Just off Sixth Avenue, squeezed in next to the Museum of Modern Art, is a sliver of fallow ground just big enough to accommodate a convenience store or a few brownstones—or, come to think of it, a tower as tall as the Empire State Building. Skyscrapers have gotten skinnier, and three years ago, the architect Jean Nouvel designed an exhilarating mirage for this site, a slender, 1,250-foot ballerina of a building, corseted in steel beams and perpetually en pointe. The project—Tower Verre, he calls it—seemed like too flamboyant a fantasy for a cautious metropolis, and indeed the City Council approved only a stunted version, which demands a new design.
“We have to restudy it, without starting from zero,” Nouvel says. “I don’t think we have to revisit the essentials of the structure.” It may still be a twisting, sloping needle, enfolding new MoMA galleries in its base and rising to apartments with great glass walls slashed by tilting columns. Only now it can reach no higher than 1,050 feet, a toddler’s height taller than the Chrysler Building and 200 feet shorter than the Empire State. About this, Nouvel is by turns philosophical and resentful. “The past is the past,” he says with a shrug. A few minutes later comes the zinger: “What is surprising is that Manhattan should be afraid of verticality.”
Nouvel the person does not have the precise flash and lean grace of his architecture. He is a large, slow-moving man with a melancholy mien, who always seems to be in need of a nap. Conversing in English prods him into alertness, but in French, he relaxes gratefully, letting his mini-lectures trail off in baritonal mumbles. When I meet him at 100 Eleventh Avenue, the spangled new condominium he’s designed, his black-leather-on-black outfit camouflages him against the polished inky granite of the lobby, so that his great bald dome seems to hover in midair. In the white apartments he looms like a shuffling shadow. Like one of his buildings, he manages to appear conspicuous yet at home.
“I am someone who tries to be a contextual architect,” he says. “I’m always trying to figure out how to reveal the beauty of the surroundings.” That’s a provocative statement, given that he gift-wrapped Copenhagen’s new concert hall in brilliant blue fabric, made Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater levitate over the Mississippi waterfront, and transformed the low Barcelona skyline with a giant, glowing, tessellated phallus. Yet, glitzy as Barcelona’s Agbar Tower is, it does belong in the brightly hued, ostentatiously sexualized Spain of Pedro Almodóvar, and it does harmonize with the city’s extravagant landmarks: the colored fountains atop Montjuïc, and the corncob towers of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família. Nouvel has a talent for finding contexts to embrace his idiosyncrasies, and then making the results seem inevitable. “All my work is a search for what I call the missing piece of the puzzle,” he says, deftly implying that Barcelona wasn’t complete until it received his multicolored lingam, and that midtown craves his Tower Verre.
The 53rd Street skyscraper will adapt to its new height, but Nouvel insists that it must stick to the original brief: “to complete this cultural neighborhood and to complete MoMA—with a hotel and residences, yes, but it’s mostly a cultural object. It has to keep the same ambition.” Some observers have wondered whether the design’s decapitation, combined with the financing drought of the past two years, would force the development company, Hines, to scrap the whole idea. But Robert Knakal, a commercial-real-estate investment-sales broker, suggests that the warming market makes it fairly likely to be built. (A Hines spokesperson will say only that “we continue to work on the project.”)
In Nouvel’s view, Tower Verre is not just another commercial high-rise but an emblem of its moment, a testament to the city’s self-renewing vitality, and a crown on its mutable skyline. “We’re in midtown,” he says. “A place where we have to make a real skyscraper. It emerges from the skyline and you say: Okay! That’s where MoMA is! It testifies to what the skyscraper is at the beginning of this century. It’s not a copy of what the twentieth century did. It brings new forms of expression. The corsetlike structure on the perimeter of the building, the way it follows setback rules with a dynamic form of ascent that’s not the habitual stepwise manner, a structure that erases the distinction between outdoors and in—these things tie this building to the culture of these last few years.”
Nouvel made his New York debut nearly a decade ago, breaching Soho with uncharacteristic modesty. With its industrial gray steel and splashes of red and blue glass, the condominium at 40 Mercer Street inflected the neighborhood’s industrial past with Sex and the City glamour. Then came 100 Eleventh, a boom-time straggler that puts to shame the past decade’s crop of generic tinseled boxes. If in Soho, Nouvel had to grapple with a powerful urban personality, in West Chelsea he can help shape an area that still hasn’t quite jelled. A wall of slightly tinted windows, angled like mosaic tiles, sweeps around Manhattan’s cocked hip. From the outside, the variously coated and tilted panes deconstruct the sunset, give the curving façade a glittering, disco-ball effect. Crescent-shaped rooms get wraparound views, segmented like a jigsaw puzzle by irregularly sized windows that fit together, with no solid wall in between. It’s as if the builders had removed the masonry, chunk by chunk, until there was nothing left but glass. A fragmented, distorted reflection of the façade enlivens the curving white glass surfaces of Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters across the street, turning that end of the block into a friendly fun-house game between architectural superstars. “It’s an interference—an intentional interference—that makes me happy,” Nouvel says. “And it makes Frank happy, too, from what he’s told me.”