Tom Wolfe Isn’t Worried

sitdown 13 Tom Wolfe Isn’t WorriedLocation: In 2006, you went after the developer Aby Rosen’s plans for a glass tower at 980 Madison in The Times, writing that the Landmarks Preservation Commission would let him build whatever he wanted. They’ve since made him and his partners redraft and scale back plans. Are you glad you won?

Mr. Wolfe: Well, that’s not over yet. They did try again, with what was in effect a plan for a tall glass building lying down. You see in plans and renderings a slab maybe three stories high, but it stretches over a huge area. That building, between 76th and 77th, 980 Madison, is a whole block! … The commission is considering it, and they’ll do what City Hall tells them to. They’re a push-button commission.

 
But isn’t the new plan better than the first?

No. The point is, this is a historic district. Not every building is landmarked, but the district is considered historic. That means any­thing you build should capture some of the character, not the exact forms, but some of the character of the surrounding buildings. So, in the case of 980 Madison, limestone, brick, Art Deco touches would all be appropriate. They would fit in.

 
And yet the commission sided with you.

They never sided with me! They don’t give a damn about me. In fact, I’m sure the last person in the world they want to please is me. Whatever City Hall says will go—nothing is wrong with them except total flexibility. They said, ‘Oh it’s a beautiful building! If only you could put it somewhere else! We would approve it in a heartbeat!’ They just slobbered over quote-Lord-quote Norman Foster. In my humble opinion, I’m not a developer, but I think they need another architect, someone who knows how to draw a curved line; someone who knows how to use limestone.

 
Fifteen Central Park West, Robert A.M. Stern’s new faux-1920s building, is limestone heaven.

I think it’s going to change a lot of things. It has sold for $2 billion, and it’s all because it includes things people actually like. Have you ever stayed anytime in an apartment that has an entire glass wall? You get vertigo! People really need to feel more protected.

 
But isn’t it slightly annoying that the building pretends to be 70 years old?

I’m not defending the style. I’m just saying the success is going to change the direction of architecture. People say they’re doing art for art’s sake, but you can’t do that with architecture. There’s just so much money involved. And because it was so successful, it’s going to change what architects do.

 
What will be copied?

These things that are forbidden in modern architecture, like arches! It’s going to change the direction of people who build tall buildings.

But are more arches and limestone a good thing?

I don’t care! I just write about these things. Honestly, I really don’t care. I couldn’t care less. I don’t cut a wrist because somebody builds a modern building on Madison Avenue, but if it doesn’t belong there, I don’t mind speaking out. I don’t love all the architecture in this historic district. There’s the good and the bad, but it’s the historic district. Think of all the middle-class housing, as they now call it, if you devoted Central Park to building! It’s a huge space. We could relieve so much of the pressure on people of the city. Why don’t we give it up?

Give it up?

People say, ‘All this landmarking!’ So I say facetiously, ‘Ahhhh, well, let’s develop Central Park.’ At that point people say, ‘Wait a minute.’