The plaza around the CBS Building in Manhattan has always seemed perverse. Eero Saarinen designed it to set off his only skyscraper, which he wanted to be as much one thing (“a proud and soaring thing,” to adopt Louis Sullivan’s terminology) as possible. Since Mies had already used a few steps up at the Seagram Building over on Park, Saarinen thought he would use a few steps down, one-upping Mies by creating a building that you could walk all the way around. (Read this period longform on the building, from Harpers; watch this unexciting film of how you walk in the door.)
But why go down? Going up is formal, exalting, particularly when flanked by fountains. Going down always reminds one of a basement. I think the plaza at CBS could have worked if Saarinen and client Frank Stanton’s original, and strikingly prescient idea to put a TV studio in the block-long frontage along Sixth had happened. Then the viewers of the 1960s equivalent of the Today Show could have used the plaza, and its steps, as an open-air amphitheater. Think how much better that would have been than clogging the sidewalks, as they do today.
But instead, they put in a bank. A traffic killer. And they have failed to hold on to said bank, since it is impossible to see anything but the brightest of lights in the five-foot spaces between Saarinen’s granite-clad columns. Walking by the CBS Building today, I realized I hadn’t seen the west side of the plaza in over a year. Now it has been revealed again, but CBS is treating it as badly as ever. Big trees in pots cluster in the corners. Construction and other debris pile up on the granite corners.
It has been 50 years since the design was unveiled. Surely someone out there knows how to make it work? Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation writes often, and well, about how we ignore the landscapes around our architectural icons (most themselves designed by landscape icons). I would never suggest a wholesale remodel of the plaza, warts and all. I just want someone to understand it.