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Ed. Rizzoli, 1994. Size 30,5 x 23 cm. With more than 500 photographs in color/black and white. State: New. 414 pages

Like no other architectural firm, Kohn Pedersen Fox has dedicated its attention to the development of the most characteristic and significant American building type. the skyscraper. For about one hundred years the American scene has been distinguished by high-rise buildings, and since the end of World War II the type has spread to other parís of the world as well. We have good reason to believe that the skyscraper will constitute a basic element in the city of the future, an assumption that implies that the modem city and the high-rise structure belong together. The work of Kohn Pedersen Fox is based on this very assumption and therefore represents an important contribution to the growth of the new city. In order to corrobórate this assertion, we must take a look at the history of the skyscraper.

The rise of the skyscraper in Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 was due in parí to an understanding of the urban infrastructure as an open network or grid and of its vertical dimensión as open to unrestricted growth. In the past, on the contrary, the vertical as a rule represented the sacred, and the tower acted as a landmark symbolizing the presence of forces and meanings that transcended everyday life. In other words, daily life did not take place in the tower but was provided with a spiritual component through the presence of the vertical element. In the American city, however, the role of the tower is fundamentally different, and accordingly the city as a whole takes on a new appearance. For a long time this was exemplified by the view of lower Manhattan for those arriving in New York by sea; today most American cities present themselves as a cluster of high-rise buildings of varying size and shape.

William LeBaron Jenney’s invention of what is known as “Chicago construction” also contributed to the rise of the skyscraper.2 But its origin lies further back in time and may be connected to the introduction of the gridiron plan during the seventeenth century. When William Penn planned Philadelphia as an extended grid in 1682, he transformed the city from a hierarchical structure around a dominant square into a neutral network focused on nodes of activity.3 That is, the city was no longer the expression of a closed, integrated society but was an open framework where individuáis could make their success manifest as buildings of varying height. Thus in the American city, the achievements of the individual are presented in terms of architecture, and the city becomes a forum for freedom of choice.

In general, the structure of the American city represents a development of its original form: an open street lined by rows of sepárate houses. This demonstrates the essentially democratic origin of the open city as an expression of the equal rights and opportunities of the individual. In the American city, urban freedom appears total but still remains within the grid. The new cityscape is thus constituted by individual structures standing and rising within the grid. Growth happens spontaneously and everywhere, and the nodes of activity that come and go evince the environment’s dvnamism.

Does this mean, then, that the American city is an amorphous non-place? Such a conclusion is implied by Lewis Mumford:

In the gridiron plan, as applied in the commercial city, no section or precinct was suitably planned for its specific function: instead the only function considered was the progressive intensification of use. . . . Now the fact is that in urban planning, such bare surface order is no order at all.”4 In the American city, in fact, we do not arrive at any particular goal but find ourselves within an indeterminate pattern. Still, an order exists, an order that in a new way reflects the human activities that take place between earth and sky. In general, the order is a novel interpretation of the horizontal and vertical dimensions, as already suggested.

It is important to note that the new meaning of horizontality and verticality is common to the American house as well as to the American city. Frank Lloyd Wright’s understanding of the horizontal as unlimited expanse and the vertical as manifestation of the human foothold in infinity is echoed by the general openness of the grid and the nodal function of the skyscraper. Hence, Alberti’s dictum—that the house is a small city, and the city a large house—still holds true. But horizontal expanse only becomes meaningful if it is related to the rhythms inherent in the local environment. The early American street made clear such an order. For instance, a view of Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street from 1879 seems to say: “You all had the same chance, and you may demonstrate your success by getting up in the high, but you cannot step out of the system, because then freedom would turn into its opposite and become a destructive mutual fight.”5

Vertical rise also possesses its order, derived from the basic relationship between earth and sky. In his famous essay of 1896, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Louis Sullivan gave an early interpretation of the meaning of the skyscraper. First he stated the problem: “How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions?” His answer was simple: a very tall building also has to relate to the earth with “a great freedom of access” and terminate toward the sky with an attic of “dominating weight and character.” In between, the world of the individual is expressed as “an indefinite number of stories of offices piled tier upon tier, one tier just like another tier, one office just like all the other offices.” Hence Sullivan envisages a new vertical openness: human achievement is expressed not only by a distinguished street front but also by the height of a building. Implicit in Sullivan’s concept is the elaboration of the termination with a symbolic “top” that adds an iconographic presence to the urban skyline.

This formation of the skyline—which also characterizes the new city—is the primary role of the skyscraper. A number of great contributions to this theme were realized between 1900 and 1940, such as the Woolworth Building in New York by Cass Gilbert (1913), the Chicago Tribune Tower by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood (1922), and the Chrysler Building by William Van Alen (1929) and the Empire State Building by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon (1931), both in New York. The Chrysler Building, in particular, has become one of the city’

best-remembered landmarks, thanks to its distinct image. It shows us how architecture may assure human orientation and identification in an open city.

The development of the urban structure entered another phase with New York’s Rockefeller Center (1928-1941), by a team of architects including Raymond Hood. Here, “almost everything that a city . . . should be comes together: skyscrapers, plazas, movement, detail, views, stores, cafes,” Paul Goldberger writes. “It is all of a piece, yet it is able to appear possessed of infinite variety at the same time.”6 It is all of a piece because it respects the grid and the street and at the same time activates the space within the block. Thus Rockefeller Center constitutes an island of meaning within the indeterminate grid and suggests what ma; become one of the open city’s basic structural qualities.

Unfortunately, this crucial lesson of the early skyscrapers was forgotten after World War II, and high-rise building degenerated into the monotonous repetition of inarticulate curtain-wall architecture. Although some of the executed works possessed true artistic value, such as Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building (1958), they did not represent any real contribution to the further development of the high-rise city Instead, the most important achievements of the postwar years were the structural innovations of Fazlur Khan, notably in the impressive John Hancock Center (1970) and Sears Tower (1974) both in Chicago.

What was lost after the war, first of all, was the expressive skyline, a loss that in 1983 prompted the Chicago Architectural Club to sponsor a public design competition entitled “Tops?’ This was intended to “revive the richly symbolic iconography an articulately ornamental monumentality of the urban tower.”7 Shortly thereafter, Philip Johnson and John Burgee completed th AT&T Corporate Headquarters in New York. AT&T chairman John deButts was from the beginning opposed to a “glass box,” a form he felt would not distinguish AT&T from its neighbors. To meet this demand, the architects sought to revive the great architectural traditions of the first half of the century. The result is a building that we recognize and remember, because of its active relationship to the street and its expressive silhouette. As a part of the cityscape, the AT&T Building stands forth with a characteristic identity.

It is in this context of the open city and the related development of the skyscraper that we must consider the works of Kohn Pedersen Fox. Already by 1979 William Pedersen had designed the seminal 333 Wacker Drive in Chicago, a building in which the basic aims of the firm are set forth. Located where the urban grid meets the bend in the Chicago River, the building had to resolve two conflicting situations: the orthogonal geometry of the grid and the topology of the river. Accordingly, the volume was split into two segments, a curved front facing the waterway and a faceted series of steps in the back. At the top, the segments interpenetrate, becoming a significant part of the urban skyline.

An analogous interpretation determined Pedersen’s grandiose project for Houston Office Tower—Block 265, from 1981. Here the building comprises a park side and a city side. The former consists of a low pavilionlike structure opening on the green with a tall curved wall of reflecting glass above, whereas the city side is composed of solid granite elevations. Again the two sides interpenetrate in a collagelike manner in order to express the role of the building in the total context.

Equally important is the competition entry for the Bank of the Southwest in Houston (1982). Here, wrote Pedersen, “the base establishes a facade providing a continuity and cohesion to the public realm. The tower asserts its individuality as an object in the sky». In an interview in November 1985, he elaborated on his intentions: “The tall building must begin at its lower levels by ng as a facade that can join with other facades to create the l6an walls that define a street. Once it meets that need, the tall building can rise as a freestanding object to fulfill the demands of its own program. We do this by treating the tall building initially as facade and then as object”

In a rich and varied series of projects and buildings, Kohn Pedersen Fox has realized these aims. Many stylistic references have been used, and the classical language has served as a general compositional aid. It cannot be denied, however, that a certain stagnation set in during the mid-to-late 1980s. In projects such as 125 East 57th Street (1983—1986) in New York, National Bank of Commerce (1984) in San Antonio, and 125 Summer Street (1985-1990) in Boston, the modern, collagelike freedom of the earlier works was replaced with an additive and over-articulated mode of composition, and the new and the old failed to enter into a convincing dialogue.

It is therefore with great pleasure that we recognize the exceptional quality of Pedersen’s recent projects. Starting with Three Bellevue Center (1988—1994) in Bellevue, Washington, he returns to compositional methods that are more in tune with our time. Thus he reinterprets his environmentally determined structures from about 1980 in a truly creative manner, and at the same time he preserves the classical control he employed in the late 1980s. The result is a convincing alternative to the more superficial fashions of the present, such as deconstructivism. Among the new projects, we may single out One Fountain Place (1985-1988) in Cincinnati, where the original concept of the high-rise structure has found a new and fascinating interpretation. The same holds true for Mainzer Landstrasse 58 (1986-1993) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany; St. Paul Companies Headquarters (1987-1991) in St. Paul, Minnesota; Chifley Tower (1987-1992) in Sydney, Australia; and the Ameritrust Center (1988-1995) in Cleveland. However, 311 South Wacker Drive (1985-1990) in Chicago still represents a phase of transition. Pedersen’s recent development culminates in the splendid Rockefeller Plaza West (1987—1991) in New York.

Regarding this last project, William Pedersen writes: “The contrasting models of modernism, Rockefeller Center and Times Square, form the context of the project and inform its design. The lessons offered by these fantasies of the city have allowed for a consideration of the buildings as an assemblage, the pieces of which resolve the various site conditions, while the whole is both monumental and dynamic, embodying the energy of the modern city.” Thus the project truly expresses the new open world of memories and possibilities. Ada Louise Huxtable evaluates the design, saying: “Rockefeller Plaza West is a skilled exercise in the historical continuum of humanistic architecture that can give both service and pleasure, even at today’s superscale”.

With rare perseverance Kohn Pedersen Fox has offered ever novel contributions to the development of the high-rise city. The idea of simultaneously adapting to the horizontally extended environment and creating an individual object in space grasps the problem of the new urban pattern at its core, and the results show that independence and interdependence are qualities that may be reconciled. Hence the proximate street is preserved as a basic environmental fact at the same time that the distant skyline expresses the new pluralism.

To make the open city truly alive, what is needed above all is architectural quality. Fortunately the Americans have always given quality pride of place. It is a basic misunderstanding to reject American architecture as arbitrary manifestations of the “melting pot.” Early on Thomas Jefferson wanted to revive “the first principles of the art,” and in our century Louis Kahn advocated a return to the beginnings.10 American architecture in fact proves that a new start is not necessarily a start from zero. The works of Kohn Pedersen Fox belong to the American tradition of first principles and teach us that the high-rise city, in addition to offering service and pleasure, is a meaningful expression of the new world.

By A. Eugene Kohn, William Pedersen and Sheldon Fox
The High-Rise City, by Christian Norberg-Schulz
Kohn Pedersen Fox: Transition an Development, by Joseph Giovannini
The Facades of KPF: Abstraction and the Limits of Figuration, by Thomas L. Schumacher
The Bow and the Lyre, by William Pedersen
The Circle and the Square, by Warren A. James
By Judith Turner