IAC building, Manhattan, designed by Frank Gehry (click to look around)

The interesting looking building in the exhibit above was designed for Manhattan internet company IAC by celebrated architect Frank Gehry and completed in 2007. Frank Gehry is of course the designer of the magnificent Guggenheim at Bilbao and the proposed new Dr Chau Chak Wing building at the University of Technology Sydney.

The IAC building reminds me in one critical sense of the Empire State building. Grand entrances with soaring atriums have been a standard component in large buildings for many decades, but despite their imposing proportions and glorious appearance, both the IAC and Empire State buildings have puny entrances.

In the case of the IAC building that’s symptomatic of a serious deficiency. This building simply doesn’t relate well to its context. It offers absolutely nothing to the street at ground level but a solid wall, albeit perhaps an unusual and interesting one. Had the building been “activated” at ground level by (say) cafes, restaurants and shops that opened generously onto the street, it could’ve contributed positively to creating a vibrant street life in this part of Manhattan.

Click this link to wander around the outside of the building courtesy of Google Map’s Street View. I can’t help thinking it looks like a self-storage facility at ground level, albeit a tasty-looking one. Perhaps IAC isn’t entirely comfortable in public with its line of business, which includes the likes of Match.com and OKCupid.

This could’ve been a really good building but the ground level doesn’t work. And not just in contextual terms – to my eyes it looks like Gehry’s team didn’t know how to relate those fascinating shapes and that skin to the ground. It’s like they ran out of inspiration when confronted with the reality of the pavement.

41 Cooper Square, Manhattan, by Morphosis architects (click to look around)

Here’s another recent building in Manhattan that also does a poor job of relating to its surroundings. It’s 41 Cooper Square, part of Cooper Union, a privately-funded college in the East Village. It was designed by NY architects Morphosis who say this new academic building:

aspires to manifest the character, culture and vibrancy of both the 150 year-old institution and of the city in which it was founded…… Responding to its urban context, the sculpted facade establishes a distinctive identity for Cooper Square. The building’s corner entry lifts up to draw people into the lobby in a deferential gesture towards the institution’s historic Foundation Building. The facade registers the iconic, curving profile of the central atrium as a glazed figure that appears to be carved out of the Third Avenue facade, connecting the creative and social heart of the building to the street.

Oh dear. You can have a closer look with Google Street View via this link. The building is summed up neatly by Fred Kent from People for Public Spaces: “The Morphosis building in Cooper Square is a disaster at ground level and casts an angry gesture to an historic district recognized the world over as an exciting and unique destination…The East Village”.

Aesthetics is a very subjective topic and you might like the look of this building, but to me it’s as heavy as lead. It doesn’t have the sophistication of Gehry’s effort – it’s all “mum, look at me!” Trouble is, little Johnny looks like a gorilla in a tutu.

There are occasions when an outstanding building that’s visually out of kilter with its surroundings can be justified – for example, Manhattan’s Frank Lloyd Wright designed Solomon R Guggenheim Museum – but this isn’t one of them. Even in a more appropriate setting, 41 Cooper Square would be a building of little consequence.

Victoria Gardens, Richmond, Melbourne (click to look around)

The failure of buildings to give something back at street level isn’t confined to Manhattan. Consider the new Victoria Gardens shopping centre at Richmond in inner city Melbourne. This is a big mall with the standard quota of atriums, movie theatres and chain retailers.

Yet have a look at it from the street using this link, once again courtesy of Google Street View. Although it’s in the inner city and on a tram line, there’s little sense of “activation” at street level. Most of the opposite side of Burnley St has been developed since the Google camera car took these pictures, but the new neighbours mostly look into car park. The entrances for cars are appropriately obvious, but like the ICA building, there’s not much sense of an entrance for anyone on foot.

There are doubtless many examples in Australian cities of buildings that spurn the street. There’s a little chain link symbol in Google Street View that, when pressed, gives the URL of the current view. If anyone has an example of excruciatingly poor urban design, please provide the link in Comments.