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September 23, 2006

Glassy NYC

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Thanks to Prairie Mary and Dave Lull for turning up this good A.A. Gill piece for Vanity Fair. New York is in the midst of a chic-building boom: ripply glass, acute angles, perfume-bottle shapes, etc. Is this an exciting and innovative development (the usual design press)? Or are we being subjected to a tragic repeat of our disastrous '50s adventure with glass boxes, as we Real Folk may tend to think?

Bless his heart, Gill comes down on the side of the Real Folk, and does so with some much-needed verbal flair. Here's a good passage:

What they all seem to have in common are their vast expanses of glass. Over in Europe, we're all a bit fed up with the answer to every urban architectural problem being a sheet of textured glass wrapped around steel. We've grown cynical about the metaphor of transparency, openness, harmony, and light. It's not like floating in the sky. It's like living in Pyrex. Like being the ingredients in some glutinous civic fruitcake. It's not that these new Manhattan buildings don't look very good. It's that they look lazily derivative, and they'll make New York look like every other grubbily transparent financial hub in the world.

It's a fiasco for the city, in other words. Yup: International Modernism is back, only this time around all that glassy graph paper has got the wiggles -- big improvement! Problems now solved! Baloney to that. It's heartening, though, to see Gill's refusal-to-be-impressed appear in a mainstream magazine. Let's hope that the official discussion about architecture-and-urbanism is finally beginning to open up to some dissenting voices.

Related: I wrote about some recent developments in architecture here and here. At the bottom of this posting, I went out on a limb and called the steel-and-glass specialist Richard Meier "an asshole." I can't see any reason to take that judgment back.



posted by Michael at September 23, 2006


It could be the ugliest building in the world, I just wish *something* would get built at Ground Zero. Five years and it's still an empty hole with no hope of any actual construction in the foreseeable future. What a disgrace.

Posted by: Peter on September 23, 2006 5:12 PM

I don't know. I think glass towers actually work for NYC. I can understand not wanting to live next to one, but in a metaphoric sense I think they're perfect symbols of heartless, ultracompetitive globalism, which is exactly what that part of NYC _is_--ground zero of globalization, seat of financial empire. In short, Modernism may be ugly, but that's the one place it belongs.

Posted by: SFG on September 23, 2006 9:41 PM

SFG, I see where you're coming from. But as one of those benighted, ultracompetitive NYers, I have to say that there's a dialectic going on in this city, in that the heartless investment bankers and real estate developers are at *war* with those of us who recognize what actually saved the city after its 1970s collapse, namely the recognition that what NYC's made of itself is an authentic urban culture in the world-historical sense, that, i.e., we have a past, complicated as all hell and full as all hell of sins to atone for, and that, consequently, we are in a moral position to say to the heartless bankers and developers: Fuck you, the city does *not* belong to you. We have some work to do, and you, you fuckers, can go ply your trade in fucking Paramus. Get off our backs and give us Joes a chance to figure out who we've been and who we're gonna be. The Richard Meiers and Frank Gehrys of the world are not merely artistic charlatans, they are wicked sons of bitches who bring out the Edward Abbey in me.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 24, 2006 12:58 AM

Francis! I'm stunned. Words fail me.

Incidentally, I recently had a watercooler chat with a planner in our firm, whence in the middle of the corporate-speak routine he suddenly uttered a cry: I want to plan a classic building!

Posted by: Tat on September 24, 2006 7:06 AM

Full disclosure: I grew up in Manhattan and went to college there. I've been priced out of my own hometown as well, so I'm bitter myself, but I was too young, too sheltered, and probably too geeky to get into the arts scene, so I don't know what I'm missing. I'm still not looking forward to living in the Midwest with Christians. (That's a different story, though, and has to do with personal circumstances.)

What saved the city was reduced crime rates. Of course, once everyone wanted to live in NYC, the rents went up and only bankers could afford to live there.
There's an interesting, from the sociological point of view, phenomenon where artists colonize dangerous neighborhoods and make them less dangerous, allowing yuppies to move in and price out the artists and poor people who used to live there. So artistic bohemias keep moving, and if they're not in NYC they'll be somewhere else. Of course, you might have to own a car. I didn't drive until I was 23, and find it odious that I have to use a machine to obtain my groceries, not to mention fork over MANDATORY insurance to pay for teenagers drinking beer and their carelessness.

There's no war anymore, Morrone. They've WON. Manhattan belongs to the financial industry now. You can't chase them out any more than Iraqi insurgents can invade America. The only thing that could chase them away would be something that would make NYC undesirable to live in. Personally, I'm betting on the Democrats retaking the city and going soft on the criminals. 16 years of Republican leadership is just too much for that town.
Then the bankers will, indeed, ply their trade in Paramus.

Posted by: SFG on September 24, 2006 7:35 PM

Glass skinned skyscrapers have always seemed overrated to me. It's not that I hate them -- I think a few glass-skinned skyscrapers, here and there, can be welcome additions to a cityscape -- it's just that modernists hype their supposed benefits much too much, and there are just too many of them.

I think I first began noticing the emptyness of the hype with Donald Trump's resurfacing of the old Commodore Hotel (his architect was Der Scutt, I believe) with a mirrored glass skin in the mid-1970s. The hype, if I remember it correctly, was that such a treatment would not compete with Grand Central Terminal next door but "reflect" it instead. The fact of the matter is that the glass skin, which is made up of many wavy panels of glass, does not actually reflect Grand Central Terminal in a meaningful way (and thus does not really complement it). (It seems to me the building has the look of a U-shaped building wrapped in mylar by Cristo.)

By the way, in this remodeling the old brick walls of the Commodore Hotel weren't actually replaced with mirrored glass panels; the mirrored glass panels were instead put on top of the the old brick walls -- like wall paper. So, according to the ideology of modernism, these walls are also somewhat "dishonest" as they are not a transparent thin membrane enclosing a volume. The same is true, at least to a certain degree, of the Millenneum Hotel opposite the World Trade Cetner site. Here the glass panels are smoked glass and, on the lower floors at least, they've been placed on top of near windowless walls of solid concrete.

Usually my negative reactions to glass-skinned buildings are from a pedestrian's perspective, but during some recent visits to a few Manhattan office buildings, I noticed another failing: at least a number of them don't seem to "read" very well when seen through the windows of other office buildings -- especially close up (e.g., from across the street).

For instance, I was in an office in one of the twin neo-Gothic Trinity Buildings (two neo-Gothic towers separted by a narrow alley/street). While the nearby old-fashioned skyscrapers (circa 1916) were a delight to look at, the Marine Midland Building (now called the HSBC Building?) by SOM -- which I've always loved from street level -- looked awful. In part this was because it's facade, a mixture of tinted (?) glass and black matte spandrels, was just so plain, but in part it was also because it seemed to lose it's black matte sleekness when seen head on. (Also, maybe it was because the way the sun would hit the building, but the "elegant" black spandrels, lost their blackness and looked like cheap tin, or something, instead.)

In contrast, the more traditional buildings nearby not only didn't lose their appeal close up, but actually gained some appeal when one could see the ornamentation close up and at eye-level.

- - - - - -

P.S. -- Let me wish Tatyana good luck in her fight to preserve her rights to photograph buildings on a public street.

- - - - - - -

P.P.S. -- On the opinion page of Friday's (9/22/06) "New York Sun" there was a very interesting response to Steve Malanga's (and by implication, Heather MacDonald's) anti-illegal immigration essay in the "City Journal" (which I brought to Michael's attention a few weeks ago). I thought Malanga's (and MacDonald's) article made some good points. However, this response also seemed to make some good points. So it will be interesting to see how this exchange continues.

# # #

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 24, 2006 11:04 PM

The world is a different place today, and deserves architecture that fits todays needs. Calling Richard Meier an asshole is ridiculous. 100 years from now, people will look at Richard Meiers work as progressive and forward thinking, as we do with le courbusier, mies, and Wright today.

Posted by: brent on September 25, 2006 2:06 AM

Well, if you happen to think "progressive" and "forward-thinking" are 1) automatically good, and 2) what we need more of today ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 25, 2006 8:34 AM

Benjamin, thank you for your good wishes. It's just - it wasn't a fight, rather stamping my foot, and there are attempts to turn it into something else entirely.
Anyway, I'm pleased that you noticed.

Posted by: Tat on September 25, 2006 8:57 AM

I recently got back from a trip to Washington DC. Boy---talk about beautiful old architecture, and the sense of being in a very different city than most. (Go see the Old Post Office alone, let alone all the Smithsonians, the Capitol, the National Gallery or even the Department of Justice!). It's the very best advertisement for NOT mirrored glass buildings... It really struck me because it is so different from what we are used to seeing...

Posted by: annette on September 25, 2006 10:45 AM


You say:

The world is a different place today, and deserves architecture that fits todays needs.

If you really believe this, why would you respect Richard Meier? He works in a revivalist style. I've been in several of his buildings and I didn't notice that they met "today's needs" particularly well, at least not any better than those of any average, run-of-the-mill architect. Can you explain exactly what "need" you're claiming he meets better than any other architect? A "need" for International Style-revivalist architecture, perhaps, the way American universities in the late 19th century felt the need for Gothic Revival dormitories and lecture halls?

Granted, Meier's buildings sure do make a strong, if retro, stylistic statement. It seems to me that all you're really saying here is that "I like the way Richard Meier's buildings look, and since I absorbed one of the hackneyed tropes of the apologists for modern architecture, I'll defend my aesthetic taste by rattling this argument off without another thought."

Think about what you're saying. If you think Meier's architecture can be justified in this way, I assume you also think that GM should bring back the 1950 Oldsmobile intact to meet our, ahem, contemporary "need" for vehicular transportation.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 25, 2006 2:23 PM

"The world is a different place today, and deserves architecture that fits todays needs."

The Ecole des Beaux Arts in the 19th century was about one thing above all others: Creating an architecture that met modern needs. By embracing, exploring, and adapting the patterns of the past the Beaux-Arts architects designed the best train stations, museums, public libraries, skyscrapers, even hospitals--even settlement houses, model tenements, public bath houses, and electrical generating stations.

There is *no* argument that the forms of a Mies or a Meier, however appealing one may or may not find them, "serve today's needs."

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 25, 2006 3:10 PM

One additional point re Brent's post: Many people find Mies/Corbu/Wright not to be "progressive" but to be quaint period pieces. I for one wouldn't put any of them (maybe Wright on his *best* days) in a class with Lutyens.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 25, 2006 3:12 PM

Or Bertram Goodhue ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 25, 2006 3:48 PM

In our little city there are design ordinances that mandate new buildings NOT recreate historical looks from other periods. This was put in place at the behest of the group dedicated to preserving our historic architectural landmarks. Their argument is that, over time, buildings of each era will and should have a distinctive look specific to the era in which they were constructed. Whatever the relative merits of, say, Beaux-Arts style, the last thing the landmarks group wants to see are Faux Beaux buildings constructed in 2006.

I love our turn of the century (19th into 20th) brick buildings with their detailed cornices etc. I also love the extensively rehabbed warehouse that is now a university library, skinned in translucent Kalwal; and the rehabbed downtown mid-block four story that is now skinned in 24-inch square panels of lead-covered copper. Both seem to me visually interesting and of their own turn of the century (20th into 21st) period.

Now what I consider the most egregious architectural trend of recent decades is the suburban McMansion; borrowing from colonial, shingle and other beloved past architectural styles but blown up into awkward proportions. I'd rather see some good "post modern" housing developments.

Posted by: Chris White on September 25, 2006 6:04 PM

Chris, many places, including New York City, have landmarks boards that will disapprove what ours has called "faked historic material." Of course, there is not nor can there ever be such a thing as "faked historic material." Given that anything done in a given place for a given purpose (even if that purpose be to make an exact copy of a 200-year-old building) is, ipso facto, "historic," then we see the sheer intellectual confusion that reigns in the world of architecture.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 25, 2006 9:52 PM


Now you are just putting words in my mouth. Good architecture creates discussion. 99 percent of our built environment is 'forgettable.' Most people don't think twice about the buildings they use personally, but when Koolhaas, Mayne, MVRDV for example create structures, they are always talked about, love it or hate it. Don't get me wrong, I live in chicago and enjoy Sullivan, Holabird and roche, burnham and root, william le baron jenney, but I also find modern architecture facinating. I recognize where we came from, but am open to new forms/ideas that stimulate the mind and create discussion. I've read much about Koolhaas and Mayne, and appreciate their ideas more because of it.

Posted by: Brent on September 25, 2006 10:14 PM

Brent, I respect your taste and your seriousness in actually reading what these guys write.

I've read Koolhaas too. I got a big kick out of "Delirious New York." But when I read what the classicists (Geoffrey Scott and Wolfflin on the Baroque) or Gothicists (Pugin, Ruskin, Viollet-le-Duc) had to *say*, I find an intricate intellectuality, a connectedness of thought, an elegant readability, and a breadth of learning that makes the modernists and their apologists look like pikers. As for generating discussion, David Schwarz's new Nashville Symphony Hall, which is unapologetically classicist, has got people talking, all right.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 26, 2006 11:18 PM


If I read you correctly, the "need" you claim that architects like Meier fulfill is the need for structures that are "talked about"?

This seems to basically come down to an architectural version of "it doesn't matter what they say about you, as long as they spell your name correctly."

This seems far too vague to be a justification of any particular architectural practice. It also seems in no way peculiar to the present moment.

It seems to me that buildings have a number of social and practical functions that go well beyond getting "talked about" and that criticism of Meier about how he handles these social and practical functions is perfectly reasonable.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 27, 2006 10:16 AM

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