Monday, April 23, 2012

More Prodigies of Midtown New York: The Glass Box

More pictures from my hike on Saturday through Midtown Manhattan as a tourist with a camera.  Once again, all of these pictures are mine, taken with my trusty little digital, and are available for any educator to use.

Again, I concentrated on buildings that I teach, taking my own pictures of these buildings because what I've found available is for whatever reason inadequate.

The glass box office tower began in the USA in a very specific place, on the corner of 53rd street and Park Avenue with two buildings from the 1950s.

The International Style of modern architecture and design arrived in the United States after World War II in two famous buildings.  First, it came in the United Nations Headquarters in New York begun in 1947.  This was the first large scale construction in the new style, and the first public institution housed in a building in a fully modern style.  Modern architecture and design was mostly confined to commercial and residential buildings before World War II.  A private home or an office building could use as much sheet glass, steel, and reinforced concrete cantilevers as could be desired, but City Hall needed columns.
Second, the International Style arrived by way of Chicago in the Lake Shore Apartments designed by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, the first building in the United States designed entirely by a creator of the International Style.

The International Style was formed out of the legacy of the Russian Avant Garde, the Bauhaus, German Expressionist Architecture, and the Chicago of Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham.  In the decades following the War, the International Style would become the most successful architectural style in history remaking the look of cities around the world from Beizhing to Berlin.

Lever House on Park Avenue was the first all glass and steel office building in the USA, and the prototype for all that was to follow here and abroad.

Lever House was completed in 1952 as the American HQ of the British Lever Brothers soap company.  It was designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, a firm that specialized in bringing modern and avant garde design to "mainstream" architecture of the time.

Here's a detail of the building.  Note all the window shades on the south side here.  The architects sold the Lever Brothers company on the international style precisely because it was bold and new, and because it was so efficient.  The architects covered a steel frame in a skin of sun resistant tinted and polarized glass and stainless steel.  The windows could not be opened requiring constant air conditioning (I wonder if anyone is writing any books out there on that very transformative invention, air conditioning).  This kept dust and soot from getting in the building saving on cleaning and maintenance costs.  This was the first building to have a built-in motorized gondola for window washing.

I respect this building more than I love it.  This building seems so familiar to me because it was the prototype for so much of the architecture of Dallas' first post-War skyscraper boom in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I've never cared much for the detailing on this building or the blue-green color ( a color that turned to turqoise when it reached Dallas).  But I think the street level design of this building is wonderful.  The ground floor is completely open to the street.  Not even a step separates it from the sidewalk.  The second floor is an employee cafeteria, lounges, and an auditorium.  the third floor faces out onto a rooftop garden, a wonderful transition from the street to the building proper.

Inside the street level of Lever House is a beautiful inner garden in an open courtyard.  All of this is open and accessible from the street.  This street level, the best part of the whole design, was the part least imitated by other later buildings.  Landlords don't like empty space.  They want as much leasable ground level floor space as possible.

It is remarkable to think what this building must have looked like when it was finished in 1952.  There was nothing else quite like it anywhere, even next door.  A bright shiny green glass box rose out of the brick and stone surroundings into the sooty New York air.  To some, it must have looked like a shiny eyesore.  To others, it looked like a bright and shining promise of Things To Come.  Today, it looks very dated, surrounded by its much larger and more up-to-date glass and steel progeny.

In 1998, a German real estate management company bought Lever House and restored it extensively after many years of decay and neglect.


Unlike Lever House, The Seagram Building seems ageless, as elegant and beautiful now as when it was completed in 1958

Lever House may have been a first of its kind as a glass and steel office building, but the Parthenon of all glass and steel boxes is right across the street, the Seagram Building.  This building set all the standards of excellence for glass and steel skyscrapers, standards that most later buildings could not meet.

The Seagram Building was designed by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, one of the creators of the International Style.  This may well be his finest building in the United States.

Mies Van Der Rohe was the son of a stone-cutter and had a craftsman's sense of material and precision.  He designed for modern materials and technology, but he demanded tolerances and quality beyond the capacity of most building methods of the day.  The glass and steel "curtain wall" of the Seagram Building, so called because it hangs off the steel frame like a curtain, is probably the most beautiful ever built and the most expensive.  Mies could not get the color he wanted in any available pre-fabricated material for this curtain wall.  In the end, he demanded, and got, bronze for the cladding of the steel grid of the wall, and for those exposed portions of the structural frame.  The building is a 516 feet tall work of bronze using over 1500 tons of the metal.  I'm amazed Seagram's agreed to all of this expense, but then, there's a lot of money to be made in booze.

The outside plaza also spared no expense on materials.  The pavement is quarried red granite.  The long bench in the foreground is green Tinian marble.

Here is the grand main entrance, grand in its sense of scale and interval, though very plain and unadorned.  You can see reflected in the glass of the entrance lobby the old Racquet and Tennis Club building from across the street that seems to fit so well.

And here is the Racquet and Tennis Club, designed by Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White and completed in 1918.  It is an American version of an Italian Renaissance palazzo and forms a perfect foil for the Seagram Building.  We are looking at it from the Seagram in this photo.  Lever House is just to the right across the street.

The exposed support beams (clad in black patinated bronze) form a classical peristyle around the all glass lobby of the building.  I've long argued that for all of his modernity,  Mies Van Der Rohe was at heart a German Neo-Classicist cut from the same cloth as Karl Friedrich Schinkel, or Leo Von Klenze or Gottfried Semper.

Here is the very unadorned and yet very beautiful entrance lobby with the floor made from the same red granite as the plaza, more exposed support piers here clad in polished bronze, and the elevator shafts clad in polished Travertine marble.  The placement of the recessed lights in the ceiling and even the ceiling air ducts is very deliberate and beautifully consistent with the whole design of this room.  This is one of the least spectacular, and yet most gratifying building lobbies in New York.

One of my favorite details is this glass and steel canopy Mies designed for the entrance to the Four Seasons Restaurant in the building; more evidence for designating Mies Van Der Rohe as a German Neo-Classicist.

Mies Van Der Rohe applied to architecture the great project of the modern aesthetic, to collapse the distinction between form and content (DeKooning thought that this project was futile; a painting is always about something, he said).  Mies Van Der Rohe thought that the surest path to that final marriage for form and content was through reductivism.  "Less is more," he insisted.  The content is the form and the form is the content.  The way to achieve that end was to purge the design down to its purist structural and formal essences, to get rid of ornament, and all the narrative and allegorical content that comes with ornament.  Mies had a sovereign indifference to the needs and desires of the people who must inhabit his buildings.  His vision of architecture was very aloof and abstract.

And yet, as coolly abstract as Mies Van Der Rohe's architecture is, it seems downright warm and fuzzy compared to the cold, arbitrary, and out of scale quality of so much (though not all) contemporary architecture.  As far as I'm concerned, it is no surprise and no accident that the most enthusiastic patrons of contemporary architecture on a vast scale are Arab petroleum dynasties and the Chinese Regime (Dubai, Beizhing, and Shanghai are now showpieces for the newest of the new in architecture and design).

Glass architecture began with romantic utopian visionaries around the time of the First World War, with people like Bruno Taut, Wassili Luckhardt, and Paul Scheerbart.  They dreamed of great crystalline cities that gleamed like the celestial Jerusalem out of the grimy brick and stone of early industrialism.  Mies Van Der Rohe wedded the Expressionist Crystal to the Chicago steel frame and the Modernist grid to create the glass and steel box of the last 60 years of architecture.  Mies' design genius plus his reductivism purged modern architecture of its former utopian and political content, and transformed it into a preferred power style after the combined forces of Hitler and Stalin killed off Classical architecture for the next thousand years (though I wouldn't write it off completely; historically classicism returns like dandelions every few centuries).

I'm not hostile to modern design or even to post-modern design, but the exponential rise of historical preservation movements around the world since the mid 20th century to me is a profound vote of no confidence.


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David said...

once again one of your generous, thoughtful posts serves to let me appreciate just of blessed your students are to have you as their teacher.
thank-you for sharing this. your love and appreciation for NYC is a real gift.

JCF said...

I'm behind on your posts Doug, but just want to say that I just saw an live overhead shot of the Chrysler Bldg . . . while my Giants are beating up the Mets! ;-)

JCF said...

I'm behind on your posts Doug, but just want to say that I just saw an live overhead shot of the Chrysler Bldg . . . while my Giants are beating up the Mets! ;-)

JCF said...

Sorry for the double post above.

the exponential rise of historical preservation movements around the world since the mid 20th century to me is a profound vote of no confidence

In my adolescence, came the great crises of "urban renewal" (i.e., tearing beautiful buildings down). This was probably epitomized in your Big Apple home by the destruction of Penn Station, Doug, but for me in Sacra-tomato Land, it was the losing fight to preserve our greatest movie palace downtown, "the Alhambra".

Ergo, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation came fishing for $ from Teenage Moi, they found an eager new sign-up. I probably never gave much thought, specifically, to what would replace what was torn down. For me, it was symbolized by the *grocery store* which replaced the old Alhambra (i.e., what you said re the Almighty Dollar being the real driving force, not any particular aesthetic).

These modern steel&glass boxes aren't my favorite, but what does it say, that I would instinctively resist THEIR being torn down either? :-/

[Is it the Seagrams Bldg that has the big Rothko paintings?]

Counterlight said...

Yes, the Seagram has the Rothko paintings in the Four Seasons.

I've had deeply mixed feelings about the International Style glass box all of my life, and I don't expect that to change.

What's coming along to take its place I think is much worse.

JayV said...

Before Michael Craig Martin became famous, he was my art teacher during my sophomore year at The Mountain School in Vermont (he wasn't much older than I was). My home was at that time in New Hampshire, but as I was planning to spend my school holidays in Manhattan, Michael suggested that I check out the Seagram Building, and across Park Avenue, Lever House. My uncle worked in the city and took me to his office one day. For a treat, he took me to lunch at the Brasserie in the Seagram Building! I've always been an admirer of the Seagram Building, especially the pool and fountain outside. Did you know that the opening sequence of the television program, That Girl, was filmed there?