Whatever his other flaws as a human being, Jared Kushner is surely afflicted with Skyscraper Envy.
Like his father-in-law the president, Kushner wants his own tower—as big as it can possibly be.
The story of that tower, 666 Fifth Ave., hangs over the fate of the Kushner real estate empire like a curse. It is also part of a great and continuing American saga of how the modern skyline of cities is shaped by a handful of men of genius and others who, in contrast, just see the skyscraper as a way to fill the sky with a money machine.
In the early 1950s Midtown Manhattan seemed ripe for a new boom in high-rise real estate, picking up again from the decade before World War II when three iconic architectural achievements had given New York the most dynamic urban skyline in the world: in 1930 the Chrysler Building with its spiked tip looking like a Buck Rogers rocket; in 1931, the world’s tallest building, the Empire State Building; and the massive Rockefeller Center between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, a multi-tower complex completed in 1939.
Rockefeller Center had, thanks to the largesse of the Rockefeller family, been built to lift American spirits as a counter-punch to the ravages of the Great Depression. Now, after the war, with many European cities in ruins, many of the architects who bore in their minds a dream of what the metropolis of the future should look like, were drawn to America.
None was more visionary or more regarded as a founding hand in shaping the city of the future—or, as it was often described, the city of the Machine Age—than Mies van der Rohe.
Mies (as he was always known) was one of a cadre of architects who fled Nazi Germany when their progressive ideas nurtured at the legendary Bauhaus design school were, like all modern art, dismissed as decadent.
When he came to America Mies went not to New York but to the city where Louis Sullivan gave birth to the skyscraper in the 1890s, the city regarded as the most creatively sympathetic host to modernism in the world: Chicago. In his first buildings there, two 26-story apartment towers, Mies instantly became to modern architecture what Steve Jobs became later to the cellphone: He stripped the form down to the pure essentials of function and, in doing so, created a singular, austere beauty.
The technique he used, in which the glass is hung on a steel frame, known as a curtain wall, had been used in the late 1940s by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer for the United Nations building on New York’s East River, but Mies had suggested it much earlier in sketches made at the Bauhuas and in Chicago he refined it with a finesse that was mimicked in many future towers, but rarely as well.
However, it was in New York where Mies would produce his masterwork. The Canadian Bronfman family, owners of the Seagram distillers corporation, chose a site on Park Avenue between 52nd Street and 53rd streets for a new headquarters and Mies, working directly with Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of the Seagram CEO, Samuel Bronfman, produced what was, at $41 million, the world’s most expensive skyscraper at the time, the 38-story Seagram Building.
When I first saw it, soon after its completion, I was gobsmacked. A cold winter light invested the bronze exterior with a kind of warm inner glow. There were far fewer towers in Midtown Manhattan then and the Seagram Building, seeming modest in height now, stood out with its perfect scale, like a celebratory stele staking out its ground to prove the peculiar beauty of steel and glass in a way that had not been achieved before.
At the same time, virtually across the street on Park Avenue, between 53rd and 54th streets, a Buffalo-born American architect, Gordon Bunshaft, a fan of the Bauhaus, had seized the chance to build his own version of the same austere modernism, again with an enlightened sponsor, the president of the British-based soap empire, Lever Brothers. Lever House combined a 21-story curtain-walled tower (the glass was green-tinted) with a single story block-long base that enclosed a piazza. Like the Seagram Building, it was an instant classic of modernism.
Mies and Bunshaft had both done something that was anathema to developers who wanted to squeeze every dollar out of a site. Their towers took up less than half the air space that could have been used according to the zoning laws—in order to create impeccably proportioned skyscrapers that were set back from the street line and, at the same time, airy public spaces at street level (the Seagram Building’s plaza and fountains appear in the movie that, more than any other, romances Midtown Manhattan of the period, Breakfast at Tiffanys.)
This was not the case a few blocks west where two journeymen architects, Robert Carson and Earl Lundin had been commissioned by the Tishman Realty company to build a tower at 666 Fifth Ave. This time there was no single and enlightened corporate patron with ideas about sacrificing air space to create a landmark—666 Fifth, completed in 1957, was designed from the start as a money-making machine for office space, a bulky tower rising from a wider base totaling 41 stories.
To give their building a distinguishing feature Carson and Lundin did what architects frequently do to this day when dressing a mediocre work—they jazzed up the exterior, in this case with aluminum panels. There was none of the deft lightness that Mies and Bunshaft brought to the vocabulary of skyscrapers with a curtain wall. The only singular features were the large 666 numerals at the top of the tower and a penthouse restaurant called Top of the Sixes. The restaurant was operated by Stouffer’s, better known for a line of frozen TV dinners.
Twenty years ago the restaurant was replaced with a private club, the Grand Havana Room designed as refuge for the likes of Jordan Belfort, self-styled Wolf of Wall Street, who recalled in his memoir that “it was where Masters of the Universe could get blitzed on martinis and exchange war stories.” There were 500 humidors for the cigars, a screening room, and game rooms.
By then the building had Japanese owners, Sumitomo, who had bought it from Tishman for $500 million. They struggled to make it work but in 1998 dumped it for only $518 million, a sum that came nowhere near covering what they had spent on upgrades, to Tishman Speyer, an offshoot of the original developers.
Here the dealing becomes truly extraordinary. In reality, 666 was a trap waiting for a gullible buyer. It was as though the hubris of the Wall Street predators puffing away at their cigars in the penthouse had been successfully grafted to the aura of the whole building, although as a piece of Midtown real estate it remained the dog that Sumitomo had unloaded, the expense of maintaining it exceeding what could be earned in rents.
At the beginning of 2007 the stock market, bloated with funny money, was inflating the value of everything and it was at that moment, on Jared Kushner’s birthday, Jan. 10, that the Kushner companies paid Tishman Speyer $1.8 billion for 666 Fifth Ave.—almost twice as much, per square foot, as anyone had ever paid for a building in Manhattan. Within a few months the world’s economies crashed, due largely to those Masters of the Universe partying inside 666.
Most of that payment was borrowed money, and that single deal accounts for the ominous $1.4 billion in debt that comes due for repayment by the Kushners next year.
The only way that 666 Fifth could be made viable would be to take advantage of the air above it. Zoning would allow another 40 floors to be added, but in order to do that the 1950s building would have to be literally stripped away entirely from its steel core.
And that is exactly what Jared Kushner decided to do—to basically create a new super skyscraper combining luxury condos with a hotel, needing $2.5 billion to launch the project and another $4.1 billion as a construction loan. It was the ultimate example of Skyscraper Envy, a great soaring glass and steel sheathed phallus surpassing anything around it.
To create the new 666 the Kushners turned to an architectural practice founded by the only woman among the group now called the world’s starchitects, Zaha Hadid, based in London. Hadid died suddenly early in 2016, at the age of 65, from a heart attack while on a trip to Miami.
It’s hard to reconcile Hadid with a project as plainly vulgar as 666 Fifth Ave. She came to international success relatively late in her life. In her way she was as innovative and distinctive as Mies. He was basically a technocrat with a utopian view of how the Machine Age metropolis should look and function. Hadid’s work is of a different age where another technology, three-dimensional computer graphics, enables the design of buildings to have a far greater fluidity of line. She never showed any enthusiasm for commercial trophy towers.
Her Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati (2003) was hailed by Herbert Muschamp, architectural critic of The New York Times, as “the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War.” Her London Aquatics Centre, built for the 2012 London Olympics, is a brilliant, swooping and voluptuous metaphor for the sport that it enables.
It may be that Hadid’s heirs at her practice think it worth taking the Kushner commission to get such a prominent site in Midtown Manhattan. Their renderings of the building (it only exists as renderings) are too superficial to enable any judgment of quality. In any event they, like the Kushners, are likely to become the latest victims of the curse of 666.
Given the stench surrounding Jared Kushner’s role in the White House and his company’s burden of debt it’s now unlikely that anyone will bankroll the planned resurrection on Fifth Avenue.
According to a report by NBC News, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators are looking at multiple efforts made by Kushner to obtain financing for the project from the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, but they were rejected. Later Qatar’s neighbors in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, began a blockade against Qatar, alleging that the state was a supporter of terrorism. As a Trump adviser on Middle East policy, Kushner, with close ties to Saudi Arabia, was a party to launching this blockade. This and other attempts to get financing for 666 Fifth from Russia, China, and Turkey have drawn the investigators to scrutinize what seem to be Kushner’s serious conflicts of interest.
In the meantime Midtown Manhattan seems due for another architectural renaissance on Park Avenue, not far from those two 1950s landmark buildings, thanks to one of those Masters of the Universe.
Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, is building himself an epic memorial in the form of a new corporate skyscraper on Park Avenue between 47th and 48th streets. Under new zoning laws Chase will be allowed to buy a staggering one million square feet of air rights. The 70-story tower will be 500 feet higher than the bank’s existing headquarters.
No architect or design has yet been revealed, but there is no doubt who will be the next champion of Skyscraper Envy.