JP Morgan Chase announced this week that they had hired Foster + Partners to design their new global headquarters in New York. The project, located in midtown Manhattan, will replace the existing 1960s SOM design for the US investment bank.
This is not the first time Foster + Partners have been called in to handle a corporate headquarters project: the office is also responsible for the designs of the nearby Hearst Tower, Apple’s Campus in Silicon Valley, and the Stirling Prize-winning Bloomberg HQ in London.
And while each of these structures are massive architectural achievements in and of themselves, it’s interesting to note the language the architects, developers, and clients wield when speaking about them. Corporate headquarters are definitively private, but all too often justify their massive impact on the urban fabric with vague promises of public space and access. What little is provided is more often due diligence for zoning permission than an earnest attempt to engage with the surroundings.
The language we use to describe architecture - and how big the gap between that language and reality is - speaks volumes about who these projects are really for. Often, it’s not even for the people who work in them.
When structures become a commodity for remote viewers (specifically, shareholders) rather than an engaged participant in the urban fabric, the essence of architecture is lost. And if companies continue to use architecture as an outsized branding strategy, it’s worth forcing them to make good on their promises. The value of design cannot retain it’s worth when it’s simply posed as a value proposition - and we can make the case for better.
From Architectural to Urban
Architects have a vested interest in the urban environment and often flex their muscles to design at a larger scale. And while the jump in scale might imply an equally tremendous jump in concept and reach, sometimes the lines are blurred.
Victor Gruen, the Austrian architect who rose to fame in America for developing the mall typology, was invited by the government in Tehran in the late 1960s to create a masterplan for the rapidly growing city. While his general plan took into account the existing fabric and geography, his concept bore a striking resemblance to his approach with the mall - a decidedly different scale, type, and program.
Today, pockets of modern and Western architecture and design are disappearing in the region. Gruen was, in the words of author Olivia Jia “uniquely poised to create a standalone vision for the city of Tehran. What he failed to fully take into account, however - and what often determines the success of a city - were the social and cultural histories and preferences of the communities he was supposed to serve. A city is not made on a drawing board. It is made on the ground, by the people.”
This may be a bad omen for ZHA, who announced plans this week for a “Mega Smart City” development west of Moscow. ZHA is just one on a shortlist five architects chosen for the project shortlist, and includes NIKKEN SEKKEI, UNK Project, Archea Associati, and ABD Architects.
The masterplan will include housing for 66,500 residents, and a number of schools, clinics, transport infrastructure, shopping districts, and office space to meet the increasing demands of Moscow’s financial, consulting, and legal sectors.
One not to Miss
Martin Pedersen interviews Mark Lamster about his recent book “ Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century: The Man in the Glass House.” The book presents arguably the most complete account of the notorious architect’s work, stretching from his deeply influential exhibition International Style exhibition at MoMA to his well-documented and undeniable association with the Nazis.