Why is it so much easier in New York to erect a dreary tower than a marvelous one? Hundreds of great gray glass blobs and mouse-colored moneymakers have gone up all over Manhattan in recent years with barely a shrug of protest. The conspiracy of ugliness has no opposition. Yet Jean Nouvel’s spectacular, soul-strengthening design for a 75-story tower on West 53rd Street has gotten some neighbors high on parochial outrage. The community board urged that the proposal be rejected, and the crowd at a recent Landmarks Preservation Committee meeting reacted as if the architect had floated a plan to dump nuclear waste in Central Park. Such attacks may represent the opinions of a few malcontents with afternoon sunlight to protect, but the shrillest voices can have a disproportionate effect on a proposal, and this project’s specialness makes it vulnerable.
Nouvel’s design for a condo and hotel resting on three floors of new galleries for the Museum of Modern Art is an ecstatic reproach to Manhattan’s regularity. It would be to the skyline what Broadway is to the street grid: an indispensable violation and a zagging flourish. This is no prim modernist shaft; as with Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower, the structural supports push to the exterior, forming an eccentric exoskeleton. The Hearst building revels in rigor, wrapping itself in diamond shapes that could extend another eight floors without loosening its logic. Nouvel’s tower, by contrast, narrows, slopes, and twists, reaching for one particular point in the sky. Its athletic, muscular contortions recall Daniel Libeskind’s original concept for a 1,776-foot skyscraper at ground zero that would echo the Statue of Liberty’s raised arm. No other high-rise in New York reaches its pinnacle with such kinetic precision.
Opponents complain that a 75-story building next door to the Museum of Modern Art would violate the area’s integrity, which is not only a preposterous objection in midtown but also a constipated sense of context. Yes, 53 West 53rd will needle up from a side street, where very tall buildings are usually unwelcome. Yes, it will obscure views, cut light, strain sewers, and crowd subway lines and sidewalks. So have a zillion other new structures that aspire to nothing. Let’s be honest: What would fit uncontroversially into the gap on West 53rd Street is something stubbier, squarer, and blander.
The phrase “out of scale,” which is invoked to block tall buildings in low-rise areas, means one thing in the West Village and quite another here. To walk through midtown is to dwell at a subaqueous level, at the base of glass-and-steel reeds rising toward the sun. The tallest-seeming tower is usually the closest, dwarfing loftier ones farther away. An accurate sense of scale in midtown depends on not actually being in midtown. The magic of the Empire State Building is best appreciated from miles away, where the eye can savor how proudly out of scale it is. This is an argument not for green-lighting every megatower but for acknowledging that the city has yet to reach its full height, and that to try to stop its growth spurts would be as hobbling as binding a child’s feet. Nouvel’s future landmark gets its height via air rights from two extant ones, St. Thomas Episcopal Church and the University Club, which is why Landmarks has a say. Yet preservation is about guiding the future more than it is about gripping the past, and it makes no sense to quash this plan in the expectation of a duller, more modest alternative.
In many ways, Nouvel’s design is in fact craftily contextual. Wrapping around the American Folk Art Museum by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien to join Yoshio Taniguchi’s expanded MoMA, the tower would complete a suite of early-21st-century designs, giving the block a period integrity that the future will want to protect. MoMA itself has gradually evolved on its way down 53rd Street, from the pearly 1939 building by Goodwin and Stone to Philip Johnson’s small black wing, César Pelli’s Museum Tower, and now Taniguchi’s connective tissue. Believe it or not, the museum wants to expand again, and the new building would enclose its galleries in a rattan of huge tilting columns and skewed beams. The structure becomes a street-level conversation with the museum’s previous incarnations. The sense of being at once enclosed and exposed intensifies on upper floors, with great glass walls slashed by startling trusses.
This is not MoMA’s project: The museum has sold the lot to the developer, Hines. But its 2004 exhibit “Tall Buildings” did implicitly argue for Nouvel’s brand of provocation. In that global anthology of radical height, the skyscraper took the form of a corkscrew, a pagoda, and a giant pretzel, leaving New Yorkers wondering why their city had surrendered its claim to galloping architectural fantasy. With this plan, Nouvel brings it back. Please, let it be built.