Monday, January 1, 2001

Manhattan As Muse: Europeans In New York

Arquitectura Viva 76, January - February 2001
Pages 17 - 23 (Spanish), 110 - 111 (English), cover.
© Arquitectura Viva, David Cohn. All rights reserved.

The current wave of European incursions into New York, with major new building projects announced by Renzo Piano, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Herzog and de Meuron and others, is the culmination of a courtship that first began in 1978 with a book, Koolhaas' Delirious New York. Delirious offered a mytho-critical analysis of the city as a pleasure-ground of capitalist excess, of surreal juxtapositions and promiscuous concentrations. Its style recalls something of the anarchic spirit of the Situationalists, absorbed in Koolhaas' years of study at London's AA. The book relished in sites such as the New York Athletic Club, a 1930s skyscraper with a different ludic activity programmed for every floor; in the lurid popular amusements of Coney Island; and in the exaggerated luxuries of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, such as berths for private railroad cars in its basements. Koolhaas' inspired portrayal of the city in the voluptuous terms of consumer desire, seduction and satisfaction anticipated the architecture of spectacle that currently dominates commercial building in New York and elsewhere. Contemporary European icons such as MVRDV's Dutch Pavilion at the Hannover Expo, with its sandwich-like stack of natural habitats, would be unthinkable without it.

Delirious set the tone for the encounter between Koolhaas' European generation and New York. It remains the best expression of the fascination that the city has exerted on overseas admirers, as seen in works ranging from the Manhattan Transcripts of Bernard Tschumi in the late 1970s to the deliriously unrealistic proposals for the Museum of Modern Art submitted by Herzog and de Meuron and Koolhaas himself in 1997. As might be expected, however, the book offers a take on the city that North Americans themselves have been slow to embrace, as the results of the MoMA competition suggested (more on this later). But with so many projects by members of the Koolhaas generation currently underway in Manhattan, it now appears that this reticence has been overcome, for reasons we shall examine here.

Built by waves of immigrants, New York has always looked to Europe for its architectural models. Its first buildings were Dutch and English rowhouses, the building type on which the 1811 plan of the city was based. But in addition to this typological dependence, which was eventually superseded by technical innovations, New York has also maintained a strong stylistic dependence on Europe. In this respect, 19th century New York differed from Chicago, where less need was felt to stretch conventional forms of stylistic dress over the oversized buildings produced by naked commercial interest.

Leading New York architects of the 19th century such as Richard Morris Hunt and Ernest Flagg routinely studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. The English models of the early 19th century, the Georgian townhouses and Puginesque Gothic churches, were successively succeeded by buildings in an eclectic variety of European styles, from the Greek Revival and Italianate to the French Second Empire style, the Romanesque of H. H. Richardson and contemporary German immigrants, and the neoclassical Beaux-Arts style introduced at the 1892 Chicago Fair.

Modern architecture was introduced to New York in much the same spirit, as an imported stylistic dress. Hitchcock and Johnson's 1932 book The International Style established the precedent, substituting the revolutionary tone of European avant-garde manifestos for cool formal appraisals. The Mies-inspired office towers of the 1950s by firms such as Harrison and Abramovitz or Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) essentially replaced the stone, brick and terra cotta facades of the 1920s and 30s for the glass curtain wall, and the stepped profiles created by the 1916 zoning law for stingy versions of the Seagram Building's plaza and tower.

Though New York depended stylistically on Europe, few European or foreign-born architects have built significant work in the city. In the 19th century, of course, the difficulties of trans-Atlantic travel generally made a crossing a one-way affair, as in the case of English architect Richard Upjohn, author of Trinity Church at the head of Wall Street (1846). By the beginning of the 20th century, immigrating European craftsmen had made the most impressive impact on the city, from the Italian masons who laid mosaic tile floors in the lobbies of thousands of tenement housing blocks to the Catalan Gustavino brothers, who introduced a system of Catalan tile vaulting that was used in civic monuments such as Grand Central Station and the New York Public Library.

One of the most singular architects to emerge from this immigrant culture was the Austrian-born Joseph Urban, whose career is a good illustration of the light-hearted tone with which modern architecture was first received in New York. Born in 1872, Urban came to the United States in 1911 as art director of the Boston Opera. Later in New York, he designed the stage sets for several hundred theatrical productions, as well as some of the city's most fashionable Art Deco night spots of the 1920s, such as the Ziegfield Theater, home of the Ziegfield Follies, and the Central Park Casino. Working with the George B. Post firm In 1928, he designed an elaborately-decorated tower on Eighth Avenue at 57th Street for the Hearst magazine group, described by the AIA Guide to New York City as a "Secessionist skyscraper," of which only the base was built [Norman Foster's Hearst Tower completed the building a decade after I wrote this]. And in 1930 he built one of New York's first International Style buildings, the New School for Social Research on West 12th Street, which soon became home to the exiled German philosophers of the Frankfurt School. Urban's work is an architectural equivalent to the mixture of popular and European cultures that transformed Hollywood in the 1930s, and gave rise in New York to figures such as George Gershwin.

But the commercial nature of architectural practice in New York in fact offered few opportunities to the exiled European architects of the 1930s and 40s, who were drawn instead to the Bauhaus-modeled schools established at Harvard and Chicago's Illinois Institute of Technology. Important international figures of the postwar period were granted only a token presence in Manhattan, from Mies' Seagram Building and Le Corbusier's and Niemeyer's minimal participation in the United Nations, to Gropius' disappointing collaboration on the Pan Am Building (with Emery Roth and Pietro Belluschi, 1963), Marcel Breuer's Whitney Museum (1966), Pier Luigi Nervi's little-known George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal in upper Manhattan (1966), and José Luis Sert's state-financed housing of the 1970s on Roosevelt Island - a list to which we could justly add Wright's Guggenheim Museum, his only work in New York. This record is hardly worse than that of other world cities of the period, but it fades in significance when compared to the transforming impact that corporate-style local architects had on the city's profile in the same years, as seen in Robert Stern's fascinating book, New York 1960 (Monacelli Press, 1995).

This isolation began to erode in the 1970s chiefly due to the impact of Peter Eisenman's Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, founded in 1967, which for the first time offered foreign architects an academic haven in New York. Eisenman's center was the first to recognize the enormous potential of New York's position as an international city and port of entry. Its influence soon spread to neighboring schools, including Columbia, Hejduk's Cooper Union, and Princeton, where figures such as Kenneth Frampton, Anthony Vidler, Raimund Abraham, Bernard Tschumi and others found permanent teaching positions, and stars such as Aldo Rossi and Giorgio Grassi spent extended teaching terms.

The best years of the Institute coincided with the appearance of Koolhaas' Delirious, and the rise of New York as an alluring muse in its own right for foreign visitors. Europe did not arrive on American shores this time only as an imported style (though Philip Johnson was quick to adapt Post Modernism in these terms, and was soon followed by all the commercial firms). Rather, visiting Europeans entered into a direct, two-way dialogue with the city, plunging into the flourishing downtown arts scene of galleries and experimental performance venues, made possible by low-rent industrial spaces and abundant grant money, of which the grant-supported Institute itself was an example.

This vibrant cultural scene was part of downtown Manhattan's booming bohemian underworld of fashionable all-night discotheques, post-hippie organic restaurants, raw, illegal loft dwellings and the like, a world populated by a young urban generation composed not only of the usual self-exiled refugees from the North American heartland, but also by a new international crowd. In the old non-residential districts of lower Manhattan, de-industrialization had left behind a fantasmal landscape of decaying urban shipwrecks, which the new city dwellers transformed into a playland of anarchic action (as in the building cuts of artist Gordon Matta-Clark) and dreamlike urban fantasy (Steven Holl's Pamphlet Architecture series, Tschumi's comic-like Manhattan Transcripts of 1976-81, or John Hejduk's ominous urban ballets).

The current crop of downtown projects by Europeans of this generation is clearly a product of the maturation of the downtown scene. Twenty years after the publication of Delirious, high rents and tourist mobs have forced art galleries from Soho to the old dock warehouses of Chelsea, while artists have been displaced from downtown lofts to tough borough neighborhoods such as Greenpoint, Williamsburg or Long Island City. At the same time, many members of the generation that pioneered the colonization of Soho have grown into positions of economic and political power, enabling them to commission major building projects, while some of the architects who began their careers with sketchy urban fantasies are now at the top of their profession.

Thus we find that the fashion-conscious hotelier and former Studio 54 owner Ian Schraeger has moved down from midtown to Astor Place, where he plans to build a hotel jointly designed by Koolhaas and Herzog and de Meuron, on a long-empty site owned by The Cooper Union. We find Scholastic Books, one of the new corporate denizens of lower Broadway, completing a new building designed by the late Aldo Rossi, who was chosen to assure approval in the difficult Soho Historic District design review process. We find Comme des Garçons, one of the first fashion boutiques to eschew Madison Avenue for a gritty downtown location, hiring London's Future Systems for their latest garage-front store, while Prada prepares a new venue by Rem Koolhaas. And we find Jean Nouvel at the head of a private developer's scheme to set a major hotel atop one of the best views of lower Manhattan, across the East River in the tough Brooklyn Bridge industrial district.

But these downtown projects also mark the end of Soho's bohemian era, which has fallen victim to its own success. The obvious danger is that new downtown projects will be little more than commercial simulacrae of its old bohemian spirit. Rossi's building certainly falls into this category; its toy-like columned facade on Broadway is all too plainly a cheap commercial skin, an insipid Post Modern companion to nearby 19th century cast iron buildings. Its rear facade on Mercer Street, composed of angled steel profiles that recall modern industrial structures, is a better complement to the tough industrial texture of the neighborhood.

A similar process of maturation is behind other projects by Europeans elsewhere in the city. As Dean of the School of Architecture at Columbia University, Bernard Tschumi is following the example of Sert and Rafael Moneo, former Deans at Harvard, and César Pelli, former Dean at Yale, all of whom used their academic prestige to build successful professional careers in the United States. But in the case of Tschumi's Lerner Hall at Columbia, something has been lost on the journey to the Upper West Side. Lerner Hall includes Tschumi's trademark multi-level interchange of "space, movement and event," also indebted in part to the example of the Situationalists, and previously seen in his Le Fresnoy Arts School outside Lille. But here he has been forced to wrap this experimental fantasia in a retrograde masonry dress, supposedly in harmony with the surrounding campus buildings by McKim Mead and White. This is a typical example of a client's overly-rigid interpretation of the concepts of contextualism and historic preservation, which so often stifles architectural innovation in the United States.

The enlargement of the Museum of Modern Art, which is now underway following a design by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, is another case in which a large and slow-moving institution was not quite ready for the avant garde. Terence Riley, Director of the Architecture and Design Department at the MoMA, appears to have pushed both his patrons and his shortlisted architects a little too hard when the competition was organized in 1997. (The ten participants were Taniguchi, Tschumi, and Herzog & de Meuron, the three finalists, and Koolhaas, Dominique Perrault, Wiel Arets, Toyo Ito, Rafael Viñoly, Steven Holl and Williams & Tsien). Many participants strained too far for the unexpected or the extravagant in the competition's first stage, or failed to rise to the demands of the occasion, while the second stage finalists were simply too cautious. The Museum Board, on the other hand, found itself most comfortable in the hands of Taniguchi, a Harvard-trained modernist in the same mold of non-ideological formalism that Johnson and the Museum have always promoted.

Globalization has also made New York more accessible to the rest of the world -- though international groups seeking a Manhattan presence can usually afford only a sliver of it, as seen in the miniature midtown towers by Christian Portzamparc for the French LVMH fashion conglomerate on 57th Street, and by Raimund Abraham for the Austrian Cultural Institute, now nearing completion on East 52nd Street. The best time to see Portzamparc's building is at dusk, when interior lighting transforms its haute couture folded glass skin into light, billowing veils. Abraham, who has taught for many years at The Cooper Union, has created a menacing mask of tilted, suspended planes, which threaten to fall guillotine-like over the street. Both buildings give testimony to the hardy resistance of the over-built Manhattan urban plan, an anarchic collage that nevertheless brings order to the most disparate of architectural expressions.

Together with the attractions of Manhattan as muse, and the effects of globalization, the third factor bringing European architects to New York is the urge for renewal, the same urge that has governed the city's relation to Europe since its beginnings. Commercial architecture in the United States consumes fresh ideas with the same vehement wantonness that the country has burned through countless other irreplaceable resources. New ideas come in through the architecture schools and get hustled out onto the street in an insatiable assembly line of stylistic packaging. As each stylistic gambit is mined to exhaustion, from postwar Modernism to Post Modernism to Deconstruction (which never quite got off the ground), thoughtful observers such as Riley at the MoMA or Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic at The New York Times, call out for a more considered investment in the resource of architectural invention, with Europe as their model.

The latest chapter in this struggle is taking place at The New York Times itself, which, working with a private developer, has chosen Renzo Piano to design its new offices, a 200 meter shaft which will rise on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets. The project introduces to the city the multi-layered curtain walls of environmentally-conscious offices in northern Europe, which allow users to open windows to fresh air, a feature that American developers have previously resisted for its high cost. In this case, Piano sheathes the double-glazed skin in a translucent jacket of ceramic elements, similar to the system he used for his Potsdammer Platz complex in Berlin. But the floor plans respond to the usual American commercial demand for large floor areas, rather than the more humanistic, narrow light-oriented layouts required of German buildings. (The economic imperatives of New York building also ruled out Norman Foster's competition design for the project, which proposed sky gardens on every eighth floor. The other competitors were César Pelli and the team of Frank Gehry and David Childs of SOM, who ultimately withdrew). It is hard to know at this point how much Piano will be able to move within the tight corset of commercial interest that constrains him, or what the city's commercial firms will be able to learn from his understatedly sophisticated way of building. But the very fact that he has been invited to work here is an important sign of hope and progress for the city.