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Inspired by the glamour and gaudiness of New York, Christian de Portzamparc has completed a new crystalline skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan.

In the same way that Alexis de Tocqueville's perceptive view of America in the early nineteenth century got to the heart of the national character, French architect Christian de Portzamparc has cut through the red tape of zoning restrictions in New York with a building that speaks volumes about Manhattan glamour.

Like a rock crystal meteor zoomed in from outer space, his new 24-storey tower for the luxury goods group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (purveyors of Christian Dior, Guerlain, Christian Lacroix et al.) is wedged between two sedate buildings on East 57th Street at the crossroads of the high fashion world. While the concept for a signature tower was hatched in Paris, Portzamparc, relying on his earlier impressions of jazzy New York night life during a sabbatical from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, has succeeded in inventing a sculptural form that nevertheless imaginatively conforms to the reality of its urban context.

Instead of designing a typical New York ziggurat setback, the architect made a daring reinterpretation of the old sunshine-and-shadow regulations by fracturing the glass facade into what are best described as origami folds. Faced with the monolithic IBM tower of dark green granite across the street, he was determined to deflect its sombre image. Split vertically, half of the angular facade is clad in ultra-white glass sandblasted with wedgelike patterns and thin horizontal bands that diffuse a more radiant light into the interior; the other half is clad in a bluish green glass, some of it opaque and some transparent. A faceted box of clear blue glass perched on the tenth floor setback gleams like a star sapphire set in the centre of this crystalline brooch of a building. Since none of the sharp angles protrude beyond the adjacent facades, the tower maintains a mannerly appearance on the streetscape with a discreet entrance flanked by the Christian Dior boutique. Defined by the prismatic exterior, interior sp aces appear intimate and personal with nooks and crannies for small offices, meeting rooms, showrooms and corridors displaying antique and contemporary perfume bottles.

With the additional floor space generated by the setback configuration, Portzamparc has created a remarkable room at the top that outshines any other like it in New York. It lives up to its billing as the 'Magic Room'. An empty space with a thirty-foot-high ceiling and clear glass walls on three sides, this is the ultimate party room with views of the decorative architectural motifs crowning neighbouring towers as well as of the Hudson River and an enticing sliver of Central Park. At night, it looks out on a fairyland of Manhattan's glittering lights. This is pure theatre with a staircase spiralling down from an upper balcony where guests or fashion models can make a grand entrance a la Ziegfeld Follies.

In tandem with the building's opening last December, the Municipal Art Society mounted an impressive exhibition at the Urban Center surveying Portzamparc's work. It made the point about the great variety of his solutions: his approach to contextual architecture is to treat buildings -- like the Cite de la Musique in Paris (AR July 1995)-- as urban islands. In the series of study models for the LVMH Tower, progress could be followed from the original theme of stack boxes to the unified curved volumes permitted by the latitude of a third property acquired on the site.

As solid and massive as are his TGV rail station in Lille or the Law Courts in Grasse, he has an imaginative eye for colour as an ephemeral component of space, inherited perhaps from his early admiration for Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp. Having already experimented with washing the facade of the Bandai Tower in Tokyo with a sequential rainbow spectrum of coloured lights, he stripped neon tubes into the vertical creases of the LVMH facade for a subtle light show after dark that spreads across the glass with a luminous glow of green, pink, lavender or blue -- shades of the razzmatazz of Times Square. At night, when the angular glass planes also radiate a liquid golden light from within, the tower curiously resembles a faceted crystalline flacon of perfume with the magic room the clear glass stopper at the top. It is only a matter of time before Guerlain or Dior perceive this as well, and a new perfume, 'Manhattan' perhaps, will be marketed in an equally handsome elongated prismatic bottle.
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Title Annotation:Christian de Portzamparc designs a skyscraper in New York City
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:May 1, 2000
Previous Article:Letters.

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