From the windows of Two Penn Plaza, the offices of Architectural Record survey a tough-talking, broad-shouldered scene straight out of Miracle at 34th Street: It’s where the garment district collides with Macy’s, animated by the daily headlong rush of thousands of commuters inclining toward Pennsylvania Station and home. The renovated interiors may soften our perceptions‚ street odors fade away and the anachronistic perspective outside seems almost romantic, if frantic—until we return to the street.
The view of Two Penn Plaza presents a different face. This great gorilla of a building must be one of New York’s most deplored. Its list of detractors includes Joseph Giovannini, who, writing in New York magazine in April 2003, listed Two Penn as one of the eight worst buildings to have blighted our skyline: “We tore down McKim, Mead and White’s Pennsylvania Station for this?” (Yes, ironically Record occupies the site of the greatest architectural travesty of the 20th century.)
Or consider the true tale of two British ladies recently overheard by one of our staff members. “Oh, look, dear,” said she, dutifully pointing to her guidebook. “It says this is the ugliest building in New York!” At which point, they shook their heads, clucked their tongues, and marched on—a vignette straight out of a New Yorker cartoon.
While stone throwing comes easy to any critic, this behemoth presents an especially broad target. Designed in 1968 by the offices of Charles Luckman (deceased architect and former president of the Lever Brothers corporation, Horatio Alger Award–winner Luckman had commissioned the serene Lever House and went on to build Boston’s Prudential Center and Cape Canaveral), the building combines many of the worst impulses of the 1960s. Set on a large podium, the 29-story building runs for almost two blocks along Seventh Avenue, sitting athwart 32nd Street and blocking the view of Madison Square Garden, itself no picture postcard. We’ve learned a lot since 1968. Part of our derision comes from comparison with McKim’s masterpiece and the bad karma that inevitably surrounds any structure that would try to replace the lofty vaults and smoky recesses of the original homage to the Baths of Caracalla. Yet Two Penn looms within our city with persistence, offering little in compensation for its daily intake and discharge of humanity through its bowels. While lively commerce occurs inside the pedestrian malls on its lower levels and at financial institutions up on the podium, the street offers only a couple of newsstands and a folding table for hawkers for the homeless.
We are struck by its abruptness. Like other big buildings from the ’60s, an open plaza separates Two Penn from the avenue. The wall then bolts up from a travertine-clad lobby toward an unrelieved facade consisting of alternating bands of precast panels and tinted glazing. That long, unarticulated, unmodulated wall fares poorly when compared to the massive, though more fine-grained, buildings that surround it, such as the Pennsylvania Hotel across the street. Lacking architectural detail, scale-giving elements, or urban amenity, Two Penn breathes the worst kind of architectural arrogance.
So why beat up on poor old Two Penn at this late date? Because, throughout the United States, we continue to make similar mistakes. Tour any major city and you will find its siblings—boxy towers covered in mirrored or tinted glazing that detract rather than add to the fabric of our cities, altering the psychology of passersby and the people who must enter them each day. And they are not all 37 years old like the New York version! The sad fact is that we continue to build such soulless, unrooted structures this year, every year, in downtown San Diego, or San Francisco, or Chicago. Whatever the era, they’re not good enough.
We architects often blame others, primarily our developer clients, decrying their stingy budgets and unenlightened civic sensibilities. The real world, we say, makes real demands and forces compromises that most people just do not understand. We have to make a living. The zoning laws are punitive; the financial models control the outcome. However, we architects serve as guardians not only of health, safety, and welfare, but also of quality of life in each individual project and for the cities that those buildings add up to. There is no excuse for a poor design.
Here is an unalterable fact: All of us have to live with the structures that architects make, whoever the client, whatever the rationalization. Have you advanced work that you honestly could not defend in a design jury? Did you ever tell a client “No”? When your city awakens tomorrow morning, what will it find? What do the guidebooks say about your work? Meanwhile, should you find yourself in New York, come by Two Penn Plaza for a reminder lesson and a visit to architectural record. Take a deep breath and plunge on in, because regardless of the guidebooks, the view is terrific from inside.
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