445 Park Avenue: Architecture from the Inside-Out

445 Park AveAt just 22-stories tall, nondescript, and boxy, 445 Park Avenue is easily passed over when talking about architecture along its avenue. It neither has the intricate classical ornamentation of its next door Ritz Tower or the spectacular transparency of the glass-walled 450 Park Avenue across it. And built right up to the street, this office building offers pedestrians nothing more than a shadow of its presence.

But it would be wrong to equate 445 Park Avenue’s lack of distinction to a building that writer Ada Louise Huxtable might regard as “economically styled” rather than “architecturally designed” . Far from a result of “accident, expediency, economics and the inevitable march of industrial advance”, this building designed by Kahn & Jacobs for developer Paul Tishman is a highly functional product that demonstrated how modern office buildings could work in Park Avenue.

As one of its architects Ely Jacques Kahn once said, a building must first and foremost work for its inhabitants. “The architect’s first objective should be the study of the use of materials and the designing of a building that works — something that works from the inside out. What we should do is to consider function and let style follow as a corollary,” he said. Similarly, 445 Park Avenue has an interior substance deserving of more attention than what its undistinguished exterior presents.

That this office could be built so soon after the second World War — it was the first such development — and was completely filled in just over a year , is in a part, due to Kahn & Jacobs’ design. Their modernist approach of using standardized modules allowed for faster and easier construction compared to traditional methods, and would have helped convince the government to approve its building in 1946, even though construction was then heavily regulated as New York City transited to a peace-time economy after the war . The building design was also attractive to businesses because of its large spaces that could be easily partitioned, a feature made possible by the elimination of heavy columns on the exterior of its design. In addition, the standardized windows were of a ratio convenient for office layouts , and its horizontal system of arrangement lit up the building’s interiors such that workers did not feel trapped like in pre-war buildings with heavy masonry . Such a highly functional interior was enhanced by being fully air-conditioned, a first in New York City, and the combination was then regarded by architecture critic Lewis Mumford as “the best answer to the year-round problem of lighting and heating” . It is no wonder Tishman regarded his building as the office space of tomorrow, and 445 Park Avenue played a significant role in ushering the modern offices that followed after it.

But instead of taking the building’s modernist interior to its logical conclusion, as in the entirely glass International Style buildings that followed after 445 Park Avenue, Kahn & Jacobs designed an architecture sensible to its context. It is harder to appreciate now, but the building’s alternating masonry bands, would have fit into a street lined with ornamented masonry-clad buildings then. Its ziggurat top — Kahn’s signature response to the setback requirements of the 1916 Zoning Resolution — also echoed an evolution, rather than a disruption of the avenue’s architecture. These features gave 445 Park Avenue a sense of place, or what Kahn once called a “New York Style” of architecture. By “localizing” the International Style, 445 Park Avenue was unique to the city, familiar to the public, yet still took half a step towards the impending modernist future.

Perhaps, it is also this conservative stance that prevented 445 Park Avenue from looking beyond itself. While the pragmatic building achieves the maximum function for its developer and inhabitants, and fits into its urban context, it does not go beyond, unlike the nearby Lever House and Seagram buildings which sacrificed functional space to build public plazas. Even so, it should not diminish too much from 445 Park Avenue’s commitment as an office building that simply functions, which was much more vital during the period of economic and political uncertainty when it was built. Instead of grand public gestures and seeking an iconic exterior, Kahn and Jacobs created a building that became a backdrop for life in the city . Given how architecture today has become so much about the surface rather than function, 445 Park Avenue is a a reminder of why we build architecture: as a space that works “inside out” rather than “outside in”.

Bibliography

  • “Architects’ Rows ‘Silly,’ Kahn Says.” New York Times, 23 February 1932.
  • “Big Tishman Building on Park Ave. Filled.” New York Times, 8 Dec 1947, 45.
  • Huxtable, Ada Louise. “Park Avenue School of Architecture.” New York Times, 15 December 1957.
  • Mumford, Lewis. “The Sky Line.” The New Yorker, 13 December 1947, 85-92.
  • Stern, Jewel, and John A. Stuart. Ely Jacques Kahn, Architect: Beaux-Arts to Modernism in New York. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.
  • “Tishman Building Gets CPA Sanction.” New York Times, 17 July 1946, 37.

 

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Written for Karrie Jacobs’ 
Urban Curation class at D-Crit on a building in Park Avenue.

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