Urban Legend

Real estate booms leave unbuilt buildings like craters in their wake, feverish glass-and-steel dreams cut short. Exuberant heights are truncated, blueprints never make it off the ground. The city’s sputters and false starts are rendered visible. In 1929, William Randolph Hearst’s International Magazine Tower stopped a good seven stories short of its imperial aspirations, depositing on Eighth Avenue something more mausoleum than high-rise, an elephantine hulk squatting below urn-spiked spires. Architect Joseph Urban’s dashes of Deco flamboyance turned funereal with time, his hooded figures ringed like mourners around the sepia-tinged fortress of print media.

If Hearst, the zealous upstart from California, was intent on conquering New York, he found a compatriot in Urban, a maestro of spectacle who made a name for himself designing sets for the Metropolitan Opera and the Ziegfeld Follies. Urban’s theatrical inheritance may not have endeared him to the architectural elite, but it was a background that equipped him well for the megalomaniacal fantasies of the rich and famous, who seized on his special talent for bending an indifferent city to personal dramaturgy. (Urban’s other commissions for the Hearst empire included a theater to showcase actress Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress.)

New York has a way of erasing time, of projecting an eternal nowness across the skyline. But the Hearst Tower manifests time in plain sight.

It took another boom decade for Hearst (long dead, the Hearst empire not looking much better) to finally have his tower. When it was finished, in 2006, Norman Foster’s glass triangles shot up through the original building’s center, all gleaming zigzags and brazen geometry. It was an almost cartoonish stunt, a crosshatched, pow-fisted phantom blasting through Urban’s stupefied tomb.

But for all its incandescent fantasy, Lord Foster’s vision was a distinct departure from Urban’s sumptuous brand of showmanship. Developers these days may be angling for green status, but at the turn of the last decade, when the Hearst Corporation enlisted Lord Foster, the idea of a green-certified city was little more than idea. With its recycled steel-stitched lattice, its glass triangles gushing natural light, the tower was the first commercial building declared energy efficient in the city. The apotheosis of Hearst’s real estate dreams, 70-odd years in the making, was also a kind of inversion-an imprint tempered by its surroundings.

It was something of a departure from the city’s showmanship, too. New York has a way of erasing time, of projecting an eternal nowness across the skyline. It scraps the scenery like speed-fueled stagehands, tears up and down, and gives us buildings convinced of their own timelessness. It’s the architecture of illusion, and it hinges on the belief that no building came before this one; nothing will replace it; and a square of vertical air is forever. But the Hearst Tower manifests time in plain sight. Instead of a plot of provisional air, it offers the idea of a city, one that stretches not just horizontally and vertically but across time, too.

When Hearst arrived in New York at the end of the 19th century, the city’s vying newspaper empires had already taken to battling it out in the field of real estate. On Newspaper Row, the Syndicate Building was among the world’s tallest buildings. A vast, gilded dome crowned the headquarters of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. As the industry headed uptown, first The New York Herald to Herald Square, then The New York Times to a somewhat less distinguished square of its own, Hearst set his sights on Columbus Circle. When he finally set out to build his International Magazine Tower in 1928, he vowed to transform the neighborhood into a sleek media hub.

Hearst couldn’t have foreseen Time Warner’s steely-eyed touchdown on Columbus Circle’s crest, but he knew media empires and he knew real estate. Of course, having finally erected its proud piece of statement architecture, the Hearst Corporation is lately scrambling for real estate in the digital world, not the physical one. The company recently acquired the digital marketing group iCrossing in a gambit to harness the potential of search engines, just as the likes of Rupert Murdoch is shunning them.

As the City Council and the mayor’s office work through the minutia of greening arcane building codes, it’s worth wondering what awaits the city’s glassy new paeans to its media dynasties-the New York Times Building’s infinite floors of space, for instance. In a precarious moment for media of all kinds, the Hearst Tower represents, at least, a kind of exuberance about architecture’s potential to shape its surroundings, its ability to align itself with a city of boundless possibility.

It’s worth wondering, too, as the dust of the real estate boom settles behind us, what stunted development projects we’ll find ourselves left with for decades to come, what odd phantom limb of a building will grow on us, accumulate layers and stash away years like the rings of trees, not to mention which, in some glittery decade far away, will startle someone at its new possibility.


  Urban Legend