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Most of That Jazz

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill finally offers a plan for Columbus Circle that emboldens one of the city's great intersections -- but does it go far enough?

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Distances to paris are measured from the threshold of Notre Dame; the Umbilicus Urbis in the Forum marks Rome's ancient center. In New York City, Columbus Circle is the omphalos, yet no building here comes close to exalting that special point in Manhattan space. The parade of gargantuan proposals for the Coliseum site over the past dozen years failed to rise to the occasion, all of them outsize magnifications of the known and the obvious -- perhaps most famously, the massive stalagmite that Moshe Safdie unveiled in 1985, which ignited a public outcry.

Columbus Circle proved to be design purgatory for anyone who entered its rings. Since 1988, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, under the direction of David Childs, has produced a series of defensive proposals intended to placate the vocal West Side community; the successive iterations actually made the Safdie scheme look pretty good by comparison. SOM had made its reputation in the fifties with a long line of distinguished Modernist buildings, foremost among them Lever House, spearheading a corporate Modernism that embodied progressive ideals. But Childs renounced the faith of the founding triumvirate. Under the banner of contextualism, the firm proposed historicized piles for Columbus Circle that safely aped the twin-tower apartment houses lining Central Park West. Though stale, the stylistic familiarity helped usher the proposals through the sensitive approval process. In the final stretch this year, long after the architectural world had moved on, the design of record was a double embarrassment -- both ungainly and regressive.

Three weeks ago, however, Childs unveiled a substantially altered plan that goes a long way toward finally giving Columbus Circle a building commensurate with its vaunted point-of-origin status. It represents a bold reversal of position, and a great gain for New York over a fussy Art Deco design that suffered from aesthetic exhaustion before it had ever been built.

The issues at stake went beyond mere stylistic labeling: The old plan, though apparently contextual, fundamentally misunderstood the site. Simply transplanting a Central Park West structure down the avenue failed to reflect and exploit Columbus Circle's magnificent complexity. Every ten blocks or so, Broadway -- an Indian trail cutting diagonally across the island from top to bottom -- intersects an east-west street, detonating Manhattan's uniquely dependable grid, usually in the form of a wedge-shaped park or building (or both). Columbus Circle is perhaps the most Vesuvian eruption of all, because of its location at a corner of Central Park and the base of Central Park West.

The Circle itself came, no doubt, out of the Beaux-Arts impulse to reconcile its conflicting geometries as tangents of a single harmonious shape. But putting a Central Park West twin tower here was worse than trying to fit a square peg into a hole that was at once wedged and circular; it amounted to dousing an energy field with aesthetic bromides. Stately Central Park West buildings are essays in stasis, in the pull of gravity from top to bottom, and their accumulated massing alone can hardly acknowledge the dynamic energies teeming around the Circle, coursing down Broadway, spilling out of the Park. SOM's piles were Apollonian temples in a Dionysian circus.

A hint at how to design in this odd-angled field can be found among older buildings along Broadway, where many entrances that conform to the grid are set askew to façades that parallel the street. The building that SOM unveiled on June 28 is based on that skewed entrée -- on the principle, that is, of multiple geometries duking it out under the same roof.

The new design still echoes the twin-tower format, but the towers are no longer square to Broadway. Instead, they follow its slashing diagonal as parallelograms that avoid views into one another. The south tower will house condominiums, and the north a hotel and condos. Down their respective shafts, the façades angle out at 30 degrees in successive facets that accommodate corporate tenants, including the newly merged America Online and Time Warner. The wedges move toward a tangential relationship with the circular base, which houses more than half a million square feet of retail space. An east-west axis from 59th Street cleaves the whole composition, and in the canyon Childs suspends a theater and atrium for Jazz at Lincoln Center. The brick cladding from the previous plans has given way to glass; instead of expressing the force of gravity, the building now tends, especially in its upper reaches, to lightness and even weightlessness. Childs has also set dichroic fins along the skin that will refract light along the façades in the same way the sun ignites the crowns of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings.

All this represents a vast improvement: The nature of the design now builds on the complexity of the site rather than represses it, and yields a much livelier complex. In the five-story base itself, formerly solid and stolid, the architects cut the legs of the columns off at their knees, giving the whole a sense of suspension. A close-up rendering reveals a structure of many parts, its planes peeling away volumes in gestures of independence. But if you squint, or view the design at a distance, it morphs in the mind's eye into a much more conservative composition, very much the after-image of its symmetrical Central Park West forebears. The plan still carries in its general massing that Beaux-Arts DNA, and the gestalt loses some of its dynamism.

Has, then, the design gone far enough? The 2.77 million-square-foot, $1.7 billion Columbus Center complex is a city in itself comprising vast parts tightly puzzled together. The internal organization is too far down the line for major body moves (the steel already has been ordered), but the process of refinement yet to come can still heighten the sense of a project that, like the Guggenheim museum, uses the circle to spin free of the grid.

Of particular concern is Jazz at Lincoln Center, which should have its own dynamic expression so that it is not swamped by the surrounding mass and not embedded within all the shopping. People shouldn't have to ply past Brookstone to get into a concert hall. Ideas now seen on the outside have yet to be developed inside, especially in the vast atrium between the towers, and in other public spaces. This building that will cradle jazz at its core should borrow from its own program and riff even more. Mondrian painted Broadway Boogie-Woogie. This is the time and place to build it.


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