New York City Landmark, 1997
The Ford Foundation, chartered by Henry and Edsel Ford in 1936, is a private foundation providing grants focused on strengthening democratic values, community and economic development, education, media, arts and culture, and human rights. In addition to the Ford Foundation Headquarters on 43rd Street in New York City, the Foundation currently has twelve international field offices. In the early 1960’s the Ford Foundation sought to erect a permanent corporate headquarters in New York City that reflected the humanitarian beliefs the Foundation extolled.
Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA) was a relatively new firm in 1963 when they were approached to design the structure. Previously both Roche and Dinkeloo had worked for Eero Saarinen and Associates. Both the Ford Foundation and Saarineen and Associates had at one time been based in Michigan prior to 1960. Saarinen died in 1961 leaving Roche and Dinkeloo to finish such major projects as the TWA terminal at JFK International Airport for the original firm before founding KRJDA. Saarineen had believed in thoroughly researching a project and that there was always, “a unique solution for a unique problem” both traits which were firmly routed in the new firm.
The location and needs of the Ford Foundation Headquarters presented two challenges: a unique terrain and desire to interact with the community outside the Foundation, and a desire to build a sense of community within the organization. At the time the Ford Foundation employed over 400 workers in over a dozen divisions. The Foundation wanted a suitable, spacious environment for its employees without building beyond its needs.
The area immediately surrounding the future site in Tudor City abutted a small park on the east and an adjoining pre-war high-rise residential complex to the west. Roche created six models with various forms suited to the space, ranging from a low large footprint building with windows lining the exterior, to a 16-story slender tower with a plaza on the park side. The final design was carefully suited to conform to the existing street line and surroundings. Roche said later of the Foundations acceptance of his design, “They liked it because it wasn’t another office building. They liked it because it was a special identity. They liked it because we weren’t relating to 42nd Street. And they liked it because its intent was to create a community.”
The design was unveiled in 1964, immediately gaining critical praise. Ada Louise Huxtable of the New York times called it “an object lesson in the possibilities opened by fresh thought and a creative approach to the city’s most important commercial building problem: the provision of ample and impressive headquarters for large corporations or equivalent organizations, in structures that have some civic conscience as well.” The building was erected with few alterations to the final design scheme. Huxtable went on to describe the building as an “original, highly romantic beauty” just prior to the project’s completion in 1967. Additionally the New Yorker in a Talk of the Town article of the same year called the design, “an altogether new kind of urban environment.” The Architectural Record agreed it was a “new kind of urban space.” However the building also had its detractors, Vincent Scully among them. Architectural review argued the Ford Foundation Headquarters was “another instance of the firm’s preoccupation with the simplified structural statement leading to a kind of gigantism in architecture.”
The Ford Foundation Headquarters is 14 stories, 2 of which are subterranean, and occupies a 200 by 200-foot site with a glass-enclosed, terraced third-of-an-acre garden. The exterior of the building is sheathed in Cor-Ten and glass with pink hued brown-flecked granite piers. A 10-story glass curtain wall on the south and east façade of the building reveals the interior garden to 42nd street and the park beyond. The exterior materials were chosen to compliment the existing architecture of the neighborhood.
The final footprint and street façade were carefully incorporated into the existing fabric. The resulting L-shaped office area with interior courtyard maintained both the existing street and skylines. All of the offices open to the interior courtyard and are faced in glass to take advantage of the natural light. The spacious individual offices were nearly sound proof with the doors closed, offering privacy. With the offices open to the atrium a sense of spaciousness was given to even small areas. Other offices could be viewed giving a sense of the size and scope of the organization. Paul Goldberger, Architectural critic for the New Yorker, noted that this created “a kind of ambiguity between public and private.”
The building was constructed using a 6-foot module. The offices come in three sizes- 12 by 12, 12 by 18, and 18 by 18. The upper two floors are suspended from large spandrel girders. The top floor has a C-shaped promenade offering a view of the garden 150 feet below. A “lozenge pattern” skylight formed the roof, made of I-beam trusses with three alternating bands of glazing. The walls and columns of the interior courtyard have 4” thick granite facing with mortarless joints. The stair landing meets the walls at a 45-degree angle, the corners left purposely open to create pools of natural light to compliment the artificial. The office furniture and lighting, designed by Warren Plattner, is uniform throughout with mahogany and leather covering the majority of work surfaces.
The main entrance is situated on 43rd Street. The inner garden spans the length of the building to 42nd Street and is terraced to accommodate for the slight decline in topography between the two street levels. The busier 42nd Street façade consists largely of the glass atrium through which the adjacent park can be viewed. The landscaping by Dan Kiley consisted of 37 trees, 999 shrubs, 148 vines, 21,594 ground cover plants, and 18 aquatic plants in the still pool. The exterior façades as well as sidewalks contain electric heating rods to prevent the formation of ice.
The design process went through many incarnations until the needs of the site and client were met. The final design was revealed in 1964. By late 1967 employees began moving into finished office space as the terraced garden was being landscaped. The project was completed in entirety in 1968.
In 1963 when KRJDA began planning for the Ford Foundation the neighborhood was already dominated by two significant architectural features: Tudor City and the United Nations. Erected in the 1920’s Tudor City was the first residential skyscraper complex in the world. The neighborhood style borrows heavily from British architecture under the Tudor dynasty, and the style is therefore relatively rare in New York. Beyond the intentional “quaintness” of Tudor City is the modern United Nations building completed in 1952. The Ford Foundation was intentionally designed to compliment the architectural synthesis of the neighborhood. The pre-existing high-rise to the west and park to the east were integrated into the design of the building so as not create disjuncture or distraction in the street plan.
The Ford Foundation was innovative in a multitude of ways, the most prominent of these being the creation of a large interior courtyard, a new kind of urban environment. The plan also prominently featured 45-degree angles, as in the stairway, creating a strong diagonal orientation within a square footprint, a development that occupied many architects in the following decade. The courtyard contains orderly mullions and spandrels interrupted by the massive columns, stairwell walls and suspension members, creating an assorted structural composition. The “lozenge style” skylight is composed of i-beam trusses securing glazing in three alternating bands, massive in scale yet still giving the appearance of faceted glasswork. The mortarless joints of the granite faced columns imitate piled-stone, complimenting the earthly garden below. As with the interior granite the exterior materials were also chosen to compliment, not impersonate, the foliage and surrounding environment. The design of the building was extremely detail oriented, every aspect carefully planned, from roof rainwater collection to irrigate the interior garden, laying heating rods under the sidewalks for ice prevention, and design of movable office furniture that could accommodate a variety of needs. Every aspect of the building was designed to emphasize community, enhance efficiency, and lend a note of seriousness to the business being conducted inside.
Both the architects and client aspired to create a building with a humanistic view of the workplace. The intention was to build both a corporate headquarters and civic monument that would be a contribution to the city, much as the Ford Foundation sought to contribute to the advancement of society through grants. Two issues were addressed with the introduction of the interior garden; privacy for workers while maintaining a sense of community, and the erection of an innovative building symbolic of the era without encroaching on the already well-established neighborhood. Though the design approach was effective in addressing the specific challenges of the site, it did not catch on as a common building typology in urban settings until later.
The massive scale of the building components was characteristic of KRDJA’s early work. The Ford Foundation was an early innovator in urban public spaces, much copied in building lobbies and shopping malls, though rarely to such massive scale. The orderliness and detailed execution of every aspect of the building along with the massive height and scale of the inner courtyard were also characteristic of modernism’s new approach to architecture.
The Ford Foundation, from the unveiling of its original plans in 1964 to its completion in 1967 received largely positive critical acclaim. While it was praised by contemporaries for its innovative approach to urban space, it never gained the iconic status or attention of other ground breaking modernist buildings in New York such as Lever House or the Seagram Building. The Ford Foundation was one of the first buildings to execute the environmental trends of the period through the inclusion of green space and abundance of natural light and irrigation. The building itself uses less space then the zoning at the time allowed, an anomaly at the time. Largely ignored in the decades after its completion the building is now being recognized for its innovative environmental approach. In the 1990’s the building experienced a resurgence, receiving the Architects Twenty-five Year Award and Landmark status from the city of New York.
The Ford Foundation was representative of the Modern Movement’s new approach to urban environments. Yet the environmental sensitivity of the project was decades ahead of its time and can be considered one of the first green buildings, not just for the foliage but the systems. The careful efforts of the Ford Foundation to maintain the building in near original condition is a testament to the success of the original design.
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Smith, C. Ray. 1980. Contemporary Architects. New York:St. Martins Press.
Unknown .1968.“A Foundation’s Atelier: The Ford Foundation Building.” Industrial Design 15: 26-27.