9 West 57th Street NY, USA
by Chermayeff & Geismar
‘The Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street is a major office building in midtown Manhattan, rising above the surrounding buildings just south of Central Park with a striking ski-slope facade. In 1979, developer Sheldon H. Solow asked by Chermayeff & Geismar Inc. to design the identity for his distinguished building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidrnore, Owings & Merrill.
He was expecting a street number for the facade with a trademark, perhaps and a primary-color palette, the is the sort of visual identity other major buildings have. What we came up with turned an identity into public art. In lieu of a number for the facade, we designed a massive, nine-foot-high, sculptural numeral 9 to be placed on the sidewalk, right in the flow of pedestrian traffic.
How do you introduce a client to an idea that so completely exceeds your mandate? That required another bold move.We prepared an unconventional presentation for our proposal. At the time Solow had an office in the Seagram Building with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, and it became clear that our small model would be seen against the city outside. For scale and contrast, it also seemed like a good idea to present the idea to Mr. Solow on a rainy day. The rain made the streetscape in the window appear gray, a backdrop against which the red number 9 seemed all the more vibrant and eye-catching. To arrange this required patience (and the compliance of his secretary) as we waited for the rain.
We set up a small street scene on his wide windowsill, with photo cutouts from old magazines of people with umbrellas in the rain to go with the raindrops outside and on the Seagram’s windows. All this was waiting for Mr. Solow when he returned from lunch. Faced with this display, Solow approved our unexpected proposal.
Implementing this monumental number was next. The 9 is made from half-inch-thick steel plate and weighs 3,000 pounds, necessitating a steel supporting column that runs through three floors of underground garage. And the actual space that the 9 occupies is public property and has to be leased from the city for an annual charge. Since the sculpture is directly in the sidewalk, we chose a hard paint veneer to cover it, still, the diamond rings of passersby leave scratches in the paint. To keep the color fresh, the 9 is repainted several times a year.
By exceeding our mandate, we made our job more challenging. But the result is a bold, memorable marker for the building that does far more than identify the address. The 9 has taken on a life beyond the sidewalk. It was incorporated, along with its signature red color, into a logotype for the Solow Building Company.
The 9 has become a New York City attraction, and, having appeared in films like Superman and television shows like Sex and the City, it has taken a place in popular culture as an American landmark.’