Jean Nouvel’s proposed tower next to the Museum of Modern Art in New York was one of the most promising buildings to rise in Manhattan in the next years. Now, New York’s City Planning Department knocked the building into shape due to doubts concerning its architectural excellence.

New York is having a tough ride. After a long time of architectural blandness, the excess of the years before the current credit crisis blessed the city with some fairly innovative and beautifully modern building proposals. When the crisis reached its peak though, many of these sketches were away for financial reasons. One example for this is Herzog and de Meuron’s Jenga-style glass tower. Others barely survived the credit crunch: Frank Gehry’s Beekman Tower is under construction — albeit modified for a smaller budget — and is turning into a massive building that will redefine the Lower Manhattan skyline.

And what cheer went through the architectural scene when Pritzer price winner Jean Nouvel revealed his plans for a 75-storey building at 53rd street, right next to the Museum of Modern art (which would actually use some of the buildings’ floors to expand its exhibition space). The tower slopes back dramatically as it soars into the sky, supported by a network of irregular steel beams, the glass facade flush with the steel. The building would have reached a height of 381 meters, teh height of the Empire State Building without its spire. The proposal had the power to become New York’s next architectural icon, on par (not just in size) with giants like the Empire State and the Chrysler Building. But this is obviously something that not everybody was happy with.

On Wednesday, September 9, New York’s City Planning Department rejected the proposal and demanded that the building be cut by 61 meters (200 feet). According to city planning commissioner Amanda Burden, the building (or its top) does not meet the aesthetic standards that would be necessary for a building that wants to compete with New York’s most famous landmarks.

This instantly reminded me of Hamburg’s mentality towards modern high-rise architecture. Somewhere in the 1960’s, after the first huge corporate office buildings had been built in the inner city (the Unilever building at Gänsemarkt had been a kind of guinea pig), the city administration came to the conclusion that no building in Hamburg should compete with the main churches that define the city’s skyline. This has become a rule that exists until today. With its decision to restrict the height for Nouvel’s tower, New York has arrived where Hamburg had been in the 1960’s. For New York nowadays, the Empire State and the Chrysler resemble Hamburg’s churches — fixed points on the skyline that may never be matched or exceeded by modern architecture. In this, New York, the classical city of skyscrapers and the city that embodies the constantly changing and growing urban environment, seems to finally put an end to its strive for architectural greatness in order to freeze its skyline in time, turning its buildings into artworks in an urban museum that shows how the city looked in its golden years, yet closes itself to new architectural influences.

What’s unusual in the Planning Departmernt’s decision is that they obviously didn’t even ask Nouvel to rework his proposal to better fit its location. They criticized the top of the building, but gave Nouvel no chance to fulfill their demands by reworking the spire. Instead presented Nouvel with a fait accompli. This might lead us to the conclusion that there might be forced trying to stop the building from being erected. It’s not clear whether the action was sparked by a kind of NIMBY initiative or other people. What seems clear though is that the design for the building will see some massive changes that might affect its overall stature. Since this is not your regular building, but one of the most promising current projects in Manhattan, the sad conclusion is that New York in the present time cringes from redefining itself, like it has done so often before.

Further reading: Off With Its Top! City Cuts Tower to Size — The New York Times, September 9, 2009