A Soaring Space Filled With Light
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The interior of the Hearst Building at 57th Street and Eighth Avenue is finally complete. For better or worse, it is one of the most commanding spaces in the city.
The building itself, designed by Foster and Partners on top of Joseph Urban’s six-story limestone base from 1928, is, to invoke a word favored by Frank Gehry, an example of “iconicity.” That is to say that Sir Norman Foster and his colleagues have exerted themselves to create something that looks like nothing else on the planet. It is a 46-story office tower whose dark windows are crisscrossed by a stainlesssteel “diagrid” that recalls a Harlequin’s motley. Just as striking is the way the stainless-steel grids on the building’s four sides meet at the corners to form a jagged houndstooth pattern.
But if the exterior has been coming into focus since construction on the addition began in 2003, the interior has been largely a mystery. Now it shows itself as an immense, soaring atrium that seems to have been born of a fever dream straight out of the engravings of Piranesi. With almost extravagant boldness, the architect confronts us with a feeling of both claustrophobia and boundless space.As you enter, steep waterfall seizes your attention. The water cascades gently down a 40-foot glass and brick base. To emphasize this sudden barrier and to give an even greater sense of size, three escalators shoot diagonally across the falling water up to the second level.
There the eye encounters one of Manhattan’s better pieces of corporate lobby art, a pale monochrome mural, 30 feet tall, by the British artist Richard Long. Its streams of paint descend from the top and frazzle at the base in a way that invokes both the waterfall beneath it and the walls of Urban’s structure. After surmounting this visual barrier at the summit of the stairs, the eye proceeds through the open space, up to a height of 70 feet.
At both levels, the interior is flooded with light that accords well with the lemony pallor of the limestone walls, despite their pre-modern masonry. Light enters through skylights as well as through a 30 foot “clerestory” on the second level; four tiers of windows allow you to look into a large employees cafeteria that appears especially inviting. In contrast to that lightness, however, is the heaviness of the elevator banks, which rise up four stories in severe rectitude. It recalls, improbably, the mortuary architecture of ancient Memphis.
Little in the interior blends with the exterior – either Urban’s early base or Mr. Foster’s new addition. The former, a landmarked Art Deco monument, has been gutted thoroughly and reduced to a shell. It has been taken over by an intensely modern idiom that is almost bullying in its sharp angularity. The feeling of the older building is maintained only by the interior walls, so pristine in their restored state that they suggest the immaterial thinness of egg-shells. But except for the huge slanting beams at the upper level, which continue the imagery of the external diagrid, the interior could just as well belong to an entirely different building.
The great problem that besets the interior is the collision of several discordant visual messages. Consider the waterfall. It does not achieve the diaphaneity it seeks, but leaves one with an uneasy sense of the hardware involved in making it work. Clearly it is intended as a visual barrier to give greater force and resonance to the ultimate height of the interior. But it feels more like a simple barrier, unexpected, somewhat puzzling and ultimately cramped. The eye is confused further by the second barrier of Mr. Long’s mural, and by the time one has worked one’s way around it, the final ascent feels almost like an anticlimax. Finally, once you reach the second level, there is a threefold clash of architectural elements that is ultimately unsatisfying and irresolute: The heavy elevator shafts contrast with the light-filled emptiness of the dining center and the metallic busyness of the slanting beams that stand between them.
All of this points to one of the problems inherent in “iconicity” itself. By definition, the word means – assuming it means anything – an architecture saturated in significance that transcends mere form. But what exactly, or even inexactly, is being signified by the diagrid exterior or by the imperious massiveness of the interior, by the cascading water and the luminous mural? Hard to say. My suspicion is that the architects, like so many participants in post-modern culture, are less enamored with meaning than with the appearance of meaning and the desire to leave their mark at all costs.
On the other hand, this is an imperfect world and in an even more imperfect metropolis – where most architecture tends toward the stale and mediocre. We should probably praise the architect for the courage of his ambition more than we should criticize him for failing to achieve it entirely.