Chinese architect's complex is flashpoint in Manhattan development-conservation battle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2008, 12:00am

New York

The three 30-storey buildings have been standing side by side in the heart of Manhattan's Greenwich Village for more than 40 years, dwarfing all other buildings in the area. In a city with almost 400 years of history, the Silver Towers complex can be regarded as neither modern nor traditional - yet the buildings have become the latest flashpoint in the battle between developers and preservationists, and between the city's rich universities and the communities that live around them.

The towers look a bit obsolete by today's standards. And because the complex sprawls over - and therefore disturbs - several blocks, the site is called a 'superblock'. That a nickname that used to be trendy decades ago, but is much less flattering these days as the reputation of the city's late master planner, Robert Moses, and his urban renewal projects declines.

But to many, the site is unique and irreplaceable. 'Where else can you find one superblock that has the combination of I.M. Pei and Picasso?' asked New York first district councillor Alan Gerson in a public hearing last week. He also lives in one of the buildings.

The big names truly define the complex owned by New York University, which commissioned the architect Pei to design the site in the 1960s when it acquired the land. He positioned the buildings in a pinwheel style, creating a plaza in the centre where he placed a sculpture adapted from Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Sylvette by Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjar, with the help of Picasso himself.

The complex was highly acclaimed in its early years and was listed as one of the '10 Buildings that Climax an Era' by Fortune magazine right after it was completed in 1966, and won several awards thereafter.

But the Pei and Picasso combination has become a thorn in the university's plan to add a fourth tower. Residents in the neighbourhood who don't want their views blocked - led by the advocacy group Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation - are trying to push the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the site a landmark.

The battle has lasted a couple of years, but a public hearing last week shows that it is intensifying.

In the hearing, the first held by the commission, the university made it clear it would still seek permission for a fourth tower, even if it is listed. Developers would have to make onerous efforts to prove that they won't harm the original.

For the envisioned fourth tower, the debate has already started.

'The location better complements the three-building pinwheel design that Pei put in place. That elegant design sets the buildings in such a way that they do not block one another's view; a fourth tower set in the location they proposed would sustain that,' university spokesman John Beckman said.

That argument doesn't hold much weight with preservationists. Andrew Berman, executive director of the residents' society, said: 'This notion they are going to add a fourth tower is like saying you are going to paint a smile on the face of Mona Lisa and somehow make it right.'

As for Pei, he said the architect called him once to express his appreciation for the organisation's efforts to list Silver Towers. But that was five years ago and there was no fourth tower in sight at that stage. At 91, the veteran architect is pretty much withdrawing from public life, so it is unlikely he will come to the rescue of either side in an argument that could boil over for some time.

Tomorrow: London