Aesthetically, New York is generally considered the preeminent city of the 20th century. As the 18th century was the century of the London terrace and square, and the 19th was that of the Parisian boulevards and Beaux Arts, the 20th century belongs to the skyscraper, the subway, and the grid. For New York, the crucible of American indigenous ideals and imported European style, has achieved in the modern era the stature of an international urban icon.
One cannot think of the architecture of New York City without the associations of skyscrapers and the skyline. Here on the slender strip of stony soil. The natural conditions of Manhattan Island are fertile ground for skyscrapers, for the city is built on a rocky outcropping of Manhattan schist, geologically strong enough to support high buildings. Poets, including Walt Whitman, have described it as "an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded" ("Mannaharta," 1860).
Physical constraints of the island site also influence the city's form. The actual twenty-two and a half square miles of Manhattan are highly circumscribed, surrounded on all sides by fast-moving rivers and a deep harbor, pushing the city's economic development while simultaneously limiting its physical expansion. Long piers were once thrown out from the island's shores, expanding the city into its waterways. The city grew further horizontally, extending across its waterways into neighboring cities and counties, and eventually annexing them. For the urban core of Manhattan, however, the only way to go was up, and the city reached ever skyward.
In the modern era, New York has become the symbolic emblem of American ideals, the towering architectural triumph of America. The city's national symbolism has been noted by many, for good and for bad. In the fall of 2001, a part of the Manhattan skyline was obliterated in a violent terrorist act. Two of the tallest buildings in history, the twin towers of the World Trade Center (Minoru Yamasaki and Associates, 1973), with occupants and other innocent victims, were destroyed on September 11, 2001. Manhattan, however, is built on rock and American urban ideals, and thus New York City endures.
The Boroughs and the New York Metropolitan Area
New York, in the broad sense, is an agglomerative environment with a population of eight million, composed of five counties or boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island—counties with populations larger than most American cities. The New York metropolitan region further expands into vast leafy suburbs from Long Island to the east and Westchester to the north, to northern New Jersey and the shoreline of Connecticut. In the narrower definition of New York in common parlance, New York City is Manhattan Island.
Certain features of the boroughs individually may be of some interest to the reader, especially the boroughs' unique open spaces (open space being in short supply in Manhattan) and their linkages to Manhattan, particularly their bridges. For example, the creators of Manhattan's Central Park in the heart of Manhattan (Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, 1860) later designed Brooklyn's Prospect Park (1874). The New York Botanical Gardens (Vaux and Parsons, 1895), with its graceful glass conservatory, can be found in the Bronx. Queens' Flushing Meadows Park still exhibits reminders of its history as the futuristic site of the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs.
The Brooklyn Bridge (John and Washington Roebling, 1883) to Manhattan is justly famed for both its engineering and its monumental Egyptoid aesthetic. Also of architectural note are the baroque Queensboro Bridge (Palmer and Hornbostel, 1909) across the East River and the sweeping cables of the George Washington Bridge (Cass Gilbert, 1931) crossing the Hudson River. The old-fashioned Staten Island Ferry offers the most stunning approach to the pinnacled skyscrapers of the lower Manhattan skyline. It sails through New York Harbor, blithely past the Statue of Liberty.
Modern Architecture in New York, 20th Century
In the earliest part of the 20th century, the architecture of New York was influenced by European styles, first by the Beaux-Arts, and then by Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) and the decorative arts. Later in the century, however, New York began to throw off its foreign-designed cloak and assert itself architecturally, creating a modern architectural language that is, in many respects, unique to the city. This was the city's first modern urban architecture that was truly architectonic, based on form, upward thrust, and massing, as dictated by the setback skyscraper zoning law (1916). By mid-century, however, European influence again returned to Manhattan, this time via the entry of émigré architects fleeing artistic and intellectual oppression.
The modern architecture of New York City can, therefore, be classified into five major periods: the Beaux-Arts, the Deco Skyscraper, Manhattan Modern, the International Style, and Alternative Modernism. Though these classifications can only begin to define the myriad forms of the city that comprise New York's distinctively urbane modernity, this article will briefly define and examine examples of each style, chosen not only for their architectural presence but also for their public accessibility to the reader.
Beaux-Arts Architecture in New York, 1900-20s
Although the Beaux-Arts looked back to classical Rome for its facades and elevations, it was truly a modern movement in its approach to plan and function. Through this style, New York was able to weave the gravity of ancient forms and facades into its modern functional fabric. Significant public urban monuments were designed in the early part of the 20th century by Beaux-Arts-trained architects and their large firms. Important commissions such as the New York Public Library (Carrere and Hastings, 1911), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Richard Morris Hunt, 1902), and Columbia University (McKim, Mead, and White, 1897) are lasting examples of the style.
Columbia University, on the upper west side, is perhaps the clearest example of the melding of the symbolic antique cloth of the Beaux-Arts with modern plan and intent. Here, Charles McKim's Pantheon-like Low Library (1897) overlooks a classically arranged campus in a highly functional and urban setting. The ponderous domed facade, its giant orders, and ranges of ascending stone steps remind the modern student that all knowledge, even the ground-breaking modern thought of the contemporary university, represents a continuity with the past.
McKim's ability to integrate historical symbolism with modern function was even more strongly felt in Pennsylvania Station (1910), a much-lamented landmark of steel and glass configured in classical form (demolished, 1962). Fortunately, as New York has gained a renewed appreciation for the Beaux-Arts, old Penn Station is now scheduled to be replaced by another McKim, Mead, and White building across the street, substituting their decommissioned classical General Post Office (1913) for the lost train station. Further, New York has recently witnessed a renaissance of restoration in two other classical monuments, the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station (Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore, 1913). Thus, the Beaux-Arts remains a living and vital part of today's city.
Art Deco Skyscrapers, 1920s-30s
During the teens, through the 1920s, and onto the era of the 1939 World's Fair, the visual historicism of the Beaux-Arts gave way to the futurism of the fair. A new look in New York was apparent, as architecture changed from a decorative dress of classicism into one of organic and zigzagging ornament. New York architecture continued to be quite ornamental throughout the 1920s, although, in contrast to the freestanding classical orders, deco ornament is usually suppressed into the facade's frontal plane. By the 1930s, New York moved toward a new integration of the basic cube and grid pattern of Manhattan with a stylized decorative motif.
Though this style was not generally applied to public monuments, other than the World's Fair, perhaps being considered too frivolous, excellent examples of deco modernism can be found from midtown and north, on the entrance facades and rising stories of commercial skyscrapers and residential buildings alike.
One of the most attractive and accessible deco facades is found on the Chanin Building (Sloan and Robertson, 1929) near Grand Central Station, where flat-patterned carved ornament, reminiscent of Louis Sullivan, rings the building's walls. The Chanin construction firm and other commercial, rather than architectural firms, spread the deco style along Central Park West in the chain of striking entrances to high-rise apartment towers that form the western architectural backdrop of Central Park today, including examples such as the Majestic and the San Remo Apartments. Continuing further north in Manhattan, one finds the unique Masters Apartments and Museum (Harvey Corbett, rendered by Hugh Ferris, 1929) along Riverside Drive. This building subtly transforms from dark brick to light as it rises upward in an unusual coloristic display, which is less clear today. The Masters, fusing ornament and color with form, may be read as transitional work, moving early modernism from the deco verve of applied ornament into a more restrained modernism to come.
The epitome of art deco modernism and the crowning pinnacle (1,048 feet) of the deco skyscraper is without question the Chrysler Building (William Van Alen, 1930), a fully integrated spire shining in steel, sleek and dynamic as the automobiles it symbolizes for the modern age. Its midtown setting, its beautiful presence on the skyline, and its urbane interiors set the Chrysler Building forever apart from all deco structures. It is without peer, even in the city that defined the concept of the deco skyscraper.
Manhattan Modern, 1930s-40s
"Manhattan Modern" is the first truly architectonic, rather than decorative, movement in modern New York architecture, designed exclusively by American architects. This is the indigenous American modernism of tall, spare, attenuated structures of polished granite, steel, and glass, conceived on the principles of Sullivan's treatise, "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered."
For it is here in New York that Sullivan's ideal of the skyscraper as "it is lofty" is best illustrated. Loftiness is certainly the defining characteristic of New York, and Sullivan's aesthetic approach dovetailed well with New York's 1916 zoning law, which obligated tall buildings to set back as they rose from the street. The fortunate resulting massing of the New York skyline thus came to point upward in a collection of closely sited, skyscraping pinnacles.
The finest examples of the formal aesthetics of Manhattan Modern may be found in the Empire State Building (Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, 1931), as an individual pinnacle; and in Rockefeller Center (The Associated Architects: Reinhard and Hofmeister: Corbett, Harrison, and McMurray; Raymond Hood, Godley, and Fouilhoux, 1932-40), an urban agglomeration of buildings and space.
Just as the Chrysler Building is the perfection of the deco skyscraper, the Empire State Building is the perfect Manhattan Modern composition. From the day it opened, the Empire State Building was notable for its height (1,250 feet), its function and efficiency, its feat of speedy construction, and its stylistic simplicity and aesthetic spareness. Symbolic of the city itself, the composition of the Empire State Building exhibits a synthesis of restraint and power that creates a lasting iconic design.
The other great exponent of Modernism is an ensemble of tall buildings tightly dispersed about a midtown plaza of benches under clipped trees, banners, and monumental deco sculpture: Rockefeller Center. Created during the Depression as a public-private pedestrian urban place, Rockefeller Center proves that skyscrapers need not affront human scale in the city. Somewhat analogous to the meaning of Central Park, the open space of Rockefeller Center, protected space amid a series of stone skyscrapers, here provides a welcome Fifth Avenue counterpoint for the pedestrian within the relentless city grid.
The International Style, 1950s-70s
The International Style in mid-century turned the great stone face of modernism to glass. The 20th century is bisected by the arrival of the European modernists, including Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Marcel Breuer, and their International Style. The transparent shining glass slabs of Park Avenue, in particular, are the legacy of the émigré movement of modernism.
The earliest inklings of the International Style in New York, however, were American, based on European aesthetics, including the New School for Social Research (Joseph Urban, 1930) and the original modern home of the Museum of Modern Art (Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, 1939).
The high point of the style in New York is certainly the Park Avenue duo of the Seagram Building (Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, 1958) and Lever House (Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, 1951). The sleek, dark bronze, steel, and glass slab of the Seagram rises out of its opposition, an open cube of space, creating a dialectic of architectural space with the object as significant as that dynamic in classical architecture. Lever House takes a more constructivist approach to space and object, with an ice-blue glass tower rising asymmetrically from its base. Thus, these two buildings are of interest not only as perfected exemplars of the classical International Style but also for their daring spatial massing.
Both the Seagram and the Lever took advantage of the mid-century changes in the setback zoning laws that had dictated the pinnacle form of the earlier Manhattan modern. New zoning now allowed buildings to rise straight upward in exchange for increasing open plaza space at street level. Though here experiments breaking the New York City grid have provided interesting effects of solid-void relationships, in the case of their neighbor building, outside the grid was disastrous for the city. As the Pan Am Building (Emery Roth and Sons, Pietro Belluschi, and Walter Gropius, 1963) illustrates, a skyscraper set atop the Beaux-Arts landmark Grand Central Terminal in the middle of Park Avenue, breaking the flow of the avenue, casts shadows and exhibits a basic disregard for the urban fabric. At least this problematic building has served to promote serious questions on the idea of urban context.
The United Nations (Wallace Harrison of Harrison, Abramovitz, and Harris, with Oscar Niemeyer and Swen Markeljus, 1947-53), sited along the East River on land donated by the Rockefeller family, by contrast, created its own urban context. A powerful and symbolically significant skyscraper, appropriately "international" in style, the United Nations complex is based on a Le Corbusier design. The open site affords the New York International Style viewing of the thin green glass and white stone building, very rare in the canyons of Manhattan, for the United Nations Secretariat slab (544 feet) may be seen unobstructed from the Queensboro Bridge while crossing the East River, in all its shining symbolic optimism. Especially when lit at night, it seems to stand as a beacon calling a global community together. Appropriate to its function of bringing together disparate nations, the United Nations tower is also an ensemble of highly varied forms. The inverted bowl shapes and sweeping curves of the General Assembly chambers point toward late romantic variations on the modern.
Alternative Modernism in New York, 1960s-80s
The endurance of modernism in Manhattan, through adaptation and alternative forms, is exemplified by variations in the style in the last decades of the 20th century. Successful examples include the Ford Foundation Building with its glass-enclosed atrium (Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates, 1967), the CitiCorp Center with its simple but daring slanted roofline (Hugh Stubbins and Associates, 1978), and the quite recent return to the pure International Style geometry of the cube and the sphere in the millennial Rose Center for Earth and Space, American Museum of Natural History (Polcheck and Partners, 2000).
Alternative modernism, or perhaps modernisms, in New York have always been exemplified best by museums, for by nature, museums will be daring in their artistic choices. Certainly, the public has long been enthralled by that most obvious New York landmark by the most famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum (1959). A romantic, spiraling, shell-like sculpture, the Guggenheim sits on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. Its location and relation to the urban environment must give us pause as we think of the architecture of New York. Although the building is certainly masterly, it defies its place within the order of the city grid and thus does not speak to its environment.
By contrast, the Whitney Museum of American Art (Marcel Breuer, 1960), a hulking Brutalist, abstract composition overhanging Madison Avenue, comments on its city. The concrete sculptural quality of this work, although accepting its containment within the grid, still makes itself a powerful urban testament to its turbulent times.
New Architecture in New York, 2001 into the Future
Times are turbulent again today in the city of the new millennium, not from internal urban unrest but from causes far away. New York has always been an architectural bellwether for America, and thus the nation watches intently as Manhattan, perpetually constructing, now ponders reconstruction. Major architectural decisions await, as the city re-envisions itself. Of one thing we can be certain though: out of rubble and hope, the future of the American city will rise again, literally from the ashes.
LESLIE HUMM CORMIER
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.2 (G-O). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.