Olympic materials like steel and glass was the

Olympic Tower near of St. Patricks
Source: ANDREW ALPEM, (1975), New
York’s Fabulous Apartments, Dover Publications Inc, pp 159

In New York’s Manhattan, one of Fifth Avenue’s few
truly Miesian designs and the first mixed-use structure to be constructed on
Fifth Avenue, 645 Fifth Avenue, better known as Olympic Tower, was constructed
as a joint venture of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and Arlen Realty
& Development.  Completed in 1976 to
plans by Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill, the 52-story building is a work of
severe elegance.  It has 226 condominium
apartments on its top 29 floors, more than 250,000 square feet of office space
on floors 2 through 21, retail space and a through-block public arcade. Highly
popular with the jet-set of its time, its deep-brown glass façade provides a
glittering contrast to the recently restored limestone
of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the south…as well as, one suspects,
inspiration for the later design of Trump Tower several blocks to the north.

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The building
seems to successfully comply with the works of the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe whose pioneering work
in modern architecture and take on the modernist international style exemplified
the Fifth Avenue’s skyscraper. Developed in 1920’s the International Style specially
known for its clean lines and flat surfaces, the lack of ornaments or colour
and use of mass-produced, lightweight industrial materials like steel and glass
was the first fundamentally original architectural style since the Gothic and
became the dominant style up worldwide until the 1970’s. Mies’ nearby Seagram
Building completed in 1958 flaunting its glass and metal, and foregoing the
heavy stone and brick used in ornamental facades of previous decades, set a
standard for the straightforward, modern bronze and dark glass skyscraper and
its structure and minimalistic geometries.

Seagram Building made the
grand gesture of setting back the building 100 feet from the street edge, which
created a highly active urban and open plaza that creates a gracious
pedestrian space with its two large fountains surrounded by generous outdoor
seating. Where Mies distanced himself from New York urban morphology, lot
line development, and the conventional economics of skyscraper construction, the
Olympic Tower failed to do so by providing no sidewalk landscape whatsoever.
This results in a reasonably busy area when considerable traffic is present and
a lack of procession to the entry of the building that would cleverly provide the
threshold that linked the city with the skyscraper.

However, Olympic Tower was
innovative in two respects. First it was the city’s first major mixed-use tower
in midtown when it was built, combining apartments, commercial space, retail
stores and a public shopping arcade which has a large, skylit, south-facing,
multi-tiered waterfall, 9-meter high ceiling and a café. Moreover, it provides
many of the facilities and services one expects of a hotel, such as a restaurant,
a barber shop, a hairdressing salon and an international newsstand. Secondly, it
had an unusual structure that consisted of a 30-story cast-in-place
reinforced-concrete frame apartment building over a 21-story steel-framed
office building. The whole facade is clad in brown-tinted glass which gives the
189 meters tall building a solid, almost black, and highly reflective surface,
providing both a contrasting backdrop for views of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral
from the south as well as reflections of it.

Source: ANDREW ALPEM, (1975), New
York’s Fabulous Apartments, Dover Publications Inc, pp 159

The plan of a typical corner
suite is shown left. The 226 apartments that are in the top 29 floors feel overwhelming
in number and the lack of balconies add up to the feeling of confinement.  The apartments were however designed with 2.7-meter
high ceilings, which was slightly higher than the norm at the time of its
construction, and floor-to-ceiling windows providing `and St. Patrick’s
Cathedral. When it comes to the planning the apartments are basically
conventional. A two-bedroom apartment has a large entrance foyer that leads
into an 80-meter long living room and the bedrooms on the lower level that all
provide views of the Manhattan skyline. The enclosed kitchen and the bathrooms are
located at the ‘blind’ sides of the apartment.

In conclusion, the building
incorporates some clever design touches, such as its innovative construction
system, its first to be seen mix usage and its location within New York’s Manhattan
that provides a bright and interesting contrast to St. Patrick’s Cathedral but
some poor ones as well. Overall, it is a rather generic addition to the list of
buildings built according to the International Style. By the time of its construction
the architectural style in question was already in the twilight of its life.
Olympic Tower’s architecture was nothing sort of oppressively banal to this
point offering no original approach to it and was nowhere near innovative as Seagram
Building was when it was built in 1958. It is a fair attempt but not an
interesting one.















Modernity: Manifestations of the Modern in Architecture and the City, Routledge,
pp. 219





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