Gargoyles Over Manhattan: A Skyscraper Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Skyscrapers are pretty boring.

Once you get past the Art Deco period, urban towers tend to get rather ho-hum. Even though they cost a fortune to build, most skyscrapers always strike me as looking rather cheap, banal, and infinitely interchangeable. If you could build the same thing in Detroit as in Dubai, who really cares what starchitect’s name you attach to it?

It wasn’t always this way of course, nor does it have to continue to be so, as architect Mark Foster Gage recognizes in his proposed tower for 41 West 57th Street, just south of Central Park in Manhattan. In his plans Gage, who is an Assistant Dean at the Yale School of Architecture, presents what would become a major New York City architectural landmark, both referencing the past and looking to the future. Illustration and video renderings of the project, which some are calling the “Gargoyle Tower”, can be seen on his firm’s website.

It is exciting to look at a contemporary building design which has so much richness to it, particularly as compared to most of its surrounding neighbors. The incorporation of significant, numerous sculptural elements into the structure has not been seen on this scale in Manhattan since the 1930’s. The fact that there is so much differentiation between the floors of the building provides far greater interest externally; the individualized layouts of the apartments along more sculptural lines will provide both challenges and rewards for those living in them; the rather Balinese temple-like rooftop observation deck will no doubt have a stupendous view of the city.

Gage’s proposal immediately calls to mind the work of Antoni Gaudí, which of course is why I wanted to share this with my readers. Certain elements of the design and forms are reminiscent of those employed by Gaudí in the Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, and elsewhere, although without directly copying them. As an aside, this brings to mind the sad story of the skyscraper hotel that Gaudí designed for what is now the site of Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan, but which (sadly) was never built. You can read more about that here.

One must acknowledge that there is a kitchy aspect to Gage’s assemblage of design elements, as admittedly one finds in Gaudí’s work as well. Giant angel wings and cruise ship propellers seem as bizarre on Gage’s design as giant snails and bowls of fruit do on Gaudí’s. Yet the difference between the two lies in the approach to the decoration itself.

Whereas in his work, Gaudí was generally making nationalistic or religious references, Gage admitted in an interview with architecture and design magazine Dezeen that there was no deeper meaning behind the design for this project. While deploring the ubiquitous “glass box” tower, Gage does not attach any significance to the exterior of this project, save for its aesthetics:

“Our primary interest wasn’t symbolism as might have been the case with such sculptural forms a century ago,” said the architect. “Instead we were interested in having high and low resolution areas on the facade, so the building revealed different qualities from different viewing distances – including from the interior,” he added.

Is it fair to compare these two architects? Gaudí was, of course, a deeply Catholic, proud Catalan patriot; his idiosyncratic designs, particularly as he grew older, came more and more to reflect his desire to honor God and his homeland. By contrast Gage is a fashionable, young, and innovative architect, who wants to explore interesting and beautiful designs by using the technology at our disposal.

Perhaps it would make more sense to take Gage as he is. His effort to do something different, yet still familiar, is a tonic to the samey-ness of most contemporary skyscrapers – which haven’t really changed that much since we started building plain, glass Kleenex boxes stood on end in this country over 80 years ago. A skyscraper is, in the end, something which functions independently of its decoration: even the beloved Chrysler Building, covered in sculptural decoration referencing the automobile which paid for its construction, does not depend on its decoration for its function.

Certainly this particular building, if it is ever built, would be a magnificent and unique addition to the Manhattan skyline, not only because it is so different, but precisely because its decoration serves part of its function. One need only consider the way it uses sculpture to provide elements such as outdoor space, for example. And it is, admittedly, very cool: one can imagine Batman and the Joker leaping about it on it, in a yet-to-be-made superhero movie. Yet therein lies the rub: without imbedding some deeper meaning into its programmatic decoration, one does wonder whether, over time, it will come to be viewed as little more than a very expensive bit of set design.

Whether this skyscraper is ever built, it certainly gives us a lot to think about. And like his work or not – I’m still making up my mind – Gage is certainly someone to watch. What do you think of this project? Feel free to leave comments and engage in some discussion below.

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New Shows in DC, New York Celebrating El Greco

To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco (1541-1614), both the National Gallery of Art here in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have just opened new exhibitions celebrating his life and work.  Although ethnically Greek and born on the island of Crete, El Greco – whose proper name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos – did the vast majority of his work in Spain, where he settled in his mid-30’s and spent the rest of his life.  His is quite a fascinating story of how a creative person’s output can completely change over time, based on the environment they work in.

In Manhattan, “El Greco in New York” runs from now until February 1st, and features 16 paintings by El Greco from the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America. The show includes El Greco’s stunning “View of Toledo”, a landscape of his adopted city under storm clouds and lightning,which looks as though it could have been painted centuries later; his captivating portrait of the very intimidating  Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, whom you clearly did not want to tangle with; and two very different versions of a nocturnal “Adoration of the Shepherds”, showing the shepherds arriving at the stable with joy to meet the Christ Child.

Here in Washington, the National Gallery has mounted “El Greco: A 400th Anniversary Celebration” of the artist’s work, in collaboration with The Philips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.  There are 10 paintings in the exhibition, which opened this past weekend and continues until February 16th.  Highlights include his charming, bright altarpiece of “St. Martin and the Beggar”, which is one of my favorites for showing the Roman soldier and martyr dressed in contemporary Spanish armor; the powerful, heavy contrasts of the “Repentant St. Peter” from The Philips; and the almost-abstract “Visitation” from Dumbarton Oaks, which I always make a point of seeing when I drop by the museum.

Unusually for an important artist of the late Renaissance, El Greco began his working life as an icon painter.   While there is always some room for individual expression in the creation of such works, the repetition of familiar and well-established elements is very important to that school of Christian art.  As a result, it makes it difficult for the average person to tell what century a particular icon was painted in, from simple observation.  El Greco might have remained content to stay in the tradition of icon painting, or “writing” as it is often referred to, but instead he decided to take a chance and go to Venice, which ruled Crete at the time.

Once he got to Italy, El Greco began to change radically as an artist.  From his work and studies in Venice and Rome, he absorbed what he observed in the late Renaissance and Mannerist art that was being created around him, so different from the Byzantine icons he himself had been trained to create. He was able to study with Titian, the last of the living great masters of the High Renaissance, explore the churches and palaces, and meet with a number of very important people.  He even communicated with Pope St. Pius V, offering to wipe out Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel and paint something more suitable, noting that the late Florentine master was a great sculptor who did not know how to paint very well (a sentiment I share.)

However most of El Greco’s greatest work even today is located in Spain, because that is where he moved after job opportunities in Italy were not working out as he had hoped. The Spanish imperial court was quite different from the flashy, humanist salons in Rome or Florence that El Greco had grown accustomed to.  Serious, stiff, and devoutly Catholic, the Spanish aristocracy when El Greco arrived was not interested in showing off.  They dressed almost exclusively in black most of the time, seeking to impress through sober formality rather than over-familiarity or flippancy, and saved their decoration for their churches.

As a result, El Greco’s art began to change once again.  Whereas previously, he mimicked the colors and light of the Italy he experienced as a young man, as he grew older and spent more and more time in the barren, desert-like plains and cities of central Spain, El Greco’s paintings gradually became darker, featuring stark outlines and contrasts, more elongation and distortion.  His style changed to the point that by the end of his life, some of his later pieces could very easily be mistaken for being works created by a Modern artist in the 20th century.

While you may not be able to get to Madrid or Toledo to see El Greco’s finest work, here in the United States we are fortunate to have about 4 dozen works by El Greco, many of them quite good, in collections around the country.  And now, even more fortunately for those in the Northeast Corridor, two of the best places to see his work are New York and DC.  With these anniversary exhibitions having just opened, you’ll be able to more closely observe his progression as a creative thinker for yourself.

"St. Martin and the Beggar" by El Greco (c. 1597) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

“St. Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco (c. 1597)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Phone Booth Friday: Superman’s Changing Room in the Digital Age

As I mentioned last week, for the next few weeks I’m going to be trying a little experiment on the blog where Fridays are reserved for posts about superheroes, since a number of my readers and followers are interested in this area of popular culture.  Thanks to a suggestion from one of you clever readers, I’ve decided to call this weekly installment, “Phone Booth Friday”, appropriately enough.  And to begin the official launch of this feature, I thought we’d take a look at Superman’s changing room itself, an object which in many parts of the world has largely ceased to serve its original purpose.

On Wednesday, London launched the first of a series of phone booth conversions, turning some of the city’s iconic red boxes from payphone shelters to green-painted, solar-powered charging stations for mobile phones and other devices.  With the advent of digital communications, many of these familiar pieces of London streetscape have fallen into disuse. Some are sitting in phone booth “graveyards”, waiting to be scooped up by collectors and designers seeking to find new uses for these objects.  In fact, roughly half of all phone boxes which once dotted the British landscape have disappeared over the last decade.

London is not alone, of course, in finding itself with a surfeit of phone booths it no longer needs.  Here in America, removal or repurposing in many cities is taking much longer, in part because there are so many phone companies responsible for the installation, maintenance, and upkeep of these objects.  There are still an estimated 10,000 phone booths on the streets of New York City alone, and various proposals floating around regarding what to do with them.

Although it’s good to see new and innovative ideas are bringing life back to some of these now largely superfluous bits of technology, one might also conclude that with fewer phone booths out there, the last son of Krypton might find himself in a bit of a quandary when he needs to spring into action. The old-fashioned, full-length phone booth is hard to find in many American cities anyway, as compared to the open, half-length style still to be seen in places like airports and train stations.  Except interestingly enough, the automatic association we all make regarding the phone booth as Superman’s changing room is not entirely accurate.

Originally, the phone booth was not an essential part of Superman’s modus operandi.  The first example of Clark Kent using a phone booth to change into Superman occurred not in the comic books, which were first published in 1939, but rather in a cartoon short from 1941.  In fact the use of the phone booth as part of one of his comic strip adventures didn’t appear until 1942.  As this article points out, over the years both in print and on film, Supes has changed clothes in all kinds of places; on the 1950’s TV series, for example, he most often used a broom closet at The Daily Planet, or an alleyway, and never once used a phone booth.

So rest assured, good citizens, whether from a repurposed phone booth, a storage cupboard, or behind a dumpster, there will always be somewhere for Superman to do what he needs to do to leap into action.  The more critical problem today, quite frankly, is the ubiquitous presence of cameras both inside and outside of buildings, on streets, highways, intersections, and so on, which run the risk of giving the entire game away.  Plus, you can imagine the size of the speeding tickets.

Superman Phone Booth