A Dance in the Sky

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2017

Led by famed architect William Pedersen, U alumni are leading a multibillion dollar project that is transforming the New York City skyline

By Alexander Gelfand

A grizzled construction worker slams shut the sliding door of a temporary elevator on the north side of 55 Hudson Yards: nine stories of scaffolding and steel-reinforced concrete on the Far West Side of Manhattan that in six months’ time will have been transformed into a 52-story luxury office tower.

“It’s one of the only buildings in New York that fronts on to a park,” says Lane Rapson (B.S. ’07, M.Arch. ’11) as he peers down at the leafy Hudson Yards Park taking shape below. Like his fellow passenger Gregory Mell (B.S. ’02, M.Arch. ’05), Rapson is an associate principal in the architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), which designed 55 Hudson Yards and is supervising its construction. (He is also the grandson of Ralph Rapson, who was dean of the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture when KPF cofounder William Pedersen [B.Arch. ’61] was a student.)

As impressive as the nascent building and park may be, they’re but a small part of something far bigger: The Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project, a $20 billion venture encompassing a projected 25 million square feet of office space, 5 million square feet of retail and hotel space, and 20,000 residential units in a 45-block area that runs from 8th Avenue to the Hudson River and from West 30th to 42nd Streets. It is said to be the largest private real estate development in U.S. history, and the grandest that New York City has seen since Rockefeller Center was built in the 1930s.

Both claims are true, although the private part requires some qualification. Mark Spector (M.P.P. ’04), past president of the Hudson Yards Development Corporation, the city entity charged with encouraging private development in the once desolate stretch of parking lots and low-rise buildings, explains that the city not only managed the rezoning process that made the project possible. It also issued $3 billion in bonds to cover the extension of the No. 7 subway line, whose new 34th Street-Hudson Yards station lies directly below 55 Hudson Yards, and the creation of Hudson Yards Park & Boulevard, which will inject 4 acres of tree-lined open space into what has for decades been an industrial wasteland.

55 Hudson Yards stands at the epicenter of this eruption of glass, steel, and greenery. Gazing south from the seventh floor, Rapson and Mell—both of whom worked with Pedersen on the University of Minnesota’s state-of-the-art science teaching and student services building, Robert H. Bruininks Hall—are greeted by a thicket of cranes and an assortment of structures in various stages of completion. Directly below lies the vast platform that KPF designed to cover the West Side rail yards—a platform upon which many of those structures rest, like a house of cards built atop the inverted saucer of an enormous teacup.

On the other side of the platform rises the gleaming spire of 10 Hudson Yards, the first building in the project to have been more or less completed. (The lobby is a marvel of limestone, marble, and cast aluminum, but crews were still working on the interiors of several floors when Mell and Rapson visited the site later in the day.) Designed by Pedersen and coaxed to completion by Mell, the 895-foot-high office tower slopes gently away from the Hudson River to the west as if bowing toward Midtown in the east. When complete, its counterpart to the north, 30 Hudson Yards, will slope in the opposite direction, the two performing together what Pedersen calls a “dance in the sky.”

It is not easy to build skyscrapers that resemble modern sculpture atop a working rail yard (train service had to be suspended as massive supporting columns were sunk between the tracks), or to secure approval from all the different bodies—the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Long Island Railroad, Amtrak—whose assent this requires. Like the great mosque that surrounds the Kaaba in Mecca, 55 Hudson Yards encloses an existing six-story building owned by the MTA. The southern façade of 10 Hudson Yards, meanwhile, cantilevers over a 60-foot-long section of the High Line, the public park that was conjured from an elevated rail line that winds its way through lower Manhattan.

Often, muses Rapson—whose role at 55 Hudson Yards, like Mell’s at 10, ranges from inspecting mock-ups of windows and walls to wrangling permissions from large bureaucratic organizations—the complexity involved in large-scale architectural projects is self-inflicted. “In this case,” he says, “it’s not.”

Managing that complexity has required a team befitting the sheer magnitude of the project. At any given time over the years, 55 architects, engineers, designers, and consultants have been involved, a striking proportion of whom are alumni of the University of Minnesota. In addition to Pedersen, Mell, Rapson, and Spector, these include Michael Squarzini (M.S. ’93) of Thorton Tomasetti, an engineering firm that has provided structural and façade consulting for 10 Hudson Yards; Mike McElderry (B.Arch. ’04, M.Arch. ’07), who recently left KPF for Diller Scofidio + Renfro, another prominent architectural firm involved in the Hudson Yards project; and Steve Wang (M.Arch. ’07), who served on KPF’s 30 Hudson Yards team before moving to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which also has a finger in the Hudson Yards pie.

The hard work, however, is paying off. 10 Hudson Yards has signed such major tenants as Coach, L’Oréal, and software company SAP; Time Warner has announced that it will move to 30 Hudson Yards from the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle; and the seven-story mall linking the two towers will host the first Neiman Marcus department store in New York City, along with restaurants run by celebrity chefs Thomas Keller and José Andrés.

For New York City, says Spector, Hudson Yards represents an opportunity to drive economic development and job growth in an underutilized part of Manhattan. For Bill Pedersen, however, it represents something more personal.

“This is the last work in my career,” Pedersen says from his office on 42nd Street, just two stops on the No. 7 from Hudson Yards. “It’s sort of like the final exam, in a way.”

That career spans half a century, and includes such iconic buildings as 333 West Wacker, in Chicago, whose curved surface reflects the Chicago River; and the Westend Tower, in Frankfurt, whose ringed top pays homage to the Frankfurt Cathedral, where generations of Holy Roman Emperors were once crowned.

The central theme of his skyscraper work, Pedersen explains, has been to make these enormous buildings “gesture towards their contexts,” or respond to their environments. Sketching nonstop on a pad as he speaks—“I can’t talk any other way,” he says—Pedersen illustrates how he designed both 10 and 30 Hudson Yards to do precisely that.

The way in which the paired towers genuflect toward the river and city; the manner in which 10 Hudson Yards embraces the High Line; and the way in which it steps down, through a series of setbacks, toward the smaller arts center that that will stand just to the west of it, all allow buildings that might otherwise seem lofty and intimidating to engage in a dialogue with their surroundings and one another.

Considering the many other commercial and residential buildings that are slated to populate the redevelopment zone—not to mention the six-acre plaza that will sit at the heart of it, offering a public gathering place to rival Columbus Circle and Lincoln Square—it’s easy to imagine that the project as a whole could, as Pedersen says, “transform New York City.”

Judging by the view from his sketchpad, it already has.

View the schematics for Hudson Yard's Public Square here.

MINNESOTA ALUMNI MAGAZINE, Spring2017

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