Lost in Space

No building type is more set in its ways than the high-rise, which tolerates little deviation from the stack of pancakes. The price New Yorkers pay for the geometric conformity is sociability. A product of multiplication tables, the very form of the conventional developer high-rise inhibits the kind of chats encouraged by the front porch, the picket fence, and the common stoop. Multiplied by 40 or 50 floors, every jog in the street wall costs a fortune, and every unrentable nook means income lost in perpetuity. Neighborly conversations that would foster a sense of community are reduced to quickies snatched in a lobby before the elevator arrives. Great though they look melting into the skyline, high-rise structures are usually spatial Scrooges.

Rare is the skyscraper design that challenges the rigor mortis of the box, but one just narrowly slipped the city’s grasp: It could have been a contender. In partnership with Forest City Ratner, the New York Times staged a competition for its new Eighth Avenue headquarters across from Port Authority, and after a series of miscommunications best left to corporate psychologists to decode, architects Frank Gehry and David Childs withdrew. Their scheme could have been the role model for a new generation of buildings capable of changing the way New Yorkers work and live.

Gehry is famous as a sculptor of architectural form, but in his limited experience in the world of Manhattan high-rise design, he has acted more as a cultural anthropologist. For the Condé Nast cafeteria in the new 4 Times Square tower, he designed a landscape of dining booths wrapped in billowing glass sails, and the space has changed the company’s culture: The staff now hangs out on campus instead of adjourning en masse to 44.

For the Times building, Gehry and Childs built on the notion of cultivating the newspaper’s own culture. The design started on the inside, which the architects centered on news floors open to each other and to other departments. Our collective imagination has become so invested in the computer and the Internet that we forget that the great medium facilitating communication is old-fashioned space. A building can be organized to maximize interaction, so that people bump into each other and talk, drink, flirt, eat, complain, kibitz. The usual stack of floors, in which elevators process us, has never really let New Yorkers experience more hospitable alternatives, and it is no different behind the château-esque façade at the Times on 43rd Street. Only a generous staircase connecting two of the news floors, built several years ago, allows the kind of chance meetings that might spark a story between, say, a writer from cultural news and an editor from “Week in Review.”

The architects reasoned that the news floors are the heart of the Times enterprise, and they organized the 800-foot-long, six-story plinth at the base of the tower with ascending news terraces centered on a pedestrian trail. The path cleaves the floors, creating a rift that climbs up to the cafeteria, itself located at the bottom of an atrium whose top floor is landscaped as a winter garden. A cut lengthwise through the plinth reveals a highly porous section with atria that connect departments and give the working floors an interior focus. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright effectively made the six-story Guggenheim into a one-story building with a continuous ramp, Gehry and Childs transformed floors normally dependent on elevators into a pedestrian environment centered on a rising street. The terraced overlooks, interior courtyards, and the road knit the news floors together, creating a visual community that closed, stacked floors prevent. Think Positano, as though the newsroom were organized on the terraced steps of the Italian hill town. Two terraces and four winter gardens give neighbors on adjoining floors common ground. From this base, a more standard tower rises, housing offices developed by Ratner for commercial tenants.

The architects simply wrap the complex sections in a supple glass skin that bubbles and blisters on the east and west façades to accommodate the shifting floor plates. Curved double-glazed sections of glass are prohibitively expensive, but the architects avoid the premium by separating the panes, wrapping the winter gardens in one thickness and the interior offices in the other. The two layers come back together beyond the gardens. The glass skin peels free of the volume in protective pedestrian canopies at the base and a crown at the top. An early design, whose surfaces resembled the braided strands of challah, was simplified, but the outside still flows in mesmerizing lines that morph from a complex base, through a simple shaft, to the exfoliating top. The architects used the computer to discipline the façade so that only 15 percent of the glass is curved.

in his los angeles office, gehry brings out Edward Steichen’s photograph of Norma Shearer in a gown whose lines alternately cling and fall free of her figure. “The objective was to make something that looked like it had grace and slenderness,” he says. A split from bottom to top divides the building along the middle – “like the two figures in Brancusi’s The Kiss,” he says – creating the illusion that the tower is slimmer than it actually is.

In architecture, thinking outside the box often means breaking it, and in Gehry’s case, escaping the right-angled. The most conspicuous features of the design are the sinuous curves drifting over and up the body – window-washing tracks, like stripes on a dress, accentuate the contours. Gehry is not averse to designing a curve for the sake of its own beauty. But in the case of the Times proposal, the skin facilitates a radical rethinking of interior organization.

This building might have ranked with the Seagram building as a New York icon. But even as a proposal (it will be on view in a Gehry retrospective at the Guggenheim this spring), it is rich in lessons for how architecture can help companies become the corporate selves they want to be (while creating a more humane environment). More than an aesthetic statement, geometry can be an active agent in a company’s flow chart. By challenging convention and cultivating the Times’s own culture, Gehry and Childs have physicalized the spatial subconscious underlying the company and provided a map for a complex circuitry in usually oversimplified high-rise buildings. The architects didn’t simply restate what we already know, giving it a new dress. They challenged the formula.

Lost in Space