Monday, July 30, 2012

New York Architecture

Soaring and very minimalist for the times.
Certain cities have their image inextricably woven into a particular architectural style and time. Paris with the belle epoch. Los Angeles with mid-century modern. Chicago with prairie style. With New York it is the art deco period -- the style of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center. This is also the style of the jazz age, Nick and Nora Charles, and innumerable movie sets. It persists to this day as shorthand for the city. If a marketing campaign wants to be New Yorky it will likely employ art deco lettering and architectural icons from the period.
Rockefeller Center is a suite of buildings that form an
outdoor living room for New York City.
On a recent visit to New York I delighted once again in the apogee of late art deco indulgence: Rockefeller Center. It may be one of the most under-appreciated achievements in modern architecture; its lessons have been so widely disseminated that we take them for granted. Rockefeller Center is remarkable for its unremarkablness. But at the time of its construction it was a marvel of modernity. A miracle, really, in stone and steel.
The least possible amount of decoration....
...executed in the simplest manner.
Its non-architectural position as a pioneering broadcast center, a theatrical extravaganza, a marketing triumph, a high society soap opera, and a real estate developer's masterstroke are stories in themselves. However, Rockefeller Center's contributions to architecture are its lasting legacy.  In this arena, Rockefeller Center is as much about what it is not as what it is. It is not, for example, a Gothic (the favored style of John D. Rockefeller Jr.) extravaganza of spires and flying buttresses as was the near-contemporary Chicago Tribune Tower by the same architect. It is not overbearingly commercial; much of Rockefeller Center feels like a public square rather than a privately owned and operated commercial enterprise. Nor is it a strident polemic for the architectural style it espouses, as much modern architecture tends to be. Rockefeller Center seems to exist happily as a background for daily activities while simultaneously occupying the forefront of excellence. And therein lies its significance. Rockefeller Center is a perfectly executed work of modern architecture. It balances effortlessly between not too much and not too little.
Public art is as critical to the success of Rock Center as the architecture.  
Structurally, Rockefeller Center is like a three-dimensional chess game with interwoven functions and services. But the building designs are cannily simple. They escape the starkness of later day skyscrapers with subtle setbacks that yield barely a square inch of rentable space yet add an essential dimension of style and grace. Not to mention a breathtaking verticality that says skyscraper. Decoration is eschewed except for the most minimal gestures in a few finials here and a subtle terrazzo pattern there. The finest (and in many cases, the newest) materials were used in a manner that seems to bestow dignity upon visitors and occupants. The underground retail concourse, all black granite and brass accents, is dark, subtle, sensuous. It does better by its subtlety than most modern shopping centers with their bright lights and overly cheery aspect.
The main plaza is the beating heart
of New York both day and night. 

Rockefeller Center is, simultaneously, New York's living room, back yard, and symbolic heart. It cannot be duplicated (they tried and failed with the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco) because it is uniquely, unambiguously of New York. In all its late art deco splendor.

Rockefeller Center was designed by a team of architects, but the heavy lifting, by all accounts, was done by Raymond Hood. Numerous artists and interior designers were responsible for the period details, not least of whom were Donald Desky (Radio City Music Hall) and Elena Bachman Schmidt (Rainbow Room).

All photos on iPhone by MJK.