Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Nota bene: The death and life of great American skyscrapers

Today’s a sad day for lovers of mid-century architecture. Or, if you’d rather go with the language in the official press release, for lovers of “an outdated facility designed in the late 1950s”.

The subject of the press release is the Union Carbide Building, an International Style icon which has helped define Park Avenue for over half a century. Designed by Natalie de Blois of SOM, who also helped build Lever House just up the street, 270 Park Avenue is one of Manhattan’s noblest skyscrapers. On an avenue with no shortage of world-class architecture (Lever House sits across from the Seagram Building, after all), 270 Park more than holds its own.

Some great background on the building can be found here; when it was built, in 1960, it was the tallest building to be erected in New York City since 1933. But it seems that next year it’s going to achieve the dubious distinction of being the tallest building ever to be voluntarily destroyed, anywhere in the world.

This act of architectural vandalism comes with no apologies; instead we just get babble like this.

With the new, modern facility, which is expected to create over 8,000 construction-related jobs during the building period, JPMorgan Chase would consolidate its global headquarters from a variety of locations into a fully LEED-certified, energy efficient office tower in Midtown Manhattan. 

But here’s the thing: 270 Park is a modern facility! It’s pretty much the Platonic ideal of a modern skyscraper, and it’s gorgeous. It’s definitely older than, say, 383 Madison Avenue, which was purpose-built as a bank headquarters in 2002 (for Bear Stearns) and which was acquired by JP Morgan when Bear Stearns imploded during the financial crisis. But JP Morgan never made 383 Madison its headquarters, even though it’s newer, shinier, bigger, and just as convenient for Grand Central Terminal.

If 270 Park were really so outdated, the top brass would have moved out years ago. Instead, they spiffed it up so well that it’s now certified LEED Plantinum. There’s nothing environmentally friendly about spending billions of dollars to demolish one LEED building and replacing it with another one, which makes all the talk of LEED certification rather disingenuous.

Today’s dreadful news was enabled by the recent East Midtown rezoning, but it’s not the rezoning plan’s fault. 270 Park, a building of unquestioned historical importance and architectural merit, can and should have been given landmark designation years ago. There are plenty of other sites in the East Midtown zone which would lend themselves as a site for a new JP Morgan facility.

Instead, a bank which prides itself on its sense of history, and which boasts of New York connections dating back to 1799, is going to destroy arguably its greatest architectural possession. Right now, only Bank of New York Mellon can compete with JP Morgan on the architectural quality of its New York headquarters; I’m reasonably sure that the new 270 Park is going to be an undistinguished yet massive box, a bit like the Bank of America headquarters a couple of blocks west on Bryant Park, or the Goldman Sachs HQ downtown on West Street.

New York understands the importance of preserving architectural landmarks. The city would never allow Lever House to be destroyed, for instance, even though it represents an incredibly inefficient use of space and air. But for some reason 270 Park has fallen through the cracks, along (possibly) with Philip Johnson’s AT&T tower.

There’s no reason in principle why skyscrapers shouldn’t be demolished, once in a while. If the Kushners were to tear down 666 Fifth Ave and replace it with a Zaha Hadid concoction, that might be dubious on a financial level, but it could only improve the New York skyline. That said, New York has more than its fair share of truly great skyscrapers, which deserve to be preserved, even if they don’t have official landmarks designation. And 270 Park Avenue is surely at or near the top of that list.