The MetLife Building — formerly the Pan Am Building — is one of New York City’s most unassuming, yet unmistakable landmarks. Built in 1963 by a team that included Walter Gropius, this monumental glass tower looms behind Grand Central Terminal like a sentinel, a modernist masterpiece that, somehow, doesn’t clash with the Terminal’s ornate beaux-arts façade. The structure is very New York: unabashedly modern, yet able to exist in harmony with the past.
For New Yorkers, it’s hard to imagine the MetLife Building looking any other way. But that’s exactly what six architecture firms did, as part of a contest sponsored by Metals in Construction magazine and the Ornamental Metal Institute of New York. The contest called for architecture firms to redesign the façade of the building in a way that would improve its energy efficiency without disturbing its trademark midcentury aesthetic.
As Gary Higbee, an editor of Metals in Construction, explains, “Re-cladding a building can give it a new visual identity and radically improve its energy performance in the process. But how do you address this with recognized landmarks? The answers we received in the form of submissions were full of innovative concepts but also underscored how crucial it is for architects and engineers to work together to find successful solutions.”
Many proposals were submitted to the contest, but only six were selected as finalists. The winners were chosen by a jury of architects organized by Metals in Construction that included well-known experts in sustainable design such as Ben Tranel, Areta Pawlynsky and Billie Faircloth. Read on to learn more about these six MetLife makeovers:
In this proposal, the MetLife Building will be wrapped in a double-layered, glass façade with operable windows. The outer layer would protect the building from rain and allow for natural ventilation. The inner layer would give building managers more flexibility in regulating the internal climate of the building.
This plan changes very little, visually, but tremendously increases the energy efficiency of the building. By adding a high-tech photovoltaic over-cladding to the original façade, this proposal would reduce the building’s overall energy use by 54 percent.
Thermalswitch Façade by StudioTJOA
StudioTJOA’s concept calls for a “double-skin” — similar to the one used in the “Pan Am Under Glass” — to be placed directly over the original façade. This skin is vented and will tilt either toward the sun or away from it depending on the temperature, drawing on natural sources for temperature control.
Harnessing Urban Energies by FXFOWLE
This design also includes a double skin, but the eco-friendly features do not end there. Sky parks, gardens, solar panels and greenbelts — features that let the building “breathe” and help with temperature control — all contribute to lowering its carbon footprint.
Vertimeme by AECOM
Unlike many of the others, AECOM’s proposal involves completely removing the old façade. It will be replaced by a high-tech trussed design that will maximize air flow and solar heating. The new façade is responsive to the elements and behaves differently depending on the time of the year.
In this plan, the entire building is converted into an urban farm. Plants will naturally filter daylight, and the farms will be maintained using collected rainwater and natural sunlight. Essentially, the MetLife Building would become a balanced ecosystem.