the grace and solow buildings
the bell-bottom skyscrapers
The 50 and 52-story, white travertine marble and black-tinted glass towers, respectively was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and was build between 1969-1974. Both building can be recognize as twins because there were designed with the same architectonic elements: the curved line of the base (the "bell bottom" shape), which increases the ascensorial impulse of both buildings. Both they have the same architectonic elements in the facade constituted by the bronzed-tinted glass and white-travertine marble curtain-wall facades. Nevertheless, the architectonic composition of both buildings differs significantly: while in the Grace the white marble dominates in its curtain-wall facade, in the Solow, the bronze glass dominate all the facade. These elements made of these buildings a first postmodernism pioneers.
Both buildings were point of controversy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, because its presence altered significantly the traditional composition of the zones that there was built: in the case of the Grace Building, its presence destroyed the traditional composition of limestone and Beaux Arts and Art-Deco elements of old Bryant Park old 1910's-1920's and 1930's skyscrapers, while the ultra-modernist of the Solow Building means the total destruction of the residential character of the West 57th Street District, when since 1970 many office buildings begun to rises up in the zone (888 Seventh Avenue Building and the new Squibb Building).
The history of two buildings begun in late 1960's.
The W.R. Grace Building: the monolith of Bryant Park.
The 50-story W.R. Grace Building at 41 West 42nd Street, was the last of the two buildings that be designed, in 1969, but it was of the first of the two buildings that be completed between late 1972 and early 1973. The building replaced a old 9-story Stern Brothers department store building.
According with Robert A.M. Stern (1997):
"In 1969 the Stern Brothers department store closed its flaship store (J. B. Snook & Sons) after fifty-six years on the block. Plans were immediately announced for its replacement, a fifty-story supeslab, the W.R. Grace Building, at 41 West Forty- second Street or 1114 Avenue of the Americas, extending to Sixth Avenue by virtue of a plaza at the southeast corner of Forty-third Street" (Stern, Robert A.M., Mellins, Thomas., Fishman, David. New York 1960. Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. New York. The Monacelli Press. 1997. Page 464). 0.
Construction works for the Grace Building begun with the demolition of the old Stern store building in the summer and autum of 1969 and excavation and foundations work continues between autum 1969 and spring of 1970. The building's steel structure begun to rise in May of 1970 and the 50-story steel structure was topped-out in March 1971. Facade works begun in the summer of 1971 and in the summer of 1972 the exterior was complete. The building were completed and dedicated in early 1973.
Midtown Manhattan looking north from Empire State Building in july 1966. The 9-story Stern Brothers Department Store (1913), on foreground (left), above the Bryant Park, occupied the site of the future Grace Building.
Night view of Midtown Manhattan looking north from the Empire State Building with the old Stern Brothers department store building on foreground on its last moments, in November 1968. In summer 1969, the building was demolished.
Night view of Midtown Manhattan skyline looking south from RCA Building. The building under construction that rises below the Empire State Building is the new Grace Building. December 1970.
Night view of Midtown Manhattan looking north from Empire State Building. January 1, 1971. The building under construction above Bryant Park (center) is the W.R. Grace Building.
The Grace Building rises up behind the New York Public Library. March 1971.
The Grace (foreground) and the Solow (background) buildings under construction, in April 1971. View from the Empire State Building looking north.
As designed by Gordon Bunsheft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the shape of the Grace Building closely resembled that of the firm's previously designed 9 West Fifty-seventh Street (Solow Building). But whereas 9 West could be defended as providing a desirable break in Fifty-seventh Street's relentless street wall, the Grace Building broke the wall where closure was most needed, opposite the formal parterre of Bryant Park. As Norval White and Elliot Willensky put it: 'An insult to the street, its swooping from nominally bows to zoning requirements for setbacks but was, in fact, an opportunity for some flashy architectural ego.' A similar assessment of the building's urbanism was expressed by Paul Goldberger, who said that, to the observer, both Grace and 9 West 'destroy the pleasurable effect of a wall of buildings, similarly scaled, aligned evenly along a dignified street. To the passerby, they replace the traditional pedestrian experience of small-scale shop windows with massive columns, which come down at an angle onto the sidewalk to support the curved facade.' According to Bunshaft, the curving walls allowed more floor space in the lower nineteen floors without having to interrupt the vertical sweep of the design by introcucing a setback -the very device that would have helped relate the building to its immediate context. Although the details of the Grace Building, including horizontal bands of windows on four sides, were a bit cruder than those of its uptown cousin, the new building nonetheless exhibited enough of the characteristic SOM finesse to pass as a distinguished if miscast effort. As at 9 West Fifty-seventh Street, travertine covered all surfaces that were not glass; but the facades of the Grace Building were structurally articulate, with a clear expression of stories and bays that made it seem more human in scale" (Stern. 1997. Pages 464-465).
According with Eric Nash (1999):
"The Grace Building's tapering facade, organized into seven rectangular, bronzed-glass window bays divided by travertine-covered piers, is always good for a double-take the first time someone sees it, but eventually passerby start to ignore it altogether -there is simply not enough going on here, beyond the fact that the illusion of concavity produced by towering vertical elements is exaggerated. Clasical architects employed entasis, a rounded swelling in the center of their columns, to counteract this illusion which is caused by the curvature of the human eyeball. The facade also makes use of the 'phantom square' optical illusion, in which grayish squares seem to appear at the intersection of the white lines. The interior blinds are set in special tracks so that they do not hang vertically and spoil the sweeping effect" (Nash, Eric. Manhattan Skyscrapers. New York. Princeton Architectural Press. Page 131).
The new Grace Building as seen from RCA Building, in May 1973. View of Midtown Manhattan looking south showing the 500 Fifth Avenue Building (left), the Empire State Building (center, at background) and the Grace Building (right).
Night view of the new Grace tower parcially illuminated from RCA Building with the Empire State Building. May 1973.
The new Grace Building (center, above Bryant Park) as seen from the Empire State Building. View of Midtown looking north. October 1973.
The Grace Building (right) from the Empire State Building. 1975.
In relation of its plaza, Stern (1997) says:
"Executives of W. R. Grace & Co. professed satisfaction with thw building, but from the first they were forced to admit that the plaza was a failure. It was a chillingly bare, football-field-sized expanse of travertine, punctuated with a planter and a bench, both also sheathed in travertine. Because it faced north, the plaza was shaded through many hours of the day; and because it was cut off from the building, which had no doors on to it, it quickly became a haven for layabouts. 'Next to Grace Plaza,' Goldberger wrote, 'the mediocre plazas in the new buildings a few blocks up the Avenue of the Americas, which at least try to serve human needs, seem almost uplifiting.' The plaza was so seriously flawed that simultaneous with the celebration of the building's completion, Grace announced a $10,000 student competition to develop a more appropiate design. Elevations and sketches were submitted by 187 students across the country. The first prize was awarded to Janis Eric Reiters, a student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, who called for a structural space-frame spanning the plaza to serves as a high-tech pergola. This was not bexecuted" (Stern. 1997. Page 465). The plaza was finally renewed until the 1990s.
The Solow Building, the monolithic sculpture.
The 52-story white-travertine and gray-tinted glass, Solow Building, at 9 West 57th Street, was the first of the two "bell-bottoms" Bunshaft supertowers that was designed, but it was the last tower to be completed. The Solow was a result of the modifications caused by 1961 Zoning regulations that permit the construction of office towers in the West 57th Street residential district (Plaza District). The new office buildings begun to rises since 1968, when construction works begun for the 888 Seventh Avenue Building, and continues with the new 36-story Squibb Building that was built between 1971-1973.
The adventure of the Solow Building was begun since 1962, when the Mormon temple was proyected a 38-story office building for was schedule for build in the site of the future Solow Building, but the project was not executed. Neverless, the land, in these time was occupied by several old 19th Century old residential buildings, was increasse its value and the speculative activity, that was stimulated by the modification of land use, according with the new 1961 Zoning requirements, on 57th Street, considering, during the mid 1960s, the posibility of building a great office building in the site.
Finally, in 1968, Gordon Bunshaft, the master architect of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, announce the plan for build a new 50-story supertower on the site of 9 West 57th Street: the Solow Building was conceived.
According with Robert A.M. Stern (1997):
"Begun on 1968, but not completed until 1974, 9 West Fifty-seventh Street occupied a 62,000-square-foot site that ran through to Fifty-eighth Street, incorporating the unused air rights over the Paris Theater and replacing among others the six-story loft building at 26 West Fifty-eighth Street that housed Paul Rudolph's spectacular architectural office. Designed by Gordon Bunshaft, 9 West was the most provocative shaped skyscraper New York had ever seen (after the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center). The swooping, taperd slab had north- and south-facing walls sheathed in gray-tinted glass and sloping inward from a wide base to a more slender top, and end walls sheated in travertine, relieve by a broad vertical window band crissscrossed by exposed diagonal structural bracing. The structure itself was lifted on columns to form a false arcade behind which shops would be located. Two additional shopping levels were to be located below grade and connected to street level by escalators. The building was set back thirty-six feet from West Fifty-seventh Street on a travertine plaza and forty nine behind a parklet along West Fifty-eighth Street, dramatically breaking with the street-defining building wall. Because it rose so high above its neighbors and broke free of the city's traditional urbanism, it was seen by many observers as an act of unbridled architectural arrogance" (Stern. 1997. Page 503. The spells under parenthesis and in cursives, are mine).
Stern (1997) continues:
"Popularly described as a glass ski jump, 9 West was also referred to as one of the 'bell-bottoms,' together with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Grace Building. Bunshaft argued that his design was the result of a direct reading of the zoning code: it filled the xoning envelope yet avoided the conventional ziggurat massing of most buildings by smooting out the setbacks into a continous curve that followed the angle of the sky exposure plane. But as the editors of Progressive Architecture argued shortly after the design was released, Bunshaft's solution was 'facile,' a demostration of a 'block-buster approach to architecture.' Using zoning as his justification, Bunshaft was in fact following a pattern that had its origins in the work of Corbusier-inspired Modernists of the 1930s and, more recently, in C.F. Murphy's First National Bank Building in Chicago, which was nearing completion as work on 9 West began" (Stern. 1997. Fragment).
The Solow Building under construction, behind the Plaza Hotel. View from Central Park's The Bond lake. April 1971.
In these areal view of Midtown Manhattan from Central Park, that was taking, in October of 1972, the Solow Building was the building near completion that appear behind the Plaza Hotel. Photo: TIME & LIFE.
Demolition works begun on the site in late 1968 and by the spring of 1969, the site was cleared. Excavation and foundation works begun in late 1969 and continues during the first months of 1970. The building begun to rises in the summer of 1970 and the 52-story steel skeleton of the building was topped-out in the summer of 1971. In late 1971 works for the building's facade was begun and the building was complete in the summer of 1973. But it was open until early 1974.
The 52-story Solow Building (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. 1969-1974). Night view. July 1974.
The new and empty Solow Building (center) as seen from RCA Building in May 1973. View looking north showing the General Motors Building (right).
Building elevation. Photo: -aenima-. Flickr.com. Link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/-aenima...n/photostream/
When the building was open, in 1974, public reaction was varied: according with Stern (1997):
"Wallace K Harrison felt that 'the sloping wall comes very naturally -it gives a smooth line that appears to give added height by dissapearing perspective.' Henry Cobb, the partner in I. M. Pei's firm who specialized in the design of tall office buildings, and who had experimented with a slope-walled approach in his design for the New York Stock Exchange, which served as another influence on Bunshaft, contended that 'tapered buildings have a very strong, hostile and aggressive visual impact in the psychological sense and architects should consider the feelings of the amn in the street'. Jaquelin Robertson was a particularly outspoken critic of the bell-botton approach: 'The rather odd-knife-shape of the slope leaves horrible scars on the face of the party walls of the adjoing building'" (Stern. 1997. Page 504). Ada Louis Huxtable says that the building as "a hardbinger of a negative btrend at the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill" (Stern. 1997. Fragment), considering that "'the basic fact is that the firm's practitioners are singlemindedly intent on the building as a monument, or a splendid piece of a technology, with near-total blindness to its enviromental side effects, which are often disastrous'" (Stern. 1997. Fragment).
Stern (1997) continues:
"In 1974, (...) when Sheldon Solow, developter of the 9 West (and who gives the name of the Solow Building), was informed by the Fifth Avenue Asssociation that his building had 'urban bad manners', he replied that it 'may have bad manners but it has good foresight,' explaining: ' In twenty years that whole block will be developed at this scale and I think my buiilding will set the standard'" (Stern. 1997. Fragment. The spechs on cursives are mine).
But, in fact, the Solow Building has a great real estate sucess: the cosmetic firm Avon Products, Inc. "agreeing to leasse 500,000 of its 1.5 million square feet of office space before construction begun" (Stern. 1997. Fragment) , and it was occupied few months before the official opening of the building, in 1973. Perhaps, the building was turn to be an Pop icon, when in 1974, the graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff created a big sculpture of red-orange nine "9", that turn to be a reference of the building.
The red-orange "9" marked the entrance of the 9 West 57th Street Building. Photo: ho-hokus. Flickr.com. Link
Midtown Manhattan looking north from Empire State Building in September 1974 showing the Grace (left at foreground) and the Solow (center, at background, behind the RCA and International buildings) buildings.
Next week, a 1974 special about the last building of the Rockefeller Center: The Celanesse Buiding.
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