Say No to Nouvel

The architects at Axis Mundi have proposed an alternative to Jean Nouvel’s new MoMA tower.
Courtesy Axis Mundi

However that old cliché about idle hands goes, it does not apply to architects as a thoroughly-explored and self-initiated project by New York firm Axis Mundi proves. Principal John Beckmann and his six employees set out to do nothing less than re-imagine tall buildings, spurred on not by a commission or even a competition but rather by anger at the height, bulk, and “massive disconnect,” as Beckmann put it, represented by the 82-story tower at 53 West 53rd proposed by developer Hines with the Museum of Modern Art and designed by Pritzker-winning French architect Jean Nouvel.

While echoing nouvel’s program, the proposed tower is all its own. (Click to view a slideshow of Axis Mundi’s design.)
It rises to less than half the height of Nouvel’s proposed tower, barely topping Cesar Pelli’s Museum tower (Left).

“Hines and MoMA have been jamming this down everyone’s throat. That’s not the way to go about it. There has to be more public debate,” said Beckmann about the Chrysler-topping tower that is progressing rather steadily through the city’s land-use review process. “A lot of community groups are disgruntled and aghast at the height of it. And when they added another eight floors recently and got bigger, we decided it would be an interesting site to tackle.”

Beckmann started with the visual inspiration of Italian hill towns in Umbria that are “disorganized but organically grown” and layered on some good old parametric modeling to develop the maximum number of different spaces, materials and densities that could be stacked somewhat higgledy-piggledy into a tower.

Construction-wise there are glass panels, steel panels, brick and concrete units, several making visual references to familiar facades by the likes of Louis Kahn, Richard Meier, Rio’s favelas and Corbu’s Unité d’Habitation. The very mix, the architect said, could make it “conceivably cost effective to build because the basic structure is concrete slab.” Engineers have been sought out and agree.

Part of the challenge was sticking to the same program as the Nouvel tower but with a lot less impact and more connections to the community: It would top out at 50 stories, with a 17,000-square-foot footprint and 32,000 feet of expansion space for MoMA. The base would hit the ground with a neutralized monumentality, akin to the negative space at Citicorp.  The Donnell Library, once across the street now in limbo, might find a new home in various volumes within the structure set aside for community uses.

The designers at Axis Mundi have been working on the project steadily since April, with no reward in sight apart from keeping busy at a slow time and staying mentally sharp. But that could change. Beckmann has been invited to make a presentation on July 22 during a City Planning Commission public hearing on the Hines project.

For the architect, however, the ideal outcome remains to stir some debate and, perhaps, “get a developer interested in doing it at another site.”

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