If the bank has its way—and who’s to stop it?—workers will soon take acetylene torches to the 700-foot, 57-year-old building at 270 Park Avenue, razing and then replacing it with a 1,200-foot-high hyper-headquarters ample enough for 15,000 people. Union Carbide will become the tallest structure ever demolished by peaceful means, grabbing that mournful title from the 1908 Singer Building, which came down in 1968. The de Blasio administration is cheering: last year’s East Midtown upzoning was intended to produce just such behemoths. The multibillion-dollar project will throw off about $40 million to improve streets and subway stations, and rack up thousands of construction and office jobs. It’s true that Park Avenue between 47th and 48th Street is as fine a spot for a supertall tower as any in Manhattan. Given that One Vanderbilt, now under construction, is heading for 1,400 feet, the next JPMorgan Chase tower seems positively stumpy. Unfortunately, a building stands in the way of this glorious future, and this one is special.
The tower at 270 Park Avenue was designed for Union Carbide largely by Natalie Griffin de Blois, a crack designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s New York office. As the rare woman in the testosterone-dominated world of midcentury architecture, she was (and remains) overshadowed by Gordon Bunshaft, the magus of modernist architects. Her career began inauspiciously. De Blois was working for a tiny but distinguished design firm in 1944, when she rebuffed a male colleague. The man complained to the boss, who resolved the intra-office sexual tension in the usual way: by firing her. “Well, I’ll call up Mr. Skidmore,” he told de Blois. “He’s downstairs — see if he needs anybody.” He did, and so did Bunshaft, who came to lean heavily on her talents.
the administration was pushing a major overhaul of the zoning around Grand Central Terminal, which would allow bulkier towers and create a fund for street and subway improvements. Preservationists worried that the rush to build bigger would threaten the area’s architectural treasury. Several groups sent the Landmarks and Preservation Commission a list of vulnerable buildings; eager to clear the way for the mayor’s rezoning plan, the LPC made a dozen new designations, all but one from before World War II. Union Carbide didn’t make the cut.
There may be a glimmer of hope. The LPC never decided not to designate 270 Park Avenue, leaving open the possibility that it might one day take action. So far, though, the nominally independent agency is behaving like a compliant instrument, its mission to safeguard history tempered by political pressures. The progressive mayor of New York wanted a mega financial institution to anchor his preferred business district, and no preservationist fussbudgets were going to get in the way.
And so the destruction of 270 Park Avenue will act out a ruthless architectural Darwinism, which treats buildings as mere financial tools, to be discarded when they become a burden or a constraint. Modernist architects helped formulate that philosophy. Their style can have little claim to reverence, when it cleansed away so much history without sentimentality or nostalgia, and when it fetishized the use of technology that was more easily discarded than repaired. And yet a great building is more than just an envoy from a particular architectural past; it’s a statement that aspiration is worthwhile, that quality has value, that urban life is not just a matter of metrics. If New York can’t distinguish standouts from knockoffs, it doesn’t deserve the next generation of architecture. And then it becomes a disposable city.