PAUL GUNTHER RESIDES IN NEW YORK AND HAS SPENT NEARLY 40 YEARS AT THE SERVICE OF VARIOUS CIVIC AND CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS BASED IN NEW YORK AND PARIS, SHARING A COMMITMENT TO THE FUTURE COMMON GOOD. MOST RECENTLY HE SERVED AS PRESIDENT OF THE INSTITUTE OF CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE & ART AS IT EXPANDED ACROSS THE COUNTY IN FULFILLMENT OF ITS EDUCATIONAL MISSION. INTERESTED IN CONTRIBUTING TO ARCHITIZER? EMAIL EDITORIAL@ARCHITIZER.COM.
For the first time in its 18 years of creating the biannual World Monuments Watch List of endangered sites, the World Monuments Fund has included a natural landscape and its according "view shed"—an area of natural topography of special or historic significance deemed worthy to remain as open space.
Any built intrusion will, by appearance and scale, compromise, if not outright destroy, this cherished point of view. Several million residents, visitors, and commuters admire this vista each day. Furthermore, the site is etched into the founding firmament of the United States, whose Revolutionary War unfolded in its shadows. Its majestic permanence is taken for granted.
The threatened vista in question: that of the New Jersey Palisades. Running along the Hudson River fjord, the Palisades frame Manhattan and the Bronx’s western edge leading into America’s crucible gateway, the Hudson River. They herald the continent beyond, as affably immortalized in Saul Steinberg’s 1976 New Yorker cover.
Saul Steinberg's iconic 1976 New Yorker cover featured the Palisades
For the first time since its Ice Age formation, this amazingly well-preserved panorama is at risk of rupture. Its threat is a 143-foot tower: the American headquarters of the Korean LG Electronic Corporation on its large Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey campus. While local elected and appointed planning officials have done all they can to advance it in the interests of economic development, pending lawsuits from Scenic Hudson and like-minded amici provide a worthy reprieve synced well with the WMF rallying cry.
Rendering of LG's Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey headquarters. Image via NY Times.
There is plenty of land and there are surely plenty of design alternatives available, but clearly this green tower and lighthouse-like commercial beacon drive the present proposal by the firm HOK, or more precisely, their client’s goal of a high-visibility. Instead of locating such a tower in some existing urban context like nearby Newark or Hoboken, it seems clear that they prefer the attention-grabbing tactic of arising singly amid the unbroken green horizontality of the Palisades.
It is like constructing a tower on the rim of the Grand Canyon—or, from at least a New Yorker’s perspective, like projecting some corporate logo on to the surface of the moon. Paradoxically, LG’s promotional renderings used to advance the development end up revealing the gashing fact, despite a glassy shot at sun-soaked dematerialization.
Scott's Hut in Antarctica, on the World Monument Fund's Watch List
Since the its advent in 1996, the Watch List—now at the service of nearly 1,000 threatened sites on literally all seven continents (in Antarctica, it is devoted to preserving Scott’s Hut)—has selected only two other view sheds linked to threats on iconic historic townscapes. These related to the environs of Seville’s historic core and to St. Petersburg back in 2008, when despite economic collapse this Word Heritage Site came under assault from the proposed Gazprom City—aka Okhtra Center, a towering 403-meter Lord Foster wannabe that would have shattered any and all contextual equilibrium.
The Palisades's designation stands out even in this distinguished trio as the only site linking the natural environment to the massive cultural imprint close by: the densest city in North America. Nothing less than 100+ years of conservation made possible primarily by the Rockefeller family. The astonishing contrast of the two riverfronts, celebrating the city with a humbling, even sacred measure, and of its geographic and environmental origin is unique to the world. No single property holder, regardless of civic intent or LEED-sensitive design attention, should be allowed to destroy it, especially when there is land and ingenuity available to otherwise accommodate the required commerce and hopeful growth.
Once LG's headquarters is realized, there will be no further impetus to design alternatives to what will almost certainly mean ever more vertical compromise. These magnificent cliffs will become nothing more than a platform for towers as far as the eye can see. The Monuments Watch, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval Cloisters (above), provides an enlightened tool that the architectural community, along with the preservation community, should pick up and run with. Such action does not deny progress through development. Instead, it honors the dignity of shared values and the civic cohesion they inform.