New York, New York

January 6, 2009

Over my holiday vacation, I read an interesting book about one influential architect’s thoughts on New York City.

This past fall, I also traveled to New York, for a leadership training seminar sponsored by my company.   I took this opportunity to stay a few extra days and explore the historic city.  From a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn (in a neighborhood strikingly similar to Sesame Street), my wife and I ventured over the Hudson River to Manhattan.  We may have experienced the city in a way similar to our ancestors who arrived in the New World via Ellis Island, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

Some 80 years ago, one of the most revolutionary architects of the modern era entered the ports of New York for the first time.  LeCorbusier would revolutionize the notions of the modern city and architecture.  Upon arrival in the brand new city of New York (by Parisian standards), he was both in awe of the vertical city and aghast at the lost opportunities of utilizing the new American invention – the skyscraper.

In 1938, LeCorbusier began publishing a series of essays about his travels to New York.  The English translation of these combined works was translated and published in America in the book When the Cathedrals Were White.  The title is meant to show a parallel between the era in Europe when the renaissance masters were unfurling their beautiful Cathedrals and the modern era in New York where architects and engineers enthusiastically took up the task of engineering the city of skyscrapers.

The book is an interesting read because of and in spite of a perspective that seems dated some 80 years later.  LeCorbusier writes at length about conditioned air, elevators, and automatic doors, things that we take for granted today.  However, despite the time warp, many of his descriptions of the city remain true today.

Knowing that my prose falls far short of the master, I thought it would be interesting to use LeCorbusier’s words to describe the sights that I encountered on my own visit to New York.  I took each of the following photos on my recent trip to New York.  The captions are excerpts from When the Cathedrals Were White, by LeCorbusier, translation by Francis E. Hyslop, Jr., published by McGraw-Hill in paperback in 1964.

New York

Within the ring of its docks Manhattan thrusts itself up into the sky.  A great many skyscrapers fill the space, shut off the horizon.  I did not imagine that there were so many of them; I imagined a few examples of boldness and vanity.  But the whole city is vertical – or at least it seems to be, for a limited number of verticals succeed in taking up the blue of the sky. (p 88)

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge, which is old (elevateds, cars, trucks, pedestrians all have special lanes), is as strong and rugged as a gladiator…  In this case the two large Gothic towers of stone are very handsome because they are American and not “Beaux-Arts.”  They are full of native sap and they are not graceful, but strong.  The vertical cables are black and not silver, but in perspective their vertical fall fixes a spidery veil.  It is an imposing architectural sensation; vertical, slender, immense, yes I come back to the immense and like a barbarian I enjoy it, or better, as a man animated by a constructive spirit, active but wearied by the depressing atmosphere of cowardice and abdication in Paris, crushed often dishonored, treated as a madman and Utopian consigned to the Greek calends, etc… here I find reality.  And it brings me a profound satisfaction

Reality, that is the lesson of America.  It gives our boldest speculation the certainty of imminent birth. (pp 77-78)

Wall Street

The bronze statue of Washington stands on the steps of the Sub-Treasury in front of the Doric porch; above are the rough-hewn early skyscrapers, rising vertically and making it a compact lap dominated by a gigantic chest of geometrically organized stones pierced by innumerable window squares against an endless extent of tangled surface of vertical shafts; the materials are varied, the crowning elements against the sky are in confusion….

… for those who are able to see, New York, projected violently into the sky, an outcry that you hate and love at the same time, hides in the bottom of its canyons of banks the architectural composition which is most expressive of the soul of the country.  An architectural scene variously put together, majestic, intense, remarkable.  The foursquare mask of Washington is at the exact point from which the tumultuous forces of architecture are set in play.  Proportion, quantities, relations, absolute mathematical rightness, radiance… (pp 73-74)

Central Park

The park is surrounded by fine buildings-apartment houses in tall blocks or in the form of skyscrapers – all with windows opening on this unexpected space, a fairylike situation unique in the city without trees… To keep this immense treasure untouchable in the very center of Manhattan, I think that that shows a high civic attitude, an extraordinary attitude.  It is the sign of a strong society.

Rockefeller Center

Consider the most recent skyscraper, Rockefeller Center.  It is rational, logically conceived, biologically normal, harmonious in its four functional elements: halls for the entrance and division of crowds, grouped shafts for vertical circulation (elevators), corridors (internal streets), regular offices.

Already the skyscraper is large enough to have made it possible to spend the money necessary to do a good job.  The sets of bronze and glass doors are constructed with a machine-like rigor.

Times Square

People from the interior of the country, who have come on some business pretext, cannot really go elsewhere, for Broadway is the street of welcome: the cataccts of light which they have seen in the movies and read about in the papers have drawn them for a long time.  The places of entertainment and the displays of goods for out-of-town visitors are there.  It is the complement of the plains and the cornfields… The dream materialized here in a burst f light, of milling crowds, of carouses well framed by the glitter of chrome metal, brings to life again the great adventure of the 8:47 Train…on the scale of Manhattan.

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