It's not often you can lay the transformation of a Manhattan neighborhood at the foot of one building. But with a media company and a luxury hotel as tenants, the Time Warner Center is turning one of New York's most contested pieces of real estate into a destination.
Nicolas Koenig

"Did you know that Columbus Circle is the epicenter of New York?"

Laurie Beckelman asks what sounds like a trick question. Given that she is currently embroiled in what may be the last major battle in the recuperation of Columbus Circle—a skirmish with preservationists over the conversion of A&P heir Huntington Hartford's marble-covered Gallery of Modern Art into the Museum of Arts & Design—she could be speaking metaphorically. But she is, in fact, being quite literal.

Columbus Circle, the intersection of 59th Street with Broadway and Eighth Avenue, is, you see, the point from which distances to New York City are measured. If you are on the Long Island Expressway and see a sign that says NEW YORK CITY 50, it means that you are 50 miles from the spot where a statue of Christopher Columbus, looking a bit lost, stands atop a 77-foot pillar.

In the weeks preceding the opening of the Time Warner Center—an 80-story, 2.8 million-square-foot, twin-towered complex that is about to transform historically underpopulated Columbus Circle into an upscale destination—people, mostly publicists, have been sharing this bit of trivia with me. I've been a little skeptical, because I've never seen it written down anywhere, but I believe Beckelman. After all, she used to be chair of the city's landmarks commission.

While the Columbus statue, erected in 1892, is meant to be the focal point of the circle, the marble man is nearly invisible against the Time Warner Center's glassy, oddly angled façade. The towers, on the west side of Columbus Circle, were nearly 20 years in the making and will house an array of businesses. Facing the circle is an upscale shopping mall filled with familiar brands, including Hugo Boss, Joseph Abboud, Sephora, J. Crew, Coach, Stuart Weitzman, and Tourneau. On the third and fourth floors are five restaurants—headed by some of the country's most famous chefs—and a bar.Above the restaurants, on the fifth and sixth floors, is a jazz theater complex, Wynton Marsalis's brainchild. In the north tower, from the 35th through 54th floor, is the North American flagship of the Asian luxury hotel chain Mandarin Oriental, with its own restaurant and mega-bar and a plush bi-level spa. Above the hotel are 16 floors of high-end residences. The south tower is home to Time Warner and the studios of CNN, which visitors to the center will be able to tour, plus 29 floors given over to residences that are selling for as much as $40 million each.

The first component of the Time Warner Center to shake off the plaster dustwas theMandarin Oriental, New York, which opened in November, accessible from an entrance on 60th Street. Because even its lowest floors are high up, there is no such thing as a room without a view; new perspectives of Central Park, the Hudson River, and midtown are available from any window. As you might expect, each room is well-equipped: a computer, two flat-screen TV's (one in the bathroom), a shower with two heads (one adjustable, the other fixed), and, best of all, a pair of binoculars.

The Mandarin Oriental is by no means the first stylish hotel in the neighborhood. In fact, Rudolph Tauscher, its general manager, used to be in charge of the Trump International Hotel & Tower, directly across Broadway. Donald Trumpwas the first developer to rescue Columbus Circle from ignominy, seeing potential in the unloved Gulf & Western Tower. This skinny 52-story building wedged between Broadway and Central Park West had a habit of twisting on windy days, dropping windows onto the sidewalk below. Trump structurally retrofitted the tower, reclad it in bronze glass, and then hung his name over the door. On the ground floor he installed superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant, Jean Georges. He also planted a shiny small-scale unisphere at the prow of the building. According to Trump's feng shui consultant, the globe deflects the "bad energy" that emanates from Columbus Circle.

Trump was followed to the neighborhood by Ian Schrager, who in 2000 opened the Hudsonhotel a half-block west of Columbus Circle, on 58th Street. While Trump's hotel emphasized ample accommodations and a kind of cool elegance, the Hudson's rooms were the size of space capsules, and its bar scene was so overheated that hotel guests had to get past a bouncer behind a velvet rope to return to their rooms at night. Both Trump's and Schrager's efforts felt like outposts, brave forays into untested territory. The Mandarin Oriental, by contrast, is an announcement that Columbus Circle is no longer a no-man's-land.

Tauscher remembers what it was like before Trump and Vongerichten opened their doors: "People said to Jean-Georges, 'It's not going to work.'" No one is saying that to Tauscher, who compares the Time Warner Center to Rockefeller Center. "What's happening is that a new destination is being created here," he says.

In October, in the last weeks before the hotel's opening, Tauscher has other concerns: "I worry a little bit about everything," he says. "The quality of the wineglasses, the marketing plans, the training of the employees, looking after the thread count rating to make sure that it stays at two hundred eighty." One other small worry that comes out over lunch at Gabriel's, the neighborhood restaurant that served as the unofficial construction cafeteria for the Time Warner Center's tenants, is that he keeps referring to the hotel's location as the "north tower." His director of public relations, Sonya Rendigs, insists that he call it the "north building" to eliminate any hint of a kinship between this twin-towered complex and the World Trade Center. "I'll kick you under the table," Rendigs offers.

Even before the hotel is completed, as the spa's massage therapists practice their moves at tables set up in one of the ballrooms and construction workers race to get everything done, the attention to detail is striking: the elegant 75-foot indoor lap pool with its view of the Hudson River, the hammered-nickel bar in MOBar designed by Tony Chi, the glass artwork by Dale Chihuly in the lobby.

The mandate, says one of the hotel's interior designers, Sandra Cortner, of Atlanta-based Hirsch Bedner Associates, is "to whisper the Orient." In other words, Mandarin Oriental hotels should be distinguished by Asian touches, but a guest might not be able to say exactly why the room—or the lobby or the elevator—feels a bit Chinese or maybe Japanese. For example, there is something Cortner calls an "Oriental cloud pattern," a series of fingerprint-like swirls, that keeps recurring. You see it on the inside of the elevator doors, on the light fixtures in the lobby, and on the oversized drawer pulls in the guest rooms.

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.

By 1994, the economic downturn had forced Zuckerman to relinquish his hold on the Coliseum site. In 1996 a second competition was held. Nine development teams submitted proposals, which included a virtual-reality theme park with a rooftop surfing pool, a Sony high-tech entertainment center, and several aquariums. The winner, the Related Companies, pitched a headquarters for Time Warner, with a design by architect David Childs that had two towers, as do many of the stately apartment buildings that line Central Park West.

The Time Warner Center is a building so multifaceted—and so loaded with New York City history—that it is hard to look at it and decide whether it is good architecture or bad, whether it's beautiful or ugly. It looks and feels like something you'd see in Hong Kong, where such mixed-use buildings are the norm. Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm responsible for this building, pins its peculiarities on Robert Moses.

"Central Park South came across and then ended," Childs explains, "because the convention center made a two-block-wide structure, which happens very rarely in New York." By the rules that govern New York architecture, the Time Warner Center, which sits astride what's called a superblock, is simply too big. Childs loves it anyway.

"The fundamental idea," he says, "was to return Central Park South to the city. The right thing to do would have been to take the street all the way through the project. But that wasn't going to happen. Everything about my designs was about establishing that street and that's what this does." Childs points to the retail atrium. "It takes that slice of the street, takes it into the building in crystal clear glass."

At the moment, one can count the noteworthy restaurants near Columbus Circle on the fingers of one hand—Jean Georges, Gabriel's, San Domenico, the Hudson Cafeteria—and still have a thumb to spare. When the shops and restaurants at the Time Warner Center open, that number will more than double. The concept, five prestige restaurants and a bar grouped on the third and fourth floors of a shopping mall, recalls Las Vegas, where the big casinos increasingly provide serious dining options in gourmet multiplexes.

In any case, Columbus Circle will soon be home to an embarrassment of riches, with five chefs who often turn up on Top 10 lists all in one building. Most impressive is a return to New York for Thomas Keller, whose restaurant French Laundry turned sleepy Yountville, California, into a foodie shrine. Keller's New York brand is called Per Se and will serve—no surprise here—contemporary American cuisine with French influences. It will also house the first New York venture of Masa Takayama, the sushi chef whose nine-seat Los Angeles restaurant, Ginza Sushiko, was famous for its exotic offerings—including fugu, the potentially deadly blowfish—and for its prices, which started at $300 per person. Takayama has claimed that in his New York location, he'll be charging even more. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, known for infusing ephemeral foods with intense flavors, is opening, of all things, a steak house, which will offer an unimpeded view of his namesake restaurant across the street.

Gray Kunz, who built his reputation preparing classical French cuisine with Asian seasonings at Lespinasse, is, for his part, talking about opening a welcoming Mitteleuropa-inspired café, "a restaurant that people can come to several times a week." His Café Gray will be a remake of the sort of traditional café one might find in Vienna or Budapest, updated by architect David Rockwell. Kunz wants its warm interiors to offer an alternative to Time Warner's corporate stainless steel and glass. A window will make the kitchen visible to diners and to passers-byon Columbus Circle. And from Chicago comes Charlie Trotter, a five-star chef revered for his use of organic, seasonal ingredients, who is so passionate about roots, legumes, and greens that his Lincoln Park restaurant features a $100, all-vegetable tasting menu.

Then there's Rande Gerber, America's most prolific purveyor of hip nightlife. He began his career running the Whiskey bar at Ian Schrager's Paramount hotel, married supermodel Cindy Crawford, parted ways with Schrager, and became the official bar impresario for the stylish W hotel chain. Gerber's specialty is scene bars: a Wallpaper aesthetic, waitresses who seem to have wandered in from A Clockwork Orange, relentless techno music. But he says he's planning something mellower for his 5,000-square-foot Time Warner location.

"The concept is to do a more sophisticated lounge than I typically do," Gerber says. "I wanted some cleaner lines. The music won't be overwhelming."

At press time, Gerber, the king of "Flirtinis" and "Rasmopolitans," said he'd picked a signature drink, but he refused to divulge it. "We have one and it's very unique. I don't even want to talk about it. We want to serve it and then people will understand it."

Whatever unorthodox ingredients Gerber decides to toss in his shaker, they couldn't be any more unexpected than the one that New York's former mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, threw into the mix. The mayor, a known opera fan, put a freeze on the 1996 competition for the Coliseum site and insisted that each proposal include a home for trumpeter Wynton Marsalis's Jazz at Lincoln Center program. So it's perhaps not so strange that the 1,200-seat Rose Theater, the main concert hall in the 100,000-square-foot jazz complex, alludes to an old-fashioned Italian opera house, with tiers of seating arranged in a tight oval around the stage. It has, in fact, been designed to accommodate stage scenery and equipment that is superfluous for most jazz performances, but essential for opera. That said, Jazz at Lincoln Center is a cluster of performance, recording, and instruction spaces, the first major institution designed specifically for jazz. Marsalis wrote a manifesto of sorts, "Ten Fundamentals of the House of Swing," as a way to communicate his vision to architect Rafael Viñoly. In it he asserts that the Rose Theater and the smaller, 600-seat Allen Room, where musicians and dancers will perform with a dazzling skyline view behind them, are "two sides of the same thing, like night and day. The Rose Theater will sound like Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Paul Desmond and Miles Davis," Marsalis wrote. The Allen Room, by contrast, "will have the feeling of a street parade, a night of dancing under the stars, and an ancient Greek theater." The Allen Room was initially slated to be the lobby of the main theater. But that seemed silly. "Are we going to have a lobby where everybody is going to be walking around in a white tie with a flute of champagne?" Viñoly asks.

Perhaps because the Allen Room, with its 50-foot glass wall facing the street, is the one real place where Viñoly's building-within-a-building breaks through to the exterior of the Time Warner Center, it is this room Viñoly describes with the most enthusiasm. "You see the large window and you think it could have the face of Louis Armstrong floating above Central Park," he says, meaning that it's good to have something not so corporate facing Columbus Circle. "Maybe that's not architecture," he adds, "but to me that's important." It should be pointed out that the Allen Room's window also offers the best view ever of Christopher Columbus. There he is, the jaunty little navigator poised on his column, listening to the joyful noise from Wynton's House of Swing. If he could snap his marble fingers, he would.

Which brings us back to the actual circle. Formerly as inviting as a median highway strip, Columbus Circle has been newly landscaped with rings of trees, fountains, and flowers, all designed to calm and shelter. When spring comes, it might even be pleasant to sit in this small oasis as traffic streams all around, knowing that you are at the epicenter of New York.

Mandarin Oriental, New York, 80 Columbus Circle; 866/801-8880 or 212/805-8800;; doubles from $595. ASIATE (at the Mandarin Oriental), 212/805-8881; dinner for two $130. The shops and restaurants in the Time Warner Center are scheduled to open next month; Jazz at Lincoln Center is slated to open in October 2004.

Mandarin Oriental, New York