Kips Bay Towers
Kips Bay Towers, originally known as Kips Bay Plaza, is an apartment complex on the east side of Midtown Manhattan. The complex consists of 1,136 apartments organized into two 410-foot-long, 21-story slabs. Designed by I. M. Pei, the project was his first large-scale housing project and his first experiment in a multi-decade exploration of the structural expressiveness of reinforced concrete. The organization of the two apartment slabs as off-axis bookends to an open plaza on a 10-acre superblock reflected the burgeoning influence of European planning principles in postwar Manhattan.
The project was part of the profound transformation of the East Midtown neighborhood after World War II that resulted in the mass displacement of low-income residents. Located a few blocks south of the newly emerging United Nations complex, the area was dominated by loft buildings, garages, lumber yards, and old tenements. These included, on East 31st Street, the first Phipps Houses—tenements designed by Grosvenor Atterbury for the steel magnate Henry Phipps, who sought to improve low-income housing in early-twentieth-century New York. In 1950, a major expansion of New York University–Bellevue Hospital was completed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill adjacent to the future site of the Kips Bay Apartments. In addition, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill planned a housing scheme for hospital employees on the site of Kips Bay, which was gathered into a superblock through the elimination of 31st and 32nd streets between Second and First avenues. After funding for the project fell through, Robert Moses enticed the developer William Zeckendorf to take over the site. Using Title I funding from the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), which encouraged the replacement of low-income neighborhoods with private development, Zeckendorf rechristened the site the Kips Bay Plaza, with a focus on apartments for middle-income tenants.
Zeckendorf’s firm, Webb and Knapp, employed a young Pei as its in-house architect. For Pei, the project became an exercise in negotiating the FHA’s complex regulatory regime and economic constraints in order to wrestle them into an architectural form that would attract Zeckendorf’s desired clientele. Pei saw the project as a chance to reconceive the idea of federally subsidized housing in terms of planning and structure and material. In the first case, Pei introduced European planning concepts by reducing the built form to two slabs in order to maximize the amount of public green space at the center of the block and to maximize the views and daylight for the apartments. Pei’s planned series of low-rise buildings along First and Second avenues to provide commercial and other amenities to the tenants were only partially built. Eventually, a dormitory for New York University and a commercial complex were built along First and Second avenues, respectively, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, closing off the open block.
One clear model for the high-rise slab that Pei turned to was Mies van der Rohe’s Promontory Apartments in Chicago from 1949. That building presented itself as a slab on its street facade regulated by an expressed reinforced concrete frame, while hiding a more complex massing on its rear facade. Pei took this model further, reducing each apartment block to pure slabs by organizing studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments around a central corridor. By expressing the structural frame on the exterior of the building, he was able to reduce the number of structural columns on the interior to increase the square footage of the apartments.
In addition, Pei pioneered a method of poured-in-place concrete that he would continue to refine in later housing and apartment projects. Pei used a fiberglass-faced wooden formwork that produced a highly refined, smooth finish. While other American architects began to pursue a Brutalist aesthetic of roughly textured concrete in emulation of Le Corbusier, Pei’s smoothly polished concrete frame celebrated technical virtuosity in a manner that had more in common with Mies van der Rohe’s elegant handling of the steel frame and glass curtain wall. Yet the mass of the gridded concrete frame at Kips Bay, accentuated by the shadows created by the inset windows, gave the building a more monumental presence than New York’s glass curtain wall slabs like the nearby United Nations Headquarters building. Pei’s design was also a direct rebuke to the more typical brick-clad cruciform housing projects, like the nearby Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, which he had studied as a negative example in preparation for the design of the Kips Bay Plaza. For Pei, Kips Bay Plaza was the first in a series of housing towers controlled by expressed concrete frames, in which the aesthetics of the frame continued to be refined. Thus, the experiments at Kips Bay Plaza led directly to the design of both the Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia and New York University’s University Plaza.
For New York, the project became emblematic of the city’s postwar slum clearance policies under Robert Moses, which transformed low-income neighborhoods into middle-class havens for the enrichment of developers like Zeckendorf. In the early 1980s, the buildings were converted to condominiums and renamed Kips Bay Towers. Shortly afterwards, the condominium association closed the plaza to the public, a gesture that reflected the continuing transformation of the demographics of the neighborhood and the increasing exclusivity of the project. Today, due to the pressures of Manhattan’s real estate market, the apartments continue to cater to an ever more moneyed class of clients, drawn in part by marketing that highlights the prestige of their architect.
Jodidio, Philip, and Janet Adams Strong. I. M. Pei: Complete Works. New York: Rizzoli, 2008.
Stern, Robert A.M., David Fishman, and Thomas Mellins. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial. New York: Monacelli Press, 1995.
Von Boehm, Gero. Conversations with I.M. Pei: Light is the Key. New York: Prestel, 2000.
Wiseman, Carter. I. M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.