Skidmore Owings Merrill (SOM) claimed its design of the nearly-complete tower at 250 West 55th Street borrows from its ‘forebearer’ Lever House because it has “a strong, clear form that derives directly from its program.” The point man for the building’s developer, Boston Properties, went further, indicating a desire to think of 250 West 55th Street as a “Lever House redux.” Comparisons to Lever House are likely to prompt derision from architectural enthusiasts. Lever House, after all, was voted by architects as one of the “Seven Wonders of American Architecture” five years after it was completed. According to an NYT critic at the time Aline Louchheim, Lever House, “sparkl[ed] like some sea-colored jewel … tak[ing] full aesthetic advantage of modern means of construction.” Meanwhile, the design of 250 West 55th is perhaps best appreciated from the inside by the tenants, who will enjoy ten-foot ceilings, larger column-free spaces, and offices with floor-to-ceiling windows.
Nonetheless, SOM may have been correct: the forms of both buildings derive directly from their programs. The issue is that the programs for the buildings are radically disparate, which is arguably why the buildings turned out so differently, if not in their very basic form, then in the novelty and pizazz of their designs. Lever House was built to suit Lever Brothers as an advertisement for the company’s brand as well as for its corporate headquarters. 250 West 55th Street was built by a real estate investment trust ‘on-spec’ to appeal to a range of tenants. While the company responsible for Lever House occupied that building for over 40 years, most of the owners of 250 West 55th Street – shareholders of Boston Properties like investors in Vanguard REIT Index – will never set foot in the building, or even know of its existence. These facts help explain the dissonance between innovative architecture and bland pastiche.
Perhaps there are a few general principles at work here. First, when buildings are built for companies that will own and occupy the space, the architecture of the building tends to be better than when buildings are built to lease to a variety of other companies. This is certainly true for residential construction; the design of condo buildings is generally superior to that of rentals. But it is probably true for office buildings as well. It’s not simply because companies building their own headquarters seek to build their brands; it also has to do with identity for identity’s sake. When we own something, we tend see it as a part of ourselves, so we’re more concerned about the way it looks. We don’t want to be identified with something ugly. Companies and the people who act on their behalf probably act in a similar way.
Also, the more speculative the office venture, the more conservative the architecture may tend to be. When developers take more financial risks, they may be less willing to take architectural risks. 250 West 55th Street appears to have been a rather risky proposition. Construction restarted on 250 West 55th Street in a weak office market with only about 20% of the space leased, and the building isn’t in a location traditionally considered prime for office. It was bold for Boston Properties to restart construction in 2011 given that a competing building nearing completion at the time, 11 Times Square, had signed up its erstwhile anchor tenant, law firm Proskauer Rose, and yet remained 60% vacant. Such conditions provide yet another reason why Boston Properties and SOM appear to have focused more on the interior amenities that tenants often care most about, and less on the building’s facade.