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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