October 16, 2005

POSSESSED; City Planner Manqué Still Thinks Tall


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 all.

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 arms.

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 Mr. Morellet.

''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.