By the late 1950s, the CBS Company had diversified and grown enormously. Its founder and CEO, William S. Paley, decided that the company’s rented space on Madison Avenue was neither adequate to the network’s need nor helpful to its image. Paley determined to build new company headquarters that could compete in architectural prestige with NBC’s and that it would have to be of the highest aesthetic quality. He bought the site on Sixth Avenue, between 52nd and 53rd Streets, an area he characterized as ‘emerging as the newest important business area in midtown.’ Paley hired Saarinen for he believed him to be one of the country’s outstanding architects, and also a creative artist in the deepest sense.
The tower of CBS headquarters is a freestanding 38-story concrete tower sheathed in dark granite and glass. The 800,000 square feet building has a 135-foot by 160-foot footprint, and stands in a sunken plaza that occupies the entire western end of the block bounded by Fifth and Sixth Avenues and West 52nd and 53rd Streets on a site that is 200’-10” x 216’-10”. It rises 490 feet without setbacks, occupies almost 60 percent of the area of the plaza, and it is set back 25 feet from the building line.
For his scheme Saarinen wanted to use reinforced concrete and face it with stone, which turned out to be very economical compared to the prevalent practice of steel frame construction typically used in high-rise office buildings. In fact, the CBS Building became New York's first postwar reinforced concrete skyscraper and one of the first to use an exterior bearing wall at a time when the glass curtain wall of the International Style was in vogue.
The plaza is paved in a gray granite slightly lighter than the one used in the building's piers. It is sunken below street level by approximately two feet forming a retaining wall with parapets and vertical slits on the inside faces. The design of the exterior walls of the tower called for triangular, weight-bearing, poured concrete piers, which along with the interior service and elevator core support the building. The use of piers is what gives the building its palpable verticality and its three-dimensionality; this again was a reaction to the ubiquitous curtain wall. The piers are conceived as projecting triangular "V"s with glass recessed behind them. By sheathing the concrete with Canadian black granite and filling the bays with gray-tinted vision glass, Saarinen created the illusion of a massive slab of dark granite which earned the building its nickname, "Black Rock". At each of the building four corners the "V"s meet to form double-width piers, creating the effect of chamfered corners.
The piers rise uninterrupted from the ground all the way to the top, and act as both bearing walls and conduits for services. "From the second-floor level they are hollow for ducts and sheared flat in the interior. At the ground floor, they are solid and fully diamond-shaped inside and out and almost as impressive as Greek columns." The service core of the building is designed to permit circulation within its walls saving the space of a public corridor around the core. It is joined by 35- foot long clear spans to cast-in-place peripheral columns. These do not intrude to support the floor slabs, but are anchored together with the columns using steel rods running through both. The top floor and the second floor of the building are mechanical floors, which are articulated on the exterior by the use of closely spaced, dark anodized vertical grilles on the bays instead of glass. The five foot widths of piers and window bays became the module of the whole design of the building. This would enable the company to standardize executive levels by size: a presidential suite would be 20' x 20', a vice-president's office 15' x 15', and a manager's 10' x 10'.
The design for the lobby of the building shows a peculiar twist in relation to the overall sober and subdued appearance of the exterior. The dark granite is present still in the structural columns and also on the flooring of the lobby. But the core containing the elevator banks is clad in white travertine; walls, floors, overhead lighting panels, and even the ashtrays of white travertine accomplish a sharp contrast with the dark surroundings. The western portion of the lobby was originally leased to a branch of the Bank of New York. It currently houses offices for Cushman Wakefield Investments. The eastern portion of the lobby housed the Ground Floor Restaurant, which was meant to rival Seagram Building's The Four Seasons. Today it houses The China Grill.
Saarinen proposed many schemes for the CBS tower, but the executed design was the one to which he always returned. In a 1961 article published in Progressive Architecture, his partner John Dinkerloo said the design for CBS embodied the late architect's idea of what an office tower should be. He added that his former partner believed he was going back to the tradition of Sullivan in Chicago while at the same time taking a step forward in the design of tall buildings. For most of its lifetime, Saarinen's CBS tower has been qualified as somber and austere, and this is in large part due to the darkling quality of the granite. Both the architect and the president of CBS wanted a building that would differ from the glass and steel skyscrapers of the International Style, one with identity and individualism. Saarinen wanted it to be subtle and refined, and believed a dark building was more quiet, dignified and appropriate to the site. His widow suggested he was thinking of executives in their dark gray suits when choosing the dark granite for the building. Yet Dinkerloo believed that the dark stone reflected the strength Saarinen was looking for better than glass.
Critical reaction to the CBS Building was favorable from most of the architectural community. The dark, somber dignity of the tower was however, not welcomed by the general public according to Ada Louise Huxtable; it seemed funereal compared to the "bright and shiny" look of curtain wall buildings. Huxtable cited this misconception as a fault of the public eye, one she did not agree with. She did, however, faulted the architects for failing to carry the distinct design of the building's exterior inside. She blamed this on the decision, after Saarinen's death, to divide the design of interior and exterior among two firms. As a result the inside of CBS "is a solid gold corporate cliché; a lavish cocoon, complete to standardized concealed wastebaskets and accredited and almost as equally standardized abstract art...the building has been turned into the anonymous, vacuum-packed commercial shell it was never meant to be."2
The sunken plaza was perceived more as a protective border for the building lacking most public amenities such as fountains, pools, or trees. The plaza's surrounding parapet is too high to provide resting places for pedestrians; it is uninviting and seems to declare an apartness from the rest of the street. Moreover, as critic Bethami Probst declared in a 1965 article, by settling itself so firmly on the sunken plaza, the CBS Building sacrifices its ability to soar as a skyscraper should. According to critic Paul Goldberger, Saarinen's building stands "maddeningly aloof" from its surrounding because of the sunken plaza scheme. In fact, he sees it as a continuation of a trend started in the 1950s when corporate glass towers rejected any connection to, or acknowledgment of, the context on which they stood, such as Lever House and Seagram. By standing back from the sidewalk, by sinking below the street level and for lacking entrances on Sixth Avenue, the building's disconnection is emphasized. At once it could be understood that Saarinen achieved the conceptual disassociation from the International Style, but also the physical disassociation as well in light of the prevailing architectural landscape of Sixth Avenue.
Nevertheless, the building's distinction lies in its austere color and its massing, which sets it apart from its repetitive neighbors. It also lies in its articulated verticality done through structure. And finally it lies in the fact that it broke away from prevalent building systems and aesthetics.
1. Ada Louise Huxtable, Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? (New York: Macmillan, 1970) 101.
2. Huxtable, 101-102.
Saarinen’s premise was a freestanding tower in a plaza, encouraged by the new 1961 zoning ordinance. He put the CBS Building in a sunken plaza, trying in some measure to respect the street wall of Sixth Avenue, keeping the plaza small and siting the tower a little off-center. The tower occupies approximately 60 percent of the plaza’s area and it is set slightly towards the east. Lacking the restriction of the old zoning, which encouraged progressively set-back towers, Saarinen used continuous reinforced concrete piers in the facades as load-bearing elements supporting the building, emphasizing the tower’s verticality.
Saarinen's design for the CBS Building represented a departure from the International Style for not relying on the use of a glass curtain wall and pilotis. The architect restored the function the traditional masonry pier had before the advent of Modern minimalism by bringing it outside again. The architect’s use of triangular, weight-bearing, poured concrete piers(along with an interior service/elevator core) also turned out to be very economical compared to the prevalent practice of steel frame construction typically used in office buildings. The CBS Building became New York’s first postwar reinforced concrete skyscraper and one of the first to use an exterior bearing wall at a time when the glass curtain wall was the norm.
The CBS Building epitomizes Saarinen’s idea of the simplest skyscraper in New York; this concrete tower sheathed in dark granite and glass reflects minimal simplicity and a sense of mass and austerity. The combination of Canadian black granite used in the cladding of the masonry piers and the gray-tinted glass in the bays creates the illusion of a massive slab of dark granite, which earned the building its nickname, “Black Rock.” In addition, the uninterrupted ‘V’ shaped piers rising from the ground all the way to the top give the building its palpable verticality and its three dimensionality. The almost complete absence of interruption the façades give the building its austerity. The absence of set backs also gives a monumental feeling to the act of entering the building when approached from W. 52nd and 53rd streets. By leaving the Sixth Avenue façade alone, the design also gives the building the appearance of an absolutely pure slab of granite. What has been described as ‘optical architecture, or a ‘three-dimensional study in architecture’, is Saarinen’s unique and simple design for the CBS Building, which allows the building to change in appearance as one walks around it. When seen directly, the tower’s bays appear open, with relatively narrow piers. However, when viewed from afar and at an angle, the piers eclipse the view of the glass creating the effect of solid mass. The building's distinction lies in its austere color and its massing, which sets it apart from its repetitive neighbors. It also lies in its articulated verticality done through structure. And finally it lies in the fact that it broke away from prevalent building systems and aesthetics.
With the CBS Building Saarinen returned to the skyscraper the sense of solidity and mass that had been its principal characteristic before the advent of Modern minimalism. But he did it in a completely Modernist way, by ‘restoring function to the masonry pier’; by using concrete he could take vertical columns on the outside wall and make them do something for a change. Saarinen made the piers thicker and deep so he could set the windows in deep recesses, so that from an angle you would see no glass at all.
The new 1961 zoning ordinance had encouraged tall towers set back in plazas in New York City. Saarinen met with architects and planners who were working out the new zoning proposal to find out if a tower in a plaza could work economically. His argument for the CBS Building served as a demonstration model for the new zoning. He established that the area per floor would have to be nearly 20,000 square feet gross for a profitable structure (in contrast to Seagram's 16,000 square feet on tower floors). The proposed new zoning would still have permitted only 16,000 square feet, but working together with city officials Saarinen came up with a new formula for CBS, which would yield over 20,000 square feet and produce a pleasant plaza for the city. The 1961 New York zoning amendment reflected planners’ and civic organizations’ aim at limiting the height and bulk of buildings. The city granted to the developers a 20 percent density bonus for buildings that created a public plaza on a portion of the lot. If towers were to cover 40 percent of their lots, they were allowed to rise to unlimited heights. According to historians, Saarinen’s meetings with planners and architects to work out the new 1961 zoning proposal and his designs and calculations for the CBS Building, helped shaped the new zoning law. His tower design begat the zoning amendment.
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