Lord Foster: The Punk of Architecture?

Mud slinging on the Upper East Side. Will Foster's design for a residential tower ever see the light of day?

A proposed residential tower designed by Foster and Partners for New York’s Upper East Side has sparked conflict between neighbors, pitting preservationists against the local artists, designers, and gallery owners who hope to see the building constructed.

The Foster design would see a 30-story pair of intersecting, elliptical glass towers built on top of the existing 1950 Parke-Bernet Gallery building at 980 Madison Avenue, across the street from the famed Carlyle Hotel. It would also restore the Parke-Bernet building to its original four-story design by Walker & Poor, which would involve removing a fifth story that was added in the 1960s, convert two floors to gallery space, and add a public roof garden below the towers.

During a presentation at an October 24 New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, Foster argued that such ambitious architecture isn’t out of place in the neighborhood, and pointed to the Carlyle, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum as examples. “The nature of the Upper East Side, interestingly, is that constant of change and renewal,” he said. “It’s a kind of a tradition of radicalism.”

Tradition or not, many area residents aren’t keen on the development, saying the scale and style of the tower aren’t appropriate for the neighborhood. At the recent hearing, Teri Slater, co-chair of Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side, called the building an “oversized, ovoid, glazed conceit of a project.” She added developer Aby Rosen was merely trying to distract preservationists by hiring an internationally famous architect to come up with the design. Ward Blum, another resident of the area, said, “Approving this design proposal would be like the philharmonic inviting a heavy-metal punk rocker to join the orchestra,” concluding, “Our district should not be a Petrie dish for design experiments.”

But the list of those supporting the project is just as long, and includes many high-profile names. Richard Meier, FAIA, has offered public testimony in support of the project before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, while artist Jeff Koons framed the debate as one of “segregation, discrimination,” saying that opponents are sending the message, “If you like Modernism, don’t live in the Upper East Side.”

At press time, the project was still under consideration by the commission.