Architecture as History: New York City (Part 1)

LONGFORM

Architecture


Constructing the Gilded Age

For a city that has been setting trends in architecture, New York City’s buildings (and the history behind them) are not to be missed!

 Lee Lawrie's artistic interpretation of Isaiah 33:6, 'Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy times', adorns the entrance of 30 Rock

Lee Lawrie's artistic interpretation of Isaiah 33:6, 'Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy times', adorns the entrance of 30 Rock

This article is the first in a 3-part series on how New York's iconic buildings have been influenced by (and in some cases have influenced) the broad political, cultural and social forces of the period they found themselves in. To this end, we'll be looking at the profound forces that characterised the Roaring Twenties, the 1960s and the turn of the Millennium.

Whenever the topic of cities comes up in discussion, New York City is ever a perennial favourite — not least due to the city's iconic architectural landmarks. Defined by the many cultures that call the city home and hemmed in by the city's grid system, New York City has, for the past century, trudged a steady path towards the halls of architectural fame. However, the city's collection of famous buildings had its beginnings in the gilded decade of the 1920s.

Towards the end of the 19th century, architects in the United States began to practice two similar but divergent approaches to architecture — the Beaux-Arts and Art Deco movements. Named for the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France where it was first pioneered in the 1830s, the Beaux-Arts style is recognizable by its grand, symmetrically proportioned facades and neoclassical columns and ornamentation. On the other hand, the Art Deco movement (named after the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, held in Paris in 1925) was no less ostentatious, but embraced a more streamlined, modern aesthetic with the use of strong geometric motifs. While Art Deco would later come to shape and eventually epitomise the Roaring Twenties, both styles were immeasurably important as architects employed them in designing many of the iconic structures that persist till today. 

Whilst the European powers became embroiled in their own continental conflict in the first decade of the new century, the unrestricted industry boom in the United States allowed for unprecedented economic success and setting the foundation for an architectural renaissance. In this first decade, the Beaux-Arts style shaped the construction of the new New York Stock Exchange at Broad St and the New York Public Library along 5th Avenue, both buildings that are of immense importance and utility for New Yorkers. With its emphasis on sculptures and a rich use of cornices and symmetrical proportions, the impressionistic realism of Beaux Arts architecture played up the minutiae of details in every part of the building. A veritable architecture photography paradise.

With the continued financial and economic success of New York City stretching into the 1920s, the Empire State Building and 30 Rockefeller Plaza rose up in Midtown Manhattan influenced by the extravagance of the burgeoning Art Deco movement. From the use of luxury materials to borderline prodigal craftsmanship, the vivd colours of the Art Deco world banded together intricate details and grand edifices in order to project an image of authority. It was also during this decade that the growing liberalisation of society resulted in more experimental and outspoken expressions of creativity.

Fuelled by the wanton success in technological innovation across the economy in aviation, telecommunications, motion-pictures and automobile production, the two Art Deco buildings kickstarted a 'Skyscraper boom'. Across the nation, buildings shot up, reaching dizzying heights that physically embodied the heady excesses of the decade by reaching dizzying heights, thereby finally conquering the hitherto unreachable 'air space' above traditional low-rise buildings.

 
 The New York Public Library is more than just a conducive spot to browse library material or catch up on some work 

The New York Public Library is more than just a conducive spot to browse library material or catch up on some work 

Knowledge at the Center of it All - New York Public Library

Apart from that one popular Instagram shot of the New York Public Library's Main Branch, there is indeed much more to the building than its expansive interior. The conceptualisation of the building from the get-go was influenced by a wish to create a library network (and headquarters) to match the scale and importance of the country's largest city. This pioneering private philanthropic effort would manifest itself in one building, the culmination of all previous efforts at establishing an accessible collection of library materials for all. 

Such a bold mission was not lost on the approach its curators took to choosing materials for the collection. This commitment to taking in the full breadth and depth of human knowledge was perhaps best represented by the library's refusal to back down from public criticism after it admitted several controversial left-leaning books during the height of the Red Scare.

As yet another veritable pantheon in the Beaux-Arts tradition, the library utilised an impressive amount of high-quality materials during its construction. As if to inspire, the marble on the main library building stands at almost a metre thick whilst the high ceilings of its reading rooms imbue a sense of grandeur even in the most noble of visitors.

 The two lions guarding the entrance of the NYPL building are named Lady Astor and Lord Lenox after the NYPL's founders,  photo from NYPL

The two lions guarding the entrance of the NYPL building are named Lady Astor and Lord Lenox after the NYPL's founders, photo from NYPL

While multiple additions and extensions have been added to the complex since its inauguration in 1911, none could possibly match the iconic image of the bronze flagpoles and twin lions found at the main entrance to the building. These symbols act as guardians of the vaunted institution of learning and knowledge and have made the building one of the most famous in Manhattan.

At the time of its opening, the NYPL aimed to serve a city in a state of fundamental change. Not only were the 5 boroughs finally consolidated into a single unified metropolitan area, the commencement of services on the New York Subway revolutionised intra-city mobility just as the NYPL opened its doors to the eager public. Though its grand design was thought to be alienating to some, many New Yorkers today see it fitting that the grandeur of the building embodies the NYPL's mission of improving access to intellectual life. To this end, the NYPL can be considered to have had a profound effect on shaping the following decades after its doors opened in the early 20th Century.

Though perhaps not as heavily influenced by the economic successes of its namesake city like the NYSE, is it perhaps incorrect to say that the NYPL is of less importance or merit to the city's culture. This is simply due to its very ambitious mission of wanting to be a comprehensive and freely accessible library for all - neither a simple nor particularly prestigious task. Yet, its role in fuelling the intellectual curiosity of New Yorkers is perhaps unparalleled even by the many distinguished educational institutions that call the Big Apple home.

 
 The New York Stock Exchange has been through the boom and bust of the American economy - it is no less important today than it was 100 years ago

The New York Stock Exchange has been through the boom and bust of the American economy - it is no less important today than it was 100 years ago

A Decade of Soaring Wealth - New York Stock Exchange

Many would consider the facade of the NYSE as being pretty much synonymous with the image and power of American finance.

This imposing facade was conceived by Architect George B. Post and comprises a huge portico with 6 Corinthian-style columns rising from a podium. Accompanying this imposing edifice is a large pediment depicting in its centre the God of Commerce - Mercury. Flanking Mercury is a series of figures representing the images of human industry ranging from mining to agriculture. With this in mind, it's clear that the immense importance of the NYSE was very much evident to Post and his contemporaries. However, few would have been able to fathom just how big (and how quickly) the exchange would grow to become in the following years, outlining the path of growth for the American economy.

This imposing facade, plastered onto what was formerly a flat-faced building, is aptly titled 'Integrity Protecting the Works of Man' — as if to underscore the immense financial enterprise the building would come to house. This adaption of the Beaux-arts tradition to fit a symbol of modern economic success is apt as its timeless design still draws in huge crowds of visitors: all on a pilgrimage to experience — if only for a brief moment — the boom and busts of the American economy that have begun and ended in this very building.

The financial importance of the New York Stock Exchange was not be lost on the city's inhabitants. Apart from buttressing the city's coffers through tax revenue, the arbitrage opportunities of the NYSE allowed for enterprising magnates to accrue immense wealth. Many of these wealthy individuals ended up inspiring the many redevelopment projects that took place across the city in the following decades. It was also during the 1920s that the successes of the NYSE allowed New York City to overtake London as the financial capital of the global economy. This was after its traders and companies wiggled their way into the financial networks of Europe in order to finance the immense spending brought about by World War I.

With that, perhaps the best quote that encapsulates the intrinsic importance of the NYSE comes from President Reagan when he said: 'We're bullish on the American economy.' To this day, the New York Stock Exchange remains the world's largest.

 
 The enigmatic Empire State Building lights up into a gleaming beacon at night, photo by  Martin Sanchez  on  Unsplash

The enigmatic Empire State Building lights up into a gleaming beacon at night, photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

The Will of a New Age - Empire State Building

The Empire State Building, apart from representing its namesake state, has become synonymous with New York City throughout popular culture and memory. In that vein, the Empire State Building has come to influence and remain a part of the narrative of New York City's development by virtue of being a product of technological innovation and cultural aspiration. Not only is the Empire State Building famous, it is the building that immediately comes to mind when discussing architecture in New York City. 

Though the Empire State (like many other buildings) occupies a special place in the memory of Americans, it is perhaps unique in being able to symbolise different concepts and ideas depending on who you're asking. In the financial rush of the 20s, the Empire State would have been considered the architectural capstone of a city that had come of age.

However, as the city fell into mania of the Great Depression, it took on the mantle of being a symbol of hope in a time of untold hardship. Similarly, though the building was conceived and commissioned by leading members of American society, it was also very much the building on which many new immigrants and labourers pinned their hopes and aspirations. To this end, if the Statue of Liberty is considered as the first icon symbolising New York's newfound success, the Empire State would certainly be the its culmination. 

 The Empire State Building incorporates setbacks (the building tapers the higher it stretches) in its design to conform to New York City's unique regulations on skyscraper construction, photo by  Dapo Oni  on  Unsplash

The Empire State Building incorporates setbacks (the building tapers the higher it stretches) in its design to conform to New York City's unique regulations on skyscraper construction, photo by Dapo Oni on Unsplash

As many young Americans in the 1920s began to move to the city (doubtless seduced by its glamour), the Empire State Building truly represented the apogee of the Roaring Twenties as it incorporated the period's popular Art Deco style in its architecture through its famous murals and setbacks. This grand showcase was unsurprisingly matched by the logistic requirements of constructing the building, as its construction required materials and effort of untold proportions. Indeed, few projects of the sort (1,886 km of elevator cable and ten million bricks, amongst other amounts) had ever been attempted before its inauguration in 1931. 

In that vein, it was not until after many requisite technological innovations came about, in tandem with the financial and aspirational will of the 20s, that the decade would finally prove conducive to the conception of such a grand structure. This came in the form of new hardy materials like stainless steel and the development of modern elevators. The grandeur of the period is also aptly represented by the building's exterior sheen, a result of the premium Indiana limestone used in its construction. Oh, and the building had a grand total of 64 elevators.

How high is the Empire State Building? 102 floors, to be exact.

For all that's been said, perhaps the most important signal of the building's remarkable proportions is this: it was not until the 1970s that the United States regained its confidence, after decades of economic and political trouble, that the Empire State finally lost one of its titular claims to fame — its status at the world's tallest building. Despite this, visiting the Empire State Building Observation Deck on the 102nd floor (the top) is still a perennial favourite — sought after even by King Kong.

Nevertheless, the history of the Empire State Building has remained a critical part of the city's identity — in the minds of many New Yorkers, it is a crystallization of the very grandeur of the period.

 
 The statue of Prometheus sits at the centre of the public ice rink at the heart of Rockefeller Centre

The statue of Prometheus sits at the centre of the public ice rink at the heart of Rockefeller Centre

Midtown Manhattan's Media Flagship - 30 Rockefeller Plaza

Sitting in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, the complex of buildings that make up Rockefeller Center serve as New York City's centre of media production and broadcasting. If Hollywood was the leading flagship of film production, Rockefeller Centre is its intellectual cousin. At the very centre of the sprawling grounds sits 30 Rockefeller Plaza, a building that has come to represent the very ideals of being an American.

From supermodels to late night talkshow hosts, 30 Rock has seen it all. But what, you may ask, underscores this veritable institution? To us, it would be its unwavering optimism for the future seems. Just like the Empire State, 30 Rock was a product of the Roaring Twenties, a period of untold excitement for the future. Yet, as the decade came to a close, the Great Depression signalled the end of America's golden age. Throughout the period, however, 30 Rock — like the Empire State above — remained one of the city's beacons of hope, an embodiment of the continued confidence held by its namesake. 

John D Rockefeller knew that despite the temporary setback of the Great Depression, New York City would continue to wield preeminent influence over global culture. Rockefeller remained persistent about completing the project, and he didn't disappoint. By almost all measures, the complex is a masterpiece. Its iconic skyscrapers are really just dense vertical towers that extend up from a full maze of underground tunnels that sprawl beneath the complex. These doubtless gave the entire enterprise a sense of cohesiveness and majesty. Combined with the foresight in integrating the building with the upcoming NYC Subway Sixth Avenue Line, little else in the world came close to understanding and implementing a proper plan for urban mobility.

Imbued with character, the main tower at 30 Rock features its own works of art that were commissioned to complement its forward looking stature. The most evident of these art pieces appear at the ceiling of the building's main entrance, where an Art Deco interpretation of 'Wisdom' is installed along with the quote 'Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy times' engraved on it. Similarly, the artwork 'American Progress' etches onto the soul of the building, illustrations of the century's greatest inventors as symbols of human progress.

 The infamous statue 'Atlas' adorns a side entrance to 30 Rock,  photo from Travel Addicts

The infamous statue 'Atlas' adorns a side entrance to 30 Rock, photo from Travel Addicts

All across the complex, there are statues and artworks so famous as to exemplify the Art Deco style. The statue titled 'Atlas' (the namesake Greek Titan holding up the heavens) features as one of the very prominent icons of Rockefeller Centre; as does the sculpture of Prometheus found in the public plaza and ice rink at the front of the building. The many flagpoles in the plaza displaying the various flags of different countries are yet another nod to the international atmosphere of New York.

Just like the Empire State Building, the materials used to construct 30 Rockefeller Plaza are decidedly 'premium'. The facade of the building's entrance ground floor is made up of elegant limestone, and its interior comprises a very liberal use of marble to adorn the lobby with a sense of importance and polish.

To top this all off, the world famous photograph depicting workers having lunch whilst sitting on a beam overlooking the New York skyline (taken when the 69th Floor was being laid) has etched the Rockefeller project into what is quintessentially 'New York'. To this end, not only was the building a celebration of all the achievements of man regardless of nationality, it was also meant to inspire more of such innovation in future generations, with New York City being conceived as a prime staging ground. 

Though the Empire State Building has ascended into the realm of the nation's mythos, it's hard to match 30 Rock's monumental showing as a veritable international symbol of progress and success. Unlike the other aspirational projects of the 20s, both the Empire State Building and 30 Rockefeller Plaza would unwittingly serve as veritable centrepieces in the eventual shaping of Midtown Manhattan into a centre of media production and business.

 
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An end to the heady excesses of the Roaring Twenties

As the financial mayhem of the Great Depression caught up with the city, skyscraper construction and development came to a precipitous halt as the American (and global) economy went into shock. Though this didn't necessarily mean that no new projects were being commissioned, few were bold or financially capable enough to match the scale and grandiose proportions of the preceding decade. Many proposed structures that could have redefined New York's cityscape were never built. After all, economic indicators were only on the mend and not about to display strong growth until the end of World War 2. 

Even as the depression's effects waned, the world would only have had a short breather before the calamitous events of World War 2 would arrive to send shockwaves throughout the world. Thus began an architectural interregnum that only ended with the bold architectural movements of modernism and futurism in the early 1960s. 

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