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

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 New York 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.

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

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.

© Axis Mundi 2009

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.

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.”

© Axis Mundi 2009

“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

Image gallery

See allShow less
About this author
Cite: Karen Cilento. "Alternative for 53 West 53rd Street / Axis Mundi" 20 Jul 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.