I am so bored by boxes. I know, I know, we need more options than buildings that contort themselves and ask us to look at them. We need buildings that are well behaved, efficient, and blend into the background. We need building blocks for better urbanisms, not urban-scaled sculpture. But do we really need more boxes? Especially when it is replacing a perfectly fine, if equally boring, box?
Case in point: Earlier this year, the developer David Levinson announced that he was asking some of the world's best architects (at least by his definition) to design a mixed-use high-rise on Park Avenue in New York. It will replace a set-back block that I guess has outlived its usefulness. Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, was one of those contending to do her first skyscraper, along with OMA and Richard Rogers. Would one of those three have given New York its first exciting skyscraper since, well, Rockefeller Center? We will never know. Instead we are going to see, if we are lucky, the latest in a long line of well-dressed, tall rectangles in the tradition of the Lever House, Seagram’s, the UN Secretariat, and, if you are kind, the New York Times Building.
As I said, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. If you are willing to accept the logic of such boxes of absence (absent of solid form, of expression, of distinguishing characteristics, of life) as the right and proper thing, then you can be pretty sure that Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, will create something blandly elegant. The renderings promise as much: three rectangles, separated from each other by glass-sky lobbies, and the obligatory knife’s-edge top that is all the rage these days. The design’s main flourish consists of taking the pilasters that run up the façades and angling them back toward each successive pile, which set back according to Manhattan’s almost century-old recipe for polite tallness. The implication is that these elements are structural, as they branch out to seem to support the next block—though whether they do is anyone’s guess.
Beyond that, there is just floor after floor rising up in bands of glass and what looks to be metal coating against a service backbone. The wonders of renderings make the building look as transparent as Lever House (or like three of those piled on top of each other, without the generous public space) and as sharp as Seagram’s, though we are also promised the now also de rigeur LEED Gold certification. At 41 stories and 425,000 square feet, this will not even be a particularly large building. We should be satisfied.
So, why should I be so disappointed not only when I see these pictures of a building ready for the next movie about Wall Street shenanigans, or when I browse through Archinect or any other site or magazine (including this one) and see nothing but containers whose only distinguishing characteristics are different materials or roofs? Certainly I do not wish for a flood of blobs inundating the landscape, nor do I hope for an arms race of torqued towers and triangulated thrusts cutting apart our cities. What I dream of is … well, I don’t know, but I would like somebody to show me. I fell in love with architecture for its ability to amaze, to open new spaces and new vistas in the world that I thought I knew. I am about ready for another shot, not another tombstone to the maximization of real estate values dressed in more or less elegant garb.