Foster + Partners' Hearst Tower

Monday 12 Mar 2012

A building that almost wasn't is celebrated in film

The Hearst Tower in New York City marks an important moment in architectural history. As the first skyscraper to be built in the city post 9/11, it sent a message to the world that America’s great tradition of building towers was not dead as many feared but that it was alive and well, infused with a new vitality and informed by a different set of values. Indeed Hearst Tower was the first of a new generation of skyscrapers that were more smartly built - both greener and more technologically advanced - making it a benchmark for our industry and for the city of New York.

But for all the building’s accomplishments, and there are many, Hearst Tower is largely unknown outside architectural circles. Now, a new film about the building’s history and the publishing magnate that brought it to fruition provides a behind the scenes look at this architectural and engineering marvel, a building celebrated with superlatives; being the first LEED Gold building in Manhattan, the city’s first diagrid structure, and a building that New York architecture critic, Paul Goldberger calls ‘the best skyscraper to built in New York in the last 30 years’. Produced by WNET TV, New York’s public media outlet, Treasures of New York: Hearst Tower provides public access to this otherwise private building.

In the film’s opening, we see a New York of the early 1920s. It is here that story of the Hearst Tower begins as a dream not realized. Built in 1928 and designed by the Viennese architect Joseph Urban, the six-storey art deco structure, known as the International Magazine Building, was designed to be a tower, but the Great Depression and World Wars set in, putting an end to Hearst’s dream to consolidate his publishing holdings under a single roof. Hearst’s vision for the building would not be realized until some 78 years later when the Hearst Corporation commissioned Foster & Partners to design a groundbreaking 46-storey glass and steel tower to sit atop the limestone building. But even then, at the height of a building boon, that vision proved elusive. The Hearst board was to meet to approve Foster’s design on September 11th 2001, and we all know what happened next. The city went into a crisis mode the depth of which it had never known and the tower was put on hold once again. Thankfully that decision was a momentary pause to catch one’s breath.

Not long after, with New Yorkers lamenting the loss of the Twin Towers and hankering to heal the skyline, the city came together in an unprecedented show of unity to get Hearst Tower built. The Landmarks Commission, known as a tough customer when it comes to granting approval for expanding landmark buildings, of which Hearst was one, unanimously approved Foster’s design, demonstrating perhaps more than anything that Hearst Tower was not just another building project in the city but an opportunity to emotionally connect New Yorkers to the skyline.

Beyond the compelling introduction, which is engaging, heartwarming, and inspiring all in one, the film explores the building’s impressive features one by one and tours its facilities room by room, including the offices for the magazines, each of which occupies a full floor logically divided into editorial and production zones separated by common space, the digital photo studio, a 165-seat theatre, the health club and the famous Good Housekeeping Institute where products from laundry detergents to beauty creams are rigourously tested in the hope of earning the Good Housekeeping seal. Every space is awash in natural light with million dollars views of Central Park and the Hudson River, a feat accomplished in no small part due to the use of the diagrid, which created a columnless environment throughout the building.

Among the building’s impressive energy features are the diagrid itself, which uses 20% less steel than a conventional skyscrapers, low-e glass, sensored lighting, radiant under-slab heating, and a three-storey sculptured water feature in the building’s atrium, designed by James Carpenter, that cools the building in the summer and humidifies it in the winter. Earning LEED Gold was a major achievement for this building. But even more impressive is the fact that the building recently earned LEED Platinum for Existing Buildings, which was accomplished by rebulbing the entire building and ‘tweaking it’ as Lou Nowikas, Hearst’s Senior Director of Corporate Real Estate and Facilities Planning said, to maximize the building’s potential to save even more energy and hence more dollars.

The story of Hearst Tower is a gratifying one, reminding us as architects why we got into this business in the first place: to make a difference. Hearst Tower is indeed an unusual structure, one that people either like or hate, drawing comparisons to a ‘missile silo’ from the Boston Globe architecture critic, Robert Campbell, FAIA, and called ‘mesmerizing’ by New York Times critic Nicolai Ourousoff.

Regardless of where on sits on the opinion poll, Hearst Tower marches to the beat of its own drum and in spite of being one of the largest and busiest architectural practices in the world, Foster and Partners has brought to this building a strong identity and high design standard and given it a clarity it never before had. And by contrasting the new work with the old in form and material, they have created a rich dialog between the two producing in the end a building that is vintage vanguard.

Treasures of New York: Hearst Tower can be viewed online here. The film is part of ongoing series, to be examined here, that looks at the institutions that have made New York great. Included in the series are Lincoln Center, The Armory, and forthcoming films on Pratt Institute and the architecture of Costas Kondlylis, a New York firm specializing in modern hi-rise residential design.

Sharon McHugh
US Correspondent

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