But 100 Eleventh Avenue is Janus-faced, simultaneously opening westward to the evening sun (and pummeling rains) and turning a stern black profile eastward toward the city. A scattering of punched windows breaks up that wall’s solidity. The arrangement looks irregular and uneven, and the reason for the randomness becomes apparent only from inside. Each opening composes a specific urban view, like a framed photo: the Met Life tower at Madison Square glinting across town; the spire of the Empire State Building framed in an embrasure near the ceiling; the straight line of 19th Street running right across Manhattan. As Nouvel has presented New York with a new object to admire, he has also curated a collection of architectural portraits for the private enjoyment of a few.
If Nouvel was hoping that 40 Mercer and 100 Eleventh would prepare the way for 53 West 53rd Street, he was wrong. From the moment it was first proposed, the skyscraper tapped a gusher of outrage. Neighbors felt besieged by the coalition of a globe-trotting architect, the Houston-based developer, and an expansionist MoMA, which sold the lot to Hines partly in exchange for space in the new building. Although it’s only tangentially the museum’s project, people tend to think of it as the “MoMA tower,” and the website no2moma.com includes an animation tracking its shadow across Central Park. The group behind that site, the Coalition for Responsible Midtown Development, has teamed with the local block association in a suit to annul the city’s approval.
Much of this furor is rooted in the desire to avoid noise and disruption on a street where MoMA only recently spent years under construction. Some of it probably also represents the primal horror of enormousness that persists even in midtown Manhattan, a revulsion expressed as a law of human nature by the title character of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz: “No one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice … At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” But if you’re standing on the sidewalk looking up, it hardly matters how high the spires reach; an ant doesn’t distinguish between a five-foot human and one who’s six-foot-four.
The most reasoned and nuanced opponent is Ada Louise Huxtable, the city’s senior architecture critic, who at 89 still contributes reviews to TheWall Street Journal. Huxtable worries about “zoning creep”—the gradual dilution of the rules that confine high-rises to the avenues and keep the side streets low. “It is the wrong building in the wrong place,” she writes in an e-mail message. “I have watched the town houses and brownstones on 53rd Street go down like dominoes over the years—it was one of the loveliest streets in the city—but the fact that they are gone does not make this building right. What I see is an enormous real-estate deal with cultural window dressing, a case history of how the zoning rules can be used to do something they were never meant to encourage.”
To Nouvel, the impulse to reject his 53rd Street tower is a symptom of an urban death wish. “As in all cities, there are conservative associations that don’t want a construction site near them and don’t want anything to happen,” he says. That’s the classic response of a spurned avant-gardiste: to accuse critics of reactionary sentiments. But Nouvel also sees the battle of Tower Verre as part of a larger struggle to define New York: Is it a more or less finished city, a museum of itself that must place a premium on preservation? Or should it still participate in the rude business of progress?
For him, cutting his building down to size was a way of protecting the skyline and stifling the manic ambition that created it in the first place. “Embalming the city—that means gradually turning it into nothing more than a tourist destination,” Nouvel says. “Paris runs the same risk.” (Nouvel lives in Paris, and although he has built several high-profile projects there, he also designed two separate skyscrapers that were approved, then shelved.) “The most extraordinary cities create energy as they form themselves, and that energy and complexity are qualities you can’t abandon. Our responsibility is to bear witness to our era. A city’s identity is not just something you preserve. It’s something you create too.”
Nouvel speaks clearly about the kind of city he abhors; less so about how a modern megalopolis like New York should continue to develop—aside from building his designs. In 2005, he wrote the “Louisiana Manifesto,” which reads like a French philosopher-architect’s cri de coeur as imagined by Stephen Colbert: “Architecture has to be impregnated and to impregnate, to be impressionable and impress, to absorb and emit … Let us denounce automatic architecture, the architecture of our serial production systems! Let us attack it! Engulf it! This soulless architecture crying out to be contradicted.”
This torrent of verbiage disguises an analytical approach based on a pair of solid principles. First, any new building on the skyline ought to start a conversation between the existing city and the fresh addition, each nudging and coaxing and shaping the other, in the way a family rebalances around each new child. Tower Verre, for example, tapers to an old-fashioned peak, lightening a skyline squared off with half a century’s worth of blocky modernist cubes. Second, a new monument shouldn’t aspire to timelessness, but speak with vivid specificity of an instant in a city’s life. You can grasp what this means at 100 Eleventh, which is already a poignant relic, containing within it a memory of the era that made it possible, the heat of the present, and the specter of a glorious obsolescence. Standing outside the building, Nouvel shouts over the traffic and imagines the impression his creation might make on future drivers. As they speed by, fleetingly dazzled by a reflection from the façade’s mosaic of windows, he suggests, they will glance up through the windshield and think of 2010. The building will date itself, Nouvel agrees, and that is the finest gift an architect can bequeath to posterity: “It will show what moved us in that period, which is to say … now.”