While the restaurant, Asiate, is lovely, with its leather booths and views of the park, and the rooms, with their upholstered window seats and silk throws, are luxe, the most impressive thing is the spa (open to non-guests). The steam room has a domed ceiling made of glass tiles with the iridescence of abalone shells. I imagine that taking a steam bath there would feel a bit like being naked in Hagia Sophia.
Still, the most beautiful thing on Columbus Circle will likely be the Museum of Arts & Design, scheduled to open in 2006. That is, if things go as planned. The design, submitted by Portland, Oregon-based architect Brad Cloepfil, calls for skinning the marble off the façade, cutting into the solid concrete structure within, and recladding the building with a pattern of white terra-cotta and glass. The building will be perforated, admitting sunlight during the day and allowing the museum to glow at night. The problem for Beckelman and others in charge of the new Museum of Arts & Design is that some preservationists believe the Venetian-inspired palazzo is already beautiful or, at least, unusual enough to be landmarked and restored rather than renovated.
Beauty is a word that hasn't been associated with Columbus Circle in quite some time. But beauty, or something like it, is staging a comeback here. Just listen to Billie Tsien: Tsien, who practices architecture with her husband, Tod Williams, has designed any number of powerfully unconventional buildings, including the Folk Art Museum on 53rd Street. Her firm's offices are in the Gainsborough Studios building on Central Park South, a half-block east of Columbus Circle. Every day, she walks to work and looks up at the newly completed Time Warner Center."People have said that all tall towers make big shadows," Tsien observes. "I have to say that this glass, when the sun shines on it, it's like God is sending you a message, because a huge shaft of light goes barreling down the street."
Historically speaking, if any of the buildings that lined the circle were sending messages from God, they were dispiriting ones. Although, during the first decade of the 20th century, Columbus Circle was a lively auxiliary theater district—a kind of annex to Times Square—by the time the WPA Guide to New York was written in the 1930's, the circle had taken on "a somewhat abandoned appearance."
Unlike Times Square, which has no square, Columbus Circle has a circle—a traffic circle in a city where there is no use for traffic circles. It exists because Frederick Law Olmsted's plan for Central Park called for a circular gateway at Eighth Avenue. But the troublesome aspects of the circle have more to do with the behavior of Broadway.
Manhattan's grid makes for predictable intersections that pedestrians can zip across without a thought. The exceptions to this rule, for the most part, are the spots where Broadway crosses major avenues, tracing a diagonal path west to east, from the Bronx to the Battery, leaving vehicular chaos in its wake much as hurricanes do with trailer parks. Union Square. Herald Square. Times Square. And Columbus Circle. All complex intersections, all products of Broadway's aberrance.
According to Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, Columbus Circle has been a trouble spot for a long time. "We wanted it to be like the circles in Washington or Rome," he says, "to be a Beaux-Arts creation, but it's always had more potential than reality."
Even so, Columbus Circle would have grown up to be a better Manhattan neighborhood, a vibrant and inviting place, much sooner had it not been for Robert Moses. Moses, depending on whom you ask, is either the greatest hero or the greatest villain in the history of 20th-century New York. He tore through outer-borough neighborhoods to build highways like the Cross Bronx and Gowanus expressways. He even tried to build an expressway acrossthe neighborhood we know as SoHo, and he wanted to replace much of Greenwich Village with high-rise apartments. In the 1950's, he brought his brand of urban renewal to Columbus Circle, closing off 59th Street for two blocks west and building a 300,000-square-foot exhibition hall, the Coliseum. Unlike the Roman amphitheater for which it was named, this big white box had little majesty. As Frank Lloyd Wright once commented, "I think it's all right for New York. But I hope it stays here."
By the mid-eighties the Coliseum had outlived its usefulness. There was by then the larger, more modern Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The city requested development proposals for the Coliseum and selected Mortimer Zuckerman's plan for a 2.9 million-square-foot, 68-story tower designed by architect Moshe Safdie. It was to be a dense, crystalline hunk of a building—picture the most obscene men's cologne bottle you've ever seen, and now picture it 925 feet tall—headquarters for Salomon Brothers. The Municipal Art Society filed suit against the city and the developer for cheating on the approval process. The proposed building became the focus of one of the most memorable anti-development protests in New York history.
"The only way we could get people to understand just how big it was going to be," Barwick recalls, "was to figure out that it was going to throw a shadow, essentially, up to the Metropolitan Museum."
On October 18, 1987, a thousand people stood in a line from Columbus Circle across Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, one by one, opened black umbrellas. Many remember this demonstration as being remarkably effective at bringing the developer and the city to the negotiating table. What they sometimes forget is that the stock market crashed the very next day.