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Photograph © David Leventi, 2013, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

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Inside the Proposed Changes to the Landmarked Ford Foundation

A look inside the revered postmodern office tower with Ford Foundation president Darren Walker

On Tuesday, April 19 the Landmarks Preservation Commission is set to consider a proposed $190 million renovation to the Ford Foundation, the 1967 building by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, with a landscaped atrium designed by Dan Kiley, that is New York’s youngest interior landmark. Although many aspects of the building have long been outdated—interior designer Warren Platner thought telephones would forever fit his brass-stemmed walnut tables—it is health and safety, not aesthetics or technology, that initially drove the foundation’s plans.

The city has given Ford until 2019 to bring the building up to code for fire safety and handicapped accessibility. But since they had to scratch the building’s surfaces, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and his staff decided to go further, upgrading not just by adding sprinklers to the ceilings and greater access to the atrium, but new security, new lighting and mechanicals, and a new spatial organization.

"The building is very hierarchical, very 1960s," says Walker. "The best offices are distributed to the most senior executives and that is no longer appropriate for a social justice foundation. We will have very few offices and much greater transparency and openness." Walker will cut his personal square footage in half, moving to a lower floor and leaving an office which hangs like a levitating glass house above the garden on the building’s 42nd Street side, reached by a ficus-lined balcony that bears some resemblance to a medieval rampart. "I don’t need a conference room that seats 40 people just for me. When I work on the weekends often in order to turn the lights on in my office I have to turn the lights on on half the floor," he says. "A building designed in 1962 is not a building that is energy efficient or in any way considers environmental consequences." It is not just Walker who is downsizing—the whole foundation will reduce its footprint within the building, freeing up the space on top for meetings and conferences from grantees and the lower floors for a visitor center, a gallery, and office space for other organizations. The new offices will be open-plan, with private rooms pulled to the corners of the building and away from the window-wall overlooking the atrium.

Once upon a time, a building with a green, public heart seemed (for most) like enough of a gift to the city for a rich philanthropic organization. As Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in her 1967 New York Times review, "Ford Flies High," "Ford will never give most New Yorkers anything except this civic gesture of beauty and excellence, and that is a grant of some importance in a world where spirit and soul are deadened by the speculative cheapness of the environment." She dismissed as "ridiculous" the argument that "the money might not be better spent on the problems of the world." The foundation isn’t moving from its "12 stories of subtle splendor"—though that was a consideration—but the renovations planned by Gensler reflect the changing project of doing good from one of Manhattan’s best buildings. It is no longer enough that it be of quality, now the building must also move toward environmental responsibility and inclusion, while becoming literally more transparent. The changing definition of public service, for architecture as well as a social justice foundation, will be reflected in physical changes to the structure.

The Ford Foundation in 1968, a year before its interiors were landmarked. Photo by John Duprey/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Many were dismayed, in December, to read that Dan Kiley’s plantings would be removed from the garden. This is necessary because, in order to install the building’s first sprinkler system, all of the hung ceilings need to be opened up—and there is asbestos insulation inside, sprayed on the steel structure. The asbestos abatement requires the removal of all living things. Few realized the current trees, shrubs and ground cover aren’t Kiley’s original design, but make-dos when his original choices failed to thrive. They’re dense and lovely, especially in the winter, but lacking in structure and difficult to peer through. Landscape architect Raymond Jungles plans a return to Kiley’s original concept, with a sharper distinction between lanky trees and low shrubs better suited to a life indoors, allowing clear views across the atrium. On both 42nd and 43rd Streets, areas near the entrances that have been offices will be transformed into a gallery and visitor center, open to the public and showcasing work related to the foundation’s mission. Gensler has designed low-lying display units for the center on the north side, so as not to block the new unbroken views through the block. On the west side of the building, a second, two-story gallery is being created in an area not covered by the interior landmark protections.

Michael Sorkin’s 1987 piece for the Village Voice tied Ford’s verdant interior to zoning changes that gave developers extra height and bulk for public amenities like plazas and atriums: Ford, like Lever House, didn’t need all the space it could have taken, but its offspring used the rules in less charitable ways, creating places the public didn’t want to be—or didn’t realize it could assume. Sorkin compares Ford’s brick-and-brass interior to that of its "commercial doppelganger, [John Portman’s] Hyatt Regency in Atlanta…a new mode of colonizing space" that was defensible. (Portman’s architecture was used for just this purpose, and to dramatic effect, as in the Hunger Games.) Although the atrium is lockable, it was also highly vulnerable. The renovation calls for the insertion of operable windows at top and bottom for ventilation in case of fire, as well as largely invisible ceiling-mounted fire-rated curtains to separate the office interiors from the garden at the upper balcony levels.

New brass-framed doors at the 43rd Street entrance will better accommodate wheelchairs, and a new door in the western wall of the garden will allow people with wheelchairs to enter the building and use the existing elevators down a corridor from 42nd Street, creating a U-shape of accessible areas. On the south side of the building, the foundation’s plans call for lengthening a stub of walkway along the glass wall, and installing a wheelchair lift that will allow disabled access to the glass-roofed "pergola" at the east end of the atrium. At the last minute, the architects also transformed a path reached by steps on the north side into a ramp, increasing the range available with this lift. This was the one alteration to the landmark atrium that gave me pause, as it literally puts a machine in one of the greenest parts of the garden, reducing a planted bed by half. The south side is one of the few locations in the atrium where foliage goes up to the glass, giving the best sense, from the sidewalk, of what’s inside. While I wholeheartedly support the Americans with Disabilities Act, I’m not sure this alteration is worth it, given that the accessible area still dead-ends into more steps. To get anywhere else in the building, one would still need retrace the path and head through the new door. An obsession with stepped-level changes is one of the markers of this era of architecture, which makes it very difficult to retrofit without chipping away at design intent.

An obsession with stepped-level changes is one of the markers of this era of architecture, which makes it very difficult to retrofit without chipping away at design intent.

Walker’s critique of the bureaucratic organization of the building also echoes Sorkin, who raised an eyebrow at the way hierarchy remained embedded in an organization "performing nominally good works." Walker, as it happens, is a big fan of modernism, albeit one with a personal understanding of the tension between powerful aesthetics and a philanthropic agenda. It is not every foundation president who cites Paul Rudolph’s Bass House in Ft. Worth—a difficult-to-access marvel of cantilevered balconies, terraced lawns and Warhol portraits—as one of the "wonderful jewels of modern architecture." "I grew up in a small town in Texas, and I used to get shelter magazines from the family my grandmother worked for," Walkere says, "including Architectural Digest and House & Garden. Even though my circumstances were quite different"—putting it mildly—"the photographs in the shelter magazines did open my eyes to this remarkable world, where things felt so foreign to me. When I had the opportunity after law school to move to New York one of things I did immediately was to do an architectural working tour of the city."

Warren cites Stanford White, Delano & Aldrich, and Carrere & Hastings, all makers of the grand 19th and early-20th century New York, but also Gordon Bunshaft and the 1950s transformation of Park Avenue. "I love Seagram, love Lever House, love the work of Gordon Bunshaft," he says. "What he did when he was running Skidmore at Chase Manhattan Bank, even the sweeter projects he did like the Manufacturers Hanover bank building." Thus, when he became head of the Ford Foundation in 2013, he embraced the position as not only "advancing the cause of human dignity, but you also are the steward for a masterpiece of modern architecture."

When I ask him what his favorite parts of the building are he quips, "Oh my god, this is going to be a really long conversation," before citing the auditorium, with its curve of brown-leather Warren Platner-designed seats, straw-colored carpet, and recently-restored Sheila Hicks tapestry of gold-embroidered circles, and the enclosed garden. "Even though the original Dan Kiley specimens did not survive, it was an experiment to plant them in an interior space. The garden remains a place of reflection and quiet amid the humdrum madness of Gotham."

In review of the building, Huxtable points to the finishes as a visual evocation of Ford’s contemporary worldview. "All materials are natural. The plastic esthetic, the "hot modern" spectrum of colors, have not been permitted here, in this most modern of buildings. Golden-beige Puerto Rican wool rugs are set into oak parquet floors so that deep pile is level with wood, a discreet study in non-ostentation." (As I’ve noted previously, Roche Dinkeloo usually limited themselves to a symphony of browns and metallics.)

With time, the furniture and finishes have come to seem more luxurious than that "hot modern," as well as highly covetable. Walker says, "I am beyond obsessive about this building. We are maintaining the brilliant grid vocabulary that Kevin Roche created for the building, repurposing the furniture, using the Lightolier light fixtures with LED lighting, all the way down to the walnut filing cabinets, the brass doorknobs and fixtures." The "extravagant" leather lining the elevators and inset into desks will be replaced with pleather which, he assures with the confidence of someone who has touched the samples, "looks and feels just like leather." As for the brass: "Brass before the Ford Foundation was used in a highly decorative way, but here brass is used in a modern, restrained, intelligent way throughout the building." As I walked in for a tour I noted even the curb along the 43rd Street entrance is capped in brass, a shiny contrast with the brick sidewalk that runs through the brass-framed doors and into the garden as a continuous brown field. It is not just the materials, but their integration that sets the building apart.

Ironically, the move to the paperless office has also left the foundation with a rare thing: too much storage. A line of leather-fronted coat closets with built-in hat racks is empty, and a nearly- block-long walnut built-in filing cabinet is redundant. Now that the furniture and finishes are vintage, they can be "recycled," and the plan is to reuse as many of the existing cabinets, wall-units, sofas, and desk chairs as possible. The large rectangular, waffled light fixtures that are visible from the atrium will also be moved around; I hope the architects will consider leaving a layer of them (at least) near the curtain wall, as they were designed to created a visual rhyme within the building’s envelope as grids within a grid within the grid of Manhattan. The Platner-designed desk chairs, leather and brass, are the opposite of ergonomic, and so have been moved to conference and meeting spaces. There will be extra furniture nonetheless, which will likely be sold to museums and collectors. It’s always sad to break the set, but, best case scenario, some enterprising curator will take this opportunity to buy a suite, and organize a necessary retrospective on the work of Warren Platner, whose papers are at Yale.

In his time as president of the Ford Foundation, Walker has refocused the foundation’s grant-making on inequality at a time when architecture, too, seems to be reconnecting with its democratic and problem-solving spirit. Many of the most notable—and Pritzker-winning—efforts have been focused on disaster relief and housing the poorest. Public work, even in New York, can combat inequality. A greener, safer, more accessible and less hierarchical Ford Foundation is not leading but following contemporary design values, even as we remain beset by the "speculative cheapness of the environment." Is that enough? Is the building still too much? I think the seesaw between appreciation and critique is a productive tension, one that provides a prick of conscience to push for structures of equal quality near and far from the indoor atriums of Manhattan.

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