Bearish on Mad Ave.

Stone-faced: SOM's Bear Stearns building on Madison Avenue.Photo: Sean Hemmerle/Contact

In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark defined the popular image of the architect as an uncompromising hero when he blew up his misbuilt skyscraper. But the reality that most architects now face is far from heroic. As David Childs, the head of Skidmore Owings & Merrill – and arguably the most powerful architect in America today – admitted in a casual remark not long ago, “I get beat up by developers all the time.”

SOM’s most recent beating, Bear Stearns World Headquarters, now stands 45 stories tall at 383 Madison Avenue, and New Yorkers will have to put up with the wounded design for a long time. This is a building you wouldn’t want to get anywhere near at a cocktail party. Dressed nearly head to toe in dour granite, and geometrically proper, it’s stiff to the point of pass-out boredom. Out of character with SOM’s current work, the design recalls the firm’s unfortunate postmodern interlude a decade ago.

SOM has built much better work, and very close by – at the old Union Carbide Headquarters (1960; now J.P. Morgan Chase) kitty-corner from the new Bear Stearns, and at Lever House up Park Avenue (built in 1952, and just now being beautifully refurbished). And its glassy, dynamic AOL Time Warner Center is rising vertiginously on Columbus Circle, fulfilling the promise of the models. That something went wrong at 383 Madison should concern New Yorkers because the politically astute SOM has emerged as the most visible architectural firm in the dialogues about rebuilding at ground zero.

Building is a very complex process, and the blame for the 45-story yawn can’t be laid only at the drafting table: It has to be shared with the boardroom. The financial industries that Bear Stearns represents are among the most dynamic in the world, juggling hundreds of millions of dollars daily in complex deals that make string theory look simple. Although Lloyd’s of London is housed in a high-tech building, and the new New York Stock Exchange downtown, being designed by SOM, is emerging as an attempt at an architectural prototype for the twenty-first century, Bear Stearns is, well, bearish rather than bullish about innovative design (despite all its wiring). “The bankers wanted a solid, traditional stone banking façade,” said Childs – i.e., a traditional, historicist building. The result, however, is not so much a benign nod to gray-suit classics like the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center as an aesthetic and cultural throwback. For an investment bank expert in venture capital, nothing has been ventured here and nothing gained.

There are a lot of background buildings in New York that merit, and receive, little attention, but Bear Stearns’s full-block, high-profile site in the epicenter of Manhattan was among New York’s most prized and historically charged commissions when design started in 1997. Remember the controversy about building atop Grand Central that brought Jackie O out from under her sunglasses? The successful preservationist fight to save the terminal in the seventies finally has its dénouement here, because 285,000 square feet of the building that would have been parked over Grand Central were transferred to this site, as part of the specially created Grand Central subdistrict.

The great urban architect Louis Sullivan said that the tall building should soar, and Bear Stearns does indeed telescope upwards: The 1.2 million-square-foot tower steps back and pushes up several times to satisfy setback requirements. Beveling the corners to allow more sun and views, the architects also pry back the granite for an all-glass moment there. But they have still devised a fussily gridded façade that stops the eye. Whatever dynamism inheres in the telescoping volumes and mitered corners is lost to the pattern. As if revealing the subconscious desire of what the tower really wanted to be, a tiara of translucent glass emerges at the top.

The façade never quite resolves its identity crisis, and the rigid design straitjackets other intimations of a hidden life. Major bracing x-ing through the façade is papered over by the egg-crate pattern. Symmetry here emerges as a dictator that doesn’t acknowledge the flows of urban forces and gravitational pulls on the site. Inside, the lobby is festooned with feel-good design clichés, from checkerboard terrazzo to pendant chandeliers. The Chicago office of SOM has used multistory atria on the upper floors of high-rises, but there are no such breaks in Bear Stearns’s pancake structure to create socializing spaces within the building.

The truism among designers is that well-informed clients get better buildings – i.e., clients get the building they deserve – but many architects have managed to pull inventive buildings out of discouraging circumstances through a mixture of client education, subversion, and talent. The SOM architects may think they “brought the clients along,” but they have not done so far enough: SOM did not transform the traditional skyscraper sufficiently or hybridize old and new into either a tense confrontation or a satisfying reconciliation. Even among postmodernist buildings, there are better and lesser designs, and the Bear Stearns tower remains a lugubrious, predictable structure with little compensatory wit or elegance.

Philip Johnson may have tellingly said that architects are whores, but SOM in fact has a long leadership history, dating from the fifties, when it brought modernism into the corporate marketplace. Indeed, SOM’s touchstone, Lever House, now looks fresher, newer, and certainly more progressive than the overweight Bear Stearns, and you could probably trick people who know nothing about architectural history by reversing their dates of construction.

Sometimes architects should just say no, but SOM, which capitulated to postmodernism (and not an inspired version of it at that), emerged in the eighties as a pliant corporate firm willing to please. That lingering history and reputation hold back the SOM of Lever House, and Bear Stearns is evidence of the character struggle that the firm is still waging internally.

Meanwhile, this building sends out a warning that the heir apparent to the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site can be manipulated. The aesthetic muddle that Bear Stearns represents can’t be repeated anywhere near that sacred trust. Downtown can’t afford the compromise.

Bear Stearns World Headquarters
383 Madison Avenue; designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill.

Bearish on Mad Ave.