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Proposed 140 Broadway Plan Threatens Noguchi’s “Red Cube” [UPDATED]

The Noguchi Foundation was not consulted on the proposal and says it undermines Isamu Noguchi’s vision of the public space around his iconic sculpture.

Isamu Noguchi, “Red Cube,” 1968. Steel, and paint (photo by Michio Noguchi, © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS)

Last week, The Tribeca Trib reported that the owners of 140 Broadway, a historic building across the street from Zuccotti Park, seek to renovate their public plaza. Although the article focused on the plan’s possible effects on the neighborhood’s street vendors, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) found something else at risk: the integrity of the architecture of the space itself. Earlier this week, TCLF added 140 Broadway to its list of At-Risk sites “threatened and at-risk due to deferred maintenance and/or neglect, or for substantial alteration or outright destruction.”

Completed in the 1960s, 140 Broadway was praised for its unique relationship to space. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill under the direction of Gordon Bunshaft, it was one of the first projects to incorporate a large public plaza into its office-building plan. The skyscraper itself takes up less than half of the allotted land, leaving the rest for an enormous public plaza, where Isamu Noguchi placed his public sculpture, “Red Cube,” in a distinctively asymmetrical location. Now the owners of 140 Broadway want to update the plaza, installing a large tree planter that would balance out “Red Cube,” in effect negating the aesthetic vision of the public space’s designers.

Isamu Noguchi, “Red Cube,” 1968. Steel, and paint (photo by Michio Noguchi, © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/ARS)

According to a statement emailed to Hyperallergic this afternoon, Dakin Hart, Senior Curator at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, feels that Noguchi himself would be adamantly opposed to the proposed changes. “Those changes will, no question, have a negative impact on Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube and its relationship to the plaza, building, and surrounding space, all of which were of concern to him,” the statement reads, arguing that the public art piece is site-specific and the result of a long-term collaborative effort with Bunshaft to “energize and complicate the relationship between the building and the plaza.”

When the project was first built, what’s now Zuccotti Park was occupied by two buildings, which, as Hart writes, “made the plaza at 140 Broadway feel like an interior courtyard. Noguchi liked and planned for that sense of enclosure.” Clearly, that’s not the case anymore, and there have been further changes to the area in the time since, many of which detract from the plaza’s design. But Hart argues that Noguchi and Bunshaft weren’t opposed to change, and he hopes the owners of 140 Broadway could be more mindful of the original intent of the design, noting that the Noguchi Foundation was not consulted on the proposed changes to the plaza.

“The current condition of the plaza is unfortunate, but the proposed changes only make it more officially, more permanently worse,” Hart writes. “The sculpture here is not Red Cube per se, but the way that it alters our perception of the building and the space around it. That relationship is the Noguchi. At the very least it should be preserved from further harm. Ideally, it would be restored to a fully working state.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission will review the proposal to renovate the plaza on February 6 at 9:30 am at 1 Centre Street, Municipal Building, 9th floor, Manhattan. Written testimony may be submitted online in advance.

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The full statement from Dakin Hart, Senior Curator at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, is included below:

The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum (Noguchi’s legal successor, owner of his intellectual property, and guardian of his legacy) was not consulted on the changes that have been proposed to the plaza at 140 Broadway. Those changes will, no question, have a negative impact on Isamu Noguchi’s Red Cube and its relationship to the plaza, building, and surrounding space, all of which were of concern to him. Red Cube is site specific. Noguchi conceived it in partnership with the architect, his long term collaborator Gordon Bunshaft (with whom he also produced Sunken Garden for One Chase Manhattan Plaza, now 28 Liberty), to energize and complicate the relationship between the building and the plaza.

The site has changed significantly since 140 Broadway was built and Red Cube sited. When Noguchi conceived the work, the block just west, now Zuccotti Park, was occupied by two buildings that made the plaza at 140 Broadway feel like an interior courtyard. Noguchi liked and planned for that sense of enclosure. The removal of those buildings made the sculpture’s relationship to 140 Broadway of more singular importance, which has had the further effect of amplifying the unfortunate impact of other, more recent additions and alterations. The proliferation of well-meaning but unfortunate changes to, and adverse conditions around, the private and public parts of what is supposed to be a clean, visually continuous plane have, individually and in composite, undermined the celebrated effect of the work as seen in period photographs.

As conceived, the starkness of the plaza—the way that it isolates the relationship between the sculpture and the building—is central to the work. It defeats our easy presumptions about scale and gives the entire space an otherworldliness rare in any American city, and exceedingly so in the heart of New York’s Financial District. But again, it has been many years since the overall work, defined as Red Cube in the matrix of scale, material, and spatial relationships for which it was designed, has functioned.

As the owners and other interested parties look to improve the area around 140 Broadway as a public amenity, we hope that some consideration might be given to the restoration of this once great sculpted space. We would argue, as we frequently do, that the way to get the most public value from the work—building + plaza + sculpture—is to get it working properly again. That goal does not have to be at odds with the owner’s, nor urban planners’, hopes for the plaza. Noguchi and Bunshaft were not opposed to change. Both of them recognized that one of the great strengths of urban landscapes is their dynamism and delighted in improving them.

But the major change being proposed, the insertion of a large circular planter on the southwest corner of the plaza, is a miscalculation of a different order than the many agglomerations that currently blight the plaza, which we also oppose. From most of the principal viewing angles this new strong geometric element, both horizontal and vertical in its impact, will fundamentally alter the scale relationships in a way that no one can perfectly anticipate, but which will indisputably take the synchrony between building, plaza, and sculpture substantially further from Noguchi and Bunshaft’s’ intent. In its 2013 designation of 140 Broadway as a Landmark Site, the Landmarks Preservation Commission recognized that the building’s distinction is inextricably intertwined with the plaza and the presence of Red Cube.

The current condition of the plaza is unfortunate, but the proposed changes only make it more officially, more permanently worse. The sculpture here is not Red Cube per se, but the way that it alters our perception of the building and the space around it. That relationship is the Noguchi. At the very least it should be preserved from further harm. Ideally, it would be restored to a fully working state.

Update, 2/1/2018, 11:45am: This morning, the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s President, CEO, and Founder Charles A. Birnbaum sent a letter to Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, expressing his opposition to and outlining TCLF’s arguments against the proposed changes at 140 Broadway. That letter, which Birnbaum shared with Hyperallergic, is included in full below.

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Dear Chair Srinivasan,

I write on behalf of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) to express strong opposition to the proposed changes to the plaza at 140 Broadway and, by extension, the Marine Midland Building. Having reviewed details and renderings of the proposal now under review by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, it is clear that the redesign of the plaza would adversely affect the integrity of what has been designated a New York City Landmark. In fact, pending the outcome of your deliberations, TCLF has officially recognized the site as now being at risk.

As you know, 140 Broadway was designed between 1960 and 1964 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill under the direction of Gordon Bunshaft, the firm’s chief architect, and was one of the first projects to conform to the 1961 Zoning Resolution that incentivized developers to incorporate public plazas into their office-building plans. To complete the design for the 80-foot-wide plaza fronting Broadway on the site’s western flank, Bunshaft turned to celebrated artist Isamu Noguchi, with whom he would collaborate many times. The result was the iconic Red Cube, the 28-foot-tall vermillion sculpture that seems to defy gravity as it teeters on one edge, meant to be the solitary feature on the otherwise uninterrupted ground plane. While five low planters were placed along Cedar Street, to the south, the plaza facing Broadway was left free of any landscape embellishments or site furnishings, making it, in effect, an expansive travertine plinth for the minimalist sculpture. Indeed, a 1978 exhibition catalog (Noguchi’s Imaginary Landscapes) described the sculpture as “serenely dominating the plaza.” Having stood for half a century, Noguchi’s Red Cube has been declared an unqualified success by both popular and critical acclaim.

The current redesign of the site calls for six new circular planters with engaged seating (larger than those of the original design), along with eight light bollards, along Cedar Street, thus replacing the linear planting beds now in that location. The redesign also includes a raised, circular planting bed, fourteen feet in diameter, to be installed near the southwest corner of the plaza. Accordimg to renderings of the proposed work, three trees would be planted within the new circular feature. As those renderings also show, the large new planter and its trees would visually rebalance the plaza, negating the Red Cube as the solitary, dominant element on the ground plane. Doing so would not only adversely affect the experience of Noguchi’s sculpture, but of the building and the plaza as well, for all three elements are compositionally intertwined.

Arthur Drexler, director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, succinctly described the interdepenedence of the plaza, the sculpture, and architecture: “Together the three elements—building, paving, cube—are somehow more than they seem to be, as if the composition had been created by a sculptor of the minimal school intent on transposing the empiricism of architecture into the metaphysics of abstract form.” Noguchi also recognized the enormous potential of his sculpture to impact the larger urban environment. In 1968 he said, “…a sculptor is not merely a decorator of buildings but a serious collaborator with the architect in the creation of significant space and of significant shapes which define this space.”

Many other critics closely attuned to the New York cityscape have also written about the plaza at 140 Broadway. Certainly not least among them was Ada Louise Huxtable, who called that space a “demonstration of New York at its physical best.” In an extensive, laudatory article published on March 31, 1968, she added:

Space is meaningless without scale, containment, boundaries and direction.The fabled massing of the Wall Street skyscrapers has been given masterful urban definition by the architects’ ordering of these few blocks of new construction. It has been done by concerned, coordinated effort. This is planning. It is the opposite of non-planning, or the normal pattern of New York development. See and savor it now, before it is carelessly disposed of.

Bunshaft’s biographer Carol Krinsky wrote: “This is probably Noguchi’s most popular work of art done in conjunction with architecture, partly because it requires no interpretation. It is a teasingly precarious-looking object for a sober building.” And perhaps most notably, the 2013 designation of 140 Broadway by the Landmarks Preservation Commission also recognized the importance of the sculpture as an element not only in harmony with, but essential to, the experience of the space and architecture around it.

… rather than place the sculpture in the center of the Broadway plaza, as a Beaux Arts architect might have done, it was installed asymmetrically, to the left, increasing one’s awareness of the surrounding void. Furthermore, by employing a strong color, Noguchi created an additional counterpoint to the dark surface of 140 Broadway and the older buildings that flank it.

Without rehashing the changes to 140 Broadway that have already diminished the integrity of the plaza’s original design, we believe it is imperative that the Landmarks Preservation Commission deny any request to place additional site furnishings or landscape features there. We hope that you will agree that the best design for the plaza, and those who encounter it, is the original minimalist vision borne from the collaboration of two masters, which remains a much-admired benchmark for future urban design.

Please do not hesitate to contact TCLF if we can provide additional information. We thank you in advance for considering our concerns and observations.

Very best regards,
Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR, President, CEO, and Founder
The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Update, 2/2/2018, 10:30 am: This morning, TCLF informed us that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has postponed the discussion of proposed changes at 140 Broadway originally slated for next week’s hearing. The Landmarks Preservation Commission and confirmed that this is the case. The reasoning is unknown. Whether or not 140 Broadway will be on the following week’s agenda (February 13) will be determined next Friday, February 9.

Update, 2/15/2018, 1:20 pm: This afternoon, TCLF informed Hyperallergic that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has rescheduled the discussion of proposed changes at 140 Broadway for >March 6.

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