It was a valiant effort, but the Upper East Side was still not satisfied with new plans for 980 Madison presented by developer Aby Rosen on June 17. The new design by Lord Norman Foster is the architect’s second attempt at revamping the stout, 1949 gallery building by Walker & Poor.
The 22-story glass tower originally envisioned by Foster to rest atop the Parke-Bernet Galleries had been jettisoned over 17 months ago in favor of a five-story louvered copper box that mirrored the proportions of its base. Though the second proposal was lauded for its accommodation to public demand, it was still roundly criticized by a majority of residents and preservationists who came to testify before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
“The design of the building proposed here—and it is a building, not an addition—is original and innovative,” Elizabeth Ashby, president of the Historic Neighborhood Enhancement Alliance, told the commission. “In a suitable location, it would undoubtedly be admired and respected. Perched on top of the Parke-Bernet Building is an absurd site for it. The proposed building clashes with its setting, and the Parke-Bernet Building clashes with it.”
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Brandon Haw, a senior partner at Foster + Partners, argued that the new project’s composition, including its near-identical proportions and complimentary materials, was a more suitable proposal than its predecessor, especially now that the sixth floor and roof garden had been restored to the plan. Additionally, due to these and other changes, Rosen would no longer seek a transfer of air rights and the commission would be his only regulatory stop.
Notable absences at the meeting included not only Lord Foster himself, but also the coterie of cultural stars, including Jeff Koons and Larry Gagosian, that Rosen paraded before the commission the last time he attempted to get his project approved. But one marquee name did show up, just as expected.
Channeling From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe said Foster’s building was not only out of place but out of fashion. “It’s another old-fashioned style,” said the writer, who appeared to be wearing his signature spats. “This style has been with us since at least 1919.” Wolfe concluded, “[Lord Foster] does not have to use just the straight edge of the protractor. This needs to be more in keeping with the Upper East Side.”
In addition to the building’s appearance, which was roundly panned, its scale was a major issue. Though many appreciated the restoration of the sixth floor and gardens, the addition of tens of thousands of square feet, which would abut the building’s existing street wall, was considered excessive.
Many speakers also insisted that the commission not be tricked into approving the new designs by comparing them to the old. “The fact that this addition is not as horrifying as its predecessor does not mean it is appropriate,” Robert Stein, a resident of East 77th Street, declared. Though the commission declined to discuss the project or take a vote, it expects to do so in the coming months.