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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When Good Buildings Go Bad

This is not a piece about how much I despise architect Frank Gehry. (Although I am working on a new one of those, so stay tuned.) Rather, I would like you to think a little bit about the relationship between patron and architect, when it comes to how a public building will be used. If you want to have fuzzy 1970’s wallpaper and a sunken fire pit in your living room at home, that is between you as patron and your architect or designer. Yet when it comes to buildings which serve public purposes, such as hospitals, churches, and hotels, sometimes it seems as though patron and architect are asleep at the wheel.

Case in point: the former National Park Seminary here in Washington D.C., which was featured recently in The Washingtonian.

The complex began life as a hotel in the 1880’s, built in the exuberant, historical mishmash style which the Victorians enjoyed. When the hotel failed, it was purchased in the 1890’s for use as the nucleus of an exclusive Christian girls’ boarding school. Over the ensuing decades the school, known as the National Park Seminary, added dormitories built in a range of international architectural styles, in order to encourage pupils to learn more about the world they lived in.

During the Great Depression, when many families lost the ability to pay for expensive boarding schools, enrollment began to decline sharply. With the outbreak of World War II, the Army requisitioned the property for use as an annex to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. For the next several decades, patients suffering from a variety of maladies were treated at the facility.

At first glance, the repurposing of this assemblage would appear to be a good use of a space which might otherwise have gone to waste. Creating a convalescent hospital with more cheerful, less clinical surroundings seems like a kinder way of addressing the needs of those recovering from the horrors of war. In a landscaped, park-like setting, surrounded by woods and streams, it was thought that the patients could make a better recovery from both their physical and their psychological wounds.

The problem was, many of these patients were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). They had witnessed their friends being maimed or killed, and experienced things which haunted them day and night. So you can imagine, if you were a patient suffering from PTSD, what it must have been like to wake up from a recurring nightmare about something you experienced during combat in an old village in the French countryside, only to find yourself in a setting that looked remarkably like it. The psychological impact must have been terrible.

The Army did little to keep up the property, so that things began to crumble fairly quickly. A creeping decay, combined with whispered stories about medical experimentation, only heightened the sense of gloom about the place. This, combined with the nature of the buildings themselves, had a hugely negative impact on generations of patients, until the facility was finally closed in the 1970’s. The Army had never picked up on the fact that what was supposed to help soothe their patients had turned into something out of a Goya etching.

Although the blame for this must fall upon those who didn’t stop to think, historically it has often the case that the road to architectural hell is paved with good intentions. Carlo Maderno’s main façade for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for example, hews to the Counter-Reformation ideals which his patron Pope V espoused, and it was completed relatively swiftly. However the structure is also too squat, its bell towers were never completed thanks to poor surveying of the land which they were supposed to sit on, and the whole thing blocks the view of Michelangelo’s dome. Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, designed to reflect the Mayan love of water-based palaces and bring prestige to a burgeoning industrial city eager to foster greater ties with the West, was able to survive serious earthquakes relatively undamaged, thanks to its floating design. Unfortunately that same, highly evocative design meant that over time, the complex began to sink deeper and deeper into the muck on which it was built, until it had to be demolished.

The National Park Seminary was never a hugely significant piece of architecture, except perhaps for its remarkable main ballroom. Today, its buildings and grounds are in the process of being converted into a mixed use residential community. Yet the example of this strange, little-known corner of the Nation’s Capital does go to a larger point, which any consideration of new or repurposed architecture must take on board. Whatever their vision, sometimes both architects and patrons can get things very wrong, if they do not think of the long-term implications of their decisions.

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The Pregnant Oyster, Reborn

Yesterday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced at a press conference that LaGuardia Airport in Queens, long derided as one of the worst airports in America, will be demolished, and a brand-new, unified terminal will be built in its place. Understandably, this rather bold step captured most of the headlines about the story.  However the buried lede was the news that the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport, known more familiarly as the old “TWA Terminal”, or more colloquially as “The Pregnant Oyster” because of its curvaceous, mollusk-like design, is about to become an hotel.

Designed by architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), probably best known for the St. Louis Arch, the TWA Terminal was but one of the architect’s visions for the future of air travel. His TWA Terminal is almost something out of a space ship, with pod seating and NASA-like terminal monitors. Here in Washington, Saarinen’s far less trendy-looking terminal at Dulles is an elegant, swooping paean to flight, and the hopes of a technologically advanced society. At night its curtain of glass gleams across the open Virginia fields like a secular Chartres, illuminated from within. 

While in real life, neither of these buildings ever worked quite as Saarinen had hoped, they do speak to the visionary ideals of the U.S. in the Post-War period.  Americans saw their influence spreading around the globe, and with the rapidly expanding middle class, air travel became more possible for more people. The reader may be very interested, then, to see a contemporary short film of this era, created for Saarinen by two of the most famous designers in American history, about what air travel was supposed to be like.

In 1958, Charles (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988) put together a presentation for Saarinen called “The Expanding Airport”, to help sell the architect’s concept for Dulles.  Saarinen needed something that would explain his rather daring ideas for how a modern airport ought to work, in ways that skeptical officials would be able to understand and embrace. Using illustrations, photographs, and rather charming animation, along with a very relaxed-sounding voiceover worthy of a “Mad Men” advertising campaign, The Eames’ film worked a treat, and Saarinen’s overall concept was adopted.  Even if you have little interest in the history of transportation, the short is worth watching for the design and nostalgia aspects alone.

While some of the terms in the film differ from present use – “hand luggage” instead of “carry-on”, for example – it’s clear that the problems raised by jet aircraft were already starting to cause headaches in the Eisenhower era.  We can see how our grandparents puzzled over many of the same concerns which continue to plague air travel even now, such as the enormous distances passengers must often walk when changing planes or collecting their luggage.  (Incidentally, take note of the rather eyebrow-raising animation of the passenger picking up a copy of Playboy in the concession stand before having to run for his gate.) 

The idea of “detachable fingers” which comes up midway through the film seems rather odd today, even if innovative back then. Modular design was a keynote of the Modernist era, and the ideal of interchangeability was often pursued rather too relentlessly. The idea that a so-called “people mover” – a term which even now makes one wince – will “be best known for its convenience and feeling of luxury” may have been the case when these conveyances were new, but toward the end of their run they felt more like buses crossed with Imperial Walkers from Star Wars, and not in a good way.  They were finally retired from service about 5 years ago, if memory serves.

While the Dulles terminal is still very much in use, and will likely experience explosive growth once the Silver Line of the Metro reaches it in the next couple of years, the Pregnant Oyster has lain mothballed in New York for quite some time now. What Saarinen would make of his TWA building being turned into an hotel, who knows. As an airport terminal it can no longer serve the purpose for which it was intended, perhaps because, unlike Dulles, the design was too self-contained to be able to be effectively extended ad infinitum.

Nevertheless, one can imagine that he would be pleased to see that the New York-area airports are all going to be looked at afresh, and that his signature work will take on new life as a lodging and dining venue for those who continue to appreciate its curvy charms.

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