Architect Lord Norman Foster Talks About His Addition to Madison Avenue

The first addition to New York’s skyline by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Lord Norman Foster opened in October 2006 with a red-carpeted gala attended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor George Pataki and Senator Charles Schumer. The building, Foster’s 42-story diamond-grid steel and glass addition to the Hearst Building, an individual landmark at Eighth Avenue and West 57th Street, won the 2006 Emporis Skyscraper Award, naming it the best skyscraper constructed in the world that year.

Last month, Foster presented a new proposal to Landmarks for a slim, skyscraper addition to the five-story Parke- Bernet gallery on Madison Avenue and East 76th Street, located in a City historic district. While comparisons can be drawn to the lauded Hearst Tower, Landmarks rejected the Madison Avenue addition by a tally of nine to one. City- Land talked to Foster about New York’s permitting processes, its mutable skyline, and Landmarks’ rejection of his addition to the Upper East Side.

A Movable Voice. Numbers best explain Foster’s achievements. Since opening his firm in 1967, the London-based Foster + Partners has received 430 awards and won 70 competitions. Governments and private developers have commissioned its work in 61 countries, and Foster-designed buildings stand in London, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Tokyo and Singpore. His recent works include the largest construction project in the world, the Beijing Airport, along with the Millau Viaduct in France, the world’s tallest vehicular bridge, and the New German Parliament, a transformative addition to Berlin’s historic Reichstag. In 1999, Foster became the 21st Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate, and the Queen of England honored him with a Life Peerage, as Lord Foster of Thames Bank.

In New York, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation named Foster architect for 200 Greenwich Street, anticipated to be the second building constructed on the WTC site and Foster’s second addition to the city’s skyline.

Enlightened City. Comparing New York to other cities, Foster started with the City’s concept of as-of-right development, stating there is “no equivalent.” Describing the concept as being allowed to design to an imagined “line in the sky,” Foster found New York “enlightened” and “quite refreshing” for that reason. Foster alluded to his projects by adding “if you diverge from that line in the sky for whatever reason,” you start a process that tips your design into the public discussion and “you might disagree with its outcome.”

A Question of Timing. Foster’s Hearst Tower came before Landmarks only six weeks after 9/11. Asked about the impact, Foster said that Landmarks “focused on the issue at hand,” untouched by the realities three blocks south of its Municipal Building hearing room. But other witnesses disagree, claiming an uncertainty tinged the room over whether anything would be built again. One preservationist remembers that opposing the project seemed wrong. Approval itself took less than three hours from the start of the developer’s presentation to the final vote. Landmarks justified its vote by stressing Hearst’s original vision for a tower on the site, evidenced by the six elevator shafts located within the building’s short, six-story frame.

With 980 Madison, an overcrowded hearing room filled with vocal opponents, including the writer Tom Wolfe, listened to Foster’s vision that a vertical addition would best protect the integrity of the 1949 base. His design went through fifty variations before reaching the elliptical, slim tower that appeared to “float” separately from the historic gallery. Foster provided multiple renderings including a bulky tower that mirrored the Carlyle Hotel’s shape and detailed why each was inferior. As he finished, the hearing room broke into applause. The commissioners called the design a brilliant, architectural masterpiece before they rejected it as inappropriate for the Upper East Side Historic District.

Collective Design. Foster found the transparency of the process, the caliber of Landmarks’ comments and the quality of the commissioners remarkable. Overall, Foster said “the design either finds favor or it doesn’t,” and what emerges from the hearing process is “a collective opinion” that forms the design. When asked whether two commissioners who had commented that only a two- to five-story addition would be appropriate for 980 Madison foreclosed the possibility of a slim, tower addition, Foster did not see it that way. He counted nine of the ten commissioners as telling developer Aby Rosen to return with another rendition, and Foster said they intended to do so.

Visions of Context. Foster’s view remains that 980 Madison’s design fit within its upper Manhattan block. “There are varied opinions on what is appropriate or what is contextual,” but he said his past work – like acclaimed additions to the Reichstag and London’s Great Court – has stood the test of time. Foster said when the public looks now at the final buildings, it “endorses his vision.” — Molly Brennan


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