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05.07.2008
No Nouvel in My Backyard
MoMA neighbors speak out against Hines' tower at LPC
Matt Chaban

It has been suggested that Jean Nouvel’s design for a 74-story tower abutting the Museum of Modern Art helped the French architect win the Pritzker Prize a month ago. Whether there is truth to this or not, the building certainly earned the French architect little admiration or appreciation from dozens of the building’s future neighbors. Instead, they ridiculed the project for more than two hours during a hearing at the Landmarks Preservation Commission on April 8.

Though Nouvel and Hines, developer of the newly christened Tour de Verre, made the most detailed presentation of their condo/hotel/MoMA gallery yet, the designs were not actually under review. Instead, the commission was asked to determine the worthiness of a transfer of air rights from two landmarks down the block: St. Patrick’s Church (275,000 square feet) and the University Club (136,000 square feet). It is up to the Commission, as per the Zoning Resolution, to determine whether the transfer and its resulting development “contribute to a preservation purpose” and “relate harmoniously to the subject landmark.”

The Hines team took a nuanced approach in their arguments for the transfer, suggesting it would move the development rights almost a block away from the two landmarks in question. This move would protect them from closer and therefore disharmonious developments, they explained. “The strategy here is to move the bulk into that higher density zone” along Sixth Avenue, said Michael Sillerman, Hines’ counsel. The idea is that at that remove, it would just be another Midtown skyscraper. “You’ll see a new building amidst a series of towers,” said Ward Dennis, the project’s preservation consultant. “Really, this is about an urban experience, not building side-by-side.”

Nouvel argued that the design itself, while not stylistically analogous to the landmarks, would still have little effect on them. “The impact is less strong because the building is very narrow,” he said. “I wish to enrich this neighborhood, to open the sky, and also to create a kind of signal you can read in the skyline of the city and you can say, ‘The MoMA is here.’”

Furthermore, to deny Nouvel would, as the architect put it, deny the city a wholly new building type, a departure from its boxes and cylinders. Then, following a series of renderings reinforcing the building’s slim profile, Nouvel concluded, “You understand we really can’t see a lot of the building. This vertical line, this élan is very important to convey this sense of lightness.”

Despite Nouvel’s poetic performance and the near-breathless reviews in the architectural press that preceded it, almost every speaker lashed out against it, bringing a litany of complaints. The most persistent, and perhaps obvious, concerned the building’s size—at 11,150 feet, it is taller than the Chrysler building—and scale.

The necessity and validity of the air-rights transfer also came into question. “These landmarks are already well taken care of,” said Veronica Conan, president of the West 54th-55th streets Block Association. Her group, which represents a block of anomalous residential buildings in the heart of Midtown (whose entire membership seemed to turn out for the hearing) contests the preservation schemes put forward by the well-funded parties involved in the plan.

The project was not without a few supporters, including David Childs—he called himself “a friend and admirer” of Nouvel—as well as MoMA heavies Glenn Lowry and Barry Bergdoll. Perhaps Nouvel’s greatest promotion, however, came from a young, pony-tailed Pratt architecture student. The only speaker without notes, he delivered a blistering defense of the project, arguing that it will become an instant landmark.

Because the hearing ran past 7 p.m., a number of the commissioners had left, and, lacking a quorum, the project could not be discussed or cross-examined as usually happens at the end of a hearing. Commission chair Robert Tierney said it was a “terrific presentation” but would go no further. A commission spokesperson, Lisi de Bourbon, said it was unlikely the project would be publicly discussed until it came back for a vote on the transfer within the next few months. This leaves the opinions of the oft-enigmatic commission a big question mark.

Afterward, Nouvel said he was not surprised by the reaction. “I’m always a little bit sad of that,” he told AN. “Ninety-nine percent of the presentations are negative because they want nothing. Every project for them is a disagreement.” Asked what he would do if the commission sided with the community, Nouvel began to speak before a Hines representative tried to cut him off. “No, no, I can answer this,” the architect protested, waving the man away. “I can always change a project if I have a good reason. It could even get better.”

Matt Chaban