270 Park Avenue: Union Carbide Building

(2) Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters 270 Park Avenue Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1955, Built 1957-60 Gordon Bunshaft, Design Partner, Natalie de Blois, Senior Designer Built FAR: 16.82 proposed 21.6

Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters
270 Park Avenue
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1955, Built 1957-60
Gordon Bunshaft, Design Partner, Natalie de Blois, Senior Designer

Writing in 1988, the historian Carol Krinsky noted “Union Carbide and Bunshaft’s First City National Bank of Houston, Texas, do not conform to today’s postmodern fashion in skyscraper design, but for some time in the future when purity of form and rational design may enjoy a revival, it is instructive to examine the superior way in which a client’s program based on commercial expectations can be realized.” The time has come to preserve this “instructive, superior way”.

The Union Carbide Headquarters is one of the great post-WWII corporate office towers on Park Avenue: this work of Modern Architecture, along with other works by SOM, defines American Corporate Modernism, an architectural movement that still resonates world-wide. In 1955, Union Carbide hired Skidmore Owings and Merrill to formulate the building program, which included in addition to the space requirements of a corporate headquarters, the requirement to use as many Union Carbide products as possible. Gordon Bunshaft with Natalie de Blois took on the design of the building.

When the 34-story building opened in 1960, it was the tallest tower erected in the city since 1933. Bunshaft and de Blois (who also collaborated on the Pepsi Cola Headquarters) designed a 52-story tower on a plaza facing east on Park Avenue, with a 12-story annex connected to it by a one-story link open to pedestrians at street level. The land was owned by New York Central Railroad and leased to the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation.. The building is situated above the New York Central railroad tracks, which posed technical challenges since most of the building’s basement was not usable for mechanical equipment and there was no space for the high-speed, high-rise elevator pits. The solution was to establish the 25 feet high Piano Nobile as the main building lobby space: the floor is reached by escalators which assume an important formal role in the design of the ground floor as sculptural elements read against the backdrop of the elevator core (containing at that level the elevator pits). At street level, the combination of the classical and cool Piano Nobile floating on an open and transparent, but compressed, ground floor is serenely beautiful.

The building’s exterior wall consists of a web of vertical muntins proud of the curtain wall of clear glass, polished stainless steel mullions and stainless steel cladding in a dark finish that Union Carbide had recently developed. The architect also concerned themselves with the quality of the interior spaces where people worked; they developed a ceiling and partition system for the interior that integrated lighting, air supply and return as well as universal connections for partitions using other Union Carbide products.

In 1984 the architect Kevin Roche singles out ten buildings among the thirty major buildings attributed to Gordon Bunshaft and had this to say about Union Carbide: “Chase Manhattan and the Union Carbide Headquarters – which were high-rise buildings of grace and elegance, establishing standards of people accommodation and technological achievements which have rarely since been matched.”

The Union Carbide Headquarters is an important work of Modern Architecture by a firm recognized for its role in the creation and development of American Corporate Modernism, it is also the work of an important architect, Gordon Bunshaft, whose key role in the history of Modern Architecture and the development of American Corporate Modernism is unquestioned. It is also emblematic of the post WWII period of office development around Grand Central Terminal that gave Park Avenue such a strong sense of place and, still, a strong sense of that important moment.

References:

SOM – Architecture of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, 1950-1962 (New York City: Frederick Praeger Publishers, 1963).

Krinsky, Carol Herselle, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (Cambridge, MA: MIT PRESS, 1988).

NB 106 of 1956.
Union Carbide Corporation Headquarters
270 Park Avenue
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1955, Built 1957-60
Gordon Bunshaft, Design Partner, Natalie de Blois, Senior Designer

Writing in 1988, the historian Carol Krinsky noted “Union Carbide and Bunshaft’s First City National Bank of Houston, Texas, do not conform to today’s postmodern fashion in skyscraper design, but for some time in the future when purity of form and rational design may enjoy a revival, it is instructive to examine the superior way in which a client’s program based on commercial expectations can be realized.” The time has come to preserve this “instructive, superior way”.

The Union Carbide Headquarters is one of the great post-WWII corporate office towers on Park Avenue: this work of Modern Architecture, along with other works by SOM, defines American Corporate Modernism, an architectural movement that still resonates world-wide. In 1955, Union Carbide hired Skidmore Owings and Merrill to formulate the building program, which included in addition to the space requirements of a corporate headquarters, the requirement to use as many Union Carbide products as possible. Gordon Bunshaft with Natalie de Blois took on the design of the building.

When the 34-story building opened in 1960, it was the tallest tower erected in the city since 1933. Bunshaft and de Blois (who also collaborated on the Pepsi Cola Headquarters) designed a 52-story tower on a plaza facing east on Park Avenue, with a 12-story annex connected to it by a one-story link open to pedestrians at street level. The land was owned by New York Central Railroad and leased to the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation.. The building is situated above the New York Central railroad tracks, which posed technical challenges since most of the building’s basement was not usable for mechanical equipment and there was no space for the high-speed, high-rise elevator pits. The solution was to establish the 25 feet high Piano Nobile as the main building lobby space: the floor is reached by escalators which assume an important formal role in the design of the ground floor as sculptural elements read against the backdrop of the elevator core (containing at that level the elevator pits). At street level, the combination of the classical and cool Piano Nobile floating on an open and transparent, but compressed, ground floor is serenely beautiful.

The building’s exterior wall consists of a web of vertical muntins proud of the curtain wall of clear glass, polished stainless steel mullions and stainless steel cladding in a dark finish that Union Carbide had recently developed. The architect also concerned themselves with the quality of the interior spaces where people worked; they developed a ceiling and partition system for the interior that integrated lighting, air supply and return as well as universal connections for partitions using other Union Carbide products.

In 1984 the architect Kevin Roche singles out ten buildings among the thirty major buildings attributed to Gordon Bunshaft and had this to say about Union Carbide: “Chase Manhattan and the Union Carbide Headquarters – which were high-rise buildings of grace and elegance, establishing standards of people accommodation and technological achievements which have rarely since been matched.”

The Union Carbide Headquarters is an important work of Modern Architecture by a firm recognized for its role in the creation and development of American Corporate Modernism, it is also the work of an important architect, Gordon Bunshaft, whose key role in the history of Modern Architecture and the development of American Corporate Modernism is unquestioned. It is also emblematic of the post WWII period of office development around Grand Central Terminal that gave Park Avenue such a strong sense of place and, still, a strong sense of that important moment.

References:

SOM – Architecture of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, 1950-1962 (New York City: Frederick Praeger Publishers, 1963).

Krinsky, Carol Herselle, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (Cambridge, MA: MIT PRESS, 1988).

NB 106 of 1956.

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