On Sunday 23rd June, Charlotte and I had the pleasure of attending an Architectural tour hosted by the AIA. This comprised incredible and historic buildings near the South-East section of Central Park, whose unique architecture and construction are deemed monumental, and are the foundations for many buildings that followed. Of course, to begin our day, we consumed exorbitant amounts of coffee as we were still jet-lagged from our flight the previous day!
Our meeting point was the Pulitzer Fountain, which is across from several extremely well-known landmarks; The Plaza Hotel, Grand Army Plaza and of course Central Park. Our guide was a gentleman who worked both part-time for Snøhetta and for the AIA NYC Chapter. He was extremely knowledgeable, as one would expect from an Architectural professional, of both his field and the buildings on the tour.
The first portion of the route involved the viewing of several of the buildings we were going to see from the plaza, as many are so high it’s a strain on your neck to stand beneath them and look straight up! In describing these buildings initially from afar, he also educated us on building and zoning regulations. This gave us a better insight as to why so many buildings in NYC have a compressed structure that starts off using the entire plot but ends up so skinny near the top. This was due to the 1916 Zoning Resolution that was put in place to ensure that buildings would no longer restrict both light and air from reaching streets below. The major reason was the development of 120 Broadway, the Equitable Building in Lower Manhattan that maintained the same circumference from bottom to top. Following the implementation of the Resolution, for buildings to be constructed at such a high scale, they had to adhere to certain setbacks as they became taller. Therefore, a building could use the majority of the plot at the bottom but had to have a total reduction of 25% (which could include multiple setbacks) of the plot or building structure. This then ensured a building could be constructed as high as required. This is also why some buildings are not symmetrical all around but instead have seemingly random setbacks throughout the exterior structure.
It wasn’t until 1961 that this was altered to a new standard known as the floor area ratio (FAR), which no longer required setbacks but imposed restrictions on the entire structural floor area. This meant that buildings could be built incredibly high so long as they did not exceed a certain floor area ratio and could also receive bonus FAR allowance if the building put public open space adjacent to, or in, their buildings.
For these two reasons, you will see a vast distinction between the eras of building in New York City; extremely tall buildings with a shrinking top structural point, very wide but short buildings and incredibly tall but extremely narrow buildings.
We saw so many buildings that it would take pages to go through them all, so I’ll restrict my account to only the most significant (although they are all significant)!
The Pierre is one such building; located at 2 East 61st Street, it was designed by Schultze & Weaver as a luxury hotel standing 525 feet tall (41 floors). Originally accommodating 714 rooms, it was opened in 1930. In 1981 it was designated as a Historic Landmark and is both famous and infamous for several reasons. The topmost floors are modelled after Mansart’s Royal Chapel at Versailles, which gives it a unique and easily recognisable exterior roof. In 1972 it was the scene of the largest and most successful hotel robbery in history, which was organised by the Lucchese crime family. Currently housing 589 guest accommodations, pricing varies between $825 – $4,900 per night.
Directly across from us was the General Motors Building; a 50-storey, 705-foot office tower that is one of only a few structures that occupy an entire city block in Manhattan. Currently, the building is appraised at an impressive $4.8 billion with rents typically exceeding $100 per square foot. The building was completed in 1968 and has since had numerous owners including Donald Trump.
In the background, we could see 432 Park Avenue; a 1,396-foot-tall residential skyscraper overlooking Central Park. It is comprised of 88 floors, each 8,255 square feet in total, and housing 125 condominium apartments. The building was designed by renowned architect Rafael Viñoly and is the third-tallest building in the USA, the tallest residential building in the world and the second-tallest building in New York City, beaten only by One World Trade Center. What is interestingly unique about the building is that every 12 floors, 2 floors are completely empty and open to the elements. This was designed to alleviate swaying as wind can flow easily through these sections, similar to the function of a wind tunnel. On top of the building are two tuned mass dampers, which also are placed to reduce building sway so that the residents don’t suffer from motion sickness!
We saw the two Berdorf Goodman Stores; a luxury department store comprised of two buildings on Fifth Avenue directly across from one another. Nearby is the LVMH Tower, also known as the Luis Vuitton building. It is an extremely elegant and unique building due to the milky, see-through façade comprised of an ultra-clear, low-iron glass exterior.
We also got to see inside the ‘new’ Fuller Building, not to be confused with the original one, which is now known as the Flatiron Building. The Fuller Building is located on the corner of Madison Avenue and East 57th Street and was built for the Fuller Construction Company in 1929. Although pictures are forbidden, the inside is breathtaking. It is uniquely and richly decorated with marble walls, bronze detailing, mosaic floors and was intended to demonstrate and identify with the company, who are builders and engineers.
We concluded our day with a unique building designed by the late Paul Rudolph: the Modulightor Building. Tucked away at 246 East 85th Street, it is the last publicly accessible masterpiece designed by Paul. We saw so many buildings and learned so much that I could write a book! We could not have spent a better 2 hours that day and look forward to going on many more of the tours offered by the AIA throughout New York City.
(Kevin Bailey’s account of the tour.)