Design: And Now, the Tallest of the Tall

A high-flying architect-and-developer team aims for 150 stories

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The plan does have a certain breathtaking screwball grandeur, like some '30s movie written by Bertolt Brecht and directed by Preston Sturges. Donald Trump, the young multimillionaire real estate developer, owns 100 vacant acres of Hudson River waterfront just northwest of midtown Manhattan, a parcel that he characteristically calls "the greatest piece of urban land in America--the greatest piece of land in the world." One hundred acres! In one spot in Manhattan! At the center of that plot, the developer announced last week, he intends to put up the world's tallest building, an office and apartment tower shooting up 1,670 ft., or 216 ft. higher than the Sears Tower in Chicago. One-third of a mile high! Not only that, but between now and the end of the century Trump plans to build another six tall apartment houses on the site, more than 70 stories apiece, as well as a pair of mammoth office buildings, one meant for a television network. Wow!

Wait, there's more. All nine buildings will sit amid 40 acres of grass and trees, parkland to be hauled piece by piece into the city and up onto the roof of a six-story, 13-block-long building. Inside that vast, quasi-subterranean space will be 13 acres of TV studios, underground parking for thousands of cars, and an enormous shopping mall. The whole multibillion-dollar shebang, called Television City, must get approval from two separate city boards, a process that could take a year. If Trump is successful, his enclave will be the most ambitious urban project of its kind since Rockefeller Center went up half a century ago.

With its well-proportioned central plaza and carefully orchestrated densities, however, Rockefeller Center is a clear descendant of classic cities, coherent and comfortably urban. The proposed Television City is--what? Towers in a park, sui generis, chess pieces (six pawns, a king, a bishop, a rook) that have slid off the board. Although Architect Helmut Jahn has designed only the basic shapes, sizes and placement of his buildings, it seems clear from the plans and model that it would be an unfamiliar species of urban place, awesome and a little spooky. The ballfield-size spaces between the triplet building clusters and the central megatower look awkwardly large, making the radical change of scale even more unsettling.

From its spiffy name to its extravagant scope, nearly everything about Television City has an odd retro quality. The project seems inspired by a Believe It or Not sensibility, the equation of freakish size and glamour that plays well these days only in Las Vegas. Sure, sipping a martini at sunset 150 stories up would be swell--once or twice. But Trump, a man entranced by superlatives, seems not to realize that few people any longer share his obsession with building a still taller tallest skyscraper.

People who live near Trump's site worry about the prospect of shadows, of crowded subways and buses. Yet Television City does not really seem so disruptive. The site, a defunct rail yard, is empty land; urban renewal rendered most of the adjoining blocks charmless years ago. Moreover, 8,000 new apartments should channel some of the gentrifying development pressure away from fragile Manhattan neighborhoods. The rooftop acreage is ingenious: the park will be above the elevated highway that runs along the Hudson, allowing pedestrians unimpeded views and a sense of riverfront connection.

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