Silver Towers and 505 LaGuardia Place
University Plaza is a set of three 30-story residential towers designed by I.M. Pei and Associates (now Pei, Cobb and Freed Associates) arranged around a central open plaza on a 5-acre site in Lower Manhattan. The complex’s expressive use of an exposed concrete frame, sometimes described as Brutalist, and demonstration of modernist urban planning principles makes it a hallmark of 1960s urban residential architecture. Upon completion, the 275-foot-tall towers soared over their neighbors in the relatively low-rise Greenwich Village, ensuring they became a focal point for debates about modernist architecture and planning in New York City.
The project emerged out of the remains of Robert Moses’s Washington Square South project, a massive slum clearance and redevelopment scheme from the 1950s that had faced community opposition and protracted court challenges. Moses had already cleared the site of its former tenements and loft buildings by the time New York University purchased the plot of land in 1963 as a site for faculty and graduate student housing. The recently passed Mitchell-Lama Program (created by the Limited Profit Housing Act of 1955) required New York University to reserve a third of the units as affordable housing for middle-income residents. I. M. Pei and James Ingo Freed, the two partners primarily responsible for the design, responded to this brief by dividing the 534 housing units into three towers, with one tower completely reserved for cooperative middle-income housing. In consolidating the apartments into three towers, Pei and Freed hoped to decrease the density of the site, following modernist planners’ belief in the salutary benefits of fresh air and light. They pivoted the towers in a perpendicular, off-axis arrangement around a square grass plaza placed at the center of the block. A corner of the lot was reserved for commercial space not designed by the architects.
Pei and Freed extended the asymmetrical organization of the site plan to the buildings themselves, which play with shifting facades of grids and solids around a central service core. The architects break the solid mass of the vertical tower by visually implying that each facade is an independent unit of a concrete grid set between sheer solid walls. On the building’s long facade, an eight-bay concrete grid adjoins a setback solid wall, separated from the grid by a narrow 3-foot-3-inch gap of glass. On the shorter side, the grid is reduced to four bays. The resulting subtle pinwheel shape and play of solid and void on the exterior is generated by the apartment plans on each floor. L-shaped, two- and three-bedroom apartments on each corner of the building interlock around the central elevator banks and corridor. Pragmatically, the L-shape creates a clear distinction between the private one-bay bedrooms and the larger two-bay living space in each apartment. Between the solid concrete wall of the living rooms and the grid of bedroom windows, the architects open a 3-foot-3-inch gap, allowing natural light to flow through the living space into the kitchen set deeper into the core of the building. On the longer facade, a one-bedroom apartment is inserted between the corner two- and three-bedroom apartments. In elevation, the central service core’s solid concrete mass extends above the roofline of the building.
The building shows an evolution in Pei’s development of the concrete frame for his apartment towers, when compared to the earlier Kips Bay Plaza and Society Hill projects, which presented themselves as a simpler grid with inset windows. At the University Towers, Pei was concerned with clearly articulating the joints of each concrete element. The facade’s grid of windows is created by linking T- and L-shaped concrete frames that are joined above the center of the window. The joint’s vertical line is picked up by the vertical line of the window mullion. The vertical support of the frame is articulated as a wedge that widens where it joins the window, while the horizontal lintel remains flat. When combined with a concrete fin set at an angle to highlight the functional distinction between the window and air conditioning unit, the result is a subtle but rich play of shadow and angled surfaces. This grid is offset on each facade by the recessed, 22-foot-wide concrete wall that runs from ground to roof. This use of a sheer, thin wall would become a hallmark of Pei’s buildings, reappearing most famously in his project for the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Nevertheless, Pei creates a contradictory visual experience by contrasting the thin, monolithic appearance of the wall from afar with a scored grid on its surface seen from up-close. This grid breaks the wall to a more human scale, shows the individual panels out of which the wall is made, and uses alternating patterns of rebar to enliven its surface.
Pei has cited Cubism as an influence on the complex layering of concrete planes and the subtle shift of line and angle in his early buildings. Here this Cubist influence is made explicit through the introduction of public sculpture. The central plaza is anchored by Bust of Sylvette, a 60-ton reinforced concrete sculpture designed by Pablo Picasso and fabricated by Carl Nesjar in 1968. The layering of perspectives scored onto the folded concrete surface are enhanced by the play of shadows on its surface. This play of surface, edge, plane, and shadow are then echoed in the towers that pivot around the sculpture.
As the last of Pei’s concrete frame housing projects, University Towers shows the most subtle handling of the material, which he would continue to refine in a number of later projects in the 1960s, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York. While the project was seen as a radical departure from the scale and character of Greenwich Village when completed, the towers have since become accepted as a part of the historical fabric, receiving landmark status from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2008. Today, they still serve their original function and remain owned by New York University.
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.
“University Plaza, New York University.” Pei Cobb Freed and Partners. Accessed May 6, 2021. https://www.pcf-p.com/.
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, 2001.
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