Fred A. Bernstein

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The Punctured Sky: New York's Architectural Heritage

A history of New York City architecture: the last 150 years in 4,500 words

Published in Books, April 16, 2008


Could it be coincidence that so much of the greatest architecture of the last 150 years was built on one small island? Manhattan's setting - between the fast-flowing Hudson River and the estuarine East River - helps explain its twin architectural marvels: the suspension bridge (needed to get people to the island) and the skyscraper (needed to squeeze them into a few square miles). In both cases, new technology helped produce icons, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, that commanded the world's attention. 

Today's Manhattan, outside of Central Park, is so crowded with buildings that it's hard to imagine it any other way. But before the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, Manhattan was largely rural, and reachable only by boat. Even trains had to approach Manhattan on barges until 1911, when the first railroad tunnel under the Hudson River was completed. Docks turned Manhattan's rocky coastline into a jagged saw-edge.


It was thanks to Washington Augustus Roebling, a visionary engineer, that boats lost their monopoly on transportation to Manhattan. Roebling watched through a telescope from his waterfront house as the Brooklyn Bridge began rising in 1870. It wasn't the world's first suspension bridge, but it was the largest, by far. And it was unquestionably the most dramatic: the cables forming a delicate web against the sky; the two heavy stone piers exuding permanence and strength. The meeting of the fluidly futuristic and the stoutly historical created a frisson that has inspired poets and painters ever since. And though its design has never been equaled, it inspired designers of several other Manhattan spans (including the George Washington Bridge, built more than half a century later) to reach for greatness.

When it was new, the Brooklyn Bridge was notable not only for its length but for its height: It was, improbably, the tallest structure in the city. On either side were wooden farmhouses, some modest and some grand (one of the latter, Gracie Mansion, built in 1799, survives as the official residence of New York City's mayor). And there were red-brick Federal style houses, including a row on Harrison Street, in what is now TriBeCa, completed around 1810 and still in use as private homes. There were masonry warehouse buildings serving the busy seaport.


Not every early New York building was mundane. Dotting the landscape were edifices meant to rise above the everyday. Among them was Castle Clinton, a medieval-looking battlement (built for the War of 1812) at the foot of the island. City Hall (1803-1811) was a mini-palace, with many details that would be at home in the Loire Valley. Trinity Church, which was built in 1846, is a 280-foot-high gem, its gothic spire reaching delicately toward a gilded cross. And Federal Hall, originally built as a customs house in 1842, is a perfectly-proportioned, Doric-columned temple. Those few building types - the fort, the palazzo, the cathedral and the temple - were to set the themes for many of the buildings that were to help transform New York into a major metropolis. Still others were made from cast iron parts, permitting quick assembly and allowing light to flood their deep interiors through floor-to-ceiling windows. The neighborhood now called SoHo - for its location South of Houston Street - has a particularly high concentration of cast iron buildings. Among the architects who exploited this early form of prefabrication was Ernest Flagg, who created delicate art nouveau detailing in cast iron on the facade of his Little Singer Building.


The Brooklyn Bridge wasn't the city's tallest structure for long. Two innovations - the elevator (made safe by the inventor Elisha Otis in the 1850s) and the steel structure (perfected in New York and Chicago around 1880) - led to the first skyscrapers. But however newfangled they were, surpassing the height of ancient wonders like the pyramids without the need for heavy masonry, the new buildings came cloaked in historic styles, as if to hide the very innovations that gave them life. The 13-story Bayard-Condict Building (1897-99), the only New York work of the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, is covered in extravagantly detailed foliage, fulfilling Sullivan's dictum that a skyscraper should "rise in sheer exaltation so that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line." The Flatiron Building, designed by Daniel H. Burnham and Co. and completed in 1902, is a 22-story landmark distinguished as much by its triangular shape and its location (at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, perhaps the city's two most fabled streets) as by its limestone and terra cotta surfaces. Some the desire to cloak skyscrapers in familiar forms created embarrassing failures; among them was the headquarters of Singer, the sewing machine company, on lower Broadway. The 48-story tower, completed in 1908, rose ungracefully to bulbous head modeled on a French chateau, complete with an enormous mansard roof. The tallest office building in the world when it was built, it acquired a new distinction in 1968: the tallest building ever to be demolished. In other instances, the application of classical styles to soaring structures created great achievements. Among those is the Woolworth Building, the brainchild of F. W. Woolworth, who made a fortune opening "five and dime" stores across the country, and was willing to spend millions of those dimes on a building that expressed his financial and cultural might. The tower, designed by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1913, had the delicate detailing of a gothic cathedral, rendered in terra cotta and rising to a height of more than 800 feet (making it the tallest building in the world until 1930, the year the Chrysler Building was constructed). Often called the cathedral of commerce, Woolworth, with its green pyramidal top, was the literal and metaphoric apex of Lower Manhattan.


At the end of World War I, New York grew feverishly, with developers racing to fill in the grid first proposed in the early nineteenth century. (Conceived as a way of encouraging the rapid growth of the city, the grid performed as planned.) At the same time, a new style of architecture had arisen that expressed the optimism of the times. Introduced in France at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, the look had come to be known as Art Deco. At its best, deco celebrated the modern worlds of industry and science, using aluminum and steel in shapes suggesting airplanes, streamlined trains and ocean liners. But those conveyances were thoroughly abstracted. At a time when painters were finding new ways to depict familiar objects, the architect Raymond Hood, who had studied at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, was making a parallel journey. Once a devotee of gothic revival architecture, his turn to abstraction was epitomized by the Daily News building on East 42nd Street - the Daily Planet building in Superman movies - and the McGraw-Hill building, a deeply hued, greenish-blue ziggurat, on West 42nd. Both were completed in 1930. Two years later, Hood began working on an entire art deco neighborhood that came to be known as Rockefeller Center.


Rockefeller Center was conceived as a new home for one of Manhattan's premier cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Opera. John D. Rockefeller acquired the site (from Fifth to Sixth Avenues and 48th to 51st Streets) largely to provide the opera with a glamorous new setting. But when that institution decided to stay in its existing building (after the stock market crash deterred potential donors), Rockefeller moved forward, even reluctantly agreed to put his family's name on the urban renewal project. At its center was the now-iconic outdoor skating rink, overlooked by Paul Manship's statue of Prometheus. And overlooking Prometheus is Hood's RCA building, which telescopes gracefully to a height of 800 feet. An underground arcade, much of it in polished black marble, links the center's fourteen original buildings. They included Radio City Music Hall, which dazzled with its sumptuous deco detailing by designer Donald Deskey. Elsewhere in the complex, artworks like Isamu Noguchi's bas relief of the history of newsgathering, over the portal of the Associated Press building, made Rockefeller Center a veritable outdoor museum. Completed as the country entered the Depression, it is considered the greatest example of twentieth-century urban design.


But the deco style was to get its most popular expression in 1930 with the Chrysler Building, a car manufacturer's celebration of both America (with gargoyles in the shape of gigantic eagles) and the automobile (with sculptures modeled on hood ornaments and radiator caps). As described by the New York Times on its 75th birthday in 2005, the Chrysler building is "77 stories of razzmatazz and attitude, a bit of speedway and a lot of jukebox." During construction, the building's patron, Walter Chrysler, and architect, William Van Alen, kept their plans under wraps. Indeed, the needle-like spire had been brought to the site in sections and assembled clandestinely inside the tower. Then, on October 23, 1929, just one day before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, the 27-ton spire was hoisted into place in only 90 minutes, without a single photographer recording the event. New Yorkers awoke the next day to learn that the city had set another record.

The Chrysler Building may be the most dazzling jewel in the Manhattan skyline, but its distinction as the world's tallest lasted less than a year. Construction of the Empire State Building, designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, was already underway in 1930, and in 1931 - after a mere 18 months' work - it topped out at 1,046 feet. Its deco detailing is less eccentric than the Chrysler's, but no less extravagant, starting with a lobby of black and red marble and continuing with a nearly square tower that rises to a sleek pencil point in the clouds. The building hasn't always had luck commensurate with its importance. Its mast, originally meant as a place where dirigible passengers could disembark, proved impractical for that purpose. (In 1951, the spire began to house TV broadcasting equipment.) In 1945, a plane hit the building, killing 14 people and leaving a gash in the 79th floor. And the building spent more than a decade in financial limbo, a plight attributed in part to the small size of its offices, a predicament created in part by the need for 73 elevators. None of that stopped it from becoming perhaps the most beloved skyscraper in the world, and the unrivaled symbol of New York City.


For centuries, New York's grandest public buildings were white-on-white beaux-arts confections. The greatest practitioner of this style (named for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris) was the firm of McKim, Mead and White. Their most famous building was Pennsylvania Station, the massive terminal and town square that turned ordinary passengers into participants in a grand civic pageant. Penn Station was torn down in 1963, a crime that helped spawn the preservation movement that has saved so many other New York landmarks. Surviving Beaux-Arts monuments include the Metropolitan Museum (by Richard Morris Hunt and others) and the New York Public Library, a 1911 masterpiece by White's greatest rivals, Carerre and Hastings. Its block-long reading room, with hundreds of green-glass lampshades, may be the most beautiful interior in New York City.


It's no surprise that the city's cultural institutions have produced some of its most important buildings. That trend continued even after changing tastes - and rising labor costs - made Beaux-Arts detailing pass´┐Ż. In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art moved from a townhouse to a new building designed to be as modern as the revolutionary artworks inside it. There, on West 53rd Street, Edward Durrell Stone and Philip Goodwin created a flat facade with metal-framed windows recalling the work of the great Swiss-French modernist Le Corbusier. (Over the years, MoMA twice revamped its building: first in 1984 with a renovation by the Argentine-American architect Cesar Pelli, and again in 2004 with a major expansion by the Japanese minimalist Yoshio Taniguchi.) But all its incarnations had a primary feature in common: The galleries were white boxes, providing neutral backdrops for art. Other institutions avoided the white box approach. In Frank Lloyd Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, art is placed along a giant spiral ramp that visitors descend. Despite the insistence of some of the country's top artists that they would never allow their work to be shown in such an unorthodox space, the Guggenheim has thrived. The building is at its best when other architects (including, in recent years, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry) install art in ways that engage Wright's powerful forms.

A few blocks south of the Guggenheim is the Whitney Museum, designed by the Austrian-American Marcel Breuer as an inverted ziggurat: Unlike most New York buildings, which step back as they get taller, the "wedding cake" arrangement that allows light and air to reach the street, the Whitney's floors get larger as the building rises. Bulging, angular windows explore the expressive possibilities of poured concrete. After a series of architects - including post-modernist Michael Graves, Dutch iconoclast Rem Koolhaas and the ubiquitous museum designer Renzo Piano, floated ideas for enlarging the building, the museum trustees eventually realized enlarging what most New Yorkers already knew: that the Breuer building is a perfect composition that should not be tampered with. Instead, the museum announced plans to build an annex in West Chelsea, the gallery neighborhood bisected by an elevated railroad called the High Line, which is being turned into a raised, linear park. And in the 1990s, Manhattan architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien created - next door to MoMA - a museum that lacks anything resembling a white box. Their American Folk Art Museum is a townhouse-sized masterpiece of concrete, wood and resin; some critics consider it the best new building in the city. In 2007, the New Museum of Contemporary Art unveiled its new home by the Japanese firm SANAA, a tower of white boxes piled, seemingly precariously, over the Bowery, like a space-age version of Breuer's Whitney Museum.

Along with museums, the city has theaters of every description, including a full complement of glorious art deco movie palaces. In the 1960s, Lincoln Center brought together, on an urban renewal tract on the Upper West Side, homes for opera, classical music, dance and theater. The buildings are now being reinvented by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose work will ensure that Lincoln Center represents not only twentieth-century civic ambition but twenty-first century technology.


World War Two brought a veritable halt to building in New York. It also brought the several European masters to America, including the Germans Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, famed for the expression "less is more." Their ideas led a number of homegrown talents, including Gordon Bunshaft (leader of the powerhouse firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), to explore what was becoming known as the International Style. Bunshaft's finest Manhattan building may have been the Lever House, a tower of blue-green glass that rises from a raised podium sheathed in the same material. Completed in 1952, it was imitated around the world (though rarely equaled). In 1957, Mies himself got to try his hand at skyscraper design - only a block from Lever - when the owners of the Seagram liquor empire commissioned him to design a new headquarters building. Working with the young Philip Johnson, Mies designed a tower of startling simplicity: a bronze glass rectangle with exposed I-beams as its only "decoration." Inside, Johnson outfitted a restaurant - the now-legendary Four Seasons - in which window "shades" of metal beads, a stage curtain designed by Picasso and tapestries by Miro provided elegant, restrained decor.


Around the same time, the United Nations headquarters was taking shape, on a waterfront site donated by the Rockefellers. The architect was Wallace Harrison (working with an international team that included Le Corbusier and Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer), and the result was a campus centered on a 60-story tower that was strict in its geometry and sheathed in greenish glass. That glass reflected and refracted light in ways that turned the simple shape into a dazzling sculpture. The building became an instant icon, its transparency seeming to symbolize the future of international cooperation.

Other notable glass boxes included the Ford Foundation, in which office floors are suspended over a lush indoor garden. Designed by Kevin Roche, it is perhaps New York's most appealing workspace.

But for every glass tower that achieved greatness, a dozen others lacked distinction. Some were simply too big, too repetitious or too inelegantly detailed. Among those was a pair of 110-story towers near the southern tip of Manhattan. Rising amid a vast plaza that was far less inviting for pedestrians than were the streets it replaced, the World Trade Center towers themselves were plainly shaped - pundits described them as "the boxes the Empire State Building came in" - and numbing in detail (their vertical mullions, part of an innovative tubelike structure, created a tedious glass-metal-glass-metal repetition). But when the buildings were destroyed in 2001, the world recognized the optimism that they embodied, and their place in the Manhattan skyline.


By the time the World Trade Center was completed in 1970, architects were looking for an alternative to the glass box. Some used what appeared to be machine parts in a style dubbed high-tech. Others looked backward, creating a new style in which architectural history was mined for sometimes-kitschy details. The most famous example of the new approach - called Postmodernism - was the 1978 AT&T headquarters, designed by Philip Johnson with a broken pediment more appropriate to a grandfather clock than to a 600-foot-tall building. Postmodernism also led to misguided efforts to revamp existing structures. Among the buildings damaged in the process was 666 Fifth Avenue, a celebration of technology sheathed in panels of embossed aluminum, with a sculptural lobby by the great Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi.


During the rise and fall of modernism, some architects defied identification with any movement - and it's not coincidence that many of them were foreigners, eager not to follow local fashions but to put their own stamps on the city. Among them was Pier Luigi Nervi, an Italian architect-engineer who designed a bus terminal (1962) at the east end of the George Washington Bridge (which Le Corbusier, the great modernist, called "the most beautiful bridge in the world"). Nervi mimicked the bridge's angled metal trusses in his signature material, poured concrete, creating compelling forms suggesting giant butterfly wings. Another masterful use of poured concrete is the TWA Kennedy Airport, by the Finnish-born master Eero Saarinen. Saarinen used concrete to create a bird-shaped building that seems a sinuous celebration of flight. Saarinen produced a second New York City masterpiece, the 1965 CBS headquarters often called Black Rock. Avoiding the flimsy detailing that makes some skyscrapers appear insubstantial, Saarinen ringed the building in what appear to be dark granite columns. And in 1972, the Arkansas-born Paul Rudolph, one of the most original architects the country has produced, created a pair of apartment buildings in the Bronx. Called Tracey Towers, the buildings are made entirely of curves, resembling - in plan - palm fronds drawn with a compass. Another foreign-born master who created a quirky Manhattan masterpiece is Aldo Rossi, an Italian who in the 1990s created, next door to SoHo's Little Singer Building, a cartoony facade of colorful concrete and steel. Fittingly, the client was Scholastic (which, as the publisher of Harry Potter books, is no stranger to fantasy writ large). A first apartment building by the French architect Jean Nouvel was taking shape around the corner.


Some of the city's most innovative buildings were intended to dazzle and then disappear. In 1939, a gigantic angled tower and globe called the TryIon and Perisphere, designed by Wallace K. Harrison, gave the New York World's fair a logo and museum. A quarter century later, for the 1964-65 fair, Philip Johnson designed a New York State pavilion composed of elevators ascending cylindrical shafts to round viewing platforms. Next to the towers, a series of massive columns held up a giant colored-glass roof over a walkable map of New York State. Too interesting to tear down, but too difficult to easily adapt to other uses, the pavilion has deteriorated for more than forty years, with no end to the slow demise in sight.


To the frustration of architecture lovers, many of the city's best designs are for private offices and homes. Luckily, more than a few great interiors are open to the public. In 1988, Philippe Starck, the Paris-based designer, turned the lobby of the Royalton Hotel, in Midtown, into a kind of fashion runway, with a long blue carpet and seating areas three steps below. Restaurants, too, became theatrical. David Rockwell's Nobu used two-by-fours to suggest trees, in the manner of a stage set. In the late 1990s, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio turned the Brasserie, at the base of the Seagram Building, into one of the most innovative restaurants in the city, a place where TV cameras recorded people coming through the door, then displayed their images on screens above the bar. Tadao Ando, a winner of the Pritzker Prize (considered architecture's highest honor), collaborated with Stephanie Goto on Morimoto, a Japanese restaurant where hundreds of plastic water bottles formed a luminous partition.


New York was once a city of houses, but in the twentieth century more and more residents found themselves living in apartment buildings. Perhaps the most famous, and most idiosyncratic, of the city's multi-family dwellings is the Dakota, completed in 1884. The castle-like building, bearing a statue of a Dakota Indian over its 72nd Street entrance, has been the setting for horror in both fiction (Rosemary's Baby) and fact (the 1980 murder of John Lennon). Far more common are vaguely classical limestone buildings, of the type that line Fifth Avenue and Central Park West (both facing Olmsted's masterpiece) and Park Avenue (developed over the railroad tracks leading north from Grand Central Station). But as the twentieth century progressed, more and more apartment buildings were created in the deco style, leading to such masterpieces as the El Dorado, its twin towers recognizable from almost every part of Central Park. In the 1950s, architects began building apartments in more clearly modernist styles. I. M. Pei's Kips Bay Towers was one of the first, with facades of pre-cast concrete. These days, some of the city's tallest and costliest buildings, such as the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, conceal condos behind glass facades indistinguishable from those of office buildings. If the views of the apartments were nothing special, the views from the apartments were not to be believed.


Many New Yorkers who live in apartments expressed their architectural ambitions in the country. By far the most famous of the region's modern country houses is the crystalline cottage designed by Philip Johnson in 1948 for a wooded site in New Canaan, Connecticut. The Glass House nearly erased the line between indoors and out (Frank Lloyd Wright famously wondered if, on entering, he should take his hat off or leave it on. Representing another strain of modernism, Richard Meier created a series all-white houses, including the Smith House in Darien, Connecticut (1965-67), where shape and shadow were the only ornament. And on Long Island, a number of young architects experimented with beach houses that were ingenious and inexpensive. (This was long before the rise of the McMansion, the oversized house with faux historic details.) Among the experimenters was Andrew Geller, whose 1950s houses, many built for under $10,000, were clever and compact. His Pearlroth House resembled a box kite in the dunes. Charles Gwathmey also designed a celebrated house, for his parents, in 1965. Forty years later, Steven Holl continued the tradition of experimentation with the Writing With Light House, in Southampton, where slats of wood arrayed across the windows modulate views and cast intriguing shadows.


After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Manhattan experienced an unexpected building boom. Part of the upturn in construction resulted directly from the the tragedy: The former World Trade Center site, commonly known as Ground Zero, cried out for redevelopment. A master plan by Daniel Libeskind, followed in part, created a framework on which other architects could shine. The first of the new buildings, 7 World Trade Center, is a graceful tower by Skidmore Owings and Merrill. Among the architects designing other buildings on the 14-acre tract are Fumihiko Maki of Japan and Norman Foster of England. (Foster had already gotten his feet wet in Manhattan with his Hearst Tower, a spire covered with distinctive criss-cross girders.) Also at Ground Zero, Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish-born engineer known for dazzlingly zoomorphic structures, designed a transportation hub with a ribbed roof that opens to the sky like praying hands. That hub, many hope, will provide the contemporary equivalent of the great transportation buildings of the past, such as the demolished Penn Station.

Receptivity to new ideas seemed to be on the upswing. In 2006, Frank Gehry, considered by some to be the greatest architect of his time, unveiled an undulating office building on the Hudson that recalled ships' sails (or icebergs). Shigeru Ban, the Japanese master, arrived in New York with a temporary building, the Nomadic Museum, built, ingeniously, from metal shipping containers and gigantic cardboard tubes. Richard Meier, the designer of three elegant glass buildings overlooking the Hudson River, went on to design a much larger apartment building facing Prospect Park in Brooklyn. A few blocks away, the British wunderkind David Adjaye completed a studio for husband-and-wife artists James Casebere and Lorna Simpson. The Swiss team of Herzog and de Meuron designed an apartment building in Greenwich Village, at 40 Bond Street, with a stunning greenish facade that attempts to replicate the area's cast iron architecture - in cast glass. Around the corner, Thomas Mayne, a Californian whose works on the West Coast had won him the Pritzker, was designing a new classroom building for the Cooper Union, an architecture and engineering school. Meanwhile, Renzo Piano of Genoa designed a new home for the Morgan Library (which houses the manuscripts collection of financier J. P. Morgan), and a new headquarters for the New York Times. Among the acclaimed architects working in New York in 2007, several - including Meier, Calatrava, and Libeskind - live in the city, but had long done most of their work elsewhere. But New York has begun to embrace its hometown architects. The city that has sheltered them is now inviting them to build, as it enters the twenty-first century with new appreciation of its heritage and new enthusiasm for its future.