[ SCIENCE BLOG ON ARCHITECTURE, COMPETITIONS AND MEDIATIONS OF EXCELLENCE ]

WHEN THE “TOP OF THE ROCK” RECEIVES AN AWARD: EXCELLENCE IN ALTERING THE VIEW

Mandana Bafghinia, November 12 2019

Rockefeller Center Vintage Travel Brochure (2018)

The city architect can no more afford to neglect the roofs that continually spread out below him than the country architect can afford to neglect the planting about a house.”(1)

There are only three observation decks on the top of skyscrapers in New York—in chronological order, the Empire State Building, which is a cake-stack top, the Rockefeller Center and the World Trade Center – and only the top of the Rockefeller Center has twice received an award, vouching for the acknowledgement of its excellences.

The observation roof closed in 1986 was reopened in 2005 under the name of the Top of the Rock. In 2006, the firm Gabellini and Sheppard Associates won two AIA awards for its renovation of the whole promenade from the top to the bottom of the Rockefeller Center: The Honor Awards for Interior Architecture and the Honor Award for Historic Preservation. The initial architect was Raymond Hood, under the umbrella of the Associates Architects. In order to understand why this building won those two heritage awards, from preservation to renovation, a retrospective look on its peculiar history is necessary.

Built between 1930 and 1939, the Rockefeller Center made a big change during the Depression, thanks to the initiative of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It is not a simple building but “a city under one roof.” In order to understand the strategies and tactics that shaped its image, one has to go from the top to bottom, follow the statement of Harvey Wiley Corbett, according to whom towers should be built from the top down. The timeline also starts from the end toward the beginning, sketching out a set of related events that have produced what is today called the “Top of the Rock experience.”

At the beginning of 2000, Tishman Speyer has launched a competition between two firms for the renovation of the top of the Center. Gabellini and Sheppard won against Disney World. The reason to choose the former was their expertise in a landmark, while the latter were renowned for their touristic attractions. On the day of presentation, Shepard decided to show their panels on the 67th floor of the site itself, which was surrounded by mechanical and ductwork. Also, a boxing promoter had made his penthouse on what is now a weather room on the top.

Surprisingly, despite the well-designed panels presented by Gabellini and Sheppard, Tishman Speyer at first has chosen Disney, but after six months, Rob Speyer, the senior managing director of the firm which co-owns Rockefeller Center together with the Crown family of Chicago, announced to Shepard that they had been selected. The Rockefeller Center is not just an attraction but conveys the grandeur of a family. It could be engaged as an attraction in New-York city, but it is definitely not a theme park in the manner of Disney.

The panels presented by Gabellini and Shepard defined three major zones: the concourse, the mezzanine and the top. “Make the Concourse a destination” (2): the lower decks of the 1930s concourse were like a luxury liner. In arranging the entries to the Plaza and into the building, Hood had created a pin-wheeling motion, which generated a certain rhythmic action. In 2005, Gabellini and Shephard created a new entrance on Fifth Avenue. They carved the offices out to make a lobby, combined with a triple-height atrium. The rhythmic action of the past was translated to an elliptical staircase entrance by the top down crystal chandeliers, as if the building itself were inverted.

“The greatest price of height lies in the requirements of efficient vertical circulation” (3): In 1930, Hood had proposed his “Number 27” theory. As each elevator shaft ended, he wrote: “we cut the building back to 27 feet from the core of the building for eliminating every dark corner” (4). He added: “by doing this, we found the instinctive sculptural shape of the building.” In the design of Gabellini and Sheppard is, at the end of each elevator shaft marked by a blue light. It is conceived as a time capsule shot across 65 floors through the original elevator shaft. (5)

“The roof was unquestionably a business enterprise” (6): Hood recognized it as one of the main elements in the design of the ideal city. Another important aspect of Hood’s design was the creation of views. The roofs of the RCA building, completed in 1933, resembled an ocean liner. The notion of “promenade” was suggested. In 2005, the design the summit turned to different optical devices. The frames were fragmented between exterior and interior sections, shaping, in other words, “Grand Viewing Terraces.” Clear optical glass panels now preserve the building’s original façade.

A “Hedonistic urbanism of congestion” (7): There are two revolutions induced by his skyscraper: first the shape which, according to Carol Willis, has broken the mold of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. The experience of leisure gave place to education. The Top of the Rock doesn’t just provide a lookout enclosed by a fence, like the top of the Empire State Building or enclosed like the World Trade Center. It is an enhanced lighthouse, adorned by crystal to reflect the sky. Its location allows a discovery of Central Park, and a unique view of the surrounding pinnacles of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. In 1939, more than 1.3 million visitors came to the observation roof. In 2019, two million visited the Top of the Rock.

In conclusion, the multiple variable of the economic equation can affect design decisions and tailor the shape of buildings, according to a business logic, but excellence is not a matter of budget and appealing tourist, as the Disney proposal argued, but rather a matter of culture and visual pleasure, as shown by the deck brought to an end. Heritage and landmark preservation are necessary, even when changes are minimal, mentioned Kimberly Sheppard (8) As one sees, sometimes a slight change is worth an award.

In 1939, Hugh Ferriss could stand on the Rock’s parapet at dawn, he saw his “Metropolis of the future” of 1929 rising. (9)

Mandana Bafghinia

  • (1) Raymond Hood, personal writings, quoted by Alan Balfour in Rockefeller Center: Architecture as Theater. New York; Montréal: McGraw-Hill, 1978. p. 49.
  • (2) Daniel Okrent. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. Penguin Books, 2004, p. 354.
  • (3) Carol Willis. Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995, p. 102.
  • (4) Daniel Okrent. Great Fortune, 357.
  • (5) Gabellini and Sheppard Associates. AIA New York State Convention. Grand Hyatt, New York, October 6, 2007.
  • (6) Daniel Okrent. Great Fortune, p. 354
  • (7) Rem Koolhaas. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • (8) Interview with Kimberly Sheppard. 19/02/2019
  • (9) Hugh Ferris. The Metropolis of Tomorrow. New York: Ives Washburn, 1929.
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