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Tall Stories

Mrs. Huxtable believes that “as time passes and towers multiply, it is increasingly clear that skyscraper design has been motivated, above all, by an unresolved search for style.” But the “loss of style” she describes is attributable less to a malaise of the creative spirit than to the condition noted by Louis Sullivan when he wrote that the tall office building “is the joint product of the speculator, the engineer, the builder.” In his day the speculator may have been first among equals, but in ours he is unquestionably first.

Mrs. Huxtable sometimes seems to confuse “style,” which all works of architecture possess by definition (however conventional or dull the style may be), with “styling”—the superficial use of design motifs of debased origin or meaningless reference, often seen in American automobile and appliance design. Much current architecture suffers as much from a surfeit of bogus styling as it does from a paucity of authentic style. There is in the end little difference between the high-roller glitz of Der Scutt’s Trump Tower in New York (1979–1983), deriving from the vocabulary of modernism, and the perverse reincarnation of the British Houses of Parliament in mirror glass in Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s PPG Building in Pittsburgh (1979–1983), a prime example of postmodernism. Mrs. Huxtable’s apocalyptic, if cryptic, final sentence—“At best, we will go out in a blaze of style”—must surely be intended ironically, given her obvious and understandable distaste for what she castigates as postmodernism’s “uncontrolled pursuit of style.”

The first half of her text, originally published in The New Criterion, is a useful account of the skyscraper as our country’s most distinctively original building type. She traces it from its beginnings in the 1880s (whether the skyscraper first appeared in Chicago or New York, a continuing dispute among historians, is largely irrelevant to her survey) to its domination of the American cityscape a hundred years later. Mrs. Huxtable’s account of the skyscraper’s development is convincing as far as it goes, but its major failing is that it does not go nearly far enough.

In light of the current interest in the incorporation of historical styles in contemporary architecture, the book is particularly unsatisfactory in its examination of why traditional forms and motifs could be employed so successfully in tall buildings in the early years of this century, but rarely come close to that standard when used today. If, for instance, Cass Gilbert was able to apply Gothic ornament to his Woolworth Building and the building is still appreciated today as one of the great landmarks of American architecture, then why does Johnson and Burgee’s Republic Bank Center in Houston (1980–1984) seem little more than a camp parody of the Netherlandish Gothic? She is on the right track when she observes that the failure of Johnson and Burgee’s buildings “to capture the architectural importance that they aspire to through the use of samples and swatches selected at random from history is a demonstration of the essential and inescapable relationship between art and its generating forces.” But she does not examine closely enough how and why things have changed so much in the past seventy-five years.

After her years of reporting on the subject, no one knows better than Mrs. Huxtable that by the time an architect is approached by a real-estate developer for the design of a skyscraper today, the architect’s choices have already been limited to a far greater extent than was usually the case sixty or even thirty years ago. As she explains,

Today’s large commercial structures, like those that came before them, are essentially an economic formula. The modern office building has been standardized as a central service core surrounded by 15,000 to 25,000 square feet of space, or multiples of those figures. This standard has been set by business itself as the optimum working floor area for the large corporation. The tower shape is also dictated by the investor’s belief that ground floor retail space is best concentrated for the largest possible captive working population that can be channeled through it each day. Even the tall building’s almost uniform four- or five-foot design module has evolved out of another economic consideration, the minimum office size for standardized corporate needs.

Having stated this, she disapprovingly notes, “It has become fashionable for the architect to profess that he is unable to affect the basic building package,” and, “Many postmodernists prefer to consider the skyscraper just that—an enormous package that can be decorated for status, symbolism, and style.” But given the conditions she previously describes, why should that result come as any surprise?

The most serious omission of The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered is an adequate appraisal of the financial pressures that have shaped the skyscraper more than they have any other architectural enterprise in America during this century. The Woolworth Building would have been quite different had it been designed after the New York City zoning ordinance of 1916 requiring setbacks in high-rise massing, or if its patron had wanted a specific return on his investment rather than a structure that would serve as a logotype for his company. Frank W. Woolworth’s vision of a “Cathedral of Commerce” was brilliantly realized by Cass Gilbert. The result of AT&T chairman John deButts’s desire to create a no less impressive symbol for his corporation resulted in Johnson and Burgee’s taking an architectonic mass not much different from the Seagram Building and tarting it up in the new historicist drag. To inadequately probe this central issue of the economic determinants that now affect even the most well-intentioned promoters of high-rise urban architecture is to lose any hope of understanding the causes of the crisis that Mrs. Huxtable so eloquently identifies.

Occasionally, she gives tantalizing signs of her awareness of the gold behind the stylistic tinsel of present-day skyscraper development. Mrs. Huxtable mentions “the direct connection between the bases of power and extremely lucrative work,” but regrettably she does not reveal how that connection operates. Though there is a natural tendency in architecture for commissions to design one building type to beget more commissions of the same sort, in the case of the skyscraper there is the additional tendency for certain lending institutions to favor certain developers who favor certain architects over and over again. (The two foolproof names attached to high-rise projects submitted for approval to banks in Texas are said to be Philip Johnson and I. M. Pei.)

Even a brief discussion of the methods of Philip Johnson—the wonder of his profession for his easy commerce between the corporate boardroom and the architectural drafting room—would have illuminated the importance of patronage in the one medium that still requires that a client be found before the artist executes his work. As the Godfather of American Architecture (dispensing to younger protégés commissions he declines as too small or unprofitable), Johnson personifies the symbiotic relationship that now exists between the architects who get to design skyscrapers and the men who own them.

Mrs. Huxtable’s political perceptions are similarly hinted at but are not fully expounded. In one of her most intriguing observations she finds the philosophy of postmodernism embodying “something somewhat nastier—a parvenu old-tie, anti-liberal snobbism of the new, and young, far Right.” (Need it be said that this aperçu did not appear in the excerpt published in The New Criterion?) She is on to something there, but one wishes she had made more of it. Once she mentions it, who can fail to see in much postmodern architecture something strikingly akin to the WASP never-never land dreamed up by Ralph Lauren for his advertising campaigns? From the pseudo-Shingle Style “cottages” of Robert A. M. Stern in the Hamptons to the painfully archaeological neoclassical paneled interiors of Alan Greenberg, there is a yearning for a return to Gracious Living that suggests a very direct parallel to the attitudes of the American power elite in the years of the Reagan Revolution.

But Mrs. Huxtable’s desire to have her book serve as an anti-postmodernist pamphlet leads her into some unwise digressions. Among the architects of the contemporary avant-garde whom she discusses are Richard Meier, Arata Isozaki, and Peter Eisenman, none of whom has ever executed a tall building. She finds that “the theoretical projects of Peter Eisenman…have the immutable elegance of mathematical equations whose intractable perfection is highly resistant to the realities of living.” Although many people would indeed find inhabiting Eisenman’s houses—which are like intricately structured cubist sculptures on an environmental scale—to be a daunting experience, not all do. As William Gass wrote after a stay in Eisenman’s House VI in Cornwall, Connecticut (1972–1976), “It was a place to be, to be beyond the ordinary, to be at the apex of being…. I wanted immediately to move in.”*

It is true that postmodernism has produced very little large-scale work that can support the proposition that it offers a convincing alternative to modernism, but it is going too far to assert that “postmodernism is the renunciation and devaluation of everything the modernists believed in and built.” Recent historical studies of the Modern Movement in architecture prove that it was not the monolithic manifestation it has often been made out to be. The highly selective and personal survey of early modernism that Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock made for the influential 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which gave the International Style its name, created the popular stereotype of modernism as exclusively machinelike and reductive in its imagery. As opposed to its late, denatured phase (when its aesthetic and engineering principles were exercised almost solely in service of the profit motive), there was much more variety and humanity in its early days that its present detractors would have us believe. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto—whose comprehensive “organic” conception of architecture, interior, and furniture design embraced both natural materials and forms inspired by nature—were as central to the Modern Movement as Le Corbusier, whose early, technocentric period was eventually followed by a self-conscious primitivism antithetical to his purist phase of the 1920s.

As much as the postmodernists might like to proclaim a break with the recent past, modernism is still very much with us, at least beneath the surface. The same advances in structure and materials that enabled the early modernists to carry out their new conception of architecture are used to carry out the postmodern vision, which in fact derives much more from the modernist formal language than from that of classicism. In any event, such labels as “modern” and “postmodern” are not particularly useful for intellectual inquiry, and the temptation is great to fit architects into confusing categories. Mrs. Huxtable, for example, questionably calls Paul Rudolph a “proto-postmodernist.”

Mrs. Huxtable’s critical voice has always been far gentler than Lewis Mumford’s: whereas he would write with wrathful indignation, she has preferred the subtler strategy of irony and understatement. But in this book she merely sounds miffed, and seems to take as a personal affront the dissatisfaction and questioning that led to the end of the modernist style’s domination. When she allows that “the revisionists are busy rewriting history in terms of omission and rediscovery, which is fine,” one remains unpersuaded that she thinks it is fine at all. But it is more troubling when she delivers herself of such asides as “The minor arty or intellectual role that the profession is promoting for itself today to the accompaniment of endless, arcane chatter is a kind of self-inflicted architectural castration,” or mentions “flashy hypotheses and borrowed ideas fashionable in intellectual circles today.” The ideas she refers to, whether they draw on semiotics or on other aesthetic theories, cannot be so simply dismissed. Mrs. Huxtable in those passages comes uncomfortably close to echoing the know-nothing rhetoric of Tom Wolfe in his ill-informed and reactionary From Bauhaus to Our House, even though he is as virulently antimodernist as she is anti-postmodernist.

Thus, although she strives to maintain a semblance of objectivity, one cannot proceed very far into this short book without realizing that it is more tract than history. There is, of course, a degree of truth in Mrs. Huxtable’s view that “every generation tailors history to its taste,” but what has been happening in American architecture in recent years is far more than either a shift in generational outlook or calculated revisionism.

Mrs. Huxtable makes it clear that she regrets the move away from the reductive aesthetic of early modernism and the International Style. She calls the modular, glass-skinned skyscraper conceived by Mies van der Rohe in the 1920s “the basis of a superb vernacular, probably the handsomest and most useful set of architectural conventions since the Georgian row house.” She claims that “glass towers, whatever their drawbacks—and most of their faults are independent of aesthetics—make a magnificent street architecture.” But what are we to make of the several pages of depressing photos of late-modern boxes that Mrs. Huxtable includes to underscore her point? They are indistinguishable from the montages that have already become a cliché in books and films that seek to explain why modernism ultimately failed. Many who have welcomed the move away from the International Style do not object to its best examples but to the vastly greater number of mindless, lifeless knockoffs that have given most large American cities a chilling sameness.

In contrast to the illustrations that undermine her argument, we can recall, thanks to Lawrence Wodehouse’s bibliography, the critic who in her second article for The New York Times in 1957 drew a careful distinction between the boring glass boxes going up on Park Avenue and the superior examples from which they derived. In her new book she notes that

the minimalism of the modernist aesthetic lends itself to a subtle, ascetic beauty or to the cheapest corner-cutting; and since the latter has been the easiest and most profitable route for the builder, an elegant, reductive vocabulary was quickly reduced to a bottom-line banality that its creators never dreamed of.

But it is precisely because the modernist aesthetic—subtlety and asceticism aside—could be so easily devalued by developers that younger architects have sought alternatives more resistant to tampering than the International Style proved to be. The postmodernists’ call for a return to richer ornamentation and traditional detailing is a direct response to that dilemma; they would like masonry chiseling to drive out financial chiseling, as it were. If they have so far failed to do so, their intentions are still worth examining.

The second half of The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered gives a general review of recent developments in skyscraper design, centering on the current work of three of the most visible high-style firms specializing in high-rise architecture (Johnson, Burgee and Kohn, Pedersen, Fox—both in New York; and Murphy, Jahn in Chicago) as well as entries in several recent tall-building competitions (for the headquarters of Humana, Inc. in Louisville, Southwest BancShares in Houston, and an intercollegiate contest sponsored by Syracuse University for a putative site on Broadway). The scarcity of inspiring or even interesting new buildings on the urban horizon today, which is just as bleak a vista as Mrs. Huxtable paints it, has led her to see in this student work more promising ideas than in the schemes proposed by established professionals. It is a bold suggestion, but alas the Syracuse projects seem in no way preferable to the stylistically confused and poorly proportioned towers planned by the major practitioners.

Mrs. Huxtable singles out for special praise the second-prize-winning scheme by Kevin Havens of Harvard, in which “the effective treatment of entrances and ground-floor commercial uses…displays a competence barely hinted at by the outer-space image,” an evaluation that reminds one of Mark Twain’s claim that Richard Wagner’s music isn’t as boring as it sounds. Whatever its functional qualities might be (no floor plans of this or any other building are included in the book, a grave lapse if we are to consider anything but the external appearance of these towers), this aggressively high-tech skyscraper would impose a blank and daunting presence on Broadway not perceptibly different from the ghastly new Marriott Marquis Hotel on Times Square. Observers of the contemporary scene who have wondered how much worse things in architecture could get now have their answer.

There can be little question that the tall building presents one of the most difficult challenges to the architect. What Louis Sullivan termed “a vital problem, pressing for a true solution,” remains so, just as it was even in the heyday of the building type. A look at the results of the famous 1922 Chicago Tribune Building competition (aside from the handful of well-known entries reproduced in Mrs. Huxtable’s book) reminds us that the vast number of schemes were every bit as ill-conceived as most of the current designs shown in Mrs. Huxtable’s book. The difference, of course, is that many of the new monstrosities are getting built.

In “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” Sullivan defined the terms that have remained in effect for all those who have sought, like him, to advance the art of skyscraper design:

How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions? How shall we proclaim from the dizzy height of this strange, weird, modern housetop the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of a higher life?

This ardent appeal must not, however, be mistaken for the romantic yearning of an architectural Luftmensch. Sullivan was a true pragmatist, and displayed his comprehension of what the tall building in America is essentially about when he wrote in the same essay of the triple alliance—speculator, engineer, builder—that to him was as much a part of the tall building as his three-part organizational system.

The most significant change in recent years is the emergence of the speculator as the most powerful of those three participants. As Ada Louise Huxtable pointed out well in advance of the abominable overbuilding of New York’s Fifth and Madison avenues in the vicinity of Fiftysixth Street, our present zoning laws, in combination with municipal incentives to stimulate commercial real-estate development, were a disaster waiting to happen. Now that it has, we can contemplate the fact that it is not just architectural style that has changed radically since the rise of the first skyscrapers, but something very close to the heart of the urban social contract.

The Chrysler Building, completed in 1930 to the designs of William Van Alen, was scorned by the early proponents of the International Style (who found its idiosyncratic forms and decorative richness antithetical to the pristine ideal they held for our cities) as well as by the late followers of Beaux Arts classicism (who regarded it as vulgar, populist showmanship). A half-century later, the Chrysler Building is prized as one of our true architectural treasures. Ten blocks to the north of it stands Hugh Stubbins and Associates’ Citicorp Center (1972–1978), which less than a decade after its completion already seems remarkably dated. It is interesting to note that its slanting roof provoked almost none of the controversy of the broken-pediment top of the later AT&T Building. It is doubtful that the Citicorp Center will rank very high on anyone’s list of the best New York skyscrapers fifty years from now. Devastatingly enormous, a blockbuster in the literal sense, Citicorp Center demonstrates that the “amenities” so eagerly given by real-estate developers in return for variances that allow them to build bigger and higher have been decidedly one-sided in their favor. The tax abatements, zoning waivers, and other financial encouragements received in return for these supposed acts of largesse—in the case of Citicorp Center, a cramped and antiurban indoor shopping arcade—are pathetic substitutes for the gestures of architectural generosity taken for granted not so long ago.

The magnificent lobby of the Chrysler Building—faced with rare marbles, aglitter with decorative metalwork, and surmounted by a ceiling painted with a totemic image of the tower itself—leads to elevator cabs inlaid with exotic woods in fanciful patterns. The entire route from street to office is invested with ceremony, dignity, and delight. At the Citicorp Center, the unsuspecting New Yorker might well imagine having stumbled by accident into a suburban mall, rather than a major banking institution.

The speculators of the early decades of this century had a distinct awareness that private profit need not rule out public improvements, and the monuments they raised to the glories of capitalism reaffirmed that belief. Those buildings gave beauty and grandeur to the city as a whole, and acted as emblems of how the society is meant to work at its best: for the good of all. The inward-turning tendency of the new tall buildings in New York speaks all too clearly of the parallel trends toward self-interest in our national life. Looking into the new atriums on Fifth and Madison avenues, we find that some garden furniture under the ficus trees has become our new urban Arcadia.

The Chrysler Building was no less a commercial enterprise than the Citicorp Center, but the pair provide a study in contrasts between the material, visual, and spiritual bounty of the former and the grudging concessions of the latter, a sad example of what has lately come to pass for beneficence in the urban architectural domain. The patrons of the great tall buildings of the past had a genuine feeling of obligation to give the city something genuine in return, and were conscious of the inherent symbolism of aspiration that the skyscraper embodies. The tall building, concentrating man in one place more densely than ever before, similarly concentrates the dilemma of our public architecture at the end of the twentieth century: whether the new forms made possible by technology are doomed by the low calculations of modern patrons and their architects.

Letters

Mrs. Huxtable’s Words December 19, 1985

  1. *

    William Gass, “House VI,” Progressive Architecture (June 1977), pp. 60–64.

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