Glass Menagerie

The large glass panels are working their way up the skeleton of the AOL Time Warner Center, the mixed-use pair of obelisks stretching 80 stories into the sky over Columbus Circle. The progress is measurable daily. In fact, the massive mountain of commerce-now at its full height-stands confidently astride the street grid, as if it predated all the structures that have risen on the West Side since the grid was established in 1811.

At $1.8 billion, it’s the most expensive single-building construction project in U.S. history. The center’s completion date is staggeringly close-sometime this fall-especially in light of the 17 years it has taken to redevelop the old Coliseum site once it was rendered useless by the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

But things are hardly lively at the company that has given the building its name, and plans to make it the centerpiece of its new branding initiatives. Steve Case, once the chief executive of America’s gloriously bright economic future, is now a figure from the recent past. Gerald Levin is “seeking the poetry in [his] life” from a demoted second-floor office in AOL Time Warner’s Rockefeller Plaza headquarters and is selling off his personal property. AOL Time Warner, the company they formed by merging the Dulles, Va., Internet company and the Manhattan-based media giant, is now $26 billion in debt, and is facing shareholder lawsuits emerging from federal criminal and civil investigations into AOL’s pre-merger bookkeeping practices. Credit-rating agencies are urging the company to pare down its debt, lest it be downgraded. Nor have the shareholders been universally supportive of the company’s decision to build itself a grandiose new home on Columbus Circle. At a May 2002 shareholders’ meeting at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, one person lashed into management for wasting scarce resources on “replicating the Taj Mahal.”

The practitioners of corporate synergy at the helm of AOL Time Warner may be in disarray, but synergy itself is still popular with the marketing executives pushing the building that will be the company’s new headquarters, as well as home to 191 condominiums, a Mandarin Oriental Hotel, three theaters for Jazz at Lincoln Center, a small amount of office space available for lease, a half-million square feet of retail space and a two-floor deck of five-star restaurants. A recent promotional brochure for the building promised that the “synergy among Jazz at Lincoln Center, the shops, and the restaurants will create an environment that delivers excitement from early morning until late into the night.”

As in most such instances, the synergy is simply asserted-a gloss over what appears to be simply an amalgam, however complementary its parts. When the building is opened this fall, the commitment to synergy that was meant to enrich both “old media” giant Time Warner and “new media” colossus AOL may or may not have survived the budget hard-liners and old-economy chieftains that will save the company-if it is to be saved-or deliver it into a future that Mr. Case may not recognize. Either way, the building at Columbus Circle will surely become a signature for whatever phoenix emerges from the wreckage at AOL Time Warner-offering, with its views of Central Park, an eminently sellable backdrop for news reports coming out of CNN and a corporate symbol for the company. The question of whether the center will hold-whether by redeeming corporate synergy between new and old media at AOL Time Warner, or simply by reverting to a business plan that gets the company out of its staggering debt-now appears to be a question for the building that would serve as American media’s public face around the world.

Granted, the Rande Gerber cocktail lounge and restaurants by Gray Kunz (homeless for the last five years since leaving Lespinasse at the St. Regis hotel), the ubiquitous Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Napa Valley’s gourmet godchild, Thomas Keller, are likely to draw crowds with tickets to Jazz at Lincoln Center events. And both will be a stone’s throw away from a five-story retail complex that will house high-end stores (think one step below the Mall at Short Hills, one step above Manhattan Mall at Herald Square), from Williams-Sonoma to Hugo Boss to J. Crew to a supermarket and food concourse by Texas-based Whole Foods Market. But that seems like a development strategy that long precedes the breathless newspeak which accompanied the Internet revolution. In fact, when Stephen Ross, chairman and chief executive of the Related Companies, introduced the public to the building for the first time last March, he said it would replace the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center as symbols of the city. Richard Parsons, Time Warner’s original party to the deal with Mr. Ross’ Related Companies, recently echoed him, calling the building “the Rockefeller Center of the 21st century.”

He may not wish to pursue the analogy very far.

On December 27, 1932, morning papers carried an advertisement for “The Greatest Show in the World in the World’s Greatest Theater”-the debut of Radio City Music Hall. The place had taken its name from the infant industry that would become synonymous with Rockefeller Center before and during World War II: radio. The economy was still reeling from the stock-market crash of 1929, but RCA was a new corporation poised for a new economy. It was not a wealthy company; its stock was valued highly, but the company had not yet paid a dividend. Lease negotiations for RCA, its four theaters and large portions of two office buildings reflected the downward spiral of RCA’s finances and its indebtedness to a parent company of “wireless” firms that were spinning off the company. Its subsidiary, the National Broadcasting Company, was gearing up for the television business in 1930, when the business originated, but NBC couldn’t promise any real revenue from the sale of advertising on television when nobody yet had a set in their home. Its rent payments, too, were slashed.

As if to say that architecture in public space trumped the overriding corporate “meaning” of any building, when Radio City Music Hall first opened, it produced a show that spoke not to the promise of radio, but to the entertainment form it would kill off: vaudeville. The Music Hall’s new manager, Samuel Lionel (Roxy) Rothafel, produced his opening show with veteran performer DeWolf Hopper as its centerpiece. The man who had made “Casey at the Bat” known worldwide seemed to many an odd choice. He shuffled about onstage with an act that was as passé as a silent movie, his 53 years on the stage showing little to his advantage.

But that evening also brought a response that should give Mr. Ross and his partners some hope. Apparently, Hopper’s soft-shoe routine was only an excuse to give the public an opportunity to marvel at the building. Never mind the aging vaudevillian-the audience was awestruck by the 60-foot-high proscenium arch in high Art Deco style, the gilt ceilings and red velvet seat cushions, the statues echoing the great mythic stories that arguably still form the backdrop for all important theater, and the 43-foot revolving stage in the middle of the proscenium, with its hydraulic-powered pistons that could move several portions of the stage to different heights at once.

In fact, Rockefeller Center’s identity was not made even by John D. Rockefeller himself-who envisioned the project, after all, as a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, not for a Taj Mahal of broadcast media. Even during the construction of the complex, RCA and RKO were quiet about the future, trading instead on the slow, careful accumulation of properties that was, in part, a function of the vast economic depression in which their industries were born. The Internet, the great promise of the 1990’s, rather appeared to trade on the same kinds of speculation and recklessness that presaged the 1929 crash. The fulfillment of AOL’s promise-to shareholders, to Time Warner and to the public-seems long overdue.

As in Rockefeller’s case, what this building means will be largely out of the control of the building’s developers. The future of AOL Time Warner will play a part; so will the future of the retail, restaurant and hotel industries in New York, by no means secure; the health and stability of the high-end real-estate market, itself a question mark; the success of the gamble the developers are making in a district not previously known as a shopping mecca; and the reaction of the public itself. This is a development that cuts vertiginously through many of the important economic questions about the city’s future. It does not, as once might have been hoped, answer those questions.

A New ‘New Urbanism’

Whether or not synergy really demands this mix of uses, the prospect of many different kinds of businesses and residences on a single site is a dictum of the New Urbanism that disdains the dark, windswept canyons of lower Manhattan after closing time. Indeed, having a massive shopping complex, restaurants, a hotel, apartments and three jazz stages would seem to guarantee a flow of foot traffic from 8 a.m. well into the nighttime hours and throughout the weekends.

If they will come. Businesses that are hanging up their shingles at the AOL Time Warner Center are betting that their very size as an amalgam will make the development the center of gravity on the West Side. The building conveys that feel by its very design. Though David Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, scratched an earlier design that relied on stone cladding to give the building a sense of lightness, with eight-millimeter-thick glass all over the two towers, the base of the building still seems like a giant electromagnet. Whether it will exert its pull strongly enough on a people who have historically had an aversion to doing their shopping at malls is another question, though.

Will the same people willing to buy a steak from Jean-Georges Vongerichten be willing to buy a pair of shoes at J. Crew in the shopping concourse below? Will data administrators who buy lunch at the hot-dog stands alongside the park buy their dress shirts at Thomas Pink? Once Ricky Martin and Wynton Marsalis have plunked down their cash for apartments in the upper stories of the complex, what business will they have in the Mandarin Oriental hotel? Will the filming of NewsNight with Aaron Brown attract the kinds of gawking spectators that flood the outside of The Today Show studios at Rockefeller Center or the MTV studios at Times Square? Will the simple fact of allowing viewers to catch a glimpse of Central Park over the shoulder of Lou Dobbs make Moneyline a hit?

Mr. Marsalis may have the magic piece of the puzzle that gives the building meaning and draws its purposes together: a performing arts center that is the first-ever venue built specifically for jazz. Mr. Marsalis has said that jazz “does not rely on being popular to be significant.” But it may indeed rely on being popular to serve as the centerpiece of the AOL Time Warner Center.

With its “jewel-box” theater atop the public entrance-among the most visible elements of the design from the street- popular New York architect Rafael Viñoly’s plans for the site have pleased critics. But some funding sources for the project have fallen short by about $32 million, and the $128 million piece of the AOL Time Warner Center recently had to take $10 million from the Coca-Cola Company to erect its Frederick P. Rose Hall. Also, the 100,000-square-foot facility won’t open this fall with the rest of the building, and in the year before its three performance spaces open, the rest of the building’s tenants will not be able to rely on Lincoln Center to generate interest in the building.

An Expensive Bauble?

Mr. Ross and other principals in the deal assume a calm demeanor when questions about the building are asked. But they shun what has so far been the narrative pursued by the media: that this building, when it opens in the fall, will be like an expensive bauble the city bought on its giddy tour through the 1990’s that now, as the valise is being unpacked, seems like a monstrous miscalculation.

In fact, Mr. Ross has made the New New Building according to the oldest principles of real-estate development. Reporters are eager to show the complex poised on the precipice of danger, with AOL Time Warner’s misfortunes leading the list of hobgoblins. In fact, these questions will confront each of the constituents in the building independently. That’s because, upon completion of construction, all of the organizations with pieces of the puzzle will each take a separate deed for their chunk of the building. Whatever skepticism AOL Time Warner faced when it agreed to buy its part, the deal is sealed. Mr. Ross won’t have to worry-as Rockefeller did-about bailing out his tenants.

That doesn’t mean they’ll be happy there. CNN employees reportedly resisted the move. According to one source, HBO made it a condition of its contract renewal by AOL Time Warner that the company not be required to move. In the end, the marketing department for TBS, the top AOL Time Warner corporate brass, all of CNN’s office operations and two studios will take up the whole space.

The resistance to the building was at first attributed to its iconic design. The two towers rising from the top of the building seemed nice when they mirrored the shape of Central Park West landmarks like the Majestic and the San Remo, even if the design was really mandated by the public outcry to restore the sight line of the 59th Street corridor westward and give Columbus Circle a bit of the sky. But the design seemed less fortunate after Sept. 11, 2001, when twin towers became an emblem of war and remembrance rather than speed and progress.

(Time has mitigated that difficulty somewhat, as have increased security measures in the construction plans. A futuristic communications system inside the building will boost radio signals and keep cell phones from blacking out even in stairwells and corridors, answering a major safety problem in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. And the structural columns holding the building up were reinforced with extra concrete.)

Recently, the company admitted that it might lease out one or two floors of the building-which would put its on-the-market space in competition with Related’s own offerings in the building. But to make good on the massive mortgage of which they’re a part, the partners in the building must find businesses that profit-avoiding the fate of the Empire State Building, which became iconic in the city’s skyscape but could attract few tenants after it opened, earning it the nickname “The Empty State Building.” To save these co-owners from such a fate, people will have to come to the building-and not just the employees of AOL Time Warner. It remains to be seen whether New Yorkers will be as impressed with the building’s debut as they were with Radio City. Indeed, the marketing campaign for the AOL Time Warner Center does not intend to leave that to chance. Its promotional materials appear aimed as much at selling the building to New Yorkers at large, reassuring its many tenants that theirs was a risk worth taking.

New Yorkers, after futzing for a year and a half with Ground Zero, are looking for something that will inspire. Will it matter to New Yorkers what the building means, or how AOL Time Warner is structured, when they enter the five-story glass atrium off Columbus Circle this fall?

Mr. Parsons resists proclaiming any grand corporate symbolism for the building. Previously calling it “a galvanizing concept from the point of view of the city,” Mr. Parsons sounded more cautious in a recent interview.

“The headquarters is more functional for us,” he said.

To many New Yorkers, the building will look anything but. Already, it’s become famous for its celebrity residents, much supposed but seldom heard from, except for Ricky Martin-himself something of a vaudevillian by the lights of this new-media nirvana on Columbus Circle. (‘N Sync’s Lance Bass and former President Bill Clinton have reportedly also kicked the tires at the building, but neither bought; Lady Henrietta Spencer Churchill, on the other hand, is already well on her way to completing the design for her bedroom in her $8 million apartment there, with designs on view at Bergdorf Goodman for the remainder of the month.) For them, few expenses have been spared: hundreds of feet above the Whole Foods Market food court, where the local back-office workers pick at $10 salads, residents who have paid anywhere from $2 million to $45 million for the two- to four-bedroom apartments in the top floors of the building’s towers will be able to punch a keypad and order up shirts from Thomas Pink downstairs, or meals from Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s steakhouse. The apartments will have “broadcast capability”-an amenity that has been described by the developers by way of illustration: It will allow heads of state and celebrities who prefer to be interviewed at home to be tied directly from their apartments into the broadcast facilities below. But these elements, part of the guts and the spirit of the building, are largely designed to keep AOL Time Warner Center’s leading denizens away from-not in-the “Center of Everything,” as the brochures put it.

“It will be possible for the [condominium] owners’ feet to literally never touch the ground, if they’re so inclined,” Dolly Lenz, senior vice president of Insignia Douglas Elliman, recently told the New York Post .

Bully for them. But for AOL Time Warner, and for the new colossus that bears its name, getting back down to earth will be the greatest challenge of all.