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Thread: Form and Reform--NY Building Styles Evolve

  1. #1

    Default Form and Reform--NY Building Styles Evolve

    I was looking at some pictures of the new BOFA building at Bryant Park and was struck with a fresh observation-- we are witnessing what, to future architectural historians, will be seen as the "Early 21st Century Style" of NY skyscrapers. Newish buildings are evolving, moving far away from the late 20th Century "box" and into an era of fanciful computer designed structures, many with complex mathematical details.

    Followers of skyscraper evolution recognize many of Manhattan's tall buildings by their particular design ethos and the historical timeframe that existed when they were built. There are the easily identifiable ones from the Antique Era, the grand piles of the Deco Age, ones from the Time of The Glass Box and the breakaways from the '80-'90s. Even a casual admirer of the genre can place them on the Timeclock.

    Once the technology for building tall became available in the late 1800s, the earliest "supertalls" were inspired by ancient architectural styles. Architects of the day, facing a whole new manner of creating structure, began to look for ways to make their tallest buildings stunning by reinterpreting the monuments of history. Cass Gilbert's 1913 Woolworth Building and the companion-in-time Municipal Bldg. with it's overscaled pergola, for example, borrowed a lot from French roccoco and Greek and Gothic styles, while some of Wall Street's early towers--Park Row Building, or Banker's Trust, say-- used Romanesque detailing to death, some borrowing from the nacent Chicago School.
    Met Life (1909) recreated an Egyptian obelesk Uptown and Banker's Trust added the Nile pyramid to Downtown's skyline in 1912. One wonders why the Sphinx Building never went up.
    Pharoic highrises. Cute.

    Then, in the late 1920's as the European- influenced Art Deco and Streamline looks took hold, everything from the massive Rockefeller Center, to the Chrysler spire to the diminuative Radiator Bldg jumped on board, the crown jewel of the evolved style being the ESB in 1930. The "wedding Cake" experiments of the 1920s-30's stand out, their existence and blended-Deco styles bestowed upon the landscape by the Zoning changes that were designed to shrink a building's mass and allow the sun to hit the streets by stepping the facade back and into itself as the building grew taller. Barclay-Vesey, as an example, not only stepped back, but the tower part shifted in it's plane, turning 45 degrees as it grew taller, an interesting Deco-Wedding Cake variation.
    That style had a decades-long run before the particular design patterns grew stale.
    Looking at the Paramount Building or 120 Wall, one immediately knows when it was erected and why it looks like it does. They're so 1920s.

    For students of skyscraper evolution, a glance at most of Manhattan's big buildings will also confirm their epoch, and from some Midtown and Downtown vantage points one can see a sprinkling of all the styles, all the different design eras scattered among themselves. Those views, with their amazing diversity of designs, are what define NYC as the ultimate skyscraper garden.

    By the '50s-'60s, the evolution of fine detailing had all but vanished and a collection of plain, unadorned buildings-- mostly boxes inspired by a Mies Minimalism-- were planted on the City's landscape like Stonehenge slabs, i.e. the Lever/ Seagram cousins and Chase Manhattan Plaza, or the reoccuring cloned tower blocks along Sixth Ave behind Rockefeller Center as other examples. And who among us can fail to place the UN slab into its appropriate timeframe?

    During THAT evolution, tops were sheared flat, corners were cut at right angles and detailing went into hiding, as if the buildings were striving for a cheap and glassy anonimity. Form and function married, a seemingly sexless union, and bland became a design cue.

    This era extended well into the 1980s, giving us things like the US Steel ( One Liberty Plaza) Building and Marine Midland's tower. While there were variences in detail, most emerged as lookalikes, copies of one another. CBS broke the mold, remaining flattopped but returning to a somewhat sculptural skin, emphasizing its dark stonework and it's verticallity . Plazas became vogue, their open spaces cleverly substituted for stepbacks, and the slabs-in-the-plaza grew in number. During that phase, lovers of good design could only groan in dismay as these uninspired boxes imposed themselves onto the streetscape.

    The '60s and '70s also gave us the monolith, the huge, unadorned box sketched with subtle detailing, like the WTC Twins or the awful Pan Am/ Met Life tombstone. Architects stepped away from towers of stone and steel, going to icons of glass and metal, with vertical reflectivity becoming the principal style. There's no mistaking a building from the late '60s to the '80s.

    By the mid-'70s, some architects had tired of the rectangle and began to mine history again, lightly interpreting the past once more, resulting in buildings like Philip Johnson's AT&T (now SONY) Tower. He used stonework, heavy mullions and Chicago windows, adding a unique "Chippendale" top to disguise what is essentually a 45-floor rectangle. Architects introduced whimsical touches, like the skirted bases of WR Grace and the Solow Tower and the flying saucer atop Astor Plaza; Burgee/ Johnson rounded off the squared, set-backed wedding cake and came up with the Lipstick Bldg on 3rd Ave--and in the case of the 1989 Worldwide Tower, SOM--famous for copying themselves ad infinitum-- cleverly reached Downtown and backwards several eras to introduce the classic style of the skinny 1920's Wall Street Deco-spire into Midtown, setbacks, copper pyramids and all.

    It was around this time that computers emerged as design tools, so the designers began to play with form, manipulating the slab into more interesting shapes. Look at Roche Dinkeloo's UN Plaza Towers, festooned with glassed triangles, odd, jutting corners and parallelograms within squares ( 1976-'83), and notice how 5th Avenue's Trump Tower rises from a square base to its blocky, glass steppes that shape the rising tower with severe indentations. If you seek the genesis of the current evolutionary trend in architecture, those three were the pioneers of the style we are starting to see go up everywhere.

    Several bumps later, we are in the midst of an evolving style yet to be named, a design synergy that requires the manipulation of form itself. Architects are chamfering corners, adding interesting reflective details, they are manipulating the structure into itself and they're introducing elements like cascading facades and puzzling twists and turns into the skin of their buildings. Glass is again king, being used in very imaginative forms, and the tops of these skyscrapers are wearing some very imaginative hats.

    The new buildings among the emerging WTC skyscraper cluster employ this design scheme well, and the renamed Beekman Towers (Gehrey Tower) is another Downtown embodiment of that "Early 21st Century Style", this one on acid. Bloomberg's new building, while a seeming throwback to the banal box, offers surprises in form and structure when examined a little closer. The aforementioned BOFA Tower has confidently joined the landscape, the Bertlesman Bldg at Times Square plopped a heavily detailed rocket ship next to the Astor spaceship, and during the '80s, the World Financial Center, returning to the historic stone-and-glass style of the '30s, gave The WTC neighborhood a trio of similar buildings with smoothed Deco lines and curious, historical tops, created in part as counterpoint to the modernity of the severe, looming superblock towers-in-a-plaza across West Street.

    What can one say about the Hearst Tower ( my absolute favorite new Manhattan building) but that it is Modernism made triangular? By inserting some graphic, mathematical precision directly into a blatantly Art Deco base, Norman Foster created for Midtown a jewel in a box, a melding of old school craftsmanship and 21st century digitalism. It could have been cartoony but it's not--it's stunning. It's not tall, but it is a very modern skyscraper using glass sculpturing in a way never attempted before. One can't help but wonder--what would it look like if it were, say, 100 floors high?

    Check out the wishbook pages here on "WiredNY", the ones that revel in future designs for new towers. Few new skyscrapers are boxes ( they are deliberately NOT a box) and most have involved, intricate glass skins, designed by people who are reaching for the unique, for the signature 21st Century architectural code, just like the Woolworth Building aspired to 100 years ago.

    Evolution is upon us, as New York is starting to become populated with this new design language, a style our grandkids will acknowledge fifty years hence as the prevailing structural language of the New Century, and a lot of it looks really good. I just wish that NYC would evolve a bit more, grow a pair and spike some really tall, 21st Century spires into the clouds, 1776 feet of actual building, like the Arabs or the Chinese are doing-- something 130 floors or more. That would be the next, great leap in NY's architectural timeline, and I hope I'm around when it happens.
    We live in interesting times.
    Last edited by Hof; August 30th, 2011 at 09:24 PM.

  2. #2

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    Wow, great read. I would call the contemporary skyscraper movement "Millenial" or, less preferably, "Neo-Modernist".

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