Building in Evolution
In the 1988, the original six-story building was designated a New York City landmark site. The building was more an architectural folly, or grotesque, than an example of good urban design. It had soaring, out-of-scale, fluted pylons capped by urns at the corners and flanking the entrances.
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The building aptly reflected Urban's reputation as a designer of stage sets and theaters. Urban pollution eventually blackened the golden cast stone, and the carved figures became indistinguishable. Long before Foster was commissioned, the building had become a squat, silly building of depressing appearance.
Most historians agree that William Randolph Hearst selected this site — on the west side of Eighth Avenue, between 56th and 57th Streets, a few blocks south of Columbus Circle — because he believed the theater district would eventually extend from Times Square this far north and that he would at some later date build a taller building on this six-story base. The Great Depression supposedly ended such plans for the enlargement.
Although the theater district never extended this far north, Columbus Circle has enjoyed a notable, recent resurrection with the construction of twin towers designed for Time-Warner by David Childs of SOM.
With the addition of the steel and glass tower, the original appearance of the cast-stone Hearst Building was restored. The stone once again has a golden hue when the light strikes it, and the figures and other oversized ornamental details are again clearly visible.
But with the blank look of temporary white frosting on the windows of the (unrented at this writing) ground floor stores, combined with the light-colored stone, one's eyes move rapidly past the original base to the eye-catching metal grid, which is highly reflective in the sunlight streaming along the streets and between high rise buildings. From the exterior, the six-story building is a mere base for the tower, bearing neither stylistic nor material relationship to the highrise above.
Dialogue or Discord
This disconnect calls into question Foster's statement that "echoing an approach developed in the Reichstag and the Great Court at the British Museum, the challenge in designing such a tower at some 70 years remove was to establish a creative dialogue between the old and new."
Some historic preservationists might decry Foster's solution at the Hearst Tower as a "facade-ectomy" in which a dramatically new and different structure is created behind a historic exterior wall, leaving it standing as a generally nonstructural, disembodied element.
At Hearst Tower, one can see from the outside that where once there were upper office floors of the original building, there is now a vast, brilliantly lit, open space. I find this to be a successful, architecturally exciting if drastic revision.
In the Foster Tradition
At the Reichstag, Foster designed a glass dome that not only flooded the building with light but created a new architectural symbol out of a building previously associated with the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party.
At the Great Court, Foster refocused visitors' attention on a great space by freeing it of cluttered rooms and by again topping the building with a beautifully articulated glass canopy.
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