Statuesque Skyscrapers of New York City: Descriptive Essay

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Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity states that “everything is relative” (Einstein, 1920). It doesn’t just apply to physics or any particular phenomenon but to the whole world and ever-expanding universe. Narrowing down the focus to just the habitat of Homo sapiens, particularly the places where they live, work and eat which are called buildings. The utility, design, height, volume and many other things are dependent on many other factors. Willis (1995) explains that economic and programmatic formulas for quality office space has primary importance. This creates standardized templates of which the modifiers are local conditions: historic grids of blocks and lots, municipal codes, zoning which caused tall buildings to develop distinctive forms. This creates a vernacular unique to each city (Vlack, 1974).

The Art Deco style of architecture came to New York City in early 1900s and it truly flourished as international style during the 1920s and 1930s. The name ‘Art Deco’ comes from the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Weber (2005) explains that just as central to the Art Deco style were the avant-garde art movements of the early twentieth century. From Cubism came stylization and geometric abstraction, while the vibrant colors of Art Deco were shared with Fauvism, Orphism, and Synchronism. According to Tubach (2018), Art Deco grew out of yearning, aggressive desire to get rid of the past and embrace the future in all its man-made, machine-driven glory. The aesthetic movement rose and fell in the period between the two world wars and played an outsize role in shaping the West’s modern imagination, particularly within France and the United States (Vlack, 1974).

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In the 1900s, the American economy was in full boom, there was a significant increase in the number of buildings, their design and due to significant advancement in new technology, the world has seen some of the best architectural marvels constructed during 1900 to 1940 (White, n.d.). According to Vlack (1974), the twenty-year period from the early 1920s through the 1930s produced some of the most revolutionary architecture ever known (Vlack, 1974). Some of the architectural masterpieces of New York City are the Flatiron Building (1902), the Woolworth Building (1912), the American Radiator Building (1924), Rockefeller Center (1930-1939), the Chrysler Building (1930) and the Empire State Building (1931). All of these buildings have one thing in common which is that all of them are Art Deco triumphs.

Giles (2019) states that by 1915, Manhattan was already a hothouse of architecture revivals and home to grand, wedding-cake masonry and gilt without guilt: the Park Row Building, the Flatiron, the Singer, the Woolworth and the Equitable, among others. “The skyscraper represents capitalism’s version of the impulse to build great monuments”, said Jason M. Barr, an economist at Rutgers University, Newark (Giles, 2019).

The demand for more volume proliferated and due to less ground space, the era of skyscrapers started with the invention of steel frame structures. Steel frame structure allowed builders and architects to construct buildings higher than twenty stories which otherwise would not have been possible in concrete structures. The Flatiron Building which is located on the intersection of Broadway and 5th Avenue at 23rd Street was designed by architect Daniel H. Burnham of D. H. Burnham & Co. The space was known as the Flatiron for its resemblance to a household clothes iron. Architect Daniel Burnham designed a building in the Beaux-Arts style, incorporating classical Roman features into a modern building with sculpted decoration (Ziga, 1993). When completed in 1902, the 285 foot twenty-one stories high Flatiron Building was the tallest in the world (Collins, 2002; Willis, 1995; Ziga, 1993).

The Chrysler Building built in 1930 is referred as the greatest Art Deco example. Walter Chrysler, named by Time magazine as ‘Man of the Year’ in 1928 wanted to build his corporate headquarter for his three-year-old automobile company. He found a lot at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street and architect William Van Alen was given the responsibility. Van Alen had built a reputation as one of the most daring new generation radicals of American architecture (Stanges, 2005).

Chrysler was impressed by Van Alen’s design for the site, but as someone who attributed his success as an automobile manufacturer to his own artistic and technical judgment, he immersed himself in the project, intending to leave his personal imprint on the exterior of the building (Vlack, 2015). He ordered three major changes: first the building would be increased in size from sixty-eight to seventy-seven stories rising to height of 809 feet; next, the tower would be reduced in thickness or ‘streamlined’, in the business jargon of the day, to satisfy his demand for sleekness and elegance; and finally, the ‘stubby, nearly Moorish’ copper dome would be replaced by a tall pointed spire (Stanges, 2005).

Chrysler wanted his building to be taller than the Eiffel Tower, which was the world’s tallest structure at that time. Van Alen designed a stunning 186-foot-tall stainless steel spire that was delivered to building in five sections and assembled in secret on the 65th floor which raised slowly into position bought the building height to 1046 feet (Stanges, 2005). On September 28, 1929, the Chrysler Building became the tallest building in the world exceeding Eiffel Tower by twenty-two feet (Stanges,2005). Even though its record was short lived for eleven months before Empire State Building took over, the Chrysler Building has made a special place in New York City’s skyline. As Tubach (2018) explains, triangles emanate from the rounded tiers decorating the top of the Chrysler Building; the arrangement resembles the sun radiating toward a peak, invoking the man-over-nature power captured by the gravity-defying skyscraper. As an architectural cherry on top, the building’s iconic metal gargoyles are extraordinarily sleek, bearing more of a resemblance to the hood ornament of a car than the motif’s traditionally fearsome Victorian counterparts (Tubach, 2018).

The behemoth on 5th Avenue 34th Street which broke every record in the book when completed in April 1931, New York’s signature skyscraper: the Empire State Building. Robert H. Shreve, William F. Lamb and Arthur Loomis Harmon were the architects of the Empire State Building. As William Lamb explained: “The program was short enough-a fixed budget, no space more than 28 feet from the window to corridor, as many stories of such space possible, an exterior of limestone, and a completion date of May 1, 1931, which meant a year and six months from the beginning of the sketches” (Willis, 1998).

The 102-story architectural marvel created 2.1 million square feet of rentable space and surpassed Chrysler Building by 200 feet and at 1252 feet, it became the world’s tallest building for almost 70 years before North Tower of the World Trade Center surpassed it. With more than one floor each day, within twenty months from the first signed contracts with the architects in September 1929 to opening day ceremonies on May 1, 1931 - the Empire State was designed, engineered, erected, and ready for tenants (Willis, 1998).

The whole design world plays within the problems and their solutions. Art Deco was a part of design problem where the world saw a whole new side of what geometric shapes can do when integrated with design and how it turned out to be one of the most prominent styles in history. It slowly declined after the 1929 stock market crash and then followed by the great depression (White, n.d.). Still the visionaries and radicals of that time did not look back and created the best designs (Gintoff, 2016). The term of Art Deco was short lived but it coached to many new design styles. Even today, Art Deco triumphs still stand out quite significantly and are symbols of hard limits without vision or commitment.

“Sleepless city on the Hudson eight million strong, where fortunes are made and monuments are built. An island of skyscrapers reaching for the stars. A window cleaner’s dream or nightmare. The Apple in Eve’s eye, New York”.

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