Manhattan: Where modern office blocks come big and dumb. But now, suddenly, design is sexy again, clients are making a brand new start of it and European architects are being given a chance. We start spreading the news …
Something strange is happening in New York City. For two decades developers have been throwing up commercial buildings that have the aesthetic distinction of cottage cheese. Boxy and soulless, and designed by architects with names like law firms, these tower blocks represent a rigid hierarchy in which imagination comes far below return per square foot. Suddenly, however, design is back. A new wave of commercial buildings is coming, designed by some of the world's most famous architects. So why are the likes of Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano finally getting a bite of the Big Apple?

Since the late 1980s the busiest architects in New York have been practices such as Schuman, Lichtenstein, Claman & Efron and Costas Kondylis & Partners. As an illustration of how conservative the tastes of New York developers have become, Kondylis is on record as saying that what every developer wants is a version of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building. As speculator Donald Trump's architect, Kondylis designed the 72-storey Trump World Tower as a taller version of Mies' 1958 classic. Kondylis has 40 such high-rises to his name, eight of them built in 2001 alone.

None of this has done much for New York's reputation as the urban wonder of the world. The Municipal Arts Society, part preservation body and part architecture watchdog, has started monitoring buildings that will soon be eligible for landmark status. Any building can potentially become a landmark after 30 years but Frank Sanchez, executive director of the MAS, is not sure how many landmarks there are left to be named. Referring to the 1980s and 1990s, he says: "There may be slim pickings from that period."

Now, however, the city's run of bland commercial architecture appears to be coming to an end. Three forthcoming buildings suggest that clients are starting to take their architectural surroundings more seriously. The Hearst Corporation, owner of Cosmopolitan and dozens of other publications, has a new headquarters on site designed by Foster and Partners. The New York Times has a Renzo Piano design for a new home waiting in the wings. And Frank Gehry is making his mark on the city with a building for InterActiveCorp, owner of numerous internet businesses.

(See "If I can make it there", page 47.) One reason for this shift to "designer" buildings is the sheer currency of design itself. In October, Newsweek magazine devoted a whole issue to design – unheard of among American current affairs publications. And since the competition to design the World Trade Centre, about which every New Yorker has held an opinion, architecture has been thrust to the front page.

"Design is news," says Terence Riley, head of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art and named one of the six "titans of taste" by Newsweek. "Thirty years ago there were few outlets for discussion of architecture. Today you have an entire generation raised on design in the media."

The resurgence of signature architecture in the commercial market is partly down to the surplus of New York office space. "After the market has been glutted with pork-belly office towers – anonymous, massive, income-producing nothings – the design-savvy want to distinguish themselves from the competition," says Riley. Brian Schwagerl, Hearst's lead project officer for the corporation's headquarters, concurs.

"We wanted to make a statement," he says. "The tower will be a crown jewel on the city skyline."

Some of this adventurousness can be attributed to the popularity of smaller buildings that have been constructed in the city in the past few years. The American Folk Art Museum designed by Todd Williams Billie Tsien, the Austrian Cultural Institute, designed by Raimundo Abraham, and the Rose Centre for Earth and Space by the Polshek Partnership have all garnered critical acclaim.

After the market has been glutted with pork-belly office towers – anonymous, massive, income-producing nothings – the design-savvy want to distinguish themselves

Terence Riley, Museum of Modern Art

Media companies – especially those in New York, a city that thrives on names, brands and celebrity – will be more attuned than most to the value of landmark architecture in attracting publicity. These companies are also fiercely competitive. "For a company like Hearst, the fact that the New York Times and Condé Nast had commissioned designs that were causing a ripple was a stimulus," says Brandon Hall of Foster and Partners, project architect on the Hearst Tower. "They realised that if they were going to keep the best staff, they needed the best working environment."

The Hearst Tower will be the city's first building to be certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. So it is not all grandiose ambition. Clients are realising that good design has benefits beyond presentation. "Hearst's top executives were interested in the evidence that an environmentally friendly building increases productivity and reduces running costs," says Hall. And as Hearst's Brian Schwagerl observes: "It is now proven that light improves productivity."

One would have thought that the status that comes with signature architecture and the efficiency of good design would be perennial values in Manhattan. Riley says: "After so many years of being misled by developers about the impossibility of achieving original design here in New York, people are rushing to catch up."

The inhibitors, according to Riley, have been the building regulations and zoning restrictions, while the MAS' Sanchez puts the blame on facade setbacks and constrictive plots. But Foster's Hall thinks the city has been held back by outdated construction know-how. "There are some construction capability issues; any city in the world has its own peculiarities. Their wet trades are fantastic but on metal trades and cladding systems they are waking up to the fact that there's a lot to be learned."

Whatever the reason, New York has been seen as a tough place to build, especially if building the new involves pulling down the old – which, in such a crowded city, it almost always does. But Sanchez points out a critical recent development: "It's interesting that these designs are by architects who are not American – that's a change."

Until recently, New York design and construction has been a closed shop. Richard Fox, partner with WBTL Architects, which worked on the Marriott hotel at Ground Zero, the site of the destroyed World Trade Centre, says: "New York has traditionally been very insider-driven, very developer-driven. It is extremely difficult to acquire land and win approvals for development."

Enlightened clients have come to realise that the best designers are not necessarily the closest to hand. And with Nicholas Grimshaw, Santiago Calatrava and Polish-born Daniel Libeskind all working on designs at Ground Zero, perhaps New York is getting used to meddlers from across the pond. "Architects from around the world can, as we say, raise the bar," asserts Hall. "New York architects are capable but downtrodden. Our influence can raise expectations of what can be achieved."

One factor that may be spurring the more ambitious developers is the amount of money the government has poured into New York construction since 11 September. In 2002, as part of the federal aid package, an $8bn (£4.7bn) initiative was launched offering bond financing to building projects in Manhattan. Although the Liberty Bonds were mainly intended for use in the area around Ground Zero, $2bn (£1.2bn) worth was available for use outside the zone (see map, page 46). InterActiveCorp looks likely to get $80m (£46.7bn) in Liberty Bonds for its $100m (£58.6m) Gehry-designed headquarters; the New York Times Company's development partner, Forest City Ratner, is applying for $150m (£88m) in bonds for its Piano-designed tower; and the Bank of America has just been granted $650m (£381m) in bonds for a $1bn (£586m) tower also outside the zone.

There is so much money available for development that the authorities handing out the Liberty Bonds aren't even sure all $8bn worth can be spent by next year's deadline.

But money is no guarantee of architectural quality. As Sanchez points out: "The dull building [of the 1980s and 1990s] took place during a period when we had more money than ever." And Liberty Bonds pay no heed to design aesthetics. Alex Dudley, spokesperson for the Empire State Development Corporation, one of the two issuers of the bonds, says: "They are just one more tool in the economic development toolbox. It's a nice benefit that we're getting well-designed buildings, but that's not one of the criteria."

On the south-west corner of Central Park, the most expensive edifice ever built in America is nearing completion. The $1.8bn AOL Time Warner Centre is a reminder that in New York beautiful architecture rarely manages to slip through the tight grip of developers. It was designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, now an ally of World Trade Centre owner Larry Silverstein in the battle with Libeskind for control of the WTC's replacement, Freedom Tower. Penthouses in the mixed-use Time Warner scheme may go for $30m but many see it as a lost opportunity. Sanchez will only say that it is at least better than the original renditions, which the MAS opposed.

But perhaps it will be the last development behemoth for a while. With clients starting to show taste and enlightenment, and European architects infiltrating the scene, New York may be on the verge of its most exciting architectural phase for decades.

If I can make it there … Hearst Tower

The 42-storey Hearst Tower will be constructed on top of the six-storey art deco building built by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst for his publishing empire in 1928. The original building was designed to hold a nine-storey tower but it never materialised. The Hearst Corporation has been trying to fulfil this potential since the 1980s but various attempts have fallen foul of planners.

In 2000 Hearst chose Foster and Partners to come up with a new design. The Corporation felt confident a practice responsible for Berlin’s Reichstag could design with something suitably striking. Brian Schwagerl, Hearst’s project spokesperson, says: “The city of New York wanted something special that would be adding boldly to the skyline, not just another vanilla box.”

Rising out of the hollowed shell of Hearst’s original building, Foster’s glazed tower employs a triangulated stainless steel frame whose cut-away corners make for a distinctive silhouette. It will be the most environmentally friendly building in the city, employing 95% recycled steel and using grey water systems and efficient air-conditioning. The diagrid structure already has built-in redundancy but to cater for post-9/11 concerns Foster has widened the stairwell and wrapped it in concrete. The building is due to be completed in June 2006. Meanwhile, Foster has another commission in the city, for a mixed-use tower.

If I can make it there … InterActiveCorp headquarters

The last mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, fully supported the scheme for a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum floating off the east shore of Manhattan but the project ran out of money. Gehry is finally getting to stamp his image on the city with the $100m home to Barry Diller’s e-commerce empire.

The nine-storey glass building is made up of rectangular sections twisted into Gehry’s characteristic sail-shaped forms. The sculpted facade will be of super-clear “white” glass that is etched to cut energy costs. Along with Richard Meier’s two glass apartment blocks, the InterActiveCorp building will lead the transformation of the area along the West Side Highway. Construction will begin in early 2004 and is due to be complete by the end 2006.

If I can make it there … New York Times building

The New York Times Company is planning to build an $850m headquarters designed by Renzo Piano just west of Times Square, to which the newspaper gave its name.

The 52-storey tower will be clad in clear glass fronted with thin ceramic cylinders for energy efficiency. This transparency is partly designed to leave the inner workings of the Grey Lady, as the paper is known, exposed but also to brighten up the rather rundown area around the Port Authority bus terminal.

Construction has been delayed while the paper’s development partner, Forest City Ratner, tries to secure an anchor tenant and the necessary funding. The New York Times, which will occupy the first 27 storeys, is hoping to move in by the end of 2006.