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MoMA Mia! Starring Jean Nouvel, David Childs & the Peanut Gallery

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As reported yesterday, Pritzker Prize-winning French starchitect Jean Nouvel was forced to defend his plan for a dazzling and momentous Midtown skyscraper in front of a crowd of ornery locals waiting to savage him and his work. Such is the state of development in New York in 2008, but Nouvel took it all in stride. His attendance at the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing?which heard arguments for and against the transfer of air rights from a couple of local landmarks to the developers of Nouvel's 53 West 53rd Street?was not a surprise, given the mounting community opposition to the so-called MoMA Tower (which the Times reports is now called Tower Verre). What was a surprise, however, was Nouvel bringing in starchitecture frat brother David Childs to speak on his behalf. That's two starchitects for the price of none, people! Curbed had two correspondents seated in the crowd, and the combined report is after the jump.

The hearing started way late, while the Commission dealt with an illegal awning in Hamilton Heights. Nouvel entered the hearing room during testimony for that item, and the heads of each and every member of LPC turned and followed him, all with admiration and wonder in their eyes. Talk about starchitect fuckers! Nouvel sat quietly, seemingly listening intently to the discussion regarding the ugly improper awning.

Nouvel gave a great presentation, with much discussion of set backs and the evolution of the New York skyscraper. He made pointed reference to Hugh Ferriss. A terrific moment was when he was describing the location of the site and opted for the French for our saying "bird's eye view." Nouvel owned the room with his calm, soft-spoken voice (and sensual handling of the laser pointer) as he explained his idea of "contextuality," which is to create "the missing piece of the puzzle," and in the case of 53rd Street, that piece is apparently a sharp needle-hotel/condo/museum space jutting 75 stories into the sky. He explained the needle design as a study in contrasts to the surrounding rectangle structures, and went so far as to suggest that the presence of the building would create more "lightness" to the area than without. A visibly upset lady in the crowd responded with some disapproving clucking.

Surprise guest was David Childs, who spoke in praise of both Nouvel and his scheme.

St. Thomas Church and the University Club would get their upkeep and maintenance covered through perpetuity, so their proponents (especially from St. Thomas) came out strong for the approval, but it was really the neighborhood residents that came looking for a fight. With the exception of Liz Krueger, the elected officials' statements generally supported the idea of landmark upkeep, and suggested their concerns with the new building may be better dealt with at a city planning level, also suggesting that this fight isn't close to over for the supporters of CB 5's vote to disapprove the transfer.

Things looked bleak in the public testimony, as Nouvel gamely sat through hours of traffic, safety, and neighborhood-harmony concerns, which ranged from the near-apologetic to the downright taunting. Complaints ranged from the creation of unsafe traffic congestion for emergency vehicles and disharmony in the architecture, some going so far as to tell Jean Nouvel that his building wasn't just big, but also ugly. To his face! There may have been more detractors, but Nouvel was not without his supporters, which were mainly various members of the clergy, trustees from the MoMA and the Folk Art Museum, and one really passionate architecture student in sweat pants. It will be interesting to see how the Commission votes.

One interesting tidbit: One of the photos shows a large window at St. Thomas Church with a picture of James Hogan, who designed all the original windows in St. Thomas Church. The stained glass window shown is his self-portrait in glass (it's in the church)!

· Nouvel Brings in Big Guns for MoMA Tower Hearing [Curbed]
· Jean Nouvel Wins Pritzker Prize [Curbed]

Tower Verre

53 West 53rd Street, New York, NY

53 W 53rd St

53 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, NY 10019