Perhaps because the means of murder on that day was the sudden destruction of buildings of architectural distinction, the early moments of what was once called the Post-9/11 Era featured, for some, a surprising project of rapidly designing and building great works of architecture. Well, good luck with that, might be our retroactive comment to ourselves of a sudden ten years ago.
That impulse toward architectural something-ness, lugubriously directed by Daniel Libeskind and a host of political and corporate enablers, dissipated over time. With the exceptions of Michael Arad’s promising memorial project, and the singular efforts of Snøhetta’s modestly audacious visitor’s center, adjacent work has reverted to our provincial glassy generic.
After several near-miss big-time proposals for Lower Manhattan, prominent Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry has joined in with an 870-foot residential skyscraper at Beekman Place. The tower features his signature curvy metal cladding, achieved in this case by what are essentially dozens of stories of successively shifted shallow bay windows, their edges interpolated into tangents along a pattern of vertical ripples. A generally T-shaped plan, with the capstone of the T facing south, ameliorates the building’s impact on the nearby skyline, breaking down its bulk (and rewarding especially those vaguely rotational from-the-freeway automotive views from the BQE, the FDR, and the nearby Brooklyn Bridge). A dainty entrance plaza along the building’s West facade brings a certain grace to the proximate streetscape. There’s a desk in the lobby that has the voluptuous appeal of Gehry’s recent jewelry collections.
A New York City skyscraper is an acute design exercise with all the tight formal, structural, material, and conventional constraints—and therefore all the vast resounding potential—of a sonnet. Some constraints are Architecture 101: the building must successfully scrape the sky and stick its landing on the ground. Others are more particular to our city: a local skyscraper must contend and dance with the envelopes and setbacks and FAR’s that mean, as Koolhaas famously observed, all of Manhattan has already been maximally designed; it must participate in the long panorama of the North-South skyline; it must in a city of extraordinary density and deep narrow vistas, be carefully considered in extreme close up and long distance. In short, it must know where it is.
This skyscraper tops out like a decapitated bundle of celery. It meets the ground not at all, instead descending on a six-story reddish masonry base with the grace of an ecclesiastically-scaled candle landing on a cupcake. The street-level detailing, such as a grim strip of flashing that sits at the top of those masonry walls, seems almost willfully casual next to the gloriously, if laboriously, resolved facade of Pace University’s neighboring mid-century complex. Setbacks, whether the shaft-and-bustle of the nearby Woolworth Building, or in the tower-and-plaza of midtown’s modernist masterpieces, are behind much of the beauty of Manhattan: the negotiation between the inherent geometries of a skyscraper and its enclosing almost-visible crystalline volume is perhaps New York’s most monumentally intimate encounter. Here, in a sorely missed opportunity, those vertical ripples ignore each setback where instead those orthogonal sectional deflections in the structure should have supplied moments of glorious turbulence and eddy and moments of exchange between architectural and urban intention.
In what may be—or worse yet, may merely appear to be—a hasty exercise in value engineering, those ripples disappear altogether from the South facade, where their occasional shading effect might have been environmentally justified. This gesture puzzles all the more in this rare Manhattan skyscraper that sits on its own island; that fronts, thanks to that entrance plaza and an adjacent alleyway, all four compass points; and further, thanks to the rare open vistas afforded by City Hall Park, the bridge approach ramps, and the East River, might—like the former Trade Center Towers themselves—address the entire horizon with all the duty and splendid isolation of a lighthouse. Instead we have a front. And a back. And a displaced building waiting to be filed away among the narrow frontages and deep block interiors of midtown. Or Houston.
How to account for all this? It cannot be a lack of ability: Gehry has produced some of the most masterful and meaningful buildings of the past century. It cannot be a lack of local expertise: Gehry very successfully harvested Gotham’s grit and grid in his charismatic bandbox of a building for the IAC headquarters in far West Chelsea (which admittedly bears a certain resemblance to the low-lying warehouses and garages of, say, Culver City).
New York by Gehry. That’s the name the developers finally settled on. The phrase invites the question of whether the building represents a failure or success by architect or city. One reading of what happened here is that, since architectural excellence in Manhattan is as exceptional, and therefore as potentially unsettling, as an untouched ruin, the appearance near Ground Zero of such a building as this represents a certain kind of successful recovery and realignment to historic norms by a city that has long known how to defeat architects: thus Gehry by New York. On the other hand, architecture is required to rise to its occasions. In this, there are two ways to fall short. One of them, the interesting way, is to fail by trying too hard. By caring too much. By grasping and overreaching. This may have been the case with many unbuilt early contenders for the reconstruction of Lower Manhattan. (Sir Norman Foster’s genuinely sublime 2002 scheme for the entire site with its redoubled tessellated towers, famously remains the readers of the New York Posts’ favorite.) These are successful failures, in which the legible drama of visible effort ameliorates undeniable shortcomings in function or form. Then there is the other kind of failure.