Get Me Rebuild

The multilevel newsroom, left, and the building's exterior.Photo: From left, Nic Lehoux; Michael Denancé/Courtesy of Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Print may be fading, newspapers crumpling, media stocks sagging, and the whole profession of journalism dissipating into a bloggy fog—yet on the Manhattan skyline, the Fourth Estate looks vigorous. But then architecture is often a form of illusion. Every few blocks, a bold media tower fixes the midtown horizon like a tent spike. Hearst, Condé Nast, Reuters, Bloomberg: These are the names of buildings as well as written-word brands, and the square-footage needs of periodicals may be growing even as the publications themselves shrink. The proposals for Hudson Yards include new high-rises for Condé Nast and The Wall Street Journal. Shuffling to join in all this real-estate ferment, the New York Times has lately moved out of its gloomy castle on West 43rd Street and into airy new headquarters designed by Renzo Piano with Fxfowle. Endowed with daylight, elbow room, a decent cafeteria, and window shades that respond to the sun, it’s almost enough to put a reporter in a good mood. How disappointing for the rest of us, though, that the Times has built itself a stolid lump of a building, one that encourages the public to treat the architecture the way more and more people are treating their local paper: by ignoring it. The newspaper that doesn’t pander occupies a tower that refuses to seduce.

From a block—or a mile—away, the new Times Tower has all the visual appeal of a column of type. The horizontal gray lines banding a clear background are actually ceramic rods hung on the building’s exterior as sunshades, but it feels as though, if you squinted, you could make out a “witnesses said” here or a “senior official” there. Slender steel columns run up the outside, framing the façade like those thin lines that separate one story from another. As if to drive home the connection between words and walls, the artists Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen have installed in the saffron-and-turmeric-colored lobby an artwork called Moveable Type, an array of screens displaying fragments of text from the Times past and present in a constant gurgle of partial information. Neither the artists nor the architect tells a specific story; rather, they honor an institution that packages the world’s chaos and organizes it into a daily ration of justified column inches. Rubin and Hansen play merrily with the meaninglessness of constant updates; Piano, though, has monumentalized the traditional hard copy, just as news is dematerializing into the Internet. He tried, I suppose, to suggest that transfiguration too. In renderings and models—and in the architect’s promises—the veil of rods rising above the top story made the tower appear to dissolve into the atmosphere. In reality, the effect is messy rather than gossamer, and the apparatus looks more like a building still under construction than one that is attempting to evanesce.

Thirty years ago, Piano and his then-partner Richard Rogers became famous by adorning ashen Paris with the see-through walls and primary-colored ducts and struts of the Centre Pompidou. The architects insisted that for a public building to be truly public, people had to be able to examine both its contents and its bones. Since then, Piano has become a ubiquitous old master—he expertly stitched together several old buildings at the Morgan Library, has been hired by a passel of American museums, is master-planning Columbia University’s expansion into Harlem, and is working on a skyscraper for downtown Brooklyn—but here, he has returned to his philosophical roots. The Times demands transparency in government, he reasoned, so it should live in a building that encourages it to practice the same virtue. The equation he came up with couldn’t be simpler: DEMOCRACY = GLASS. It’s a shame that such a sophisticated mind should have fallen back on that old and facile metaphor and used it so half-heartedly. He placed the newsroom in a low-rise podium alongside the columnar tower, so that passersby could in theory gaze in on the operations the way the public can attend a trial or visit Congress. Openness reigns within, too. Reporters throughout the three floors can look across the central court and spy on the page-one meeting in a central glass-walled office. But seeing is not the same as understanding. A view of heads bent over desks gives Times-watchers on the side street no clues about what’s going on inside. The ultraclear walls and skylight let a gorgeously diffuse radiance into the newsroom, but the tower’s shell of sunshade rods reads as forbiddingly opaque. Transparency is a trick.

Piano is a master of the harmonious sleight of hand. He has made the load-bearing columns appear impossibly delicate and the one-ton steel stays that stabilize the structure seem like skinny wires. The restful lobby garden, with its white birches rising out of moss-covered mounds, disguises a company that virtually runs on stress. The important-looking mast on top serves no crucial purpose other than to poke up above 1,000 feet.

The building is full of magnificently curated minutiae. Elevator banks are pulled apart instead of clustered, leaving the brightly hued lobby vast and open and the sight lines clear from one block through to the next. The TimesCenter auditorium sits on the ground floor and has a glass wall at the rear of the stage, framing the real-world layers of garden, lobby, and the street beyond as a theatrical backdrop. Upstairs, the tower’s notched corners draw the outside world deep into the cubicled recesses. Red-walled staircases by the windows form diagonal slashes of color, like a copy editor’s annotations in the days before word processing. In the cafeteria, a weightless balcony hovers angelically above the sun-filled dining room. The Times interiors, designed by Gensler, are masterpieces of obsessive alignment: ceiling panels, light strips, and window mullions create a three-dimensional grid. The signs on the bathroom (and other) doors, courtesy of Pentagram, show not just generic male and female silhouettes but photographs of real men and women from the paper’s archives—and no two are the same. All these details make life pleasant for the building’s denizens, but they do little to animate the tower’s stifled elegance, or to lighten the glower on its public face.

The Times has had two previous homes notable for their high-technology underpinnings. The tower at One Times Square, the newspaper’s headquarters from 1904 to 1913, was built atop the brand-new IRT subway, in order to get reporters and freshly printed papers in and out quickly. And an even earlier home of the Times, on Park Row, was an original customer of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company, which switched on New York’s very first lightbulbs in 1882. The late-night desk editors, accustomed to smelly, flickery gaslight, were reported to be “unanimously in favor” of the new system.

Get Me Rebuild