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Friday, September 21 Local

New developments dent legacy of ‘father’ of Stamford’s skyline

STAMFORD — Victor H. Bisharat, the architect whose buildings dot downtown, was dictated by emotion and form, he said, not the straight lines and boxes that come with his geometric line of work.

“I love woman because she has form,” he once said. “I am emotional, I don’t feel straight lines. ... Nothing in nature is a straight line, the bird, the fish, the snowflake.

“Everything has curves.”

The curves Bisharat brought this city, which have provoked stark criticism since they went up, are beginning to come down. Whether his designs — which signified the city’s transformation from manufacturing center to Fortune 500 mecca in the mid-20th century — will weather Stamford’s most recent building boom has yet to be seen.

One of the three cylindrical buildings downtown, a St. John Tower, will soon be replaced by a luxury apartment block. Meanwhile, the owner of High Ridge Office Park in the Turn of River neighborhood recently won its first round of city approvals to raze Bisharat’s avant-garde building No. 3, replacing it with a Life Time Fitness center.

Bisharat, born Adil Victor Hanna Bisharat to an Arabian sheikh in 1920 in what is now Jordan, has designed buildings across the world.

In Jordan, the country’s tomb of the unknown soldier bears his authorship. He shaped the cavernous Jordanian Pavillion at the 1964 New-York World’s Fair, and began his career mid-century designing California’s Disneyland in Anaheim. He is also the architect behind buildings in Dubai and Beirut, Lebanon.

But it is Stamford that brought him fame, the city amended to his name in the headline of his 1996 New York Times obituary.

And it was the city’s architectural establishment that first bristled at his designs.

“He wanted to be provocative,” said John Morris Dixon, who edited architectural trade journals from Stamford offices for decades.

“I don’t think he was all that skillful,” Dixon said, adding that architects at the time faulted Bisharat for adding flourishes that had nothing to do with building structure “like the fins on a ‘50s car.”

His buildings in the city were often “very straight forward steel structures that they dressed up,” Dixon added.

Bisharat’s work — called modernist, futurist, spaceship-like, out-there and sometimes cheap and ugly — is unmistakable still, though some have held up better than others.

Landmark Square, one of nearly a dozen buildings he designed in Stamford, was once the tallest building between New York and New Haven.

The tower, he told the Stamford Advocate in the fall of 1972, is a sculpture, not an office.

“If you stand at the bottom of one of the wings and you look up and see the curving shell above it, you will have the urge to play with them," he said. “You will want to sculpt.”

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But over the years, some of his work, nearly all for F.D. Rich Co. during the city’s urban renewal period, has fallen out of favor with residents who once found them marvelous.

The two occupied cylindrical towers, still affordable housing units, are now pockmarked with chipped concrete. The one slated to come down this year has been a vacant shell for three years, its once bustling storefronts an empty eyesore.

Building No. 3 in High Ridge has also been gutted, and is “not salvageable,” the developer’s attorney William Hennessey has said.

“That building has to go away,” he added.

City preservationists say Bisharat, who once said he gets his best ideas on water beds so he put one in his office, gets a bad rap.

“A lot of people don’t appreciate modernist, or futurist types of architects,” said Lynn Drobbin, chairwoman of the city Historic Preservation Advisory Commission. “People often don’t appreciate this style. ... Most people just think that the Riches just hired this hack, but he has a presence beyond Stamford, throughout the world.”

Drobbin said Bisharat's buildings stand out more today than they did in the 1960s and 1970s when they were erected. She said she doesn’t advocate for keeping all of his buildings, but wants people to fully consider his legacy before opting to tear them down.

Stamford, she said, is "becoming the city of banal architecture — there is no architecture anymore.”

Renee Kahn, founder of the city’s Historic Neighborhood Preservation Program, said, “Looking back, his work has improved with age.”

“He was a colorful character, (his work) reflected his personality,” Kahn said. “Not too many other buildings in town do you walk in, and you can say ‘so-and-so did this.’”

Kahn says the recent approvals for demolition are a sign of things to come.

“I’m afraid that once that building goes down in High Ridge park, that’s the end of them — they go, too,” she said. “This town is merciless in that way."

barry.lytton@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2263; @bglytton

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