“A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe, and fifty times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.” Le Corbusier
This architecture city guide celebrates Modernism in one of the world's greatest cities: New York. We embark on an architectural journey through nearly a century of innovative, revolutionary architecture: from early 20th century, revivalist Beaux-Arts; to machine-age Art Deco of the Inter-War period; to the elegant functionalism of the International Style; to the raw, exposed Brutalism characteristic of the Post-War years; and, finally, to the splendid forms of organic architecture. From world-renowned landmarks to undiscovered jewels, we invite you to explore the 2,028 blocks that make Manhattan an architectural mecca for citizens around the world.
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Beaux-Arts (literally meaning “fine arts”), a dominant style in large-scale public institutions in New York City between the years 1890-1920, is characterized by sculptured ornaments, such as entablatures, columns, flying buttresses, gargoyles, and architraves, reminiscent of the Italian Baroque and Rococo styles. Although the buildings’ heavily ornamented facades appear emblematic of a seemingly old-fashioned architecture, they actually embraced modern construction techniques, such as the use of steel-framed construction
Two great examples of the style were built by École des Beaux-Arts graduates, who applied a French aesthetic to the local New York landscape: The New York Public Library (1911) and Grand Central Station (1913). Perhaps the most accessible concentration of information in the world, The New York Public Library is appropriately housed in a grand marble structure, its Fifth Avenue facade decorated with Greek Corinthian columns, iconic lions and sculptured niches. However, the facade is still rather “modernly” functional, as its form serves to distinguish the different uses of the library’s internal program (for example, pediments mark the reading rooms, while long, narrow windows, the book stacks). Only two blocks away, Grand Central Station’s monumental, south-facing facade is a symmetrical composition of triumphal arches and a colossal central clock. The vast, 85-meter long main concourse is lit by six high-arched windows, and its concave, starry ceiling was painted in 1912 by the artist Paul César Helleu. Its innovative, passenger-oriented design, based on a series of ramps rather than staircases (thus facilitating travelers carrying wheeled suitcases), produced a highly efficient circulation system that has proven quite influential in modern day transport hub design.
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Art-Deco replaced the revival language of Beaux-Arts and is perhaps the last extravagant decorative style, dominant in the Inter-War years of the 1920s and 1930s. Inspired by the machine age, Art-Deco is characterized by symmetrical, repetitive, geometrical ornamentation. Interestingly, the Art-Deco skyscraper, with its typically tapered top, was directly influenced by zoning regulations passed in 1916, which forced the setbacks of high-rise buildings in order to allow natural light to reach the streets below (the regulation would inspire many of New York’s future innovative architectural forms as well).
Art-Deco widely embraced mass production, which can be witnessed in the atypically rapid construction of two of New York’s most iconic skyscrapers: The Chrysler Building (1930) and The Empire State Building (1931, completed in only fifteen months). The stainless steel Chrysler Building is topped with a crown of chevrons whose“stylized sunburst motif”distinguishes it within the city skyline. The building was the first in the world to reach a height of 1,000-feet, making it the tallest building in the world at the time. It was surpassed a mere eleven months later by the 102-story Empire State Building, which held the record for 42 years, until the 1973 construction of the World Trade Center.
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The International Style
In the 1950s New York’s decorative styles were abandoned in favor of the rational style emerging from Germany’s Bauhaus school: the International Style, characterized by simplified geometry, a lack of ornamentation, the glorification of functionality, and an emphasis on standardisation. In fact, the “International Style” was first officially recognized and institutionalized in New York, during the 1932 MoMA exhibition curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, which laid the principles for the canon of Modern architecture.
The Seagram Building (1958) and Lever House (1951), located on either sides of Park Avenue, are two icons of the International Style in New York. Mies Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building, a 38-story glass and steel office building, sought to outwardly express its interior structure through the use of non-load bearing, bronze I-beams on its facade. Furthermore, the building is set 100 feet from the street edge, which not only created a highly-frequented public plaza but also pioneered a new public-oriented typology within the city grid. Across the street, Lever House, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is a 24-story stainless steel and heat-resistant glass structure which sits atop an elevated two-story rectangular base; raised upon pilotis, the horizontal base provides a shaded public plaza, as well as mediator to the interior lobby. The Seagram Building and Lever House, with their use of modern materials and techniques as well as their integration of public space, became the prototype for the new, corporate, functional aesthetic of the modern skyscraper.
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The Brutalist Style in New York, referred to as “New-Brutalism” echoed the avant-garde Corbusian use of exposed concrete, or "béton brut,” which rejected the International Style’s aesthetics. Brutalism suggested a new “honest” philosophy towards materials, emphasizing rough texture and grand-gestured geometry. Many Brutalist buildings, constructed between 1950 and 1970, have proven less than popular with New Yorkers, and demolition is often chosen over restoration; The Holy Trinity Chapel in New York University (1964), for example, a trapezoid-shaped structure of exposed concrete and stained glass, was described in 2010, a year prior to its demolition, as an "awkward Modernism from a time when the search for form preoccupied American architects.”
Brutalism has proven more successful in industrial structures, such as the The Westyard Distribution Center, which, originally built as a factory, was later converted into an efficient office space. The 15-story concrete building’s sharp, angular facade, recognizable from a distance, can be viewed in its full glory from the High Line. Another Brutalist landmark, constructed of granite rather than concrete, is the Whitney Museum (1966). Designed by Marcel Breuer, the museum’s cantilevered spaces maximized the narrow site’s capacity for gallery space; its internal volumes can constantly be transformed thanks to portable partitions. The inverted ziggurat-shaped museum, with its seven polygonal windows, create a strong innovative statement.
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We end our tour with the expressive, amorphic style that attempted, throughout the decades of Modernist hegemony, to propose a new language, characterized by organically-inspired forms (made possible due to the use of easily-molded reinforced concrete) that result in unusual internal volumes. The flamboyant, flame-shaped form of the Civic Center Synagogue is such an example, presenting an ingenious solution to the narrow urban site; as a result, the Synagogue’s religious program can be fulfilled in an inviting, sky-lit space.
However, the greatest monument to Organic Architecture in New York, and perhaps the world, is The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the building was conceived as a “temple for the spirit.” Made of reinforced concrete, the cylinder-shaped structure’s swirling curves stand in outspoken contrast to the New York grid. The interior’s spiral ramps, which create a continuum throughout the museum’s six floors, encircle the 92-foot wide atrium, which is covered by a domed, glass skylight. Most recently, the atrium was dramatically transformed by the light artist, James Turrell, who created what he described as “an architecture of space created with light.”
Check out the following trailer to the 1998 documentary The Cruise, sharing the story of a Double-Decker New York bus and its tour guide, whose relationship with the city is at once full of love and borderline insane.
Complete list of buildings: