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Cineplex Odious

Outsize movie theaters are making new apartment towers uglier than they've ever been. So don't blame the architects for these big boxes. Blame Hollywood.

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Unlike most other New Yorkers, I won't let myself hate a new building simply because it's new. It's a matter of principle. Or professional ethics. Or something. For example, no matter how much friends and acquaintances urge me to scorn Union Square South -- the nearly completed apartment-and-retail complex that lurks at the bottom end of Park Avenue -- I refuse. Though I have to admit I've been tempted.

Mostly, I've been confused by this peculiar agglomeration of a building designed by architects Davis Brody Bond. Really, it's two buildings, and one of them, the top part, has much to recommend it: a slim, sophisticated brick apartment tower distinguished by an angular shape and a superabundance of windows (it compares favorably with the clumsy kindergarten-block shafts of Zeckendorf Towers across 14th Street, a complex that was designed by the same architecture firm a decade ago). But there is something very wrong with the man-made mesa on which the new tower sits. It is an asymmetrical chunk that fills an entire block, with 85-foot-tall walls surfaced in many different materials, none of them especially nice. Lots of vents, not a lot of windows. Every time I walked by, I wondered whether the simple science of making a building meet the street had been entirely forgotten.

Then one day, I noticed a tattered banner hanging from the 13th Street-and-Broadway corner of the building: MANHATTAN'S FIRST ALL STADIUM THEATER, it announced. United Artists, it said, will soon be setting up shop with fourteen wall-to-wall screens, rocking-chair stadium seating, and a sound system that reads like a stock-exchange ticker: "Dolby dts SDDS THX."

The fact that this hulking edifice was designed, in part, to house a megaplex theater explained a lot, but not everything. Like most other buildings in this city, Union Square South was shaped less by an architect's vision than by a developer's need to make money and by the peculiarities of New York's zoning laws. The zoning laws that are in place in Union Square, a so-called Special District, and in most other parts of the city as well, obligate builders to follow rules designed to make new buildings come out looking like old buildings.

To a great extent, New York's zoning is Fear of the New codified as law, motivated largely by regret over a trend that started in the sixties, when developers were given bonus "floor-area ratio" for public plazas. What we ended up with was a generation of excessively tall buildings surrounded by uninviting expanses of pavement. New rules instituted in many parts of Manhattan beginning in the mid-eighties required developers to build right out to the property line, where the sidewalk begins. Then setbacks -- like the tiers of a wedding cake -- were mandated at specific intervals to allow sunlight. Build within the prescribed envelope and the end result should be -- voila! -- the Chrysler Building.

Of course, we haven't seen a lot of new buildings that look that way. Now, zoning that favors prewar building types over postwar building types has conspired with an economy that favors exceptionally postwar varieties of business -- multiplex theaters and square-footage-hungry mass merchants -- to create a mutant race of buildings.

While politicians continue to squabble over a Giuliani-administration proposal that would permit suburban-style big-box stores to be built in fading industrial neighborhoods, big boxes are already a fixture at prime Manhattan locations, disguised by the apartment towers that sit on top of them. Unlike the suburban variety that generally contains 100,000 square feet of Target or Wal-Mart, these urban boxes usually hold several stores and a multiplex. Once I pictured Union Square South's base in the middle of a steamy suburban parking lot, I was able to understand the building for what it is.

And Union Square South is just the beginning. Out in America proper, the movie-theater industry has been going wild. Somehow, in the age of the VCR and satellite television, movie attendance has shot way up. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, total movie-ticket sales last year were the highest since 1959. "It's not just because of the movies," says Phil Zacheretti, a vice-president at the aggressively expanding Regal Cinemas chain, based in Knoxville, Tennessee. "Part of it is the style of theater we're building."

Like sport-utility vehicles, new theaters are overengineered. They have stadium seating, which means the floors are sloped so steeply that your view of the screen is never blocked. The seats feature lumbar support, padded retractable armrests, and plastic cup-holders. The screens, which shrank to postage-stamp size during the dawn of the multiplex, have grown taller and wider. Sound systems are ever more sophisticated (especially important for scenes of mass destruction), and concession stands -- the most profitable part of any theater -- now feature a veritable smorgasbord: pizza, fried chicken, and designer coffees.

New York City, however, is only now sharing in this bounty. The city is underscreened (that's the industry parlance); the only stadium seating in Manhattan is in the Imax theater at Lincoln Square. But all that's changing. Just as New York has been colonized by roadside favorites such as Staples and Filene's Basement, the big city has been discovered by the movie-theater chains. As many as 25 new multiplex cinemas will open in the city in the next five years, including Magic Johnson's 'plex on 125th Street, a downtown-Brooklyn project, and a fifteen-screener in Battery Park City.

Jeff Blau, the executive vice-president of the Related Companies, developer of Union Square South, believes that multiplex theaters are destiny. With zoning that mandates a street wall 85 to 125 feet tall, you wind up with four or more extremely large floors. At Union Square South, the footprint of the base is 50,000 square feet. "You can't put residential on them," Blau says. "Retail, historically, has never worked in New York above the second floor. There's only one use that makes sense -- the multiplex."

Union Square south is not the first of its kind in New York. In 1994, the thirteen-screen Loews Cineplex Lincoln Square at Broadway and 68th Street, with its themed environment (all the theaters are named after dead movie palaces) and mall of concession areas (right now there's a Godzilla gift shop), is the prototype. It shares its square-block building with a Gap store and the Reebok Sport Club, and a lean tower rises above. The architects at Kohn Pedersen Fox were somewhat more successful than those at Davis Brody Bond at creating a graceful envelope for this mix. Although graceful may not be the right word. Like Union Square South, Lincoln Square has its share of ugly, blank exterior walls, but variegated brick makes the expanses relatively attractive. The building is helped immensely by a James Carpenter artwork on the Columbus Avenue façade and by use of interesting, curved volumes atop the base.

The outside is so bad because it has to accommodate what goes on inside. A fourteen-screen cinema spread out vertically, across several floors, means that there are going to be a lot of windowless expanses. Making it fit requires a special breed of architect. Richard De Marco, for instance, is an associate at Schuman Lichtenstein Claman Efron, a firm that says it has a dozen multiplex designs in the works. De Marco spends his days manipulating the space inside buildings like a puzzle, trying to find room for 14 or 20 or 25 auditoriums, working around the girders and ducts that support the apartment building above. Such problem-solving is reminiscent of the work architects used to do squeezing every square inch of office space out of twenties-skyscraper floor plans. Except, to those old office jockeys, a building's greatest asset was its windows.

"They don't like light," quips architect Steven Davis about Union Square South's commercial tenants. He's not just talking about United Artists. The retail tenants, including Circuit City and Virgin Megastore, "want to use every square inch up to the perimeter without windows . . . and they should because of the rents they pay in New York." So Union Square South has display windows at street level, as mandated by zoning, but above the first floor there are areas of brick, masonry cladding, translucent glass, and -- soon -- a digital art piece by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel. But precious few windows.

The result is that zoning intended "to preserve and enhance the special character of the Square" has actually produced a building that does exactly the opposite. Somehow, it didn't occur to anyone that an obligatory street wall on a building that fills an entire block might create something less welcoming than a plaza. Somehow, no one realized that a street wall without windows is not especially human-scaled or pedestrian-friendly. Instead of something with the charm of, say, an old Raymond Hood skyscraper, we get a building with the charm of an old E.J. Korvette's.


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