Bending into the ugly future

Image courtesy of Oiio

Last Wednesday, Oiio Design Studio released a concept for “The Big Bend,” a skyscraper that bends into a semicircle at the top and makes its way back to ground level. It would be one continuous building, so you could get on an elevator on one side of the building and come out on the other side of the building. Oiio, and most news outlets reporting on the building, say it will transform the city’s skyline, so this week my column will actually be some opinion on how it could transform the city.

First, I don’t want to overlook the work that must have gone into this design. Aside from the elevator (and probably stair) designers needing to come up with a completely new elevator that can travel in curves, there was also a lot of legal effort to find loopholes in the city’s zoning laws. If the current design were to be built, it would be the longest skyscraper in the world while only being the third or fourth tallest. Cool way to think about it.

Despite the concept being very cool, I’m rather skeptical about The Big Bend. There isn’t enough information out about what the skyscraper will be used for, which is important for what I’ll discuss later, but it reminds me of 432 Park. On paper, 432 Park sounded like it would be an efficient use of space and take what New York has always done, build up instead of out, and do it to a higher degree. Once it actually went up though, nearly the entire city hated it. It look ugly and out of place, many of us call it “The Finger”, and it seems to accelerate the massive change the city’s been dealing with for a while, that massive change being native New Yorkers being pushed out of their old neighborhoods by rents and new developments that only the very wealthy can afford. How wealthy is very wealthy? The least expensive rental is $35,000 per month, but most apartments in 432 Park are selling for over $20 million. I don’t think 432 Park is as bad as the demolition of Penn Station, but it’s certainly a gilded development.

Given the proposed location of The Big Bend, on 57th St near 7th and 6th Avenues, I can’t help but think that it will likely be a multi-millionaires’ playground. That part of Midtown has generally been extremely wealthy, it’s the land of Carnegie Hall and Trump Tower, so if the Big Bend is going to be a residential building, it’s certainly going to be like 432 Park. I think The Big Bend, if it is built, will be best for the city as an office building. Sure, 57th St is close to the fringes of the business headquarters-dense area of the city, but physical proximity to other businesses is becoming less of an issue as more businesses begin using video conference calls. Still, given the neighborhood Oiio wants to build it in and the nice views of Central Park from the higher levels of the building, it’s inevitable that The Big Bend will be at least partially residential, which could accelerate the problem I talked about earlier.

Growing up, I always thought of the Empire State Building as the building that symbolized New York, especially our common “get work done” attitude. It was built during the worst economic period in the country’s history, which affected the city in some unique ways, it’s located on one of the city’s most famous streets in the heart of the city, and it was the tallest building during my childhood. I barely remember the Twin Towers, and the Freedom Tower was either just a concept or under construction for most of my life. It even gives the illusion of being made of gold if it’s a particularly sunny day. It’s been quite amazing to see how the city’s skyline has changed over such a short period of time with the additions of the Freedom Tower, Hudson Yards, and what I call “Jenga” in TriBeCa, among others. At the same time, it’s been disheartening to see the older architecture disappear. I admit, I find it difficult to imagine a New York exclusively filled with modernist, neoclassical, and generally old architecture, but I still think it’s better. I’m sure that 20 years from now, short of my architecture propaganda campaign being successful, the next generation will feel the same way about the Freedom Tower and maybe the Big Bend that I feel about the Empire State Building.