appear to float. The third building, at 165 Charles Street, seems even more evanescent, the structural elements mere wisps from a draughtsman’s pencil.

The effect of all this lightness is to draw the outsider’s eye past the surface, into the exposed dwellings. It allows a virtually uninterrupted vista to anyone inside. It hardly matters if there is nothing much to see in either direction; the constellation of podium, proscenium, and scenery deals in illusion and projection. Walter Benjamin might read the Perry Street condos as stacked storefronts, displaying the phantasmagoria of costly lives. You could also interpret it in more contemporary terms, as a tower of vast flat-screen television sets—a display of displays. Buildings like these are merely character actors in a culture of mutual surveillance and exhibitionism. In my pocket, I carry camera, screen, and soundtrack, compressed into a simple gizmo. How can you tell the watchers from the watched?

The ultimate expression of the two-way interchange of views and voyeurism is the new Standard Hotel. Small rooms press up against glass walls, so that guests are drawn to the lip of their little stages as soon as they’ve dropped their luggage. There, like rock stars late for their own concert, they find a ready audience. The High Line lifts crowds toward the windows, and the bond between bystanders and guests is tightened by anonymity. “Thrill-seekers yesterday flocked to the Meatpacking District’s newly christened High Line urban paradise to catch a glimpse of the free skin show playing out in the massive windows at the Standard Hotel, which straddles the park,” the Post reported breathlessly this summer. Management responded with a straight-faced announcement that it would “make a concerted effort to remind guests of the transparency of the guest windows.” As if guests, staff, park visitors, and columnists didn’t already know that transparency is precisely the point. Here’s looking at you looking at me, kid.

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