words Bill Millard
Some time after mid-century New York became modernism’s graveyard.
The vibrancy of the machine aesthetic fell foul of the real estate market some 30 to 40 years ago. But if modernism is a bounded historical movement – in other words, if it died – then what are modernist buildings doing rising up in Manhattan?
The Hearst Corporation headquarters, Foster and Partners’ first major intervention in this city, is leading a parade of new structures that redefine modernism as an adaptation to harsh new conditions. This may be a zombie modernism, but it stalks the skyline with the energy of a credible monster.
The Hearst Tower is premised on a core modernist principle: a faith that architectural innovation can catalyse broader social improvements. Even if its fusion of a sleekly faceted tower with an Art Deco-ish base suggests a postmodern hybrid, its program and philosophy are unapologetically modernist; it is spearheading an effort to reanimate modernism under the rubric of sustainable design. The critical difference is that this isn’t an optimist’s futurism, eyes lifted toward utopia. It’s a futurism for staving off dystopia, a green neo-modernism for the infinite emergency dead ahead.
Foster has taken the six-storey structure that Joseph Urban built to house William Randolph Hearst’s publishing empire in 1928 (and which was originally designed to support a skyscraper that the Depression precluded) and grafted onto it a dramatic angular tower that makes no attempt to communicate with its base. Urban’s building was landmarked in 1988, so simply replacing it was never an option, but the tower strikes a provocative dissonance with its pedestal. Project architect Michael Wurzel emphasizes that separating the old and new segments was a conscious choice. Rather than paper over its internal contradictions, the Hearst trumpets them. The tower appears to have either erupted volcanically through Urban’s building or landed on it like a hovercraft. Either way, the message is that organic harmony between eras is a sentimental pipe dream – as if to say, “Here’s the future, which won’t resemble the Jazz Age in the slightest. Deal with it.”
What strikes some observers as visual violence can also be interpreted as improvisatory skill. The Hearst’s signature feature, its diagrid of four-storey triangular beams, was developed in response to an unwelcome surprise. To create unified office spaces allowing maximal light exposure and striking views to more employees, Wurzel and colleagues moved the structural core from its conventional central position to the rear of the floorplates. However, the off-center core was unstable under wind forces, so the practice responded with a frame of inherently steady triangular forms for support. Engineering analyses showed that the diagrid would require 20 per cent less steel than an orthogonal frame, with no vertical columns. This solution typifies the project: a frugal use of resources and a nod to Foster’s mentor Buckminster Fuller. The gesture isn’t as explicit as Foster’s domes for the Reichstag and the British Museum, but the reference to Fuller’s Spaceship Earth is unmistakable.
Inside the atrium, the chutzpah of the grafted facades yields to a calmer tone. Urban’s base has been hollowed out, serving as a skin around a vast space brightened by clerestory windows and glass roofing. Beneath a huge Richard Long mural, angled escalators lead past a water feature, cascading over a sloping surface to cool and humidify the space, contributing both literal and metaphorical atmosphere. Construction was far from complete when I toured the interior, but even with building materials strewn about and stray pigeons trapped inside, this space offered a palpable sense of sanctuary. The office floors feature daylight-harvesting and motion-sensor-controlled lighting, low-emission glass, carbon dioxide monitoring to control air quality, and high-speed fibe-optic data lines. “Smart” elevators use lobby-level external keypads (a Bond-villain-lair detail that makes journeys more efficient). Corner offices set at 45° angles along the “birdsmouth” cutaway panels offer the city’s only true panoramic views.
For all its external mineral glimmer, the Hearst functions as an ecosystem, with exacting attention to the environmental implications of material selection and resource management. It is expected to receive a gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating, the US Green Building Council’s second-highest level, and to be 22% more energy-efficient than ordinary towers. Conservation strategies include rainwater collection and re-use, water-based heat control under the lobby floor and high-reflectivity roofing pavers and sidewalks to reduce heat absorption.
When planning began in 2000, the consensus held that sustainable design is priced out of Manhattan, but the Hearst team’s discoveries (if early measurements and projections are realistic) refute that assumption and set a proof-of-concept precedent. Efficiencies over the building’s life cycle will more than offset initial “green premium” costs, establishing a business incentive to choose greener features, at least for buildings with long-term owner occupancy.
If the political brouhaha over Ground Zero’s Freedom Fortress – pardon me, Freedom Tower – is discounted as a special case, the Hearst may be New York’s most polarizing building in decades. Which is a good thing. American architecture can always use debate about core principles, and the Hearst is already generating plenty of it among New Yorkers. Some applaud its unorthodox angles and brightly reflective beams; some wish it were taller, finding its profile intriguing but stumpy; some have rejected it immediately, comparing it to a lava lamp or a “geodesic sock puppet.” Its diagrid and birdsmouth panels bring sculptural variety and ever-changing reflection patterns to west midtown, a welcome relief from boxiness and Times Square kitsch, but its simplicity and symmetry minimise subtleties; there are no high-resolution details to reward a long, close gaze.
What it does offer, I think, is a vision of modern design as a matter of urgency, not a lark. In an anti-utopian era, a new machine-as-ecosystem aesthetic is a wake-up call for a nation that lags painfully behind its peers in environmental practices. A host of new NYC towers – including Renzo Piano and FxFowle’s New York Times headquarters, Cook and Fox’s 1 Bryant Park, and FxFowle’s pre-LEED-era Condé Nast building – employ comparable strategies. The acid test will be whether these buildings help fuse the corporate clients’ avowed green commitments with their business activities. Recalling Bucky Fuller’s forms is one thing, implementing his warnings about impending eco-disaster is another.
The Hearst is both a product for a corporate client and a broader experiment attempting to confront global ecological problems through design. The tension between these identities helps generate its interest and its influence. It’s worth remembering that the Hearst Corporation is an ideology producer, promoting high-consumption attitudes (the flagship magazines include Cosmopolitan and Esquire) just as William Randolph Hearst’s papers once promoted warfare. Being inside a tightly integrated eco-topian tower may or may not stimulate the company to reflect on the agendas of its core activity. At a minimum, though, the Hearst obliterates complacency, among employees and observers alike. In its best moments, it provokes contemplation of the sharp contrast between the internal sanctuary it carefully engineers and the eco-chaos outside.
Modernism should have thrived in the nation whose industrial vigour did so much to inspire the machine aesthetic in the first place. Fully fledged modernism, however, meant a faith not only in technology and clean lines but in socio-political progress. A modernism decoupled from utopian impulses should be a self-contradiction, but in many respects, that’s what Americans got. There is, in America, a peculiar bias against any social engineering other than the kind routinely and ruthlessly performed by corporations. We Yanks have been more receptive to innovative form in cars than in buildings. With a national self-image as already-exceptionalist-bordering-on-utopian, the US never quite bought the modernist programme. The impulse to design our way towards a brave new world could take breathtaking forms here; its expressions could also be piecemeal, watered-down, comical or decadent. Instead of well-planned infrastructure and public works, we got corporate minimalism, turning the elegant abstractions of Mies, Le Corbusier and Gropius into cautious, replicable, cost-effective clichés; we got downmarket biomorphic West Coast futurism, all too easily deprecated with campy categorisations like Googie or Raygun Gothic; and in New York’s surprisingly rigid building climate (where, in Carol Willis’ incisive phrase, “form follows finance”), we got excuses about cash flow, and the anaerobic boxes proliferated like cockroaches (appropriately, the New York variety of this insect is called Blatta germanica).
With its green sincerity and its willingness to offend, the Hearst elicits none of these complaints, nor the winking prefix “post-” that has colonised several decades’ worth of modern designs. Now, form again appears to be following function (and with the post-peak-petroleum era approaching and the hyper-consumption culture finally recognised as dysfunctional, it had better). If this was a modernist revival with a naive faith in the power of design to influence political will, then Marx’s line about events recurring “the second time as farce” would be appropriate. But a chastened, disciplined, darker neo-modernism is taking shape here. Spaceship Hearst, perhaps its clearest exemplar to date, is one of many reasons these are bracing days to watch New York rebuild itself.