“2013 JAN 12 (VerticalNews) – Forest City Ratner Companies, a subsidiary of Forest City Enterprises, Inc., the INDURE Fund, a commingled real estate fund managed by National Real Estate Advisors (NREA), and TIAA-CREF, a leading financial services provider, announced that TIAA-CREF has acquired a 49 percent equity ownership in the residential portion of New York by Gehry at Eight Spruce Street, the award-winning Frank Gehry-designed building, that has redefined the New York City skyline. This transaction values the 76-story, 898 unit high rise at $1.05 billion….” 1

Today is the era of the individual, and the primary operation of its architecture is division. The value of this architecture is increasingly determined by capital gains, as exemplified by Bruce Ratner, Forrest City’s CEO, declaring the project a success with the sale of these shares. 1 This model of practice has flatten contemporary urban public space, and given its implementation over to private entities who focus on amenities, community give backs, and the image of political correctness for the sake profit. Community givebacks, which appear strongest in the form of contracts and legal documents, are used to sway the public to back schemes of redevelopment lacking true public space. Space who’s use is unconditional, inhabitable, flexible, and representative of civic identity. Space with creative energy where events can transpire. The privatization of urban public space has a developing architectural expression; the podium based tower.

The podium blends in, accepts the weight of the dominating tower it supports, and says nothing about itself or its inhabitants. It appears banal, expected, and utilizes a simple structural expression of the grid. Floors and columns repeat with a regular cadence, and are joined into a synthetic structural skin. The system maintains a flatness that is left unbroken by violations of the skin by interior forces. The podium camouflages a generic-ness of speculative building by supposedly fitting into its context. It adopts and cheapens formal characteristics of its surroundings such as scale, exterior materiality, and the size and rhythm of wall openings. 

The brick-ness of this podium is easily found in several adjacent historical buildings: such as 19 Beekman Street, and two buildings on the corner of Nassau Street, east of Beekman. The podium’s height mirrors the cornice line of these buildings. However, the podium does without the traditional ornate detailing of window openings, cornices, and pilasters. Apparently, nothing worth expressing is happening behind its walls. The podium is rendered as a conceptual void, or in the words of the architect, “laid-back, quiet, simple.” 2

This is a symptom of the podium’s true calling. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, given over to community use, so the developer can increase the height of the tower, swelling the project’s possible capital gains, and passing the limits of its zoning regulations.  As a community asset, it proves beneficial only in the most cursory way; it provides space for controlled use. In the architect’s own words, “It (the entire building) will not only be a distinctive addition to the skyline, but also provides much needed space for the New York community.” 3 The depth of the podium’s architectural development goes no further.

The podium envelopes a new wing of the adjacent New York Hospital, as well as a new pre-kindergarten through 8th grade school. In doing so, it privatizes the community programs held within, and divorces these programs from a broader network of public spaces that have historically accompanied public uses. A large open area, which can host a variety of activities and promote meeting and recreation is missing. Here, the gathering space directly in front of the public uses is barely larger than a sidewalk, abuts the vehicular garage entry, and is in shade almost all day. Security bollards trace the path of vehicular traffic and claim the majority of the open space. The shades are drawn over the windows of the public program blocking the possibility of visual connection. The open space, and the public entry points are monitored by security guards at all times, making their use accessible to only those who have business inside. Loitering is not disallowed, it is impossible.

Another open area fronts the private residential entry on the opposite side of the building. The space is again narrow, like a sidewalk, and functions more like a private garden than a square. It is separated from the interior lobby by a motor court resembling a hotel porte cochere. The open space is scaled for the individual, with a number of discrete wooden benches, planting beds and small fountains, all organized in a semi organic pattern. However, there is no additional program to give reason for habitation other than passing through, or resting for a brief moment.  Security cameras abound make it clear that  this is a controlled space. There will be no political or social gatherings here. 

Fused together, the tower is the podium’s co - conspirator. It acts as a formal symbol of wealth and luxury, expressed via a gleaming metallic skin that folds and undulates, apparently being blown in the wind. It is a unique and idiosyncratic object given value due to its rarity and perceived superiority to its context; an ode to self-expression. This sentiment is championed by the architect, Frank Gehry, whose advice is, “Be yourself and you’ll like what you do.” 4 Gehry has done just that with the implementation of the tower’s main architectural identity; its envelope. 

This metallic flowing envelope is his signature. It appears in the bulk of his work, and it has made him famous with projects such as the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, and the Disney Concert Hall. One is hard pressed to find an equivalent for the tower’s metallic envelope in the neighborhood. Its identity is rooted in the broader city, and comparison to the numerous iconic office towers. Its materiality and form are more in line with the lineage of the Chrysler Building’s crown. A covetable object aimed at impacting the psyche of the masses – from afar. From this vantage point of the city, the podium is impossible to see, and in fact, it’s obscured even from a few blocks away. The tower, divorced from the podium, is perfect for a tourist’s postcard with New York written across it. 

The formal typology of the New York City high rise is a series of stacked extruded volumetric boxes stepping back at vertical increments, resembling a wedding cake. The form is delineated by an exterior envelope made of standardized and extremely finite components. The tower of Eight Spruce Street takes this expected typological form and sculpts it into a more seductive volume, which is then panelized into a series of unique elements. The design of its non-typical skin appears to have been a painstaking effort full of technical innovation, and was in turn the focus of the project. 

If the envelope is approached from the inside out another element emerges: the bay window. These windows were conceived by the architect as a space removed from the rest of the building, where one is able to view the city in a completely unique setting; in outer space. 5 These bay windows are mapped continuously over the tower, creating the ripples one sees from the outside. These rippling bay windows break the traditional strict vertical progression of the window type as it marches upwards. The windows make every single residential unit spatially unique. Yet, this uniqueness only exists in the moment where the vertically repetitive units meet the envelope. 

Upon close inspection, the details of the tower fall apart in the seam between the tower and the podium; the moment you are not supposed to see. The two bodies meet in an abrupt collision where parts overhang and unravel in a forced and unholy union. The tower and its skin have an underside, and there is an oddity in this reveal; a thin strip of metal that neither follows the profile of the podium or the tower. The two bodies are designed to be experienced at two different scales of the city, yet they are joined. Their touch point enacts a priority of self-expression over communal engagement, and the tower secretly desires to be completely separate from the podium. There is no space in-between, no mediating factor, and no concern for the other. The beauty of the tower’s shimmering iconic effect falls apart. Priority is given to the tower and its appearance from afar.

Is our future urbanism as defined by speculative architecture, destined to become a numbers game controlled by private interests and investment bankers calling on architects only for aesthetics? Are public spaces doomed to die a slow death smothered by podiums enacting corporate oversight? Eight Spruce Street denies its role as an instrument that organizes human behavior and social life. Yet, “There can be no separation between our architecture and our culture. Nor any separation of either from our happiness.” 6

Yes, in the case of Eight Spruce Street, the project includes both public programs and open public space. Yet, is inclusion alone enough? Check public space off the list; the developers have done their job. Architecture should be a practice that explores how we want to live, interact and socialize. It is the mediating element between ourselves and others, capable of expressing desire, and supporting our happiness through a more playful conception of public space. The city and its public space have historically served three vital functions; as a meeting place, as market place, and a connection space. 7 The open public space at Eight Spruce Street is unable to serve any of these roles. 

The project exudes calmness in the face of a loss of public space, and attempts to satisfy, or pacify public opinion, through breathtaking iconic form situated in a consumer culture. The podium, the element that most connects the project to the larger city, is not given enough importance to be considered a design worthy element. The architect’s agency in the project was reduced to the role of exterior decorator, and they were unable to affect the building in its relationship to the social fabric of the city. The state of public space is in a fundamentally different era than historical notions of the square and pedestrian street, but it is still vitally important for our urban happiness. 

The problem of designing these spaces needs to be approached with more creative energy, and an understanding of each project as a node in a larger interconnected network.  Here, the design of the open public spaces seems to have occurred after the design of the building, and was a process of dressing up rather than connecting. The project clearly expresses the nature of contemporary real estate development, whose concern for the great public good goes only as deep as the bottom line. There is a marked difference between architecture as an evolution of aesthetics and social infrastructure. So, is the future of speculative architecture destined to become a tool of oppression, or is liberation possible?

Notes: This essay was written for a summer seminar at Columbia University titled, “Metropolis”, with Professor Enrique Walker. The seminar reviewed the history of modern architecture understood through the development of defined scenes, occurring within specific cities and eras.  Genealogies of design were traced through their protagonists. The essay developed week by week during the duration of the course, and started with the student’s on-site interaction with a given building. The essay was then crafted to advance a claim with biographical evidence.— 

Works Cited

1. “Forest City Ratner Companies; TIAA-CREF Invests with Forest City Ratner Companies and the INDURE fund in New York by Gehry at Eight Spruce Street in New York City.” Real Estate Business Journal 56 (2013), accessed June 22, 2014, http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1266209498?accountid=10226.

2. Sokol, David. “Gehry Designs N.Y.C.’s Tallest Residential Tower”, Architectural Record 196 Issue 7 (2008) 40. 

3. Celant, Germano. Frank O. Gehry : Since 1997. (Milano: Skira, 2009) 224.

4. Nordhauser, Alyssa. “Gehry Gets Frank with Pratt Students”, accessed June, 29 2014, http://blog.archpaper.com/worldpress/archives/9947.

5. “New York by Gehry,” Owner Developer Forest City Ratner Companies, accessed June, 29 2014, http://www.newyorkbygehry.com/index.html#!new-york-no-fee-apartment-film.

6. Kamin, Blair. Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) Preface.

7. Jan Gehl, “Public Spaces for a Changing Public Life” in Open Space: People Space, edited by Catharine Ward Thompson and Penny Travlou (London and New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2007) 3.

Eight Spruce Street

Futures of Urban Public Space

Columbia University GSAPP
Critic: Enrique Walker
Summer Semester 2014
for Metropolis

New York, New York