by Matthys Levy
This is a powerful, moving story of love, arrogance, betrayal, murder — and architecture. The author, well-known for his design of landmark buildings and his popular descriptions of why buildings fall down, has crafted a page-turner of a novel.
A gifted architect, Philip Corta, has the opportunity of a lifetime—the design of the Eden Center, a major office/residential complex on New York’s West Side. The project endures many setbacks brought on by an arrogant developer, corruption in City Hall, sabotage and murder by organized criminals, and recurring uncertainties about financing. Nevertheless, construction proceeds more or less on schedule until . . . .
The story is true-to-life, based on long experience in developing and building major structures in New York City, and many characters are composites of the dynamic individuals Levy has worked with over the years. He assures us, though, that any similarities to well-known people who have been in the news are “strictly coincidental.”
About the Author
Matthys Levy is author or co-author of several other highly acclaimed books, including the classic Why Buildings Fall Down and Why the Wind Blows: A History of Weather and Global Warming. Building Eden is his first novel. It is a story of intrigue and suspense that he is uniquely qualified to write, thanks to a lifetime of experience in the structural design and construction of major buildings around the world. He knows the processes involved, and the dangers to avoid.
Levy’s credits as structural designer include several New York landmarks: the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, the Javits Convention Center, and the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Happily, none of those projects endured the setbacks and tragedies that beset the fictional Eden Center.
Journalists and book reviewers may contact Levy through the publisher, Steve Carlson, at info (at) upperaccess.com.
What People are Saying
“Building Eden is an intriguing story, with a wonderfully woven-in and authoritative level of insight into the design professions—which the fantasy bombast of The Fountainhead certainly never achieved. Readers will be both engaged and informed.”
—James Wines, President & Creative Director of SITE, the organization for architectural and environmental arts
“I’ve just finished reading Matthys Levy’s amazing new novel, Building Eden, with tears in my eyes over the tragedies that affected so many people during construction of a major building in Manhattan. Fortunately, it is fiction, and our experiences have been in no way similar. But only a person with extensive knowledge of the field could make this story so gripping, timely, and powerful.”
—Richard Meier, architect
Table of Contents
One: The Groundbreaking
Two: The Architect
Three: The Consultant
Four: The Banker
Five: The Protector
Six: The Persuader
Seven: Spouses and Lovers
Eight: The Ruse
Nine: The Secret
Ten: The Investigation
Eleven: The Savior
Fourteen: The Fall
About the Author
Excerpt from Chapter 1: The Groundbreaking
The cold, early morning light cast long shadows ahead of the blue-jean-clad men and a few women passing through the wood and wire mesh gate, wearing hooded sweatshirts in muted colors with imprints emblazoned with the crests of local unions. Hands in their pockets, hoods pulled tight obscuring their faces, shoulders hunched forward to ward off the chill of this early fall day, the workers looked down to avoid tripping on some haphazardly tossed timber or stone. Beyond the gate they peeled left and right with a not toward friends. “Later,” said one. “Yeh,” was the response lost in the general din.
Spread out before them was a construction site that encompassed over two full city blocks between the confining steel and concrete of Manhattan Island and the expansive Hudson River waterfront. The outlines of a large excavation were barely definable, obscured by apparently randomly placed mounds of earth. It seemed a disorganized, ravaged, lunar landscape with workers meandering through the maze, each directed by some unseen force toward their assigned station.
A few men climbed onto earth-moving machines, heaving themselves up over rusty crawler tracks partially buried in the wet clay. Within minutes, puffs of smoke rose as engines from bulldozers, trucks, and pile drivers awoke from their nightly sleep. Giant buckets anchored to their mechanical arms reared upward, like the trunks of snorting elephants, and then dropped hard into the ground with steel claws, scraping earth and rocks into their gaping mouths. As the buckets filled, they were raised once more and simultaneously rotated until they hung precipitously over the injured beds of dump trucks before dropping their loads of earth and rocks, causing the trucks to shiver from the impact. Then, like a monster ballet, the cycle was repeated over and over again until a truck was full and roared off toward a remote New Jersey landfill where it would disgorge its detritus. On another part of the site were tall pile drivers with hammers rhythmically pounding steel H-shaped piles into the resisting ground. The mixed sounds of the construction site were deafening.
To the right of the gate, with workers hammering and slowly assembling a hastily built wooden platform, a man with a camel-hair coat casually draped over his shoulders angrily faced a round-faced bear of a man with unruly thinning white hair who was wearing a stained yellow parka and clutching a notebook under his left arm. “I don’t give a fuck what you have to do to finish this podium but I want it done long before the politicians and guests arrive for the groundbreaking in two hours. I gave you the position of site manager for this project because you did a good job on the midtown office building. This project is a million times more complicated and if you can’t even organize the construction of this simple viewing platform, maybe I’ve made a mistake.”
Trying to control his explosive temper, Patrick Connolly turned red in the face as he said, “Look, Alex, we’ve had rain for days and I had to bring in clean gravel to stabilize the soil before we could even start work on the platform.” “I thought I made it clear that I don’t accept excuses.” Alex Grant paused for a minute and, with an accusing finger rising from under the front of his coat, pointed down toward an older worker who was sipping the last of his morning coffee. “In fact, I want this man out of here. Get me a carpenter who can do the work. Is that clear?” Without waiting for an answer, Grant turned and walked briskly toward a waiting limousine, his tan coat ballooning out behind him, the empty sleeves flapping like a drunken bird.
Grant was of medium height and build, an altogether average looking man, except for his fierce intimidating blue eyes shielded by thick chestnut eyebrows. He was a man who was clearly used to getting his way. Patrick Connolly turned toward the carpenter who had just been summarily dismissed and brusquely said, “You heard the man. Get your tools together and collect your pay at the office trailer… and tell Sam … never mind.” While grumbling under his breath the carpenter gathered his belongings and moved away. With his somewhat stocky, muscular, almost six-foot frame, Connolly was physically superior to Grant in every way, but recognized that Alex was the boss and had to be respected even though he was often irrational and impulsive.
Feeling frustrated, Patrick lifted the field phone brusquely to his lips and tensely said, “Sam.” After a moment of crackled sounds, the answer came back, “What’s up?” “We’ve had another blowup here. Alex is in one of his moods. I’ve had to sack one of your carpenters and I need another one NOW.”
Sam Ruth was the contractor’s job superintendent responsible for managing the labor force and scheduling sub-contractors. “OK, Pat. I know Alex can be a ball buster but please, don’t order my guys around. You know that’s not the way it works. We’re the contractors and the workers on the site are my responsibility. You’re the owner’s rep and it’s up to you to deal with Grant.”
“Sorry Sam, I know he’s my boss but some days,” taking a deep breath, “Grant just pisses me off. Help me out this time. I really need another carpenter to finish this platform in the next hour before the bigwigs arrive.” After a moment he added, “You know the score. After all, we’re both cut from the same cloth.” Sam broke in, “That’s a bit of a stretch don’t you think? Our backgrounds may be similar but you’re cut from white cloth and mine was black.” “Okay,” chuckled Pat with a smile on his face. “So, your family came from Harlem and mine from Hell’s Kitchen, but we both worked our way out of… . but, look, let’s talk later. In the meantime, I really need another carpenter.”
“You’ve got it.” Patrick Connolly was in his early sixties with a ruddy complexion resulting from too much exposure to the sun. He had graduated from New York’s City College with a degree in engineering but quickly discovered that construction was both more remunerative and offered him greater opportunities. He enjoyed the challenge of juggling the many disparate needs of a construction project, organizing the players to move smoothly from one task to the next and watching a building take shape, knowing that his leadership provided the linkages that made it happen. For many years, he worked for contractors as a site superintendent, a position he held on Alex’s earlier project.
When he was offered the position of site manager for the Eden project he did not hesitate in accepting the challenge, knowing full well that working for Grant would not be easy. After leaving Connolly fuming on the unfinished platform, Alex retreated to his limousine, which was parked just outside the gate, and threw his coat onto the backbench. Surrounded by an enclosing structure of steel and glass, he felt protected for the first time since arriving at the site, although his heart continued to pulse rapidly. He opened a drawer of the desk that faced the bench and pulled out an envelope, carefully spreading the white powder onto the table into two tracks forming little ridges a few inches apart; his pleasure hills, he called them. Taking a short straw and leaning over the desk, he rapidly inhaled from one nostril and then the other while drawing the straw along the white ridges. He closed his eyes and wiped his nose with the back of his right hand, leaned back against the bench as the muffled sounds of engine-driven hammers began fading slowly from his consciousness and his mood changed from insecurity to a sense of supremacy and increased energy. He was ready to conquer the world. He could, at long last, feel the joy of taking full responsibility for a major project.
When the elder Mr. Grant had died five years earlier, Alex Grant inherited the firm that his father had grown into one of New York’s major real-estate development groups. During all the years Alex had worked for his father, he suffered constant criticism. Nothing he did was ever good enough to earn praise or even an acknowledgment of a job moderately well done. All he could do was to suppress the hurt, the frustration and the anger that constantly burned within him, knowing that one day the firm would be his and he could mold it in any way he desired. The anger never left, even as he coveted the power and authority he now held.
The sun rose higher in the sky, seeking open passageways between densely packed Manhattan buildings to spread its warmth onto the site. Participants in the anticipated ceremony began arriving; the politicians in their chauffeur-driven limousines, the engineers and architects on foot from the nearest subway station, and a few invited guests on a bus that had been chartered for the occasion. All milled around on the newly completed platform, talking and shaking hands until, precisely at ten in the morning, Alex stepped out of his limousine, smiling, and walked briskly across the gravel-strewn ground, jumped onto the platform, stood at the podium and raised both hands to calm the assembled crowd.
“Friends,” he started, “fellow New Yorkers, thank you for coming on such a cool, gray fall day to what I’m sure many of you see only as a muddy field. Imagine that three years from today, instead of a naked site, you will see behind me three spiraling towers with offices, residences and a hotel. Surrounding them will be a nature complex with a cavernous lower-level pool fed by a wall of water cascading against an exterior glass wall. Above this, and originating from an underground shopping arcade, will be a gently rising hill with a meandering path lined with plants and multicolored flowers bathed by the warm sun penetrating through a crystalline skylight. What a thrill it would be to take an elevator down from your apartment for a morning walk through this temperature-controlled magic forest and then be whisked up to your office, feeling relaxed and ready to tackle the challenges of the day. This will be a self-contained city within a city. Nothing this ambitious has ever been attempted before, not even in Tokyo or Paris. It will be a veritable Garden of Eden in the middle of this bustling city, which is why I’ve named it Eden Center. “Now, let me introduce the project team that is going to create the most spectacular complex ever conceived by man,” hesitating as he looked across the crowd… “or woman. Sorry, Claire, I didn’t see you behind Patrick. Construction men always seem to stand up front, hiding important team members, and…”
Alex paused to emphasize his next thought, “it is a team that will accomplish the dream of this project. I’d like to take all the credit, but I can’t. Since he is in front, I’ll start with Patrick Connolly; he’s my right-hand man and the one responsible for the platform you’re all standing on, keeping your polished shoes out of this muddy site. He’s also the person I will rely upon to keep the construction on schedule and see to it that every feature of the design is built correctly.” Patrick shifted his muscular frame uncomfortably from one foot to the other and smiled nervously, suppressing the anger he still felt from his morning encounter with Alex. When dealing with construction people he was direct, often crude, staring them down with his deep-set green eyes and arguing forcefully until they acceded to his position. But, among softies, as he viewed this group of politicians, bankers, architects and engineers, he felt uncomfortable. It was not clear to him why.
Alex continued: “You might not see Claire Fletcher too often, but without her there might never have been a project. She shepherded it through the political minefield, wangling approvals from all the government agencies. It’s to her credit that most of the people she had dealt with are still talking to her. Of course, not all of them!” Careful what you say, big boy, thought Claire as she absentmindedly combed a hand through her short blond hair. Even in a coat covering a black jacket and skirt fitted to her trim body, she was clearly the most beautiful woman in the group standing on the platform.
“Seriously, folks, I will be forever grateful to Claire for her critical role in bringing us to this day. Of course, there was the grand architectural idea conceived by the man now looking out at this virgin site. Philip Corta, turn around so we can all see you. I’ve admired this man ever since I first failed his architectural design course, but hired him on Claire’s recommendation and I haven’t regretted it for a moment. Phil’s the most imaginative designer I ever met. He’s created an architectural masterpiece, a complex of buildings strongly rooted in this earth but yet light and soaring toward the clouds. I love the way he describes it, help me out here Phil.”
Corta, dressed in black slacks, a black turtleneck shirt and black Italian- cut jacket, the uniform of a late twentieth century architect, could barely be heard over the roar of the big earthmovers that were crawling like ants around the site. Cupping his hands over his mouth as he spoke, he said, “It is meant to create an oasis in the middle of the city where people will be able to work in a dramatic setting, enjoy the benefits of nature, and be at home in a relaxed atmosphere…truly a self-contained environment. I visualize it as the conjunction of an underground empire, invisible but ever-present, with a growing field of delicate structures, rising upward like flowering plants, shielded by a crystal canopy.” While speaking, he raised his ballerina fingers and cut through the air, imparting form to his words.
“I wish I could understand what Phil just said,” Alex exclaimed. “But he said it so beautifully and in that crisp accent…” “Cheers,” Corta yelled out, and then mumbled, “You spoiled bastard.” as he thought about Alex’s father, who would certainly never have been so crude.
Alex turned away from Philip. “Anyway, I can’t wait to see the dream take shape. There are many others who have contributed to getting us to this groundbreaking but if I mentioned them all, we’d be here all day. For those of you who have forgotten who I am, I’m Alex Grant, and it’s my development company that has brought us to this point. The actual construction will involve a substantial investment from outside financial institutions that have already made sizeable commitments. Chip, are you listening?”
As he stared directly at Alex, Chip Stewart, the banker, felt the whisper of a caress against his hand from another prominent attendee. He felt a warm rush of blood rising in his body, making him feel lightheaded but he dared not turn to acknowledge or rebuke the offender. Later, he thought, later. Fortunately, Alex dropped the subject of financial relationships.
“Now folks, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for, as I have the privilege of showing you the future. Here is Eden Center! Patrick, will you do the honors and unveil the model?” When Patrick lifted the black-velvet shroud from the model, a murmur of awe spread throughout the small group, as they saw for the first time the incredible beauty and power of Eden Center. Towers twisted upward, surrounded by a graceful, undulating, curved lace roof that snaked around the towers, defining the nature complex.
The composition was unique yet contextual and related beautifully to its environment. The face toward the city included a glazed galleria that invited in the public. On the riverside, a landscaped park with dining kiosks along a riverwalk and a boat basin were intended to bring life to a long-neglected part of the city. Although descriptions of the scope of the project had appeared in the press earlier, the full dramatic impact of the composition was only now revealed.
“Let me now introduce our distinguished guests from the political arena, without whose support and encouragement we would not be standing here today. Behind me are, from left to right, Senator Hamilton Johns, Mayor Roger Bartlett, and Governor Cynthia Davenport.” Alex introduced each of the guests with a compliment and a joke and each gave a brief speech lauding the project, promising their full support to achieve successful completion. Afterward, as the crowd began to disperse, some of the guests moved closer to admire the model. Alex engaged the politicians in discussions, smiling and shaking hands as photographers from media organizations framed them in front of the model.
Within minutes, aides to the three politicians led them gingerly away from the thinning crowd and toward waiting vehicles. Philip stepped off the platform and onto the site, intent on viewing the progress of the work…his project! “Wait up,” shouted Alex as he ran to catch Philip. “How long have we been working for this day? It seems like an eternity.” His face tightened and seemed ready to explode as he put his arm on Philip’s shoulder and grasped it hard, feeling the thinly blanketed bones.
(END OF EXCERPT)