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February 12, 2004

Virtual Architecture?

Dear Friedrich --

Is it real or is it Memorex?

Some facts about Time Warner's new headquarters, the latest glassy behemoth to open in Manhattan.

  • It's located on Columbus Circle where Robert Moses' Coliseum used to be.
  • Development of the site took 20 years.
  • Construction was completed in about four years.
  • It cost $1.8 billion, and has 2.8 million square feet of space.
  • It's got twin 80-story towers.
  • It was designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
  • It is or will be home to CNN, some of the Time-Warner offices, a shopping mall, a supermarket, a health club, a hotel, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
  • Ricky Martin owns a condo in the building.
  • An Englishman paid $45 million for the building's snazziest penthouse.
  • The building has three below-ground garages with room for more than 500 cars.

Questions about the building:

  • Will it suceed as a retail destination? Will New Yorkers take to indoor-mall style shopping? Will they do so even if the mall is seven floors up and down? "Vertical shopping" is what it's being called, and no one is certain it'll work.
  • Will the building manage to draw pedestrians and shoppers to Columbus Circle? It's an area that for a long time has been a nowheresville -- someplace you hurried through to get elsewhere.

Mary Reinholz in New York Newsday, here, does a good job of telling the whole story. For unintended laughs, the NYTimes' so-called "architecture critic" Herbert Muschamp never disappoints. (His piece costs money to see, so no link.) Here's Muschamp in full flight:

It is good to see Skidmore, Owings & Merrill back in the business of piling up big chunks of quartz. Stone was never this firm's strength. Ten Columbus Circle does ample penance for the opaque minerals Skidmore deployed so extravagantly during its neo-Art Deco phase. There's some flame-pattern gray granite at the building's base, but it's there mainly for contrast with the giant cluster of glass crystals, which appears to have been quarried from the sky.

Whatever he's on, I want some.

Twinkle, twinkle, great big atrium
Photo by Dith Pran

My reaction: working in the neighborhood, I had a chance to watch the Time Warner headquarters go up. And under construction, the building looked awful; a friend of mine was in the habit of referring to it as "Death Star architecture."

Now that it's open it doesn't seem offensive. I've visited the building a few times since it opened last week. I strolled around it, and I joined the curious mobs checking out the shopping mall inside. It isn't a nightmare, and it has its cyber-chic. Although the face it presents to 58th Street looks made of tarpaper and broken-bone-style beams, the building fronts Columbus Circle more invitingly than I expected.

As a built objet d'art -- I think of these new torqued-and-twinkly office buildings as avant-garde perfume bottles -- the Time Warner headquarters is effectively shimmery. It's full of newish materials -- post-halogen pinpoint lights; metal panels that iridesce; translucent Imac-style plastics; fashionable, anxiety-provoking acute angles clad in whatever it is they make CDs of ... Everything seems to blend, warp, interprenetrate, glow, reflect and refract. Even the atrium's floor is an extravaganza of richocheting effects.

Overall, the shopping zone is like an upscale mall crossed with an Apple Store: a new-style, consumerist/media utopia, in other words. The crowds seemed happy to be there; the crowds in Whole Foods, the place's big, first-class grocery store, seemed considerably more than that. New Yorkers, eh? Foodies every one of them.

What I found most striking about the place was how much walking through it was like taking a virtual tour of it. Model and reality seemed one; it's half building, half TV logo -- a computer simulation of itself. Not my kind of thing, god knows, but impressive in its own right and not without a certain shifting, spinning glamor.

Question: how much does the form of an artwork depend on the material in which it was conceived and roughed out? The Time Warner building, which seems like a CAD representation of itself, was no doubt largely conceived and designed in CAD.

Interesting architecture-world factlet, by the way: did you know that one of the reasons classical buildings look as solid as they do is because architects and builders of the time took shadows into account? All those ridges and pilasters, all those recessed windows -- they're there partly to help the sun demonstrate how thick and massive the structure is. And did you know that one of the reasons so many modernist and avant-garde buildings look shallow and bleak is that 20th century architects fell out of the habit of taking sun and shadow into account? (Except perhaps on the macro scale, along the lines of: for how many hours a day is this tower going to stand between the sun and that park?) Modernist architects think in terms of planes, edges, flatness, surfaces, etc; they think more like graphic designers than like traditional architects.



UPDATE: Felix Salmon visits the Time Warner headquarters here. Manhattan Users Guide pans the mall and the stores here.

posted by Michael at February 12, 2004


Muschamp's article can be found for free here, while my thoughts can be found here.

My question: 7 stories? There's Whole Foods, below ground. There's a double-height ground floor, a floor above that with Borders on it, and a floor above that with smaller shops and Cafe Gray. Above that is the restaurant floor. That's five stories, tops, four if you don't include the restaurants. Or are you including not only the restaurants but also the health club and the parking garage?

Posted by: Felix on February 12, 2004 08:12 PM

I don't know, really. Seven stories doesn't sound right, but the Newsday article refers to "seven tiers," which is what I'm relying on. Thanks for the links.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 13, 2004 12:47 AM

Hmmm, somehow this post and the previous one intertwined in my head and it got me thinking - should I go and try to buy close-to-real butter in that fancy supermarket?...Naaa, according to Felix, much too much confusion and wasted time for a miserable chunk of butter.

To subject - didn't form an opinion since didn't see it yet.

A note aside, though - Michael, 95% of all commercial architectural documentation is done on CAD now (I have two drawings opened simult. on my screen while I'm typing this) and it's not exactly what you use as a tool, but what you do with said tool that matters for the result. Classical detail will look quite sharp in CAD, and there are commands allowing the designer to project shadows for a certain geographical location, season, time of the day and view point. What matters is the concept; obviously, the concept of Lever House is different one from, say, baroque cathedral. If office policy would allow, I'd mail to you an elevation one of my coworkers did of the Thayer Hotel in West Point- complete with turrets, contrforces and such and look astonishing in CAD.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 13, 2004 05:20 PM

Tatyana -- I spent an hour in the new Whole Foods and suspect their butter is darned good. Everything looked terrific, though The Wife has told me that in her experience, while Whole Foods is superbrilliant at presentation, the food itself is merely excellent. But excellent I can live with.

As for tools: you're certainly right that it all depends on what you do with them. And why not use CAD to model turrets, etc? But people don't tend to, so I still suspect the tool used has an impact on the product produced. Movies made digitally are different creatures than those made traditionally, writing in the word-processing age has quite a different feeling than it did when it was a more laborious task, etc.

But you've got the expertise, and I'd love to learn more. Is it a coincidence that so many recent buildings (and interiors) look like they were created for "Toy Story"? And are illuminated by computer light (a la "Toy Story") rather than natural light?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 13, 2004 05:30 PM

IMHO, of course, (and I can picture David Sucher ROFL sarcastically),
The interiors looking like they were created for a "Toy story" were concieved to look such, probably to satisfy a client.
This is how the methodology goes: (and I just passed my national license exams, so I am an authority)
first stage of the design project is Programming. Designer is obligated (under the good practice standards) to ask numerous questions in order to clarify client's expectations (usually illegible and unfocused), formulate concept for the client to review, comment and eventually agree on; and based on the above, provide the client with Design Intent document.
Next step will be more detailed "tuning" in order to get scope of work and after that to Preliminary Contract, - so on, so on.
What I am saying, in commercial situation it is very rear that designer is given total cart blanche to "create on a whim". Every tiny step along the way, from questioning to Programming to Scope to Schematics to Design Developement to actual Contract Documents (drawings and material selection)to Contract Administration are derived from consultation with the client.
This is one of the differences between Interior Designers and Architects: we are obligated by law "to provide for wellfare and safety of the public", first and foremost. Aesthetics come later (or don't come at all, if client has other priorities)
I am going to speculate now, but I think if the interior of the TWC looks as you describe, it was probably programmed according to client goal to attract the most desirable spending market group, which i assume in 20-50 age bracket and who think everything digital is cool.
So, shoot me, I am a material girl - no mystical qualities in CAD itself, look at the market forces behind.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 13, 2004 06:08 PM

seven levels of retail? reminds me very much of Water Tower Place in Chicago.

And there's no captive population at WTP - although it's right across the street from the Hancock Center, everyone there has to go outside and cross the street.

Posted by: xfrosch on February 13, 2004 09:21 PM

Xfrosch -- Thanks for the link to the Water Tower Place. These oddball urban experiments, huh? Is Water Tower Place popular? Does it work in some sense? I was under the impression that enclosed downtown malls weren'te doing well, but I could be a few years out of date on that impression.

As Felix points out, 7 stories of retail doesn't seem right at Time Warner -- when you're there, you're aware of four flights, three up and one down. But the literature on the place keeps referring to "7 tiers." Are they counting garages? Are they counting every level the elevator stops at? Who knows. But really it seems like four. Still, it's an indoor shopping mall, much like what you'd run into in many high-end suburbs, if with a little something of Milan's Galleria Vittore Emanuelle about it too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 14, 2004 12:41 PM

Based on one walk-through of Time-Warner yesterday on the way elsewhere, I question any resemblance to Milan's Galleria. That has one at least & I'd guess several cafes right there as you walk through where you can sit & have the usual Italian cafe stuff at no greater expense than elsewhere, can linger for ages over just a coffee, protected from the elements but still in a sidewalk cafe, watching the world go by. What a happy memory. Is there any relatively reasonable cafe anywhere in Time-Warner?

Posted by: Susan on February 14, 2004 06:01 PM

Susan -- I question it too, and never would have guessed it. The architect mentioned the connection in some statement I ran across, though, and then I did glimpse it a bit. If you walk in from 58th street, the arching, bending walkway's got just a touch of it. Or so I fooled myself into thinking for a few secs...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 14, 2004 06:46 PM

Okay, next time I'll enter from 58th St & be content with virtual food.
Did you ever see the Galleria in Naples? There's a novel about it: The Gallery by a one-book author (I think) John Horne Burns.

Posted by: Susan on February 15, 2004 01:21 PM

If the Herald Square development on the former site of Gimbel's is any indication, this will be a disaster. Of course, it has always been somewhat downmarket, but only because no one twee would touch it and it has been drifting down since it opened. A shopping "district" without a neighborhood, without foot traffic, bearing NYC retail taxes. Five years there'll be a Target in there.

Posted by: Mike Hill on February 16, 2004 10:26 PM

Um, I might be missing something here, but does Milan's Galleria bend? I thought it was all straight lines, at least on the horizontal level, like the Burlington Arcade in London. And I see no similarities between TWC and the Milan Galleria either.

Susan's also got a very good point about the cafe situation. Basically, you can reserve months in advance for Fine Dining; you can descend into Whole Foods for the food court experience (where you have to line up to pay for your salad-bar purchases with everybody buying groceries, and then eat them at very uncomfortable seats), or you can grab a coffee in a paper cup, and little else, at the Dean & Deluca franchise in the Borders upstairs. Nothing on ground level at all.

Posted by: Felix on February 17, 2004 10:23 AM

As far as I can recall my Retail Design class (and a little from briefly working at Federated) here we have a different retail philosophy at play.
The idea is the opposite of providing customers with means of lingering at the deli table or promenading or even sitting comfortably for hours with your coffee, eyeing the crowd. The management don't need to project visual image of popularity, they already anticipated big numbers of visitors (f.ex., see figures from the link by xfrosch above). The name of the game is CHURN.
That's why, I think, the chairs are uncomfortable: buy, eat and leave ASAP.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 17, 2004 12:28 PM


You're right about shadow, but it's part of something bigger. Namely, traditional architecture not only looks like it has weight, it looks like it respects the the forces of gravity -- i.e., things hold things up. While slick buildings like Time Warner are designed to look weightless. Look at the transparent piece on the corner of 58th Street for example. And clearly the glass is like wallpaper, hung off the building rather than holding itself up. Most masonry towers built in New York after 1880 or so also hang the skin off the structure, but if they're built before 1940, they don't LOOK that way.

We respond differently to buildings with mass and weight than to weightless buildings. Look at the skyline the next time you come over the Queensboro Bridge, and you'll clearly see a difference between the stone city and the glass city.

Stone buildings also hold the space of the street better than glass buildings. That's magnified by the horizontality of the skin of most Modern buildings -- also bad for containing the street. It's much easier to make a good street with a masonry building with vertical windows than with a glass building or sleek glass and metal building with ribbon windows.

Last but not least, did you notice that 58th Street next to the Time Warner center is wider than it used to be? Someone is making new city streets too wide -- look at Battery Park City and the proposed standards for the WTC site. Combine all that with the mall that pulls all the stores off 58th Street and you have a pretty bad streetscape there. A New Yorker like David Childs should know better.


Posted by: john massengale on July 9, 2004 08:10 AM

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