The Greatest Building: “If I Had To Pick One Tower, It Wouldn’t Be the Empire State Building”

Grand Central Terminal, 1927; the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1966.Photo: Corbis; Ezra Stoller/Esto

Justin Davidson: I want to get to our core question—which is, what’s the best New York building ever?—by asking you another. What makes a good New York building?

Winka Dubbeldam: One that encourages others to live up to its quality, and raises the level of the neighborhood. The High Line is great; even better is that we now have all these fantastic buildings around it. The New Museum was really interesting, and now along the Bowery we have a lot of other interesting buildings.

Bernard Tschumi: Every one of those buildings is a bad “citizen”—in a good way. Before 2000, everything was about being contextual, and buildings were supposed to be good citizens. And when somebody from out of town asked me what new architecture to see, I had a hard time giving them an answer. Now I can tell them about all these exciting new buildings that break the pattern and don’t play the typical New York game of the podium with the tower on top. So suddenly we have buildings that no developer in their right mind would build— but they did.

Davidson: One example, Bernard, might be your Blue condo, a glass tower in varied shades of, yes, blue that looms over the brick tenements of the Lower East Side. Does violating New York traditions make a building less New Yorky?

Tschumi: No. New York can take it.

Davidson: Has any building gone beyond what New York can tolerate?

Dubbeldam: I wish!

Robert A.M. Stern: Well, the buildings that entertain Bernard’s friends, who jet in from wherever, don’t really make any contribution except as big art objects. The city can take them, but what are they telling us? They don’t offer any new insights about how people live, or about the relationship to the street or to the sky. Just a new curtain wall, and a strange one at that. To be a good citizen is to work with the city and not against it.

Gregg Pasquarelli: I disagree. Like other kinds of art, great buildings contradict everything else. They make us think. They start conversations, so people talk about what it means to fit in, what it means to have courage. It’s okay for some buildings not to work.

Tschumi: Maybe that’s what a city is: confrontation and complication. In New York, the name of the game is to have one’s own envelope. When you arrive from the airport and you look at the skyline, you see this incredible variety—a symphony of envelopes.

Davidson: So who wants to nominate a candidate for the soloist in this symphony: the best New York building ever?

Pasquarelli: My pick is Grand Central Terminal. It’s so New York, so ahead of its time, it integrates so many technological ideas, and it gives the city that incredible space.

Bergdoll: Grand Central creates a new type. It will soon be 100 years old, and it still has that original power. It’s really an indoor urban room that’s absolutely stunning. And it’s not closed in on itself but open to the entire neighborhood.

Pasquarelli: You can arrive at it from everywhere.

Tschumi: And if you live in the area, you walk through it to cross the street.

Rosalie Genevro: And it’s so legible. You can say “Meet me by the clock,” and even if you’ve never been there before, you’ll find it right away. The pedestrian circulation inside the station works so well.

Bergdoll: It’s not only what it looks like; it’s what it does.

Davidson: Does it function as an exciting violation of New York’s fabric, or as a good citizen?

Stern: It’s a very good citizen.

Davidson: Looking at it now, when the country’s infrastructure is crumbling and out-of-date, it strikes me that in 1903, Grand Central embodied a national optimism about the future of transportation.

Vin Cipolla: Right. Prior to the fifties, the interest of the federal government in building cities was real. That’s changed profoundly, which is why we’ve got hundreds of miles of cul-de-sacs at the expense of urban centers.

Pasquarelli: You know, we complain that the government isn’t doing enough about infrastructure, but Grand Central and the original Penn Station were built by private industry, not by government. The Pennsylvania Railroad was the most highly capitalized corporation in the world. They were the Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates of their generation.

Genevro: In fact, Grand Central was really an enormous real-estate proposition. Decking over the tracks made it possible to build Park Avenue.

Davidson: Isn’t anyone going to nominate the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building?

Genevro: The Empire State Building may be the symbol of New York, and it has an interesting history—the quickness and organizational genius of its construction—but it doesn’t have the same qualities or complexity that Grand Central does. For one thing, it’s not a public space.

Dubbeldam: It’s hard to pick a single tower. I love the Wall Street area, where you have this huge field of skyscrapers so close to each other—that, to me, is typical of New York. And if I had to pick one tower, it actually wouldn’t be the Woolworth Building, or the Chrysler Building, or the Empire State Building. It would be the little black Millennium Hilton Hotel on Church Street, right near the World Trade Center. It’s not easy to make a black tower, and it’s perfectly detailed.

Davidson: Well, that’s a surprise. If you were going to choose one perfectly detailed modernist tower, wouldn’t it be the Seagram Building?

Pasquarelli: It’s the icon that got replicated most. When you bring people to see it, they often say “Huh? I’ve seen that building in every city in America.” But then you talk about the tripartite division, which relates to the Racquet Club across the street, the quality of the materials, the proportions, the elegant positioning. And you compare it to the bad bronze knockoffs, and people start to understand.

Bergdoll: The Seagram Building was supposed to be exceptional, but it became a template for lots of other buildings. Its brilliance is not the tower, but in the lower parts that define a sequence of landscape elements with different entrances, stairs, and levels.

Stern: In the end, though, it destroyed its own raison d’être by causing everybody to tear down everything next to it.

Davidson: So is one criterion for evaluating a building’s New Yorkiness how much it transforms its surroundings?

Stern: Not necessarily. The Guggenheim didn’t spawn one bit of development on the Upper East Side. It’s still a dull neighborhood. And the New Museum didn’t change the Bowery; it was riding a trend.

Tschumi: It was following the Lower East Side art world.

Bergdoll: We tend to think of the New Museum as connected to artists, but it’s also connected to collectors. It’s a big business. Really, the New Museum is a brilliant rewrite of the Whitney, which also followed the art world. Both opened up the sidewalk and changed the dynamic of the skyline.

Davidson: It’s interesting that such a small structure still has the capacity to do that. But do you think that anything new could ever compete with Grand Central for the title of best building?

Dubbeldam: Sometimes I wonder why there is not more architectural ambition in the city. Look at the Williamsburg waterfront, where they changed the zoning and put up all these atrocious high-rises.

Stern: These buildings are sold for their views. You’re paying for windows and a wall, and everyone is looking out all the time.

Dubbeldam: But they know people are looking at these things, right?

Cipolla: Decision-making has to be streamlined. Forty or 50 years ago, you had two or three people in a room deciding they want to build something, and off it went. Now we have much more bureaucracy and regulation, which has the effect of dumbing down design.

Davidson: What really good buildings from New York’s past couldn’t be built under current regulations?

Pasquarelli: Most of them! The Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Grand Central Terminal, the U.N. The Empire State Building—if you tried now to put a 100-story building in a neighborhood that was mostly ten-story buildings, you wouldn’t get very far.

Genevro: I disagree that there’s a problem with bureaucracy. Over the past ten years, we’ve gotten a lot of really, really good public design. If you want to do good design in New York, you can.

Dubbeldam: The biggest urban reinvention I’ve seen is Hudson River Park, which changed the West Side from a place of prostitution, burned-out cars, and traffic to a place where people started biking, walking, and sitting. It started with just a little bike strip, then came buildings, cafés, restaurants.

Pasquarelli: But the Bloomberg administration has raised the level of design. Ten years ago, developers just wanted to fit in. Now clients are asking us, “What’s the best building you can do?”

Tschumi: To what extent is that related to 9/11?

Pasquarelli: It’s directly related.

Davidson: How?

Tschumi: The shock and the drama affected everything, including architecture.

Davidson: The shock of destruction?

Tschumi: And the drama of how to replace it. The discussion went from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it put architecture on the map.

Cipolla: People started talking about architecture. Suddenly, we thought about how we lived and worked. On 9/11 I was on the 41st floor, and I had never thought about that before. Later, I moved to the eleventh floor, albeit subconsciously.

Davidson: One criticism of the Twin Towers before 9/11 was that they didn’t belong in New York.

Dubbeldam: And afterwards, they were the best thing New York had ever had. You only realize these things once they’re gone.

Davidson: Okay, we’ve discussed a lot of skyscrapers. Do we have any other candidates?

Bergdoll: I’m going to go with the Whitney.

Dubbeldam: Oh, you beat me to it! The Whitney! I’ve said that for years! I love the potted plaza below street level, and the little bridge. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in New York.

Davidson: Barry and Winka vote for the Whitney. Everyone else is sticking to Grand Central?

Genevro: I sure am. It has very cool things: a ceiling with constellations, glass walls that you can walk along, on glass catwalks. The Oyster Bar! It embodies the ambition and dynamism of the city, and it’s also an incredible technical accomplishment. Grand Central is the ultimate New York place.

The Arguers

Justin Davidson

Winka Dubbeldam
Principal, Archi-tectonics

Bernard Tschumi
Principal, Bernard Tschumi Architects

Rosalie Genevro
Executive director, The Architectural League of New York

Robert A.M. Stern
Principal, Robert A.M. Stern & Architects; dean, Yale School of Architecture

Barry Bergdoll
Chief curator, department of architecture and design, Museum of Modern Art

Vin Cipolla
President, Municipal Art Society of New York

Gregg Pasquarelli
Principal, Shop Architects

The Greatest Building: “If I Had To Pick One Towe […]