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Norman Foster is the Mozart of modernism. He is nimble and prolific, and his buildings are marked by lightness and grace. He works very hard, but his designs don't show the effort. He brings an air of unnerving aplomb to everything he creates—from skyscrapers to airports, research laboratories to art galleries, chairs to doorknobs. His ability to produce surprising work that doesn't feel labored must drive his competitors crazy.
Foster, who is English and lives in London, is an artist with the savvy of a corporate consultant. He knows how to convince chief executives that the avant-garde is in their interest. In the 1980s, he persuaded HSBC, the international bank, to spend nearly a billion dollars to build a tower in Hong Kong; the novel structure, in which five enormous steel modules were stacked on top of one another, was the most innovative skyscraper since the Seagram Building. In 2000, he secured a commission from the Hearst Corporation, the publishing firm, to design its new headquarters, in Manhattan. The gorgeous, gemlike tower, which will officially open in a few months, is Foster's first big project in America.
In the 1920, William Randolph Hearst commissioned Joseph Urban to design his company's first headquarters: six stories of megalomaniacal pomp on Eighth Avenue between Fifty-sixth and Fifty-seventh Streets. Despite its low height, everything about the yellowish stone structure suggests grandiosity, especially the monumental fluted columns that stretch higher than the building itself, giving it the look of a base for a much taller structure. (Hearst and Urban had planned to add a tower, but they never did.) The Hearst Corporation long ago outgrew this zany palazzo, dispatching most of its employees to rented space nearby. When the company decided to gather its operations under one roof, its executives smartly concluded that Urban's building was too much fun to give up. Hearst hired Foster to build something on top of it, and in October 2001, he unveiled a scheme to add forty stories to the original headquarters. It was the first major construction project to be announced in New York after September 11.
As with all Foster designs, the Hearst tower is sleek, refined, and filled with new technology. It looks nothing like the Jazz Age confection on which it sits. The addition is sheathed in glass and stainless steel—a shiny missile shooting out of Urban's stone launching pad. The tower's most prominent feature is the brash geometric pattern of its glass and steel, which the architect calls a "diagrid": a diagonal grid of supporting trusses, covering the facade with a series of four-story-high triangles. These make up much of the building's supporting structure, and they do it with impressive economy: the pattern uses 20 percent less steel than a conventional skyscraper frame would require.
Foster's brilliance can be seen in the way that he exploits this engineering trick for aesthetic pleasure. The triangles are the playful opposites of the dark Xs that slash the facade of the John Hancock Center, in Chicago. They give the building a jubilantly jagged shape. Foster started with a box, then sliced off the corners and ran triangles up and down the sides, pulling them in and out—a gargantuan exercise in nip and tuck. The result resembles a many-faceted diamond. The corners of the shaft slant in and out as the tower rises, and the whole form shimmers.
Such a scheme could have become a pretentious exercise in structural exhibitionism, but in Foster's hands it presents the perfect foil for Urban's building. The design avoids the two most obvious approaches: imitating the style of the base or erecting a neutral glass box. Joseph Urban's goal in the original Hearst Building was to create a respectable form of flamboyance, and Foster has figured out how to do the same thing with his tower, but in unquestionably modern terms, and without compromising his commitment to structural innovation. Foster is at his best when solving puzzles like this one; unlike most elite architects, he isn't obsessed with creating his own pure forms. His gift for building a meaningful conversation between new and old architecture became apparent six years ago, with the unveiling of the renovated Reichstag, in Berlin: Foster placed a glass dome atop an ornate nineteenth-century masonry structure, reinterpreting the building's monumentality in modernist terms. And, in 2000, he enlivened the courtyard of the British Museum with a steel-and-glass canopy that casts a delicate geometric shadow on the floor.
In some ways, the Hearst tower calls to mind a famous unbuilt design from a heyday of modernism: a six-hundred-foot skyscraper in Philadelphia, proposed by Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng in 1957, which would have had a zigzag shape based on a framework of triangular supports. Kahn and Tyng weren't the only designers to have understood that the triangle is an inherently strong and efficient structural form; Buckminster Fuller and the engineer Robert Le Ricolais made the same claim. Foster's use of triangles is, in this sense, a borrowed notion. But most of the older schemes had the visual appeal of something made with an Erector set. Foster took the ideas, updated them, and produced not just a real building but an exceptionally elegant one.
Indeed, the Hearst tower is the most beautiful skyscraper to go up in New York since 1967, when Skidmore, Owings & Merrill completed the stunningly serene 140 Broadway, in Lower Manhattan. After all the inchoate, collagelike skyscrapers that have been built around Times Square in the past decade, it's refreshing to see a tall building that clearly emerges from rational thought. Yet the Hearst tower also has a jauntiness that most modern buildings lack. The venerable modernist tradition of allowing a building's structure to determine its form has often led to pious, heavy-handed architecture. If you believe that there is something noble about a building expressing its structure, you will like the Hearst tower. But if you believe that it is more important for buildings to energize the skyline, you will like the Hearst tower every bit as much.
The pleasure of the Hearst tower doesn't end with the exterior. It has one of the most dramatic entrances of any tower in New York. You go in through Urban's original arch—which, along with the rest of the base's exterior, has been meticulously restored—and up a set of escalators. What comes next is an explosive surprise such as has not been seen in the city since Frank Lloyd Wright led people through a low, tight lobby into the rotunda of the Guggenheim. The escalators deposit you in a vast atrium that contains the upper floors of the old Urban building, which Foster has carved out and roofed over with glass. The inside walls of the old building have been covered with stucco, and you look up at three stories of windows—something one rarely sees, except perhaps in a cathedral—which give the space the feel of an outdoor piazza.
Hearst employees will be able to eat in a café within the atrium, and so will be on a par with their rivals at the Condé Nast Building, in Times Square, which features a sensuous Frank Gehry–designed cafeteria. But the Hearst space isn't just chic; it's majestic. The atrium is enhanced by huge, diagonal structural supports for the tower, which slice down into it, and skylights offer thrilling views of the tower rising directly above.
Unfortunately, it isn't easy to see the Hearst Building in the cityscape. It is blocked on the west by a banal brick apartment building, on the north by another apartment tower and, beyond that, by the new Time Warner Center, at Columbus Circle, which looks all the more uninspired in comparison. This situation isn't much different from that of most iconic New York skyscrapers, which are visible only in pieces. (The Empire State Building is a happy exception.) But the partial sightings of the Hearst Building that are offered up and down Eighth Avenue or along Fifty-seventh Street are so enticing that they end up increasing its allure—like a flash of leg in a slit skirt. The best view comes from the Upper East Side, around the Metropolitan Museum, since nothing blocks the Hearst Building to the northeast. From the Met's roof, you can see the tower emerge in its full glory, rising over Central Park, at once fitting into New York's skyline and transforming it.
The New Yorker, December 19, 2005