New York Modernism: Art Deco

[This week we begin what will be a regular feature on Sundays here at ahistoryofnewyork.com: presentation of work by our students. Our inaugural piece is by Victoria Wu, a first-year student at New York University who was a member of my seminar on New York and modernism last fall.

Victoria investigated the rise and fall of Art Deco architecture in New York as seen through the expectations generated by newspaper accounts. Click on the continuation link to see the endnotes.]


Blade Runner – Tyrell Corp, Approach Scene

BY VICTORIA WU

The Tyrell Corporation’s pyramidal skyscraper dominates the landscape of the city where the film Blade Runner takes place. As the largest building on the horizon, it is also the most menacing, suggesting a sinister, singlehanded power over the citizens of the city.

New Yorkers are all too familiar with the way skyscrapers can define a city and its place as the world’s economic center, but most probably are less concerned with the way in which the city’s economic climate affects the birth and popularity of these monuments. Urban designer Harvey Wiley Corbett proclaimed that the art of the future would be “free from antique idea [and] inspired by machinery” rather than nature mere months before Black Tuesday. In my research I focused on the reception of the now iconic Chrysler Building and its fellow Art Deco skyscrapers, planned on the eve of the Great Depression, with construction lasting years into the crisis.

073_EMPIRE1.jpgOne of the most significant modern architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, who began as a giant in Art Deco architecture’s ornamental style, said of the Empire State Building that it could have “made the Tower of Babel itself fall down to the ground and worship.”[1] On the other hand, another architect, P.N. Youtz, believed “in the Empire State Building … we find the spirit of genuine modernism.”[2] Their dispute was a continuation of one that had started long before, between critics of the skyscrapers who “deem[ed] tall buildings the cause of congestion and the bane of city life,” and on the other side “champions of a building form which they regard as not only characteristic of America, but especially fitted to serve the comfort and convenience of modern urban civilization.”[3]

When architecture texts describe Art Deco architecture’s current popularity, they tend to associate it with the style’s place as a child of the Roaring Twenties, a representation of the era’s excesses and joie de vivre, and to whitewash its place as a forerunner of economic disaster.[4] How much of Wright and Yountz’s reactions to the Empire State Building were rooted in their opinions of the Art Deco style, versus other factors that would cause them to loathe or praise one of contemporary America’s most popular buildings?
 
In fact, most newspaper articles I found from 1928 to 1933 that discussed the skyscraper craze that gripped Manhattan focused on interviews with professional architects to formulate what the general public’s opinion of the buildings would be, instead of with visitors to the buildings which were what I had expected to find. Wright’s “Tower of Babel” comment was echoed by Reverend Dr. Machen the month after Wright’s interview; Machen added that modern architecture has no soul, compared to those of a time when buildings were made “with feeling.”[5] There was still the occasional professor, however, who spoke of the buildings from an academic standpoint rather than of its value according to stylistic trends. That doesn’t mean the public did not react to the buildings at all – only that it proved to be a little more difficult to draw conclusions about general reception compared to professional criticism.

Three such opinion pieces submitted to the New York Times document way in which professional opinion was highly considered in that period, suggesting that the citizen population was to some extent expected to accept whatever the newspapers led them to think, and the particular strength of the International Style architects in the papers. Philip Johnson, a functionalist, and Charles Downing Lay, a landscape architect, each contributed an article, drawing the conclusion that International Style was in the process repudiating functionalism, and that functionalism had been badly overdone, respectively. Elroy Webber followed up with a defense for functionalism that categorically undermined each argument Lay had proposed against it, though Webber showed a certain degree of respect for what Philip Johnson had achieved in the name of functionalism. According to one historical text, “Art Deco and its journalism were a pushover for the International Style critics with their verbal attack and defense, their sloganeering, and their emphasis on simplification rather than ambiguity. They implied that the Art Deco architect had had International Style intentions but that his resolve had failed him.”[6]
 
021-CHRYSLER.jpgPerhaps more remarkable is that there was only one opinion piece that mentioned the Chrysler Building until the opening of its successor for the title of world’s tallest building one year later, the Empire State Building.[7] A number of financial reports instead discussed the role of the Chrysler Building’s tax-immune status as it was built on land owned by Cooper Union.[8] Until the construction of Rockefeller Center, it seems that “advertising architecture” that the Chrysler Building so epitomizes was more often negatively received, as its flashy and expensive tastes seemed to contradict the climate of the times.[9]

Certainly the shortage of money during the Great Depression affected skyscraper success. The Empire State Building remained half empty until the 1950s, and the Rockefeller Center complex made up a quarter of all office building square footage created in the years of its construction.[10] Having billionaire sponsors, such as Chrysler and Rockefeller, made construction possible, but the effects of the Depression can be seen when following the evolution from the highly ornamented Art Deco to the unadorned International Style through the Chrysler, Empire State, and Rockefeller buildings.[11] It was only with the Rockefeller Center, characteristically Art Deco but inarguably the most austere of the buildings constructed in that style at the time yet, that the public began to protest the trend of increasingly unemotional functionalism.[12]

Raymond Hood, forefront of the Art De
co architects, was designated senior architect on Rockefeller Center project. In October of 1931, Hood pronounced the “riotous era over,” presumably implying the highly craft-oriented ornamentation styles of the Chrysler Building as elaboration in architecture were no longer affordable.[13] The Rockefeller Center, he claimed later, would prove that Manhattan was destined to be a place for business only.[14]

 

rocklob.jpg

Lobby of Rockefeller Center

The star of Rockefeller Center, however, ended up being the luxuriously Art Deco Radio City Music Hall. Perhaps too luxurious, as its original plans for a return to high-class variety shows ended a mere two weeks after its opening, reverting to a movie house to be more affordable.[15] Following Rockefeller Center, new skyscrapers only became more functional and bare, and Radio City offered a wistful look back on the prosperity of an era long passed.


Victoria Wu is a first-year student at New York University and was a member of the seminar “New York and Modernism” last fall.

Look for another piece of research from the seminar next Sunday.

[Photographs from the Art Deco pages at www.nyc-architecture.com.]


[1] R.L. Duffus, “Tyranny Of The Skyscraper”: Frank Lloyd Wright Attacks Its Domination of Our Architecture Tyranny of the Skyscraper,” New York Times (31 May 1931): BR1; Don Vlack and Ralph Appelbaum, Art Deco Architecture in New York, 1920-1940 (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

[2] “Hails Emancipation Of Our Architects: But P.N. Youtz Warns Them to Shun the Bizarre, Since the ‘Cribbing’ Era Has Ended.”New York Times (21 May 1931): 29.

[3] “Vertical Planning,” New York Times (12 Dec. 1931): 18.

[4] David Lowe, Art Deco New York (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2004).

[5] “Empire State Building Called Tower of Babel; Dr. Machen Says Architecture Lacks Soul” New York Times (13 Jul 1931): 13.

[6] Charles Downing Lay, “Should Architecture Be Beautiful: Charles Downing Lay Probes ‘Functionalism,’ Finding It Too Often a Smoke-Screen to Hide Lack of Ideas and Weak Designs,” New York Times (16 Aug. 1931): 99; C. Robinson and Rosemarie Haag Bletter, Skyscraper Style (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976); Elroy Webber, “Architect Defends Functionalism” New York Times (6 Sept. 1931): 92-92.

[7] “Our Modern Architecture,” New York Times (29 May 1930): 15.

[8] “City Demands Tax On Chrysler Tower: Sexton Challenges Exemption Based on Old Immunity of Cooper Union Site,” New York Times (15 Oct. 1930): 19; “New York City Spent $836,990,105 For New Buildings In 1928,” New York Times (6 Jan. 1929): 199; “Tax Exempt Property in New York Valued at Over $4,600,000,000,” New York Times (28 Apr. 1929):  167-168.

[9] Claudia Roth Pierpont, “The Silver Spire,” The New Yorker (18 Nov 2002): 74.

[10] Carol Willis, Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995).

[11] Norbert Messler, The Art Deco Skyscraper in New York. 2nd rev. ed. (New York: P. Lang, 1986).

[12] “Finds Public Dislikes Austerity In Building: Professor Boring Cites Protest Against Radio City Design as Desire for Beauty.” New York Times (4 Oct. 1931): 51.

[13] “Simpler Designs For New Buildings: Raymond Hood Sees Need for Quicker and Cheaper Construction Methods,” New York Times (25 Oct. 1931): RE6.

[14] Harry Allan Jacobs, “Architects Discuss Future Building: A Friendly Clash Between Classicists and Modernists at the Architectural League,” New York Times (13 Dec. 1931): RE2.

[15] “Radio City Premiere Is A Notable Event: Many Prominent New Yorkers at Opening Show in the Huge Music Hall,” New York Times (28 Dec. 1932): 1; “Radio Music Hall To Be Movie House: 6,200-Seat Theatre to Co on Popular Price Basis With Films and Stage Shows,” New York Times (6 Jan. 1933): 23.