Plans were recently announced for a chic 30-story glass tower by starchitect Norman Foster in Manhattan's Upper East Side Historic District. It will rise sheer atop the 1950 Parke-Bernet Gallery building on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th Streets. We at ICA&CA feel it is wholly inappropriate for a historic district, wholly inappropriate as an addition to the Parke-Bernet Gallery, and above all that dastardly thing: a horrible precedent. Back in the 1970s, the Penn Central Corporation proposed a massive Marcel Breuer-designed skyscraper to be built atop Grand Central Terminal. When New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission forbade it, Penn Central sued the City of New York on the grounds that landmark designation amounted to an unconstitutional taking of property rights. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court in Washington, where a wise court determined otherwise. We will grant that the Parke-Bernet building is not exactly Grand Central Terminal. But the principle holds. For many of us, historic districts are more important than individual landmarks. If we allow this Foster tower to be built, then exceptions will have to be made all over the place. Then we can kiss the whole concept of "historic district" goodbye. It's a concept that many elite forces in New York would love to see trashed, as the city indulges a riot of overbuilding and inappropriate interventions the likes of which we have not seen since the advent of the Landmarks Law in 1965. Does anyone doubt that many culturally influential voices in New York would not today approve the Breuer tower above Grand Central? If that thought horrifies you, as it should, then we must draw the line somewhere, and the Foster tower on Madison Avenue is an excellent place to draw that line.
What follows is a letter to Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman Robert Tierney written by architect Peter Pennoyer and architectural historian Anne Walker. Peter is an ICA&CA trustee and Anne is one of our Fellows. Together they have written two magisterial monographs, one on Delano & Aldrich and one on Warren & Wetmore, that have filled crucial gaps in our understanding of New York's architectural history. We publish their letter with their permission. Although they did not write their letter as representatives of ICA&CA, it expresses our sentiments exactly.
October 10, 2006
Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street
New York, NY 10007
Re: 980 Madison Avenue
Dear Chairman Tierney:
As a practicing architect and an architectural historian, we are writing in opposition to Sir Norman Foster’s proposed design for 980 Madison Avenue. Through our experience designing in the Upper East Side historic districts as well as studying the architects who worked within them, we strongly support maintaining the distinct and historic character and architectural quality of the Upper East Side.
We hope that Sir Norman Foster's proposed 30-story tower on top of the original Parke-Bernet Gallery will follow the path to oblivion in the parade of ill-conceived towers designed to occupy the airspace above New York City’s landmarks. The procession began with Marcel Breuer’s office tower atop Grand Central Terminal (1968). It has continued with such proposals as a 23-story tower above the New York Historical Society (Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, 1984), a 59-story office tower above the community house of St. Bartholomew’s (Edward Durell Stone Associates, 1984), and a 37-story tower designed to hover over the Metropolitan Club (James Polshek, 1987) and, more recently, a 15-story building by Platt Byard Dovell White to cantilever over the Congregation Shearith Israel Synagogue on West 70th Street. All proposals were rejected outright by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. In each case, even when the architect designed the extension to relate to the building below, the Commission concluded that the development would irrevocably compromise the character of the landmark.
Unlike some of its predecessors, Foster's design offers no relationship to the scale, materials, or character of the landmarks district where it has landed. In fact, the architect seems unable to deal with the basic issue of connection, choosing the hackneyed modernist strategy of floating the structure; in this case, exposing an "underbelly" thirty feet above the Parke-Bernet roof. In addition, the proposal completely disrupts the rhythmic scale and quality of Madison Avenue’s low-rise buildings and high-rise apartments and hotels. The importance of this quality is described in the Upper East Side Historic District Designation Report (1981) as follows:
As a result of the development patterns on Madison Avenue, the vistas up and down the avenue are characterized by an irregular skyline caused by the combination of tall apartment houses and low rowhouses and commercial buildings....a modular rhythm is maintained that is derived from the basic 20–25-foot width of the rowhouses. This module corresponds to the party walls of the rowhouses and the bay system of the apartment buildings. The storefronts with their variety and the rowhouses and apartment house facades with their greater uniformity and intricate stylistic detail each have their own architectural ambience. Together, they coexist and contribute to the Madison Avenue streetscape.
The Landmarks Commission has increased its scrutiny of even small rooftop additions in historic districts, recognizing that the character of a district is more than the sum of its individual parts and that increased bulk can undermine the scale of an entire neighborhood. This proposal completely ignores those concerns, violating the scale of Madison Avenue, as well as undermining the iconic presence of the Carlyle Hotel.
The ephemerality of the proposed tower, as expressed in the developer's rendering produced by Foster & Partners, is fraudulent and deceptive. The glass curtain wall blends into the sky and the top of the towers melts into a conveniently placed cloud. These agglomerated towers would not, when built, melt benignly into the blue sky and appear soft and transparent next to its masonry neighbors. For example, the dark and gloomy Time Warner towers were originally presented as crystalline clear forms, glowing from within.
In 1949, architect William Adams Delano singled out the Parke-Bernet Gallery (Walker & Poor, 1949) as a building that “combines all the best of traditional and modern schools of architectural thought” and “demonstrates to others that distinction in commercial building pays.” (William Adams Delano Papers, Yale University). The Upper East Side Historic District Designation Report (1981) described it as a “significant post-war addition.” Given the building’s significance and quality, we hope it won’t become a base for Sir Norman Foster’s proposed tower.
Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker