Ford Foundation Building
|Ford Foundation Building|
42nd. Street Façade from Tudor City
|Architectural style||Late Modernism|
|Town or city||
320 East 43rd StreetNew York, NY
|Structural system||concrete and steel frame|
|Design and construction|
|Structural engineer||John Dinkeloo|
The Ford Foundation Building is an office building in Midtown Manhattan designed by architect Kevin Roche and his engineering partner, John Dinkeloo. Designed in 1963 and completed in 1968 on the former site of the Hospital for Special Surgery, its large tree-filled atrium was the first of its kind in Manhattan, and it is widely credited as setting the precedent for indoor public spaces in Manhattan office buildings.  The building was one of the first that Roche-Dinkeloo produced after they became heads of Eero Saarinen's firm, following his death in 1961. It won the AIA Twenty-five Year Award in 1995.
The twelve-story box represents an evolutionary approach to expanding the limits of International Style modern architecture by exploring new architectural vocabulary, new materials, and new environmental controls. The architects aimed to restore the social function of modernism, furthering the goal of human community through facilitation of effective charity by the Ford Foundation. Not abandoning the modernist principles they learned at IIT, they added new ideas to the stagnating concept of the modern office building, which had been unchanged from the completion of the Seagram Building and Lever House.
The mass of the building is a large L-shaped office block wrapped around a spacious winter garden, forming a near-perfect square, but its design reveals considerable complexity. The architects integrated it into the landscape and the neighborhood. The actual envelope of the building is composed of weathering steel facing the structural frame, and pink granite wrapping vertical concrete elements, with large glass panes filling in the voids. This glass is a crucial element, as it reflects both modernist transparency and the specific visual experiences that Roche intended to create a moral structure to the building. In spite of the innovation, the beginnings of postmodernism and the ultra-formalist New York Five shifted critical attention away from the conventional but idiosyncratic practice of Roche.
The building occupies the width of a block, and has facades of about 200 feet on either side, creating a near-perfect square, out of which a large volume has been removed to create a garden courtyard. The resulting L-shaped block of office space opens onto either the atrium or the street, depriving only a small number of workers of exterior views. The placement of the atrium in that location is surprisingly clever. In addition to maximizing sunlight for the plants, the cut reflects the location of the adjacent park in Tudor City, which slopes down through the envelope of the building, rolling down into a fountain at the center of the space.
The sort of dissolution of boundaries is nothing novel, but Roche furthers the dissolution by stepping back the massing of the interior façade over steel terraces that lead up to and above the main entrance. The hill continues, transformed, into a sloping cliff of steel and glass. Here again also stands a tower at the eastern end of this hill, abutting a granite wall. On the 43rd street side of the building, the retraction of the lower floors towards the atrium mimic the curve of the interior hillside, allowing for a covered driveway and making the public lobby open and free. The general volume of the structure, continued by large granite-faced columns, meets up with the massing of the building to the east of it on 43rd street, just as the hill from the park on 42nd street connects to the winter garden. The last two volumes of the building are the north-south wing of the building and the parallel service entrance. The service entrance forms an alley, but the wing of the building mirrors the density of the two office buildings between it and Second Avenue. It cuts through the hill flatly, terminating in a monumental granite wall. Playing off the openness of the atrium, the wall is unfriendly, powerful, and indomitable, perfectly flat except for a single cut about midway along its length. The cut reveals windows at an angle that repeats the motif of windows looking into one another that is central to the atrium, and to the concept of the building as a whole.
The wall cuts back into the building at the volume of the atrium where the path between the two streets passes through the curtainwall. At the southwestern corner of the atrium, a large diagonal wall supports a two-storey extension of the office block that completes the square plot of land. The atrium continues through the hole made by these two stories, reaching a roof of three sections of smaller pitched structures, creating an expansive skylight.
Two material details reveal the Ford Foundation as a Roche building. Firstly, it has a careful use of warm materials such as weathering steel, which produces a self-sealing rust patina. Secondly, he used brown-pink granite to wrap vertical, massy walls. He employed these materials in a handful of projects during the 1960s, especially perfecting the use of weathering steel. Roche and Dinkeloo added additional significance to their choice of materials by differentiating between spanning and supporting materials. Generally, he employed reinforced concrete for supporting structures or simple mass, while exploiting the tensile properties of steel to bridge space.
The Ford Foundation was the first project for which they employed materials in this way, although the technique ended up being inefficient and costly because of intricacies of construction. The architecture was simply unready for the new building system, as steel and concrete crews had to alternate, since the concrete piers required the steel for stabilization, while the steel needed the concrete to stand up in the first place. When they attempted the method again, at the Knights of Columbus Building, they executed a design that arose from the technique, where four corner towers and a core were poured in concrete very quickly, while large steel pieces could be placed modularly into the structure, expediting construction and producing a unique style.
Roche himself only produced a few other buildings that share a language and a concept similar to the Ford Foundation building. In the Oakland Museum of California and at a few office parks, he played with the topology of landscape interior and exterior space, but he has explained that, unlike the Oakland Museum, the project contains a very complicated social diagram, meant to cause occasional interactions between employee and employee, visitor and employee, and visitor and foundation. The first experience occurs when office workers look out the window to see the lush and perfectly maintained atruim, their own private garden in the density of the city. Consequent to this experience, a worker might notice that he can see into another person’s office – and that another person can see into hers.
More significantly, the workers and administrators in the conference rooms, planning meetings and courting donors, are able to survey almost half of the employees simply by looking out of the window. Ada Louise Huxtable quotes Roche explaining, “It will be possible in this building to look across the court and see your fellow man or sit on a bench and discuss the problems of Southeast Asia. There will be a total awareness of the foundation’s activities.” Not only did he feel that the role of the building is to subtly encourage people conscious of their surroundings, he believed that he could strengthen the moral mission of the foundation, allowing the administration a panoptical perspective of the staff, while subverting that effect by keeping the administration, donor, and conference rooms the most transparent and visible of all. Sight can act as a form of control, and this building successfully allows different elements of the power dynamic to hold each other in check, just a little bit more, by internalizing that one is constantly under gentle scrutiny by the sheer fact of the building.
- Huxtable, Ada Louise. “Bold Plan for Building Revealed.” The New York Times, 1967.
- Architectural History of New York City, New York University (2012). Accessed December 2012, URL: http://www.nyu.edu/classes/finearts/nyc/
- Miller, Irwin J. Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo, and Associates, 1962-1975. Edited by Yukio Futagawa. Tokyo: A.D.A. EDITA Tokyo. p. 57
- Huxtable, Ada Louise. “Bold Plan for Building Revealed.” The New York Times, 1963, p. 45.
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