Changes in ownership and building use sometimes engender a golden opportunity for revitalizing a previously unsatisfactory privately owned public space. Here, new owner Donald Trump and architect Philip Johnson not only gilded the façade of this Columbus Circle tower to herald its metamorphosis from the Paramount (and old Gulf+Western) office building to the Trump International Hotel and Tower, but also completely transformed the ground-level public space. What was once an afterthought has become a usable plaza surrounding the base.
The design wisely recognizes that it should not, indeed could not, compete with one of the world’s greatest landscaped places, Central Park, only steps away. Instead, it adopts an understated urban presence that sensibly locates the most usable space along the upper half of the hypotenuse of the right-angled triangular lot, near the southeast corner of Broadway and West 61st Street and away from the park and the automotive chaos of Columbus Circle. Principal entry to this portion is gained up five steps, where a two-headed metal sculpture by David L. Hostetler, entitled The Duo (1997), stands upright, with four stone benches arrayed nearby from which viewers may study the piece. Additional stone benches and wooden chair-benches around tree-filled planters line the eastern back of the space next to the building. A tall tree-filled planter bordering the northern edge provides a desirable sense of enclosure. When the sun suddenly appears around the tower, the space is a dramatic contrast of light and dark.
Looking south through a crack between the building edge and the space border is a glimpse of Columbus Circle, one of the volumetrically fantastic public spaces in the city. The Circle is in a period of change, with the long-anticipated demolition of the old Coliseum convention center and its replacement with a new 2.1 million-square-foot mixed-use complex promised to begin soon. To obtain a better view, it is necessary to squeeze past a narrowing corridor between the tower and a four-foot plinth, past glass windows that reveal cooks hard at work in the private restaurant kitchen. On the Columbus Circle side is the restaurant’s private terrace area that is legally not part of the public space. In front of it, however, is a planter that avails a sittable ledge, where the full ballet of moving vehicles, rushing pedestrians, pigeons, and other animate and inanimate objects is comfortably observed. Between the building and the Circle is the newly rebuilt subway entrance, decorated above by a pounded silver metal globe sculpture. The Trump Hotel entrance is on the Central Park side, and it is barely possible to stay in public space and continue a circumnavigation of the building to the north.
Another change in ownership recently engineered by the eponymous developer, near the southeast corner of Central Park, will, it is hoped, work a similar transformation. For the General Motors Building at Trump International Plaza, located on the east side of Fifth Avenue between East 58th and East 59th Streets, the developer and his designers are raising the sunken portion of the plaza, once utilized by an outdoor café, to street level, and renaming it the Trump International Plaza.