An Invisible Crown Tops the New Hearst Tower

hearst tower1The Hearst Tower marks a fresh start for building and for New York City.  Its ambition has many layers, all of which are healthy, deep seated, and admirable.  The new structure is located on the west side of Eighth Avenue near 57th Street and rises 44 stories above an original, 1928 building at its base.  The tower was completed in 2006 and was the first skyscraper to sprout in New York after 9-11 as well as the first to earn the distinction of LEED Gold Certification by the standards of the U.S. Green Building Council.  Carefully considered, the Hearst Tower is a stirring symbol of resurgence, the pursuit of excellence, and social progress through innovation.  It is an unqualified success and is the work of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster.

The six-story, beige limestone base of the Hearst Tower design by Joseph Urban is a confusing blend of classical revival with elements of Art Deco.  Fluted, decorative columns and curvaceous, carved balustrades combine with tall, elaborate urns and statues of human figures.  The overall effect creates great contrast with the surrounding buildings in the area and no small amount of head scratching by anyone trying to assign it a place in the history of building styles.  That the architect was an Austrian with a previous career in stage design might help explain the odd but attention-holding building exterior. 

The old Hearst building was intended as a company foothold in a developing cultural center.  William Randolph Hearst envisioned a New York theatre district growing to extend to the 50s in and around Columbus Circle.  He wanted his company to be a part of this new neighborhood that saw the completion of Carnegie Hall in 1891 and plans for a new Metropolitan Opera (never built), announced in 1923.  The original building was intended to serve as a base of a skyscraper to be realized in the coming years as the neighborhood flourished.  The allegorical statues on the building’s original façade speak to this vision: representing music, art, commerce, and industry. 

As history would have it, neither the cultural center nor the skyscraper would materialize, thanks in part to a string of developments including the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the rise in crime and fall of available financing which both plagued New York in the 1970s.  This section of midtown eventually became dense with corporate headquarters and luxury residences delivered by the rapid development of the 80s and the 90s.  Among the few cultural institutions that call this area home today (all either in Columbus Circle or within nine blocks) are Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Museum of Art and Design, and Carnegie Hall.   More dominant are structures like the enormous Time Warner Center by David Childs, the sleek Trump Tower by Phillip Johnson and Costas Kondylis, and the mammoth One Worldwide Plaza, also by Childs and containing luxury residences and the New York office of the global ad firm Ogilvy and Mather.  The new Hearst tower fits into this picture perfectly well, but many of its features set it above its neighbors. 

Hearst_LIGHTThe new tower structure atop the 1928 base is set slightly back and is dominated by repeating glass triangles outlined in steel, layered atop one another, and pointing up and down, like rows of the letter ‘V’ drawn touching one another along a lined notebook page.  Visible for miles, there are nine horizontal levels of these triangles, each of which are four stories tall.  At the building’s four corners, each level of the triangles alternates between sloping outward or inward, resulting in a jagged-edge, or chamfered vertical profile.  The architect refers to this design, which is highly emphasized by the deep blue glass and calm grey steel, as a diagrid (‘diagonal’ meets ‘grid’). 


Once inside, a visitor is met by a soaring lobby space, the only area open to the public.  It is entered through an east-facing revolving door on Eighth Avenue and is dominated by a three-story, sloping water sculpture of elegant glass blocks called Icefall.  Its cascade varies pleasingly from babbling brook to splashing stream and is fueled by rainwater captured from the tower’s roof.  In times of extreme weather this water is utilized for climate control to sequester heat in the summer and to emit it in the winter, along with humidity.  Cutting diagonally across this unusual fountain spanning the entire width of the lobby are three escalators. These hover above the water and move staff to and from the expansive upper landing, also referred to as the internal plaza.

1000 Hearst Atrium largeOnly staff and authorized guests are allowed past the fountain and up the escalator, a ride on which provides a long view of the artwork at the lobby’s center: a 7-story tall rectangular panel hand-painted with wavering vertical lines of coarse, brown mud by the artist Richard Long.  This visually soothing work, titled Riverlines, ties together both the flow of the fountain and the combination of colors and textures throughout the plaza: beige floors and furniture and tan, stucco walls. 

This plaza is a monumental six-story atrium with a glass roof delivering natural light and stunning views of the new office tower directly above.  Impressive as this is, what’s more immediately apparent are the dozen or so colossal metal columns rising straight up from the floor and at angles which work to support the tower above, reinforce the outer walls of the limestone base which bear some of the tower’s load, and draw your eye upward to emphasize the unusually shaped diagrid façade.  Each of these rectilinear columns is easily six feet across and stretches gracefully up from the plaza floor.  The original building is only a shell for this exalted, luminous space that contains a small art gallery, numerous tables and couches for impromptu meetings, a staff cafeteria, and a theatre. 

Of the different ways the new Hearst Tower can be read as ambitious, the most immediate one is that it’s there at all.  Hearst faced an exceptionally challenging environment when deciding to move forward with this building: they did so only months after 9-11 when building in New York City, building tall, and centralizing corporate operations were all at the very bottom of everyone’s ‘prudent things to do’ list.  But Hearst is a peculiar organization uniquely capable of exhibiting bravery through building. 

For many years Hearst has been controlled by a small group of trustees, many of which are descendents of William Randolph Hearst.  As such, the consolidation of power in so few hands makes a project of this size, scope, and character more attainable in less time than would be required by a more traditionally organized corporation with influence balanced among groups of investors.  In this sense, Hearst is a patron of architecture like the New York Times Corporation, which is largely directed by the Sulzberger and Ochs families and which also recently completed a large skyscraper in New York.  The reality is that these are enormously expensive projects and the determination which brings them into being generally exists only in small groups or single, exceptional minds.  Both Foster and the city should be grateful to the Hearst board, which invested in such a superb and timely project.

Like therapy, a building like the Hearst Tower can help put old, gnawing, and irrational anxieties to rest.  This reviewer sat in a subway car below Cortland Street at exactly 9:03am on 9-11.  The ripping noises and the rush of air I felt course through the tunnel and shake everyone to attention during that minute was sickening.  For the first time in my life I saw terror in the widened eyes of people around me.  So, while the anxieties of that awful day have long receded, there is something assuring about finally seeing a new skyscraper in Manhattan.  The level of determination and commitment demanded by a skyscraper is something everyone knew had endured unscathed by that September day, but it was comforting to see it materialize nonetheless.

The second, remarkable ambition of this new tower is its adherence to concepts of sustainable building.  A full 80% of the original, gutted structure of the 1928 building was recycled, a practice that is only now becoming common.  As a result of the diagrid frame of the exterior, a full 20% savings in the use of steel was realized.  Additional ‘points’ were earned by the Hearst project toward LEED Gold Certification for the use of energy saving, low-emittance glass, the selection of materials from sustainable sources, and a building-wide lighting system that adjusts automatically to the available daylight.  Overall, the building is 22% more efficient on average than one of a comparable size and program.  In contrast the original structure meant to help anchor a developing, local cultural center, this new tower forwards a global progress toward sustainable building.  Its investment in these and many other features will make it easier for others to do the same and to press further.

The third ambition of the Hearst Tower is to propose a new form for the New York skyline.  The diagrid, which can also be seen in Foster’s Swiss Reinsurance building in London and the Vivaldi Tower for Ernst & Young in Amsterdam, makes a striking contrast with all the right angles of the surrounding structures and signals a desire to pursue distinction.  But perhaps the finest feature of this new skyscraper is its abrupt vertical finish.  This puzzles many viewers, some of which question if Hearst forgot to complete its new home.  Instead of a spire or a crown of any type, the tower merely ceases its ascent and thereby draws attention to the rest of its form.  This speaks of a certainty and a sense of status assured enough that it need not make the kind of announcement represented by the triumphant spires seen along New York’s Avenues in the forms of the Empire State, Chrysler, or New York Times buildings. 

The meaning of a LEED certification, the originality of form, and the confidence to build again in an uncertain New York, all of which demand a close look at context, forms this building’s crown.  For now, the Hearst Tower is the city’s best new skyscraper of the 21st century.  It peers to the future with a heartening resolve and a spirit of tenacity most at home in New York.


2 responses to “An Invisible Crown Tops the New Hearst Tower

  1. Carolyn Lewis

    Beautiful building.

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