Alternative for 53 West 53rd Street / Axis Mundi

Jean Nouvel
With the countless number of ridiculously tall skyscrapers planned for around the world, it is remarkable the controversy an 82-story skyscraper for Midtown Manhattan can create.  Three years ago, MoMa completed an $858 million expansion, yet the museum is still in need of additional room to house its growing collections.  The Modern sold their Midtown lot to Hines, an international real estate developer, for$125 million.  Hines, in turn, asked Pritzker Prize Laureate French architect Jean Nouvel to design two possible solutions for the site.   “A decade ago anyone who was about to invest hundreds of millions on a building would inevitably have chosen the more conservative of the two. But times have changed. Architecture is a form of marketing now, and Hines made the bolder choice,” reported Nicolai Ouroussoff for The New York Times.

“Bolder” is certainly fitting to describe Nouvel’s Torre de Verre which is planned for 53 West 53rd Street. The 1,250 foot tower will offer approximately 40,000 sq feet of new gallery space for the MoMa, in addition to 150 residential apartments and 100 hotels rooms.  The tower’s unique silhouette will dominate the Midtown block, rising  higher than the iconic Chrysler Building.  Its irregular structural pattern has been called “out of scale” on numerous occasions by opponents of the project.   Some complain that the tower will “violate the area’s integrity” noting that its height will obscure views and light.   Shadow studies show that the building may plunge apartments in the area and the ice-skating rink at Central Park into darkness.

The aesthetic is definitely foreign to Midtown and, yet, while most are quick to reject change, the tower will sit in an area surrounded by  highly revolutionary buildings. Its new neighbors include Philip Johnson’s “Lipstick Building” at Third Avenue; Hugh Stubbins’ Citicorp Building at Lexington Avenue, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and SOM’s Lever House at Park Avenue.  At some point in time, each of those buildings exemplified a change in style, and yet now, they are staples in the area’s heritage.

© Axis Mundi 2009
© Axis Mundi 2009

With controversy still surrounding Nouvel’s design as it moves through the city’s review process (ULURP),  John Beckmann and his firm, Axis Mundi decided to do something about it.  A few short days ago, Axis Mundi unveiled a conceptual alternative design for 53 West 53rd Street.    The alternative features a 600 foot, 50 story mixed use building that ”rethinks the tall buildings that have become synonymous with  City’s identity.”  Beckmann explained,  ”Historically, the skyscraper was a unitary, homogeneous form that reflected the generic, flexible office space it contained…The Vertical Neighborhood is more organic and more flexible–an assemblage of disparate architectural languages. It reflects an emerging reality for tall buildings as collections of domestic elements: dwellings, neighborhoods, streets.”

More images and more about Axis Mundi’s alternative after the break.

© Axis Mundi 2009
© Axis Mundi 2009

Using parametric computer-modeling software, Beckmann and Axis Mundi proposed a new way to organize space with the Vertical Neighborhood. “A more diverse, complex, heterogeneous, and environmentally minded city need no longer be represented on its skyline by one-note architecture that makes a singular visual image and little else,” explained John Beckmann, the founder of Axis Mundi, a Manhattan-based architecture firm.

© Axis Mundi 2009
© Axis Mundi 2009

Quite different from Nouvel’s design, the Axis Mundi tower has been “conceived at a scale akin to, rather than dramatically exceeding, the heights of this very densely built-up Midtown neighborhood.”  The building’s stacking form reduces the structure’s apparent scale and focuses on offering a community-friendly feel to the new structure.  A through-block public arcade connects West 53rd and 54th streets, offering access to new MoMA galleries while a designated three-story-high volume will be developed as a community-gathering space.

Two cores, containing elevators stairs and such services, run the height of the tower while a double-ring, multi-level floor-plan unit sits in between. These ring units called “SmartBlocks” create a flexible floor plan design where single-unit layouts can easily mix with duplex, or triplex layouts. “The units can shift in and out, adding rich texture to the surface, creating vertical garden space, and linking the units in unique ways,” explained the architects.

© Axis Mundi 2009
© Axis Mundi 2009

By varying the mix of the floor plan units, the Axis Mundi design creates space for “vertical fissures that move irregularly up the tower.”  These openings allow sunlight and wind to penetrate the open centers of the double-ring units.  The voids frame “spectacular, theatrical vistas to the city through the building’s own structure.  Neighbors can see and greet each other along spacious bridges and balconies rather than scurry by each other in long, dark hallways.”

“The design reinforces the urban identity of tall buildings,” observes Beckmann. “It suggests new expressive possibilities in an urbanism of difference rather than of homogeneity.”

All images © Axis Mundi 2009

Design Credits:
Concept and Lead Designer: John Beckmann

Design Team: John Beckmann, CarloMaria Ciampoli, James Coleman (LAN), Nick Messerlian, Richard Rosenbloom, Margaret Janik, Pauline Marie d’Avigneau, and Taina Pichon
Parametric modeling: CarloMaria Ciampoli, James Coleman (LAN)
Renderings: Orchid 3D
Illustration: Michael Wartella

Height: approx. 600 ft

Floors: 50 above (2 below)

Building Footprint: 17,000 square feet

MoMA Expansion Galleries: 32,500 square feet

Cite: Cilento, Karen. "Alternative for 53 West 53rd Street / Axis Mundi" 20 Jul 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 May 2015. <>
  • josep

    looking messy and post modern and not in a good way…..
    rather stick to Mr. French!

  • hyde_architects

    RT @archdaily: Alternative for 53 West 53rd Street / Axis Mundi

  • EK

    this is architecture designed for people, community and experience rather than an iconic look. Much better thought out than jean nouvel’s project. All he designed was a form.

  • guy

    i like this, i think it would be an amazing building to live in, experience and a great addition to the city.
    Although the actual realisation may loose the organic quality of this early proposal.

    much more unique than nouvel’s proposal

  • joao

    vertical slum?
    favela chic, it’s hype to live in NYC!

  • Arch

    It looks like a stack of double-wides. This design is more “out of Scale” and down right inapproriate for this block. Having a Nouvel building here (albeit a quiter and more elegant approach)is justfied because of the iconic nature of this area.

  • biboarchitect

    its exactly the same as Garbage city

  • Dylan

    It’s not clear to me what this contrived assemblage has to do with Manhattan. A design like that implies a new building process (one which has little to with Manhattan real estate and more to do with, as someone mentioned, favelas), but shown as a finality it’s kind of meaningless.

  • architectural hottie

    Pretty WACKED idea! I think I dig it. Put the Nouvel design in Paris!

  • Joshua

    Cliche, kitschy, po-mo, underdeveloped garbage vs an elegant icon by a Pritzker winner.

    @joao, lmao.

  • kc

    I’m surprised to like it, it’s refreshing!!..I’m sooo sick of the formality of architecture, everything to be ‘clean’ and ‘cool’ etc..lots of nice-looking BORING projects..and formalized de-constructivist chaos is even least I can tell this is for people and not so much an intrusive manifestation of some inflatable ego..

  • Tony

    if this was 11 years ago by some dutch architect then I will buy it, 11 years later it looks old and confusing
    nyc needs good architecture not garbage disposal like this proposal, besides who want to trust a designer that goes by axis mundi????

  • patentpolice

    I don’t understand how this proposed typology is suitable for midtown Manhattan. Seems something like this would spring from low-rise residential developments that have succumbed to density.

    This typology would be logical in downtown Manhattan – Union Square, Tribeca, Soho – where it’s more mixed use and development is slowly neutering these neighborhoods. This isn’t actually that new, proposed H&deM residential tower in Tribeca is just like this (but better).

    In all a valiant effort to change the trajectory of residential development in NYC, (bad renderings aside) but this is the wrong neighborhood.

    Note to architect: Renderings would be more convincing without the Warhol, brick and PoMo color, it makes the project cartoonish.

  • America INC.

    The Mountains of Madness! Could easily be built as a straight forward slab building. A no-brainer for construction. Choice of facade types and limit the window sizes. And BAM you got it! Move over black shard of glass to heaven…nice attempt to ruffle some feathers in a time where everyone is looking for the next dollar.

  • Ellen T.

    Quite a successful thru-block lobby attempt. Ties in pretty nicely with the new MoMA addition by the Japanese guy. So from the street you won’t even notice the crazy tower about it. I think it’s a positive idea and quite striking.

  • Ellen T.

    I love the Marilyn cube – why not have a fun facade that connects to the MoMA collection? It says what it is.

  • sullka

    Joao, you’re right, it’s a “vertical” slum, favela, barrio, etc.

    Apparently it looks “chic”, “comunity driven” or “green” by some, but who would pay millions for an apartment in one of the most expensive real state of the world, for something it would cost you “nothing” in Brasil, India, Venezuela, etc.

    I don’t get it. Those homeless children stars from Slumdog Millionare, live in better looking slums than this vertical monstruosity.

    I do think it’s a interesting advertisment stunt for the office, since I understand that nobody actually commisioned this idea, they just went along and published it.

    2 things might happen, free advertisment for that office, and it would probably speed up Nouvel’s project review.

  • patentpolice


  • PanamArq

    This is a very good student project, thats about it though

  • luna

    when i see it, i remember the typical street scene in Hong Kong.such as

  • nothing to say

    We are all a bunch of haters. The ugliest and dumbest projects are the ones that most comments get. It’s like if we couldn’t wait for ArchDaily to post something ludicrous to start shooting. This AxisMundi stuff is really crappy. Even more so than the long time deceased Casa en Culebra, by RSVP Architects.

  • ricardo

    confuse, but interesting

  • Rhodgeer

    Awful, those external staircases surely could never be approved? They also seem to be telling of a poorly thought out arrangement of space, as if the desigers simply stacked a pile of cuboids arbitrarily and tried to tie them together with those staircases. All in all wtf?

  • yessammassey

    I like it!

    It has a ‘mash’ of forms that I feel captures the mix of colours, styles and even cultures of NY City.

    These forms and spaces created and the individuality of this high rise looks rather homely and would be an interesting building to experience.

  • William in LaLa Land

    Brilliant PR stunt with timely delivery and international blog coverage. I love the design for that alone. Give me spectacle and outrage any day over more of the same.

    • farflung

      right on, William. This is a lesson in how to highjack a controversy and squeeze a little self-promotion out of it. its good to get people jumping up and down.
      i wonder if this has backfired though?

  • Andre

    Campy tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek architectural put on by Beckmann and his merry band of pranksters at Axis Mundi. Bravo you got us!

  • PB

    Jean Nouvel is typically one of my favorite architects, but I have to say, his building is sorely out of scale and place. Given the block that the property is on, and the much smaller “jumbled” assortment of buildings around, I think the Mundi project is very appropriate. The building is more concerned with community, relation to buildings around and spaces within…so what if it looks a little like a “very good student project;” the architects of Jean’s generation are the group that got us into this mess of unlivable cities in the first place (not that I think his work degraded any of their surrounding communities, quite the opposite actually – his building in my city has such a good relation to the neighborhood, that it actually brought back the neighborhood). Given the variation and texture of NYC, I feel like this is just one NYC block turned sideways.

    Give me something fresh-it’s only about the discussion anyway, its not actually going to move forward; and when you are creating an over throw of an existing ideology (and architecture is full of them these days) it’s best to start with something that is the exact opposite and a little half baked.

    As for the out door, 40th floor stair cases-so what if they wont get approved, its not going to be built.

  • Jorge Vasquez

    I think axis mundi’s proposal wouldnt look so good in manhattan, But i like some of the ideas from the building (like the number of gardens, the colorfull and meanningfull fachade), maybe he could make it more appropiate to nyc, i think the guy is talented, he could make another proposal, or maybe someone alse could, i like this about different arquitects giving ideas for a problem (withouth being called to solve them as usual).
    And about the nouvel building…hmmm im not so attracted by it, i guess that the proyect presented by beckmann made me think that nouvel’s skycrapper might not be enough innovative….though i think the curve of the building is really cool.
    well anyway good luck manhattan

  • Nikola

    The ground floor is great. In such density, pass through the block is more then necessary.
    About the mess above (as you all say) you can put expensive glass and… there it is… Herzog and de Meuron building, in just a second.
    Then you will like it definitely. :-)

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