The ‘666’ Skyscraper That Could Sink the Kushners

March 13, 2018

Whatever his other flaws as a human being, Jared Kushner is surely afflicted with Skyscraper Envy.

Like his father-in-law the president, Kushner wants his own tower—as big as it can possibly be.

The story of that tower, 666 Fifth Ave., hangs over the fate of the Kushner real estate empire like a curse. It is also part of a great and continuing American saga of how the modern skyline of cities is shaped by a handful of men of genius and others who, in contrast, just see the skyscraper as a way to fill the sky with a money machine.

In the early 1950s Midtown Manhattan seemed ripe for a new boom in high-rise real estate, picking up again from the decade before World War II when three iconic architectural achievements had given New York the most dynamic urban skyline in the world: in 1930 the Chrysler Building with its spiked tip looking like a Buck Rogers rocket; in 1931, the world’s tallest building, the Empire State Building; and the massive Rockefeller Center between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, a multi-tower complex completed in 1939.

Rockefeller Center had, thanks to the largesse of the Rockefeller family, been built to lift American spirits as a counter-punch to the ravages of the Great Depression. Now, after the war, with many European cities in ruins, many of the architects who bore in their minds a dream of what the metropolis of the future should look like, were drawn to America.

None was more visionary or more regarded as a founding hand in shaping the city of the future—or, as it was often described, the city of the Machine Age—than Mies van der Rohe.

Mies (as he was always known) was one of a cadre of architects who fled Nazi Germany when their progressive ideas nurtured at the legendary Bauhaus design school were, like all modern art, dismissed as decadent.

When he came to America Mies went not to New York but to the city where Louis Sullivan gave birth to the skyscraper in the 1890s, the city regarded as the most creatively sympathetic host to modernism in the world: Chicago. In his first buildings there, two 26-story apartment towers, Mies instantly became to modern architecture what Steve Jobs became later to the cellphone: He stripped the form down to the pure essentials of function and, in doing so, created a singular, austere beauty.

The technique he used, in which the glass is hung on a steel frame, known as a curtain wall, had been used in the late 1940s by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer for the United Nations building on New York’s East River, but Mies had suggested it much earlier in sketches made at the Bauhuas and in Chicago he refined it with a finesse that was mimicked in many future towers, but rarely as well.

However, it was in New York where Mies would produce his masterwork. The Canadian Bronfman family, owners of the Seagram distillers corporation, chose a site on Park Avenue between 52nd Street and 53rd streets for a new headquarters and Mies, working directly with Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of the Seagram CEO, Samuel Bronfman, produced what was, at $41 million, the world’s most expensive skyscraper at the time, the 38-story Seagram Building.

When I first saw it, soon after its completion, I was gobsmacked. A cold winter light invested the bronze exterior with a kind of warm inner glow. There were far fewer towers in Midtown Manhattan then and the Seagram Building, seeming modest in height now, stood out with its perfect scale, like a celebratory stele staking out its ground to prove the peculiar beauty of steel and glass in a way that had not been achieved before.

At the same time, virtually across the street on Park Avenue, between 53rd and 54th streets, a Buffalo-born American architect, Gordon Bunshaft, a fan of the Bauhaus, had seized the chance to build his own version of the same austere modernism, again with an enlightened sponsor, the president of the British-based soap empire, Lever Brothers. Lever House combined a 21-story curtain-walled tower (the glass was green-tinted) with a single story block-long base that enclosed a piazza. Like the Seagram Building, it was an instant classic of modernism.

Mies and Bunshaft had both done something that was anathema to developers who wanted to squeeze every dollar out of a site. Their towers took up less than half the air space that could have been used according to the zoning laws—in order to create impeccably proportioned skyscrapers that were set back from the street line and, at the same time, airy public spaces at street level (the Seagram Building’s plaza and fountains appear in the movie that, more than any other, romances Midtown Manhattan of the period, Breakfast at Tiffanys.)

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