Location: 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.’
It’s been a bad week. It feels like things are falling apart.
The whole thing, starting with the subprime, is the fault of the computer. I was just talking to a banker the other day, and not that long ago, 20 years ago, an investment banking house, let’s say, Lehman Brothers, when it got a package of mortgages, they would go through every mortgage, every single one, and they’d throw out the ones that just seemed absurd, they just wouldn’t accept them. Things used to arrive on paper. Today things arrive on a screen, and a screen is back lit, and one of the biggest pains in the neck is trying to read something dully written and complicated on a computer screen. It will drive you nuts—I mean, try it sometime. Now they say, ‘Oh, to hell with it,’ and they just accept the whole package. And if it hadn’t been for that, they’d be going over each loan. What’s happened is the backward march of technology.
The real estate brokers I talk to all still think New York is magically protected from financial crisis.
Well, New York is protected in the sense that this is the capital of the Western world, the way Paris once was, or London once was. And Rome once was. Rome was the first capital of the Western world. So that’s going to bring a lot of people, no matter what the economic conditions are.
But aren’t the days of hyper-expensive real estate, like $40 million apartments at 15 Central Park West, over?
I doubt it. I don’t have that feeling you’re over. I keep reading about that feeling. I don’t run into people who have that feeling. I haven’t been talking to employees of investment banks. Besides, there’s nothing as second-rate as investment banks. Every smart and ambitious young man—and forget young women because they don’t play any role in this—wants to be in a hedge fund. And I’d be surprised if the hedge funds implode, they’re just smarter. … What bright guy wants to be an executive for a firm like Lehman Brothers, where you have to hold the hand of disgruntled employees, you hold the hand of disgruntled directors, you’re constantly nice and wearing the right clothes? That’s for real second-raters. … It’s only the bottom of the barrel that’s left in these companies. I’m trying to think of some analogy! Kind of like the railroad business, investment banking. When I wrote Bonfire of the Vanities, the big thing was investment banking.
Now investment banking isn’t as good?
The new Wall Street is Greenwich, Conn. You don’t need these big glass silos full of people. Look at the number of employees. Lehman? 28,000! And a Greenwich hedge fund can be handling the same amount of money with 20 employees. I’m not saying that either one of them has done any good for the world, but that’s just what I see. Now all that can change, if the bottom drops out.
I hope it doesn’t.
Did I mention to you I’m pimping out my cars?
Don’t think so.
This is my third childhood. I had my second childhood when rock ’n’ roll came along—Martha and the Vandellas. Now this is my third; I pimp up cars. One is a 1993 Cadillac DTS. … The whole interior has been done in white. They took all the stuff out and made it white. I had them paint the rims white. It was kind of like a beige when it arrived, it had a pearly luster to it, it wasn’t bad. But I wanted white. The other is a 1996 Buick station wagon. … It’s all white. My wife likes burgundy, so I left a little burgundy. I’m just a hell of a guy, I try to please people.