Architecture of Ambition

Over the last decade, I’ve had both a personal and professional relationship with Bank of America. When I moved to Boston in the mid-nineties, I opened a BayBank account. In an evolution that sounds more like a biblical genealogy, BayBank became BankBoston, which became Fleet, which became Bank of America. Morphing graphics reflected these changes, moving from the restful green and blue of BayBank through increasingly bright hues to the retina-burning red of Bank of America.

I had issues with the Bank’s excessive use of red plastic, not only in the form of my debit card but also in the signage and ATMs of the retail branches. But the company is based in my home state of North Carolina, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt.  In the meantime, I moved to New York and started a job with the architecture firm Gensler. While I was there, the Bank of America was one of Gensler’s largest clients, and I interacted often with the Bank’s communications team. Despite this shared history, the Bank remains somewhat of an enigma to me as a company. Its New York headquarters building, which was recently completed in midtown Manhattan, only reinforces this feeling. As a public statement, the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park is a bundle of mixed messages.

The ground floor lobby space of the 2.1 million square foot tower exemplifies what’s frustrating about this building. The lobby itself is intended to feel like an extension of the sidewalk, and admittedly, it achieves this with some degree of success. Clear glass walls allow for a view onto the park, the double-height space is airy and bright, and the granite floor and Jerusalem stone interior walls give the effect of durable, outdoor materials. The position of the main entrance, however, is maddening. Located at southeast corner of the lobby, the doors cause entrants to come into space at an angle, torpedoing any sense of procession or grandeur. One Bryant Park is now the second-tallest building in the City—we want to be impressed.

The Jerusalem stone becomes bland when used on a large scale, and the empty wall that faces Sixth Avenue shouts lost opportunity. Why is there no art installation that might be visible from the street? At the very least, one would expect there to be an eye-catching rendition of the Bank of America logo. But there is only a discreet brushed metal version in the corner. The signage is so toned-down that it is almost unrecognizable. It almost makes me wish for the signature red glow—something to give this anodyne space some life and identity. The security desks and elevator lobbies around the corner may make up for some of the plainness, but not in a good way. Desks accented with blue lights and walls covered in leather tile look dated and are a jarring contrast to the clean, light-filled outer lobby.

This confusing space raises all sorts of questions.  Was it not acceptable to have a red glow on Bryant Park? Did Bank of America not want to be seen spending money on art for the lobby, despite the fact that the company just built a skyscraper that costs over a billion dollars? And why the super-tasteful treatment of the logo? Connecting to the main lobby on the 42nd Street side is a retail banking branch, and here, the Bank’s plastic colors fly in full glory. Compared to the main lobby, the retail branch space feels down right cozy, with modest proportions and comfortable lounge seating (the main lobby has almost no seating). Apparently, my bank has a split personality.

Bank of America has grown exponentially in the last few decades, not only through the acquisition of other banks but also through the development of its investment banking division. Success in this area put the Bank in the big leagues, with firms like JPMorgan or Goldman Sachs. Except that real players on the investment banking scene have headquarters in international capitals, not in Charlotte, North Carolina. After receiving significant post-9/11 incentives in the form of Liberty Bonds to grow in New York, the Bank decided to announce that it had arrived in the financial industry by building a new skyscraper in New York City.

The site selection at the northwest corner of Bryant Park seemed to be a promising start. The two-acre building site on Sixth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets was acquired piecemeal over many years by The Durst Organization, one of the City’s largest developers. The Bank and Durst went in 50-50 on the new project, with a plan for the Bank to occupy about half of the space and Durst leasing the rest. The building would incorporate and renovate the landmarked Henry Miller’s Theater on 43rd Street. Located at the northwest corner of Bryant Park, the building would not only have lovely views and connect to one of the City’s most dynamic public spaces, but it would become a highly visible billboard for the Bank.

The selection of the architecture firm Cook + Fox to design the tower was undoubtedly based on pre-existing relationships and the individual experience of the principals. Rick Cook and Bob Fox only formed a partnership in 2003, but Durst knew Fox from their work together on 4 Times Square, when he was a partner at the firm of Fox & Fowle.  It was a coup for the new firm to win the Bank of America Tower, especially since they were known for smaller scale work. The Bank most likely wanted an American architect, and eco-conscious Durst probably pushed for Cook + Fox, experts in sustainable design.

In publicity materials, the designers say that they were inspired by New York’s Crystal Palace, which sat in the current location of Bryant Park from 1853 until 1858. The glass and iron structure was the site of multiple exhibitions and expos, including the first elevator demonstration by Elisha Otis.  Jumping off from the Crystal Palace, the architects began to think about natural crystals and their biomorphic shapes. The project broke ground in the spring of 2004, and a crystalline form began to grow on the northwest corner of 42nd Street. As the 55-story tower rose, it twisted and shrank. The angled surfaces were intended to deal more effectively with wind sheer as well as provide more panoramic views for those inside. But for those on the outside, the result is a strange architectural object.  Like some Michelangelo sculptures, it’s best seen from almost directly below; view it any further away, and the proportions appear off—a major problem for the second-tallest building on the skyline.  Bottom-heavy, the building has no ambition of soaring towards the sky, much less scraping it. Its much older neighbors on the skyline, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, put it to shame in this respect.

Each panel of clear glass in the curtain wall is fritted with ceramic dots that increase in density at the upper and lower edges. The result is a building that appears much softer in reality, both day and night, than it does in the original renderings, which looked crisp, sharp and energetic. But the building fails to translate the idea of crystalline into reality. A few blocks away another crystalline building, the Hearst Tower designed by Norman Foster, seems infused with potential energy, like a giant compressed spring. The diagrid structure stands only 36 stories, but it is a monumental addition to the midtown skyline.  In comparison, the Bank of America Tower has the excitement of a melting stalagmite.

One Bryant Park becomes more engaging at street level, but its outreach efforts are half-hearted. On the Sixth Avenue, a new subway entrance and an “urban garden” room create a link between the building and the street. However, the connection is mainly visual. Featuring evergreen sculptures by WRT, the garden will probably never function as an active public space unless the retractable street-side doors are kept open; when they’re closed, the space looks and feels like private property.

These issues do not take away from the fact that the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park is very advanced when it comes to sustainable building. With underfloor air, an onsite co-generation plant, and a gray water system, as well as other sustainable features, the building has successfully implemented enough green strategies to receive LEED platinum certification. The Bank, Durst and the design and construction teams should be congratulated on setting a new standard in the City and creating a healthy environment for those who work in the building. Green is also an investment that is good for the bottom line. It will take about five years for these features to pay for themselves, and then there will be major operational cost savings for the Bank and Durst.

In early 2009, just after staffers had begun to move into One Bryant Park and the building was entering its final phase, the Bank went into a downward spiral: the financial crisis hit; the Bank bought Merrill Lynch and then honored that firm’s bonuses after receiving money from the government’s Toxic Asset Relief Program; the Bank’s beleaguered CEO Ken Lewis was considered for indictment by the State of New York for concealing details of the Merrill deal; and soon after Lewis announced his resignation. All the while, construction continued on the Bank’s new tower with the one billion plus dollar price tag, but the plans for a fall 2009 opening celebration were cancelled.

The timing has thrown the design issues of the Bank of America tower into relief. Any building project is a series of choices. What do the choices of this building say about Bank of America? They seem to say that the Bank is not quite comfortable in its own skin; it’s a people’s bank but it wants to take its place as an investment banking powerhouse. It wants to make statement, but it’s not sure what to say or how to say it. While the Bank of America Tower has many positive features for those who work in the building, it falls short of its promise to the skyline and the sidewalks of New York. Such ambitious architecture cannot afford to be ambivalent.

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