In a conversation with the client, CBS’ then-president Frank Stanton, architect Eero Saarinen said that the beauty of the new CBS office, located on the corner of 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue (right next door to Knoll's current New York showroom), would be attributed to its being “the simplest skyscraper statement in New York.”
CBS 'Black Rock' Building by Eero Saarinen, c. 1965. Image from the Knoll Archive.
“Buildings should have ‘guts’ and direction and make statements.”
Now known colloquially as the “Black Rock,” the design of the CBS tower was always imagined as “a dark building.” From his time in Oslo, Saarinen had observed that this commanding appearance worked well in dense, urban areas. Constructed almost entirely out of granite, the building’s façade hides the rectangular doughnut-shaped design that structures its interior. The unconventional configuration allowed for extensive open-plan offices—the kind Florence Knoll had long advocated for—and eliminated “wasteful” corridors.
CBS President Frank Stanton’s Suite, designed by Florence Knoll, c. 1965. Image from the Knoll Archive.
Cutting against the grain of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s less-is-more philosophy, Saarinen believed that “the spirit of a building should be expressed, not hidden behind a neutral curtain of glass." He favored the bold: "buildings should have ‘guts’ and direction and make statements.” But with CBS, Saarinen’s "statement" was actually a recapitulation of another architect's theories: those of early modernist and so-called "father of skyscrapers," Louis Sullivan. Saarinen wrote: “I think Louis Sullivan was right to want the skyscraper to be a soaring thing […] your eyes should be led up to comprehend [the] building as a whole.”
Reception room at CBS Building, designed by Florence Knoll, c. 1965. Image from the Knoll Archive.
In crafting the striking exterior, Saarinen used triangular piers to emphasize the skyscraper’s upward trajectory, which also house the building's mechanical infrastructure. He recalled their appeal—primarily functional, but also aesthetic: "We arrived at the triangular piers after much study of other shapes. This shape emphasized verticality most strongly. It best combined mechanical and structural requirements. It kept the glass area to a reasonable minimum, and the triangular piers would make a changing relief as you move around it."
Four examples of CBS interiors designed by Florence Knoll. Image courtesy of Knoll Archive.
Saarinen died soon after construction broke ground, leaving his associates with the challenge of finishing the design. As a lifetime friend of Saarinen, Florence Knoll took it upon herself to plan the building's entire interior, including the open-plan offices, reception areas and executive offices. It would be her last corporate interiors project prior to retirement.
CBS interior designed by Florence Knoll, 1965. Image courtesy of Knoll Archive.
Overall, Florence Knoll adapted her vision to suit the project's rectilinear architecture. But the furnishings used in the CBS offices—Florence Knoll's Parallel Bar Series, Mies van der Rohe's Flat-Bar Brno Chair and Barcelona Chair, Pollock's 657 ‘Sling’ Armchair—all include a slight bend, a nod to Saarinen's usual sensitivity to contour and a welcome complement to the most grid-confined of architectural paradigms: the skyscraper.
P. Silberberg’s office at the CBS Building, designed by Florence Knoll. Image courtesy of Knoll Archive.
All images are from the Knoll Archive unless otherwise noted.