I scouted a future photo shoot on a high floor of the Chase Manhattan Bank building (JPMorgan Chase), one of the first glass and steel buildings to go up in Lower Manhattan. The building, designed in large part by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings Merrill (SOM), was something of a knockoff of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building in Midtown. It even mimicked Mies’ decorative i-beams affixed to the curtain wall. At the time it was begun–1957–the downtown skyline was a pyramidal collection of thin, spired, towers. Chase Manhattan’s broad slab disturbed that harmonious composition.
I have to say, however, that Chase Manhattan today stands out as one of the most elegant of the International Style buildings. It is well maintained by JPMorgan Chase and it’s silvery skin looks almost new. The raised plaza remains well used by passersby, and people stop constantly beneath the Dubuffet sculpture or look down into the circular Noguchi garden. What fails so often in other projects works here. The juxtaposition of the various elements of sculpture, garden, plaza, and tower form an abstract, but coherent, grouping. Most of SOMs tower/plaza buildings, such as those along Sixth Avenue, stand alone with too much space around them, giving them a supremely aloof air. The banal exterior articulation of the buildings doesn’t help either. Chase Manhattan benefits from its tightly spaced setting, a modernist glass box ringed by deco and neo-gothic spires.
As I was leaving the building from a freight elevator on the lower level, I came across the original architect’s model of the building. It’s not in a location many are likely to see. I snapped a couple pictures, and was promptly chewed out by a guard. No pictures! But here it is above. A beautiful and important object of architectural history.