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Fat City

Strip away the genially glitzy signage, the oddly beautiful armature, and 4 Times Square -- a.k.a. the Condé Nast tower -- is an office building with a weight problem.

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A few weeks ago, architect Bruce Fowle took me to the roof of the nearly completed office building at 4 Times Square that would soon house the Condé Nast empire. I hardly noticed that in this famously accident-prone place, fire alarms were ringing and the elevator operator was sure she smelled smoke. I was thrilled to be standing 50 stories above the street, surrounded by the exotic rigging that is this tower's most distinctive feature.

Fowle explained that the armature is functional: Diagonal beams at the top of the tower transfer the building's load outward and support four massive billboards. The antenna rising above us will be used by FM stations, and the framework around it will be covered with mobile-phone antennas and satellite dishes. As it happens, the structural members also support a weighty architectural concept, Fowle says: "The idea is the building decomposes as it reaches the sky, so the guts show."

The tour continues with the mechanical room that occupies the building's uppermost floors. With pride, Fowle leads me through the maze of pipes surrounding the big gas-fired absorption chillers, gigantic energy-efficient devices that will cool the air in the building. Like the solar panels that replace the spandrel glass on the upper floors, and the electricity-generating fuel cells housed in a room next door to what will someday be Condé Nast's stylish Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria, the chillers are part of the building's "green" package. They're one aspect of its split personality. The tower is full of devices that maximize its energy efficiency. Yet, all dressed up in an electric glow as required by Times Square's rules, it will guzzle wattage like a drunk on a bender.

Beyond the roof, which I love, 4 Times Square's most endearing quality is that it isn't the tower designed for the same site in 1984 by architects John Burgee and Philip Johnson. Instead of a painfully symmetrical granite shaft topped by a fussy mansard roof, one of a quartet of buildings planned as a reproach to the sleaze that Times Square in those dark days represented, this tower is a collage, a raucous late-century cut-and-paste job. Positively Clintonian in its desire to be all things to all people, 4 Times Square is a representation of the wishy-washy way we are right now -- better as a piece of social commentary than as architecture.

Viewed from the east, the building appears to be a low-key composition of granite and glass, in harmony with the corporate hum of midtown. The west side of the building, by contrast, is all glass, shot through with neon and accessorized with a jumble of signs, as befitting the now officially -- and economically -- sanctioned spirit of Times Square.

On 42nd Street, near the eastern corner of the tower, is the main entrance, the gateway to the headquarters of Condé Nast and of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, which has leased the uppermost floors. At the southwestern corner will be the entrance to ESPN Zone, a sports bar-interactive theme park where diners can lounge in overstuffed recliners transfixed by a wall of TV screens. The corporate portal is supremely dignified, an unmarked bank of glass doors framed by rough chunks of stone. The Zone's entrance will be identified by a "Sports Kebab," a huge skewer holding giant basketballs, footballs, baseballs, and tennis balls. Something for everyone.

The building's architects at Fox & Fowle are also responsible for the Reuters tower now under construction on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street. Renderings show a complex assemblage of rectangles and curves, the façade patched -- like a pair of worn jeans -- with advertising. It's a more nuanced variation on the 4 Times Square theme.

This balancing act, disguising high-priced offices with glitz -- the word is actually used in the design guidelines issued by the Empire State Development Corporation -- can be attributed to Rebecca Robertson, who led the state's 42nd Street Development Corporation through the slump of the late eighties and early nineties, when it seemed the four office towers would never be built. Robertson, who today works for the Shubert Organization, hired architect Robert A. M. Stern and the late graphic designer Tibor Kalman's M&Co. to codify what she calls the "honky tonk" aesthetic into rules that architects and developers could follow.


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