NEW YORK - Real estate investor and art collector Aby Rosen has never shied away from a challenge, or from a controversy.

He bought and meticulously restored Manhattan’s two most significant Modernist structures, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, and, just across Park Avenue, Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House. But uproar greeted some of his decisions at those properties, such as removing the Picasso tapestry that had hung in a travertine-lined corridor of the Four Seasons Restaurant, inside the Seagram Building, since it opened in 1959; and erecting on the Lever House plaza in 2005 The Virgin Mother, a 13-ton, 33-foot-high painted bronze sculpture by Damien Hirst of a pregnant woman, with the skin peeled off her body and the fetus exposed. Or, more recently, when a kerfuffle ensued after Rosen moved the piece to the backyard of a house he purchased in genteel Old Westbury, New York.

Now, Rosen’s latest, greatest act of gumption is about to rise: right next to the Seagram Building, One Hundred East Fifty-third Street, a new 61-story tower designed by Norman Foster and his London-based firm, Foster + Partners.


ABY ROSEN IN HIS OFFICE AT LEVER HOUSE, SURROUNDED BY ARTWORKS FROM HIS COLLECTION. PHOTOGRAPH © JÜRGEN FRANK.

“The bar is high,” says Rosen. “But the bar is always high. Whatever you put up that has that height and size is basically going to be there forever, so you have an obligation to build something wow. Being next to the Seagram Building, you have no choice than to build something extra wow.

“That’s why we tackled it,” continues Rosen, who was born in Frankfurt, Germany. He moved to New York in the early 1990s, when he founded his company, RFR, with his friend Michael Fuchs. “Not everybody would have had the guts and balls to do that, to build something equal in quality to these neighbours.” Fifty-third Street is known as Architect’s Row, thanks to its succession of illustrious buildings, from the Lever House and Philip Johnson’s Lipstick Building to the Museum of Modern Art.

From the moment he purchased the site ten years ago, Rosen says he knew the architect he wanted to hire for the project. “For me, it was always going to be Norman.

100-east-53-street
ONE HUNDRED EAST FIFTY-
THIRD STREET, DESIGNED
BY FOSTER + PARTNERS,
IS ROSEN’S LATEST PROJECT,
AND IS SCHEDULED FOR
COMPLETION IN 2017.

“I just think he is a genius. He understands the world better than anyone, because he works everywhere. I knew he would understand best how to put something next to the Seagram Build-ing. He threw himself into the project but didn’t create a monument to himself. It is a collaboration between Mies, the city, him and me.”

The 94-unit residential tower, expected to be completed in 2017, is slender in form and tall in stature; its minimalist, geometric exterior is intended to be bright and light, to contrast with the Seagram’s dark bronze. The interior design will be by Foster + Partners in collaboration with New York-based architect and interior designer William T. Georgis. 

Rosen plans to commission site-specific works from several artists for the building. “One thought I have is for Rachel Feinstein to do a painting on a mirrored surface,” he says. “I haven’t spoken to her yet about it. But she will be getting a phone call!

“In all the buildings we have done in the past 25 years, we meld art and architecture together. We’ve branded ourselves with this. You walk into a building and know it’s ours. It has served us well and our residents, too.

“The Gramercy Park Hotel has $150 million worth of art in it,” says Rosen of the property, another in his portfolio. “We want people to embrace art and live with it, even if it’s just for a night.”

Since 2003, in collaboration with private dealer Alberto Mugrabi, Rosen has sponsored an ambitious art programme at Lever House. Artists such as Jorge Pardo, Jeff Koons and Tom Sachs have been invited to create site-specific pieces for the building and its spacious plaza.

“The scale that the artists are given to work with there has changed some of their careers,” says Rosen.

Many of these shows have been provocative for their subject matter; Damien Hirst’s 2007–2008 exhibit got flak also for its primary material, formaldehyde. “It was the biggest formaldehyde show ever. We had guys in hazmat suits here for weeks while we were setting it up.”

Rosen enjoys the controversy. “I seek it, I love it. I believe in pushing the envelope. If you have the means to do it, why go conventional? These shows are supposed to be shocking, disgusting, elevating.”

Though The Virgin Mother riled his next-door neighbour in Old Westbury, Rosen says the piece is very much in keeping with the spirit of his 1938 Edward Durell Stone-designed house, which he shares with his wife, Samantha Boardman, a practicing psychiatrist and a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and their two children. The house is a Modernist masterpiece built in 1938 for A. Conger Goodyear, the first president of the Museum of Modern Art. “This house was always about new art, daring art, which Goodyear invited people to come and see. So I thought it was the perfect home for my little Virgin Mary,” says Rosen. 


ROSEN RECENTLY INSTALLED URS FISCHER’S NEW BIG CLAY #3 OUTSIDE THE SEAGRAM
BUILDING IN NEW YORK. © DBOX COURTESY OF GAGOSIAN GALLERY.

Rosen scoffs at criticism of his decision to remove the Picasso from the Seagram Building. “I like Picasso but this wasn’t one of his best works and it was in very bad condition.” Rosen paid for it to be restored and moved to the New-York Historical Society, where it will soon be shown to a much larger public. Still, the relocation provoked rancorous debate.

“Some people just don’t like change,” Rosen explains. “I like change. I embrace it.”

Rosen says his views were shaped by his childhood in Germany, where his Jewish parents survived the Holocaust. “I was born in 1960, only fifteen years after the war. It was a harsh environment but it taught me how important it is to be open and tolerant and nonconforming. Anything to do with rebellion, I endorse. You have to do the right thing. But with that attitude, you will make waves.”

Rosen will doubtlessly cause a few more waves this spring with the installation of New Big Clay #3, a new sculpture by Urs Fischer on the plaza of the Seagram Building. A colossal piece, it stands 42 feet high and weighs 20 tons. “I’m spending a million dollars to install it. It’s something that’s pushing the envelope. These ‘trophy’ properties need to be kept relevant and you do that with constant input of new energy, people and art.”

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.



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