Wednesday, January 11, 2006 Page B13
In the past decade, Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp has amassed a sprawling Internet and retail empire that includes Ticketmaster, television shopping network HSN, on-line dating service Match.com and search engine Ask Jeeves Inc.
Now Mr. Diller is working on another project that will bring together the half-dozen Manhattan offices of his companies in a $100-million (U.S.), 10-storey glass tower in an unconventional part of Manhattan made up of warehouses and light industrial buildings.
Designed by noted Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry, the geometric façade has eight skyward arcs of glass that will mimic wind-whipped sails of boats making their way along the Hudson River, just across the West Side Highway. Besides reflecting both men's love of sailing, the design of the building in the West Chelsea neighbourhood incorporates Mr. Diller's admission that IAC is forming itself without a compass for guidance. "We're making it up as we go along in the interactive [commerce] area, and because of the nature of interactive revenue, there are few rules," Mr. Diller says.
Mr. Diller has put more planning into the IAC building, signing a 75-year lease in 2003 for the 29,380-square-foot site -- a former truck garage on the West Side Highway between 18th and 19th streets.
The building uses low-iron glass that removes its normal greenish tinge -- and makes the glass clearer. People working inside the building will have a clear view of the river and the city. At night, the lights of the building will make the walls seem transparent.
The lobby will attempt to dramatize images of the company's more than 50 brands on a floor-to-ceiling interactive screen running the length of the building. The images will be visible to pedestrians and to passing cars through a transparent horizontal band.
The location is part of the fast-growing West Chelsea area, along an abandoned elevated railroad, known as the High Line, that the city is starting to transform into an above-ground park. The 22-block neighbourhood stretches along 10th Avenue from 14th to 30th streets. The railroad, owned by CSX Corp., was donated to the city in November, and the project is expected to begin this year as contractors remove the rails and build stairs and elevators.
The first phase -- landscaping, planting and building pathways -- is scheduled to be completed by 2008. Already, the plans have attracted a frenzy of new development. The Dia Art Foundation, which drew many galleries to the area, is moving to a new building that will include a direct entrance to the park. In addition, some 5,500 mostly high-end apartments are being planned for the area, with noted designers such as Jean Nouvel and Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
Mr. Diller says he hopes the IAC headquarters will further spur development in the area, where some 200 art galleries mingle with car washes, taxi garages, and trendy clubs. "It is an embryonic neighbourhood . . . where we could be a participant instead of just tacking onto the Rockefellers' legacy," says Mr. Diller, referring to the family that helped shape much of New York City's midtown. "It'll be a wondrous environment to live, to work, to play."
Expected to open by March, 2007, the IAC building is Mr. Gehry's first in New York City. Like his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the IAC headquarters is as much a sculptural venture as an architectural one.
"It's not going to be that bombastic. Its façade is very sensuous, almost feminine," Mr. Gehry says of the building. "I'm a very pragmatic architect, but people think I'm not because of the shapes."
The skeleton of the 200,000-square-foot building already rises above the walls of the construction site, ringed by a white banner displaying the logos of IAC's many companies.
Working within zoning requirements that floors above 75 feet be set back from the lower part of the building, the Los Angeles-based Gehry Partners, LLP created a terrace on top of the lower five "sails." Behind the three upper "sails," the building's atrium runs between the sixth and seventh floors. Pathways separate the structure from neighbouring buildings to reveal its entire shape.
The building's diagonal walls, tilted columns and irregular spaces allow for various configurations and open-plan offices. Joseph Rose, the former city planning commission chairman who is now a partner of Georgetown Co., the developers overseeing the construction, says other contractors who notice the tilted structures have called his office, saying his contractors aren't "pouring your concrete straight."
Although there is obvious risk in developing a building three avenues and four streets away from the nearest subway line, developers say the occupancy cost of the leaseable space will be similar to what IAC was paying for its midtown offices.
IAC says it has already fixed environmental problems on the site, which previously had been used to store gas. Real-estate experts point out that companies assume additional risks when they own rather than lease their office space. Owning ties up capital and limits flexibility in the future if IAC expands more than expected or contracts. Mr. Diller has said he will initially move more than 300 workers into the building, but it has room for 500.
Mr. Diller has obtained $80-million in tax-free Liberty Bonds to help finance the project. Those were set up to help New York recover from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the IAC project is one of the few non-downtown office buildings to receive them.
The new headquarters is meant to give some physical coherence to IAC, whose Manhattan employees are dispersed throughout five floors of a tower next to Carnegie Hall -- its current main office -- and five other locations. "We don't want to have to make appointments to see each other," says Jason Stewart, IAC's chief administrative officer who is overseeing the project. Mr. Gehry designed the Sunset Boulevard building where IAC consolidated its West Hollywood operations last summer.
The move to physically join the various Manhattan offices of IAC is being reinforced in-house. In December, Mr. Diller created the position of president to oversee operations throughout the conglomerate, which earned $700-million on revenues of $5.3-billion in the 12 months through last September. Filling the position is Doug Lebda, founder of the fast-growing loan exchange LendingTree.
Freed up to concentrate on strategy, Diller is focused on Ask Jeeves, the search engine IAC purchased for $1.85-billion in stock in March. Charged with co-ordinating the on-line presence of the disparate companies, Ask Jeeves has already centralized sales in a single Manhattan office and improved on-line links to the other IAC sites.
The building is expected to give Mr. Diller a place on the Manhattan architectural map of buildings that stand for the corporations that built them -- like the Seagram Building, Lever House and Phillip Johnson's AT&T Building, now the Sony Building. But how it stacks up against these trophies will be up to architecture critics to decide.
"Historically, corporations have looked to superstar architects to give them cachet and to advertise their business with signature buildings," says Mark Cottle, assistant professor at Georgia Tech College of Architecture. "There are times when it can backfire when that building doesn't relate to what's there now but instead to a new collection of look-at-me buildings by global architects."
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