There is a reason that Mr. Gehry always seems to get run out of town whenever he builds in the Big Apple. 8 Spruce Street, the latest work by American Architect and USC alum Frank Gehry, is touted as a skyline success and labeled a turning point in the ‘transition from the modern to the digital age.’ Nicolai Ouroussoff’s ‘Downtown Skyscraper for the Digital Age’ Architecture Review article in the February 09, 2011 edition of the New York Times Art & Design section makes the particularly audacious claim that the building is the ‘finest skyscraper to rise in New York City since Eero Saarinen’s CBS building’ and even more boldly claims that the building marks the birth of the digital era as Philip Johnson’s AT&T building did at the dawn of modernism.
Unfortunately, I believe the project falls short of those boastful claims.
Mr. Ouroussoff needs to reanalyze the building as apart of the dense urban environment of New York City. I fear that the Times writer is still constantly obsessed with the makeup of a particular building rather than its operation and performance within the urban construct. There is so much said in the article praising Mr. Gehry for contrasting beautifully with the terrible commercial drones that poison its context. There needs to be more discussion on how the architect missed a genuinely precious opportunity to pay homage to Tschumi and inject some cross-programming magic into this rather mundane Manhattan high-rise. Mr. Ouroussoff mentions a minimum of three user groups and programs that will occupy the building: residential, educational, and medical. Herein lies a fantastic mix of different users groups under one building skin and yet no program is altered to coerce the three to interact.
Unfortunately, the access points and circulation paths never come together so that at some juncture the user groups could mix. There is a precedent for a similar strategy that SOM utilized with their Tokyo Midtown Project by creating a collection of various programs and organizing them so various user groups could interact and utilize the space to its full potential. For those of you not familiar with the project, SOM organized, in one particular tower, a variety of different programs-from offices, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a hospital, post office, and a kindergarten-in order to achieve an efficient flow from the bottom of the building to the top. What can also be appreciated are the unique interactions that occur from different program users at interaction points. This aspect was completely lost in the Spruce Street project. The author continues on to say that this “is architecture that convey[s] the infinite variety of urban life.” Urban life is about the interactions of an assortment of peoples, places, ways of life, beliefs, etc. There is very little urban life in the Spruce Street building. It is simply another skyscraper on the Manhattan skyline that does not seem interested in entertaining an intelligent urban strategy.
The city on a macro-level is an ecology of different inhabitants who all live, work, and interact together on a daily basis. Why not create a microcosm of this in a multi-programmed skyscraper, challenging the traditional notions of what a skyscraper is and how it functions? Philip Johnson’s AT&T building challenged the then-assumptions of what a skyscraper was, why not do the same in a different era? The fact that you could plug this building into any other context only makes the architectural and urbanistic situation worse.
Instead of a sound urban approach, the aesthetic features of the building have become the unnecessary focal point of discussion for this project. The age of the decorated shed is dead as well as Deconstructivism. Architecture can no longer be content with merely providing visual pornography for a public whose tastes have evolved considerably since the dawn of the printing press. The author does make the correct point that the new era of architecture shares an involvement with technology, but where is that seen or discussed on the building? All that is written about is how great the building looks on the skyline and how great the shifting surfaces ‘attack the kind of corporate standardization that is so evident in the buildings to the south and the conformity that it embodie[s].’ There is no contextual response other than the fact that maybe the reflections of the surrounding buildings could be seen on the buildings façade. So even if Mr. Gehry is carrying out an homage to a Mies van der Rohe project, he is still practicing an outdated form of architecture and urbanism.
As for the author, as a student of architecture, it disappoints me to read an article praising a piece of architecture lacking in the essential urbanistic ingredients that are not suggested, but required in the 21st century. You are writing about an outdated form of architecture that has run its course and is not helping the cause of discovering and embracing new forms of architecture that are more about the programmatic interactions of its users than the façade material details.