Ground design

Can an 80s extravaganza be a historical monument?

Angular white columns. Dizzying mirror tile. Lines of palm trees. The atrium at 60 Wall Street, which is also one of New York’s most distinctive subway entrances, gives the impression to some “Like going back in time.”

In a city where the typical subway exit dumps passengers unceremoniously onto a grimy sidewalk, climbing the escalator from the dingy station and stepping into the bright white concourse is to be truly transported. But now there’s a plan to tear down this jaw-dropping extravaganza, conceived in the 1980s, and create a sleeker, more contemporary design.

The demolition of the atrium, at best flashy and at worst garish, encourages contemplation: in a city that is both steeped in history and constantly renewing itself, what is worth preserving? ? And do 80s designs really have historical significance?

“It’s like people are ashamed of the 80s,” said Rock Herzog, the 38-year-old who runs the hugely popular Twitter account. cocaine decor, where images of the atrium appear from time to time. “To me, it feels like an attempt to circumvent New York’s ‘American Psycho’ period.”

Liz Waytkus of Docomomo US – the US chapter of Docomomo International, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving modern buildings – would like to see the space become protected. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘Why are you trying to mark 60 Wall Street? They think it’s hideous,” said Ms Waytkus, who is the organisation’s executive director.

She acknowledged that it’s sometimes difficult for people to “remove the subjective, you know, your own personal taste” and consider the work as a whole – the design, the details and the references.

“There are a lot of buildings from the 80s in New York. I don’t think there’s a crush on 80s buildings that should be iconic. But it’s clearly very high on that list,” she said.

The dramatic space, designed in Carrara white marble and green granite and finished in 1989, is not just a subway entrance. It is a private public space inside a 47-story skyscraper – 60 Wall Street – which served as the headquarters of JP Morgan & Company and later became the main New York office for Deutsche Bank.

In September last year, Deutsche Bank vacated the space, moving its employees to a downtown address. Today, 60 Wall Street is almost empty, looking for a new tenant. In order to attract one, the real estate investment trust Paramount Group, owner of the building, wants to give it an update.

For those who worked in the building, the atrium was not just a postmodern spectacle. It was also a favorite place for gossip and small talk.

“It was a little dated. But at the same time, it was a great meeting place. said Ajay Chawdhry, former vice-president of Deutsche Bank. “It had character”

While working there, he used the atrium daily for quick coffee get-togethers. Even after quitting his job to work at different banks, he continued to use the atrium as a meeting place.

Although the building is not a landmark, it was originally built on the condition that its design maintain what the city called a “harmonious relationship” with 55 Wall Street, the National Historic Landmark of across the street. The exterior and interior columns of 60 Wall Street echo those of 55 Wall Street.

Currently, the future of space is unclear. Proposed plans to alter the interior and exterior of 60 Wall Street are under review by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The request to consider the building and the atrium as a landmark is also under consideration. But being “under review” doesn’t preclude construction – or demolition.

60 Wall Street architect Kevin Roche produced extremely detailed notes on the building. Handwriting in 1984, he envisioned his atrium – with water cascading over rocks, mounds of greenery and ample seating – to be “well-lit, bright and cheerful”. He also planned “pockets of rest and calm – refuges from the hectic pace of daily life in the neighborhood”.

Mr. Roche, who founded the firm Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates in 1966, with his partner, John Dinkeloo, imagined that there would be a musical program for visitors to the south and hoped that an art museum would offer rotating exhibitions of sculptures. The two met while working under renowned architect Eero Saarinen before forming their own business together. After the death of Mr. Dinkeloo in 1981, Mr. Roche took over sole management of the company; in 1982 he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his “formidable body of work”.

Mr. Roche, who died in 2019, also designed the Ambassador Grill at One United Nations Plaza, which received indoor landmark status in 2017, and he was the architect of the Ford Foundation’s atrium on East 42nd Street, which was named New York City Landmark in the 1990s.

The new plans for 60 Wall Street, produced by the architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and commissioned by Paramount Group, completely reinvent the concept of an oasis.

The company’s “redesigned ground floor experience” will be airy, bright, and “columnless,” with triple-height windows, a 100-foot green wall, and a skylight, making it look like less at a Mediterranean spa than at a Singapore Airport. The idea is that these changes can “accommodate a variety of top tenants”.

One of the issues, Ms. Waytkus said, is that the space hasn’t been maintained very well. Shops closed, waterfalls stopped flowing, and the original living ficuses were replaced with plastic palms. “It just needs a little refresher,” she said.

But even when new, the atrium had detractors. In 1990, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger described it as “a sickening mixture of white marble, lots of latticework, mirrors and marble gratings”, and wrote that “the effect global is strangely froufroutable, almost feminine, like an ice-cream parlor exploded to a monumental scale.

Still, there are those who were born in the 80s or were kids in the 80s who love the distinctive atrium as it is today and can only see what would be lost.

“It looks like that 80s vision of New York, which I, as a Kansan, have only seen in the movies. It looks like a little slice of that, which has kind of remained untouched,” said Gavin Snider, 36, a Brooklyn-based artist who created an impressionistic ink and colored pencil sketch of the atrium. in 2019. He moved to New York in 2015 and often stops in the atrium for a quiet break.

Ms. Waytkus agrees: “It’s magic. It’s dazzling. It will elicit a reaction. It is not a passive design.

“At the same time, it’s quiet,” she said. “It’s a little piece of ‘Miami Vice’ right there on Wall Street.”

Will the atrium become just another memory, living only on Cocaine Decor’s Twitter feed, or retro Instagram accounts like Luxurydeptstore and Asthetic80sdream?

“They’re like, we want to make it a place where people want to meet. But why wouldn’t people want to end up in a gigantic glacier? Mx asked. Herzog, who prefers to use a gender-neutral honorific. “Do you have to be timeless to be preserved?”

Reached by phone recently, Mr Goldberger, 71, who had called the space “frilly” and compared it to a glacier, admitted he had been “a little sarcastic”.

“I’d much rather see it saved than turned into something just another modern office lobby,” he said. “Over time, I realize that this is one of the few important interiors from that time.”

Ms. Waytkus and her colleagues agree. “I hope we don’t lose it,” she said.