New York University applied to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on October 7 for permission to add a 38-story building to the Silver Towers complex completed by I.M. Pei in 1966, a landmarked site on their Greenwich Village campus. Half hotel, half university housing, the tower would be part of NYU’s plan to add 6 million square feet of capacity by 2031. If approved, it would be the tallest building in the Village.
Grimshaw Architects designed the new fourth tower and are also working in collaboration with Toshiko Mori and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates on NYU’s much-debated expansion plan. The current proposal is an alternative to NYU’s original plan of building on a corner plot where a Morton Williams supermarket stands. The team reconsidered after concluding that completing the pinwheel composition begun by the existing three towers would preserve views, and the Pei planning aesthetic, better than the Morton Williams location. John Beckman, NYU’s vice president for public affairs, said, “The towers are oriented in a way that none of the buildings are in the way of the windows of the other.”
Trying to pay homage, not replicate the original buildings, Grimshaw’s tower will be made of the same precast concrete, in a slightly lighter hue, finished with high performance glazing. Its footprint is composed of four quarters, whose heights alternate between 375 and 355 feet, staggered to echo the placement of the four towers on the site. They also mimic the distinctive vertical pattern of the original towers, in which sheer concrete walls and a deep punched-window facade alternated in vertical stripes around each building. “We pushed pieces of the facade in, so they had more depth like the punched facades of Pei, and left some parts of the facade flush with the structure,” said Mark Husser, Grimshaw’s lead architect on the project.
The new tower would also update the flat tops and bottoms and monotonous proportions of the pre-existing towers, features that hark back to midcentury Brutalism. “The Pei towers have a fairly relentless articulation of the windows, that basically continues in the same proportions all the way up the building, and the building truncates at the ground and the sky,” Husser said. The articulated rooftop of the new tower would be paired with a bottom floor set back about four feet from the outer building envelope in a stepped pattern. Grimshaw also updated Pei’s identically repeating rows of windows by designing the new tower in stacked modules that get taller as the building rises, lightening the building’s form.
Not everyone is happy. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), the organization responsible for securing a landmark designation for the Silver Towers site in 2008, is organizing against NYU’s proposal on the grounds of its height and its effect on Pei’s composition. “This arrangement of three towers in a pinwheel fashion, with one side left open around a central space, was a motif you see throughout his works,” Berman said. “It was not an accident or an incomplete design awaiting a fourth element.” He also warned that allowing development on a landmarked site could set the stage for development of open space in other modernist landmarks.
According to Berman, NYU’s argument that building a tower is preferable to the Morton Williams alternative is a false dichotomy. Why not consider alternate neighborhoods, he asks, noting that community boards in the financial district have openly invited the kind of development NYU is proposing. “The fact that building on the supermarket site would also be bad doesn’t make building on the landmark site any less terrible,” Berman said. The GVSHP is organizing a rally at the site on Sunday, November 7, the day before the plan is put to a vote by Manhattan Community Board 2’s Landmarks Committee.