Proud and Soaring

 

The skyscraper was a new art form, uniquely American. Architects had struggled to find the proper aesthetic approach, slapping old ideas on the new technology. The results varied – ungainly, tentative, confident, backward-looking. 

Louis Sullivan had some thoughts about that.

“What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chard in his expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.”

The “dissenting line” might be the string course favored by architects to count off the floors and establish a space for the old architectural motifs, like columns. You can stack ten three-story segments with three-story columns in each portion. You can’t do thirty-story columns. Well, you could, but you oughtn’t.

Chicago likes to say it was the home of the skyscraper, but the art form flourished in New York. The design of tall towers took a 20-year journey through the inherited classical motifs of the old world, ending up in a new style that stripped the spires of all classical references  – but still, somehow, inhabited the same culture, advanced it into a new era with fresh forms and designs. Art Deco was the last beautiful thing the old world produced. American skyscrapers incorporated the ideas into rigorous new forms, carved away the froth, and ended the Jazz Age with the gorgeous Moderne towers that still define the romantic Gotham skyline. 

The Moderne style would have led to a startling style that broke completely with the past, but the Depression smothered it in its crib. The World’s Fairs of the 30s show us what cities would’ve looked like if the boom had continued – stark buildings mediated by sensuous curves, pure form over function. White smooth buildings for white smooth thought-leaders.There’s a techno-fascist “Things To Come” in the style, depending on how it’s done. The same style, though, was easily adapted for whimsical corporate pavilions that pushed ketchup and soft bread; it wasn’t necessarily anti-humanist. The WPA seeded countless small towns with tiny versions of the style, and those that remain have an optimistic, Buck-Rogers aspect that makes them seem like embassies from an alternative future. 

Post-war skyscrapers of the 40s and 50s were rare and indistinct. The true hard clean break came with the International Style, which remade blocks of Manhattan with Miesian slabs.  Confession: I like these buildings. Every city should have one. They have a marvelous sense of self-containment, of rational order, of aesthetic confidence. But a city made up mostly of 20s-style skyscrapers is a thing of beauty; a city made mostly of 60s skyscrapers is a graveyard of steel.

I’m also kindly disposed to post-modern architecture. It broke with the box. It referenced historical antecedents, however flabby and overblown the results might have been. Better a Philip Johnson Chippendale filigree than another damned flat roof; better a Helmut Jahn cartoony balloon of a Moderne idea than another banal box with slit windows. 

Then it all fell apart, if you ask me. In the absence of style – in the absence of theory about style, which tends to enforce aesthetic parameters – architects just engaged in computer-assisted onanism, designing buildings that abraded the eye’s natural desire for balance and order. Minneapolis has two structures that define the end of the 20th century quite nicely. One is a glorious, gorgeous call-back to the elegant step-backs of the RCA building; the other, where I work, is a collection of shapes that would never cohere into a unified design if the architects had not permitted one side to follow Sullivan’s dictum. It is proud, and it soars. From the street to the crown, one unbroken line.

Which brings me to Penn 15.

It is intended to be a supernal, rivaling the Empire State Building in rentable space. It’s only 57 stories, though. It is not a proud and soaring thing. It is a pile of cargo containers.

It says something that it looks graceless compared to the Empire State Building, because the ESB is one of those buildings redeemed by its height. It would be boring if it wasn’t so tall. (The same principle applies to the World Trade Center; as Paul Goldberger noted, one tower would have been regrettable, but two towers were like abstract sculpture.) 

Worse yet: it’s part of a multi-building project. They are all, of course, ecologically sustainable.

Imagine a half-dozen of those blocky things. Compare that to the tight arrangement of towers in Rockefeller Center. It might seem odd to say it’s not American; was the area ever “American”? The buildings it would replace had European antecedents. The site is the graveyard of Penn Station, which was a recreation of a Roman civic structure. But these styles became American, because we are protean and adaptive and claimed them for our own, because we were bearing that torch forward. Eventually we turned the raw materials of history into something that was ours, and expressed with pride the accomplishments of our culture.

Yes, yes, all very nice, the moderns might say. It was important to be proud and soaring, once. But we’re over that now. And just as well.

Published in Culture
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  1. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Egad. That looks like something you would find in a giant’s kitchen holding silverware and bottle openers.

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Penn 15 looks like there will be an enormous derrick along one side for extracting and replacing those boxes.. 

    • #2
  3. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    James Lileks: It is a pile of cargo containers.

    Worse yet, it’s an uneven pile of cargo containers.  Massive OCD trigger.

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    My first impression of that Penn 15 design is positive. Looks good when composed of pixels. Whether it would still look good after seeing it in real life for a year or for a decade is another question.  

    • #4
  5. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    “They are all, of course, ecologically sustainable.”

    Does that mean there’s a little patch of grass on the roof?

    • #5
  6. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    James Lileks: It is a pile of cargo containers.

    When Ernest Cline described the Stacks in “Ready Player One”, I didn’t interpret them as something to emulate.

    We have a couple of cargo container establishments around town. I’ll have to do some photojournalism this week and post pictures here.

    • #6
  7. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    They really call it Penn 15? And they say gun owners are compensating for something. 

    • #7
  8. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Skyscrapers scare me.  I get dizzy whenever my hotel room is higher than the third floor . . .

    • #8
  9. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    Not really relevant, but I find myself thinking of Habitat 67. I remember reading about it in a magazine, probably National Geographic, right after it was built, and if small boys ever say Times we live in, that’s what I said, and thought no further of it. Then, in 2006, I bicycled past it. It did not disappoint. By which I do not mean it looked good; it did not. I mean whatever it symbolized four decades previously, it still did.

    • #9
  10. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I recently watched The Rise and Fall of Penn Station on Amazon Prime. It’s excellent. 

    • #10
  11. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw (View Comment):

    They really call it Penn 15? And they say gun owners are compensating for something.

    I didn’t pick up on that. Is l33t speak still a thing? 

    • #11
  12. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    John H. (View Comment):

    Not really relevant, but I find myself thinking of Habitat 67. I remember reading about it in a magazine, probably National Geographic, right after it was built, and if small boys ever say Times we live in, that’s what I said, and thought no further of it. Then, in 2006, I bicycled past it. It did not disappoint. By which I do not mean it looked good; it did not. I mean whatever it symbolized four decades previously, it still did.

    La merde brutale.

    • #12
  13. Hugh Member
    Hugh
    @Hugh

    John H. (View Comment):

    Not really relevant, but I find myself thinking of Habitat 67. I remember reading about it in a magazine, probably National Geographic, right after it was built, and if small boys ever say Times we live in, that’s what I said, and thought no further of it. Then, in 2006, I bicycled past it. It did not disappoint. By which I do not mean it looked good; it did not. I mean whatever it symbolized four decades previously, it still did.

    Leaky construction built with mob labour.  yup

    • #13
  14. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw (View Comment):

    They really call it Penn 15? And they say gun owners are compensating for something.

    I didn’t pick up on that. Is l33t speak still a thing?

    I’d say as much as it ever was.

    • #14
  15. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    This establishment isn’t too far off the path home so I stopped and took a picture. They call it Tin Can Alley but I’m not sure what it is. Probably a bar. The shipping containers aren’t too obvious from a distance except for the one used as a staircase on the left and the colorful one at a jaunty angle on the right. The other establishment is close to my daughter’s ballet school so I’ll try to grab a picture while she’s at calls tomorrow.

    • #15
  16. Shauna Hunt Coolidge
    Shauna Hunt
    @ShaunaHunt

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    This establishment isn’t too far off the path home so I stopped and took a picture. They call it Tin Can Alley but I’m not sure what it is. Probably a bar. The shipping containers aren’t too obvious from a distance except for the one used as a staircase on the left and the colorful one at a jaunty angle on the right. The other establishment is close to my daughter’s ballet school so I’ll try to grab a picture while she’s at calls tomorrow.

    Where is that? What town?

    • #16
  17. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    Shauna Hunt (View Comment):

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    This establishment isn’t too far off the path home so I stopped and took a picture. They call it Tin Can Alley but I’m not sure what it is. Probably a bar. The shipping containers aren’t too obvious from a distance except for the one used as a staircase on the left and the colorful one at a jaunty angle on the right. The other establishment is close to my daughter’s ballet school so I’ll try to grab a picture while she’s at calls tomorrow.

    Where is that? What town?

    Albuquerque, near I-25 and Alameda. The Green Jeans Farmery is the other place in town, near I-40 and Carlisle. It’s a shipping container marketplace. I haven’t been there either.

    • #17
  18. Rapporteur Coolidge
    Rapporteur
    @Rapporteur

    Penn 15 is what architects raised on Phineas and Ferb create, believing that Doofenshmirtz Evil Inc. was a suitable archetype:

    Doofenshmirtz Evil Inc. building from Phineas and Ferb

    • #18
  19. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Eventually we turned the raw materials of history into something that was ours, and expressed with pride the accomplishments of our culture.

    The skyscraper always resonated with me as a sort of American Cathedral. The innovation that allowed such graceful, powerful structures that defied their earthly bounds reached to the sky in the same way as the buttresses of the European wonders. Mass produced steel, elevators, electric lighting all came together from the mind and imagination of man, and their design – however ornate – reflected outwardly the inner magic. I think you describe with eloquence the changing architecture weaves into our cities and become landmarks to the eras of America itself. Each served a purpose and one builds on, or opposes the other. I feel bad I never got to see in person the Metropolitan Building in Minneapolis, a behemoth outside but the glass interior made a lofty, light-filled gem. But there’s still Foshay. An Art Deco model if there ever was. No matter how much it’s dwarfed by its towering neighbors, seeing it peek through the glass and steel makes me smile. I wonder if Penn 15 will ever evoke such a reaction. Thank you for a wonderful post.

    • #19
  20. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    JennaStocker (View Comment):

    Eventually we turned the raw materials of history into something that was ours, and expressed with pride the accomplishments of our culture.

    The skyscraper always resonated with me as a sort of American Cathedral. The innovation that allowed such graceful, powerful structures that defied their earthly bounds reached to the sky in the same way as the buttresses of the European wonders. Mass produced steel, elevators, electric lighting all came together from the mind and imagination of man, and their design – however ornate – reflected outwardly the inner magic. I think you describe with eloquence the changing architecture weaves into our cities and become landmarks to the eras of America itself. Each served a purpose and one builds on, or opposes the other. I feel bad I never got to see in person the Metropolitan Building in Minneapolis, a behemoth outside but the glass interior made a lofty, light-filled gem. But there’s still Foshay. An Art Deco model if there ever was. No matter how much it’s dwarfed by its towering neighbors, seeing it peek through the glass and steel makes me smile. I wonder if Penn 15 will ever evoke such a reaction. Thank you for a wonderful post.

    Ditto for your poetic reply.  You’re correct – and in some ways the skyscrapers were literally Cathedrals; the Woolworth Tower, with its “Gothic” embellishments, was known as the Cathedral of Commerce, and the 20s saw many plans for skyscrapers that encoroporated churches. The most famous example is in Chicago; Minneapolis had two proposed versions, but neither materialized. (The Ivy hotel’s original portion represents one fourth of the base of the tower; it’s all they could complete. The Convention center sits on the site of the Wesley Temple office block, which was intended to be a massive church-office complex.)

    The Foshay is unique among American skyscrapers, and not just because its lights blaze the name of a convicted felon every night. I’ve had two opportunities to pore over the original blueprints, and they are works of art – and a reminder that all these things were built for the ages by men with no more than pen and paper, brains and hand. Even to this day the skyscraper is, in the end, a hand-made object.

    • #20
  21. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    the Woolworth Tower, with its “Gothic” embellishments, was known as the Cathedral of Commerce,

    My favorite building while living in NYC.  It’s dwarfed by almost everything nowadays (My apartment building was taller), but cooler than almost anything.  When they started lighting it again after 9/11, I almost took a thank you note over and taped it to the door.

    • #21
  22. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    I recently saw this documentary about a ‘ghost skyscraper’ in Toronto that has been abandoned since 1960. It was built in 1932, is only 16 floors tall – but because of crowded elevator and stairwell shafts it can’t be retrofitted for modern fire codes – and can’t be occupied. So it sits empty in downtown Toronto. The Ghost Tower:

    • #22
  23. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    The Bank of America Corporate Whoring Center looks a lot like the Wells Fargo building mentioned above.  Weirdly, both BoA and Wells are down the street from each other here in Charlotte.  It’s like they traded houses.

     

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_of_America_Corporate_Center

     

    Bank of America Corporate Center.jpg

    • #23
  24. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):

    The Bank of America Corporate Whoring Center looks a lot like the Wells Fargo building mentioned above. Weirdly, both BoA and Wells are down the street from each other here in Charlotte. It’s like they traded houses.

     

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_of_America_Corporate_Center

     

    Bank of America Corporate Center.jpg

    Are the spikes on top to keep King Kong off of it?

    • #24
  25. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Stad (View Comment):
    Are the spikes on top to keep King Kong off of it?

    Its in Charlotte, Even a big monkey knows not to mess with Southerners.

    • #25
  26. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Stad (View Comment):

    Gazpacho Grande’ (View Comment):

    The Bank of America Corporate Whoring Center looks a lot like the Wells Fargo building mentioned above. Weirdly, both BoA and Wells are down the street from each other here in Charlotte. It’s like they traded houses.

     

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_of_America_Corporate_Center

     

    Bank of America Corporate Center.jpg

    Are the spikes on top to keep King Kong off of it?

    If the proles can climb high enough to get to the big pile of gold at the top, those spikes are there to zap ’em.

    • #26
  27. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Gazpacho Grande’ (View Comment):

    The Bank of America Corporate Whoring Center looks a lot like the Wells Fargo building mentioned above. Weirdly, both BoA and Wells are down the street from each other here in Charlotte. It’s like they traded houses.

     

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_of_America_Corporate_Center

     

    Bank of America Corporate Center.jpg

    Are the spikes on top to keep King Kong off of it?

    If the proles can climb high enough to get to the big pile of gold at the top, those spikes are there to zap ’em.

    The problem with a building like this, is that in a photo you lose the sense of scale. For example, would you be able to see heads mounted on those spikes?

    • #27
  28. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):
    he Bank of America Corporate Whoring Center looks a lot like the Wells Fargo building mentioned above.  Weirdly, both BoA and Wells are down the street from each other here in Charlotte.  It’s like they traded houses.

    Same architect, although if someone said KPF instead of Pelli, you couldn’t fault them. 

    • #28
  29. Alan Aronoff Member
    Alan Aronoff
    @Alan Aronoff

    The Penn 15 lacks any sense of aesthetics. I think the architects of Penn 15 are trying for function without the benefit of form. They may have failed at both.  A skyscraper  is a public statement.  

     

    • #29
  30. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    This 28 floor building really good example of what you’re complaining about with modern buildings:

     

    Thats at 2414 16 Ave NW Calgary AB…. Its quite controversial now seeing that it’s so Fugly.

    • #30