Trump Tower and the Aesthetics of Largesse
This luxury high rise is not only a place where the very rich live, but also where they shop… . It seems silly to call a place so decadent a mall.
—Shopping Guide, www.ny.com
This is not your low-income housing project … of which we need many. But we also need accommodations, uh, for those who can afford to pay a lot of money and bring a lot of taxes into the city… . You know there’s nothing wrong with being rich … the fact is … it’s better to be rich, if you have a choice, than to be poor.
—Ed Koch, former New York City mayor, at the building dedication for Trump Tower
The reality TV show The Apprentice brought Donald Trump, and his hair, back into the American spotlight. During its first season in 2004 it was rated number one of new programs, with an average of 20.7 million viewers a week. The show’s format is simple: a group of aspirant moguls is divided into teams. Each team performs the same business assignment, such as selling lemonade on the streets of New York or dreaming up an ad campaign for a luxury airline. At the end of the day everyone returns to Trump Tower, where Trump and two of his corporate henchmen scrutinize the aspirants’ business acumen. After laying blame, arguing, and backstabbing, Trump makes the final cut, proclaiming, “You’re fired!”
As The Apprentice has reacquainted the American viewer with Donald Trump, it has also, for the first time, acquainted many people with Trump Tower, the show’s setting. The director uses the building to great dramatic effect. Verticality symbolizes power. The contestants’ movements within Trump Tower correspond to their standing as competitors. While the aspirants live in “the Suite … a hip Manhattan loft apartment,”1 Trump occupies the penthouse, several floors above. In an early episode, Trump rewarded that week’s winning group of wannabes with a tour of his pad, which he
As a result of the show’s success, people flock to Trump Tower to have their picture taken under a huge promotional sign that says “You’re Fired!” But even before The Apprentice craze, Trump Tower and its shopping atrium were popular tourist destinations. The spaces are busiest on summer weekends, when tourist traffic includes groups visiting from cruise ships docked at the New York City Passenger Ship Terminal,3 and during the holiday shopping season. Trump Tower’s popularity is due not only to Trump’s reputation but also to the building’s dramatic interior—in particular, its seven-story pink marble waterfall. While many tourists visit Trump Tower, few may know that the waterfall graces what is legally a POPS, not just a glitzy shopping mall. Actually, the waterfall’s atrium is part of a system of POPS in the tower, developed according to New York’s Bonus Zoning Ordinance.
Like its neighbors in the Sony Building and at 590 Madison Avenue, the POPS of Trump Tower are nested within the building itself and include more than one type of bonus space. However, the Trump POPS system and its economic underpinnings are far more complicated than those of neighboring buildings. Trump Tower’s POPS include the atrium, a passageway that connects the atrium to the POPS atrium at 590 Madison Avenue; a seating area, bathrooms, and telephones on the lower level; and two landscaped terraces on the fourth and fifth floors (Figure 6.1). As with adjacent properties, the Department of City Planning classifies the Trump Tower POPS as “destination spaces,” or ones that draw visitors who live and work in the area as well as those from further afield.4 In return for building and maintaining the POPS, Trump was able to build the tower much higher and therefore more profitably.
Even visitors who notice the “Open to the Public” signs5 may not understand that Trump Tower is a masterpiece of real estate finance involving
Like the economic structures behind most works of architecture, the underlying economics of Trump Tower are invisible to those who visit the building or who see it on TV. While we cannot see the economic foundations of the building, Trump Tower’s design, created by Der Scutt while he was partner in charge of design at Swanke Hayden Connell Architects,7 does convey a message. The aesthetics of the POPS of Trump Tower—that is, the way the tower is experienced by the people who visit it—are potent and work in much the same way that the tower serves as the setting of The Apprentice. But rather than transforming Ivy League business students into Trump’s novitiates, the aesthetic experience of moving through these POPS transforms the occupants of a public realm into visitors who have been temporarily and conditionally invited into Trump’s private realm. The building’s design “tells” us that Trump is much richer than any of us will ever be. What it doesn’t tell us is that Trump’s fortune is founded on public money.
One person who seemed to love it, at least its interior atrium, was Paul Goldberger, who argued that “the atrium of Trump Tower may well be the most pleasant interior public space to be completed in New York in some years.”10 Goldberger called it “warm, luxurious and even exhilarating.” He credited the design success of the atrium to the richness of the materials and the care with which it was crafted—in particular the Breccia Perniche marble that covered the walls and floors, which he said “gives off a glow of happy, if self-satisfied, affluence.” Goldberger was, however, critical of the overall spatial configuration of the network of interior public spaces, in particular the long hallway that connected the waterfall-graced atrium to the building’s entrance at Fifth Avenue, which he saw as too narrow to provide enough room for “milling or casual strolling.”11
Goldberger was most critical of the faceted shape of the tower itself, noting that the “zigs and zags” of the exterior of the building provided increased views for each of the apartments, but that the tower’s irregular form looked “hyperactive,” particularly in comparison with its “serene” next door neighbor, Tiffany’s.
In a sense, this sums up the essential design philosophy at work— in the process of achieving a balance between a building’s public presence and its private one, the decision was made to make the private presence paramount … we have an exterior shape that succeeds in serving apartment dwellers first, and the relationship to neighboring buildings on the skyline and the street second.12
What is interesting about Goldberger’s analysis is the way in which he assesses the building’s relationship to the public good. He argues that the private condo owners are rewarded with more windows and better views because of the shape of the tower, but that its unusual shape in the context of its Fifth Avenue location gives the tower a “poor public presence.” While a new skyscraper’s shape may indeed visually detract from a city’s skyline (whether or not this is the case at Trump Tower is open to debate), there is much more room for an examination of the building’s role in New York’s public life and the way its design exploits and masks the relationships between public and private money. Goldberger, albeit superficially, did raise an important issue: that the design of Trump Tower embodies tensions between public and private values. Goldberger focused on the conflict he saw between the shape of the tower that was designed to provide more windows for those inside the building versus those on the outside, who were forced to look at a structure that was unappealing.
But the relationships between design, the public good, and private gain at Trump Tower are more complex and significant to the relationships between public spaces and public spheres than whether a building’s tower has a visually “poor public presence.” The design of Trump Tower masks important information—precluding its ability to be a site and subject of active public spheres. In this chapter we will move through the spaces of Trump Tower and explore the connections between the building’s design—including its spatial configuration, its materials, and detailing—the building’s economic underpinnings, and the aesthetic experience the design creates.
The configuration of the spaces enabled Trump to procure massive public financing. The design masks the public qualities of the building’s financing and reinforces Trump Tower as a symbol of Trump’s private wealth. The public spaces are so enmeshed within the building that they are nearly impossible to understand as distinguished from the remainder of the tower or, for that matter, from the image of Trump and his corporation. Because of the physical arrangement of the spaces, the materials, the detailing, and the programming, members of potential publics who enter Trump
The Aesthetic Experience of Trump Tower
The aesthetic experience of Trump Tower—and the framing of the public as temporary visitors—begins even before one enters the building, perhaps even before one sees the building. The tower sits at the most expensive intersection of the most expensive shopping districts in Manhattan. A Trump-produced brochure aimed at potential condo buyers describes the mystique of the address:
Fifth Avenue … Fifth Avenue across from the Plaza and Bergdorf Goodman. Fifth Avenue right next door to Tiffany’s and Bonwitt Teller. Fifth Avenue with a sweeping view of New York City. St. Patrick’s. Rockefeller Center. The Museum of Modern Art … the very hub of the international scene.13
New York City guidebooks and Trump’s brochure are not the only places where one will find descriptions of Fifth Avenue as the elite shopping street of Manhattan. The city designated Fifth Avenue as a subdistrict of the Special Midtown District14 and has written special building requirements for new construction and renovations that aim to “preserve … and enhance the character of the Fifth Avenue Subdistrict as the showcase of New York and national retail shopping … and tourist destination.”15 The special requirements include standards for sidewalk width, setbacks, the size and look of signage, and the kinds of things that can and can’t be sold in the stores. As the NYC Zoning Handbook16 states, special districts and their attendant incentive systems are ways to “use private capital to carry out public policy.” In the case of the Fifth Avenue subdistrict, the public policy aims to maintain the street’s elite status.
Because of Trump Tower’s position within a district imbued with connotations of wealth, luxury, and economic exclusivity, our aesthetic experience of the Trump Tower public spaces are shaped even before we approach the POPS. Most visitors are already outsiders on Fifth Avenue. Its geographic location in the city delineates who will go there: those who work
Those who do find themselves in the neighborhood and who approach Trump Tower will find the entrance is set back from the sidewalk by about fifteen feet within a gleaming alcove of glass and brass. At the bottom of a sign that reads “Welcome to the World’s Most Extraordinary Shopping Experience, TRUMP TOWER” and in letters half the size is printed “Atrium Open to the Public 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM.” Rows of little gold Ts form a band across the smudge-free glass. Trump Tower may be the only POPS with its own doorman. Visitors may find the presence of a doorman a bit over the top, but the doorman at Trump Tower serves two functions. His presence marks the transition from public sidewalk to Trump Tower, or Trump’s Tower. The implication is that if one is welcomed into a space, one can also be unwelcomed. The Trump doorman also acts as a screener, in contact with the security guards inside. These days the doorman is asked for his picture even more often than before, since people recognize him from The Apprentice (Figure 6.2). Perhaps his new status as a familiar TV figure will lessen his potential as a screener, since for some reason he now may seem more approachable, but the message remains “Welcome to Trump Tower.” There is a good reason he is dressed as an old-time doorman, one who might work at a fancy hotel or an apartment building. While he welcomes visitors to a private realm, he also welcomes them to a private realm with a public image. He is equal part gatekeeper, greeter, and advertisement for the Trump way of living.
Of course, there are more direct ways of keeping people out of a POPS than posting a costumed doorman at the entrance, and Trump has tried those ways too. The planning department file on Trump Tower is packed with memos regarding Trump’s noncompliance with his contracts. The complaints started in 1983, the same year Trump Tower opened. Trump closed the space for private parties and did not respond to requests from the Department of City Planning and others that he observe the legally required opening hours.17 The tone of the memos becomes increasingly frustrated as Trump’s infractions stack up. One internal memo suggested that a letter be written to Trump and his attorney to “inform them that the hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., every day—including religious holidays and secular holidays even including leap year days.”18 One particularly frustrated citizen sent copies of the letter to Mayor Ed Koch, adding a handwritten note at the bottom stating: “Obviously Mr. T cannot keep to even simple plans and restrictions. Please consider this in the future.”19 A staff member of the planning department described being asked to leave the tower. When she returned an hour or two later, the space was full of “very well dressed” partygoers. One internal memo dated July 10, 1985, told of security guards turning people away on a Saturday. The memo closed with “[o]ur perennial source of problems has sprung another.”20 I’m sure it wasn’t very funny at the time, but looking back, the stack of memos, the increasingly frustrated tone of the whistle-blowers, and Trump’s seeming insistence on disregarding the contract seems so perfectly, well, Trump.
As if to counter the Department of City Planning’s complaints against him that year, Trump sent a handwritten memo to Philip Schneider of the Department of City Planning that read, “Phil—I thought you would enjoy reading the enclosed. It is one of many. Best, Donald.” Attached to the memo was a letter dated December 15, 1984, two months after Trump closed the atrium, without city permission, for a private party.22 The writer, a woman from Jackson Heights in Queens, said that she had visited Trump Tower with a friend the previous week and that she wrote because she “had to let them know about the sheer joy, pleasure and delight” they experienced. She added that they “were so deeply touched by the beauty of it all that neither one of us slept that night and we are still talking about it,” and that she “could go on forever but will not because I’ll run away with myself emotionally.” She closed her note by saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving two middle class folks a glimpse into wonderland. God bless!!”23
If this note captures the aesthetic experience of Trump Tower as a place of luxury and spectacle, it also reveals how tied this aesthetic is to sensations of privacy and hospitality. The response of the visitor is one
Langhammer’s thank-you note confirms the overwhelming splendor of the Trump Tower aesthetic. Once inside, the reflectivity of the brass and polished marble is dazzling. One enters a long, wide hallway that slopes down into the building. It is not a place for milling around, and there is nowhere to sit. Instead, everyone walks forward toward the enormous marble waterfall. There are no fingerprints on the brass. There is no dust. Along the left-hand wall, perfectly groomed ficus trees emerge from a floor clean enough to eat off. On either side, display cases feature products from the Trump Tower shops, such as $500 gold-tipped fountain pens. The top of each display case is crowned with a thick brass T. During the holidays, the hallway is packed with tourists and the waterfall becomes a backdrop for a gigantic Christmas tree sparkling with lights. The tourists move forward slowly, mouths open, cameras ready for the shot (Figure 6.3).
While visitors entering the hallway are transformed into gaping-mouthed spectators, the hallway as a physical structure conducts its own economic metamorphosis. By linking the retail spaces that ring all levels of the atrium (Figure 6.4) to the protected Fifth Avenue subdistrict outside, the hallway transforms all of Trump Tower’s retail square footage into space for which he received a zoning bonus. This bonus was perhaps Trump’s biggest trump. As “The Donald” himself said, “I didn’t need the rent from the (retail spaces of the) Atrium to make the project pay off … I only put the stores in because of the bonus.”25 The total bonus from the POPS and the retail amounted to an extra eight stories of tower. Trump said that at first he thought of just having three levels of retail inside, but changed his mind when he realized how many more apartments he could build if the retail went five floors up instead.
The Trump condominiums offer sweeping views of the city and Central Park—arguably one of the most coveted and costly views in Manhattan— because of another of Trump’s zoning maneuvers. By buying the air rights over Tiffany’s, his neighbor to the north, for $5 million, Trump prevented Tiffany’s or subsequent building owners from increasing the height of the building. In this way Trump was able to promise potential condo buyers protected views of Central Park and build his tower higher.26 All the condos sold within three years, for a sum totaling $277 million—$87 million more than it cost to construct the entire building—including nineteen floors of office and retail.27 Trump still owns the office and retail spaces and rents them out at some of the highest rates in Manhattan.28
Today, the bench is chrysanthemum-free, but hardly inviting. Sitting on this bench opposite the gleaming elevators, one gets the sense of feeding from the margins of Trump’s success. Tucked next to a T display case with images of properties few can afford, those seated on the bench recede against the wall. Actually, all of the Trump spaces are marginal to the building. They are literally tucked in strange corners, like the “parks,” or hidden, like the bathrooms and telephones. Or one feels marginal occupying them, like the lobby/hallway that is too narrow for loitering, or the bench, on which one appears to be waiting for an appointment with the baron. Trump’s repeated attempts to “secure” the bench are particularly hard to swallow, given that this paltry amenity sits at the physical juncture most crucial to Trump’s Fifth Avenue subdistrict windfall: the link between the retail spaces that ring the atrium and the retail district outside the building.
Trump made even more money from the tower because of the many arms of his hydra-like corporation. For example, as the building’s general manager, Trump collected a commission of $11 million on the sale of the forty-two floors of apartments. The Trump Organization, Trump’s management and construction wing, collects an undisclosed amount for building
Trump also received bonuses for building a “mixed use” building, or, as he called it, “the multiple use concept… . It’s going to have some great retail stores, then office building floors where people work industriously, then exquisite living on the higher floors. Work, shopping, living together. That’s what New York is all about.”34 But as the case of the disappearing bench indicates, only certain kinds of working, shopping, and living fit in with the Trump Tower concept. While providing retail services close to public spaces was a design idea championed by urbanists like William H. Whyte, it is hard to imagine that Trump Tower’s retail zones serve a public purpose. Trump’s assertion that his building is mixed-use strikes a false chord. The people who work in the building are not the people who live in the building or, for the most part, the people who shop in the building.35 The people working at Avon do not make enough to pay $24,000 for an Asprey alligator handbag or $10,000 for a pair of diamond earrings. The people who work in Asprey do not make enough money to live in Trump Tower.
Though most midtown workers cannot afford to live in Trump Tower or shop in its boutiques, they might sometimes have lunch at the café on the basement level. The prices are high compared with other lunch spots, but other lunch spots don’t have seating near the base of a marble waterfall (Figure 6.8). Looking over the railing of the ground floor at lunchtime, one finds the café tables crowded with brown trays, like the food court of a typical shopping mall. But this is not a food court or a café. Anyone can sit there, even if they do not purchase food. This fact is difficult to discern from the architectural clues.
If you venture downstairs you might locate—though it won’t be easy— the greatest hidden amenity in Trump Tower: its bathrooms. Visitors do not happen upon them; I knew of their existence only by reading a list of the required amenities for the site. The ground floor also has a newsstand with souvenirs and a Tower Records. Neither of these shops borders the main atrium or is at all visible from the street or the main level. That said, people who frequent Trump Tower at lunch might find them and shop there.
The aesthetic aura of Trump Tower includes the visitors themselves. We all look out of place there (Figure 6.9). Our backpacks and plaid shorts in the summer and our fogged glasses and bulky coats in the winter only seem to heighten the divide between what Trump is selling and how we are living. We all look a little overweight and overburdened without the protection of our living-room couch, from which we can laugh at Trump’s escapades and the idiocy of his apprentices-to-be.
In 1990 Trump tried unsuccessfully to block the release of his personal financial information by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. The commission obtained the figures because it was involved in the review of a debt-restructuring plan that Trump had negotiated. Trump’s numbers indicated that he was worth far less than he claimed, and that if banks had not restructured his debt he would have been overdrawn by $73.4 million by the end of the year. As the New York Times has reported, Trump’s outlandish personal spending shone through the numbers. Before negotiations over his debt restructuring occurred, he had planned to spend nearly $500,000 a month on personal and household expenses. But his agreement with the banks led him to cut that number down to $450,000 during the first year, and weaned him down to $300,000 in two years’ time. It is unsurprising but perhaps ironic that Donald Trump went to such lengths to block the public release of his private financial information because—as evidenced in the Trump Tower deal—his fortune was so solidly based on public money.
Public Investment in Private Space
Following the launch of The Apprentice, the shop in the Trump Tower basement window was packed with “You’re Fired” T-shirts. More recently, the gossip column in the New York Daily News reported that Trump’s high-rent tenants and neighbors objected to the giant “You’re Fired” sign that Trump hung from his building. Trump claimed to have not heard any complaints and countered that since the show was number one, it was “great for them.” The reporter commented that the show was actually rated number six and that Asprey and Fendi probably were not benefiting from these ratings. He asked Trump, “what about all the money and effort that went into establishing and promoting brands such as Asprey and Avon?” “A lot of people would like to have my brand,” Trump retorted.37 Asprey invested an unprecedented $2,000 per square foot to build its store in Trump Tower in order to showcase its luxury goods.38 In 2002 it was reported that Asprey was paying around $1,200 per square foot in rent.
Instead of sending his aspirants out to sell lemonade, perhaps Trump should set up more true-to-life business tests. He could see which team could use more public money to bolster private profits. Or contestants could team up with law students to see how much money they could make by suing other private entities to force them to pay their taxes. Contestants might consult an article written by Arlene Holpp Scala and Jean Levitan, two professors at William Patterson University, on how to teach students about class differences and debt:
“Living within one’s means,” an expression often carrying some judgmental overtones, requires increasing income and/or decreasing expenses. Living beyond one’s means—having the buying power to initially develop “credit”—and then developing debt, provides an opportunity to examine class differences. Students can contrast the debt of someone like Donald Trump with his continued borrowing power against that of their peers, who develop debt resulting from credit cards and student loans. Discussing other ways to “legally” increase income facilitates further discussion of privilege.39
At the opening ceremony for Trump Tower, Mayor Ed Koch was asked by a reporter if he thought that it was right that the current construction boom in New York featured only office buildings, hotels, and luxury condominiums—implying that other projects might better serve the public good. Koch retorted, “Those are with private funds, aren’t they? … And in America, if you have your own dollars you’re allowed to build what you want.”40 But what the Trump case clearly demonstrates is that the funds for his building were not only private. Trump could not have built as he did without large public investment. This investment is not only illegible in the building’s final design, but is also masked by the building’s aesthetic of private grandeur. And those whose tax dollars were spent on building the Trump Tower are made to feel lucky to enjoy a taste of Trump’s largesse. It is no wonder that employees of the Department of City Planning took it upon themselves to walk through Trump Tower on their way home from work to make sure that Trump was in compliance. But it is also no surprise that many visitors to Trump Tower are joyful about their experience. Trump Tower is considered one of the best of the POPS. And while the Department of City Planning has successfully fought both for better compliance and for increased signage indicating the “public” nature of the spaces, it is hard to see beyond all the brass, marble, and Ts. As Ada Louise Huxtable noted in her article published while the final designs for Trump Tower had yet to receive full city approval, “until the zoning law is changed or modified … we will continue to get what (builders) give us.”41 The aesthetics of Trump Tower resulted from a combination of incentive zoning programs ostensibly set up to create public benefit. We get the public that builders build for. In the case of Trump Tower, it is a public out of place, on the verge of overstaying or overstepping, frumpy, an unwelcome foreground to Trump’s background of opulence and excess, and an unwitting underwriter of Trump’s private fortune.