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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The Florence You’ve Never Seen

Along with the restoration of its famous Baptistery, recently mentioned in these pages, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – or “Duomo” – in Florence is also celebrating the reopening of its museum, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, following a two-and-a-half year renovation. One of the highlights of the newly-expanded Opera is a recreation of the original façade of the Cathedral, which was never completed, and ended up being demolished in the 1500’s. Based on careful analysis of old drawings of what the Duomo’s original façade looked like before demolition, researchers created an installation which copies the lower half of the structure in full scale, in what is now one of the single largest exhibition rooms in Italy. They have also included the original sculptures from the façade, or copies of them, placed in their approximate original location.        

This reconstruction may come as a surprise to many, of course, since visitors to Florence may be unaware that the present façade of the Duomo is not what the entrance originally looked like. Built between 1876-1887, the “face” of the Cathedral is lavishly decorated in colorful marble, with geometric shapes and statues that coordinate well with the neighboring Campanile and Baptistery. With Italian unification and independence, not to mention the scores of foreign tourists passing through Florence on the Grand Tour, no doubt it became obvious to the 19th century Florentines that they should really get round to finishing their most famous building.  

Because of the expense involved in building and decorating the entryway to a vast church like the Duomo, it is not at all unusual in European architecture to find a significant lag between the start of construction on one of these historic houses of worship and their completion. Two other famous churches in Florence, for example, never received their final facades. The Basilica of Santo Spirito and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, both of which house works of art by some of the major artists of the Florentine Renaissance, were principally designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the same architect who built the famous dome of Florence’s cathedral. At present, both have plain, unfinished facades, even though Brunelleschi’s designs for the former, and Michelangelo’s model for the latter, still exist. In fact, there is currently an ongoing debate in Florence as to whether Michelangelo’s design for San Lorenzo ought to be built.

In other cities, with the arrival of the industrial revolution, newly wealthy elites were able to fund the completion of such projects. In Barcelona, Holy Cross Cathedral was finished by about 1420, after around 150 years of construction. However the main façade, with its soaring, pierced towers crowned by angels and saints, was only completed in 1913, when the money became available to dust off the original 15th century plans. Similarly in Cologne, the current Cathedral of St. Peter was built in stages, but major work effectively ceased in 1473. The project only resumed in earnest in the middle of the 19th century, with the main façade finally being finished in 1911.

While experts at the Opera admit that their reconstruction of the Duomo’s original façade is, in places, an educated guess, the end result is enormously interesting to those of us who appreciate history, art, and architecture. What is also particularly instructive with this installation is the greater appreciation it gives us for the virtue of patience when it comes to completing a great task. With our contemporary society being used to having a fully-cooked meal in hand within 90 seconds or less, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that sometimes great things can take a great deal of time to complete.

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Reconstruction of the Duomo Façade, Florence

In “The Artist’s Garden”

“The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920”, is a terrific exhibition showcasing American painting, drawing, design, and photography during a period when the idea of American home life changed completely. With greater wealth and greater amounts of free time on their hands, middle class Americans began to make their homes into places where the outside was just as cared for as the inside. Your teak patio furniture, trellis hung with wisteria, and stamped concrete garden pavers grew out of this change in attitude toward what gardens, and indeed being outdoors, was all about.

The first observation to be made is that this is a very attractive, easy to like exhibition. One could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that this is merely an assemblage of paintings of pretty women and flowers, colorful glass objects, and tiny photographs. Yet as one moves through the rooms, the idea takes hold of what a profound shift in thinking the American psyche underwent during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.

Until a century ago, most Americans used the land surrounding their homes primarily for growing their own food and keeping livestock – Pauline Wayne, the last cow to graze on the White House lawn, departed for Wisconsin in 1913. By the middle of the 19thcentury however, a significant ground shift was beginning to take place in the relationship of man to the land, which is well-documented in this exhibition. The barn yard gradually became the back yard, a haven from the brave but ugly new world of belching factory smokestacks and clanging streetcars.

This change in attitude toward the use of one’s property went hand-in-glove with the effort to try to beautify American cities. Students of architecture and urban planning will be familiar with the fruits of this greater movement. Temporary installations such as the Philadelphia Bicentennial Exposition of 1876, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1905, had permanent echoes across the American landscape, from Central Park in New York, to the Macmillan Plan and the National Mall here in Washington.

While your average, middle class American could not dream of achieving anything similar with their more modest means and surroundings, writers and artists still wanted to encourage those of more ordinary means to make their home gardens as beautiful as possible, as a way of fostering civic pride and cleanliness. It was all very well to construct grand boulevards and expansive parks in American towns and cities.  If they led to ramshackle houses whose grounds consisted of little more than chicken coops and piles of dirt however, the whole “effect” which these reformers were trying to achieve would be lost.

The strength of this exhibition is not only in some of the individual paintings, sculptures, and decorative art objects, but also in stepping back and taking a look around at the America which this show evokes as a whole. What is particularly telling is that fact that on the whole, the lifestyle evoked by this exhibition is not at all unfamiliar to us, even more than a century later.  True, we do not dress as the people in these images do, and our homes and gardens may be somewhat less fussy than those celebrated in some of these images.

Yet even though generations have passed, we still continue to hold to the ideals of making our home and garden simultaneously a place to relax and to show off – ideals which were fostered by the artists and designers featured in this exposition. Thus the painting of a lady reading a letter at her dining room table, silhouetted by open French doors leading onto a sunny garden patio shaded by a pergola, with some slight alterations could come out of a contemporary magazine spread. The fact that I daresay many of my readers spend their Saturdays mowing lawns, pulling weeds, pruning shrubs, and so on, none of which has anything to do with the production of food and everything to do with what it means to be in the American middle class, originally comes from the era which produced these works of art.

Rather than comment on the individual pieces in the exhibition, if you care to follow me on Instagram, later today I will be posting some photos I took of a number of pieces in the show; just visit this link:

https://instagram.com/wbdnewton/

“The Artist’s Garden” is at The Chrysler until September 6th; it then travels to The Reynolda House in North Carolina, on to The Huntington Library in California, and finally to the Griswold Museum in Connecticut. Whether or not you are particularly interested in American impressionism, this show is a wonderful evocation of a world which, though now long-gone, still has a profound influence on how Americans live and see their homes today.

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