Tag Archives: skidmore owings & merrill

Lever House

Lever House (1952) was New York’s first curtain wall skyscraper, beginning Park Avenue’s switch from masonry to glass buildings. The 24-story green glass tower gave impetus to the International Style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. What’s more, it led the owner to switch careers, from sales back to architecture! Lever Brothers president Charles Luckman quit the company before Lever House was completed, moved to California and his first love, architecture. (He had trained for architecture at the University of Illinois, but was sidetracked to sales during the Great Depression.)

Though Luckman was involved in Lever House’s design, the architect of record was Gordon Bunshaft of famed Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Lever House avoided the typical “wedding cake” skyscraper design by occupying less than 25 percent of its lot (an exception to the 1916 zoning law that dictated stepped setbacks to permit sunlight to reach the street). Lever House’s success was widely copied by other tower and plaza designs (notably Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece Seagram Building, diagonally across the street!).

Most of the Lever House ground floor is open plaza; the glass-enclosed portion includes an art gallery open to the public.

Along with the steel and glass curtain walls came another timely innovation: a window-washing gondola mounted on a rooftop track!

While the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission gave Lever House Landmark status November 9, 1982, the building’s original steel and glass facade had deteriorated. In 1998 Unilever sold the building; the new owners replaced the crumbling steel and glass with an aluminum and glass curtain wall – completed in 2001 and again designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Lever House Vital Statistics
  • Location: 390 Park Avenue between E 53rd and E 54th Streets
  • Year completed: 1952
  • Architect: Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owens & Merrill
  • Floors: 24
  • Style: International
  • New York City Landmark: 1982
  • National Register of Historic Places: 1983
Lever House Suggested Reading

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Solow Building

The Solow Building, also known as 9 West 57th Street, is one of those “love it or hate it” buildings. It’s bold and innovative, meeting New York’s setback zoning requirements with a dramatic swoosh, like the Nike logo. And that’s the problem, say critics – it ruins the block’s cohesiveness, like a 50-story black and white scar.

There’s no denying that the building, taken by itself, is among New York’s most recognizable buildings. Only one other building – the W.R. Grace Building on 42nd Street, by the same architect – looks anything like it.

Since completion in 1974, one major change was made to Solow Building’s 57th Street entry. The escalator bank was replaced with stairs leading down to a restaurant, “8-1/2,” and enclosed in glass. Look to the building’s W 58th Street side for an idea of the “before.”

Solow Building Vital Statistics
  • Location: 9 W 57th Street, just off Fifth Avenue
  • Year completed: 1974
  • Architect: Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
  • Floors: 50
  • Style: Postmodern
Solow Building Suggested Reading

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Worldwide Plaza

Worldwide Plaza is the whole-block development of William Zeckendorf, Jr. that helped reshape the Clinton neighborhood in 1989. (Not everyone agreed that that was a good thing, but there you go.)

Formerly the site of Madison Square Garden, the development includes One Worldwide Plaza, a 50-story office tower on Eighth Avenue; Two Worldwide Plaza, a 38-story condominium apartment tower located mid-block; and Three Worldwide Plaza (aka The Residences at Worldwide Plaza), a seven-story condominium complex on Ninth Avenue. (The Residences also include ground-floor retail spaces.) A plaza separates the two towers, and an off-Broadway theater is built under the plaza.

The office tower was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; the residential units were designed by Frank Williams. The copper-and-glass crown on One Worldwide Plaza is known as “David’s Diamond,” after SOM architect David Childs.

Destined for landmark status, Worldwide Plaza is not loved by all. The “AIA Guide to New York City” sniffs, “Heavy-handed, the office tower aspires to the serene solidity of Rockefeller Center, but lacks that center’s graceful slenderness, setbacks and elegant understated urban space: Rockefeller Plaza and its skating rink.”

Worldwide Plaza was important enough for PBS to film a four-part documentary, “Reach For The Sky” and companion book “Skyscraper: The Making of a Building.” (Links to both, below.)

One Worldwide Plaza Vital Statistics
  • Location: Eighth Avenue between W 49th and W 50th Streets
  • Year completed: 1989
  • Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
  • Floors: 50
  • Style: Postmodern
Two Worldwide Plaza Vital Statistics
  • Location: Between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, block-through W 49th to W 50th Street
  • Year completed: 1989
  • Architect: Frank Williams
  • Floors: 38
  • Style: Postmodern
Three Worldwide Plaza Vital Statistics
  • Location: Ninth Avenue between W 49th and W 50th Streets
  • Year completed: 1989
  • Architect: Frank Williams
  • Floors: 7
Worldwide Plaza Suggested Reading

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Grace Building

The W. R. Grace Building is another example of “love it or hate it” architecture. Like near-twin Solow Building (9 W 57th Street) also designed by Gordon Bunshaft, the Grace Building’s swooping facades break up the “street walls” in front and back. If only the building were on a block by itself…

In a sense this is Bunshaft’s revenge: This is the rejected facade treatment that Bunshaft had first proposed for the Solow Building!

Grace Building Vital Statistics
Grace Building Recommended Reading

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International Gem Tower

After some delays, the International Gem Tower (IGT) now dazzles in the middle of the (ironically) dreary block known as the Diamond District. The 34-story office tower, structurally complete but not fully occupied, now challenges the rest of the block to catch up, visually if not technically.

Architecturally, the IGT’s claim to fame is skin deep: Architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill call it “crystalline curtain wall with embedded steel medallions.” The reflective surfaces change appearance as the sun moves – especially if viewed through polarized lenses – because metal and glass reflect light differently. Illuminated offices will further change the building’s appearance – it may become mesmerizing.

Beneath the skin, International Gem Tower has other innovations specifically focused on the diamond trade: Secure underground delivery bays, double door (man trap) entry to office suites and other security systems. The building has also been certified as New York’s only U.S. Foreign Trade Zone – allowing duty-free import/export within the building.

The building’s other distinction is that it is two buildings in one. The first 20 floors are being sold to diamond industry tenants as condominiums. The first three floors have been sold to Turkish-based Gulaylar Group for a retail mall. The upper 14 floors are being leased to non-diamond industry tenants – these occupants have their own entrance, at 55 W 46th Street, in the midst of Little Brazil.

There’s a pleasant little public access space behind 1166 Sixth Avenue (between W 46th and W 45th Streets) where you can sit and contemplate IGT’s changing visual patterns.

International Gem Tower Vital Statistics
International Gem Tower Recommended Reading

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Time Warner Center

Time Warner Center was controversial from the moment it was conceived – years before that name was even attached. Now that Time Warner is moving downtown to the Hudson Yards, who knows what new controversies will arise.

The oddly shaped site on Columbus Circle was inherited from the Coliseum, the Robert Moses-sponsored exhibition hall that was partly financed by federal slum clearance funds. Critics contend that the Coliseum was too small when it went up in 1956. In 1985 New York City and the MTA started shopping for a new developer. After nearly 14 years of design, political, and legal battles, Related Companies and Time Warner came up with the winning bid and design.

The project came with challenges: it had to follow the curve of Columbus Circle while aligning with the street grid – including angled Broadway; it had to include a “view corridor” of at least 65 feet; it had to contain less than 2.1 million square feet of space. (Like Grimm’s “Peasant’s Wise Daughter,” commanded to go to the king “neither naked nor clothed, neither walking nor riding, neither on the road nor off it.”)

Time Warner Center is actually five buildings: Offices and television studios for Time Warner; the One Central Park residential condominium tower; the Mandarin Oriental hotel tower; the Jazz at Lincoln Center performance halls; and The Shops at Columbus Center (originally the Palladium). While David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was responsible for overall design, each block had its own architectural team. As reported by The New York Times, Rafael Viñoly Architects designed Jazz at Lincoln Center; Perkins & Will, the Time Warner headquarters; Elkus/Manfredi Architects, the Palladium; Brennan Beer Gorman Architects and Hirsch Bedner Associates, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel; and Ismael Leyva Architects and Thad Hayes, One Central Park.

The result, which The New York Times in 2001 termed “like a giant tuning fork vibrating to the zeitgeist,” had mixed reviews. On completion in 2004, The Times gushed, “the building has great glamour. It is far more romantic than the Jazz Age tributes conceived by Mr. Childs in his wanton postmodern youth. With 10 Columbus, the mood is modern noir. The two towers are worthy descendants of Radio City.”

New York Magazine credited Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) with conquering the complexities, but picked apart the details. “SOM got the big, difficult moves right, but for the success of any building to be complete, design decisions must reinforce each other consistently down the drafting chain. Unfortunately, sometime after the conceptual stages, SOM suffered a failure of attention span.”

Probably all will agree that Time Warner Center (whatever its future name) is a massive improvement over Robert Moses’ Coliseum.

Time Warner Center Vital Statistics
Time Warner Center Recommended Reading

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300 Madison Avenue

300 Madison Avenue is the boxy glass and steel tower on 42nd Street whose mirrored facade is scored with steel fins. But it’s what’s under the skin that’s innovative.

Excavation was already under way when two events dictated radical design changes: 9/11, and the space requirements of Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), which leased two-thirds of the building from prime tenant Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) World Market.

The owners, Brookfield Financial Properties, decided to harden the design to withstand catastrophic damage, and at the same time create large trading floors in the eight-story base for PWC. Oh, and by the way, while making the building stronger, could you remove one of the columns? Adding to the challenge, the redesign and construction had to stay within the original schedule: Move-in dates were fixed.

Engineers added bracing, used stronger steel beams, replaced some sheetrock walls with concrete, and beefed up fireproofing. Firefighting systems got additional high-capacity water tanks and sprinkler lines. The owners strengthened the electrical system with addition of backup generators. (See the Recommended Reading for details – this building is unusually well documented.)

None of this is obvious from street level. Instead, the mirror glass facade is a pleasing surprise: It makes surrounding buildings more visible, by increasing their apparent distance from the viewer. The upper floors’ fins and alternating bands of glass and steel create interesting patterns, especially because the fins vary in size. The fins save it from being Just Another Glass Box.

300 Madison Avenue Vital Statistics
300 Madison Avenue Recommended Reading

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Memorial Sloan-Kettering Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center is a major expansion of previous lab facilities. The distinctive red-sliced slab tower accommodates a neighboring church, which provided the needed land and air rights.

The red terra cotta wall slices through the slab tower, separating laboratories in the western section from supporting offices in the eastern section. Each major facade has its own passive sun shade solution. Fritted glass panels shade the labs; aluminum-pipe louvers shade the offices.

The project had to be completed without disturbing ongoing research at the existing laboratories.

The base of the tower includes a rectory for St. Catherine of Siena Church.

See the architect’s project portfolio and design narrative for a detailed analysis.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center Vital Statistics
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Mortimer B. Zuckerman Research Center Recommended Reading

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