New York’s New Gehry: Splendor in the Glass

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The IAC Headquarters/Frank Gehry — All Photos: Albert Vecerka/ESTO

I got a tour earlier this week of Manhattan’s first Frank Gehry building, the IAC headquarters, a 10-story undulating mesa — actually, it’s an office building — on the lower west side of Manhattan. I first got a glimpse of this project, which was commissioned by the mogul Barry Diller to house his media/internet conglomerate, at Gehry’s offices in Santa Monica five years ago. At the time he had whole shelves lined with various evolving versions. I didn’t grasp then just how good this was going to be. It looks to me like the best thing Gehry has completed since the Stata Center at M.I.T.

The IAC headquarters uses Gehry’s characteristic whiplashing lines, but in a more subdued and legible way. The folded, prismatic silhouette is a clear and accurate expression of the interior floorplates. They just happen to be madly inventive floorplates, full of prow shaped conference rooms, trapezoidal offices and tilted arc employee snackbar areas.

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Western side of the ground floor lobby

This is also a place that has some of the most unusual views of lower Manhattan and the Hudson River of any building I know. Those views are everywhere you turn, because the building is faced on all sides in glass — with each plate fritted with tiny white ceramic dots that give it a clouded band at top and bottom — and the glass encloses a lot of open plan work spaces. And the views, of course, are even more fascinating because of the convex and concave steel cagework that frames them, an effect you also get from some of Norman Foster’s diagrid-supported office towers like the Gherkin in London and the Hearst Tower in New York.

For a relatively compact building, the IAC headquarters also has one of the most complicated footprints in Manhattan. In a city mostly defined by the implacable rectangles of its streetscape, Gehry has set down a building that’s a pleated skirt. It touches the ground with the same folds and billows that it presents against the sky. Actually, it doesn’t quite touch the ground. Gehry has hemmed the perimeter with a reveal, a slight gap, between the bottom edge of the ground floor exterior glass panels, which are bordered in what looks like aluminum, and the sidewalk. The building appears to hover just above its landing pad. That reveal creates the impression of a defined container, a furrowed glass cannister, and also bestows on this very transparent building a touch of sculptural self-enclosure.

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It’s no secret that on his off days Gehry resorts to what look like knocks offs of his best ideas, and that sometimes he’ll even commit outright “facade-ism”. (If you’ve seen his performing arts center at Bard College, which wraps some windblown Bilbao-ish flutter around basic sheds, you know what I mean.) But the IAC headquarters has none of those problems. More than any other Gehry building I can think of it puts you in mind of Borromini, the Borromini of the rippling Roman churches. What it does, simply and suavely, is adapts some of Gehry’s most intricate gestures into a coherent whole. This doesn’t mean I prefer it to the Bilbao Guggenheim or the Disney Concert Hall in L.A., buildings with greater complexity. But a more serene Gehry is not the same thing as Gehry running of steam, as some critics have complained. This is a vigorous, witty building. And at night, fully lit, in a neighborhood with a lot of dark warehouses, it makes a very jaunty impression.

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