Walls Don’t Make Good Neighbors

No sooner did Chanel let slip how they spent a whole extra million dollars to finish the sides of their narrow tower on 57th Street in granite to match the street facade, than rival LVMH announced they were building next door. They promptly tore down the 5-story 19th century townhouses, and Chanel’s property line granite was covered up by Christian Portzamparc’s faceted glass tower.


I thought of this because until I saw Hagen Steir’s photo of the Whitney Museum on Tropolism, I had literally never noticed the facade-matching-granite-faced concrete wall built along the south lotline, the way it looms over the Breuer building’s hapless little brownstone neighbors. [ed. note: Chad points out it’s just concrete. and he’s right. -ed.]
The height of the wall is keyed, not to the potential buildable height of the townhouse, though, but to the height of the museum. In fact, there’s a similar wall running along the rear, eastern lotline, too. They’re really only apparent because Breuer’s design did not conform to the street grid or maintain the curtain of facades that were the backdrop of city street life.
In fact, they serve as backdrops, scrims, a pedestal, even, for the building itself. The building is a sculpture, an object in a thoroughly delineated volume of space that just happens to be on a corner in a neighborhood of a city.
The Whitney was finished in 1966, a year after the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but long before the designation of the Upper East Side Historical District. It’s always been a part of my Upper East Side, but considering how they literally walled themselves off from the neighborhood, I can’t be surprised at the Whitney’s never-ending confrontations with the LPC&co over its various expansion plans. Even when, as in the most recent Renzo Piano plan, they involved tearing down the two adjacent landmarked townhouses–which the Whitney now owns–along with that wall.

Tropolism contributes to Gridskipper’s Ugly Buildings list
Additional Whitney photos at Great Buildings Online [