David Brussat: A modernist building I actually like

March 17th, 2011

A work of modern architecture I like? By über-modernist Frank “O!” Gehry to boot? Can this be so? If so, then it qualifies as a teaching moment.

The 76-story apartment building at 8 Spruce St., in Lower Manhattan, known unofficially as the Beekman Tower, has yet to open its 903 rental units for occupancy, but has received much critical acclaim (and some criticism) for its wavy, silvery stainless-steel sheath. And it’s not only the starchitect’s first skyscraper but, at 870 feet, also the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere.

(The Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building, is largely residential. The Beekman is not exclusively residential. A public grammar school will occupy its five-story base.)

The new building’s appeal to me may be explained in part by what New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff refers to as “deep setbacks that give the building its reassuringly old-fashioned feel.” It picks up on the traditional skyscraper form once mandated by a 1916 municipal zoning law that gave Manhattan its distinctive look in the tween-war years. Ouroussoff’s review (“Downtown Skyscraper for the Digital Age, Feb. 9”) merely notes what some other critics have found expressly distasteful.

“The undulations along the surface look like halfhearted wavelets,” writes James Gardner, a freelancer who was a critic for the late New York Sun (“Gehry Undone,” therealdeal.com). “Here you see the typical Gehry idiom depleted and reduced to absurdity.”

Yet it is the minimalist quality of the “wavelets” that at least partly rescues the Beekman from the titanium absurdity that is the Gehry trademark, as in his Guggenheim Bilbao and his Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Gehry told the New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger (“Gracious Living,” March 7) that “the first move I made was to elongate it, and then I tried to give it a little movement. I started out giving it a twist, but it’s too hard to make the plumbing line up.” He ended up with smaller twists, which he calls “Bernini folds” after the Renaissance sculptor. Each of 10,500 half-ton façade panels was formed by computer into a curtain wall that contains 2,400 windows.

“The north, east and west sides of the building,” writes Goldberger, “swirl and billow in and out, as if they were folds of fabric hundreds of feet high, or as if a breeze were blowing ripples across the building’s surface. The Bernini folds turn the façade into a vast bas-relief, with such deep texture that it creates bay windows within many apartments, and extraordinary plays of shadow and light all the way up and down the exterior.”

All of this is fine, but what makes it work for me is its superimposition upon a traditional grid of fenestration that is as important a part of the building’s look as its Bernini folds, the yin to their yang. I am surprised that neither Goldberger nor Ouroussoff noticed the Beekman’s long blood line, traced to an earlier, pre-Bilbao building by Gehry. Finished in 1996, the Dancing House, or Fred and Ginger Building, in Prague comes relatively close to the merger of old and new that I have long advocated.

The F&G’s two rondurous halves undulate together, with (I suppose) Ginger’s more feminine half pressing softly against Fred’s more straight-laced half of more regular if protuberant French-style fenestration. The building’s overall style emphasizes not just two buildings dancing, or two styles entwined, but a bifurcated whole in which a modernist lilt imposes itself upon a graceful traditional stolidity.

The Beekman improves on the F&G, bending even more toward the traditional.

Modern architecture that I like — and close readers of this column know such a phenomenon does exist — falls in two categories: 1.) The engagingly sculptural, such as Gehry’s Bilbao or Providence’s Old Stone Square, by Edward Larrabee Barnes, or the razor-blade John Hancock in Boston, by Henry Cobb. This category I find appealing but would dynamite on principle as offensive to an urbanism of beauty. And 2.) modernist buildings that move modernism close enough to the traditional to earn a place of respect and even beauty in a city, such as the Beekman, or the Fleet Center in Providence. They are quite rare indeed — modernist buildings that I’d refrain from dynamiting.

The Beekman I like but don’t love. It is good but not great. It is metal instead of masonry. It is too flat on top. It is too close to my favorite skyscraper, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building (1913). Better the Beekman, though, than anything else Gehry is likely to inflict on such a sacred part of the Manhattan skyline.

The Beekman’s official title, bestowed by its developer, Bruce Ratner, is “New York by Frank Gehry.” Typical. Ratner must not think it looks zany enough to be recognized by all as designed by Frank Gehry. Which is why I like it.

–David Brussat

David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.