Pfizer World Headquarters, Manhattan

Pfizer Building, 235 East 42nd Street, Midtown, New York City, USA


Commissioned to produce a major work of art for the refurbishment of Pfizer’s World Headquarters in New York, in 1995, over the following two years Brian conceived and created a composition that connected 42nd and 43rd Street through the length of the site, the depth of a full Manhattan block. A rheumatoid knee, bacteria, health and disease – responding to the function of the existing building with a design that translated medical and scientific imagery through the media of traditionally mouth-blown and acid-etched stained glass and hand-cut Venetian mosaic, the landmark 4,833 square-foot work related 'directly to the heart of Pfizer’s enterprises'. Brian has said: “When the work at Pfizer was installed, the chief executive and the board came for their first viewing of it and were very happy with the sheer decorative beauty of these forms, made in the same tradition as the windows at Chartres or Canterbury – and then I explained to them, innocently really, ‘These are all HIV cells budding from healthy cells, and as you walk from the lobby into the main hall, you move from HIV to terminal cancer’. There was still an unpleasant aura, a violent stigma, around having HIV and AIDS. 1997 was when combination therapy first came out, the first year in which there was an approximation of effective treatment. And Lou Clemente, Pfizer’s General Counsel, turned to us and said ‘This is what we do. This is an artist reminding us what we do’. And you can’t not do that - I’m not an interior decorator, and architecture profoundly influences our spiritual demeanour. If like me you believe in the transforming power of art, the importance of making sure our working environments are inspiring is more than a luxury, it is a human right - a human need.

The blue, amorphic forms painted in the watercolour designs required a new approach to realise in stained glass: each shape was individually worked out by Clarke in 1:1scale paintings on paper, and then created under his instruction in the molten, mouth-blown glass. An historical first, this new type of glass was christened 'Zaha-Glas' after architect Zaha Hadid, as it was first developed by Clarke for their unrealised collaboration on the Spittelau Viaducts Housing Project.

In 2000, Pfizer again commissioned Brian, this time to produce a related work for the exterior of the Headquarters building, along 42nd Street and Second Avenue. Both these works were dismantled in 2019, when Pfizer prepared to move its headquarters to a new site.

"I like to think that all my projects explore the specific nature of the architecture. This means addressing problems relating to a great variety of practical and philosophical issues. Microphotographic images of cells, bones and tissues explore not only my own philosophical enquiry into the human condition from birth: incorporated into the physical structure of the lobby they become the vehicles that lead us to an experience generally unrelated to working spaces. This attempt to materially improve the working day and atmosphere for those who occupy this building is a genuine and heartfelt, an attempt to render – however briefly – the commonplace sublime."

Client: Pfizer Pharmaceuticals; architect for the refurbishment: Hixon Design Consultants; 235 East 42nd Street; building designed 1961 by Emery Roth & Sons.