Pride and Nostalgia Mix in The Times’s New Home
Writing about your employer’s new building is a tricky task. If I love it, the reader will suspect that I’m currying favor with the man who signs my checks. If I hate it, I’m just flaunting my independence.
So let me get this out of the way: As an employee, I’m enchanted with our new building on Eighth Avenue. The grand old 18-story neo-Gothic structure on 43rd Street, home to The New York Times for nearly a century, had its sentimental charms. But it was a depressing place to work. Its labyrinthine warren of desks and piles of yellowing newspapers were redolent of tradition but also seemed an anachronism.
The new 52-story building between 40th and 41st Streets, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, is a paradise by comparison. A towering composition of glass and steel clad in a veil of ceramic rods, it delivers on Modernism’s age-old promise to drag us — in this case, The Times — out of the Dark Ages.
I enjoy gazing up at the building’s sharp edges and clean lines when I emerge from the subway exit at 40th Street and Seventh Avenue in the morning. I love being greeted by the cluster of silvery birch trees in the lobby atrium, their crooked trunks sprouting from a soft blanket of moss. I even like my fourth-floor cubicle, an oasis of calm overlooking the third-floor newsroom.
Yet the spanking new building is infused with its own nostalgia.
The last decade has been a time of major upheaval in newspaper journalism, with editors and reporters fretting about how they should adapt to the global digital age. In New York that anxiety has been compounded by the terrorist attacks of 2001, which prompted many corporations to barricade themselves inside gilded fortresses.
Mr. Piano’s building is rooted in a more comforting time: the era of corporate Modernism that reached its apogee in New York in the 1950s and 60s. If he has gently updated that ethos for the Internet age, the building is still more a paean to the past than to the future.
What makes a great New York skyscraper? The greatest of them tug at our heartstrings. We seek them out in the skyline, both to get our bearings and to anchor ourselves psychologically in the life of the city.
Mr. Piano’s tower is unlikely to inspire that kind of affection. The building’s most original feature is a scrim of horizontal ceramic rods that diffuses sunlight and lends the exterior a clean, uniform appearance. Mr. Piano used a similar screening system for his 1997 Debis Tower for Daimler-Benz in Berlin, to mixed results. For The Times, he spent months adjusting the rods’ color and scale, and in the early renderings they had a lovely, ethereal quality.
Viewed from a side street today, they have the precision and texture of a finely tuned machine. But despite the architect’s best efforts, the screens look flat and lifeless in the skyline. The uniformity of the bars gives them a slightly menacing air, and the problem is compounded by the battleship gray of the tower’s steel frame. Their dull finish deprives the facades of an enlivening play of light and shadow.
The tower’s crown is also disappointing. To hide the rooftop’s mechanical equipment and create the impression that the tower is dissolving into the sky, Mr. Piano extended the screens a full six stories past the top of the building’s frame. Yet the effect is ragged and unfinished. Rather than gathering momentum as it rises, the tower seems to fizzle.
But if the building is less than spectacular in the skyline, it comes to life when it hits the ground. All of Mr. Piano’s best qualities are in evidence here — the fine sense of proportion, the love of structural detail, the healthy sense of civic responsibility.
The architect’s goal is to blur the boundary between inside and out, between the life of the newspaper and the life of the street. The lobby is encased entirely in glass, and its transparency plays delightfully against the muscular steel beams and spandrels that support the soaring tower.
People entering the building from Eighth Avenue can glance past rows of elevator banks all the way to the fairy tale atrium garden and beyond, to the plush red interior of TheTimesCenter auditorium. From the auditorium, you gaze back through the trees to the majestic lobby space. In effect, the lobby itself is a continuous public performance.
The sense of transparency is reinforced by the people streaming through the lobby. The flow recalls the dynamic energy of Grand Central Terminal’s Great Hall or the Rockefeller Center plaza, proud emblems of early-20th-century mobility.
Architecturally, however, The New York Times Building owes its greatest debt to postwar landmarks like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House or Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building — designs that came to embody the progressive values and industrial power of a triumphant America. Their streamlined glass-and-steel forms proclaimed a faith in machine-age efficiency and an open, honest, democratic society.
Newspaper journalism, too, is part of that history. Transparency, independence, the free flow of information, moral clarity, objective truth — these notions took hold and flourished in the last century at papers like The Times. To many this idealism reached its pinnacle in the period stretching from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War to Watergate, when journalists grew accustomed to speaking truth to power, and the public could still accept reporters as impartial observers.
This longing for an idealistic time permeates the main newsroom. Pierced by a double-height skylight well on the third and fourth floors, the newsroom has a cool, insular feel even as the facades of the surrounding buildings press in from the north and south. The well functions as a center of gravity, focusing attention on the paper’s nerve center. From many of the desks you also enjoy a view of the delicate branches of the atrium’s birch trees.
Internal staircases link the various newsroom floors to encourage interaction. The work cubicles are flanked by rows of glass-enclosed offices, many of which are unassigned so that they can be used for private phone conversations or spontaneous meetings. Informal groupings of tables and chairs are also scattered about, creating a variety of social spaces.
From the higher floors, which house the corporate offices of The Times and 22 floors belonging to the developer Forest City Ratner, the views become more expansive. Cars rush up along Eighth Avenue. Billboards and electronic signs loom from all directions. By the time you reach the 14th-floor cafeteria, the entire city begins to come into focus, with dazzling views to the north, south, east and west. A long, narrow balcony is suspended within the cafeteria’s double-height space, reinforcing the impression that you’re floating in the Midtown skyline.
Many of my colleagues complained about the building at first. There’s too much empty space in the newsroom, some groused; they missed the intimacy of the old one. The glass offices look sterile, and no one will use them, some said.
I suspect they’ll all adjust. One of the joys of working in an ambitious new building is that you can watch its personality develop. From week to week, you see more and more lone figures chatting on cellphones in the small glass offices with their feet atop a table. And even my grumpiest colleagues now concede that a little sunlight and fresh air are not a bad thing.
Even so, you never feel that the building embraces the future wholeheartedly. Rather than move beyond the past, Mr. Piano has fine-tuned it. The most contemporary features — the computerized louvers and blinds that regulate the flow of light into the interiors — are technological innovations rather than architectural ones; the regimented rows of identical wood-paneled cubicles chosen by the interior design firm Gensler could be a stage set for a 2007 remake of “All the President’s Men,” minus the 1970s hairstyles.
Maybe this accounts for the tower’s slight whiff of melancholy.
(hc加粗體) Few of today’s most influential architects buy into straightforward notions of purity or openness. Having witnessed an older generation’s mostly futile quest to effect social change through architecture, they opt for the next best thing: to expose, through their work, the psychic tensions and complexities that their elders sublimated. By bringing warring forces to the surface, they reason, a building will present a franker reading of contemporary life.
Journalism, too, has moved on. Reality television, anonymous bloggers, the threat of ideologically driven global media enterprises — such forces have undermined newspapers’ traditional mission. Even as journalists at The Times adjust to their new home, they worry about the future. As advertising inches decline, the paper is literally shrinking; its page width was reduced in August. And some doubt that newspapers will even exist in print form a generation from now.
Depending on your point of view, the Times Building can thus be read as a poignant expression of nostalgia or a reassertion of the paper’s highest values as it faces an uncertain future. Or, more likely, a bit of both.