Champagne Design

Announced with great fanfare in mid-1996, scheduled for completion by the end of 1997, the LVMH Tower – the North American command post for financier Bernard Arnault’s ever-expanding fashion empire – was endlessly delayed by cost overruns and litigation. Early renderings of the building designed to house the parent company of Louis Vuitton, Moët et Chandon, Guerlain, and a host of fashion houses, revealed something as outlandish as a piece of Lacroix couture. That architect Christian de Portzamparc compared its weirdly striated glass façade to a flower or a seashell only made the building appear frivolous and unlikely to be realized. The LVMH Tower seemed destined to be yet another sad story about the fate of ambitious architecture in New York City.

But all of a sudden, the LVMH Tower has arrived. It stands at 57th Street just west of Madison Avenue like a self-possessed Parisian who just blew into town on a whim, a bit out of place but otherwise perfect. It is everything contemporary architecture in this city is not: It’s refreshing, surprising, and, with its delicate translucent skin glowing in daylight, beautiful.

Stand across 57th Street and admire it. What you see is a lean, 23-story tower that is sliced vertically on the bias into a green half and a white half. The right side appears frosted, decorated with a pattern of polygons sanded onto the façade – as if the building were stenciled with aerosol snow – making each window look like a facet in a crystal. The façade is full of wedges, folds, and odd Cubist-inspired protuberances. It almost looks as if Portzamparc tried to fit a building that was too wide between the Chanel headquarters next door and the stolid vintage office building on the corner and had to scrunch it up to make it fit. (Much of the façade’s complexity, by the way, has nothing to do with flowers or seashells: Portzamparc purposefully used oblique angles and ultra-transparent glass to create a curtain wall that wouldn’t reflect Edward Larrabee Barnes’s hulking black-granite IBM building across the street.)

While it’s tempting to dismiss this building as a fashion statement, a novelty from the house of Arnault, it can also be read as something profound: the harbinger of a remarkable transition from the midtown we know, with its mediocre, bottom-line-driven architecture, to a place where developers and architects occasionally take aesthetic risks.

Not likely, you say? Perhaps not. But here are two hints that the LVMH Tower is more augury than fluke: First of all, Portzamparc’s design demonstrates that the conventional wisdom about zoning is wrong. New York City’s zoning, in and of itself, doesn’t inhibit experimentation. And over the next few years, other buildings that use glass in startling ways are certain to begin appearing. For instance, the Museum of Sex, planned for the corner of Fifth Avenue and 27th Street, is designed by a group of young architects called SHoP who will use an undulating glass façade as an allusion to the contours of the human body.

Second, a couple of weeks ago, the director of the Department of City Planning, Joseph Rose, gave a talk about changes he wants to make in the city’s zoning resolution that promise, among other things, to incorporate the concept of beauty – believe it or not – into the city’s regulatory structure.

Beauty is, of course, a word you would expect to hear from a Frenchman more readily than from a New York bureaucrat. Portzamparc, 55, is a smallish man whose shaggy brown hair makes him look like a holdover from a seventies Claude Lelouche movie. A winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize, he is best known for his Cité de la Musique in Paris, a theater complex the centerpiece of which is a concert hall surrounded by a spiraling corridor the architect has likened to a conch shell.

“The thing is, I realized we were close to the Chanel building,” Portzamparc tells me during a conversation in the tower’s construction office, referring to LVMH’s next-door neighbor. A study in taupe, Chanel’s building wears the zoning envelope like a tailored suit. “And it would have been not successful, for a corporate reason,” he adds, a bit slyly, “if the Louis Vuitton building would be a twin of the Chanel.”

Originally, Chanel and Louis Vuitton were to be separated by a small building that housed the Wally Findlay gallery. Designing for a very narrow site, Portzamparc began to configure a lean pile of rectangles and cylinders. “It was something a bit amazing,” he says of the first renderings, though he adds, softly, “It wasn’t that beautiful.”

Eventually, however, the tower’s developer acquired the Findlay property, and Portzamparc was able to spread out, to arrange his volumes in a more pleasing manner. Did it go from being amazing to being beautiful? I ask. “Exactly,” he says, recalling that when Arnault was shown the second project, “he said, ‘Before it was amazing. Now it can be beautiful.’ “

The word beauty has not often been uttered by architects since Adolf Loos unequivocally declared, back in 1908, that ornament is crime. Twentieth-century architects have explained their work mostly in terms of rationalism or, more recently, metaphor. But Portzamparc, who was educated at the famed École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, talks more like an artist. Beauty is important to him, though he is somewhat reluctant to admit it: “Yes,” he says. “I know it’s not trendy. It’s very funny, because architects don’t dare to speak about beauty. Even me. I never use this word.”

Joe Rose, on the other hand, isn’t at all shy about the b word. Speaking at City Hall to an audience of developers, civic-group leaders, politicians, and architects, Rose announced that he intends to introduce height restrictions to the city’s zoning code. In an almost heretical move, Rose would impose a specific height limit on each zoning district except those in midtown Manhattan and the Wall Street area. Currently, developers can build tall by buying up air rights and, in some cases, securing bonuses for public plazas. Rose wants to abolish those practices. But he also would build one loophole into those regulations.

The city, he told the audience, “should be able to grant waivers from some regulations on the basis of exceptional design.” Then, in a turn of phrase that was astonishing to hear within Rudolph Giuliani’s City Hall, Rose declared, “Let us instill the quest for beauty into the powerful economic drive of this city’s real-estate entrepreneurs.” The quest for beauty. The expression is redolent of the Gilded Age. It harks back to the City Beautiful movement of a hundred years ago, a push for implementing grand, Beaux-Arts-inspired plans – wide boulevards, great monuments, formal gardens. But in my lifetime, I’ve never encountered an architect or developer who would admit to being on a quest for beauty. Until Portzamparc, that is.

He stands beside a model of the tower, caressing it as if it were a woman. “So the recess line is here,” he says, cryptically. “This is a calculation of the hollow …” He explains that, instead of introducing the regular stair-step setbacks suggested by zoning to reduce a building’s bulk on the upper levels, he made asymmetrical slices. Running his fingers along the edge of the diagonal that separates white glass from green, he points out places where he has carved sections from the upper floors to shift the bulk downward.

“I discovered that this Manhattan zoning is fantastic,” enthuses the Frenchman. In European cities, the rules often spell out the precise dimensions of a building. New York’s regulations (though they vary from district to district) are usually interpreted as mandating a wedding-cake shape. But really what they call for is a building that is simply thicker at its base and thinner above. They offer wiggle room, Portzamparc realized; New York’s zoning resolution already accommodates beauty. It’s just a low priority for most builders.

Rose, quixotically, talks about bumping beauty a few notches higher on the city’s list of priorities. “This is not Colonial Williamsburg, and the world’s greatest and most dynamic city should be a hospitable environment for bold new structures,” Rose said in his speech. He envisions a process akin to landmarking, a public board or commission that would advocate for good contemporary architecture, waiving the zoning rules when a project of sufficient merit comes along. Developers, instead of getting a plaza bonus, would get a beauty bonus. It’s a radical concept. (And a frightening one, because one man’s notion of an exemplary building – Donald Trump’s, say – is another man’s idea of grounds for a lawsuit.)

“If there is no benefit to you legally or otherwise, if you have no rights even for a hearing because of good design, then why would you possibly waste a penny on it?” Rose argues.

Why? Because you are someone like Arnault. Arnault seems to have approached architecture the way he approaches fashion, hiring talented designers and actually letting them design. The tower’s appearance was so important to Arnault that he was willing to pay 60 percent above the original construction estimates and later muscle his partner out of the project when he balked at the cost. “Zoning enabled us to do it, but it also was the client who actually allowed Christian the ability to do this,” points out John Mulliken, the project architect for the Hillier Group, the New York firm that collaborated with Portzamparc.

Mulliken leads me on a tour of the tower, which has a geometry all its own. The interior layout is as eccentric as the exterior design suggests. Beyond a lobby lit by neon muted by milky glass are office spaces that bend to conform to the kinks in the façade. Mulliken takes me out on the tower’s eleventh-floor balcony, and we look up. “There’s a line here called the fold,” he says. Above us, the building slides outward at a five-degree angle. Above the fold, the wall is vertical. Window washers, Mulliken says, will have to negotiate this topography with the skill and ingenuity of rock climbers on the Shawangunks.

This building also has its own lyrical terminology. Mulliken points to a deep-blue crystalline shape below us. “This is the heart of the flower, right here,” he says. “It’s like a little jewel within the complex.” We then take the elevator up to the uppermost stop, to the “mezzanine.” It is a balcony overlooking the “Magic Room,” a space that occupies an entire floor and has 30-foot-high ceilings. While other buildings might have a monumental lobby, this one saves its grandest moment for a meeting hall at the top. Where a more conventional corporate headquarters might install the CEO, the LVMH Tower has a gigantic aquariumlike area.

After he had designed all the office space the client required, Portzamparc found there was room left over in the zoning “envelope.” So he squandered three floors of the building’s most valuable square footage to create his Magic Room. “Really,” Portzamparc says, “when you are there, it’s a beautiful place.”

I wish Joe Rose well on his quest for beauty, but I’m damned if I know how a revamped zoning resolution or a public-design commission could find a way to encourage a gesture so irrational, so profligate, and so wonderful as Christian de Portzamparc’s Magic Room.

Champagne Design