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Twin Piques

Having designed a center that revels in the exuberant complexities of Columbus Circle, Time Warner’s architects stint on the details.

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Synergy: Like the company that built it, the Time Warner Center serves many constituencies.  

New to Manhattan in 1940 and fresh from his first night on the town, Mondrian painted the jitterbugging squares of his Broadway Boogie Woogie without ever evoking Broadway itself. Apostle of the right angle, Mondrian was blind to the diagonal that slices through New York’s grid.

But the diagonal was not lost on Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, architects of the $1.7 billion Time Warner Center, at 10 Columbus Circle. Neither was the circle wasted on them, nor the grid. In the contentious search for the right building at this long-troubled intersection of Central Park and the city, their design was the only one to capture the complex mix of diagonal, circle, and grid emanating from the statue of Christopher Columbus. Led by David Childs, working with design partner Mustafa Abadan, SOM has built a seven-story front façade that curves with the circle and then steps back to two towering parallelograms whose façades follow both the street grid and Broadway. The axis of 59th Street runs through the huge complex, virtually cleaving the structure into two 80-story towers: Come the summer solstice, it’ll be better than Stonehenge.

The curved lower façade helps shape the circle as the skyscrapers affirm the street plan: The obtuse and acute angles create slipping, illusory shapes that make the towering forms look dynamic and slender, swift and spectral. The design represents perhaps the most extensive application yet in a commercial high-rise of deconstructivist theories about shaping buildings out of the fallout from a collision of streets. Inside, the designers of the apartments and the hotel—respectively, Ismael Leyva Architects and Brennan Beer Gorman—capitalize on the diagonals to create intriguingly puzzled interiors that literally play all the angles, spinning the perspective while the hypotenuse offers long vistas through Manhattan’s square asparagus patch.

With a hotel, apartments, offices, shops, a market, a gym, and concert halls hopscotching through 2.8 million square feet, 10 Columbus Circle houses a medium-size city. Mixed-use buildings are not new, but seldom is the mixture so complete, and rarely webbed throughout a building of this scale. It works like an urban pump, shooting people up from separate lobbies that line 60th Street to the complex honeycomb inside.

SOM got the big, difficult moves right, but for the success of any building to be complete, design decisions must reinforce each other consistently down the drafting chain. Unfortunately, sometime after the conceptual stages, SOM suffered a failure of attention span. On the second floor of the mall, one architectural model displayed in a mini-exhibition of the building’s design evolution shows a structure with translucent surfaces glowing white. But the crystalline shapes of the real building are clad in dull pewter-colored glass with little life and none of the light promised by the model. The knife edges that now define the outside corners of the building bracket façades whose mullions pucker the surfaces like a seersucker jacket. The oil-canning, as it is called by architects, undermines the prismatic purity of the forms. Energy standards for glass and tight budgets often compromise the quality of high-rise cladding, but normally SOM architects, experts in skin, pull off elegant façades: Here they did not solve the problem.

The cladding is just as disappointing at the base, which did not survive the competition between a stone wall designed to cup the circle and restaurants and stores that needed big glassy views and display windows. The indecisiveness makes the façade fussy, stone mixing with glass in an uneasy relationship of unresolved proportions.

Inside the five-story shopping center, the architects again made the right conceptual choices, creating a vast public room intersected by a monumental semi-circular shopping arcade that’s an outer ripple of Columbus Circle. In an original New York interpretation of suburban mall, the architects and developers program the space with anchors top and bottom rather than at either end. Whole Foods Market occupies the basement, and Jazz at Lincoln Center the fifth and sixth floors: The jazz promises to make the center live into the night. In another hand-off of batons in the design relay that this building represents, Elkus/Manfredi Architects, Ltd., planned the Shops at Columbus Circle.

But inexplicably, the atrium was effectively designed to separate rather than pool people. Placing Williams-Sonoma (looking surreal here, like an outpost of Mt. Vernon) between two banks of escalators on the ground floor, the architects confine visitors to surprisingly stingy corridors instead of letting them mix in an active space spilling over with people, as in Milan’s Galleria. The sterility of what should have been a continuously lively urban room metastasizes upstairs into the shopping corridors, which are lavish with rich marbles and exotic metals, yet oversized, frigid, and charmless.

Meanwhile, the escalators to the basement siphon off hoi polloi heading for organic groceries and fast food, a separation that sanitizes the serious luxury shopping upstairs in overcontrolled environments championed in suburbia.

Except for several back doors to the shopping floors, the hotel, offices, and apartments are virtually separated from each other, as though each were a free-standing tower. There is very little interconnectivity among the component programs to animate the interiors. Life inside doesn’t thunder.

And then there are the jazz theaters at the top. The music center, which is positioned above the shopping like a keystone connecting the two sides of the building, is wedged in unceremoniously, and visually lost, straitjacketed by the larger building. The facility, with two concert halls and a dinner club designed by Rafael Viñoly, should shine like a diamond solitaire, even in daylight, giving the center an urban profile it deserves. Like Mondrian, SOM forgets its own insight about capturing the energy of Broadway by disallowing the theater its own architectural riff.

Ten Columbus Circle is a building of great scope—magnificent yet subtle in its elusive profile, and complex in the three-dimensional puzzle of its diversified program—but disappointing in what should have been a convincing follow-through. What starts as a geometrically liberated building with great urban promise finally emerges as a sanitized urban environment with a skin problem. The building that thrives off New York and looks like New York behaves like Houston. It could have been a contender.


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