Fat City

A few weeks ago, architect Bruce Fowle took me to the roof of the nearly completed office building at 4 Times Square that would soon house the Condé Nast empire. I hardly noticed that in this famously accident-prone place, fire alarms were ringing and the elevator operator was sure she smelled smoke. I was thrilled to be standing 50 stories above the street, surrounded by the exotic rigging that is this tower’s most distinctive feature.

Fowle explained that the armature is functional: Diagonal beams at the top of the tower transfer the building’s load outward and support four massive billboards. The antenna rising above us will be used by FM stations, and the framework around it will be covered with mobile-phone antennas and satellite dishes. As it happens, the structural members also support a weighty architectural concept, Fowle says: “The idea is the building decomposes as it reaches the sky, so the guts show.”

The tour continues with the mechanical room that occupies the building’s uppermost floors. With pride, Fowle leads me through the maze of pipes surrounding the big gas-fired absorption chillers, gigantic energy-efficient devices that will cool the air in the building. Like the solar panels that replace the spandrel glass on the upper floors, and the electricity-generating fuel cells housed in a room next door to what will someday be Condé Nast’s stylish Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria, the chillers are part of the building’s “green” package. They’re one aspect of its split personality. The tower is full of devices that maximize its energy efficiency. Yet, all dressed up in an electric glow as required by Times Square’s rules, it will guzzle wattage like a drunk on a bender.

Beyond the roof, which I love, 4 Times Square’s most endearing quality is that it isn’t the tower designed for the same site in 1984 by architects John Burgee and Philip Johnson. Instead of a painfully symmetrical granite shaft topped by a fussy mansard roof, one of a quartet of buildings planned as a reproach to the sleaze that Times Square in those dark days represented, this tower is a collage, a raucous late-century cut-and-paste job. Positively Clintonian in its desire to be all things to all people, 4 Times Square is a representation of the wishy-washy way we are right now – better as a piece of social commentary than as architecture.

Viewed from the east, the building appears to be a low-key composition of granite and glass, in harmony with the corporate hum of midtown. The west side of the building, by contrast, is all glass, shot through with neon and accessorized with a jumble of signs, as befitting the now officially – and economically – sanctioned spirit of Times Square.

On 42nd Street, near the eastern corner of the tower, is the main entrance, the gateway to the headquarters of Condé Nast and of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, which has leased the uppermost floors. At the southwestern corner will be the entrance to ESPN Zone, a sports bar-interactive theme park where diners can lounge in overstuffed recliners transfixed by a wall of TV screens. The corporate portal is supremely dignified, an unmarked bank of glass doors framed by rough chunks of stone. The Zone’s entrance will be identified by a “Sports Kebab,” a huge skewer holding giant basketballs, footballs, baseballs, and tennis balls. Something for everyone.

The building’s architects at Fox & Fowle are also responsible for the Reuters tower now under construction on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street. Renderings show a complex assemblage of rectangles and curves, the façade patched – like a pair of worn jeans – with advertising. It’s a more nuanced variation on the 4 Times Square theme.

This balancing act, disguising high-priced offices with glitz – the word is actually used in the design guidelines issued by the Empire State Development Corporation – can be attributed to Rebecca Robertson, who led the state’s 42nd Street Development Corporation through the slump of the late eighties and early nineties, when it seemed the four office towers would never be built. Robertson, who today works for the Shubert Organization, hired architect Robert A. M. Stern and the late graphic designer Tibor Kalman’s M&Co. to codify what she calls the “honky tonk” aesthetic into rules that architects and developers could follow.

Four Times Square is the first major project built by the Durst Organization under the leadership of 55-year-old Douglas Durst. Angered by the subsidies the state was offering developers, Douglas’s late father, Seymour, spent most of the eighties unsuccessfully suing to stop George Klein and the Prudential Insurance Company of America from building the four Burgee-and-Johnson-designed towers in Times Square. Douglas simply bought in (and enjoyed those very subsidies). In 1996, he purchased the biggest of the properties for $75 million. “Unlike the developers who came before him,” Robertson recalls, Durst understood that the building had to be bright and flashy. “He embraced it.”

While I’m all for dressing corporate towers in neon drag, something about 4 Times Square bothers me. I can’t put my finger on it until Fowle and I make our way down from the roof, back out to the sidewalk.

As we gaze upward, Fowle tells me the tower is “way beyond the F.A.R. of normal New York City building.” F.A.R. stands for floor area ratio, the amount of square footage that may be built on a property. The Times Square towers, built under the auspices of the state and not subject to city zoning regulations, turned out – surprise! – much taller and fatter than city zoning allows. Suddenly I had the feeling that if you stripped away the neon, the glass, and the Sports Kebab, what you’d have is one of those four nasty Burgee-Johnson buildings, circa 1984.

This feeling is not entirely baseless. The four towers that Klein planned to build in the eighties represented nearly 4.1 million square feet of office space. A tract published at the time warned, “Times Square’s current F.A.R. of 18 is considered to be high. But the Project enables an F.A.R. of 45 for its tallest tower – an exceptional density that will darken Times Square.”

That “tallest tower” is, of course, 4 Times Square. It sits on a somewhat larger property than the eighties tower would have, because Durst added adjacent sites to the package. But though it’s only 48 stories (not counting the satellite farm on top) instead of the 56 originally planned for the site, the new building takes up 1.6 million square feet – more than the 1.54 million square feet projected for the Burgee-Johnson tower. Fowle estimates that it has an F.A.R. of 35. The Reuters tower, at 30 stories and 855,000 square feet (F.A.R. of 31, says Fowle), will be slightly larger than the 29-story, 705,000-square-foot tower planned in the eighties.

The state is now evaluating two towers proposed by Mortimer Zuckerman’s Boston Properties, which gained custody of the last two Prudential sites. One has been designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for the property where the Times Square Brewery now stands, on the south side of 42nd Street and Broadway; the other, next door to the New Amsterdam Theatre, by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. The designs have not yet been made public.

The Kohn Pedersen Fox tower could be as large as 892,000 square feet; the Burgee-Johnson tower intended for that spot was going to be roughly 858,000 square feet. The state requires nearly 18,000 square feet of advertising and retail signage on the KPF-designed tower, along with multiple setbacks and “dynamic juxtaposition of major building masses” and “façades that fit the glitzy character of Times Square.”

The guidelines are supposed to minimize the impact made by these bulky buildings, and judging by 4 Times Square, the illusion works reasonably well. But the point is that the architects have to minimize the bulk because there’s so much bulk to minimize. What happens when the crossroads of the world is finally ringed by these four huge – albeit glitzy – towers? When E-Walk and Madame Tussaud’s open, along with 42nd Street’s dozens of multiplex screens?

The picture I have in my head is the overbuilt streetscape of Hong Kong, where pedestrian gridlock is commonplace. I refused to believe, back in the eighties, that this project would ever be realized. I’m still incredulous. Okay, maybe one or two of these buildings are not so bad. But the whole oversize quartet, even with the shiny packaging, is going to be oppressive. Thanks to the advertising signs, Times Square will not be “darkened” (except, of course, in the daytime). But these towers still represent the transformation of the entertainment district into a denser, albeit wackier, version of midtown.

Fat City