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Site Lines: Coming Full Circle

The Coliseum site gets the building it almost had in 1989.

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The politicians were in a joyful mood last week when they gathered to announce that the MTA and the mayor had, at long last, agreed to sell the New York Coliseum site on Columbus Circle to a development group headed by the Related Companies. At a press conference, MTA and city officials -- and even the mayor himself -- paid homage to the mayor's breakthrough. "This is another example of this administration getting things done that no one was able to do," boasted Deputy Mayor Randy Levine.

Given all the crowing, it is curious that the building the Related Companies intends to construct -- a pair of towers on a five-story base that curves to follow the contours of the circle -- is more or less the same building that developer Mortimer Zuckerman finally got permission to build in 1989, just before the real-estate market cratered.

"The site is the same," reasons David Childs, a senior design partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and the architect of Columbus Centre. "Our feelings about the city are the same."

The SOM design was originally conceived as the antidote to architect Moshe Safdie's much-hated trapezoidal tower. Safdie's concept was bombastic, self-consciously futuristic, and rude. Civic leaders demonstrated that it would cast a mile-long shadow across Central Park and successfully sued to halt construction.

Enter Childs, the architect of compromise. In its glory days, the fifties and early sixties, SOM was responsible for modernist icons like Lever House and Chase Manhattan Plaza. In Childs's era -- he was a partner before he became chairman in 1991 -- the firm's aesthetic had become, at best, fuzzy, defined by obeisance to whatever the current trend was. Worldwide Plaza, an odd, vaguely Deco skyscraper built in the flatlands of Hell's Kitchen, is a typical example.

Like many firms, SOM has since left its postmodern affectations behind and come out of the real-estate bust with a less cluttered vision. Childs's first post-bust building in New York, the Mercantile Exchange in Battery Park City, is a fifteen-story granite building that meets the Hudson with a cool, handsome, curved façade decorated by a metal grid and silvery mullions. Now Columbus Centre has reemerged after a decade on the shelf, stripped of excess ornament. The building is sleeker, lighter and more lovely in this year's clothing.

Childs's Columbus Circle towers from 1989 were shorter than Safdie's, and much more slender. Wisely, he had shifted the complex's bulk downward, to the lower floors. Sensitive even today about the shadow issue, Childs contends that his towers will diffuse light, creating "shade" -- a good thing -- rather than "shadow" -- a bad thing. Semantics aside, the real reason Childs's design has been given the nod not once but twice is that it is reassuringly familiar. It was inspired by the twin-towered apartment buildings of Central Park West -- the Majestic, the San Remo, the Century -- which he has also borrowed from to create the template for Donald Trump's Riverside South.

The story of the Coliseum site has been reported both as a Machiavellian contest between the mayor's office and the MTA and as a Darwinian struggle between developers. But it is the architect, Childs, who may be the savviest player of them all. The Related Companies is buying the site, reportedly, for $345 million, not the highest bid. Maybe they won out because they snagged Time Warner and its television studios as a major tenant. On the other hand, Related might have prevailed because not only does Childs supply comfort architecture, but he had the wisdom to make the much-ballyhooed jazz theater -- the one the mayor decided the city could not live without and derailed the entire selection process over last year -- the focal point of the complex. In Childs's 1989 version of Columbus Centre, there was a neoclassical dome over the front door. In the version of the building that was submitted to the MTA in 1996, the dome was replaced by a glass-enclosed sphere, which would have housed a restaurant. Now the same prominent location, dead-center on Columbus Circle, is occupied by a massive glass rotunda that sits on the street looking like a cross between the Guggenheim Museum and the Mount Palomar observatory. This is the grand entryway to the jazz theater. Childs had the good sense to design the mayor a monument.


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