Category Archives: ARCHITECTURE

WOOLWORTH IT

 

New York bulges with iconic buildings. The Woolworth Building is one of them.

When it was completed in 1913 it proudly carried the title of tallest in the world. Now it’s not even the tallest of New York anymore. But still, it figures in every guide book and people still look up to its terracotta façade.

For decades the doors of the Woolworth remained closed to the public. Now it can be visited.

Although the tour is limited to the hall, it offers a spectacle of gold-leafed mosaics, vaulted ceilings and Tiffany elevator doors.

The neo-Gothic style and the cruciform floor plan has earned the Woolworth the name of Cathedral of Commerce. This denomination has not always been appreciated because the building has nothing to do with religion.

Because of the quality materials and the expert craftsmanship, the lobby has been extremely well preserved over the years.

The threat to the Woolworth has rather come from outside. During the 9/11 attacks, the building was damaged by scattered debris from the Twin Towers, only a few blocks away. Windows were shattered and one turret crumbled.

Protected as a National Historic Landmark since 1966, the Woolworth’ s upper floors are now being remodeled. The main body of the building remains office space. The higher floors are being converted in luxury residences. And everybody will be dying to know who is going to occupy the five-level penthouse. And how much the rent will be!

To illustrate how innovative and important the Woolworth Building was at its opening in 1913: instead of a common ribbon-cutting, President Wilson pushed a button in the White House (yes, in DC) that switched on all the interior and exterior lights of the building (yes, in NY).

 

—tours only by appointment through http://www.woolworthtours.com—

 

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UNITED NATIONS LOUNGE : LET’S MAKE A DEAL

 

Many a deal is made over a good glass of wine. So every office should have a bar. Or a lounge, like at the United Nations in New York. And the North Delegates’ Lounge has been renovated to make it an even more pleasant place to hang out. And to close that important deal!

The renovation was commissioned to a Dutch team of ringing names: Hella jongerius, Rem Koolhaas and Irma Boom.

The simple rectangular space has been divided in three sections. The first is a group of low sofas and lounge chairs. The second section is situated at the far end of the hall and is composed of a bar and vivid green tables and white chairs. The last section is a row of work stations against a metal wall.

Hella Jongerius has introduced her already iconic Polder sofas, inspired by the topography of her home country Holland. She has especially designed the UN Chair for the occasion. She also signs for the window covering made of hundreds of clay beads and the “bubble desk” work stations. But Jongerius has also, much to her credit, included design pieces that bear other names, like a chair by Rietveld and the Wegner Peacock Chair.

Irma Boom created the shade on the inclined north window. It’s a grid-like curtain that refers to the window lines on New York’s modern skyscrapers.

Rem Koolhaas’ intervention is limited to the elimination of a mezzanine and the introduction of a white resin information desk at the entrance.

For any client, this team of stellar designers is a dream combination. Then why does this new Delegates’ Lounge not provoke a reaction of delighted surprise?

There’s a slightly uncomfortable imbalance between cosiness and emptiness. On entering the hall, that’s exactly what you see: a big hall. There’s nothing wrong with a big hall. But the confusion starts when you don’t know if it’s empty or cluttered.

It’s clear that Hella Jongerius has tried to overcome the sensation of cold emptiness. After all, a lounge should offer some welcoming cosiness. Therefore the designer has used her very laid-back Polder sofas. Therefore she has broken up the space in different areas. Therefore she has used different types of seating. A variety of furniture and furnishings are to break the feel of an overly rectangular and empty room.

But still the room looks as flat as Holland. And even Jongerius must have felt this too. In her original design she also planned on having the Jurgen Bey Ear Chair. It’s a chair that has a high head rest and wide “ears”, enveloping the person that uses it. It offers some acoustic and visual seclusion from the environment, ideal for some welcome cocooning in an otherwise open hall. But for security reasons – this is the UN, remember – the chair was scratched from the design scheme: it was too high and blocked the overall view of the lounge…

Even Rem Koolhaas must have detected the same problem with the openness of this huge room. At the far end of the lounge, he tore down a mezzanine in order to open up the view towards the East River. A great move. At the same time he wanted to add a mezzanine at the entrance of the lounge, in this way lowering the entrance way and separating the lounge a little bit more from the hallways. It surely would have defined and confined the lounge a lot more. But the budget has decided otherwise.

Koolhaas also wanted to hang the oversized artwork (UN gifts) from protruding slabs. This would have broken up the box-like room a little bit more. His plan did not see the light, for the same reason mentioned above.

At one point, even the most striking feature of the whole design was threatened. The clay beads of the knotted curtain were described as possible hazardous projectiles in case of a (bomb) explosion. Fortunately the beads slipped through the restrictive net and could stay.

It’s obvious that an institution like the United Nations has to impose strict regulations and safety considerations on itself. But it’s also sad that good design has to suffer from it. As the evening was unfurling, the Lounge got packed with people enjoying an after-work drink. At least they don’t seem to be bothered by the restrictions. Nor the plastic wine cups.

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AND CALATRAVA SAID : LET THERE BE WHITE

 

Since 2001 Ground Zero has been one huge construction site. Slowly, new constructions are coming to completion. The 9/11 Memorial Site has been open to the public quite some time. One World Trade Center has recently become the highest building in the US.

And everyone is curious to see the new transit hub that is to be inaugurated in 2015.

As a teaser, the new underground passageway to the PATH terminal has already been opened. It shows the signature construction elements of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

It boasts walls and floors of shiny white marble. The tubular fishbone beams, unmistakably Calatrava, are the only “organic” elements in the otherwise stark minimalistic design.

Santiago Calatrava is famous, certainly, for his public spaces and bridges all over the world. But also infamous for the structural problems that his existing buildings are starting to show already.

On top of all the controversy, questions are rising about the price tag of this whole new endeavor. Already this tunnel, with a cost of 100 million USD, can call itself the most expensive “passage” of the world.

 

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THE SEAGRAM : A LIST OF FIRSTS

LUDWIG MIES VAN DER ROHE AND PHILIP JOHNSON IN THE HEART OF MANHATTAN

 

When I say : ‘New York City’, probably one of the first things that come to mind is its unmistakable skyline.

The grid of Manhattan is dominated by its highest and, subsequently, most iconic high rise buildings. True, the Empire State and the Chrysler stand tall like king and queen on a giant chess board. The problem with these skyscrapers is that the closer you get, the more difficult it becomes to see them. You can be standing at the front door and not even realize that they are towering above your head. Mies van der Rohe must have fully discerned this tricky problem of urban planning.

His Seagram Building is not the most famous building in Manhattan. Neither does it have a drastic impact on the skyline. But Mies surely didn’t want it to just evaporate in the Midtown concrete jungle. To make sure that his building would not go unnoticed when you pass by it, he insisted on leaving an empty plaza in front of it. This allows a perfect view. It also means that the building itself recedes  way behind the street’s front line. In a city where the price per square foot is rocketing, this way of constructing was unheard of and engendered numerous envious comments. A huge open place, clad in Roman travertine? Pure luxury.

The Seagram Building, commissioned by a Canadian liquor company, was finished in 1958.

The only high rise office building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, it’s one of the finest examples of the International Style. It has put its mark on American architecture ever since.

Mies thought that a building’s structural elements should be visible. It’s one of the principles he’s most renowned for and which he rigorously applied in his constructions. The most beautiful examples are the Farnsworth House near Chicago and the German Pavilion in Barcelona.

This Seagram Building, too, is a construction of steel beams from which non-structural glass walls are hanging. But to avoid the risk of melting in case of fire, New York regulations required that the inside beams be covered with a fire and heatproof material, in this case concrete. To Mies it must have been sacrilege. To give at least the impression that the structural elements could be seen, he installed his famous vertical I-beams on the outside of the building. But they have a purely esthetic function, not structural at all!

Mies van der Rohe lived, or at least tried to live, by his credo of strict balance and proportions. He did anything in his reach and power to achieve his goals. To prevent people opening the blinds at different heights, thus giving the building a disorderly aspect from the outside, he implanted a system that only allowed three different positions: open, closed or 50/50.

The outside beams are bronze and are regularly treated with oil to prevent oxidation. It’s also Mies’s explicit wish that the front plaza stays completely empty, except for the reflecting pools and fountains. With the exception for maybe some temporary installation, no art work or trees are ever to be admitted to divert any attention from the building itself.

Where Mies van der Rohe controlled the building’s structural and outside design, it was Philip Johnson who signed for the interior. The two architects had a very successful cooperation and even had their offices in the building. But they will also forever be referred to as these good friends and competitive rivals. Van der Rohe designed the Farnsworth House. Johnson designed the Glass House. Some will gladly go into lengthy discussions to prove who got the idea for the house first.

The Seagram Building is also home to the famous Four Seasons Restaurant, which also has a list of firsts. It was the first restaurant in America to offer a menu according to the seasonal markets. It was the first place on the east coast to have a wine list of American wines, and not only French ones.

Another first were its menus in English, and not French. And The Four Seasons was also the first to reintroduce fresh wild mushrooms instead of the commonly used dried ones in those days. The restaurant is also called the Pool Room because it repeats one of the outside pools in the middle of the restaurant.

Since its opening in 1959 the interior of The Four Seasons has stood unchanged. Plates, cutlery, glasses and furniture are still the same and also figure in the MOMA’s permanent design collection.

Last but not least, The Four Seasons can boast a small but impressive art collection. “La pièce de résistance” would be the huge curtain that Picasso designed for Les Ballets Russes.

To say that The Seagram story is one of total success and unfaltering perfection would be an overstatement. Because of the use of expensive material like bronze, travertine and marble, the Seagram was the priciest skyscraper ever built. And when it comes to energy efficiency, it has the lowest rating of any building in New York.

The landmarked Four Seasons restaurant may be in danger. It is one of the priciest places to eat in New York. But the generous income of the restaurant is unlikely to be enough to compensate an imminent raise in rent. The restaurant is currently paying a ridiculously low lease that is 80% below the average market rate. Some sources say that, when in three years the Four Seasons restaurant’s lease expires, an “adjustment’ to the normal market value is probably looming over its existence. Others say that the Seagram Building without its Four Seasons Restaurant is just unthinkable.

Whatever way the story goes, for the time being, just looking at the building or having lunch at the restaurant is a treat.

 

 

The Seagram Building, 375 Park Avenue, between 52nd Street and 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan

The Four Seasons, entrance on 52nd street

Also see my posts:

July 23, 2013 : FARNSWORTH HOUSE : a river runs through it…sometimes

November 13, 2012 : THE GLASS HOUSE

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TWA : WHERE IMAGINATION TAKES FLIGHT

 

When arriving at the airport, the only thing you want to do is grab your luggage and get out of there. True, there have been some quite honorable efforts in recent years. But still, a lot of airports around the world look the same and are boring places. JFK is no exception.

But in your hurry to get home or to your hotel, you might have noticed this singular building next to Terminal 5.

The Trans World Airline Flight Center, TWA, was designed by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1962, one year after his death. It was used until 2001. New terminals were built around it to accommodate the ever growing number of passengers.

Saarinen wanted to emphasize the “excitement of travel”. Those were indeed the times where going to the airport was already part of the adventurous travel experience. Nowadays, maybe all too often, airport terminals stand for long cues, lost luggage, over-bookings and cancellations. The sixties were the times where airports still had “human” proportions.

Organic forms are commonplace in 21st century architecture. Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry are only two examples of this. But at its inauguration, Saarinen’s project was revolutionary.

With its slender and aerodynamical shape it looks like a vessel from outer space, a vision of the future, a time and place where no man had ever gone before. The 21st century?

It surely stirs the imagination. TWA rises from the depths of the ocean, like a giant sting ray. It’s a bird spreading its wings, ready to take flight,…

The terminal is symmetrical in and outside. Compared to Hadid’s or Gehry’s amorphous structures, this symmetry in Saarinen’s building even strengthens the feeling of an organic force,  just as the familiar symmetry in other living creatures and organisms.

The TWA Terminal is being restored to its original splendor. In the near future it will open its doors to the public.  The main hall will function as the lobby for a new adjacent hotel. It will be a place to dine before or after your flight. Or just a place to linger, relax, look around and take it all in, the genius of Saarinen.

 

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A CENTURY OLD LADY

Never make the mistake of calling her a station. She’s a Terminal. And that’s final.

Although her high-rise neighbors have dwarfed her through the years, Grand Central Terminal is still standing proudly in the heart of Manhattan. And this year, she celebrates her one hundredth birthday.

The sunbeams falling through the cathedral-like windows are guaranteed to bring an ever-changing spectacle of light and shadow.

The scene of many a movie, Grand Central has become a familiar sight. Every day, thousands of commuters and tourists alike pass through the Grand Concourse. Commuters rush and look down. Tourists freeze and look up.

With a century long history, Grand Central has some great and curious stories to tell. The clock on the front side of the building contains the largest Tiffany glass known in the world. At the time of the inauguration, the sculptures of Minerva, Hercules and Mercury formed yet another global first in terms of size: 48 feet (14,6m) tall.

When you look up to the ceiling, you see a starry sky. It’s certainly one of the distinctive features of the Terminal. Small detail: the constellation on the ceiling is not as we see it from Earth, but rather as God must be seeing it from heaven, above the stars. Get it? Some say it’s because the ceiling was based on a medieval manuscript. Others say that we should finally except that huge mistakes are from all times.

Whatever it was, we are glad we can see it. Some ten tears ago, the ceiling was dark and the images blurred by what was thought to be coal and diesel exhaust from the trains. When the cleaning team started to wash the ceiling and examine the dark sludge, it appeared to be nicotine!

There’s this special Track 61. It continues to the depths of the nearby Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. It was specially built for President Roosevelt. It was said to spare him the walk from the Terminal, but even more to hide the fact that he was moving around in a wheelchair.

Grand Central is home to the famous Oyster Bar. This iconic place is a reminder of the days when New York was thriving on the oyster industry.

The Terminal is more than a transportation hub. There’s plenty of businesses and bars. It even boasts the Vanderbilt Tennis Club. The latest acquisition is an Apple Store right on the Main Concourse.

The Lady may be one hundred years old, she definitely keeps pace with modern day technology and reinvention.

 

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the staging of hidden bowels

 

The art scene sometimes allows visitors to enter its hidden bowels. The art lover loves to go to the artist’s studio to see how and where art is made. Not rarely the visitor is in for surprises. The art studio can be tucked away in a small apartment, in a garage where the car has been banned forever or in a repurposed warehouse.

The artists collective that goes by the name FABRIKA7 has only opened its doors twice. A non descriptive door opens to a staircase that leads to three floors of an old Dumbo warehouse. The stale smell of moist coming from the lowest floor might not be the most inviting visiting card for any artist. But the higher you walk up the stairs, the drier the air becomes under an enormous skylight.

It looks as if the artists of FABRIKA7 once entered the building and locked the door behind them to work. Site specific work is sprawling up on every floor and seems or is made with material found on the spot.

The first impression on the lower level is one of chaos. The installation there hits you like heaps of debris shoveled together in apparent randomness. But the found objects and their dust form a landscape of intricate messages of political critique and ‘condition humaine’.

Climbing the stairs, the piles of detritus have been cleared, and in this way, open up space for more rationally approached and recognizable works of art. But in every case, the art is part of the building and inextricably woven within the character of the site itself.

Instead of invading the building and making it into a white canvas for their works, the artists seem to have respected the soul of the warehouse. One of them told me that the place was formerly used for building theatre sets. Keeping this in mind, they have tried to honor the place by staying mere players that respect their stage. The backdrop of the old warehouse seems to be of the same importance as their art. One would maybe not be thinkable without the other.

Some people only go to the Guggenheim because of the building. When you get the chance to enter this artists collective’s temple, you also might be overwhelmed by its beauty ánd ugliness. But don’t forget to look and take in the art, too.

 

(The artist who took me around on a personal tour, said that FABRIKA7 might again open its door during the Dumbo Art Festival on September 27, 28, 29.)

(FABRIKA7 is located in Water Street, at the corner with Jay Street, in Dumbo, Brooklyn)

 

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