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Design: And Now, the Tallest of the Tall

5 minute read
Kurt Andersen

The plan does have a certain breathtaking screwball grandeur, like some ’30s movie written by Bertolt Brecht and directed by Preston Sturges. Donald Trump, the young multimillionaire real estate developer, owns 100 vacant acres of Hudson River waterfront just northwest of midtown Manhattan, a parcel that he characteristically calls “the greatest piece of urban land in America–the greatest piece of land in the world.” One hundred acres! In one spot in Manhattan! At the center of that plot, the developer announced last week, he intends to put up the world’s tallest building, an office and apartment tower shooting up 1,670 ft., or 216 ft. higher than the Sears Tower in Chicago. One-third of a mile high! Not only that, but between now and the end of the century Trump plans to build another six tall apartment houses on the site, more than 70 stories apiece, as well as a pair of mammoth office buildings, one meant for a television network. Wow!

Wait, there’s more. All nine buildings will sit amid 40 acres of grass and trees, parkland to be hauled piece by piece into the city and up onto the roof of a six-story, 13-block-long building. Inside that vast, quasi-subterranean space will be 13 acres of TV studios, underground parking for thousands of cars, and an enormous shopping mall. The whole multibillion-dollar shebang, called Television City, must get approval from two separate city boards, a process that could take a year. If Trump is successful, his enclave will be the most ambitious urban project of its kind since Rockefeller Center went up half a century ago.

With its well-proportioned central plaza and carefully orchestrated densities, however, Rockefeller Center is a clear descendant of classic cities, coherent and comfortably urban. The proposed Television City is–what? Towers in a park, sui generis, chess pieces (six pawns, a king, a bishop, a rook) that have slid off the board. Although Architect Helmut Jahn has designed only the basic shapes, sizes and placement of his buildings, it seems clear from the plans and model that it would be an unfamiliar species of urban place, awesome and a little spooky. The ballfield-size spaces between the triplet building clusters and the central megatower look awkwardly large, making the radical change of scale even more unsettling.

From its spiffy name to its extravagant scope, nearly everything about Television City has an odd retro quality. The project seems inspired by a Believe It or Not sensibility, the equation of freakish size and glamour that plays well these days only in Las Vegas. Sure, sipping a martini at sunset 150 stories up would be swell–once or twice. But Trump, a man entranced by superlatives, seems not to realize that few people any longer share his obsession with building a still taller tallest skyscraper.

People who live near Trump’s site worry about the prospect of shadows, of crowded subways and buses. Yet Television City does not really seem so disruptive. The site, a defunct rail yard, is empty land; urban renewal rendered most of the adjoining blocks charmless years ago. Moreover, 8,000 new apartments should channel some of the gentrifying development pressure away from fragile Manhattan neighborhoods. The rooftop acreage is ingenious: the park will be above the elevated highway that runs along the Hudson, allowing pedestrians unimpeded views and a sense of riverfront connection.

Jahn and Trump have passed up a much greater opportunity, however: the chance to create an intricately woven place, a true city within a city, complete with streets, courtyards, a variety of building types, maybe even a sense of community. The land is so vast and comparatively cheap (Trump paid $1 million an acre, vs. the $26 million an acre paid for a midtown block at the same time) that high-rise construction is surely not, for once, the only practical option. But the pair will take the easy way out, designing housing wholesale. What about all the new passengers added to overburdened mass transit? Says Trump airily: “We’ll renovate a couple of subway stations, et cetera, et cetera.” Planners of housing for the poor realized years ago that isolated high-rise flats foster a dangerous anomie. Condo buyers may be unlikely to join street gangs, but Television City will be an interesting experiment: extreme swank and large-scale alienation, together for the first time.

The match of developer and designer is apt. Jahn’s work tends to be glossy, imposing and a little martial, the architectural equivalent of Wagner played on a synthesizer at full blast. He is the Donald Trump of his field, a showman enthralled by sheer size. “We are doing the tallest building in Houston,” says Jahn, “the tallest building in Philadelphia, the tallest building in Europe.” He arrived from West Germany 19 years ago, at age 26; at 33 he was partner and design director of C.F. Murphy Associates in Chicago; at 43 he was owner and chief executive officer of Murphy/Jahn. Today, employing 100 architects, Jahn has five buildings under construction in Manhattan. Other projects are under way or just finished in Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Johannesburg.

Jahn embraces the technology of high-rise modernism, but he loves to fold glass curtain walls into more or less old-fashioned building shapes, monumental moderne. His recent designs are plainly derivative of skyscrapers from the Golden Age. The Television City office tower, for instance, is a nice-looking relative of the General Electric building in New York City (1931) and the Tribune Tower in Chicago (1925); the three slabs just south of the 150-story spire are like slightly squished Empire States. How come? No reason in particular. “These are not meant to be ‘New York buildings,'” says Jahn. “What is a New York building?” Anyway, he adds, “architecture at the end is irrational, very intuitive. It’s a matter of feeling ‘That’s what I want to do.'” –By Kurt Andersen

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