This plaza is the northernmost of three titanic privately owned public spaces that occupy a three-block stretch along the west side of Sixth Avenue from West 47th to 50th Streets, in front of skyscrapers built for corporate headquarters. From south to north are the approximately 20,000-square-foot space at 1211 Sixth Avenue (formerly the Celanese building), the approximately 37,000 square feet of space at the McGraw-Hill building, and this almost 30,000-square-foot plaza at what once was known as the Standard Oil and Exxon buildings. Each public space was built in the early 1970s as part of the Rockefeller Center development complex; each was designed by the same architecture firm, Harrison and Abramovitz; each was conceived and executed in contemplation of the other two; and each boldly projected the view of New York City as a center of corporate power. Unexpectedly, their collective presence ignited a firestorm of criticism over the 1961 Zoning Resolution’s legal embrace of the “tower in the park” concept.
The problem was not inherent in the idea that a dense urban core like midtown Manhattan would need breathing spaces. Indeed, several blocks to the east, Mies van der Rohe’s 1958 Seagram Building, with its elegant plaza and duet of flanking fountains on Park Avenue between East 52nd and 53rd Streets, remains the city’s quintessential International Style masterpiece of “tower in the park” architecture as well as a strong element of urban design. But one must wonder how the Seagram space, and Park Avenue itself, would have fared had adjoining parcels mimicked the Seagram design. The very contrast of neighboring buildings and massings, from McKim, Mead & White’s masonry, low-rise Racquet and Tennis Club across the street to the angled floating tower of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill’s Lever House to the less distinguished, but pleasantly differentiated, buildings to the north and south on the east side of Park Avenue, help secure Seagram’s legacy.
To many urban observers, the 1961 Zoning Resolution’s de facto reliance on the massing of the Seagram Building as a model for its high-density commercial district zoning envelope was mistaken. These observers argued that the “as-of-right” license granted to developers, to replicate without regard to neighborhood context the tower-plaza typology in return for a 10:1 zoning bonus, ruined this part of Sixth Avenue as well as other areas of the city. The plazas substituted vacant, wind-swept spaces for buildings built to the front lot line, destroying a sense of visual containment and allowing a grievous hemorrhaging of street energy otherwise fostered by retail frontage and constrained sidewalks. Although not every observer had such a negative view of the Sixth Avenue spaces — indeed, some admired their aesthetic presence, others their perimeter treatment along the sidewalk that engendered substantial sitting on ledges — the basic critique persevered and culminated in substantial plaza zoning reform in 1975 that would generally prohibit the plaza typology of the Sixth Avenue grouping.
Here, a large, bright turquoise pool dominates the space. Water jets spray upward at the center and water spills down at back to a slender lower level. Ledge seating at front and back permits physical contact with the water. In good weather, the Sixth Avenue ledge is packed with people, backs to the water, eyes glued to the choreography of pedestrians and moving vehicles on the sidewalk and street. Although the size and presentation of the pool are impressive, they raise a question about how open and accessible to the public, or how usable, a public space is if it is largely covered by water, landscaping, or other elements that prevent physical access. According to the original 1961 Zoning Resolution’s definition of an “as-of-right” plaza, “ornamental fountains . . . shall be considered permitted obstructions.” One that covers this much of a space, however, pushes the concept. Indeed, without a narrow corridor between the back of the pool and the front of the building, a corridor that from time to time has been blocked by planters, pedestrians would have as much difficulty crossing this space as if the tower itself had been built to its front lot line. Other spaces that have installed huge amounts of landscaping with like effect raise similar questions about predominantly visual, as opposed to physically usable, “as-of-right” plazas. Physical usability here at least is supplied along the fountain edge at the sidewalk and at north and south ends of the plaza fronting Sixth Avenue, where elevated rectangular terraces furnish benches, trees, and planting. These terraces are similar to the ones one block south at the McGraw-Hill building flanking its sunken plaza. More plaza space extends westward along West 49th and 50th Streets in front of the building entrances.
The space at the back of 1251 Sixth Avenue is about to undergo an identity change of potentially long-term benefit to the public. The issue, at least in recent years, has not been the quality of the space, a verdant, park-like area known as Exxon Park between West 49th and 50th Streets. In what has been a surprising revelation to many public space experts, however, the park never was part of the building’s privately owned public space. A declaration of easements, covenants, and restrictions made by the owner in December, 1986, described it as a park, plaza, or pedestrian mall, but expressly reserved its use principally to persons connected with this building and not to the general public. Thus, although it has been heavily used by members of the general public for many years, it was never obligated to be open to the public by zoning rules. All this will change, however, when the proposed world headquarters for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company, at 745 Seventh Avenue, is constructed on the lot to the west along West 50th Street. The developer of that site obtained a City special permit obligating it to reconstruct this space according to a new design approved by the City Planning Commission. During the construction phase of the building, the space will be closed to the public and will re-open when the building is ready for occupancy. The profile for 745 Seventh Avenue shows an image of that future space.
Until construction begins, and if the existing space is maintained for public use, then it is certainly worth a visit. The West 49th Street side is lined with tables and chairs used by a restaurant to the east and wooden planters and benches to the west. The West 50th Street side takes advantage of the extra area created by a recess in the back of the building and provides two zones of activity. In one, the focus is on food. Two kiosks face each other and offer refreshment for users seated at café tables and chairs arrayed on a raised wooden platform. The area to the east is for quieter activities. Mature trees and wooden benches furnish a rustic quality. A waterwall and pool tacked onto the back of the building mask noise and are easily approached down several steps. A sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, Jr., called Out to Lunch (1980), sets the right example: a seated man is eating a sandwich and reading a book about offshore saltwater fly fishing.
A combination of public and private spaces at the backs of Sixth Avenue towers creates a four-block mid-block pedestrian network starting from the landscaped pedestrian plaza at Stevens Tower and ending here. It is also worth noting that the Sixth Avenue plaza to the north and in front of the Time-Life Building between West 50th and 51st Streets was built before the 1961 Zoning Resolution’s plaza provision and never received a bonus.