Yesterday afternoon, in a quiet moment as I was staring out of my office window in midtown south, I was thinking about the skyline and how tall buildings touch the sky. Louis Sullivan theorized that the skyscraper (the new building form in his time) should be designed like a column, with a distinct base, shaft and top or capital. If you look at many late 19th century buildings in NYC, this directive seems to have been widely adopted.
Other architects, at the same time, took this in another direction. Drawing inspiration from Gothic architecture, they seemed to think that tall buildings should pile up and up in ever narrowing masses, culminating in points like those of the spires of a cathedral reaching toward heaven. All around us are examples of this design thinking. Then there are the modernist boxes, which disregard all of this previous thinking, and replace it with geometric repetition, sometimes with vertical elements to emphasis the height and sometimes with horizontal banding which often ignores both height and scale, piled repetitiously one of top of the other.
From my office I can see examples of all of these schools of thought as well as other idiosyncratic buildings, which seem to adhere to no particular theory. I see Raymond Hood’s Radiator Building on Bryant Park (peeking up out of anonymous masonry masses) ending in vertical spires, masonry buttresses and arched windows, gilded and glistening in the sunlight, piling up around an octagonal element (does it enclose a water tower?) spilling out white streams of smoke or steam into the blue sky around. Directly behind it is the WR Grace Building, an SOM geometric box, which rises in horizontal concrete and black glass bands to a banal flat band. Down the street, 200 Fifth Avenue grows in multiple masonry increments pushing itself in vertical limestone and brick ribbons upwards to a lovely pinnacle, which unfortunately is now held in place, silver boxes of air handling units. Peaking through a slot between fussy repetitive orange brick 1970s boxes is the glory of the Chrysler Building, shining in silvery arches pushing back into itself through to its iconic needlepoint. This building does not so much scrape the sky as inoculate it with Deco cadmium splendor. Lower down, squatting on top of multiple receding piles of masonry are those wooden barrels, variously hued, NYC water towers.
What a composition this cityscape is, so full of diversity and complexity, reflecting the imaginations and hubris of various ages, reaching upwards and upwards as if after some constantly receding prize in the sky! What a joy to look out upon it and to live and work in it.
Author: Jaques Black