Vision Building

© Nigel Young
© Nigel Young

In 1928, Joseph Urban created an architectural vision for William Randolph Hearst’s headquarters in New York. A building that would house, in his words, “the industries whose purpose is to exert influence on the thought and education of the reading public.” Today, one can read Norman Foster’s forty-story addition to the same building as the built expression of this eighty-year old media corporation’s renewed vision for the future. But whose visions are we looking at here?

Urban – the Viennese architect famous for his stage designs – gave Hearst – the media mogul infamous for his self-proclaimed populism – and his expanding corporation of news services, racy tabloids and housewife magazines a theatrical façade. The International Magazine Building, as it was called, would not only influence America’s public opinion – it would shape New York’s very landscape. The building’s six stories were structurally ready to house an office tower, so an even greater mark in the city could be made: the headquarters of Hearst’s empire would be the center of the arts district that would arise – as so he planned – around Columbus Circle, being only surpassed in grandeur by the new Metropolitan Opera, to be designed by Urban and built nearby. However, the Depression not only scrapped the architect’s dreams of a skyscraper and an opera house, it forced the businessman – in a 1937 court-mandated reorganization – to give up his lead in the company. The name Hearst ceased to be synonymous with its founder’s incendiary first pages, unbridled ambition and scandalous personal life that inspired Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”.  It became not much more than a media conglomerate with a surname, spread over many cities in the US and several buildings in New York.

In 2000, time came for Hearst – the corporation – to consolidate its operations in Manhattan – to do so, the only way to go was up. In order to add height to the 1988-landmarked building, both Hearst and Sandy Lindenbaum – the attorney and omnipresent New York real-estate operator hired to negotiate zoning and preservation issues – claimed W.R. Hearst and Urban’s original 1920s plans for a tower extension. Acquiescence from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission came with a mandate: add a new landmark to an existing one. Given a list of contemporary “star architects”, Hearst chose Lord Foster for his experience in successful, consensual additions to historical buildings such as the Reichstag in Berlin and the British Museum in London.

Foster & Partners’ first major intervention in New York was announced a month after the 9/11 attacks; in times of uncertainty and fear, both architect and client decided to go against the tide of companies afraid of having a large number of their employees in one building, and particularly a tall one in Manhattan. They instead announced New York’s first skyscraper of the 21st century. That dramatic move would be enough to add a new landmark to Manhattan’s landscape, but Foster went a step further and proclaimed the city’s first new green skyscraper. At 46 stories, the Hearst Tower may seem short when compared to other recent corporate media headquarters – such as the Condé Nast and New York Times buildings, taller by 2 and 6 stories respectively. But instead of just reaching for the skies, this skyscraper chose to run the LEED (the United States Green Building Council’s environmental certificate) race. Which it won in 2006, by being the first tall building to achieve such certification. That alone can be seen as Foster’s greatest achievement in this project, but it was also his utmost contribution to American corporate architecture: showing, and leading, the LEED way. Hearst, the corporation, did not announce it wanted to raise the environmental standard for building and running office buildings – Foster did. By doing so, he found a new motto for the headquarters and a new vision for the corporation.

The building, rising on Eighth Avenue, between Fifty-sixth and Fifty-seventh Streets, matches the boastful nature of Hearst Corporation’s green-coated press releases. From the outside, this tower does not look like a bland office building – because it isn’t one. As with so much of Foster’s architecture – think of London’s Swiss Re tower, locally known as “the gherkin”, and its absence of straight angles – it is more than a striking addition to the city’s skyline; it calls to our curiosity, ingenuity and intelligence and not just our historical-esthetical sensibilities. Its unconventional, zigzagged silhouette made me ask questions, find out more about its diagonal grid modules of over 90% recycled steel beams and “low-E” coated glass. I was pleased to know that eliminating vertical beams saved 20% of steel, moving the elevator shaft to the back allowed more sunlight into the office spaces, and that the roof was designed to collect rainwater. Instead of inspiring wow (even though the views of Midtown are truly panoramic), this building asks how.

Once inside, one comes across the same rainwater collected on the roof cascading down a waterfall glass sculpture. Icefall, – a joint effort of sculptor/designer Jamie Carpenter and Jim Garland – is the backdrop to three diagonal escalators that allow for a cinematic ascent onto the impressive, gargantuan atrium. Massive v-shaped steel beams thrust from the nine-story high urban plaza floor, sustaining the tower above. A clerestory of glass wraps the gap between what remains of the Joseph Urban building – literally just the façade, stripped to its thinnest existence – and the new extension. Here, employees and their guests can board one of fifteen clever energy-saving elevators or enter the sustainably harvested wood-clad Joseph Urban Theater. Riverlines, Richard Long’s Avon and Hudson rivers mud fresco, sets the chromatic tone for the space: earthy hues, white, grey – a palette most of its workers, gathered in the 380-seat eating area, would say reminded them of Calvin Klein circa 1993. This is where the people behind Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar or Good Housekeeping magazines meet, eat and eventually sort their waste for recycling: out of the 2000 of Hearst’s employees (10% of the whole corporation) working together in this building, 70% are women. Fashionable women.

When such a considerable part of the workforce is female, a corporation can’t help but add a little pink to its green. In the – mostly magazine – office floors, the heavy recycled content of floor and ceiling materials, the non-harmful chemical content paints and the light-saving sensors are virtually invisible, yet deemed fundamental. The best visible features however are the views, as anything else – the partitions, the custom-designed furniture, the awkward waiting areas – is deceptively generic and ordinary. Except for the unequal female/male restroom ratio, the whole-body mirrors and stone floors, the small sweater and shoe closets in the cubicles: not only is this the office building of choice for grown-up eco-warriors, it seems perfect for green fashionistas too.

And then you arrive at the top floors. Despite all of Hearst’s green promises and preoccupation for its worker’s cashmere sweaters this is, I am told, a conservative, top-down corporation run by white men in suits – which perhaps explains the patronizing and slightly male chauvinistic interior design interpretations of women’s needs. In fact, only one of the ten top corporate executives wears high heels to work, and when she gets there she finds the stern portrait of W.R. Hearst and several other male-authored artworks hung on silk walls of executive corridors, which lead to dark dining halls of thick, expensive carpet. This is where Foster’s vision hit a Hearst wall: his chic, white executive room proposals were rejected in favor of more old-fashioned, “this is the way it has always been and we like it” look. Which inspires another how: Has something really changed in this corporation since Foster created its new premises? Or is Hearst’s new vision just magazine cover material?

As Joseph Urban gave W.R. Hearst a flamboyant vision during the first skyscraper era, Foster infused some green views to the Hearst board in the second. Nonetheless, he played his client’s limitations well – he juggled his visionary thought with Hearst’s pragmatic, conservative bottom line. The Hearst Tower is thus the paradigm of 21st century sustainable thinking: the future of the Earth is no longer in the hands of Greenpeace activists in dinghies, but in the corporations that once ignored them. Today, only they have the scale and power to reinvent themselves – to look at how they build, make or work, and look for alternative strategies that not only save the planet – they save them money. In this case, cutting corners to save steel, optimizing energy spending, even using rainwater in a fountain, show that being green now is also about asking, but above all telling, how.

Ours is no longer the age of great businessmen, but of faceless corporations, temporary CEOs and endless stockholders that look for their identity, often their ethos, in branding consultancies and marketing oracles – who lately have found green to be their new mantra. That is the case with the Hearst Tower: when a corporation that hardly distinguished sustainability from a fluorescent light bulb starts wearing its green headquarters with pride and use it to “exert influence on the thought and education of the reading public”, one can only thank the architect. With this project, as with his other subsequent buildings and city plans (of which the carbon-neutral Masdar City Development in Abu Dhabi is the most ambitious), Foster tackles the “sustainababble” we are fed by PR, advertising and media corporations such as Hearst with a dose of charm and technical dexterity, but above all with a clear sense of vision and purpose. Let’s hope Hearst – and other corporations alike – continues to follow his lead.


This writing assignment for Alexandra Lange‘s “Architecture and Urban Design Criticism” course consisted in writing a 1200-word architecture review of Norman Forster’s Hearst Tower, of which we had a guided tour.

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