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NYTimes: A Glass House 2007

Renzo Piano

With the turn of the millennium, The New York Times was looking to build a new home for itself. The Times hadn’t built a tower since 1904, so Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., publisher and chairman, gave thought to the architectural message the Times wanted to send. Reportedly, it wanted to convey the journalistic values and democratic ideas of openness, integrity and transparency. Figuratively speaking.

Renzo Piano, the noted Italian architect and winner of the Pritzker Prize who was commissioned to design the New Times Tower, espoused the same values. But when it came to transparency, his expression was literal. The New Times Tower, at 620 Eighth Avenue, is enclosed in 748 feet (52 stories) of untinted, ultraclear, low-iron glass, wrapped in semi-see-through, heat-and-glare-deflecting ceramic white rods that run horizontally in front of the windows. The first building not built around the paper’s printing presses, it houses the business and executive staff.

Adjacent to the glass structure is Piano’s most notable design feature: the Podium, which houses the editorial staff. This separate, four-story glass wing looks out onto a courtyard of moss and birch trees. And the courtyard looks right back in.

The plan for each floor of the Podium, five or six times larger than that of a typical office building, seats the entire news operation on just three levels. Glass-enclosed, multilevel interconnecting stairways, running along the facade, can be seen inside and outside the building. Executive offices and conference rooms are glass faced. On the third floor, the news desk, is centered below a two-story interior atrium with a skylight.

Critics say this workspace is more sophisticated than any the Times has ever built. But perhaps a little sophistication goes a long way: One member of the editorial board, who traded an enclosed office at the Annex for a fishbowl at the Tower, complained, “There’s no place I can change into a tuxedo.” One editor struck a blow for privacy. He placed a frosted pane inside his glass-walled office.

Here’s the thing about being transparent: people can see through you. Failures of transparency related to the New Times Tower were apparent even before the groundbreaking. For the tower to be built at all, it was necessary for the state-controlled Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to impose eminent domain. Under the terms of a 2001 deal with the city and the state, it took property from owners who did not wish to sell. In a true irony, in order to take the property the ESDC had to prove that the area was blighted. The New York Times, itself, said in a 1997 article related to Reuter’s subsidies for its Times Square building, “blighted is not a word anyone would use to describe Times Square today.”

So as The New York Times operates out of its elegant glass house, it’s up to its readers to read between the lines—and peer between the rods—to find any criticism of sweetheart real estate deals or corporate favoritism in the city of New York.

– Carol Cofone