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Notes on the Geography of The Eastern United States: Manhattan: Starchitecture

A century of prestige buildings by prestige architects.

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Although there were dozens of steel-framed buildings in New York City by 1900, the 20-story Flatiron Building (originally the Fuller Building) of 1902 stands out. Designed by Daniel Burnham, whose reputation was at least as tall as this building, it's been called an elevated palazzo. The shape derives from the lot, a triangle created by the diagonal slash of Broadway through the street grid.

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From a different angle, the Flatiron Building suggests the prow of a ship--an image that must have been considerably more powerful when people travelled by sea.

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It didn't take long for somebody to build higher. From 1913 until the completion of the Chrysler building in 1930, the world's tallest building was this, the Woolworth Building, designed by Cass Gilbert.

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It's still in good condition and being converted to offices and apartments.

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Not so tall but plastered with decoration, the Alwyn Court Building at 7th Avenue at West 58th was designed by Harde & Short for Alwyn Ball and completed in 1909. It was converted in 1936 from a dozen large homes to 75 apartments. The original cornice has been removed.

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Nearby, the French Renaissance Plaza Hotel, which opened in 1907 and was designed by Henry James Hardenbergh, is reflected in the Solow Building, completed in 1974 and designed by Gordon Bunshaft.

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The Chrysler Building held the title of world's tallest building for only a few months until it was topped later in 1930 by the Empire State Building. The Chrysler Building remains iconic because of its spire-like "vertex," which was only added after the building had been designed in a much simpler form by William Van Alen. When it was under construction in 1927, Walter Chrysler bought the place and had it dressed up.

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Another icon: Raymond Hood's RCA Building, completed in 1939 as part of the ambitious Rockefeller Center, centered on six blocks roughly at Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street. The Center, whose land until 1985 was owned by Columbia University, was a pioneering and privately funded integrated urban development, combining shops, offices, and entertainment. In 1968, the Radio Corporation of America was swallowed by General Electric, for which the building is now named.

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Carson & Lundin designed 1957's Tishman Building, at 666 Fifth Avenue. The building offered a million square feet wrapped in embossed aluminum panels. The tower was bought in the 1990s by Sumitomo Realty and has more recently been occupied primarily by Citibank.

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Edward Durell Stone's General Motors Building opened in 1968 on the site of the Savoy Plaza Hotel.

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The location of the GM Building, at the southeast corner of Central Park, was prime, and the building has been one of the most profitable of any in the city, less from rental income than from the repeated sales of the building. The presence of General Motors irked some critics. One observed that "an auto showroom is particularly galling at the spot in New York that most honors the pedestrian." Perhaps the subsequent presence of an Apple store was less upsetting.

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Here's one of the two World Trade Center towers, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, completed in 1975, and destroyed on September 11, 2001. Until that day, the buildings had never been celebrated for anything other than their size.

The towers had been commissioned by the New York Port Authority. Each building had four million leasable square feet spread over 110 floors and 1,250 feet. The external steel frames were weight-bearing, and on the day of their destruction the heat of 300 tons of burning jet fuel weakened them so that the upper floors collapsed like a hammer onto the otherwise intact floors below.

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Shoulder to shoulder, the triangular Metropolitan Tower on the left stands next to Carnegie Towers, a "highrise Medici" office building by Cesar Pelli. Comparing the two, the authors of the AIA guide to the city write that "Harry Macklowe, the developer, says that he designed this [the glass tower] himself. If so, he can take the blame for a gross and insensitive intrusion into these blocks. Its knife-edge glass form is impressive but inappropriate. But the rock star tenants and their peers will savor its parvenu glitz." (Norval White and Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 2000)

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The Hearst Building by Norman Foster rises at 8th Avenue at 57th behind the International Magazine Building of 1928. William Randolph Hearst had commissioned that building from Joseph Urban, a theatrical designer whose plan for a skyscraper on the site was wrecked by the Great Depression. The base sat waiting for half a century. The reflected tower belongs to Central Park Place.

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The Hearst Building's "diagrid," or "diagonal grid" exoskeleton.

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The dark twin towers of the TimeWarner Center, designed by David Childs.

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The facades on this side are angled to front on the diagonal alignment of Broadway.

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Just to the north and much less obtrusive, Robert A.M. Stern's 15 Central Park West stands on part of the site of the former Mayflower Hotel. The land was acquired in 2004 for $401 million and sales opened in 2005, with one-bedroom apartments starting at $2 million. The average price for the building's 200 apartments was $9.5 million, but the building sold out before construction was finished.

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Nearby, the Trump International Hotel is a reclad version of the original Gulf and Western Plaza. White and Willensky, in their AIA guide, dismiss it without mercy: "A reincarnation in glitz for those Trumpers who seek the sleekest and latest arriviste quarters..... for South Americans and Europeans with wanderlust."

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The Trump Tower was designed by Der Scott and completed in 1983 at Fifth Avenue at 56th Street, the former site of Bonwit Teller. White and Willensky are mocking: "Donald Trump entered here stage left and has since delivered Trump Plaza, Trump Parc, Trump Palace, Trump Place, Trump Whatever,... his aesthetics, however, are still more akin to malt liquor than to Veuve Clicquot." The base reflects the 1921 Tower of Trade, built by August Heckscher. Now known as the Crown Building, it occupies the former site of the William Whitney townhouse. It houses shops by Bulgari, Mikimoto, and Piaget.

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Cesar Pelli's mixed-use Bloomberg Building, completed by Vornado Realty Trust in 2005 at 731 Lexington at 58th, occupies the site of Alexander's department store, which closed in 1992 and was demolished in 1999.

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The name is simply 425 Fifth Avenue. The architect was Michael Graves. The building opened in 2003 and has been described as "among the ugliest our city has ever seen."

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The New York Times Building, designed by Renzo Piano, opened in 2007 at Eighth Avenue at 40th.

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The newspaper's old building, occupied from 1913 to 2007 and subsequently bogged down in renovation.

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Adjoining the newspaper's new building, FXFowle architects built this tower, 11 Times Square, for SJP Properties.

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Richard Meier designed this pair of apartment buildings at Perry Street near Pier 49. Completed in 2002, the buildings offer a single apartment on every floor. The penthouses were sold to Calvin Klein and Martha Stewart.

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Calling it "garishly reflective," and "an elf prancing among men," the critics have not been very kind to Charles Gwathmey's mixed-use Astor Place at 4th and Lafayette.

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Far soberer, Jean Nouvel's building at 40 Mercer has been reputed to be the "next Dakota."

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Another angle, just as underwhelming.

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On Canal street west of Broadway, Enrique Norten's Tribeca chrysalis at 1 York Street presents a new building growing out of older ones.

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Eight Spruce Street, formerly known as the Beekman Tower and latterly as New York by Gehry, this tower was developed by Forest City Ratner. Market conditions persuaded the owners that the buildings 903 apartments, rising near City Hall and facing the Woolworth Building, should at least for now be rented rather than sold. Studios started at $2,630 a month.

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It's a Frank Gehry design, in case you couldn't tell.

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More straightlaced, 7 World Trade Center, designed by David Childs, was one of the first buildings to emerge from the havoc of the World Trade Center.

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Austere.

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And intimidating, much like the destroyed twin towers.

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Just in case you forget what they looked like.

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The site in late 2009.

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The Freedom Tower rises.

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Across the water, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.


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