Norman Foster’s 425 Park Avenue

Foster’s 425 Park Ave.
Photo: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

If you were looking to build the finest high-rise office tower that $1 billion could buy, you’d be wise to ask Norman Foster’s company to design it. The trickier question is whether you would be wise to want such a thing.

Two models, 425 Park Avenue and 50 Hudson Yards, have just opened in Manhattan, with a third on the way to 270 Park, bringing some of the company’s steely glamor to the horizon. These specimens are not rare. The company’s signature glasses, attached to a silver mesh, stretch above cities around the world. With their streamlined shapes, flawless skins, and sharp obsidian edges, these buildings are somehow ubiquitous and distinctive at the same time. You can’t look at a Foster Tower out of context and know where it is. But scan the horizon and you’ll always be able to spot the Foster skyscraper: cool, sexy and alluring, like Sharon Stone with an ice pick. No wonder some of the firm’s creations make such irresistible filming locations.

New York was late and late in embracing the now 87-year-old Mandarin. The relationship got off to a bold start when Hearst Tower passed through Joseph Urban’s 1928 International Magazine Building in 2006. Since then, his business has dotted Manhattan with an assortment of luxury goods: the Sperone Westwater Gallery on Bowery and a few residential projects (50 United Nations Plaza, 100 East 53rd Street and 551 West 21st Street). Today, however, the mark is indelibly etched in the downtown skies, especially with 425 Park. (Fifty Hudson Yards is a larger but clumsier presence in a less interesting neighborhood.) The site is along the Hall of Architectural Giants, just up the street from the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House, a block from Barnes’ Edward Larrabee IBM and Philip Johnson’s AT&T. Neither Foster – the Baron himself or the company that bears his name – is intimidated by such a crowd, and they have produced a skyscraper that deserves its place in the pantheon.

Their goal was not brash newness or outrageous height, but timelessness, which I take to mean a building that looks – and will continue to look – as if it had always been there. “I’d like to think that 50 years from now, just as Lever House still sits elegantly in the neighborhood, so will this one,” says James Barnes, the firm’s senior partner in charge of North American projects.

In a sense he has there for decades. Rather than shave the building at this address (a striped, square-shouldered 1950s affair, designed by Kahn and Jacobs) and start from scratch, the architects arranged for the new iteration to swallow up the old. At the time they were developing the design, Byzantine zoning rules required the developers to preserve at least a quarter of the existing structure in order to maintain their allocated floor space (670,000 square feet). It would have been cheaper and easier to tear it all down, but that would have meant replacing it with something smaller. (The rules for East Midtown have since changed.) Instead, the architects interwoven an entirely new structural support system into the existing one and surgically excised all other floors. It required virtuosic feats of construction, akin to performing a full-body transplant on a partial skeleton. For the builders, it looked like an expensive, tedious and unnecessary contortion, although there was environmental value in the conservation of an existing structure rather than reducing concrete and steel to rubble.

The works that shaped the design leave a work of assertive elegance in an immaculate suit of dark blue glass. Six steel columns hit the sidewalk on Park Avenue, but one falls on the first setback and another disappears on the next. On each floor, a row of steel braces, positioned on the hips, redistributes the weight diagonally, as in a cheerleader pyramid. The entire apparatus is suspended from a thin concrete spine, topped by a triad of steel pins that extend well beyond the roof.

Park 425 loses an outside column with each withdrawal.
Photo: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

In a sense, the design makes the structure visible, a central tenet of modern architecture that dates back to when Foster was a boy. In another, it’s a sleight of hand, a way of veiling disorder and tangling up under the guise of candor. Parts of the mechanical systems are hidden in the base of the fins, and the passages from the base to the shaft to the crown are bristling with complexities. “It looks like a simple, elegant structure, but it works really hard underwater,” Barnes remarks.

All of this work results in lavish, high-ceilinged workspaces that are bright, wide, and open enough to throw a Frisbee in, at least until they’re cluttered with furniture. (In fact, most of its area will serve as a multi-story playground to throw money back and forth at the hedge fund citadel.) The corners of each floor spring beyond the columns, turning these offices in observation decks. At the 26th-floor club level, the sun cascades through the steel grating, casting diamond-shaped shadows. The artwork, an expensive wall collection of polished steel orbs by Yayoi Kusama, looks set to roll across the floor. The views are grand, the noise level controlled and the ventilation premium. If good architecture performs its assigned task perfectly – providing shelter, embracing worshippers, storing fire trucks, whatever – then 425 can be a near perfect job. Meetings will be held, decisions will be made, billions will be moved and customers flattered in an atmosphere filled with daylight, shine and alpine-quality air.

Yayoi Kusama’s sparkling installation at 425 Park Avenue.
Photo: Alan Schindler

And yet, this modern, high-tech and expensive high-rise building may already be a relic. No amount of energy efficiency and wellness amenities can erase the pollution caused by erecting such a megalith in the first place, so it should be necessary (and not just cost effective) to justify the environmental cost. Employees are gradually returning to the office at least part-time, but that still leaves more than half of the city’s office chairs empty in a given week. L&L developers seem optimistic about office work, and they’re right: Although the latest generation of luxury towers (including 425 Park) were planned and designed long before the pandemic, they will likely continue to attract companies seeking to trade. But that updraft only empties the seedier, more everyday stretches of downtown, filled with offices that are too dark and creaky or even just blah to offset the pain of a long commute. And there are many.

It is still difficult to distinguish a long jolt from a longer trend or a generational change, but if companies learn to tolerate staff who do not come, the urban implications are enormous. The development of the office shaped the city. The concentration of thousands of employees in stacked floors meant they had to live elsewhere, causing New York City to expand outwards and upwards and creating an urgent need for public transportation. Remote work has already affected the texture and routines of Manhattan — even its smells, as downtown’s once-crowded and aromatic lunch carts head for hungrier pastures. It could have far more drastic and lasting effects, and then Foster’s bespoke skyscrapers would become not just architectural icons, but beacons of a declining age.

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