In New York’s Manhattan, one of Fifth Avenue’s few truly Ludwig Mies van der Rohe inspired designs and the first mixed-use building to be erected on Fifth Avenue, 645 Fifth Avenue, widely known as Olympic Tower, was constructed as a joint venture of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and Arlen Realty & Development. Completed in 1976 to plans by Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill, the 52-story structure is an elegant addition to the long list of Miesian designs and has 226 condominium apartments on its top 29 floors, more than 250,000 square feet of office space on floors 2 through 21, retail space and a through-block public arcade.
Highly popular with the jet-set of its time, its dark bronze glass façade provides a dazzling contrast to the recently restored limestone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the south…as well as, one suspects, inspiration for the later design of Trump Tower several blocks to the north.The building seems to successfully comply with the works of the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe whose pioneering work in modern architecture and take on the modernist international style exemplified the Fifth Avenue’s skyscraper. Developed in 1920’s the International Style specially known for its clean lines and flat surfaces, the lack of decorative features or bright colour and use of mass-produced, lightweight industrial materials like steel and glass was the first in essence original architectural style since the Gothic and became the dominant style up worldwide until the 1970’s. Mies’ nearby Seagram Building completed in 1958 displaying its glass and metal, and foregoing the heavy stone and brick used in ornamental facades of previous decades, set a standard for the simple, modern bronze and dark glass skyscraper and its structure and minimalistic geometries.Seagram Building made the grand gesture of setting back the building 30 meters from the street edge, which created a highly active urban and open plaza that creates a gracious pedestrian space with its two large fountains surrounded by generous outdoor seating.
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Where Mies distanced himself from New York urban morphology, lot line development, and the conventional economics of skyscraper construction, the Olympic Tower failed to do so by providing no sidewalk landscape whatsoever. This results in a reasonably busy area when considerable traffic is present and a lack of procession to the entry of the building that would cleverly provide the threshold that linked the city with the skyscraper. However, Olympic Tower was innovative in two respects. First it was the city’s first major mixed-use tower in midtown when it was built, combining apartments, commercial space, retail stores and a public shopping arcade which has a large, skylit, south-facing, multi-tiered waterfall, 9-meter high ceiling and a café. Moreover, it provides many of the facilities and services one expects of a hotel, such as a restaurant, a barber shop, a hairdressing salon and an international newsstand. Secondly, it had an unusual structure that consisted of a 30-story cast-in-place reinforced-concrete frame apartment building over a 21-story steel-framed office building.
The whole facade is clad in brown-tinted glass which gives the 189 meters tall building a solid, almost black, and highly reflective surface, providing both a contrasting backdrop for views of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral from the south as well as reflections of it.The plan of a typical corner suite is shown left. The 226 apartments that are in the top 29 floors feel overwhelming in number and the lack of balconies add up to the feeling of confinement. The apartments were however designed with 2.7-meter high ceilings, which was slightly higher than the norm at the time of its construction, and floor-to-ceiling windows providing `and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When it comes to the planning the apartments are basically conventional.
A two-bedroom apartment has a large entrance foyer that leads into an 80-meter long living room and the bedrooms on the lower level that all provide views of the Manhattan skyline. The enclosed kitchen and the bathrooms are located at the ‘blind’ sides of the apartment. In conclusion, the building incorporates some clever design touches, such as its innovative construction system, its first to be seen mix usage and its location within New York’s Manhattan that provides a glittering and interesting contrast to St. Patrick’s Cathedral but some poor ones as well.
Overall, it is a rather generic addition to the list of buildings built according to the International Style. By the time of its construction the architectural style in question was already in the twilight of its life. Olympic Tower’s architecture was nothing sort of oppressively banal to this point offering no original approach to it and was nowhere near innovative as Seagram Building was when it was built in 1958. It is a fair attempt but not an interesting one.