Is New York Architecture Past Its Prime?

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Is New York Architecture Past Its Prime?

| aia, architects, architecture, architecture critic, Uncategorized | October 25, 2010

The Center for Architecture currently has, on exhibition, a piece called the “liquid wall,” the winner of a competition for “innovative” material for building exteriors, as part of a show called Innovate/Integrate, which will be on display until Jan. 15.

Displayed in the back of the soaring concrete-floored gallery two floors below street level, the liquid wall has the clean, white, sculptural appeal of something from a movie that takes place in the future; it’s made of an elegant poured-concrete grid and glass panels, each of which frames what looks like a semi-transparent garden hose that snakes up and down several times as you watch the display. This cladding has never actually been used on a building, but according to the curator, everything chosen for the contest could feasibly be used as one.

The liquid wall is made possible by Ductal, a fortified concrete strong enough to bear weight in thin, sculptural forms.

In the prototype, water runs through the hoses, making a passive solar collector that can heat the building. The winning design is the central attraction of the “innovate” part of the exhibit. The “integrate” part of the show is meant, according to A.I.A. New York’s president, Anthony P. Schirripa, to teach the public about modern construction, which requires much more collaboration between architects, engineers and builders, and more technologically advanced modeling than it once did.

A few New York City projects qualified: Yankee Stadium for its Building Information Modeling, the Barclay Center for using 4-D Visualization, Beekman Tower for its B.I.M. Consulting, HOK’s New York office for Integrated Project Delivery, the World Trade Center for 4-D Scheduling. (The fourth “D” being time). All were honored for one of three things: construction management, construction logistics, or construction technology.

In other words, not the actual building, so much as the way of visualizing it, and not the architecture, so much as the construction method.

“There are a lot of projects in here that are New York based,” said Sara Hart, the curator of Innovate/Integrate. “But that—the liquid wall—is a use of Ductal that you see almost exclusively in Europe; same thing with the Corian-clad building upstairs.” (Corian is a non-porous surface material that can be heated and molded; it’s popular for kitchen and bathroom countertops.)

“Corian’s been trying to get people to use it as an exterior,” Hart said. “It’s a beautiful material and I think eventually … but you need a client.” She paused. “I think it will happen. I don’t know if it will happen in New York first.”

THIS KIND OF DOUBT ABOUT NEW YORK’S willingness to create space for really new ideas in architecture and building design and construction is not a new thing. Among architects it’s axiomatic. Despite a long history of innovative building, New York, for a number of reasons, hasn’t produced much in the way of interesting architecture in the last 50 years. And in the course of a conversation, Hart became more explicit.

“We just don’t like to try new things,” Hart said. “And so the construction industry is very conservative, and so are clients.”

She blames the city’s “opposition to everything” for some of this, but especially that of unions operating in the engineering and construction sectors. If a project demands a complex facade, it will likely be built overseas, as it was the case of the 2002 facade of the Burberry building. The components were completed in Germany, by Germans, shipped here, and assembled on-site.

And when the company tried to bring German craftsmen to do the installation, the unions wouldn’t allow it. “So to get the quality they wanted, they had to handpick some New York construction people and train them, the German way,” Hart said. “There are some non-union jobs that happen in New York, but it’s—clients don’t want the hassle; they don’t want the bad publicity. In other states it’s different. New York is different than the rest of the country.”

New York’s last great period of architectural achievement, during the 1950s and ’60s, was bolstered by a massive postwar public works and jobs drive fueled with money from the federal government, which made possible public-facing projects like the United Nations complex and Lincoln Center. It was also a period in which architects like Frank Gehry, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius were designing buildings with distinct and memorable profiles, like the Guggenheim Museum, the Seagrams Building, and the Pan Am Building for corporate clients, in those days when expressions of corporate power on such a scale were applauded by the public with an almost jingoistic fervor.

It didn’t last. Possibly the last and greatest moment in this period was the construction of the World Trade Center, the world’s tallest buildings, and in many ways as the culmination of that postwar corporate aesthetic.

To say that architecture gave up on New York would gloss over several projects that garnered significant attention. Philip Johnson did the AT&T Building (now Sony) in 1984 and the Lipstick Building in 1986, and Trump Tower went up in 1983—but when these buildings were not hated by the public and derided by critics as kitsch, they also didn’t add up to anything in the development of a new idea of a New York style; they were more like hodgepodge of eccentricities.

“We went into the, sort of, post modernist phase,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the Department of Real Estate Development at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, “but in some ways it was the same building, just dressed up differently.”

BEGINNING IN THE 19TH CENTURY, FEATS OF ARCHITECTURE and engineering were possibly the central element in the identity of New York City around the world. The Brooklyn Bridge, of course, is not strictly architecture but once it was built, in “a literal and genuinely religious leap of faith in 19th-century American engineering,” as John Perry Barlow wrote, it helped to establish the city as a center for what Edwin Burroughs and Mike Wallace defined in Gotham as “skilled intellectual labor.”

The Beaux-Arts style in architecture was not originally New York’s, but students who went to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris around the turn of the century brought back ideas of the kind of architecture they believed was needed, not to establish New York as an innovator, but to make a statement about the kind of city New York intended to be.

“In the establishment of the modern state during the nineteenth century the role of the Beaux-Arts must be viewed not so much as a cultural phenomenon but as a political operation,” wrote Leon Kirier in Architectural Design, responding to a 1975-76 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called “The Architecture of the Ecole of Beaux-Arts.” The New York Public Library (1911), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1902), the original Penn Station (1912), Grand Central Station (1913), and other buildings in the style were a “an instrument of domination in the hands of the bourgeoisie.” The elaborate monumental, white neo-classical buildings were the sort of landmarks that defined the city as an international intellectual capital, and not just a commercial backwater of Western Europe. It’s what made us not Australia or Canada, and made New York a city that could compete on its own terms with London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Berlin.

New York was the center of international fascination, if not approval, once its skyscrapers started going up, and the collection of early tall buildings began to form the dizzying skyline that became the signature of the city. The most famous buildings—the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building—were for the most part not received as art, but as a bold statement, “a celebration of self-advancement within the American economic system,” writes William Curtis in Modern Architecture Since 1900. “Here was a ‘Cathedral of Capitalism.’” According to Curtis, Le Corbusier was repelled by the buildings, but drawn to the romantic skyline, and either way impressed feat of finance, technology and management; he described Manhattan as “the workhorse of the new era.”

The reaction of European architects to the developing idiom of New York continued along those same lines in the following decades: they saw a certain artistic emptiness, but found in the audacity of what the city could accomplish something quite amazing, and in the use of technology, awesome.

In a 1946 essay, “Returning from America,” Marcel Lods wrote, “Encounters are violent, rapid, sometimes brutal…but what power, what plenitude!”

“The French now feel themselves a little ‘flat,'” Lods went on, in an eerie echo of what is often heard, in certain circles, in New York these days. “They now feel exhausted by eternal negotiations, perpetual saying of ‘it’s impossible,’ or ‘that’s not done,’ finishing with the inevitable ‘that’s not done in France.'”

“It is necessary to conduct the evolutions, not submit to them,” Lods wrote, “Whereopon we can draw a solid lesson from our American friends.”

“They have pushed mechanization and the equipment of the building site as far as possible.”

Similarly, in a 1957 issue of Architectural Review dubbed “Machine Made America,” the editors called America “a success story—the story of how America is adding sheer quantity to the preexisting qualities of modern architecture. In terms of quantity, the U.S. is now the homeland of the modern movement, and quantity, backed by wealth, industry and technical skill, is the prerequisite of architectural quality today.”

Anthony Vidler, writing about the same 1975 Beaux-Arts exhibit, wrote, “In Europe modern architecture forged itself not only as an aesthetic but a social movement; it was the expression (however misplaced in retrospect) of social democracy, sometimes even socialism in action—it was avant-garde, and progressive, when the idea of progression was not a cheap dream of cars and suburbs.”

“But in America, this was never the case,” he wrote. “When finally the Modern Movement was imported to the U.S. (by the mechanism, it is interesting to note, of an exhibition [in 1932] at the museum of modern art [sic]), it was as International Style, not movement….Americans, always uncomfortable with the brief, and temporary, identification of modern style with the social premises of the new deal [sic], were now relieved to see the divorce between art and society ratified by the art exhibition.”


THE DIVORCE DID NOT ENDURE. The postwar “urban renewal” money dried up, and sites once lauded as expressions of the city’s postwar ambition decayed, like much of the city, strapped with debt. Great architecture is the expression of a city’s self-assurance, and by the late 1960’s that self-assurance was in short supply. There were economic factors: by the 1970’s New York was widely regarded as a sort of hellhole by the rest of America. And of course, everything about the commercial ambition and values of the generation that returned from World War II was under interrogation.

“By the 1960s, we knew that urban renewal was a failure, we knew it had taken the heart and the gut out of cities,” Ada Louise Huxtable said in an undated interview with WNET.

What could seem more demonic to the mind of the mid-to-late 1960’s than these giant, disruptive and sometimes rather brutal buildings? The cold International Style, and the top-down planning that had defined development in the city for decades, had been by that time, to put it mildly, rejected.

Jane Jacobs published her magnum opus, The Death and Life of American Cities, in 1961 and subsequently formed a coalition that before long had some influence over what was built in New York.

“I would say that people my age, and perhaps, I think, everybody here who was born after the Second World War, has grown up and come of age in the intellectual shadow of Jane Jacobs,” architectural historian Jennifer Hock said at a recent forum at CUNY’s Graduate Center. “I think that when we think about the city we are almost instinctively wary of the excesses of the post-war redevelopment program.”

Where the city’s architectural elite had not taken this point of view it became even more defensive, its processes even more secretive, conducted with the minimum of press. Buildings were designed in boardrooms and made possible in backroom political deals. The buildings that resulted looked like what they were: a rebuke to the counterculture, to the street level, and to the public sphere.

“With the decline of the city in the ’70s you saw a decline in architecture,” said Chakrabarti. “If you look at the great buildings from the ’50s and ’60s in New York—you look at the Seagram’s building or Lever House,” he said. “They were buildings that were opening up out to the city in a certain way. There was a big plaza; there was a sense that the city flowed into the building.”

“New York in the ’70s then—because of crime and physical decline and all that—went into a defensive crouch,” he said. “If you look at the Ford Foundation or—Skidmore did the Bank of New York building downtown—[there’s] an inward defensive focus.”

The post-’60s buildings displayed a “fairly repellent facade on the street,” Chakrabarti said. “And so I think—then Modernism started really getting questioned, as a consequence.”

Meanwhile, architects looking to build something bold, or experimental, or sweeping, learned to look elsewhere for locations. Reflecting, in 2009, on the death of Charles Gwathmey, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote of the 1970s, “The country’s creative energy shifted westward, to Los Angeles, whose vibrant mix of urban grit and nature, abundance of relatively cheap land and lack of confining historical traditions allowed architects to experiment with a freedom that had become virtually impossible in New York.”

For a number of years, no one in New York seemed particularly concerned about the architectural profession. In the 1970s New York wasn’t growing much of anything. The city of the 1970s and 1980s established a different kind of international position, rooted in neighborhoods like Soho and the Village. Out of Jane Jacobs’ New York we had given the world Bob Dylan, and much of what continued to make New York special in the minds of its citizens and the world drew from that template. It was drawn against, and not from, the built environment of the city.

As Alex Garvin, urban planner and professor at Yale, articulated it, “The attitude that existed around the turn of the century in New York, when we were building skyscrapers and everybody was trying to go higher and higher; that world—’we can do everything in New York’—has evaporated.”

In the popular imagination, the removal of power to the private sphere, to a sort of secret society that ran the town, was reflected in the popular culture in the seriously conflicting points of view of the power elite in movies like Wall Street and Working Girl, one a parable of outrageous and self-destructive greed, the other an epic journey, undertaken on the Staten Island Ferry with the World Trade Center looming in the foreground. What’s secret becomes an object of fascination. The New York Observer began publishing in 1987 as a rather earnest community newspaper, distributed in the lobbies of doorman buildings on the corridors of Fifth and Park Avenues and Central Park West, and quickly became the newspaper of record for a certain set, fascinating because it told the stories that weren’t supposed to be told about ambition and power in New York.

THAT THE CITY ULTIMATELY TOOK THIS version of the story of New York to heart was probably never more evident than when the last Great Urban Renewal Monument, the World Trade Center, came crashing down on the financial district.

Both Garvin and Chakrabarti attribute the sudden communal sensitivity to architecture in the city to Sept. 11, when, for the first time in a long time, in considering what to build on the site of the World Trade Center, New Yorkers wanted something to make a statement about the city after the attack.

“I think that the process really began in an odd way,” said Garvin, who at the time held the position of Vice President and was in charge of planning for the city-state agency created to manage the redevelopment of Ground Zero. “We held a public hearing at Pace [University]. Pace had a huge auditorium. And the first time the public ever had a chance to express themselves about 9/11—to the great astonishment of the press I might add—were all these people who said there are other considerations and we want something great.”

The change at the time was actually palpable. At another public hearing, held at the Javits Center, booing erupted when proposals for the site were presented. “The audience of 5,000 New Yorkers from every walk of life were not just being contrarians; they were expressing a collective demand for urban and architectural greatness, scaled to the magnitude of 9/11,” wrote Joseph Gioviannini in New York magazine.

It was as if, for the first time in decades, New Yorkers needed their city’s architecture to say something about the city; to illustrate how it would see life after 9/11.

“Making the city whole again is a way of making ourselves whole,” Gioviannini wrote in the same article. “The Parthenon, the Pantheon, and any number of Gothic cathedrals all provoke a sense of wonder, and even if the belief systems that created them have collapsed or changed, the stones still speak to our eyes, body, and spirit.”

But the groundwork had already been laid by the boom in the real estate market that was suddenly making it feasible again for developers to find anchor tenants for large, impressive buildings. Once again, corporations wanted their logos down on the street level, and had the cash to make it happen.

At the same time, on a smaller scale, a crisis in luxury residential property inventory was looming. Prices on a Classic Six on those corridors where the Observer began its distribution were going through the roof. It became important to create something elsewhere that still had cachet. Bringing an architect to Soho or Tribeca to build a condominium building that would sell units for well upward of a million dollars became a rather common practice. In part, it was because architects elsewhere were doing things that really interested the city’s elite.

For example, Garvin dates the very beginning of that sensibility to 1997, the year that the Guggenheim Bilbao was completed. “The incredible splash of Frank Gehry’s museum in Spain,” Garvin said, “just grabbed people’s imagination.”

“We began to have what later became starchitects, and I think the combination of the two really changed the way New Yorkers thought about architecture and the development community,” Garvin said.

The two phenomena, the sudden public interest in ambitious building and the market for architects in smaller projects all over town, fed the growth of each other.

“At some level, [it was] some kind of aftereffect, or byproduct, of 9/11,” Chakrabarti said. “The stuff that was making its way into the papers every day—Richard Rogers and Norman Foster were becoming household names. You’d hear them on the subway.”

Behind the scenes something else had changed as well. Rudolph Giuliani and George Pataki, mayor and governor at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, fearing the inevitable election of former Nader Raider Mark Green as mayor would create conflict about building on the Ground Zero site, created the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, an entity suffered by the Port Authority, owners of the Ground Zero site, and developer Larry Silverstein, who held the 99-year lease on its former buildings, all of whom assumed they would get to decide what was built at Ground Zero as of right. The LMDC, an almost impossible creature of both the city and state’s semi-private development corporations, virtually guaranteed the city itself would have little to say in the redevelopment of the 16-acre site downtown.

In fact, the mayor was to be a Republican billionaire with a self-funded campaign and a group of civic-minded friends with big plans.

“I think [City Planning Commissioner] Amanda [Burden] significantly shifted the conversation into better design,” Chakrabarti said. She encouraged “the use—not so much of brand name architects—but forcing architecture to be innovative, whether it was a really well-known architect or whether it was a small and up-and-coming firm like SHoP. Right? So I think she was really critical at that point.”

There had also developed, as there often does after enough time has passed, a reconsideration of what had happened in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and with it, not necessarily regret, but a certain wistfulness about what could have been in the intervening decades.

“Forty years ago, Jane Jacobs’s anti-modern architecture movement was launched from this neighborhood, and a good thing it was, too,” wrote Herbert Muschamp in a positive 2003 review of Richard Meier’s glass Perry Street towers, residential buildings with large glass windows in which the stars of the moment, from Calvin Klein to Martha Stewart, were to buy apartments based purely on blueprints, and which had just been built in the West Village, Jacobs’ former home and the cradle of the preservation movement. “But the crusade also led to a contempt for architectural values, a reactionary climate that has benefited no one.”

Chakrabarti cited the Meier towers as a third watershed moment for architecture in the early years of the decade. “I think the development community really took note,” he said. In a pattern that later become almost a cliche, “Someone had hired a very well known architect for a very modern building, and, economically, was fairly successful.”

And though New York had developed plenty of technology in those 40 years, it was not in the building trades. Ouroussoff wrote, in 2009, “A half-century ago American engineering was the envy of the rest of the world. Cities like New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans were considered models for a brilliant new future. Europe, with its suffocating traditions and historical baggage, was dismissed as a decadent, aging culture. It is no small paradox that many people in the world now see us in similar terms.”

It helped, too, that real estate in New York kept booming.

“All of those things kind of converged, to make a kind of perfect storm—in a good sense,” Chakrabarti said. “Right at the outset of the 21st century.”

THE CITY’S BUILDING PROJECTS WERE, AND ARE, AT THIS POINT tabloid-worthy, but interest in architecture hasn’t translated into satisfaction; in fact, it has meant that New Yorkers have become acutely aware of the complications of building in New York.

“I think what people are rightfully skeptical about is the sausage-making of, you know, the physical fabric of our city,” Chakrabarti said.

The World Trade Center site is possibly the best case study, in recent memory, of that sausage-making.

“They see a design for something called the Freedom Tower,” Chakrabarti said. “And, you know, at one point it’s this twisting thing, and it looks quite beautiful—it looks quite elegant. And then suddenly there are security concerns, and it becomes sort of bunkerized. And then there’s glass put on the bunker.”

“What you see is rarely what you get,” he said. The appealing renderings come out “and people have certain expectations that are quite high for what will be delivered, and then what gets delivered falls short of that.”

“Some of them are remarkable and some of them are not,” Garvin said of the attempted architectural feats in the last decade. The Frank Gehry I.A.C building, in far west Chelsea, “I think is something that everybody had responded to very positively.”

But that’s not true of a “great many other things,” he added. “I don’t think Jean Nouvel, for example, had the same kind of effect. I think the reaction is just what you said, ‘ho-hum.’”

Buildings, so many of them, have gone up, but, like Innovate/Integrate curator Sara Hart said, that hasn’t made New York a destination for contemporary architecture. Too many of the practices are outdated, and the people who make the buildings are conditioned for caution. Luxury buildings by big-name architects are “wonderful to look at,” Chakrabarti said, but not truly innovative. “True innovation is really about revolutionizing the process by which buildings are made in a city like New York.”

And that, after all, is what New York’s enduring architectural voice had been from the start.

Echoing, again, the implications of the A.I.A. exhibition, he said, “The reason we are well behind places like Europe, Japan, other places, is that we have very calcified processes, both in terms of development, and construction, in terms of delivering innovation.”

The liquid wall will not, if or when it is realized, debut in New York, and there’s no particular sign that developers or their clients will, or want, to innovate.

Part of what’s happened is that building in New York now is almost entirely developer-driven, and developers are more likely to consider factors like liability, and what they build is usually dependent on what the client wants.

“The majority of developers want to do things the way that they’ve done them for 40 years, because it’s been successful for them,” Chakrabarti said. “The majority of the construction trades and the contractors want to build things the same way because that’s what works for them. So anytime anyone sees anything that in anyway looks different, all the alarm bells go off.”

That has taken control away from the architects themselves, as has the way building has changed in recent years. Construction is more integrated.

“Everybody works on the project at the same time,” Hart told me at the Center for Architecture. “It’s not linear anymore, where [there is] design, structure, mechanical, and then building. Everything is happening all at the same time.”

“Architects have, by and large, allowed that to happen,” Chakrabarti said. “Since the ’60s and ’70s [they] have shrunk from responsibility, liability, from risk taking; and have basically let other players completely, sort of, take over their field.

“Until architects are, sort of, ready to step up to the plate, and take risk and actually challenge the way things are built and developed, they [architects] are going continue to be in these sort of subservient consultant rolls.”

The field will change now that the boom is over. The thing to think about, Chakrabarti says, is what the legacy of it is, what we learned, “and how do those lessons get extrapolated to things other than luxury condos.”

Chakrabarti doesn’t seem entirely pessimistic about post-boom building.

“I have, this year, a hundred students, about 40 of whom are architects who are also studying development because they want to go out and be their own clients,” he said. They want to “get out of this position of ‘architect-as-consultant,’ and into something where they’re actually taking ownership.”

If that were to happen, then, Chakrabarti said, “real innovations can occur, in terms of the development and construction process that will, in turn, get us more innovative architecture.”

Credit to CAPITAL, This is How New York Works

About the author

Drawing upon original ideas and extensive personal and professional experience in the field, David McFadden crafted this article to explore the untapped potential of making historic architectural masterpieces more sustainable. After working at various design practices—both full-time and freelance—and launching his design firm, David identified a significant gap in the industry. In 1984, he founded Consulting For Architects Inc. Careers, an expansive hub designed to align architects with hiring firms for mutual benefit. This platform enables architects to find impactful design work and frees hiring firms from the time-consuming cycles of recruitment and layoffs. David’s innovative approach to employer-employee relations has brought much-needed flexibility and adaptation to the industry. As the Founder and CEO, David has successfully guided his clients and staff through the challenges of four recessions—the early ’80s, early ’90s, early 2000s, the Great Recession, the pandemic, and the current slowdown due to inflation and high-interest rates.

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