December 8, 2003
Hon. Robert Tierney
Chair, New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
One Centre Street, 9th floor
New York, NY 10007
Dear Chair Tierney:
I am writing to urge the Commission to consider the designation as New York City landmarks of University Village/Silver Towers, 100 and 110 Bleecker Street and 505 LaGuardia Place, including landscaping, outdoor sculpture and furniture, and the adjacent supermarket and Coles Sports and Recreation Center (Block 524).
Designed in 1966 by I.M. Pei, the University Village/Silver Towers buildings are an early gem by one of the late 20th century’s most important and celebrated architects. The design represents an important moment in the evolution of Pei’s career and in the evolution of modern design in general, as well as an important moment in Greenwich Village and New York’s architectural development. These buildings, their overall arrangement within this superblock, and their placement within the surrounding landscaping and larger street grid, are an unusually sensitive and sophisticated manifestation of 1960’s modern design, and are, along with Chatham Green, probably New York’s most successful example of cast-in-place concrete architecture (a form rarely used anymore), and perhaps its most successful residential design from this era. The design won the American Institute of Architects National Honor Award and the City Club of New York’s Albert S. Bard Award in 1967, and Pei won the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 1983 for his body of work up to that point in time; in 1966, Fortune Magazine dubbed Silver Towers one of “Ten Buildings That Climax an Era.”
In typical Pei fashion, the design not only conveys the desire for structural truth and transparency typical of traditional modernism; it also displays a stylish, visually sensual, carefully articulated abstraction, acknowledges and subtly relates to the larger urban fabric around it, and gently shapes the experience of the pedestrian at street level. University Village/Silver Towers exhibits the synthesis of structural expressionism, recognition of context and user, and sensual visual pleasure which Pei would exemplify in his later designs, and which would inform the work of other pre-eminent late 20th century and 21st century architects such as Richard Meier and Peter Eisenmann.
In the book New York 1960 (The Monacelli Press, 1995) by Robert A.M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman, the story of the project’s design is described as follows:
"In 1963 NYU Took title to the vacant five-and-a-half acre parcel that was to have been the site of the last of the Washington Square Village superslabs and set out to develop a middle-income housing project, ultimately called University Village…In a bold move toward creating a high-quality project, I.M. Pei was retained as architect. Initial plans called for two thirty story towers and an adjacent seven-story building; ground was broken in 1964. But by the time University Village was completed in 1966 the third building had grown in height to match the other two towers. Despite their claim that “housing is no place for monuments,” Pei and his design collaborators, who included James Ingo Freed, as well as A. Preston Moore and Theodore Amberg, organized the towers to create a monumental plaza, and the towers themselves, with their bold concrete structural grids and deep-set windows, furthered the impression of grand scale. Whereas Pei’s previous housing had tended to emphasize the regularity of the structural grid, creating almost endlessly repetitious, impersonal facades, at University Village he pursued a counterbalancing impulse toward dynamic asymmetry based on a pinwheel-plan composition of the towers, juxtaposing the window grids with concrete sheer walls to create an animated, sculpturally vigorous yet human-scaled design. The placement of the buildings on the site furthered the sense of active composition by playing the long facade of one tower against the short façade of the other. The complex gathered its entrances around an internal plaza, deliberately turning its back on Houston Street…The landscaping of the site considerably softened the transitions between the housing precinct and the neighborhood to the south.
As the focus of the plaza, Pei wanted a monumental sculpture by Pablo Picasso, who agreed to have his sometime collaborator, Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjar, reinterpret his Portrait of Sylvette (1934), originally a two-foot-tall metal construction, as a thirty-six-foot high, sixty-ton sculpture. Working in situ, Nesjar executed Sylvette in concrete with a Norwegian black stone aggregate that was sandblasted to recreate the etched black lines of the original. Picasso was involved not only in the translation of the small construction to its new scale and material but also in its placement in the plaza. Despite the planarity of the composition, the construction in concrete, rather than the original metal, gave Sylvette a forceful, gestural presence that held its own amid the surrounding towers."
In Manhattan Skyscrapers (2000, Princeton Architectural Press), by Eric P. Nash describes the design thusly:
"Silver Towers is a fine composition that creates a modernist dialogue between openness and enclosure. The sheer, 30-story, reinforced concrete and glass towers are an elegant synthesis of many strains of modernist design, and at the same time express Pei’s minimalist sculptural sensibility. A “slightly skeptical acolyte” of Walter Gropius, in the words of his biographer Michael Cannell, Pei clearly expresses the structure of Silver Towers, but improves on Gropius’s unlovely precast concrete façade for the Pan Am Building. The warm, buff-colored concrete facades of the three Silver Towers are organized into four by eight structural bays of deeply recessed plate-glass windows. The wedge shaped piers and sloping walls soften what would otherwise be a cold, office-building-like grid.
The articulated concrete frame with deep-set windows gives the impression of a sheltering, lithic building, yet at the same time form an open cage of space. The facades are sculptural because the bays vary from open glass panels to completely recessed stone frames. The transitional points on the facades between a regular grid and sharp zigzags change, depending upon which angle they are viewed from, so that the buildings always have a kinetic sense of energy. Backgrounded against the low-set landmarked neighborhood of SoHo, few skyscraper complexes have so much open sky around them, and the flow of space is almost palpable. The buildings are set on a pinwheel plan, and seem to spin forward in place.
Pei wanted to provide a sense of home in the comfort…Like LeCorbusier’s cast concrete collective housing unit, Unite d’Habitation (1947-53) in Marseilles, the building interacts naturally with the environment: the deeply overhanging soffits function like a brise-soleil, and the windows slide open for natural air circulation…Pei also used the deep window sockets to provide a sense of privacy and shelter, the way Frank Lloyd Wright did."
When compared to earlier Pei works, such as Kips Bay Plaza, it becomes clear that University Village/ Silver Towers pinpoints a critical moment in Pei’s architectural career, where the interaction of geometric shapes, the relationship of overall layout to component parts and the surrounding cityscape, and the creation of sublimely elegant and yet dynamic surfaces replaced abstraction and repetition as the primary characteristics of his designs. The project must also be noted for its genesis in the urban renewal schemes of Robert Moses; University Village/ Silver Towers is very much a child of Moses’ “superblock” redevelopments, and yet, perhaps somewhat uniquely among them, is deferential and in many ways tied to the fabric of the cityscape around it. Unlike Washington Square Village to the north, the design for this project allowed Wooster and Greene Streets to visually continue and flow through it. In fact, the plan creates one of the quintessential modernist spaces in New York; open and two-dimensional, but with the urban fabric around it clearly acknowledged and interwoven, as the surrounding streets flow through it as pedestrian walkways. The central plaza and circulation space are defined and brought to life not by the traditional creation of a contained outdoor room, but by the subtle interplay of the surrounding geometric forms, by the flow of intersecting paths around a circular central space, and by the addition of a striking piece of modern cubist sculpture, with multiple perspectives, as a focal point. The use of Picasso’s Portrait of Sylvette is perhaps one of New York’s most prominent and striking uses of modernist outdoor sculpture, and arguably its most successful use in a residential context in New York City. Thus, though a product of the urban renewal/superblock visions of the 1950’s and early 60’s, this design points towards the much more sensitive designs of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, which sought to relate (even through abstraction) to their urban contexts, rather than deny them.
Additionally, University Village/Silver Towers not only serves as an exceptional example of thoughtful and urbane post-war superblock urban renewal schemes, but as a superlative example of university planning and design in this era, as well as of designs for publicly supported housing. Thus it forms a unique intersection of three powerful forces shaping American architecture during this era, the products of which are all too rarely regarded as making positive contributions to the urban fabric and design. And in spite of the design serving several masters, it was a uniquely organic whole that projected a clear and innovative design sensibility, a rarity for large commissions serving multiple functions and purposes. The design coincided with NYU’s commission of Marcel Breuer to design new dormitories for their University Heights campus, marking perhaps the high point of NYU’s architectural ambitions, as well as marking the beginning of an unusually creative period in the design of some publicly assisted housing in New York, which included University Village/Silver Towers’ highly regarded contemporaries Chatham Green (Gruzen and Partners, 1965) and Riverbend (Davis, Brody, and Associates, 1967); not since the earliest days of publicly assisted housing in New York in the 1930’s had
such innovation and design quality been apparent, and this design probably marks the high-water mark for the now-defunct Mitchell-Lama housing program which so transformed New York’s cityscape, as well as its housing market.
The careful planning of the grounds, the meticulous articulation of the facades, the exquisite formulation of the concrete skins of the buildings, and the subtle interplay of forms on the superblock site all merit recognition and preservation, and all risk adulteration or loss. University Village/Silver Towers is truly in the best of the modern tradition where all of the design elements, not just the buildings, come together to form an integral whole, and the loss of any one element would have an extremely detrimental effect. That is why we suggest inclusion not only of the three main buildings, but the landscaping, outdoor furniture, and outdoor sculpture for designation. Designation of the entire site will ensure that future work done to maintain and restore the landscaping, outdoor furniture, pathways, and facades of the buildings maintains the spirit and careful details Pei, Freed, Moore, and Amberg created. Additionally, as New York’s only outdoor public artwork from a design by what is considered to be the 20th century’s pre-eminent artist, the Portrait of Sylvette sculpture should absolutely be included in any designation. Its crooked black lines and sandy concrete texture both mimic and contrast with the design elements of the tower and the surrounding landscaping, paving, and furniture. This sundial-like element successfully acts to animate and serve as a focal point for the central space; with its irregular shape and seemingly hand-drawn lines, it gives an appropriate contrast to the elegant geometric forms which otherwise define the towers and outdoor spaces. Even the lampposts, designed particularly for this site, relate conspicuously to the overall design scheme; in their placement along the pathways and in the relationship of their color and shape to the towers, they are integral to the site’s success and a part of the visual experience of walking through it.
Notably, the two adjoining buildings on the superblock should also be included in a designation. While neither were designed by Pei and each were built separately, the Pei design clearly envisioned the remainder of the superblock as low and horizontal, neutral and deferential to the main composition of the three towers and the spaces that flow through and around them. The supermarket building and sports and recreation center, while not individually distinguished, support this design in their basic placement and their horizontal orientation, and thus should be included in the designation and treated as “non-contributing” structures, allowing for changes so long as they do not negatively impact upon the overall design scheme and the relationship of the main structures.
I have attached several recent photos of the site, including those showing the siting relationship between the three main towers and the surrounding landscape and low-lying structures, and the various design elements described above. I hope that you will recognize the value in preserving all, and agree to hear this site for designation. It should be noted that the Board of 505 LaGuardia Place strongly supports this designation proposal, and will be sending you a letter to this effect.
Cc: Members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission
Mary Beth Betts, Director of Research, Landmarks Preservation Commission
Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields
Congress Member Jerrold Nadler
State Senator Tom Duane
City Council Member Alan Gerson
Assembly Member Deborah Glick
Community Board #2, Manhattan
Kent Barwick, Municipal Art Society
Frank Sanchis, Municipal Art Society
Vicki Weiner, Municipal Arts Society
Peg Breen, Landmarks Conservancy
Roger Lang, Landmarks Conservancy
Historic Districts Council
American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter
Robert A. M. Stern
505 LaGuardia Place Board of Directors
Silver Towers Tenants Association
Mercer-Houston Dog Run
Friends of LaGuardia Place
LaGuardia Corner Garden
South Village Landmarking Association
Bleecker Area Merchants and Residents Association
Society for the Architecture of the City
Greenwich Village Community Task Force