432-park-avenue-via-curbed ny

Who Owns the View?

I had of course seen the building before, mostly from airplanes. It was a different sort of big and, out of the cramped portal of my airplane, looked problematic: exceptionally tall, but not in the usual way. I had read all about it. Four thirty-two Park Avenue was an infamous building, long before ground was broken for it.


Now I am looking at it from my old turf, the reservoir in Central Park. For the first time since I moved, more than five years ago, I’m running on the track, weaving around strolling tourists, circling the glorious man-made lake, doing something I have probably done at least 2,000 times before. This is home.


I have always felt a kind of ownership toward the skyline view looking south. If the weather is right, as it is today—crisp, cool, dry—it’s not hard to think that the buildings stretched out in front of me are mine. I share them with millions of others, but when I am out here, especially during the week when I’m mostly with other runners, I feel like I own this specific patch of New York and the views to the heavens (or what passes for them in Manhattan). The magnificent buildings, the city itself, and especially the park give my steps an extra spring.


Through the years, the skyline has changed, of course. A new building would appear on the horizon and I’d redraw my mental map. I did not always welcome these new additions (this predated my interest in architecture), but they were inevitable. They were, after all (let’s be real), authentically New York.


I remember watching the Time Warner Center rise, at Columbus Circle; it seemed large and imposing, an ominous sign for the city to come. But my worries were assuaged by knowing it would be home to Jazz at Lincoln Center, a cultural jewel inside a glitzy corporate colossus. The presence of jazz somehow made the building less threatening. Foster + Partners’ addition to the Hearst Tower, tucked in behind some taller neighbors two blocks away, was a delight. And a fairly modest one at that. Clocking in at just (just?) 46 stories, it was a joyful break from the rigid glass and steel boxes around it.


Today, however, there is an interloper. A building has crashed the party while I was away. If it were merely a glass box of 40 or 50 harmless stories, I might have missed it entirely, but there is no missing Rafael Vinoly’s 432 Park Avenue.


I remember the press accounts from the time of the roll-out in December 2015: “the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere,” New York was told, breathlessly. Subsequent press accounts revealed it to be the home of Saudi plutocrats and other equally nefarious members of the global tenth of 1%. These sketchy demographics seem utterly irrelevant now, as I make my way south on the reservoir.


It’s not so much an ugly building, as a confounding one. At 96 stories and 1,396 feet, planted on a tiny plot of Manhattan schist, it visually reads like a cross between an optical illusion and a practical joke: the same damn floor plate seemingly repeated ad infinitum. This is the first very tall building I’ve seen whose height somehow makes it feel smaller and somewhat inert, like a clunky, unsharpened pencil.


I once had a pug I described as “a big dog trapped inside a small dog’s body.” Four thirty-two Park is a short building trapped inside a tall building’s body. Most super-tall buildings reach to the sky, by virtue of their height alone. This one somehow squats its way to the heavens.


I once had a pug I described as “a big dog trapped inside a small dog’s body.” Four thirty-two Park is a short building trapped inside a tall building’s body. Most super-tall buildings reach to the sky, by virtue of their height alone. This one somehow squats its way to the heavens: it manages to both loom over its neighbors and slouch at the same time, a rare architectural achievement. It’s like a six-foot-eight teenager who doesn’t play basketball.


While weaving around still more tourists, now strolling three abreast around the reservoir (I curse them, feeling like a New Yorker again), I realize there’s no point in blaming greed for spoiling my view. That’s too simplistic and misses an essential point about my hometown. Virtually every building I love in New York was constructed for a specific purpose: to turn a buck. But many of them, especially the elegant apartments lining Fifth Avenue and Central Park West, the ones surrounding the reservoir, gave something back in exchange for their size. They were built as part of the community. Your dentist had a ground-floor office in one of these magnificent structures. So did your shrink.


Even the hulking Time-Warner Center, standing at one of the grandest entrances to Central Park, engages in some sort of civic exchange. Its  development helped fund improvements to the massive 59th Street subway stop beneath Columbus Circle; its two towers were shaped to preserve view corridors (and are much more beautiful for it).


Four thirty-two Park was only nominally designed by architects. It was shaped and stretched by diabolically clever real estate lawyers, whose aesthetic sense here appears to be a pile of legal briefs, stacked to the sky. I try to turn away from it, but can’t and instead keep running, circling, until it’s safely behind me.



Featured image via Curbed New York.


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