June 12, 2013
by: Bridget Moriarity
(l-r) Justin Davidson and David Childs, FAIA, at the third Hudson Yards Speaker Series event.Laura Trimble Elbogen
David Childs, FAIA, presenting some of the projects with which he has been involved at SOM.Laura Trimble Elbogen

“Tower E… it could certainly use a better name,” David Childs, FAIA, joked, referring to the new 61-story mixed-use building Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM) is designing on the southeast corner of 11th Avenue and West 33rd Street. Indeed, worthy and waiting for a new moniker, it is a part of the 26-acre Hudson Yards. Childs, now a consulting design partner with SOM, was at the Center for Architecture on 05.30.13 for a conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Justin Davidson, who covers architecture and classical music for New York magazine. The event was the latest in the “Design in the New Heart of New York” series exploring this future neighborhood, which for decades, per the New York Times, has been a “mishmash of rail yards, tunnel ramps, and parking lots.”

Childs, of course, needs little introduction. As Davidson noted, only two things are necessary to say: 1 World Trade Center and Time Warner Center, the architect’s most celebrated efforts of late. In addition to these notable New York projects, Childs began by discussing the complexities of constructing other national and international SOM projects that, like Tower E, reside above live railroads: London’s Broadgate Exchange House and Chicago’s Millennium Park Master Plan.

Of the Hudson Yards site, Childs noted, “It’s an extraordinary piece of property because of its width and its length. A great place for building a new city within a city.” And he finds the Tower E site unique because it is at the “confluence of two open spaces,” including a new public park.

What is especially striking about this slender skyscraper – in addition to its pleated stone-and-glass skin – is its diverse program. The top 23 floors are residential, with an 11-floor hotel beneath, 16 floors of office space, a three-floor health club, and at the bottom, four floors of retail. Childs observed that it is the sort of layering that, because of the expense, can only be done in extremely dense places like Hong Kong and New York.

Davidson commented that it must have been “pretty daunting” to pack so much into a tiny footprint “given that it’s resting on toothpicks with trains going by all the time.” He also marveled at the “crazy jigsaw puzzle” plan of the lobby. Childs agreed that there were design challenges along the way, such as accommodating pits deep enough for the high-speed residential elevators. The goal throughout? To make the complicated program appear effortless. Childs said with a smile that the last thing he wants is for everyone to look at the building and say, “Boy, did he have a tough time doing this.”

Elaborating on the structural challenges of building on this site, Childs explained that his tower could not spread underground like a tree trunk and distribute its weight outward in the fashion of many tall buildings. In addition, he had to ensure that the building moved the least on the top residential floors. To achieve this, he rotated the building’s axis to counteract wind. As a result, the residential views are much improved and the sculptural form is more striking. “You do find times when the client desires something for a very practical reason that turns out to have a very beneficial effect on the architecture,” he added.

The evening ended with a question from the audience about client relations. “Some clients,” Childs said, “are involved in every detail and that’s often wonderful. But clients who are willing to take certain steps to improve the architecture, rather than just asking for the simplest thing or most cost-effective answer, are even better.”

Bridget Moriarity is a New York-based journalist, who writes about the arts, architecture, and urban planning.

Event: Hudson Yards Speaker Series: A Conversation with David Childs, FAIA
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.30.2013
Speakers: David Childs, FAIA, consulting design partner, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Justin Davidson, architecture critic, New York magazine (moderator); Jill N. Lerner, FAIA, 2013 AIANY President (introduction)
Organizers: Related Companies and Oxford Properties Group in collaboration with AIA New York


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