The Public Art Handlers: When It Comes to Building Ambitious Artworks, Tishman Construction Gets the Call

“When you want to do something crazy, you go to your friends,” said Susan Freedman, the long-time president of the

If you build it, they will come. (Public Art Fund)

“When you want to do something crazy, you go to your friends,” said Susan Freedman, the long-time president of the Public Art Fund. “You go to someone who won’t think you’re so crazy.”

Ms. Freedman was sitting on one of the granite benches that encircles the plaza of Columbus Circle on a recent morning. Fall was in the air, the chill of the granite seeping through our pant legs. Tatzu Nishi’s Discovering Columbus, Ms. Freedman’s latest commission, had just opened, and the customary lines snaked by behind her.

Some 70-feet up in the air, Gaetano Russo’s sculpture of Christopher Columbus was comfortably at home inside a living room built by Mr. Nishi. Or, rather, conceived of by him. Like he has done in cities around the world, the Japanese artist had created an unusual environment for a popular statue to reside in and invited the public to come for a visit. But he did not build, did not construct, the structure in Columbus Circle, his biggest yet. That job fell to one of Ms. Freedman’s friends, Dan Tishman.

Mr. Tishman’s eponymous family firm has been developing and building office towers, hotels and more in the city and across the country for three generations. Mr. Tishman’s father built the first World Trade Center, and it has fallen to Tishman Construction to rebuild those 16 acres, along with erecting such contemporary icons as One Bryant Park and Hudson Yards.

In the meantime, Mr. Tishman has developed a niche as the go-to builder for some of the city’s most ambitious public art projects—a portfolio that continues to grow. “The Public Art Fund and the artists they work with have a vision, in a way it is similar to working with top architects on jobs we build around the world,” Mr. Tishman said in an email. The art projects do present their own unique challenges, though. “Building freestanding scaffolding over a subway line or waterfalls in the harbor give our engineers and builders a unique opportunity to stretch their problem solving muscles,” Mr. Tishman explained

It was Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls in the East River that first inspired Ms. Freedman to call her old high school friend from the Upper West Side, to see if he knew anyone who might be able to execute such an audacious project. He volunteered himself. Since then, they have worked on Sol Lewitt’s retrospective in and around City Hall Park last year, where Tishman fabricated two giant concrete sculptures, and now Discovering Columbus.

The first piece of the project was assembling the scaffolding to reach an appropriate height to create Mr. Nishi’s living room. As they talked about the project, Mr. Tishman and Ms. Freedman realized it also presented the perfect opportunity to allow for the conservation of the statue, as well. Wooden platforms were brought in at first to allow for the initial restoration work and will return after the show closes to finish the conservation project. When the wood was removed, it revealed an interesting metal lattice work. “At first, people thought they were just working on the plaza again,” Tishman senior vice-president Pamela Friedlander said during a tour of the project. “Only when we started to take out the wood and put up the signage did a lot of people figure it out”

The team built a fairly conventional construction scaffolding system, even recycling bars and joints that had been used during repairs to the George Washington Bridge—reduce, reuse, recycle! Still, in this unusual configuration, it creates a web metal that is not only functional but visually striking.

The site posed some unusual challenges. As Mr. Tishman pointed out, a subway line runs underneath Columbus Circle, the oldest in the city in fact, making for an incredibly shallow foundation. This meant the scaffolding had to rest on the ground, rather than being drilled into it, which would have also necessitated repairs to the recently renovated plaza, a step the builders wanted to avoid. Their solution was four massive multi-ton concrete anchors, one at each corner, set onto neoprene pads to protect the plaza.

The other issue the subways presented was the cars rumbling along underground, along with the winds blowing in off the avenues and Central Park, would cause the pillar and statue to sway slightly. That is why Christopher Columbus appears to rest atop a large circular coffee table in the middle of the living room. But it is more than just a table. The black ring not only serves as a buffer to keep zealous visitors at bay, it also hides the hole built around the statue to accommodate its movement. The coffee table is then affixed to the statue with a neoprene gasket and is fitted out with rolling casters so that it can imperceptibly move each time a train passes or the wind blows.

“Our goal is to create this beautiful room,” Ms. Friedlander said. It may be a different set of design constraints, but the goal is the same as on any Tishman project.”

Mr. Nishi was astonished by the work. “While I didn’t see much difference” from other projects, he said through an interpreter, “I was expecting, just from my experience from other things, that American people are very sloppy.” Mr. Nishi himself broke in here and blurted out “Sorry! Sorry!” and began bowing repeatedly, but the interpreter insisted it was a story with a happy ending, as Mr. Nishi began to smile. “But this turned out to be the most precise project I have ever done,” the interpreter continued on Mr. Nishi’s behalf. “It was amazing.”

Ms. Friedlander said Tishman is already fielding more requests, including from the Public Art Fund. She acknowledged that working with artists is not always easy, but that can be part of the fun. “It can be tough going back and forth with the artist, especially when you’re working under a compressed time frame,” Ms. Friedlander said. “Our guys are like, ‘Just pick a crown molding.’ But it does matter because this is an aesthetic piece and working that into what we do is very rewarding.”

Ms. Freedman said having a firm with Tishman’s capabilities in the city will only further push the boundaries on what kind of public art the city can expect. “It’s wonderful to know we can pick up the phone and say ‘We have an artist dreaming a big dream, can you help us make it a reality?’ and the answer will be yes,” she said.

Correction:An earlier version of this post called Ms. Freedman the Public Art Fund’s director. She is its president. It also said that Tishman had performed the renovation to the George Washington Bridge. It did not, simply boring the scaffolding from a project performed by another firm to use here. The Observer regrets the errors.

The Public Art Handlers: When It Comes to Building Ambitious Artworks, Tishman Construction Gets the Call