In the middle of the concrete jungle that is Manhattan lives a free-standing, 490-foot tower, nestled between West 52nd and 53rd street in Midtown. The CBS building, whose construction began in 1961 and was completed in 1965, was built as the television and radio network’s headquarters. Although it was the only skyscraper built by the Finnish-American starchitect and furniture designer Eero Saarinen, it epitomized his style which, along with being client-centric, an incorporated drama that elevated it above its architectural competitors in the New York City skyline. Saarinen’s goal was to build ‘the simplest skyscraper in New York City’. In 1997, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing and designated the building as a Landmark site.
Stepping away from the International Style of modernism reigning in the 1950s, Saarinen designed the 38 storeyed rectangular building made of reinforced concrete covered in charcoal-colored granite facade. This building came to be the first post-war concrete skyscraper of Manhattan. In keeping with his design philosophy that laid emphasis on pluralism of styles and adaptation in accordance with each client and project, the building was very different from the other structures neighboring it that used a transparent glass curtain wall, like the Seagram building by the American-German architect Mies van der Rohe and the Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust by architecture, urban planning, and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Saarinen’s design for the tower was influenced by how the American architect and ‘father of skyscrapers and modernism’ Louis Sullivan saw skyscrapers. Saarinen strove to create architectural forms that were rich in drama and character. He initiated a trend toward design exploration and experimentation. He wanted the focus to be on the verticality of the building and for the viewer’s eyes to be led upward to fathom a building as a strong and austere mass. The verticality was emphasized by using triangular or V-shaped concrete piers covered in Canadian black granite that went from the ground to the terrace. The piers were lined between grey-tinted windows framed in aluminum in an otherwise inornate exterior. The piers are load-bearing structures but are thoughtfully hollowed to provide ducts for the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. The building earned its name – ‘Black Rock” after the sable color of the facade. He placed the entrances on the West 52nd and West 53rd streets instead of placing it on Sixth Avenue, which created the effect of an entirely pure granite monolith slab on Sixth Avenue. The simple design also acts as an architectural illusion where the facade seems to change its appearance as you go around it. This Trompe l’oeil gave life to the otherwise somber facade.
The CBS building has approximately 872,000 rentable square feet of space and has a rectangular footprint that stands in a sunken plaza with a granite retaining wall. The plaza was meant to make the building more visible as Saarinen believed that his buildings needed to be seen as they are important moments of time. The design of the facade influences the planning of the structure. The placement of the piers and the windows were at 5-foot widths, and this five by five module became a base to standardize office layouts.
The interiors featured open-plan offices, reception areas, and executive offices designed and furnished by American architect, furniture designer, interior designer, and entrepreneur Florence Knoll in keeping with her modernist design style that focussed on clean lines and clear geometries. The CBS building gave rise to a departure from the prevalent International Style replete with uniformity and austerity and some of its critics disapproved of this step away from the principles of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye or the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe. It was baffling that the building elements did not express their function, which was a concept popularized by the International Style. His design philosophy reflects his thought process that architecture should be expressive and each building should be as distinctive and characteristic as each person should instead of having to produce cookie-cutter architecture.
The building stood apart from its neighbors in Manhattan because it broke away from the existing architectural systems, aesthetics, and design elements. When completed, the CBS building was a smaller project as compared to its architectural competitor, the GE building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, formerly called the RCA building, but made a powerful architectural statement due to its bulk and near brutalist design. Soon after the start of construction, Saarinen suddenly died in 1961. The building was then constructed under the supervision of an Irish-American architect specializing in governmental, corporate, and educational buildings Kevin Roche along with his partner John Dinkeloo, who went on to complete many of Saarinen’s incomplete projects. Saarinen’s legacy remains in the tower with its importance lying in its elements, systems, its severe nature, and the innovative thought process that went behind it fulfilling his need to bring a significant and identifying character to public buildings.