Why Foster’s Hearst Tower is no gherkin

By Robert Campbell, FAIA

Now that it has been there for a year and I’ve had my chance to learn to love it, maybe it’s a good time to say why I dislike the Hearst Tower in Manhattan so much.

The Hearst, which of course was designed by Foster + Partners, looks like a misplaced missile silo. It’s as if the Pentagon, with its usual deftness of touch, had confused its maps and located this chunk of military hardware in Manhattan instead of Florida.

Hearst Tower

Photo © Chuck Choi .The new Hearst Tower sits on top of a six-story base built in the 1920s.

t’s an office building, folks. People work there. But nothing about the Hearst, as seen from outdoors, suggests the possibility of human habitation. It appears to be a cage for a single massive object.

I don’t apologize for the image. One of the problems with Modernism, as a stylistic method, is that it tends to ignore the fact that buildings look like other things. And that’s how most people understand them. People say the abstract boxlike shapes of Modernist office towers look like the cartons the real towers came in. The world we live in is a world of resemblances.

That’s why the Brits call Foster’s London tower the “the Gherkin.” But there’s a difference. “Gherkin,” which of course means “pickle,” is an affectionate name that humanizes the building. I haven’t yet heard an affectionate nickname for the Hearst.

Parenthesis: I toured the Gherkin with a Foster partner a few days before it opened. I was charmed by it, despite the fact that much of its architecture is the product of clever solutions to problems that didn’t have to occur in the first place, since they were all the result of the building’s odd shape. Just to name one: How do you handle the window washing for a pickle-shaped tower? The boom that circles the Gherkin at waist height, and which lifts and lowers the cleaning crews like Gulliver hoisting Lilliputians, is as technically skilled as it is silly and unnecessary. The boom makes the Gherkin into an amusement park ride—resemblances, again.

More than it needs

Okay, back to Hearst. First of all, the massive exterior truss looks too big and strong to be structuring a tower that’s only 40 stories tall. It looks wasteful. I’m not a structural engineer, but I suspect some of the bold trusswork is, in fact, ornamental.

Second, the Hearst is, of course, a new tower planted on top of a six-story Art Deco building from the 1920s. I have never seen an addition to an older building that so completely refused to engage in any kind of conversation with its predecessor. Works of architecture, whatever they do, should not express contempt for the other buildings they must live among. But the Hearst, like a delinquent teen and a grandfather, thumbs its nose at its older companion.

I attended a symposium and dinner at the Hearst a few weeks ago, after having toured it 18 months earlier, while it was still under construction. I imagined that now that it was finished, at least it would be exciting to be in. Not so. You enter and immediately are confronted with an enormous waterfall with an escalator beside it, the kind of cliché you’d expect to find at a Hyatt convention hotel. The three-story shell of the old Deco building surrounds you on all sides, but nothing is done to dramatize the experience of yourself as new wine in this old bottle. You’re barely aware of the older building.

Unless you have business up in the tower, you don’t even get to go up the escalator. A guard stands at its foot and shoos you away. So the one experience that ought to matter—that of rising on the escalator from the old building into the new tower—is denied to the public.

Hearst Tower

Photo © Chuck Choi. Invitation required: Access to the space carved out of the Deco building is restricted to Hearst employees and guests.

We dined on the uppermost of the 40 floors. Here, where the program changes from office use to eating space, you’d think there’d be an opportunity to articulate that difference in the architecture. But no. We’re still in the trusslike cage. In fact, when you look at the tower from outdoors, it appears to be arbitrarily lopped off at this point, as if the owner had run out of money during construction. The truss walls clearly want to be taller. They want a heavier wind load.

Still magical, of course, are the nighttime views from the dining room to Manhattan and its astonishing, seemingly infinite field of light. But that view was my only positive experience.

Trying to figure out my nasty reaction to the Hearst, I remember that, a few years ago, I visited a major exhibition of the work of the Foster office in the British Museum in London. This is the building where Foster created a skylit atrium court around the old circular reading room where Marx researched and wrote Das Kapital. (I’m not a fan of the atrium, either, with its deathlike pallor and emptiness, but that’s another subject.) The exhibition was impressive. Like him or not, Foster, with his partners and engineers, produces an amazing volume of work—work that is always inventive, carefully detailed, and fully thought through.

I was struck by a wall display of Norman Foster’s sketchbooks. The number seems improbable to me now, but my recollection is that the caption informed us that Foster had filled 800 such sketchbooks since he began as an architect. At any rate, there were an awful lot of them. Some were open. The sketches were not usually of places of any kind. Instead, most were technical. You could see Foster working out a joint detail, for example, or imagining the configuration of a section.

I have no real idea how Foster works. But combining my memory of the sketchbooks with my dislike of the Hearst, it occurs to me that perhaps what Foster does is create prototype buildings—buildings that, when he first imagines them, lack both a program and a site. His entry in the competition for the World Trade Center in New York certainly stuck me that way: a newly invented type of high-rise (two towers kissing near the top) that could be built anywhere, whether New York or Singapore, and could contain anything, a hotel or offices or condos or interplanetary rockets.

Whether it’s true or not, that’s the message the Hearst broadcasts to me: that it’s a prototype invented for no particular site or program which was, then, pulled out of its sketchbook and plopped down on this site. Its form not only communicates but insists that it ignores its solar orientation, its site, its Deco footrest, and its internal program of uses. “Put me anywhere, fill me with anything, I’m fine with that,” the tower seems to be telling us. It’s a throwback to Mies’s concept of universal space. And let’s remember that Mies’s concept, which worked well at Crown Hall in Chicago, created, in Berlin, an art museum that is as hopelessly impractical as it is handsome.

There are, of course, prominent architects and pundits today who believe we live in a single global culture. I’m of the opposite persuasion. I think one of the most important things architecture can do is, precisely, create difference, before the whole planet mixes and matches into the same gray soup everywhere. And the only way to do that is to be very sensitive and responsive to whatever is genuinely different in the site, the culture, the climate, the situation. As I’ve written in this column before, “Architecture is the art of making places.”

Contributing editor Robert Campbell, FAIA, is the Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic of The Boston Globe.



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