For half a century, Midtown East was the epicenter of New York. As the city made the transition from manufacturing economy to service economy after World War II, the neighborhood’s glitzy mid-century towers and broad boulevards became synonymous with the city’s image as an economic powerhouse. The crown jewel, of course, was Grand Central Station.
But Midtown East has faltered over the past two decades. Its aging office buildings can’t compete with newer towers downtown, and there’s very little in the way of pedestrian infrastructure to pull in foot traffic after 7 p.m. 750,000 people still pass through Grand Central each day—but few hang around in the area. According to the Department of City Planning, the area is in danger of becoming an auxiliary neighborhood to Times Square, full of hotels and chain restaurants. Which would suck, given the bombastic, elegant style it once stood for. It’s still the home of the Chrysler Building, after all.
With that in mind, the city is proposing a sweeping rezoning plan designed to bring new commercial towers and renewed pedestrian activity to the area. And to generate conversation, the Municipal Art Society of New York invited three firms that build frequently in the city—SOM, Foster + Partners, and WXY Architecture—to imagine what the rezoning plan could do for Grand Central itself.
As is usually the case with public-facing architecture events, the craziest proposal is garnering the most attention. While Foster + Partners and WXY proposed a series of incremental changes, including creating a massive pedestrian greenway on Vanderbilt avenue, SOM went all out, dropping a glimmering, O-shaped bomb on the proceedings. Their scheme would install a circular pedestrian deck far above the surrounding buildings, suspended between two new commercial towers. The deck would be open 24/7 and rival the Empire State Building for views. Below it, plenty of POPS (privately-owned public spaces) would add green space at ground level.
Here’s the kicker: it moves. Suspended like a crown above the neoclassical facade of Grand Central, the circular tubing would move upwards to give visitors varying views. "This grand public space moves vertically, bringing people from the cornice of Grand Central to the pinnacle of New York City’s skyline," explains SOM partner Roger Duffy. Details on the structure are hazy, but renderings imply that two massive trusses would support the donut-shaped platform, hooked into vertical notches—not unlike some window-washing mechanisms.
The plan should be taken with a gigantic grain of salt, since the idea was to drum up public support for the rezoning, not to kick off the design process. "There’s nothing like it in the world!" raved one blogger, who is only half right. Structurally, there is very little else like it. Architecturally, there’s plenty of stuff like it: Olafur Eliasson’s ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum viewing platform. The London Eye. Even Foster + Partner’s forthcoming Apple Computer headquarters.
Which is absolutely fine—no one has a trademark out on outlandish donut-shaped buildings. And it would certainly be fun to take a ride in this thing. But I can’t help wonder about how the deck reconciles what’s happening on the ground level, which is the real problem the city needs to tackle. It’s a bit like an actual donut: saccharine, overwhelming, and nutritionally suspect.
Then again, bombastic architecture runs in this neighborhood’s blood. In fact, SOM built some of its most important architectural masterpieces—the Lever House, for example, which was pretty controversial in its own time. A quote from the Lever House’s main designer, Gordon Bunshaft, is still eerily appropriate for the architecture SOM produces today. "I’m not a profound guy," he said near the end of his life. "I’ve never been an intellectual about architecture. I think what led every young man to modern architecture was that he’s young and wants to do what’s new."