It's a rare bucolic view on the west side of Manhattan: nearly seven acres of plants underfoot, birds chirping, geese slowly gliding in for a landing 15 feet in front of you. The slow, story-by-story climb of the Hudson Yards development is happening just a few blocks away. The fact that it's all visible from the new green roof of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center makes it all the more surreal. When more than 700 exhibitors descend on the center this weekend for ICFF, they'll see how an ambitious four year, $453 million upgrade has not only helped bring I.M. Pei's glass pyramid closer to his original architect's vision, but created a vastly improved and enhanced structure, poised to be a centerpiece in the revitalization on Manhattan's west side.
Inside the main lobby, dubbed the "crystal palace," Bruce Fowle, a principal at FXFOWLE and the architect behind the renovation, and Alan Steel, President and CEO of the Javits Center, are showing off the new, improved space. Standing next to the massive cylindrical atrium at the far end of the main lobby—large enough to contain the Statue of Liberty—the scale of the now 1.3 million square-foot convention center begins to slowly come into focus.
Even the building's most fervent critics would concede that the interior is awash with natural light. But as Fowle and Steel pointed out the various upgrades and improvements—including new coating that protects the once-degrading concrete interior, and gantry and banner systems that allow for easier cleaning—it becomes more obvious that the three-year project has produced an upgraded and improved structure.
Not surprisingly, the most marked difference can be found in the glass exterior. A massive renovation challenge that scared away contractors in the past, considering the complexity of the task, replacing the pyramid's many panes of reflective glass required some technical innovations. They've since been swapped out with pixelated, low-iron glass, fritted panes developed by Fowle that help bring in light without reflecting the skyline. Where Pei's structure was initially more reflective and could occasionally take a gloomy cast, Javits now skews more open and airy (helped in part by painting the interior skeleton a pale gray rather than almost-black).
It was just three years ago that the future of the ahead-of-its-time, space-frame pyramid was in jeopardy. Cost-cutting measures by the Empire State Development Corporation meant the circa-1986 Javits became a maintenance challenge, a five-block long glass box often derided by critics. (It was "value-engineered to death," says Fowle.) If the building could talk, according to New York Magazine, it would say "It ain't easy being ugly." The roof leaked in so many sections that crews installed plastic bag tarps nicknamed "diapers" to catch the runoff. At one point, 400 of these makeshift tarps were draped from the ceiling since, according to Steel, you never knew where the next leak would spring. In 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed simply demolishing the state-owned building and rebuilding it next to a casino in Queens.
But even more crucial, according to Steel, was the way the built-by-committee construction obscured Pei's original vision. For instance, the western entrance was meant to be a grand gesture connecting the convention center with the Hudson River, a tree-lined promenade leading down to the waterfront. The renovation attempted to bring the structure up-to-date with by opening up the back facade to create a visual thoroughfare from 11th Avenue to the West Side Highway.
The centerpiece, which will potentially open to the public, is the 6.75-acre green roof, the second-largest in the United States behind Ford's River Rouge assembly plant in Detroit. Created from a custom mix of sedum plants and grown in three-by-six foot mats at a Syracuse farm, this urban lawn has blossomed into a thriving ecosystem in just a few short years. More than 11 species of birds and five species of bats now call the roof home, and beehives will soon be installed on the roof's southern edge (Highline Honey, anyone?). Along with the new glass exterior, the garden has helped the building shed its unfortunate reputation as the city's biggest bird killer. Not only does the new living carpet reduce the heat island effect and add an aesthetic upgrade to a roof that's soon to be in plain view of residents of the surrounding high rises, but it reduces stormwater runoff by 40% and, along with the installation of efficient HVAC systems, will cut the center's energy bills by 26%.
All of these changes come just as the Javits Center's profile is about to rise. It's long been maligned for its off-the-beaten path location, though the 7 train extension terminating right across the street is set to open later this summer. The green roof sits a short walk from the most recent and northernmost addition to the High Line. And the massive Hudson Yards development will house thousands of new residents in a series of gleaming residential high rises (their arrival is one of the reasons the roof, which Fowle calls the "new fifth façade," required an upgrade). The convention center will find itself not just in the middle of a new neighborhood, but finally, perhaps, connected to the city at large.
·Previous Javits Center coverage [Curbed NY]