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Champagne Design

Just as the city proposes zoning exemptions for exceptional design, a new tower in midtown reminds us how beautiful -- radical idea! -- contemporary architecture can be.

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Announced with great fanfare in mid-1996, scheduled for completion by the end of 1997, the LVMH Tower -- the North American command post for financier Bernard Arnault's ever-expanding fashion empire -- was endlessly delayed by cost overruns and litigation. Early renderings of the building designed to house the parent company of Louis Vuitton, Moët et Chandon, Guerlain, and a host of fashion houses, revealed something as outlandish as a piece of Lacroix couture. That architect Christian de Portzamparc compared its weirdly striated glass façade to a flower or a seashell only made the building appear frivolous and unlikely to be realized. The LVMH Tower seemed destined to be yet another sad story about the fate of ambitious architecture in New York City.

But all of a sudden, the LVMH Tower has arrived. It stands at 57th Street just west of Madison Avenue like a self-possessed Parisian who just blew into town on a whim, a bit out of place but otherwise perfect. It is everything contemporary architecture in this city is not: It's refreshing, surprising, and, with its delicate translucent skin glowing in daylight, beautiful.

Stand across 57th Street and admire it. What you see is a lean, 23-story tower that is sliced vertically on the bias into a green half and a white half. The right side appears frosted, decorated with a pattern of polygons sanded onto the façade -- as if the building were stenciled with aerosol snow -- making each window look like a facet in a crystal. The façade is full of wedges, folds, and odd Cubist-inspired protuberances. It almost looks as if Portzamparc tried to fit a building that was too wide between the Chanel headquarters next door and the stolid vintage office building on the corner and had to scrunch it up to make it fit. (Much of the façade's complexity, by the way, has nothing to do with flowers or seashells: Portzamparc purposefully used oblique angles and ultra-transparent glass to create a curtain wall that wouldn't reflect Edward Larrabee Barnes's hulking black-granite IBM building across the street.)

While it's tempting to dismiss this building as a fashion statement, a novelty from the house of Arnault, it can also be read as something profound: the harbinger of a remarkable transition from the midtown we know, with its mediocre, bottom-line-driven architecture, to a place where developers and architects occasionally take aesthetic risks.

Not likely, you say? Perhaps not. But here are two hints that the LVMH Tower is more augury than fluke: First of all, Portzamparc's design demonstrates that the conventional wisdom about zoning is wrong. New York City's zoning, in and of itself, doesn't inhibit experimentation. And over the next few years, other buildings that use glass in startling ways are certain to begin appearing. For instance, the Museum of Sex, planned for the corner of Fifth Avenue and 27th Street, is designed by a group of young architects called SHoP who will use an undulating glass façade as an allusion to the contours of the human body.

Second, a couple of weeks ago, the director of the Department of City Planning, Joseph Rose, gave a talk about changes he wants to make in the city's zoning resolution that promise, among other things, to incorporate the concept of beauty -- believe it or not -- into the city's regulatory structure.

Beauty is, of course, a word you would expect to hear from a Frenchman more readily than from a New York bureaucrat. Portzamparc, 55, is a smallish man whose shaggy brown hair makes him look like a holdover from a seventies Claude Lelouche movie. A winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize, he is best known for his Cité de la Musique in Paris, a theater complex the centerpiece of which is a concert hall surrounded by a spiraling corridor the architect has likened to a conch shell.

"The thing is, I realized we were close to the Chanel building," Portzamparc tells me during a conversation in the tower's construction office, referring to LVMH's next-door neighbor. A study in taupe, Chanel's building wears the zoning envelope like a tailored suit. "And it would have been not successful, for a corporate reason," he adds, a bit slyly, "if the Louis Vuitton building would be a twin of the Chanel."

Originally, Chanel and Louis Vuitton were to be separated by a small building that housed the Wally Findlay gallery. Designing for a very narrow site, Portzamparc began to configure a lean pile of rectangles and cylinders. "It was something a bit amazing," he says of the first renderings, though he adds, softly, "It wasn't that beautiful."


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