In Search of Meaningful Architecture in New York
My Christmas present to all of my fans - wishing you a happy New Year!
Copyright Vladimir Kagan December 20, 2014
Four years ago I scoured New York in search of architectural satisfaction and could only find relics of a glorious past. Nothing in modern spoke to me nothing was visually gratifying. * This year I gave it another whirl, really determined to find redemption in modern. The exercise turned out to be feeble but all is not lost.
*See my Blog A Tour through New York Streets July 8,2010
*For a more jaundiced review on the subject, read the New York Times’ recent editorial
How to Rebuild Architecture
By STEVEN BINGLER and MARTIN C. PEDERSEN DEC. 15, 2014
This is my review of some of the city’s newest and sometimes not so new buildings, some that appeal to me - others that don’t. (In Nantucket it was a walk through the Moors). In New York it’s whatever I could see from the passenger seat of my car - a worm’s eye view of the city.
Big spaces do not necessarily produce great works. The Freedom Tower (It has been renamed 1 World Trade) is tall and impressive. After much political back and forth- and the ineptitude of getting the project going, the design was finally watered down and Daniel Liebeskind’s original concept was redesigned by David Childs of the architecture juggernaut SOM. Conde Naste became the first tenant to move into the building in November
(Tall towers scare me… they are too nice a target for mischief). The building is located at the far end of the Freedom Park. Its architectural statement has set the tone for the latest craze in modern architecture: Create a tall rectangular box, then take a substantial diagonal karate-chop off it, - more than one is even better. And there you have the latest genre in 21st Century Architecture. This has already set the trend for a number of new wannabes in the city.
The transportation hub was to be a monument of gracious architecture. Santiago Calvatava, the most imaginative architect that Spain has produced in recent years, took an open site and gave us a beautiful vision of a white dove in flight. The Port Authority bought the idea and made it the most expensive train station ever built; over $4 billion dollars! However, this glorious structure is buried amongst tall, inconsequential buildings virtually hidden from view.
Downtown Manhattan: Enterprising real estate developers did not wait for the Freedom Tower to rise. They turned it into a residential neighborhood Downtown is now called "fidi" by the kids. The banks have all but moved elsewhere and Wall Street is more of a tourist stop then a place of serious business. Hundreds of buildings both residential and office have gone up since 9/11. The blighted neighborhood rapidly rebounded. Bravo for the entrepreneurs who had envisioned the future. But as my friend Ele said, “It’s like a bowl of M&Ms you don’t know which one to eat first.” – inconsequential architecture defines the neighborhood.
Cruisn' down the FDR Eastriver drive to the portal of Brooklyn:
The new Barclay Center, a marvel of technology but short on aesthetics
Driving over the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge you come upon the new Barclay’s Sports Center; Barclays was designed by SHoP architects- 5 young kids with big ideas. They make their work about understanding the capabilities if technology - how 3d software in the computer can streamline physically making a building. Barclays could not have been made without a computer. Fascinating as it may be, it reminds me of a huge rust bucket, that’s what Cor-Ten steel does: it rusts. Non-the-less it makes an impressive statement as we drove up Flatbush Avenue and marveled at the rapid change in that Borough.
Much of my architectural journey followed the East River Drive, a beautiful way to ogle at the city. The NYU Hospital complex on the East River is a potpourri of elegant glass towers presumably well suited to their given purpose. One is hardly distinguishable from the other; glass towers with donor’s names in two-foot letter over the entrance doors, but because of crowded space, the buildings are barely distinguishable one from the other.
Every architect's favorite gimmick: use lots of mirror to reflect the other buildings often camouflaging their own creations
This is my hidden architectural treasure temporarily exposed by the big dig where once stood the Con-Ed Powerplant.
Ooop, a bird's eye view of Tudor City - we drove by too quickly to photo it from the car
There is a huge hole between First Avenue and the River where once stood the mammoth Con-Ed Power plant (long a blight on the neighborhood). The lot has been empty for years and is sprouting an urban forest with trees and grasses. For the time being you can see the heroic Tudor City, built in the 1920s by Fred French as the first high-rise residential complex including a hotel and other amenities. Prior to that the neighborhood was a derelict no-man’s land of hoodlums and squatters. First Avenue was home to dozens of slaughterhouses and the vast Con Ed Power generating plant. My first factory was located opposite this squalor on East 44th Street. But the neighborhood was soon to change forever with the building of the United Nations. If you slow down long enough, there is one building on Second Avenue that has always fascinated me; a corn-cob rising some thirty or forty floors with a splendid view of the East River all the way up Long Island. This is not a new building… it has been there for at least thirty years. Normally you couldn’t see it obscured by the power plant, but now, for a little while it has its place in the sun.
The view from my apartment: lhe latest skyline interruption: 432 Park Avenue - 1,396 feet tall
And here come the wannabees!
New York is the city that never sleeps. But someone was asleep on the switch when they permitted the construction of a monolithic tower standing 1,396 feet tall: taller than the Freedom tower, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, 432 Park Avenue. Rafael Viñoly designed a 10 x 10 structural grid of concrete. This makes a strong shell and strong core so there are no interior columns – I can’t wait to get my first comission to design one of the interiors! The building is touted to be the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere. Imagine the joy of living in a hermetically sealed building with a power failure! Don’t be fooled by the address, it is plunked into the middle of the block on 54 Street between Park and Madison Avenue where once stood the gracious but jaded Drake Hotel. Seen from my apartment window or a drive down Park Avenue, or approaching the city from New Jersey or Long Island you are greeted by this singular erection on Viagra. For me It flaunts the last vestiges of New York’s civility. There was a time were when a building in the middle of a block had to conform in height with its neighboring structures. This gave a harmonious silhouette to the street scene. However with clever manipulation of building codes, anything goes. Now that the civility mold has been broken, expect more of these behemoths. The other day, I drove on East 60th Street between Park and Madison to find a hole in the ground announcing the next super monstrosity. 60th Street is one of New York’s busiest cross streets– the last street feeding into Central Park and 59th Street – no right turn is permitted on Madison Avenue, it is always chucker-block full with traffic spilling into grid-lock on Park Avenue. Now envision a hundred story residential building with tenants driving in and out of their luxury garage. (Where was the city’s planning board???)
A fifties "Wedding Cake" Architecture along Park Avenue
As students, we scoffed at the proliferation of the post-war wedding cake architecture, mostly built in white glazed brick. The Genre was virtually owned by Emory Roth and Sons – Architect. These building sprouted up all over New York – East Side and West side. - In retrospect they weren’t all bad. Designed to meet strict building codes for air and sunlight; the many setbacks provided terraces and penthouses for dozens of tenants. And yes, sunlight did filter down to the street. The windows were bad and often leaking, the ceilings were low, the little square parquet floors were rather heinous. Air conditioning often came as an afterthought and these buildings now sprout hundreds of dripping units. Still, they respected the building code for height. Cunning builders sometimes squeeze another floor out by dipping the lobby entrance below street level. However, none of these buildings towered above the others.
Redemption: Today, some the most pleasing architecture are those buildings that have been shoehorned into tiny spaces. Where once stood a modest brownstone between two apartment buildings, new low-rise building have been neatly inserted into their place - decent modern without despoiling the neighborhood.
I can't reist the "old" - I guess that I am a nostalgic octeneratian after all
A wacky relic of the good old days
The last vestige of civility at the Battery - the old sailors home and church
How did this one get left behind in 2nd Avenue?
Is this cheating? I do love the marriage of these two Metropolitan Museum building under one glass roof
New York may be the city that never sleeps… it’s certainly true of its architecture - More and Upward!
New York is not an easy place to be an architectural trendsetter. Her are five Architects and their buildings that have filled the bill:
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building 1957 was a trendsetter; build in Bronze, clean, monolithic and monumental. Asked why Bronze, Mr. van der Rohe replied “Because I like it!”
In 1952 The Lever House by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owing & Merrill started the glass trend. It sits airily on a square block on Park Avenue. Mercifully it is Land Marked and protected from greedy development.
Frank Lloyd Wright defied the skyscraper and gave us the poet Guggenheim Museum in 1959. I was proud to have met Wright during that period. He was much defiled by his contemporaries for degrading 5th Avenue.
The TWA terminal by Eero Saarinen, 1962 is one of my favorite building in NYC. I would fly TWA whenever I could just to pay homage to this lyrical, totally impractical masterpiece. (Saved by Landmark designation)
Today, I am hard pressed to find any new candidates for this short list! (No wonder Mid-Century design holds us in such awe today!)