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The Greatest Building: “If I Had To Pick One Tower, It Wouldn’t Be the Empire State Building”

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Dubbeldam: It’s hard to pick a single tower. I love the Wall Street area, where you have this huge field of skyscrapers so close to each other—that, to me, is typical of New York. And if I had to pick one tower, it actually wouldn’t be the Woolworth Building, or the Chrysler Building, or the Empire State Building. It would be the little black Millennium Hilton Hotel on Church Street, right near the World Trade Center. It’s not easy to make a black tower, and it’s perfectly detailed.

Davidson: Well, that’s a surprise. If you were going to choose one perfectly detailed modernist tower, wouldn’t it be the Seagram Building?

Pasquarelli: It’s the icon that got replicated most. When you bring people to see it, they often say “Huh? I’ve seen that building in every city in America.” But then you talk about the tripartite division, which relates to the Racquet Club across the street, the quality of the materials, the proportions, the elegant positioning. And you compare it to the bad bronze knockoffs, and people start to understand.

Bergdoll: The Seagram Building was supposed to be exceptional, but it became a template for lots of other buildings. Its brilliance is not the tower, but in the lower parts that define a sequence of landscape elements with different entrances, stairs, and levels.

Stern: In the end, though, it destroyed its own raison d’être by causing everybody to tear down everything next to it.

Davidson: So is one criterion for evaluating a building’s New Yorkiness how much it transforms its surroundings?

Stern: Not necessarily. The Guggenheim didn’t spawn one bit of development on the Upper East Side. It’s still a dull neighborhood. And the New Museum didn’t change the Bowery; it was riding a trend.

Tschumi: It was following the Lower East Side art world.

Bergdoll: We tend to think of the New Museum as connected to artists, but it’s also connected to collectors. It’s a big business. Really, the New Museum is a brilliant rewrite of the Whitney, which also followed the art world. Both opened up the sidewalk and changed the dynamic of the skyline.

Davidson: It’s interesting that such a small structure still has the capacity to do that. But do you think that anything new could ever compete with Grand Central for the title of best building?

Dubbeldam: Sometimes I wonder why there is not more architectural ambition in the city. Look at the Williamsburg waterfront, where they changed the zoning and put up all these atrocious high-rises.

Stern: These buildings are sold for their views. You’re paying for windows and a wall, and everyone is looking out all the time.

Dubbeldam: But they know people are looking at these things, right?

Cipolla: Decision-making has to be streamlined. Forty or 50 years ago, you had two or three people in a room deciding they want to build something, and off it went. Now we have much more bureaucracy and regulation, which has the effect of dumbing down design.

Davidson: What really good buildings from New York’s past couldn’t be built under current regulations?

Pasquarelli: Most of them! The Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Grand Central Terminal, the U.N. The Empire State Building—if you tried now to put a 100-story building in a neighborhood that was mostly ten-story buildings, you wouldn’t get very far.

Genevro: I disagree that there’s a problem with bureaucracy. Over the past ten years, we’ve gotten a lot of really, really good public design. If you want to do good design in New York, you can.

Dubbeldam: The biggest urban reinvention I’ve seen is Hudson River Park, which changed the West Side from a place of prostitution, burned-out cars, and traffic to a place where people started biking, walking, and sitting. It started with just a little bike strip, then came buildings, cafés, restaurants.

Pasquarelli: But the Bloomberg administration has raised the level of design. Ten years ago, developers just wanted to fit in. Now clients are asking us, “What’s the best building you can do?”

Tschumi: To what extent is that related to 9/11?

Pasquarelli: It’s directly related.

Davidson: How?

Tschumi: The shock and the drama affected everything, including architecture.

Davidson: The shock of destruction?

Tschumi: And the drama of how to replace it. The discussion went from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it put architecture on the map.

Cipolla: People started talking about architecture. Suddenly, we thought about how we lived and worked. On 9/11 I was on the 41st floor, and I had never thought about that before. Later, I moved to the eleventh floor, albeit subconsciously.

Davidson: One criticism of the Twin Towers before 9/11 was that they didn’t belong in New York.


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