On Tuesday, April 19 the Landmarks Preservation Commission is set to consider a proposed $190 million renovation to the Ford Foundation, the 1967 building by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, with a landscaped atrium designed by Dan Kiley, that is New York’s youngest interior landmark. Although many aspects of the building have long been outdated—interior designer Warren Platner thought telephones would forever fit his brass-stemmed walnut tables—it is health and safety, not aesthetics or technology, that initially drove the foundation’s plans.
The city has given Ford until 2019 to bring the building up to code for fire safety and handicapped accessibility. But since they had to scratch the building’s surfaces, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and his staff decided to go further, upgrading not just by adding sprinklers to the ceilings and greater access to the atrium, but new security, new lighting and mechanicals, and a new spatial organization.
“The building is very hierarchical, very 1960s,” says Walker. “The best offices are distributed to the most senior executives and that is no longer appropriate for a social justice foundation. We will have very few offices and much greater transparency and openness.”
A common reaction to Marcel Breuer and Associates’ 1959-61 Colston Hall at Bronx Community College, an arcing slab of concrete and steel hard by the Major Deegan Expressway and overlooking the Harlem River, is What’s that? (This is not an uncommon reaction to Breuer.) I’ve been tagged in blurry Instagram photos and even craned my neck in vain on Metro-North to get a peek. One passes the building so quickly that, when leaves are on the trees on the slope below, it can seem like a modernist mirage, its boomerang curve chiming with the semi-circular colonnade of Stanford White’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans higher up the bank.
Breuer would have been driving at a slower speed in 1960, commuting between his office on 57th Street and his famous house in New Canaan. Checking on the construction from the driver’s seat of his Jaguar, he noticed not the slab but an error in the rubble retaining walls below the building. “He saw some stone that was not proper,” recalls architect Bernard Marson, Clerk of the Works for Colston and the three other buildings Breuer had designed for what was then New York University. “He made a little drawing of how he expected it, and he said, ‘That’s not right.’ I felt very apologetic about it. I said, ‘Do you want it removed?’ He said, ‘No, that’s history,’ that it was done. Everybody would have done what he requested, but he thought that it was important to leave it.” A concrete wall near the staircase in the former Whitney Museum (1964–66) bears a similar flaw where a form board came loose during the pour. That mistake is also, now, history.
In 2012, Pedro Gadanho, who was then curator of contemporary architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, met with one of Japan’s leading architects, Toyo Ito, about preparing an exhibition on his experimental and organic work and that of the architects in his orbit.
At Mr. Gadanho’s request, Mr. Ito sketched a diagram of overlapping circles showing his “surroundings,” namely the web of architects and engineers whose work he has influenced, and whose work inspires him. This hand-dated drawing hangs at the entrance to the new exhibition, “A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond,” MoMA’s timely reminder of the beauty and daring that can be brought to public architecture, and the questing intellect required to push the profession forward.
The exhibition turns Mr. Ito’s intellectual “surroundings” into form, with models, drawings, sketches and photographs of work by him and a constellation of fellow innovators: Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the firm SANAA (designers of the New Museum in Lower Manhattan), and by the younger architects Sou Fujimoto, Akihisa Hirata and Junya Ishigami. They fill a white-walled maze pleasantly evocative of the bright, visually weightless spaces all members of this group have completed since 2000.
The pleasure of travel is often estrangement. Out there, with your wheelie suitcase and sunglasses, you can unmoor from everyday life, imagining yourself as another kind of person in another city. For an American, a trip to ogle New Zealand architecture offers a different kind of pleasure. It’s not a strange land but a version of our own, refracted through a Southern Hemisphere lens.
A long-lost cousin who’s more sun-kissed (thanks to a damaged ozone layer) and a little younger (the Maori settled New Zealand in the thirteenth century, the British in 1840), New Zealand is still happy to discuss dumpling pop-ups and flat whites and how to get the right amount of char on the outside of your blackened cabin. (I’d advise architects to consider olive, as in the metallic siding of Bull O’Sullivan’s Lyttleton crib, which also features interior upholstery in maize-colored wool plaid.)
In New Zealand the taste level is high and the landscape reliably stunning. The hills are jam-packed with houses that rival the indoor-outdoor appeal of California midcentury modern, and new urban office and residential development is clean and contemporary, apparently well-made and without labored contextual reference. The style question felt settled, in a way it never is at home.
Architectural renderings are often very fun, and equally often fairly deceptive—rendering glass becomes more translucent than it could ever be in real life, trees grow in climates in which they would probably have a difficult time surviving, and cities become whitewashed, in more ways than one.
“There are rendering trends, which follow architectural trends,” says Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange. “At the moment there’s a real desire, for some reason, to have skyscrapers with trees growing on the top and up the sides as if your skyscraper is a giant trellis.”
In this week’s episode of our podcast, The Curbed Appeal, we sit down with Lange to talk all about renderings: how much (or little) we can trust them, what type of responsibility firms have to render in good faith, and what one earth the renderings on this page are supposed to be depicting.
“In the lobby, Girard lined the long rectangular ceiling with square-base metal cones which were then smoothly covered in a coat of white plaster. Small bulbs were installed at the tips of the cones, which took on the look of stalactites, regularly and elegantly dripping.”
Quoted in Metropolis, March 2016