William Randolph Hearst and the Tower of LEED.
11 November, 2009, 10:17 pm
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Indiana Jones, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is approached by Walter Donovan, an American businessman, and asked to obtain the Holy Grail. At the outset, Donovan seems sensible, trustworthy and generally sympathetic.  Ultimately he is exposed to be a Nazi sympathizer, whose greed and lust for immortality and power, lead to his own debasement and destruction by the Divine. Donovan’s failing was pride; he foolishly did not respect the powers he attempted to use for his own glory. Indy’s fault is naiveté. Too trusting of his benefactors, and torn by his own personal ambitions, our hero, like his rival, comes close to being overwhelmed by the Grail quest.

We should question the motives of powerful figures, especially when they start talking about all the good things they’ve done. Why are they trying so hard to make us like them? A corporation generally exists for personal profit, not the public good. Sudden acts of grand philanthropic rebranding do not spring out of the goodness of a conglomerate heart. Like the fictional Walter Donovan, any company touting its own good deeds, claiming to have seen the light, should send up the red flags.

The pursuit of the LEED Gold Certification is the Grail quest of the Hearst Corporation. Too much acclaim, the media conglomerate erected, as their New York Corporate headquarters, the first gold certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design office building in the city. With Hearst Tower, they claim a new commitment to “green” practices and responsibility. But is the symbology of the diamonded sky-blue forty-six-story glass pillar true and visionary, or rather just a cynical and expensive grab for press? What part is Hearst playing, Indy or the Nazis? In the movie those seeking the Holy Grail had to pass three challenges to reach the Cup of Christ, to prove their worth. Can similar tests be applied to the intentions of Hearst and their green architectural grail?

The First Test: “The Breath of God – Only the penitent man shall pass.

Like any good movie hero –or villain– Hearst, the man and the Corporation are flawed. One could argue that William Randolph Hearst spent a life running from his reputation. His fortunes were made on good deeds smeared with scandal such as his affair with Marion Davies. He was as human as the next man after all, as long as that man was Citizen Kane. During his reign as one of the kings of media in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he sparred with Joseph Pulitzer, the result of which lead to the creation of yellow journalism. While Pulitzer is now associated with excellence in journalism, the Hearst name still has a distinctly tabloid feel to it. The corporation itself struggles with scandals such as anti-trust violations though its ever-growing expansions and acquisitions.

For the new millennium, the company set out with the modest goal to expand their outdated New York building, a six story office built by Joseph Urban in 1928, into a new corporate tower to consolidate and house their many publication holdings. The greatest concern at the time was how to merge the historic cast stone Greek-temple-meets- deco-castle with a modern glass office tower under the constraints of city landmark regulations. While Hearst may have desired less history and more profitability from the site the Landmarks committee insisted the Urban building should be preserved. The idea to be “green” wasn’t a priority at this point, and didn’t even originate from Hearst itself. The building’s architect Lord Norman Foster suggested it. Perhaps Foster would have been laughed of had not the tragedy of September 11th 2001 caused the powers that be to reevaluate their original renovation and expansion plans. Through a combination of opportunity and social shocks The Hearst Tower became a project of greater meaning to Hearst as well as the world at large.

Indy had to humble himself before God to proceed to the Grail –and avoid decapitation– and likewise Hearst had to humble their own ambitions and pride to follow the penitent path. The Tower wasn’t even given the traditional crown so common to corporate buildings. Rather than a monument to its own greatness, the company instead dedicated their crystal castle an act of redemption and faith toward the city and people of New York. They gave the traumatized city a new vision of the future that more than any logo change or ephemeral PR headline seemed to embody a rare act of genuine corporate change

The Second Test: “The Word of God  – Only in the footsteps of God will he proceed.”

As it is many are befuddled by the contrast of the accordion-like blue millennial tower atop the near century-old base. The vision is arrestingly unique in appearance as well as in its thinking about progressive architecture. Like a Renaissance library build atop a medieval catacomb, the new building attempts to preserve its historicism while remaining technically sound and innovative, not only in design, but in its construction. It is in thoroughness and attention to detail where Hearst confronts the next qualification.

Many aspects, which would seem like vanity projects, are in fact reasoned energy and material saving additions. Most prominent, the signature “diagrid” design is not a weird display of showmanship, but rather an innovation of one of nature’s strongest structural forms, the triangle. The building is sturdier than a conventional contemporary but uses twenty percent less steel in its structure and ninety percent of that steel is contains recycled materials. Waste from the demolition of the existing structure was recycled something no other New York building project had done. This mindset was continued beyond the construction process through the implementation of an ongoing composting and recycling program.

Inside the originality continues. Icefall, a two-story cascading terraced waterfall in the first floor lobby, is a prominent, and public, showpiece and one of the first interior sights to greet visitors. It is a grand visual, but it is also a functional tool. The water feature humidifies and cools the air of the hollowed out atrium space of the old Urban building, all while being feed from rainwater collected at the roof. Icefall has the additional effect of controlling the ambient noise of the lobby, and is able to be adjusted from a “babbling brook to a running stream.”

Even the elevators are more efficient than normal, running on an intelligent system that plans out the fewest stops from floor to floor directing and dividing passengers between cars. This not only increases speed, but saves energy by not using all motors at all times. Video screens inside the cars inform employees in transit about how they can make other green choices in their daily lives. While this may be a bit Orwellian the motivation is consistent with a corporate commitment to these green principles on more than a superficial level.

Hearst didn’t settle for the aesthetics of “green.” Like Jones, in his second challenge, they needed to prove that their understanding and commitment to their task was complete. Hearst decided to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The initial goal for the new green building had only been a silver LEED, but had they cut corners –spelling Iehovah with a J– much of the credibility of Hearst’s claims to newfound conscientiousness would have been undercut. Looking beyond conventional wisdom Hearst used the best of what modern construction and architectural thinking could offer to make a better building rather than just a grander building. They took their green innovations to heart, creating a building and a building process that were exceedingly forward thinking; more so than even they had first considered.

The Third Test: “The Path of God – Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.”

Hearst took a risk with this building. Its bizarre shape could have been reviled and rejected by the public –and the preservation committee. The costs of its construction could have been overly excessive. They may have invested in technologies that did not function as intended.  It is telling, that a company would invest so greatly in a dubious return. The company might have just as easily painted the walls green and flashed a new logo along with a press release, saving time, money and commitment. Instead, the leap of faith they made with the Hearst Tower is something that could have ended badly. It is not the measured act of hollow contrition that is usually symptomatic of corporate feel-goodery.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about Hearst Tower is that despite all the good things we have heard about it, all the innovations it has implemented, the truth is that the building is known to be imperfect. Hearst themselves will admit it, such as in the ineffective attempt to regulate the indoor lighting that failed to take human factors fully into account. To paraphrase Louis Nowikas, director of operations, it’s now 2008, and the building is made with the best materials and ideas of 2001.  This admission is a not something to deride, to the contrary, they understand that their LEED gold certified building is not an end in itself, but the beginning of a process. Having built the Tower they have not washed their hands of further innovation, but realize they must be in constant pursuit of something better, improving the systems they have and including more efficient technologies and practices as they develop.

In Last Crusade, a man later revealed to be a protector of the Holy Grail itself postulates to Dr. Jones, “You must ask yourself why you seek the Grail. Is it for HIS glory, or for your own?” It is this distinction that proves Indy to be one truly worthy of the Grail; he desires it not for fortune and glory, but for its own significance and its ability to help others. They were referring to matters of God, but the same argument can be applied to the quest to create the Hearst Tower. In motivation, realization, and conviction the Hearst Corporation have proven their worth and seem to have done a genuine good deed. They are still not a perfect company. Many things they have done, and likely will do may not be as idealistic. But in this case Hearst has accomplished something truly great, and created a vision of a better tomorrow. They have taken hold their grail and now they must drink from it, but like Indy, they chose wisely.


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