Why bad buildings happen to good cities
Some grumblings on Trump Place, the Hearst Tower, and the new MOMA.
By way of full disclosure I must confess that I am a passionate lover of cities and of their great architecture, but with no formal architectural training to give academic weight to my opinions. I’m just a cranky, opinionated guy with a strong point of view. So read further at your own risk. I was born in New York City at the time when the Chrysler Building and the Empire State were just constructed. I have lived in a New York that had the celebrated skyline that we all recall from films and photos; buildings with setback terraces built of natural building materials, steel, limestone, and brick, with discreet windows and stone carved decorations around the canopied entrances and the art deco facades. These were and are amazing buildings, the product of art and commerce at its best. Sure there was plenty of substandard tenement housing that warehoused the poor, but the city felt organic, even the worst of the housing was of brick and mortar and brownstone, rundown perhaps, but never ostentatiously ugly. Where we lived might limit our present lives but it never defined our future. And this city sheltered us.
There was very little new building taking place during my childhood in the Depression so I came to view the city as immutable; that is, until my visit as a boy of six to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was there that I first came to see and love modern architecture. Some of that fair was built by Wallace Harrison, one of the great architects who helped design the masterpiece that is Rockefeller Center. That fair was Oz for city kids like me and I expected that New York would someday become an Emerald City of great new modern buildings, tall enough to strut their streamlined stuff but not so tall as to cast annoying dark shadows, with fountains and gardens and statues and benches to sit on so as to swap stories with friends or read away a summer’s day. These would be affordable buildings that would shelter people on a human scale in a humane fashion. Well, kids can dream, can’t they?
As an adult I have been lucky enough to live in pre-war buildings in some of the great cities like New York and London and work in such splendid cities as Budapest and Berlin. I know that I am jealously protective of the cities I love, and not always rational on the subject of the new buildings that sprout up within them, sometimes without warning. I was appalled by the skyscraping of the former East Berlin by uber-companies vying with one another to see who could erect the tallest glass-walled architectural monument to its glory. Yes, these are better than the dingy modern buildings built before the wall came down in Stalinist style, but no more human in their context. During the Communist years the old pre-war Adlon Hotel remained a reproach to the architectural junk that the commissars were tossing up. It seems to me that the great cities need all the protection they can get from contemporary architects, and more from those growth crazed city governments who see a new tax base where you and I see a new architectural monstrosity. Take for example Trump Place that eponymous project that was recently constructed on the west side of Manhattan near Lincoln Center. It may not be the worst of the large apartment developments but it is the latest and worth examining for what it says about city architecture today.
Plans for this Trump project were approved during the Giuliani administration in an effort to develop a part of the city that was lying fallow thanks to the New York Central railway yard that covered it. The lack of buildings on that spot was a welcome visual respite at the edge of the Hudson for a city that was so overcrowded. But where some of us see a wonderful open space that might become a park, a Donald Trump sees a wonderful opportunity for increasing his fortune. All very proper and legal. He obtained the land, filed his plans, and the project went forward. There are sixteen new residential towers on the former West Side rail yard, many of them with apartments that sell for millions, with a small percentage of these set aside for affordable housing whatever that means in today’s world. It seems to me no accident that this group of buildings was put into play during the Giuliani administration. It is a monument to that former Mayor’s autocratic sensibilities. I passed Trump Place recently while driving on the West Side Highway and I was struck by the great irony that this development represents. Trump has associated his name with all that is successful and elegant in this city but one passing look at Trump Place with its blocks of million dollar apartments lined up in a massive row and the first thought I had was that Lenin had been reborn as an architect and he is plying his trade with the Donald as his client. These were factories for the rich to live in.
It is remarkable how much the free market – left unchecked by government oversight and inattentive zoning commissions - can replicate the worst of totalitarian aesthetics giving us an architectural style that might be called Kontempory Kommisar. The good part for me is that I am not obliged to look at Trump Place very often but the same cannot be said for the great 57th Street where Carnegie Hall reigns, and new construction is happening all the time.
While riding west on the 57th Street cross-town bus last week my attention turned to what was once the endearingly stupid art deco Hearst Building, designed in the nineteen twenties by Joseph Urban, the brilliant set designer for William Randolph Hearst’s movies and the architect for the Ziegfeld Theatre. The Hearst is a building that always amused with its dated, exuberant architectural folly. It was a small office building whose grandiose base was created for a tower that never was erected. Urban was the designer of elaborate stage sets for the Ziegfeld Follies and for the extravagant silent films in which Marion Davies, chorus girl/ soubrette/ and good-natured Hearst mistress appeared. The building commissioned by Hearst has eight phallic columns which contains figures at their base representing the arts and sciences. It was a fitting place for a newspaper and magazine empire meant both to inform and titillate. I enjoyed it for what it was – an architectural misadventure but a very lovable one. Hearst never managed to build the tall tower to top the amusing columns so there was something of an empty shell about the place. Sir Norman Foster, the revered British architect just succeeded in filling that shell. It has received nearly universal praise for its unique design and its “green” energy saving details. You can go on the internet and get a podcast tour of the premises by no less than Tom Brokow who will proclaim its serious virtues.
Sir Norman, who has built a fine addition to the British Museum in London, and done exemplary work on the Reichstag in Berlin, can be an admirable architect. In the case of the Reichstag, that building with its evil history could use all the transparency in glass that it could get from Sir Norman whose addition was intelligent and resourceful. But he has gone so far off the mark in New York that one might hope that he can be kept out in the future as an undocumented alien and a menace to my city.
The tower addition to the Hearst building, for those who have missed seeing it, is a series of intersecting blue diamond shapes that unfold like a hand held accordion dropped on its side by a drunken street musician. The total effect of its exterior is so ugly that it is a stick in the eye to the grandeur of that remarkable street that includes Carnegie Hall, the Osborne Apartments, the Art Students League, the Park Vendome and a great many splendid old skyscraper offices and residential buildings. This new building is so disconnected from its base that it looks like it was landed atop the old Hearst building rather than built upon it. It ignores tradition and context as if they were dirty words, why it’s very lack of connection to its base and to its neighbors on the street is what the architectural wise-guys find so exciting. That disconnect with its neighbors can work well as in the Hancock Building in Boston whose modern glass exterior reflects the gorgeous 19th century Richardson church nearby, but more often it creates a visual hodge-podge as in the Hearst Tower. And so its admirers have announced that its greatest fault – its lack of context to its base - is its greatest virtue.
I do appreciate the idea of a completely green building which is exactly what this one claims to be. It brings out the sleeping Al Gore in me. Yes, I want to save the planet from global warming as much as anyone does who cares about life in the future. This new Hearst Tower might be perfectly okay in a suburban industrial park, a commendable effort at warding off those abominable green-house gases, but what does it profit you if you gain the whole world but lose 57th Street? Come on, fellas! What were you thinking? Now I haven’t been inside the building where I understand the lobby is so vast it echoes the set of the German expressionist film “Metropolis” – at least it looks that way from the photographs. Mine is strictly the outsider’s view. This is a building that is so damned virtuous but impossible to love; and it is just plain ugly – at least to any honest passerby. No, I’m wrong. Someone does love it. The New York Times, the newspaper of record that has a sad record of endorsing the worst in city architecture over the past decade in its architectural reviews and editorial pages. It must always be remembered that The Times has deep interests in city real estate, Times Square and all that good stuff, and it tends to treat the works of local developers very carefully. Yes, that newspaper adored it. And they were not alone in their praise. The venerable New Yorker Magazine had high praise for it, a sincere but misguided infatuation by an aging roué of a magazine for the new girl on the block who is something of an exhibitionist. You can bet that none of the critics who praised this building would live in such a structure, huddled as they are in their cozy Victorian brownstones in Greenwich Village or Brooklyn Heights.
Was it not enough for The Times to cheer on the Iraq war? That war, for all its ignominy will no doubt end someday but Sir Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower will be with us for generations to come, which at my age is forever. And as the great P.G Woodhouse would say, “it’s a blot on the landscape.”
What we city folk have been obliged to live with in the way of new buildings is truly remarkable. I won’t mention – oh but yes I will - the new Museum of Modern Art. This has to be the worst building ever created in modern times to exhibit art – and that includes the notorious Huntington Hartford Museum on 59th Street. Although the revered circular Guggenheim was built on stodgy Fifth Avenue years ago by Frank Lloyd Wright, disconnected from the street it graces - it plays off the Central Park it faces and works as a remarkable art viewing experience. It was and is grand in spirit and design. MOMA was not a work of Sir Norman’s atelier but it is built in his spirit. It has Pritzger Prize written all over it, and with its distracting escalators laden with visitors, and acres of glass, one sees more of the crowd than the paintings and sculpture, something that does not distract in the old Metropolitan Museum for all its tourists. Yes, the old MOMA lacked storage space and you couldn’t view every painting in the collection, but it was elegant, human in scale, designed for viewing art, and not created as a revenue machine to bring in out-of-town tourist to its many gift shops, and expensive restaurants, or to advertise the talents of its notable architect.
And what are we to make of all those titanium Kleenex tissues that Frank Gehry has carelessly dropped all over the western world spreading his architectural virus willy-nilly? The first time round in Barcelona it was great fun, but now, after it has started to breed and send its progeny around the world it is a bit unsettling. I recently sat under Gehry’s titanium bandstand shell in Millennium Park in Chicago (a city that has so many great building one can only gape in awe and envy when you visit) and I couldn’t figure out what purpose that mammoth hankie fulfilled for listening to music or sheltering against the winds coming off Lake Michigan. I then determined that its real purpose was to announce to the world that the great Gehry was here, eager to make his mark in the city of Burnham, Sullivan, and Wright, the greats who built the architectural treasure that is Chicago and its environs. And what great city today can do without that trademark architectural parachute? Do I sound cranky? A grouchy old man? Okay, when it comes to art and architecture, I admit to it.
Architecture for me is the most important of the arts. It is the mother art. It shelters us, it gives us a refuge in our daily lives, it gives us our place to work and play, and we are obliged to view it, like it or not, as we move through our cities. When it is great, it renews and restores our spirits. When it is bad it dashes those spirits. Sir Norman’s work exemplifies the new architecture in my city. None of your restrained Lever House/ Bauhaus elegance for him or his brethren. He has a statement to make – and it is “Look at me!” The appalling glass tower that he proposes to place over the old Park Benet building on Madison Avenue has been postponed due to community and zoning objections, but nobody can stop Sir Norman for long. He will come back from his drawing board with something that slips by the zoning board. He is the future, like it or not.
The Bloomberg era in New York may someday be known as the time when New York was assaulted by a rash of Hedge-Fund architecture on its skyline, leaving a mess for the generations to come to clean up with a bulldozer. More important, it was also the time when the middle-class was driven from the city by a soaring real estate market, and the city lost its mix of workers, store keepers, sales people, teachers, and artists, as the city became a place for financiers, movie folk, and e-commerce speculators. I know there have always been such people in my city, but the richest among them often left behind great libraries, concert halls, and museums. I know that the intention of the new Hearst Tower was to bring modern building techniques and green principles to bear upon architecture and create a fine workplace but the end result – as viewed from the street - is an insult to the street it has been built on. Yes, there are other atrocities to be found there. The fine old buildings on Fifty Seventh between Fifth and Madison have been covered with billion dollar corporate graffiti thanks to a city that has done next to nothing to stop the desecrations. Yes, bad buildings happen to good cities for the same reason that bad wars happen: private greed and public indifference, and wrongheaded, arrogant experts praising what the rest of us see with open eyes as ugliness and a huge mistake.