by Paul Goldberger, May 17, 2010, The Newyorker
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New York’s great financial institutions have traditionally seen architecture as a way of attracting notice. In 1960, when the Chase Manhattan Bank built a huge glass skyscraper in lower Manhattan, its name and logo were all over the building, and, just to make sure no one missed the point, it was given the official address of One Chase Manhattan Plaza. Chase was following the example of Bank of the Manhattan Company, which, in 1930, erected a building at 40 Wall Street, then the second-tallest skyscraper in the world, and of Bankers Trust, which was known for its pyramid-topped tower, a couple of blocks away.
Goldman Sachs, one of the largest and most profitable financial firms in the world, has a different view of things. Several thousand Goldman employees have just moved into a sleek steel-and-glass headquarters in lower Manhattan that is emphatically not called One Goldman Sachs Plaza. At 200 West Street, as the building is known, the name of the firm appears nowhere on the exterior, or in the lobby, or even on the uniforms of the security personnel or the badges given to visitors. Forty-three stories tall and two city blocks long, the Goldman building appears to have been designed in the hope of rendering the company invisible.
These days, it would be understandable if Goldman Sachs wanted to disappear: being the object of a suit by the Securities and Exchange Commission and, reportedly, of a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors is hardly conducive to the desire for a high profile. But this building, designed by Henry Cobb, of the firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, was planned long before the financial crisis, and before accusations were made that Goldman had bet against its own clients in the subprime-mortgage market. The design speaks less to Goldman’s current problems than to the firm’s long-standing obsession with being both extremely powerful and utterly inconspicuous.
Today, the idea that Goldman Sachs could operate with a low profile seems bizarre, even delusional. But for a long time it did. Its previous home, at 85 Broad Street, was a precast concrete tower, from 1983, one of the most forgettable tall buildings in New York. Having outgrown those premises, Goldman hired Cesar Pelli to build a glass tower in Jersey City, facing the Hudson River—finished in 2004, it’s the tallest and most elegant skyscraper in New Jersey—and laid plans for a new headquarters on the New York side, too. It fixed on a plot in Battery Park City, one block northwest of Ground Zero, which had been a parking lot for years. At the time, there was not a lot of development going on in lower Manhattan, and Goldman’s plans appear to have sent city and state officials into giddy ecstasy. They quickly agreed to give the company a hundred and fifteen million dollars in tax breaks and cash grants to build the new tower. More singular still, state and local governments decided to give the firm another big subsidy by letting it use $1.65 billion in tax-exempt Liberty Bonds, intended to stimulate economic development after 9/11, to cover part of the building’s $2.1-billion cost. Last month, Goldman announced that it had made a profit of nearly three and a half billion dollars in the first quarter of this year—enough to have paid for the entire building, in cash, in a couple of months, without any help from taxpayers.
It’s hard to keep such facts out of your mind as you look at the building. They don’t ultimately affect its qualities as a work of architecture, but it’s interesting how much of the firm’s calculating acumen comes across. Corporations dealing with architects often lack a sense of what they want to express. Should the building demonstrate power, modesty, or lavishness? Openness to new ideas or tradition and continuity? From the look of 200 West Street, Goldman knew exactly what it wanted; namely, to split all of these qualities right down the middle. The firm clearly aimed at a building that would appear modern but nowhere near the architectural cutting edge; neither cheap nor extravagant; and efficient without seeming merely functional. The result is a forty-three-story paradox: an understated palazzo.
Henry Cobb, whom Goldman hired after considering trendier candidates like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, is a natural for a job like this, since he has spent a lot of his career—he is now eighty-four—being less visible than many of his peers, most notably his long-time collaborator I. M. Pei. The last skyscraper Cobb designed that might be considered cutting-edge was the austere John Hancock Tower, in Boston, which was finished more than thirty years ago and remains one of the most beautiful skyscrapers ever built. Cobb has a thoughtful, modest manner, and sometimes speaks so softly that you can barely hear him, but he has great determination—probably an attractive combination for Goldman.
The new headquarters is architecture as a well-tailored suit. From a distance, the building looks utterly unexceptional, but as you get closer your eye picks up signs of quality—the drape, as it were, and the stitching. Cobb’s façade of clear, colorless glass and bands of shiny steel is completely flat, and this two-dimensionality might have been dull were it not for the subtle shift of proportions in the quiet plaid pattern of the steel grid as it ascends. By the time you are close enough to touch this architectural garment, you can tell that a lot of money has been spent.
The building consists of a slab-shaped tower, which contains the firm’s offices, atop a much bulkier base, which contains six trading floors, each big enough to house nearly a thousand employees. From most angles, the tower looks rectilinear, except on the west, facing the Hudson River, where it bows out in a long, graceful curve. The firm insisted that the trading floors be as open as possible, so the architects used trusses to reduce the number of columns and pushed the elevators all the way to the north end of the building instead of running them up through the middle. The result is a lobby as large as an airport terminal, and, if you enter at the south end, an airport-like walk to the elevator. The lobby is austere, with plain limestone walls and no flourishes, but, to relieve the tedium of the long walk, Goldman commissioned two impressive abstract murals—an urgent and frenetic composition by Julie Mehretu, on the east side, and a blotchy and colorful one, by Franz Ackermann, on the west. Large windows allow a glimpse of the murals from the street, but this is as much of the building as the public will ever see. Goldman’s culture of secrecy has certainly saved it from offensive, Trump-style ostentation. By the same token, however, the building, unlike New York’s most admired business temples, will never mean much to people who don’t work in it.
There is another lobby up on the eleventh floor, where the base of the building and the tower join. It’s called the sky lobby, and, as in a high-rise hotel, all the elevators from the street stop here first, so everyone walks through the space to reach the upper floors. It’s like the main square of a gated community. A handsome, double-height room with skylights and huge windows looking out toward the Hudson, the lobby has red-oak panels, a smattering of modern furniture, and a series of wide doors leading to a large cafeteria. In the middle, a grand spiral staircase curls up one level to a series of conference and meeting rooms, and down one level to a fitness center.
The offices in the tower have wooden desks designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, thick carpeting, and plenty of space and natural light. The colors are soft and neutral, and the place has an air of comfortable blandness, in contrast to the energy of the trading floors below. Private offices have glass walls, and there are far fewer of them than there were at 85 Broad Street. Only partners have private offices, which leaves plenty of well-paid managing directors and vice-presidents sitting out on open-plan floors, their status indicated by how close they are placed to the natural light of the perimeter walls.
The most distinctive thing about 200 West Street is an initiative by Goldman to commission a number of forward-looking architects to design portions of the interior, like the cafeteria, the auditorium, and the fitness center—a way of giving younger firms that have rarely worked in this kind of corporate environment a chance to show what they could do. The results of this experiment are mixed. Office dA, based in Boston, produced a spectacular cafeteria, with a swooping white plaster ceiling and columns, a modernist take on Gaudi that plays off deftly against Cobb’s geometric shell. The New York firm SHoP did an auditorium, which has an impressive exterior wall of bronze panels but a distinctly conventional interior. Architecture Research Office designed a fitness center and a conference area, and Preston Scott Cohen came up with a quirky, angular glass canopy on one side of the building. Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, a Toronto firm, did the two floors at the top of the building, which form a kind of executive penthouse of conference and dining rooms, complete with outside deck. The rooms here are larger, with opaque walls, and the feeling is even more hushed than it is below. Indeed, the voltage in this building seems to go down as you move up, which may partly explain why these floors lack the panache of KPMB’s best work, such as a stunning new music auditorium in Toronto, Koerner Hall. The executive dining rooms display a fine collection of architectural photography (thus Goldman’s princes dine surrounded by images of architecture more adventurous than their own) and are reached either by elevator or by a small private staircase hidden behind a door and manned by a security guard.
In a way, setting the work of edgy young firms within the staid structure of Henry Cobb’s design isn’t a bad analogy for the contemporary investment bank, in which an outward appearance of sobriety conceals the risky activities of autonomous units, busily devising complicated financial products poorly understood by outsiders. It’s unfortunate that almost all the daring touches at 200 West Street are inside, hidden from view. Then again, perhaps that’s the achievement: Goldman managed to pull off what it wasn’t able to do in the rest of its business—keep its risk-taking entirely out of sight. ?
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/skyline/2010/05/17/100517crsk_skyline_goldberger?currentPage=all#ixzz0puz13AEz