Kips Bay Towers
Kips Bay Plaza was one of two New York City sites that Robert Moses, acting in his capacity as Chairman of the mayor's Slum Clearance Committee, handed over to real estate mogul William Zeckendorf in 1957. These two sites--the other, on West 96th Street, was called Manhattantown, later renamed Park West Village--had both been designated as slums some years earlier, and, under the terms of Title I of the National Housing Act of 1949, had been sold to private developers, with the understanding that they would raze the existing buildings and erect modern housing projects. The developers, however, realized that they stood to make more money collecting rents on the extant properties than they did by proceeding with the redevelopment. And so they simply sat on their properties, failing to pay taxes all the while. In 1957, this situation erupted into a massive scandal that thoroughly embarrassed both Moses and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. In order to quell the public furor, Moses sought to push the projects through to completion as quickly as possible. He therefore reached out to Zeckendorf, who, as head of the real estate development firm Webb & Knapp, had developed a reputation as a person who could quickly and efficiently handle massive projects such as these.
The Manhattantown site had already been planned, allowing construction to begin quickly. The future Kips Bay Plaza--then called New York University-Bellevue, as it was intended to house employees from the New York University Hospital on the other side of First Avenue--had its own plans, drawn up by the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). As the principal architect of I.M. Pei & Associates, which was serving as a sort of in-house architectural firm for Webb & Knapp, I.M. Pei stood to inherit these plans. Allegedly, SOM partner Gordon Bunshaft advised Pei against taking the commission, writing off public housing projects as "lawyer's work." Pei communicated this sentiment to Zeckendorf, who was not to be dissuaded. The project, now renamed Kips Bay Plaza and transformed in purpose from employee housing to general middle-income housing, fell to Pei, who marshaled all of his creative resources in designing a public housing project that was both cheap and architecturally innovative, and that would eventually become a place where people would want to live.
The three city blocks that were combined (into a "superblock") to form the Kips Bay Plaza comprise the two 21-story residential towers, the park between the two towers, a 10-story medical dormitory building along First Avenue, an underground parking structure, and a 3-story commercial strip and cinema along Second Avenue. Due to the lack of public access to the park, and the comparative architectural and/or social insignificance of the other structures on the site, this entry pertains only to the two residential towers.
The two towers, rectangular in plan and 410 feet long, are arranged with their long axes parallel to the east-west axis of Manhattan. One tower (Unit 1) occupies the southeast corner of the site, with an entry plaza and main access on 30th Street; the other (Unit 2) occupies the northwest corner with its plaza and entrance on 33rd. By pushing the buildings to the opposite corners of the site, Pei opened up the interior, which was landscaped into a public park. Although the natural lay of the land is such that the southern portion of the site has a higher elevation than the northern, the two towers were built with their entrance lobbies at the same elevation, meaning that one must descend a flight of stairs from 30th Street in order to gain access to the Unit 1, while he or she must ascend a flight from 33rd Street in order to access Unit 2. The ground floor of each building—which contains a glass-enclosed lobby, elevator and service shafts, and offices—is surrounded by the heavy concrete piers upon which rests a massive beam; between piers, the beam slopes inward slightly from top to bottom.
The dominant visual element of the towers are their buff, poured-in-place concrete façades, which also serve as integral components of the buildings’ structures. Each side of the building is thus rendered as a massive grid, with vertical members projecting slightly in their centers, rounded corners at the joints in order to clearly express the fluid qualities of the concrete (and to bolster stiffness), large windows occupying the voids between the intersecting members, and projecting window sills. The interplay of recessed and projecting components thus lends these facades a rich texture, and creates a constantly-shifting geometry of shadows as the sun travels across the sky. Each window is 5-feet-8-inches wide and nearly floor-to-ceiling in height, fixed in place except at the bottom, where there are hopper windows, and sometimes air conditioner units. This window size admits a large amount of light into the interior, while the fact that the windows are recessed 14 ½ inches within each bay provides a degree of shading and privacy. By combining the structure of the building with its façade, the interior spaces are freed from the sort of structural encumbrances that can create awkward spaces in typical curtain wall buildings.
The corners of the buildings are inverted slightly. At the top, the buildings terminate in a blank concrete wall.
Just prior to construction, the three blocks on which this complex was built were largely residential, the houses and tenements interspersed with a few lofts, a piano factory, and a garage. The most notable structures lying within this area prior to demolition were the Phipps Houses (Grosvenor Atterbury, 1906), the first of a series of model tenements sponsored by wealthy philanthropist Henry Phipps. Much like the Kips Bay complex that would later inhabit the site, the Phipps Houses were constructed with the intent of alleviating some of the worst conditions afflicting the urban poor, targeting specifically poor lighting and insufficient fresh air.
To the immediate east of the site, just over First Avenue, there originally lay, as there does today, a massive medical complex comprising several New York University Hospital buildings as well as Bellevue Hospital, founded in 1736, the oldest public hospital in the United States. To the north and south of the medical buildings, this area also contained several loft, factory, and warehouse buildings. Slightly father east than all of these buildings was Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, and then the East River.
To the south of the site, the neighborhood character was defined by two large-scale public housing projects: The Peter Cooper Houses, and, below that, Stuyvestant Town. Although on a much smaller scale than either of these two older projects, the construction of Kips Bay thus represented the continued growth of a public housing corridor that had taken root in this general area.
To the west of the site, the initially residential character of the area gradually transformed to one dominated by the lofts and office buildings of this southern portion of midtown.
To the north of the site, the residential character of the area reached a logical border upon encountering the commerical corridor of 34th Street, where, a few blocks farther west, the Empire State Building loomed.
Kips Bay Plaza is one of several architectural projects undertaken during this period, and possibly the first in New York City, that reveled in the clearly-expressed use of reinforced concrete to enlarge popular notions of what tall buildings could look like, and how they functioned structurally. In a dramatic departure from the metal-and-glass curtain wall skyscrapers that proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s, in which the facade was reduced to a non-structural membrane that used the lightest materials possible to enclose the interior, Pei pushed the structural members of Kips Bay out to the facade. By making the facade structural, Pei freed the interior from the awkwardness of structural members, thereby allowing for more capacious rooms.
Pei originally wanted to construct the towers of pre-cast concrete, but when this proved too expensive, he agreed to use poured-in-place concrete instead. In order to create the necessary shapes, he commissioned a Brooklyn cabinetmaker to construct a revolutionary plastic-lined Douglas fir formwork. This may represent the first instance of working drawings being produced for concrete formwork, a practice that would eventually become the industry standard.
The result is a richly-textured facade comprised of strong vertical and horizontal lines, repeating bays, and various projecting and recessed members. The aesthetic qualities of this facade are recorded elsewhere in this entry; here it is only necessary to note that the rounded corners of the bays contribute to the stiffness of the joints, a property that is necessary in order to counter the lateral wind load encountered in buildings of this size. In curtain wall buildings, the wind bracing components were hidden in the internal steel structure; at Kips Bay, they are clearly expressed in the external concrete; furthermore, this structural necessity is exploited for aesthetic effect.
Because it was employing technology that had not been tested elsewhere, the Kips Bay construction site became a veritable test laboratory for structural concrete, with several full-scale models of portions of the structure being produced in order to examine their behavior under various stresses and conditions. Different pouring and finishing techniques were also studied. In order to achieve the desired color, Pei selected a light tan cement from the Lehigh Valley.
At Kips Bay, Pei was attempting to design a public housing project that exceeded the aesthetic and functional standards that were normally applied to such buildings. The construction of public housing was usually constrained by very small budgets, which resulted in the repetition of several variations on the same basic building type. The characteristics of this type were largely determined by the economies of construction and materials costs. While dealing with these same financial constraints, Pei sought to break free from the architectural forms that had been accepted as the standard for housing projects. By his own calculations, he could build to his own designs at Kips Bay for the same cost as the standard brick-and-balcony designs that proliferated in the public housing realm. And in so doing, he would create large, open living spaces filled with ample ambient light--spaces that would be vastly superior to those found in standard projects. Initially facing opposition from his own contractors, who would have preferred to work off of the standardized plans, as well as the bureaucrats of the Federal Housing Administration, Pei, backed as always by Zeckendorf, persisted with his plans, and was eventually allowed to pursue them after making only minor modifications.
Pei encountered a major hurdle at Kips Bay from the Federal Housing Administration, which provided developers with mortgage insurance based on room count. According to their own arcane logic, the FHA counted a balcony as a half room. Pei, however, was ardently opposed to balconies, which he believe served as little more than "dust collectors," and that internal space was infinitely more important to tenants. He therefore persisted with his original plan, and eventually won a partial victory when the FHA agreed to grant him partial balcony credit for the deeply-recessed windows in his design. Of course, it must have helped his case that he was at that point serving on the Multi-Family Housing Committee of the FHA.
Among his first design decisions was to reduce the number of buildings on the site from seven, as had been suggested in the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designs, to two. The two remaining buildings were then pushed to opposite corners of the site, which opened up a large central park. This park speaks of the intentions that the designer had for the project to promote a shared public life among the buidlings' inhabitants, as well as the residents of the larger neighborhood, who were originally welcome in the park. As if to emphasize the importance he attached to this public space, Pei had originally wanted to place a large Picasso sculpture in the middle of the park. Zeckendorf, who was struggling with finances as much if not more than the architect, told Pei that he could have the sculpture or that he could have fifty saplings. Pei chose the trees, a testament to his desire to make this space into a tranquil bucolic haven.
The towers were converted from rental properties to condominiums in the 1980s, a highly controversial conversion that provoked the ire of some renters. Charging that the owners of the towers needed city approval in order to proceed with the conversions, the renters brought suit against Kips Bay Towers Associates, which had recently purchased the site. This suit failed, however, and the units were converted to condominiums.
The first floor of the Kips Bay buildings consist of a central lobby, enclosed on either side by glass walls, contributing to a sensation that the massive concrete structure above is floating on a cushion of air. Of course, any such sensation is moderated by the massive piers that surround the first floor, and create a sort of modernist concrete loggia around the lower story. These piers run continuously upward into the facade, becoming every fourth vertical member of the upper portion of the building. A firm connection is thus established between the upper parts of the building and the ground, establishing a sense of solidity in spite of the interruption of the airy lobby. The upper portion of the building is massive and repetitive, nearly monotonous in its composition. Each facade consists of a grid composed of the same identical window units. These units are, as noted, richly textured, creating a varying play of light and shadows upon the facade. The deeply recessed window units, designed to create a sense of privacy from the inside, succeed in creating the same effect when viewed from the outside: one gets the impression of a multiplication of private lives, each one contained in its own impervious concrete box. The recessed windows have the additional effect of minimizing for the viewer--especially when viewed from an angle--the visual impact of individual window treatments applied by tenants. The buildings' possess a severe rectilinearity when viewed from a distance, an impression that is alleviated upon closer inspection of, for instance, the gentle upward slope of the beam above the first story, or the radiused corners of the bays. The earthy color is also somewhat warmer than one might expect from raw concrete. Furthermore, the spatial relationship of the two towers--they are staggered, not perfectly aligned--adds additional excitement to what would otherwise be a dull symmetrical arrangement. These details have the effect of transforming something that might be simply monumental architecture into a place in which one might want to live.
Kips Bay Plaza was under construction at the time of the publication of Jane Jacobs' seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities, and it may safely be grouped together with those public housing projects that Jacobs believed to be such blights on the urban landscape. Indeed, scores of houses and other residences needed to be demolished in order for Kips Bay Plaza to be built; and when it was finally built, it was opened up for middle-income renters, and not the low income residents who were often the victims of slum clearance. Thus, there certainly does exist, in the history of this site, a history of destruction.
But recent reevaluations of urban renewal may suggest that this building, and other public housing projects like it, were not solely the products of cynicism and wreckless destruction. Developers like Zeckendorf and architects like Pei--and possibly even power brokers like Moses--sincerely believed that buildings such as Kips Bay were at the vanguard of a new, nearly utopian model for the city. Furthermore, Pei's obsessive care in the construction of Kips Bay produced buildings of a significantly higher quality than most of those public housing projects that were produced in this era.
The building is also of great significance to the history of architecture. As has already been noted, its distinctive structural system was among the first of its kind, the brutalist typology that presented a way in which a modern building material could be exploited to produce specific functionalist results. The structural rationalism of this building's exterior form, combined with the maximization of interior useable space, result in a building type that is consummately modern.
As one of many Title I public housing projects erected in New York City in the postwar years, the reputation of Kips Bay Plaza will forever be affected by the largely negative associations attached to "urban renewal." This perception unfortunately obscures the site's many qualities. Chief among these are the overwhelming optimism embodied in the buildings, expressive of the designer's belief that quality housing could be cheap to construct, architecturally fresh, and pleasant to inhabit. Pei sought to achieve these ends through a revolutionary new design in concrete. He would continue to design blocky, structurally-expressive buildings with this material, as would many others. Kips Bay could thus be considered among the first representatives of the brutalist style that would become popular in the decade or so following its construction. In Kips Bay, however, the style was utilized not just for the sake of being architecturally innovative, but rather as an answer to several financial and design-related problems, the ultimate objective of which was recreating public housing as a positive environment that conferred upon its tenants all of the benefits of modernity. In this, Kips Bay succeeds.
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