10 Years of Hearst Tower

Q&A with Architect Lord Norman Foster

Almost a decade has passed since the topping out of Hearst Corporation’s award-winning headquarters, Hearst Tower. To celebrate the anniversary, Hearst unveiled a first-of-its-kind drone tour of New York City’s first Platinum LEED Gold–certified skyscraper. The tour, hosted by Hearst Tower architect and Pritzker Prize–winner Lord Norman Foster, presents never-before-seen views of the company’s landmark headquarters. Below, Foster discusses the Tower’s impact, technological advances and working with Hearst.


This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Hearst Tower’s topping out. What does this project mean to you?

Lord Norman Foster: This anniversary brings back many memories about the inception of Hearst Tower. Walking into the building a decade later, you immediately note the flourishing sense of community, and it takes me back to the very earliest days of the project. Our initial concept to transform the six-story base of the International Magazine Building into Hearst’s town square, a modern-day piazza, has been realized.

Before the addition of the Tower, Hearst employees were scattered in offices around New York City. The idea that these separate entities could all come together was very exciting because it meant more opportunities for collaboration. We at Foster + Partners are privileged to be a part of that environment with our own office in the building. In that sense, Hearst Tower is truly a home to me. I’m part of the community. I can’t say that about any other building, no matter how close I get to it.

What about the Hearst Tower project was unique from other buildings you’ve designed?

Foster: There are so many aspects that make this project unique. The building was the most sustainable in Manhattan at the time it was finished — the Tower was the city’s first commercial building to achieve LEED gold, and then LEED platinum certification. It was also Foster + Partners’ first project in New York City.

The building truly celebrates the marriage of the old and new — it was originally commissioned by William Randolph Hearst in 1926 and completed by architect Joseph Urban in 1928. It was W. R. Hearst who, at the end of the 19th century, was buying property in this area of Manhattan with the idea of fostering a media center, and we’ve seen that happen within the Tower. The completion was also highly symbolic, because it was the first tower in Manhattan to go up after the 9/11 tragedy.

What were some of the struggles you faced during the Tower’s construction?

Foster: Sometimes, impossibly difficult situations generate quite exciting responses. One issue we faced was with the escalator — there was not enough space between the entrance in the building’s base and the start of the Tower. The only way we could make it work was by turning the escalator on the diagonal, which ended up creating a truly dynamic entrance into the space.

Another challenge was building a tower in New York City. Manhattan is synonymous with towers; you cannot separate the two. But in comparison to other buildings in the city, Hearst Tower is quite a small tower. Because it wasn’t going to make its mark on the skyline in the urban fabric of New York by scale, we had to make Hearst Tower visually distinctive. We came up with the idea of triangulating the structure — not only did it make the Tower more recognizable, the design saved something like 20 percent of steel. And an unexpected plus: the polished stainless steel catches the light, so depending on the weather and the time of day, it’s always slightly different.

Hearst is a company very involved in technological advances. Can you highlight some of the advances that this building represents?

Foster: Looking back 10 years, the building was the most technologically advanced of its time. Starting in the entryway, Icefall, the waterfall structure by artist Jamie Carter, is part of the environmental system of the building. Hearst Tower collects rainwater on its roof to prevent runoff waste and collects the water into a 40,000 gallon tank below the building. That water is recycled daily in Icefall, which cools and humidifies the space. The structure also provides acoustic benefits. The sound of water falling provides a very Zen-like quality to the Tower’s atrium.

Recently, I was at a dinner party talking about the elevator system in Hearst Tower. I described the way in which you enter your floor outside of the elevator, are directed to a specific elevator and are grouped with people going to similar floors. Everyone was truly surprised! Even though the technology is now 10 years old, it’s still quite radical.

Another important technological element to highlight is the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. You would never think you could put this kind of facility in a typical office tower. The scientists there are always testing products, which generates heat, smells and vapors. The trick here was to put the Institute floor immediately below the mechanical plant that serves the whole building, so all of those byproducts could be extracted at the source.

You commissioned several pieces of artwork exclusively for this building. Can you talk about that as part of the Hearst tradition of commissioning art?

Foster: Well, one of the first things that impressed me when I saw this building was the amazing collection of works of art. Hearst is a patron of the arts, so it was an extension of that philosophy to suggest that we bring in important artists right at the beginning. We commissioned Riverlines, the massive work displayed in the Tower’s atrium, from environmental artist Richard Long. The piece is composed of mud harvested from the Hudson River in New York mixed with mud from the Avon River in Bristol, England.

Can you talk about the experience of working with Hearst?

Foster: When I talk to students about design, I always underscore that the role of the client is absolutely critical. It takes a very enlightened client to be able to work together with an architect to create something at this scale with works of art incorporated; not as afterthoughts, but as integral elements of the design. I think that’s a great tribute to Hearst.

The design is really inseparable from two individuals, Hearst Executive Vice Chairman and Former CEO Frank Bennack and Hearst Director and Former COO Gil Maurer. At how many enterprises of this size would you see the key leaders finding the time to be immersed in a building project? It’s very unusual, and I think it tells a lot about the differences between this project and many others. Hearst is a very special organization — one that is very dependent on the importance of human relationships.

How does it strike you that we have chosen to fly a drone through the Tower?

Foster: I find it very exciting that you’re using the most up-to-date technology, something that literally didn’t exist 10 years ago, to capture the building now, 10 years on. I think it’s very symbolic.

The building was conceived as something that would have the flexibility to adapt and change. It’s interesting to see that in action — the ways in which it has responded to change and continues to do so. And interestingly, since we’ve been talking, I noticed that the sun has come up. There’s a pattern of shadows on the wall and somehow there’s a new sparkle. Even during the brief time of our conversation, the look of the Tower has changed.

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