Five-Year Reunion

Five-Year Reunion

Grand openings come and go, and the buildings that once occasioned so much hoopla soon enough slide into the rank and file of the working city. Whether they become landmarks of achievement or emblems of unrealized potential cannot easily be known at first. The editors of AN talk to owners and architects of four celebrated efforts to see what stands out at least five years on.


7 World Trade Center
Silverstein Properties

Just one month after the 9/11 attacks, and while New Yorkers were still reeling, developer Larry Silverstein and SOM began planning the rebuilding of 7 World Trade Center. With a Con-Ed substation that supplied much of Lower Manhattan including the Stock Exchange located in the base, rebuilding Seven was never really in question.

How to rebuild was. In their earliest discussions, SOM helped convince Silverstein to keep Greenwich Street open, which laid the groundwork for the site’s reintegration into the grid of Lower Manhattan. “It was the first chess piece move in what would eventually become the masterplan,” said T.J. Gottesdiener, a managing partner at SOM. By opting to reopen Greenwich Street, Silverstein gave up over 200,000 square feet of leasable space, according to Gottesdiener. “It was a moment for Larry to prove himself,” he said. “When you think about the building, the Jenny Holzer installation in the lobby, the Ken Smith park, the Jeff Koons outside, people were really surprised. It was a sign that things were going to be done well,” he said. “We were hoping it would be an instant classic.”


The architects also argue that the project was instrumental in the formation of LEED standards for speculative office buildings. “There were standards for owner occupied buildings, but we wanted to certify for core and shell,” he said. SOM worked with the United States Green Building Council to develop standards for core and shell certification, with Silverstein to write a guidebook for the interior build out of the tower.

Five years ago, the building’s highly energy efficient curtain wall was, and still is, one of its most distinctive architectural elements. The result of design ambitions, the surface is as clear and crystalline as SOM could get it given the limitations of glass manufacturing at the time, while also accommodating the 13.5-foot floor-to-ceiling height prized in class-A office space. At the time, glass could only be fabricated at 12.5-foot lengths. Thus the resulting façade is highly articulated thanks to a 1.5-foot tall black micro corrugated steel spandrel between floors used together with single sheets of low-e glass, which the architects accented with a two inch horizontal gap between each pane.

The curtain wall of One World Trade Center looks comparatively conventional next to Seven, with more mirrored glass and a less articulated surface. Gottesdeiner insists the curtain wall builds upon the technology and the thinking employed at the earlier tower. Glass can be made in larger sheets now and thus the more planar surface of One World Trade. The architects admit that the curtain wall of Seven was more expensive than a conventional building envelope. That may explain why it has not been imitated at a similar scale.

Seven World Trade Center set a high bar for rebuilding efforts downtown. It may prove too singular to ever be a classic. Ironically, it may remain the more outstanding building even as One World Trade will always be the one that stands out.

Alan G. Brake

Bronx County
Hall of Justice

Rafael Viñoly/DMJM
The City of New York

Rafael Viñoly began designing the Bronx County Hall of Justice, a huge glass-fronted courthouse on 161st Street, nearly 18 years ago. The project broke ground in the summer of 2001. By that fall, the world was a very different place and when the 800,000-square-foot building opened in 2007, concerns for security and problems with construction undermined the building’s original promise of openness and transparency.

Viñoly’s accordion-like glass facade faces onto 161st Street in a stately manner, while the L-shaped plan creates a generous plaza opening onto a residential area rather than the commercial thoroughfare. “We really wanted to render a building that was open, unlike the building next door which was a fortress,” Viñoly said of the Brutalist former Criminal Court building. “This building is exactly the opposite with openness and access.”


Even before 9/11, designs were evolving out of concern for security, with one substantial change made after the U.S. Embassy bombing in Tanzania along with other makeshift adaptations that eventually found their way into the interior. Initially as well, the plan had Grant Avenue running through an archway in the courthouse, but that idea too was abandoned. The light-filled atrium lobby, which features the two-story cylindrical form of the jury assembly room, feels like a cathedral to an open society. But like courthouses throughout the country, the atrium is now filled with ungainly security equipment and a massive police presence.

The outdoor plaza should have opened immediately after the building was completed. But inspectors found a defect in the floors beneath the plaza which hold a two-story parking garage. An investigation revealed that the rebar was not in the correct location causing the floors to dip. “No one understands why it was consistently in the wrong place,” said project director Fred Wilmers. “It took a long time for the contractor to fess up and to make sure that they fixed it. This was an excuse for not having the plaza open.”

Wilmers said that all the repairs have been made and after the Department of Buildings completes inspections, the plaza should finally open. But judging from the intense security, one has to wonder whether the court police and the NYPD will be willing to ever open it. Access to a rooftop garden over the assembly room has already been vetoed. “I’m a little hopeful that [the plaza] will eventually be opened, but it remains a question. It’s very easy for people to rally behind safety,” said Wilmers. So as the plaza continues to gesture openness to the neighborhood, real transparency remains hard to access.

Tom Stoelker

The Morgan Library Expansion
Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Beyer Blinder Belle
The Morgan Library & Museum

By its very nature as a climate-controlled environment, the 2006 Renzo Piano-designed Morgan Library & Museum runs around the clock, so maintenance is an ongoing process. And the same design and engineering team remains on call. “For such a sophisticated building, it is actually performing pretty well,” said Richard Southwick of Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB), architect of record for the project. His respect for its success focuses on the automatic solar control that programs rolling shades in the atrium, which respond to and control the natural daylight. “The introduction and mitigation of light isn’t unusual for projects by Renzo Piano, but for a museum it is,” said Southwick. “Most museums are white boxes, with very little natural light.”

In the beginning, the software controlling the shades had to be re-programmed to maintain the appropriate temperature for the building’s sensitive holdings. “There was a shaking off period,” said Southwick of the tweaks and adjustments necessary during the first few months. He also mentions the large skylights that suffered water leakage and had to be refitted. “On such a large project, things that weren’t constructed per spec are prone to problems,” he said. Indeed, complex systems that underpin the Morgan have been a model of precision design, but the more prosaic, low-tech aspects have proved less stable over the years. “We imported many components from all around the world,” said Southwick, referring to the counterbalance doors at the front of the Madison Avenue building. “For something as simple as a hinge door, it might have been better produced locally.” Meanwhile, the bronze doors on Madison Avenue have a tendency to jar. “It’s been a chronic issue,” said Southwick.


Lord Doug Mass of Cosentini, the project engineers, echoes Southwick’s satisfaction with the functioning of these details as well as with the design’s ability to hide features that are working the hardest. Mass cites, specifically, the displacement ventilation system, which is secreted into the structure. The specially designed mechanism filters cool air into the atrium at floor level depending on how many people are populating it, and has worked almost flawlessly. The limitations of the site—essentially a glass-box connector between the two early 20th-century buildings—have informed the level of scrutiny in design. “Everything is knitted together because we had no other choice,” said Mass, noting that 80,000 of the Morgan’s 136,000 square feet are nestled below grade in a bathtub underground that is the first of its kind at that scale in New York. “It had to be failsafe,” said Southwick.

Gwen Webber

The Solaire, Verdesian, and Visionaire
Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects
SLCE Architects
Albanese Organization

Manicured waterfront parks and quiet cul-de-sacs may lend Battery Park City a retro-suburban gloss, but in terms of environmental design it has long been a model of forward planning. The residential towers, Solaire (2003), Verdesian (2006), and Visionaire (2008) are the products of the same team of developer, architect, contractor, and an army of enlightened consultants making the set of three built over six years an effective testing ground for what does and doesn’t work in sustainable residential construction.

In 2000 the Battery Park City Authority developed the basic green guidelines that made the 27-story Solaire rental the nation’s first green residential high-rise. It has photovoltaics recycled from computer disks armoring the bulkhead and decorating the facade producing a fairly modest amount of electricity for common areas, a basement black-water system, gas-absorption chillers, micro turbine heat recovery and fresh air duct systems, sensor lighting, extensive green roofs, and public areas decked in bamboo, cork, wheat grass rugs and a full array of recyclable materials. The building was pre-LEED in 2003, but it achieved an impressive LEED Platinum rating as an existing building in 2009.

On a recent tour Michael Gubbins, building manager for all three towers developed by the Albanese Organization, noted some of the lessons learned and design changes across the three towers. To meet on-site electric supply requirements, the Solaire deployed photovoltaics and so does the Verdesian, where they were combined with a micro turbine, while the Visionaire tops that with integrated PV’s, a micro turbine, and regenerator elevators. In addition, the Visionaire was able to take advantage of a large-panel curtain wall system (with 4,500 square feet of integrated PV-paneling) that didn’t exist for residential buildings five years ago.


Gubbins noted that PV’s “take longer than anything else to justify the cost.”  They are most valuable as a high-visibility “signifier to the public that the builder is thinking differently.”  Indeed, some 7,000 people have toured the Solaire. While both the Solaire and Verdesian generate about the same 5% from their PV panels, Gubbins said that easy-to-install micro turbines deliver the same with the added advantage that the resultant heat can be recycled—always a big plus in the green scheme of things. Also of limited advantage are the heliostats on the roof of the 25-story Verdesian that are intended to bounce daylight into the sun-deprived courtyard between buildings. Their focused light beams look like they might be better at frying ants.

Rafael Pelli of Pelli Clarke Pelli noted that for him one of the more intensive learning experiences concerned fresh air delivery.  Before the Solaire, he said, fresh air ventilation basically was non-existent in high-rise residential buildings. The issue was to find an efficient way to induct fresh air—for which there are no codes or standards—and not have it automatically carried off by constant-running exhaust mechanisms that have long been mandatory. The Solaire brings a steady fresh air flow in to a single source vent, but the team was able to make adjustments so that at the Visionaire it is possible to flow fresh air efficiently into every room and all public spaces. “It took a lot of research and analysis to figure that one out,” said Pelli. “In the process, we leaned how to be aggressive at testing performance. The secret is working it out at the front end through intense collaborations with the specialized consultants. It made real change happen.” One thing didn’t change at all: the water tanks on the roof are still as efficient as ever, using laws of gravity to deliver water to the apartments below.

Julie V. Iovine