City Planner Manqué Still Thinks Tall
BY DAVID COLMAN
EVEN the most painstakingly accurate map
is at heart a phony. It presents itself
as passive, just attempting to define, to
delineate. Meanwhile it is furtively, actively
striving to corral with boundaries, crisscross
with roads, create with lines.
Visitors to the storied Restaurant Florent
in the meatpacking district of Manhattan
might not grasp such lofty fine points from
the maps lining the bistro's walls. Since
the city names are obscured (Is that Rotterdam?),
it's tough to grasp anything about them at
A suite of maps in the SoHo apartment of
Florent Morellet, the bistro's owner, is
even more baffling. With nothing more than
the sinuous contours of the Seine in common,
the six maps are actually fantasy metropolises:
one in the Midwestern United States, one
in central Africa, one of Paris after World
War III. They were meticulously created in
obsessive-compulsive fits by Mr. Morellet,
who has been poring over maps since he was
a child in Paris.
But a career in city planning, briefly envisioned
when he was studying at Central London Polytechnic
in the early 1970's, was not to be. ''Fourteen
of the 15 students were very P.C. and green
and anti-skyscraper,'' he recalled. ''And
here I was, who thought that Paris was boring,
too flat.'' His proposition that there should
be a skyscraper at each of Paris's great
radial intersections was not met with open
In 1978 Mr. Morellet fled Europe for Skyscraper
Central and has been content ever since.
He even did a little city planning, opening
Florent 20 years ago in what was then a fringe
neighborhood known for meat carcasses and
leather bars. It reminded him of Les Halles,
the Parisian late-night marketplace, which
was famously demolished in the 70's and replaced
with what he calls ''one of the worst urban
renewal projects in the world.''
With the ghost of Les Halles in mind, it
makes sense that he would spearhead efforts
to protect the low-rise meatpacking district
and the derelict High Line viaduct adjacent
to it. Still, he is torn at having gone to
court in 2002 to stop a tower designed by
Jean Nouvel, his countryman, from going up
a block from his restaurant.
''I've found myself fighting the fabulous
skyscrapers I love,'' Mr. Morellet said resignedly
of his odd local-hero status. On Saturday
a benefit to preserve the district and the
viaduct is to be given in his honor at the
nightclub Roxy. ''A city should have mountains,
but it should have valleys as well.''
So his favorite possession is somewhat ironic,
or at least made of iron. It is an antique
model of the Flatiron Building, the 1902
tower that went up at the intersection of
23rd Street, Fifth Avenue and Broadway, then
a major crossroads. Its revolutionary steel
frame wrapped with a curtain wall of limestone
changed skyscraper construction forever.
The Flatiron's place in history may be the
reason the eight-and-a-quarter-inch model
cost so much -- almost $800 -- in the 80's
at the vintage-design shop Lost City Arts.
But its importance is not what interests
''I love it because it's absurd,'' he said.
''It's the great folly of location, location,
location. Economically it doesn't seem to
make sense, all those weirdly shaped triangular
floors.'' But its site and odd shape mean
that as you come down Fifth Avenue you can
experience the full 20 stories head on, which
is the case of almost no other skyscraper.
''It's so beautiful,'' he said.
The model harks back not just to Mr. Morellet's
childhood love of making tall buildings from
Legos but also to the early-20th-century
youth of the skyscraper, to what now seems
a simpler time, when buildings and the future
all seemed to be looking up.
But then, the future seems always to have
looked brighter in the past. The trick is
to appreciate the two, yet manage to live
in the present. There ought to be a map.