For Rebuilders, Inspiration All Around

October 5, 2001 NY TIMES

By HERBERT MUSCHAMP

WE may be ready for comedy, but are we ready for
seriousness? This should be the pressing question for those
now contemplating the future of the financial district in
Lower Manhattan. We are prepared for real estate, but can
we handle architecture? Can our builders bring themselves
to acknowledge that there is a difference between them?

Let's help them. The city has been braced in recent weeks
by the visits of world dignitaries to the scene of
devastation. But this is also a rewarding time to visit
sites of creation. Thanks in large part to our landmarks
preservation laws, New York is home to many buildings that
embody the city's progressive tradition. If the World Trade
Center catastrophe does help shift the city's builders from
a retrogressive outlook, this is the tradition they will
want to build upon. Meanwhile, it is reassuring to know
that such a background exists.

The progressive tradition is not defined by style, or
linked by period motifs. It is a dialectical tradition: a
series of arguments about what forms the modern city should
take. In recent years, this heritage has been dulled into a
stalemate between "modernism" and "history," as if these
terms held no more meaning than a pair of alcoves in a
department store's home decorating department. (Actually,
you're more likely to encounter robust debate at Macy's
than at, say, the Urban Center.)

I propose visiting some examples of progressive
architecture and the issues addressed by them. Think of
this unscientific list as an archaeological expedition
through layers of cultural conflict. The immediate urgency
of a particular conflict may be half buried in time. But
the energy released by the conflict still animates the
city's face.

CENTRAL PARK MALL. Caryatids are no help when you're
grappling with loss. Their stony faces stare out, looking
over the top of your head, radiating indifference to
changing times. But trees are there right beside you. And
at the Central Park Mall, they spread a protective canopy,
as sympathetic in fall and winter as in summer or spring.

The urban park is America's most democratic art form, and
Central Park is the supreme example of the genre. There's
no point in picking one favorite spot: abundance is the
theme of this artificially organized piece of nature. But
on my first real outing, a week after the World Trade
Center attack, my feet carried me to the Mall and to the
Literary Walk integrated into its lower extension. There
weren't many people. A string duet, seated on a bench, was
playing Bach.

In the city, it's easy to forget that there is a difference
between trees and artificially ripened tomatoes. Trees have
a more organic relationship to seasons. They are more
sensitive to time. More than metaphors for life, they
embody the material substance of birth, growth, aging and
death.

Progression and retrogression are transcended in Central
Park. Frederick Law Olmsted was a reformer. His dispatches
(for this newspaper) raised Northern awareness of the
condition of Southern slaves. Central Park was, first, an
exercise in social reform, then an aesthetic endeavor.
Circulation was as integral to its meaning as picturesque
tableaux. Freedom from urban congestion signified that
Jeffersonian democracy was not incompatible with an urban
way of life.

Olmsted and the American parks movement were the finest
outgrowth of the late-19th-century City Beautiful ideal.
Romantic rather than Classical, yet undergirded by reason,
Olmsted practiced an art of empathy. There is no more
healing place in this big town.

BAYARD BUILDING. Louis Sullivan's Bayard Building in the
East Village is covered with scaffolding now, but what
isn't? Not only will they never finish New York, they will
never stop having to maintain it, in a perpetual ritual of
metropolitan recreation. Sullivan, considered the father of
the skyscraper, was trained at the École des Beaux Arts in
Paris, where he was encouraged by a mathematics instructor
to seek what he referred to as "the rule that admits of no
exceptions." In time, Sullivan formulated a rule that
prevailed in architecture for decades: form must ever
follow function.

Looking at the Bayard Building today, you won't recognize
this as an example of functionalist design. The era of
strict correspondence between engineering and architecture
still lay ahead, and Sullivan has occasionally been
described as an American exponent of Art Nouveau. But
following function is not the same as being
indistinguishable from it, and Sullivan's organic ornament
- geometrically stylized foliage - does not contradict his
rule. Rather, it presents it in analogy. Architecture
should relate to structure in the way that the visible part
of a tree relates to its roots.

Thus, the Bayard's facade, a grid of projecting vertical
terra-cotta moldings and receding horizontal panels, brings
to the surface the building's steel frame structure and the
primary function it performs: maximum development of a
small urban site by thrusting against gravitational force.
The skyscraper, Sullivan maintained, should be "a proud,
soaring thing." Angels hover where you would expect them
to: just outside the penthouse windows.

Sullivan was a casualty of the City Beautiful movement that
rode in on the crest of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in
Chicago. His innovations lacked the compelling classical
grandeur of civic monuments like Grand Central Terminal and
the New York Public Library. Nonetheless, Sullivan's
attempt to fashion structure and ornament into an
integrated whole lies at the core of many 20th- century
classics, including the Seagram Building and Lever House on
Park Avenue and the Chase bank branch on Fifth Avenue at
43rd Street.

Sullivan fed into the future, that is to say. Today, the
Bayard Building stands as a reminder that private clients,
including developers, were once more eager than the
cultural organizations to embrace progressive ideals.

New York Public Library

At the peak of the modern
movement, buildings like the New York Public Library were
treated as villains, big Old World elephants trampling over
the creativity of progressives like Sullivan. To Lewis
Mumford, the civic monuments of the City Beautiful movement
represented "the imperial facade," the triumphal arches of
robber barons celebrating their exploitation of the
nation's human and natural resources. Time and use have
transformed the library into a monument much closer in
meaning to its designers' intentions. It stands as a temple
to the life of the mind and to democratic access.

Some conflicts are outgrown rather than resolved. The
library and the Bayard Building represent two responses, of
different cultural merit, to the industrial city and the
task of shaping a proper image for it. That city is now a
thing of the past. Today, urban progress is identified with
cultural, not mechanical, production.

The Public Library, designed by Carrère & Hastings and
completed in 1911, is thus a transitional building, a relic
of the industrial city that has taken on richer meaning as
a foundation for cultural enterprise. Love the lions.

George Washington Bridge

The bridge, completed in 1931,
symbolizes the eclipse of the City Beautiful ideal. As
originally designed, Othmar H. Ammann's steel structure was
to be contained within a masonry envelope designed by Cass
Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building. But the
engineering so captured the public imagination that the
"architecture" was canceled.

A 1931 editorial in The New York Times observed: "Ours is a
utilitarian age, of course, and one afflicted at the moment
with a disease called a Depression. But it is also an age
with a powerful urge toward aesthetic experiment." It
continued, "The monumental design in steel provides an
eyeful that could hardly be bettered by trying to make
steel towers look like stone piers." And Le Corbusier
described the bridge as "the only seat of grace in the
disordered city," adding, "Here, finally, steel
architecture seems to laugh."

For another brilliant example of the infrastructural
aesthetic, check out Kahn & Jacobs's Municipal Asphalt
Plant (1944) on the Upper East Side, converted to
recreational use in 1982 and renamed Asphalt Green. Here,
reinforced concrete seems to meditate.

Radio City Music Hall

Strike up the bands! We must have
music in wartime. When I temporarily relocated from my
downtown apartment, I took along a few CD's, including
"Songs From the Last Century," George Michael's tribute to
popular song. Playing it, I naturally imagined myself
sitting in the first balcony at Radio City Music Hall, the
greatest people palace in New York. The vision of Mr.
Michael performing with the Rockettes dispelled the dark
mood.

Restored with great devotion by Hugh Hardy in 1999, the
hall is now a reminder that the landmarks preservation
movement was initially a progressive force. It still is, of
course, when it focuses on the task of identifying and
preserving landmarks. Unfortunately, the movement has
partly mutated into a retrogressive strain that will not be
satisfied until every gum wrapper on the sidewalk is cast
in bronze and mounted where it fell with a discreet
commemorative plaque.

The Music Hall does not fall into the progressive
architectural tradition, either. With the advent of the
International Style, Art Deco was stigmatized as kitsch.
The rediscovery of the style, in the 1960's, started with
gay people as a mode of camp, an ironic twist on urban
sophistication. New York is a city of "others." We have
more at stake in reviving the idea of progress.

United Nations Headquarters

"The concept of progress must
be rooted in the idea of catastrophe," observed Walter
Benjamin, the author of "The Arcades Project" (Harvard
University Press, 2000). "That things are `status quo' is
the catastrophe. It is not an ever present possibility but
the given in each case."

A corollary to this thought is that architecture does best
when it is in a state of crisis. Terence Riley, chief
curator of the architecture and design department at the
Museum of Modern Art, has drawn a parallel between the
World Trade Center disaster and the great Chicago fire of
1871. The fire generated the greatest outburst of
architectural creativity in United States urban history,
including some of Sullivan's finest work. Unfortunately,
the status quo has already begun to stake its claims on the
so-called "Rebuilding of New York."

Should historical awareness prevail over backroom influence
peddling, our builders will want to look to the United
Nations Headquarters as a model to emulate. They might also
want to pick up a copy of George Dudley's excellent book "A
Workshop for Peace" (Architectural History
Foundation/M.I.T. Press, 1994) for an insider's account of
the design process. In 1947, an international group of
architects convened in New York under the supervision of
Wallace K. Harrison. The group included Le Corbusier
(France), Oscar Niemeyer (Brazil), Sven Markelius (Sweden)
and Nikolai Basov (the Soviet Union). Le Corbusier's urban
concepts (and outspoken temperament) dominated the
proceedings.

In this case, the committee produced not a camel but an
icon, an architectural sign that modernity and world peace
were mutually reinforcing. Egos are on display here, but
why shouldn't Le Corbusier have displayed his ego? He was
Le Corbusier! And egos have a place in the service of high
ideals.

New York's provinciality, its indifference to what has been
going on in the sphere of urban architecture around the
world, has been the status quo for far too long. The United
Nations Headquarters offers the most persuasive example of
what can be achieved when business as usual is smashed.

Waterside Plaza

People tend to overlook Waterside Plaza,
the social housing project on the East River in the 20's.
When the complex was completed, in 1974, it typified an
approach to housing development - towers in a park - that
had already fallen into disrepute. Jane Jacobs to the
rescue! Changing taste aside, Waterside is a great urban
composition. Davis, Brody & Associates, the architects,
aspired to the stark geometric power of Louis Kahn's work,
and guess what? Given the budget constraints, they hit
their mark.

Like Kahn's Richards Medical Building at the University of
Pennsylvania, Waterside recalls the towers of San
Gimignano, the walled medieval town in Tuscany. In place of
walls, it has the East River and the F.D.R. Drive, and this
deliberately restricted access is less than fully benign.
Even so, the stark geometry of the design and the dark
brick cladding of the buildings are artistically faithful
to the urban concept. It is picturesque and historically
informed. And if you drive along the F.D.R., the curve
beneath the towers is awesome.

Lehman College Gymnasium

Sex returned to New York architecture in 1994, with the
completion of Rafael Viñoly's design for this campus
gymnasium in the Bronx. Philosophically, Mr. Viñoly is a
Stoic, but his architecture reveals the great elegance and
poetry of which the Stoics were capable. And this building
restored the erotic dimension that animated architecture in
antique Greece. Some time in advance of the computer-whiz
"blob" designers, Mr. Viñoly gave us architecture as
centerfold.

This is a low, horizontal building, partly suppressed
beneath ground level, at the northern edge of the campus.
The roof and southern wall are made of a single steel arc
of metal, punctuated by a clerestory in the middle. The arc
looks almost two-dimensional, like skin. It resembles a
wave, its silvery color reflecting light like water, the
original mirror. Without overt appeal to metaphor, the
design projects a vision of taut, athletic bodies merging
with or emerging from the sea. An immense swimming pool,
housed just beneath the arc, is the building's grand public
space.

Architecture: just do it. The gym projects a sleek, dynamic
image, like the Nike whoosh. The Greek gymnasium was a
place for "naked exercise" (gymnastikos). Fortunately, our
prudery has receded to the degree that this connotation is
nearly discernible once again. Mr. Viñoly's architecture is
astonishingly nude. High above the pool, exposed curved
metal trusses support the roof, an effect mirrored by
divers arcing through space.

Rose Center for Earth and Space

New York's millennium
gift to itself: a building that forges a link between
modern architecture and its Enlightenment roots. The basic
concept - an enclosed white globe - was derived from
Étienne-Louis Boulée's unbuilt 1784 design for a memorial
to Isaac Newton, the presiding hero for the Age of Reason.
James Stewart Polshek, the Rose Center's architect,
actually improves upon Boulée by fashioning the enclosure
from glass, its transparency a symbol for the clarity
pursued by science.

The building also represents a rare instance of
architecture prevailing over the reflex impulse to
preserve. It replaced the Hayden Planetarium, a much loved
pavilion in Aztec Art Deco style. Those who still miss that
structure are advised to sneak an Yma Sumac CD into the
Rose Center and persuade a guard to play it on the
building's extraordinary sound system. The Big Bang never
sounded so good.

Hudson Hotel

In her book "Cosmopolitan Culture" (Atheneum, 1987), Bonnie
Menes Kahn writes that a great cosmopolitan city has two
hallmarks: tolerance for strangers and intolerance for
mediocrity. Judged by these standards, the Hudson Hotel is
all a displaced person could ask for. I relocated there
after the attack, and possibly felt more at home than I do
at home. First rate design. Cheap rooms. And a Babel of
foreign tongues as those gathered for Fashion Week hovered
around the data bases in the hallways, looking for ways to
get home.

I subscribe to a Surrealist rather than a formalist
approach to criticism. This approach means simply that
social and psychological interpretation is factored in with
formal analysis. It happens that the Surrealist tradition
has resurfaced in contemporary architecture. The Hudson,
which opened a year ago, is one of the few places in town
where you can see this development in flower.

Upstairs, the cabinlike rooms are fitted out in the Stoic
esthetic of Adolf Loos. Downstairs, erotic contours
materialize in Philippe Starck's designs and Francesco
Clemente's painted ceiling. At a time of aggression, we
need to stay in touch with desire.

West 53rd Street

Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, is the demiurge of
civilization. There can be neither continuity nor progress
without memory of what came before. More recently, Walter
Benjamin wrote with reverence about the Angel of History, a
figure represented for him by "Angelus," a painting by Paul
Klee.

Kings don't mean a thing on West 53rd Street between Fifth
Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. Angels, and memories,
rule. There are two adjacent construction sites on the
north side of the street. In the center, occupying most of
the block, construction has just begun on Yoshio
Taniguchi's expansion of the Museum of Modern Art. Just to
the west, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien's American Folk Art
Museum is nearing completion for a scheduled opening in
December. Already, this is Dream Street.

Neither of these buildings seeks to shock. Mr. Taniguchi's
design is aesthetically more reticent than I would like.
But retrogressive it is not. The Modern is, above all, a
place of memory, including memories of the museum itself
and of the pivotal role it has played in elevating the
cultural life of New York to international stature. The
Taniguchi design, which builds upon memories of the
International Style, should be a fine spot for all us
modern Mnemosynes to get together and reminisce about
modernities to come.

Progress is New York's folk art. This is the message I get
from the facade of the American Folk Art Museum. This, too,
is an evolutionary, not a revolutionary design; but in the
context of recent New York architecture, even evolution is
avant- garde.

The striking facade, soon to be clad with metal panels, is
not a figurative design. But Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien
acknowledge that the facade's Y-shape form suggests a human
hand, an allusion to American craft. But I choose to see
the shape as an angel, a frequent motif in folk art. It is
the hand that makes it possible for humankind to reach
skyward, especially when the earth is darkened.

We have seen a great deal of heroism in recent days. Can we
also keep in mind the courage of small firms like Tod
Williams Billie Tsien for upholding the progressive
tradition against great odds. Like Olmsted, these
architects operate from the position of empathy. Working in
a profession that is still called upon to erect monuments
of boomingly hollow authority, Mr. Williams and Ms. Tsien
represent the higher realm of human scale.
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