FRANK GEHRY: THE CONDÉ NAST CAFETERIA
NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Over the past year I have heard a familiar refrain repeated aroundNew York, having to do with the move of Condé Nast to the recently finished building at Four Times Square. The first of the new wave of skyscrapers to go up in this changing neighborhood, the Condé Nast Building, as it is known, has received much attention and acclaim. The
refrain goes something like this, excitedly from a publicist friend planning a meeting with an editor at Vogue: “They’re taking me out for lunch—at their cafeteria!” Or like this, from a new paralegal with the law firm occupying the top half of the building, on her first day: “Do we get to eat in the Gehry cafeteria?”
The answer is a resounding no. But unsatisfied with this denial, and ever intrigued by the forbidden, I decided a short time ago to get myself inside the vaunted vault and see for myself whether it lives up to the hype. I will share my impressions with the zingmagazine faithful.
In an effort to save Condé Nast from hordes of unwelcome visitors—and myself from a lawsuit—I feel I must keep secret the method by which I connived to get myself inside. Suffice to say that with a bit of grace and wit, I quickly found myself strolling through the short entrance hall. I would like to say that I was a perfect spy, that no-one might have noticed I was not a loyal employee. Unfortunately,this was not the case. I was truly unprepared for the grandeur of Gehry’s work. Entering, my jaw actually dropped a little as my eyes turned up, following the walls as they wound their way (literally) to the ceiling, at least twenty feet above.
Inside, I felt I was raiding the larder of a cool undersea refuge. The space is more suited to a James Bond villain than to a magazine
conglomerate. The deep blue of the walls and ceiling manifests in your vision as a universal backdrop. It creates an oceanic horizon as you swim more than walk through the throngs of aloof models and harried
editors, unflappable publicists and peppy interns. I half-wondered if Gehry did not originally design the cafeteria for the Brooklyn
Aquarium. Strengthening this impression, the seating sections are separated from each other and from the circuitous, meandering aisle by curved plates of inch-thick glass, heavy and distorting. It is almost as if the diners are on display, floating in the yellow booths like sleek, well-maintained fish among bright coral reefs. In fact, the diners are on display. It was eminently clear that this
is not a place to eat a quiet lunch. The tables and booths are all set up to accommodate large groups, such that during the busy hours small groups will be forced to sit together. This is a place to see and be seen, and to see some more. And this evinces another aquatic quality: As if actually twenty feet underwater, the diner feels an intense pressure, though one affecting the ego rather than the inner ear. Surrounded by so many professionally Beautiful People, the diner cannot help but become acutely self-conscious. I suspect that Condé Nast employees actually get dressed up to eat lunch here. Every woman in the place was wearing high heels. I was extremely careful not to drip pizza sauce on myself. The pizza came from a real pizza oven, by the way, and is typical of the generally high quality of food available (though, the open salad bar is a bit unfortunate, given recent news). There is even a selection of season-specific snacks available, which included, most impressively, Cadbury’s Creme Eggs.
The view out the windows is surprisingly bad. For some reason, although Condé Nast occupies 23 floors of the building, they decided to put the cafeteria quite low to the ground. The windows face out over the loading docks and a parking garage. Puzzling over this, though, I quickly realized that the view did not matter. A nice view outside would distract from the view inside. One does not come here to look out; one comes to look around.
The only truly unfortunate feature of the cafeteria is not actually in the cafeteria, but is encountered on leaving. Leading back to the
elevator bank is a long hallway, the wall of which is one big mirror, traveling in waves like the walls inside. The effect created is like
that of a funhouse mirror, warping the reflections enough to possibly cause seasickness—especially after a big lunch. Then again, perhaps after an hour of preening inside, seeing yourself (and any models nearby) perverted and deformed is both necessary and refreshing.
Ultimately, the cafeteria’s most important property resides not in any of it extraordinary physical attributes. The true measure of
Gehry’s achievement is the paralegal, hoping in vain that she might be able to impress her friends by taking them there for lunch. Like so much in Times Square, the hype overshadows the substance. And given all the hype generated by the place, it can only be seen as a triumph of design for Gehry, a triumph before one even sets foot inside. What Condé Nast commissioned him to design is not so much a cafeteria as a 2,000 square-foot block of cachet. This after all is no public museum. It is a private lunchroom into which, to be blunt, you may not go. Your problem does not lie in getting a reservation, or having the right attire; you are simply not allowed in. Not only does Condé Nast have an aesthetically pleasing cafeteria, they have what must surely rank as one of the most exclusive lunch spots in all New York City.
Thus, unquestionably, it is a triumph for Condé Nast as well.

Brian McDonald
Brooklyn, NY
2001