As an architect, Norman Foster seems to have an awful lot in common with the late, great Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Foster is renowned for having an astute eye for detail, the ability to integrate all manner of luxurious materials into his designs, and a deep appreciation of the modernist rationale; the philosophies that have culminated in the high-tech movement are firmly rooted in the International Style for which Mies was a flag-bearer. It may come as a surprise, then, that a bubbling undercurrent of opposition accompanied Foster’s proposal to build a skyscraper at 610 Lexington Avenue—right next door to Mies’ celebrated landmark, the Seagram Building.
The sparkling new residential tower, one of a number of major new Manhattan commissions by Foster + Partners, broke ground earlier this month, and is expected to be completed in 2017. The 61-story tower will rise 216 meters—57 meters taller than the Seagram Building—and stands just a stone’s throw away from its 1958 neighbor, which was recently given protected status through the National Register of Historic Places.
The Seagram Building. Image via ArchDaily.
When the proposal was first unveiled in 2006, it was criticized by Phyllis Lambert, philanthropist and daughter of the late whiskey magnate Samuel Bronfman, who worked with Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram Building. She had fears about the proximity of Foster’s scheme to Mies’ bronze-clad masterwork, and expressed concerns about the new skyscraper’s proportions, declaring that the "engineering of such a tall, thin building [would be] problematic." Really?
First of all, the structural rationale of skyscrapers—however skinny—is the realm of engineers, and Foster + Partners are collaborating with the best in the world for this project. Second of all, the proportions of the skyscraper may just turn out to be one of the development’s greatest qualities. It rises from street level with simple elegance, displaying a height-to-width ratio that simultaneously complements and contrasts with Mies van der Rohe’s classic.
The future daytime and nighttime views of Foster's and Mies van der Rohe's neighboring constructions. Image via Design Boom.
Finally, the notion that proximity could be a valid basis for criticism in quarters as dense as New York City calls to mind another high-rise debate in London, where Ken Shuttleworth, lead designer on Foster’s very own 30 St. Mary Axe (affectionately known as "The Gherkin"), suggested that his self-declared masterpiece should be protected from encroaching development. Thankfully, Shuttleworth’s words were met with a healthy dose of skepticism—how can we hope to create architectural landmarks in the future if we wrap all of our existing icons in the cotton wool of conservatism? Phyllis Lambert’s broad-brush critique was likewise quelled, and 610 Lexington Avenue is being brought to fruition.
In the architectural melting pot that exists in every modern metropolis, proportions and proximity should never be the deciding factor as to whether or not a development is allowed to rise alongside more established neighbors. No, the two factors that should be held above all others are simple: function and quality. If a building fulfills the needs of its inhabitants and the quality promises both physical and aesthetic longevity, then the development should be given the go-ahead. So how does 610 Lexington Avenue hold up on these two vital factors?
Rendering of 610 Lexington Avenue, via the New York Post.
In terms of function, it is currently a case of supply and demand in Manhattan—many developers are investing heavily in high-end residential apartments as the post-recession market for such properties grows. Whether this speculation is well-founded will be debated for a long time to come, but for Foster + Partners, the task is simply to actualize the wishes of their client, RFR Realty: a luxury set of residential units for international businesspeople. Foster’s adoption of a slender footprint, combined with the fact that the many of the higher-level apartments will occupy the entire floor, makes it safe to predict that the goal of light, luxury living spaces will be comfortably achieved. The view shouldn’t be too shabby either!
Finally, when it comes to quality, Foster’s team have a pretty extraordinary track record—the finishes of projects such as 30 St. Mary Axe, the Reichstag Dome, and New York’s own Hearst Tower are a testament to the firm’s attention to detail. The Lexington Avenue residence demands an immaculate façade in order to match the majesty of Mies' bronze I-beams and autumnal glazing, and Foster’s sleek, gently undulating elevation treatment looks highly promising. Formally, the building functions as an extension of the Seagram, mimicking its rhythm of fenestration and cladding, without seeming in danger of descending into pastiche.
Upper levels of Foster's new construction. Image via Metalocus.
As pale imitations go, Foster + Partners have set a rather splendid precedent.
The protective instincts of Phyllis Lambert and others are completely understandable—there are far too many examples of mediocre development blighting skylines and obstructing views of treasured architectural landmarks, both ancient and modern. However, we must be brave when it comes to proposals within high-density, architecturally diverse urban zones like Manhattan; as long as the economic rationale for development is sound and the quality is right, investments in our cities should be encouraged, and with 610 Lexington Avenue, these requirements certainly seem to be fulfilled.
The Angry Architect