London - Norman Foster has beaten New York at its own game with a tower that raises the high-rise stakes. Next stop ... Ground Zero There are times when Norman Foster looks like two entirely different kinds of architect. Which one you get depends on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be. In London he has become a ubiquitous, monochrome presence, dressing everything from Wembley stadium to the Asprey jewellery store in the uniform of self-confident corporate modernism, like a reliable machine. But in New York, where he still has something to prove, and is operating at the top of his game, he is unbeatable as a brilliant architectural innovator.
By Deyan Sudjic from The Guardian
There are times when Norman Foster
looks like two entirely different kinds of architect. Which one you get depends on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be. In London he has become a ubiquitous, monochrome presence, dressing everything from Wembley stadium to the Asprey jewellery store in the uniform of self-confident corporate modernism, like a reliable machine. But in New York, where he still has something to prove, and is operating at the top of his game, he is unbeatable as a brilliant architectural innovator.
In the city that perfected the skyscraper then repeated the formula endlessly, he is the European who has taken on the apparently impossible task of rescuing the high-rise from creative exhaustion. His just-completed new headquarters for the Hearst magazine empire, on Eighth Avenue, close to Central Park, succeeds in doing that, and deservedly is getting astonishingly enthusiastic coverage.
The New Yorker's architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, not normally overawed by Foster, calls him 'the Mozart of Modernism', and describes the tower as the most beautiful high-rise to be built in Manhattan since 1967. Goldberger is putting him in almost the same category as Mies van der Rohe and the Seagram tower, and he is right to do so. He is even more enthusiastic about the interior. He calls the lobby as much of a surprise as the spiral at the heart of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum.
Foster has succeeded brilliantly with a commission that involved putting a million square feet of offices on top of an existing Art Deco structure. It is a combination that could have looked as uncomfortable and freakish as King Kong perched on top of the Empire State. Instead Foster has developed a convincing strategy for an office tower that is entirely distinctive but shows no sign of straining for effect.
He animates the tower not just by exposing its triangulated structure - an arrangement that is strong enough to reduce the cost of the steel by 20 per cent compared with a conventional design - but by crumpling the façade, pushing each corner in and out to follow the geometry of the building, giving it a massive, craggy quality very different from the curtain-like nature of most glass towers.
But this is not just a convincing piece of sculpture, and structural logic, it is equally a piece of contextualism, and of historic preservation, that makes a strong contribution to the vitality of the city. Perhaps as a result of the Hearst project, developer Larry Silverstein has hired Foster to design one of the cluster of skyscrapers he wants to build on the site of the Twin Towers, suggesting he may be regretting it was Daniel Libeskind who was selected to do the master plan for Ground Zero, and not Foster. Indeed the Hearst Tower resembles the pair of linked towers Foster proposed in the ill-fated Ground Zero competition, albeit on a much smaller scale, which also had the diamond pattern Foster used for the Swiss Re tower in London, and the Hearst Tower.
At 42 stories, the Hearst is modest by New York standards, yet even in a city crowded with skyscrapers it stands out. Like the Swiss Re it tries to do things differently to overcome the sheer inevitability with which most high rise architecture clothes its box shapes, but the differences between the two are as instructive as the similarities. Swiss Re has a circular floor plan while the Hearst is rectangular. But the Hearst Tower's faceted diamond structure introduces ambiguity into the order of its structure that is lacking with Swiss Re. Its crystalline geometry is like a cubist version of the Swiss Re cylinder. The diamond panels slant in and out, touching at just five points, every eight floors. It works the magic trick of abolishing corners.
In fact the tower is symmetrical, but the diamond pattern of its façades makes it look as if it isn't. As you move around New York, you keep getting glimpses of a tower whose character seems to shift with every new view. Swiss Re on the other hand is exactly the same from wherever you see it. And while Swiss Re is something of a non-event at the pavement, the Hearst Tower has a much stronger presence at ground level.
William Randolph Hearst commissioned the original New York headquarters for his publishing empire in 1928. The Viennese exile Joseph Urban designed a six-storey Art Deco block, faced in stone, always intended as the base for a tower that, 70 years later, still hadn't been built. Urban used the language of Busby Berkeley for a design that would have looked more at home in Hollywood than on Eighth Avenue, within sight of Central Park. Foster keeps the stone base as a kind of skirt, allowing the tower to float above it, neither continuing the original aesthetic nor ignoring it.
Inside its skin he has carved out what he describes as a town square, but does not reveal it at once. Coming through the bronze doors of Urban's original façade, visitors are confronted with banks of escalators funnelling them through a cascading waterfall and up to an expansive vaulted space that explosively reveals itself. As they ascend, they find themselves in a light-filled cathedral, five floors high, with the elevator lobby, a staff cafe and other social amenities at its centre, offering an exemplary demonstration of all that a high-rise can offer a city.