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Taking a Fresh Look at Columbus Circle

By FRANCIS MORRONE | August 7, 2008

Columbus Circle has, for most of its history, been a mess. Though at its center is one of the city's finest works of public art — the rostral column bearing a statue of Christopher Columbus — the buildings around it have been mostly banal. The circle had until recently been about as appealing to the pedestrian as the shoulder of an interstate highway.

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Konrad Fiedler / Konrad Fiedler/New York Sun

A view of Columbus Circle from the Time Warner Center.

For years, the old Coliseum dominated the west portion of the circle, and the space became a yawning chasm separating rather than uniting Midtown and the Upper West Side. It created what Jane Jacobs called border vacuums: The circle's vacuity generated an outward-spreading insipid area.

Around 1980, the lay of the circle was thus: Two Columbus Circle had long ceased being Huntington Hartford's spirited venture called the Gallery of Modern Art and was owned by the city; the Coliseum was a slowly putrefying beached whale of an obsolete convention center, deadening to all around it; the Gulf & Western Building, on the north side of the circle, was one of the most banal Modernist office buildings in Manhattan.

Today, the Coliseum has happily yielded to the Time Warner Center. I say "happily" even though I am not wild about the architecture. The Time Warner Center had a long gestation and resulted from many compromises. But in the end, it brought life to the west side of the circle and has all but vanquished our bad memories of the deadweight Coliseum.

People flow into and out of the Time Warner Center, its Whole Foods Market is jam-packed at all hours. The center's restaurants are four-star destinations. Jazz at Lincoln Center offers marvelous programming, and the sidewalks are bright with show windows and streaming pedestrians.

Could it have been better? Sure. But I'd have been pleased if the Coliseum had been replaced by a Toys "R" Us. Who wants to complain that a vividly conceived mixed-use (office, residential, shopping, hotel, and mega-venue for music) complex brought instant life to one of the dreariest spots on the island?

Though that is all to the good, the circle will not be complete. The refacing of 2 Columbus Circle is nearly finished. This Edward Durell Stone building, which housed the Gallery of Modern Art, was for many a kitschy building, though I for one thought it a charming and clever essay in "New Formalism," to use the architectural historian William Jordy's name for the 1960s version of what in the 1980s would be called "PostModernism." The new façade, by Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works Architecture, uses glass bands, or "cuts," rather than conventionally patterned fenestration, across a plane of ceramic tiles glazed so as to change color subtly when viewed in different light conditions. For me, I am sorry to say, it's all scaleless.

Where Stone's original building read as neatly scaled to its setting, Mr. Cloepfil's redesign reads as a piece of abstract sculpture that, at building scale, seems all wrong. I do look forward to the museum's September opening, however, in the hopes of seeing life return to this last dreary flank of the circle.

By far the best building that abuts Columbus Circle is the recently restored 240 Central Park South, at the southeast corner of Broadway, which is looking as good as new. This 1940 masterpiece is one of the best apartment buildings in New York. The architects Albert Mayer and Julian Whittlesey were extremely serious about housing, and worked on model housing and government housing projects for much of their careers. They were philosophically and at times professionally associated with Lewis Mumford. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mumford, writing in the New Yorker magazine in 1940, heaped accolades upon 240 Central Park South. But nothing he said wasn't true.

The building is splendidly massed. On Central Park South, east and west wings project out to meet the sidewalk, while the high center tower, with the building's entrance, is set back from the street behind an anomalous and lovely garden. Above the entrance is a beautiful mosaic mural, "The Quiet City," by Amédée Ozenfant, one of the least known of the most important names in the history of Modernist art. Painter, theorist, and teacher, he was closely associated with Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, and Erich Mendelsohn, and, after coming to New York in 1939, operated the Ozenfant School of Fine Arts here.

One of the best things about 240 is its Broadway side. Here there is no garden, but rather one-story storefronts jutting out from the main mass of the building and rhythmically cascading along Broadway's diagonal. They provide rhythm and energy to the sidewalk while at the same time forming a buffer between frenetic Broadway and the apartments, which are set well back from the street.

This building negotiated the passage from Art Deco to Modernism, and showed that apart from style a building can respond so sensitively to context that it must be counted as great architecture. It is a lesson that needs desperately to be relearned.