Third time’s a charm

Sharon McHugh
Sunday 25 Oct 2009

Foster’s 980 Madison wins approval, finally!

Two years after rejecting Foster and Partners' controversial 30-storey glass tower proposal for 980 Madison Avenue, the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) has approved a smaller, less intensive expansion of the five-storey gallery building. The new design, Foster’s third, tops out at 108 feet, is set back along Madison Avenue, and features a light bronze coloured scrim. The design is a tame one for Foster, who is known for creating buildings that break the rules rather than follow them, but the changes were necessary for the project to go forward.

The road to the project’s approval has been a long and arduous one for developer Aby Rosen and his architect Norman Foster, who are both associated with great projects in the city. Foster’s Hearst building is much admired and Rosen is the owner-cum-curator of a distinguished group of properties that include the Lever House, the Seagram Building and 40 Bond. Yet, in spite of their architectural good deeds elsewhere in the city, the team’s tower design was met with a firestorm of opposition from neighbourhood residents and a cool reception from New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff that doomed it to the archive of good ideas gone bad. The design was ultimately denied by the LPC as being too ambitious for its historic Upper East Side location. Two and a half years hence, Foster returned to the LPC with a second scheme- this one a five storey box wrapped in a dark bronze coloured scrim set atop, yet back from, the existing gallery building. It too was rejected by the LPC as being out of scale for the neighbourhood. The third design, approved last night by a vote of 7-to-1 is like the second one, only a storey shorter and with a redesigned scrim that is lighter in colour and feel.

In a statement expressing strong support of the proposal, AIA NY Chapter President James McCullar and Executive Director Rick Bell called the design, “an appropriate addition to an existing building in an historic district”…"a modern complement to the brick upper level that makes up many of the elegant buildings in the neighbourhood”.

In spite of losing the opportunity to create an iconic piece of architecture in the district, Aby Rosen thanked the board for its approval. “I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate that you can build with distinction in a historic district if you respond responsibly and work collaboratively with the Landmarks Commission", he said.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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