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Golden Boy

At the time, Trump was quartered in his father’s office on Avenue Z, in the deepest recesses of Brooklyn. No matter. Trump overwhelmed Penn Central officials with his enthusiasm; nobody could have possibly wanted anything more than he wanted the railroad yards. And then there were his political contacts—or rather his father’s. Trump writes that Mayor Abe Beame, a friend of the Trumps from Brooklyn days, “almost went out of his way to avoid the appearance that he was doing us any favors.” Blair (following Barrett) writes that in fact Trump had the relevant Penn Central official ushered into the mayor’s presence, and that the diminutive Beame put one arm around the elder Trump and the other around the younger, and said, “Whatever my friends Fred and Donald want in this town, they get.”

Trump received options to buy the West Side land for $62 million; but after years of fighting with the local community over his plan to build Fred-style middle-class housing, he gave up and allowed the options to lapse. At the same time, however, he also received an option from Penn Central to buy the crumbling old Commodore Hotel, next to Grand Central Station. This required the kind of nervy acrobatics that would have terrified any reasonable person, for Trump had to find a hotel chain to take over the place, the financing to buy it, and a huge tax abatement from the city to make the deal work—and he had to do it all virtually at the same time, since each element depended on the others. Trump writes that he knew nothing about hotels, had hardly even stayed in one, but of course nobody else knew that. And by issuing a stream of threats in the press—another talent he had come by on his own—Trump was able to bully a very reluctant Mayor Ed Koch into granting him the huge tax abatement that he sought.

Then Trump added what would become his signature touch: he covered the Commodore’s old-fashioned brick façade with a blindingly reflective glass skin. The Grand Hyatt (the Hyatt people, who had agreed to run the hotel, wouldn’t let Trump use his own name) was hardly the first black glass building in New York; but Trump’s gaudily wrapped hotel was adjacent to the elegant Beaux-Arts stonework of Grand Central and across the street from the finely tooled Art Deco façades of the Chrysler Building and the Chanin Building. For Trump, the Commodore, and perhaps also Grand Central and the Chrysler Building, was part of a played-out past; New York City was languishing in a deep recession, and all those bricks and stones and entablature signified exhaustion. They were the old; he—the man and his buildings—were the new. And in fact the Grand Hyatt was a popular success; occupancy rates soared, and its glittery lobby was almost always filled with people. Trump had produced the kind of shiny artifact that tourists like, though at the same time he had damaged forever the texture of East 42nd Street. Trump has the populist contempt for critical opinion, but he adds to this the belief that critical opinion itself ultimately bows down before commercial success. In The Art of the Deal, he writes, “Many of the same critics and preservationists who hated the original concept of my building now love it.” Maybe; the American Institute of Architects’ guide to New York buildings refers to the façade as an “utter and inexcusable outrage.”

Trump understood that the aesthetic of understatement had lost its hold, and that the suddenly new rich of the 1980s were eager to put their wealth on display. Trump was one of them, after all; he had left Queens behind for the towers of the Upper East Side. Trump’s own idea of style seems to have come from Playboy circa 1960. As a young man about Manhattan, he wore crimson suits, and he drove a white Cadillac back and forth to Avenue Z. And he joined—virtually crashed by his own account—Le Club, a café society hangout. It was there that he met Roy Cohn, the legendary fixer who was to do a great deal of fixing for Trump himself, as well as the blond arm candy for which Trump would later become famous. In a sense, Trump put up buildings for himself. In the late Seventies, that meant places like the Grand Hyatt, which looks as if it belongs in Dallas or Phoenix. But as he gained a wider sense of the world, he began building for the class that shuttles from one capital to another—the Armani crowd. When he designed Trump Tower, his grandiose apartment complex on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, he was thinking, he writes, “about the wealthy Italian with the beautiful wife and the red Ferrari.”

What Trump succeeded in doing in the 1980s was to create a style associated with his own image, and then to market his properties as emanations of that style. That’s why Trump could legitimately claim that he named his buildings after himself not to satisfy his ego but to exploit the brand name that was himself. And it worked. Apartments in Trump Tower were offered at astronomical prices, but they outsold the significantly less expensive apartments in the Museum Tower adjoining MOMA, around the corner. Trump brags, apparently with justice, that his name adds about 15 percent to the value of an apartment. This a source of genuine mystification to many people who care about matters of taste. Why would anyone spend several hundred thousand dollars extra to live in a building that has “Trump” spelled out in two-foot-high gold letters on the front? I don’t know, and neither does Blair. Perhaps they feel as if they’re joining Le Club, or sharing the aura of that fabulous Italian couple. Above all, they are sharing in the aura that is Trump himself.

Here we arrive at the man’s special genius. In a way that must have seemed stupefying to his father, and was in any case appalling to the grandees of the industry, Trump turned his own life into a public object, a version of the glitzy, champagne world that he was beckoning potential clients to join. The yacht, the Palm Beach mansion, the prize fights, the parties, even the marriage—it was all, as Blair writes, a colossal marketing device. Trump didn’t so much have a life as a life-style, something that existed to be read about. The fifty-three-room triplex that he built for himself and his first wife, Ivana, atop Trump Tower was the very apotheosis of the aesthetic of deracinated luxury which he promoted. Here John Fairchild, the then publisher of W, is describing the Trump living room (in Skyscraper Dreams):

The room, including the floor, is all marble and alabaster, and there are gold-filigreed, fluted marble columns. Above, painted cupids fly through a painted sky. On the left of the room, against the wall, is a fountain large enough for a small square in Paris. Trump goes to a back panel, pushes four buttons, and water spurts into the fountain from all directions, falling into its marble basin.

Trump himself appears to have been every bit as indifferent to luxury as his father was. In one of her more telling passages, Blair tells us that Ivana was foolish enough, and human enough, to mistake these elaborate, opulent stage sets for real places, to be inhabited and cherished. She never understood that she was as dispensable as any of the other properties. Trump was not a man to stop with wife number one. He complained that Ivana was flat-chested, so she had plastic surgery; then he complained that he couldn’t stand her fake breasts. And then he dumped her for Marla Maples, who had real ones. Blair gives the impression that sex with Marla was one of the few experiences Trump ever really enjoyed.

By the late Eighties, Trump seems to have become convinced that he was exempt from the laws of gravity. Using borrowed money, he bought virtually everything that caught his fancy: the Taj casino in Atlantic City ($237 million), the Plaza Hotel ($407.5 million), the Eastern Shuttle ($365 million), Adnan Khashoggi’s yacht, and a condo development called Trump Plaza of the Palm Beaches. Blair says that he had begun taking “an amphetaminelike substance”—shades of Richard Nixon—that may explain behavior she describes as “manic.” And then, in the spring of 1990, the house of cards collapsed; Trump turned out to have racked up $2 billion in bank debt and $800 million in personal liability. He fell into the hands of his bankers, who began selling off his properties and, most famously, put him on an allowance (of $450,000 a month).

And yet Trump did not go under, as so many real estate barons had before. In his moment of failure, he displayed, according to Blair, an almost heroic sangfroid, outfacing his critics, joking with reporters, and bragging, all the while, that he was going to come out stronger than ever. It wasn’t just bluff: Trump understood that the banks could not afford to simply liquidate his assets; the return would be too small. They had to make a deal with him. In the end, Trump retained control of his casinos—which generated much of his cash flow—as well as partial interests in the Grand Hyatt and the Plaza and in the West Side rail yards, which he had finally succeeded in purchasing. He emerged with fewer holdings, but scarcely chastened, and still very rich—a man who had cheated destiny.

Within a few years, a new Donald Trump took shape. He was forced to scale back his Ozymandian fantasy of building, in the West Side railyards, a giant city-within-a-city, constructed around a 150-story tower. Then he had to sell the property altogether. However, the Chinese developers who purchased the entire project retained him to market the more modest residential buildings they planned, which he promptly renamed Trump Place. He reached a similar agreement at the upscale former Mayfair Hotel on East 65th Street. Trump had become, in Blair’s phrase, “a human logo.” He had left behind the dross of bricks and mortar; now he would enhance the value of buildings simply by associating his name with them. Just as once he had been “a virtual billionaire,” Blair writes, now he would be “a virtual developer”—a new, very Nineties identity. It was as if the marketing construct known as “Trump” had finally detached itself from the biographical figure of Trump like a rocket separating from its booster, and hurtled off into space.

3.

What Donald Trump will leave behind for New Yorkers yet unborn are not the photo spreads in People magazine but half a dozen or so enormously tall buildings sheathed in reflective glass. What is one to say of his legacy, at least so far (bearing in mind that, at fifty-four, he may have plenty of buildings still in him)? One afternoon I took a Trump tour in the company of Joel Sanders, an architect who is also chairman of the department of architecture at Parsons School of Design. We began at Trump Tower, a black monolith designed by the architect Der Scutt. Trump Tower is Trump’s most widely respected building, and Sanders pointed out that it is one of the few skyscrapers in the city which addresses the fact that it occupies a corner, by virtue of a ziggurat-like shape which rises from the sidewalk at its southwestern edge. Standing outside the building Sanders saw nothing to snicker at, though once inside he was dizzied by the acres of glossy marble and gold trim in the building’s atrium. Trump has, in fact, boasted that he exhausted the world’s supply of breccia perniche, the intensely figured, salmon-colored marble that covers the atrium’s walls and floors. Virtually every surface used in the interior is shiny, thus making the entire atrium feel like a fragmented hall of mirrors.

We next parked ourselves in front of Trump Plaza, a generically Modernist apartment tower on Third Avenue which sits atop a cushion-shaped base. “I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Sanders murmured, “but it’s really not bad.” He waved at a postmodern brick structure a few blocks away, and said, “I certainly prefer it to that.” That, I informed him, was the Robert Stern building that Upper East Siders had been clamoring to buy their way into. “Stern” had the same power for that crowd as “Trump” does for arrivistes.

We then went to stare up at the Trump World Tower at the United Nations Plaza, a ninety-story black glass box on First Avenue and 48th Street which will be, when finished, “the tallest residential building anywhere in the world,” according to a sign on the construction site. The building looms up to a staggering height, sheer and smooth. “It’s kind of minimalist,” said Sanders, now thoroughly defeated by his inability to despise the Trump oeuvre. “It’s almost shocking that he would do something so restrained.” Then another thought occurred to him. “Every building we’ve seen has been completely reflective. The modernist ideal dictated that buildings be transparent, that their surface should speak of their core. Buildings were supposed to be held to a spiritual truth. With these buildings, you have no idea what lies inside; there’s a complete denial of interiority.” They offered, in short, a perfect image of their maker.

The Trump buildings are not, by and large, uglier than their neighbors, though they may be colder and more forbidding. They cannot be regarded as excrescences on the urban landscape, if only because the landscape is littered with such excrescences. The questions that they raise have as much to do with the art of the deal as with the art of the building. The Trump World Tower is a perfect example of the dynamic of real estate in New York. You are not supposed to be able to build a ninety-story apartment building on the Upper East Side. But the city’s zoning code permits builders to purchase “air rights” from buildings that do not build up to their maximum allotment, and then use those rights themselves, much as factories now purchase “pollution rights.”

Trump, who understands this byzantine system as well as anyone, was thus able to erect a building so tall that it will dwarf the UN Secretariat Building across the street and four blocks to the south. The Trump World Tower expresses the same scorn for its neighborhood that the Grand Hyatt does. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan protested, as did a group of local residents, led by Walter Cronkite, who live in a fancy high-rise which Trump will cast in shadow; but they never had a chance. What could be a more potent symbol of the supremacy of the deal than Donald Trump’s mighty black needle towering over a building which stands for the idea of world community, and which is, as well, one of the three or four most widely admired International Style buildings in the city? In The Seduction of Place, his recent book on urban architecture, Joseph Rykwert refers to Trump World Tower as “the ultimate grotesque.”

Another peculiarity of the system is hidden in Trump Tower. If you take the escalators up to the fifth floor of the atrium, you will find two “public gardens”; one of them is barely a balcony, but the other is large and spacious and attractive on a sunny day. Of course, few New Yorkers have ever even seen these remote spaces. They exist because the zoning code also allows builders to add floors in exchange for such public amenities as plazas or gardens, usually, but not necessarily, on the ground floor. According to a recent article in City Journal by William Stern, a former city official, this quid pro quo was incorporated in the zoning code when it was reformed in 1961 in order to encourage the construction of skyscrapers surrounded by open space—what Le Corbusier called “the tower in the park.” This has since come to be seen as the anti-urban vision that it was; what’s more, public gardens on the fifth floor cannot be called public space.

Stern argues that the zoning code is so restrictive that developers just won’t build, and that those who do must spend virtually all their energy cultivating City Hall. Simplifying the rules would encourage the creation of much-needed housing, and eliminating some of the absurdities would prevent the construction of more Trump World Towers. On the other hand, it wouldn’t prevent Donald Trump, or the rest of the city’s developers, from erecting undistinguished or ugly buildings. That’s the fault of clients who don’t care or don’t know any better, and of the marketplace itself. Such are the intense cost pressures of Manhattan that developers will do whatever they can to maximize the number of square feet they can build, and the money they can make per square foot. The same developers who amass impressive art collections put up meaningless buildings. In Skyscraper Dreams, Richard Uris Jr., a developer who had been trained as an architect, recalls rhapsodizing over the Seagram Building to his uncle Percy, the founder of the family’s real estate fortune. Percy retorted, “The only beautiful building is the one that’s fully rented.” At least one can say of Trump that he invests his buildings with his own style.

Incredible though it seems, New York has contributed essentially nothing to the world’s stock of important buildings over the last forty years. Ask an architect or an architecture critic for a list of distinguished buildings in New York City, and the list is likely to include nothing more recent than the International Style structures of the Fifties—the Seagram Building, Lever House, the Secretariat. In this respect, New York seems almost incapable of creating beauty. What the city has contributed to architecture is, of course, the idea of the skyscraper. From the late nineteenth century to the early 1970s, the tallest building in the world, whether the Singer Building or the Woolworth Building or the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center, was always located in New York City. This was, as Joseph Rykwert observes, the one architectural competition that really mattered in New York. Donald Trump, who wanted to build a 150-story tower, and ultimately settled for putting up the world’s tallest residential structure, is squarely in the New York tradition of profiteering visionaries and megalomaniacs. The results are often appalling, and sometimes laughable, but they are bound up with the city’s own elemental energies. Perhaps we should consider dropping our critical defenses and join with the architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas, who, in his brilliant polemic Delirious New York, celebrates Manhattan’s “culture of congestion.” Koolhaas sounds very much as if he’s thinking of our own Donald Trump when he writes that “Manhattan has generated a shameless architecture that has been loved in direct proportion to its defiant lack of self-hatred.”

But if we must embrace the shamelessness of our brazen city, can’t we protect at least some of it from the Trumps of the world?

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