Great cities find their forms through compact. New York entrusts its destiny to deals. Donald Trump will direct the future of 77 acres of our most vital territory not because he’s in any way earned the privilege but because he’s paid for it. This is the urbanism of the shooting gallery: put your money down and take your shot.
I refer to the young masterbuilder’s recently announced plans to build a “Television City” on the old Penn Central rail yards stretching from 59th to 72nd Street along the Hudson. In case you missed the hype, Trump intends to put up the following: one 150-story (“world’s tallest”) building, six 76-story buildings, one 65- story building, and one 15-story building. These are to be filled with condos and offices and would sit on a titanic “podium” that would contain the eponymous TV production facilities as well as department stores, shops, parking, and other mall-style amenities, all topped by 40 acres of what the press release describes as “parks.” The architect for this scheme is Helmut Jahn of Chicago, a designer of particularly primitive sensibilities whose shallow insights and unfettered esprit de glitz must have struck Trump as especially congenial. I can almost hear the conversation between them. “Helmut, I like your style,” says Trump. “And Donald, l like your style,” says, Jahn.
The scheme is so stupid, my initial reaction is to think it’s a phony, a stalking horse for some marginally less barbaric proposal Trump is willing to trade down to. Even in shrunken form, though, we haven’t been treated to a towers-in-the-park proposal for quite some time. There’s a reason for this. The architectural profession has — over the past 20 or so years — woken up and smelled the urban bacon, come to the realization that most of what we prize in our climax metropoli, like Manhattan, comes from formal strategies in which the urban ground is favored over the architectural figure. This privileging is the compact of character that makes such cities singular. Over time, certain means have emerged as central to the particularity of these great cities. In Manhattan, for example, the skyscraper, the brownstone row, the hard-lined, even-topped avenue, are among the keys to our urban specific.
One of the great powers of cities conceived in terms of convention is that they can be forgiving of mediocre architecture. Helmut Jahn’s several midtown skyscrapers (now going up) will be absorbed in that forest, a few more trees (however twisted) among the multitude. The West Side project, however, is apparently unaffected by so much as a whiff of the genius loci. Looking at the boneheaded proposal, one wonders whether the architect even visited the site. Indeed, there’s evidence that he did not. The rank of glyphs bespeaks lakeside Chicago, and the centerpiece of the scheme, the 150-story erection, Trump’s third go at the “world’s tallest building,” looks to be the same world’s tallest building proposed earlier this season for the Columbus Circle site. Was ever a man more preoccupied with getting it up in public?
If one were actually to approach the Penn yards site in terms of its particulars, one sees first an edge, the meeting of land and water, the moment at which the island asserts itself. Manhattan offers plenty of precedents for this. Our characteristic edges include the hard ones (Central Park West or Fifth Avenue along the park), the soft ones (Riverside Park, which depends on the wall of the drive for its special reading), and the fingered ones (the vanishing system of piers, their economic rationale fading but their physical possibilities very much alive). After a million years of struggle over Westway, these issues should not be strange to even a vaguely conscious designer.
There’s also the instructive recent case of Battery Park City. Naturally, conditions down there are somewhat special: this is newly created land not yet entirely of the main. Two strategies are being used to invent the connection. First, there’s the World Financial Center gambit, a complex centered on a fresh-carved harbor, an attenuation of the shoreline. This idea of making a big civic space directly at waterside is A-OK. It recalls the first schemes proposed for Battery Park City, now abandoned, which were filled with ’60s-style megastructural grandeur and marvelously monumental waterfront spaces. The residential zones under construction in Battery Park City take a different tack, largely in reaction to this earlier vision. The big shtick here (propagated in an atmosphere of endless self-congratulation) is laying out the landfill in “traditional” streets and blocks, culminating in a waterfront promenade. In addition, a set of architectural codes have been imposed on the site, intended to establish a homogeneously Po-Mo decorative strategy for all new construction.
The Battery Park City “idea” is an attempt to ape a “natural” process of city extension, to describe and replicate an indigenous way of building. Ironically, this residential gridding and platting has no real history nearby. The choice to build according to some idealized vision of a New York City residential neighborhood (whatever the conservative appeal of the defense via precedent) is — at this specific place — really just whimsical. In terms of the economics of parcelization, it does have its vulgar logic, facilitating the handing out of pieces to the usual developers. But the real visionary genius of New York lies in the tension between precedent and innovation. There’s no better example than the area of lower Manhattan that Battery Park City adjoins, where 20th century skyscrapers rise from the medieval-style street pattern laid out by the Dutch.
Alas, the visionaries of the Reagan Era are all Edward Tellers and Donald Trumps, arrogant apostles of the indefensible. Television City is exactly that, an urban vision apt for the TV era. Like television, Television City is all about unnatural juxtaposition. Just as the TV system validates any adjacency, not blinking an eye at those segues from commercials to carnage, the cut from the starving Ethiopian baby to Morris the Finicky Cat, so too, Television City simply inserts itself in prime time. There’s no point in building the world’s tallest building or a row of 76-story apartments, beyond the logic of anything goes if it sells.
Trump owns a couple of casinos in Atlantic City, one of them called “Trump’s Castle ” which advertises on TV continuously. In the ad, a little Henry the Eighth arrives in a coach as a chanteuse belts “You’re the King of the Castle” (king at least until you’ve lost all your money to Don). A message flashes on the screen: FREE INDOOR PARKING. This is important. Atlantic City is a fine example of the way people like Trump see cities, hostile places to be secured by means of strategic enclaves filled with glittery fun. Television City is likely to have the longest expanse of indoor parking in Manhattan and its first full-blown suburban shopping mall, safely tucked into the podium to protect it from the rest of town. Atop this (at an elevation of 85 feet) will be the “public” space. It would take an oxymoron to embrace this notion. I’ve no doubt that this park will (like the pathetic little upstairs amenity in the Trump Tower, supposedly public) never be anything of the kind, just an inaccessible, shadow-darkened nowhere.
At least one distinguished architect turned this commission down. And, although the man adamantly refused to go on record about any part of the circumstances, it’s reported that he was loath to undertake a job so predicated on haste. As far as great cities are concerned, haste makes wasteland. Whatever your specific stylistic predilections, it’s clear that cities thrive on a certain density of elaboration. The Trump scheme may have fewer architectural ideas per unit volume than any project since Robert Moses’s most malnourished housing schemes. It’s the kind of work that would get a D- at a second-rate school of architecture. The only reason for the passing grade would be that the student had at least finished the presentation.
I can imagine the final review. Somebody would ask what the idea behind the scheme was. Since making a fortune is an answer that is disallowed before graduation, the kid would be forced to come up with an explanation of a more architectural or social character. The first effort would be to pin up various spurious diagrams of circulation, covered with red magic marker arrows pointing to the river snd the city, phony signifiers of accessibility. “You mean that to get to the river you’d have to walk several hundred feet down that ridiculous spiral ramp?” someone would ask. “I put it all on a podium so you could look out over the highway,” might be the next gambit. The ass-backwardness of this approach could be entertained. The kid would then revert to some stock palaver about composition. “I put the big building in the middle and balanced it by putting three 76-story buildings at either end of the site.” The klaxon of asininity would sound and our student would scramble once again. “It’s got the tallest building in the world!” he’d finally blurt out. And then the jury would go on to the next project.
Unfortunately, we cannot go on to the next project.
Man of the Century
“I wanted to be an architect. I was an architect. I consider myself as a sort of witness.” So aphorized Oscar Nitzchke during an interview a few years ago. Born in 1900, Nitzchk — recently the subject of a lovingly organized show at Cooper Union — was certainly present at the scenes of many of mod arch’s most memorable creations. He’s a man who clearly loved — and still loves — being there: helping Van Doesberg and Arp on the Cafe L’Aubette; at the Salle Pleyel for Duke Ellington’s Paris debut; sitting with Picasso and Joyce during their first meeting at the Cafe de Flore; hanging out at the Cedar Thvern with Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, and Gorky; schmoozing at Black Mountain with Cage, Cunningham, and Bucky Fuller; holidays with the Braques; a stint in Le Corbusier’s office; work on the U.N. project; student in Auguste Ferret’s Atelier du Palais de Bois along with Nelson, Goldfinger, Lubetkin. How could 85 years of such ubiquitousness have left Nitzchke so little known today?
Certainly, as teacher, collaborator, and colleague Nitzchke has many friends and admirers. The depth of this respect is corroborated by the fact that Nitzchke’s small renown is the result of efforts by the sons of two of his associates. The Cooper show, for instance, was the work of Gus Dudley, whose father, George, was Nitzchke’s student at Yale. But the influence of personality and comradeship is an anxious and ephemeral one, always begging the question of works. And for Nitzchke, there’s a complication. The project that is the prime guarantor of his architectural reputation — the 1934 Maison de la Publicité — is unbuilt, commissioned by a man whose enthusiasm for Nitzchke’s preliminary designs was soon mitigated by his taking a mysterious powder. Bad history’s intervention also aborted the 1937 Palais de la Decouverte, a vast and forward-looking science museum, victim of the war. Nitzchke’s corpus, while exquisite, is more drawn than built.
Placing Nitzchke demands some sort of attention to categories. He doesn’t slot into the visionary niche with those delineators of the not-quite-possible-Sant’ Elia or Chernikov, say. Nor is he one of those great solidifiers of paradigm, source of coherence for some currency of fragments: there’s no Maison de Verre here. Nitzchke’s an exemplar rather than an avatar, a man with modernism in his veins, in love with a vision of the life of his times. And becauae his cognizance was sharp, his work has always been to the point, not derivative but original, continuous with a founding generation.
Nitzchke’s gifts as a a draftsperson were considerable. The Cooper Union show held many fine drawings, appealing for their combination of discipline and informality, for a relaxed technique that never confuaes itself with primary architectural ideas. Their pleasures, though, are tinged with the retrospective sadness of latency, the work filled with the possibility of construction. It’s a testament to Nitzchke that the enthusiasm that suffuses these drawings never dissipates into irony, empty technique, or the easily current. The summary artifact is the Maison de la Publicite, a paper masterpiece that might have become one of modern architecture’s monuments. The building was designed for a site on the Champs Elysee and meant to house both offices for an array of ad persons and a variety of spaces addressed to the public. In its programmatic complexity, the Maison was an ideologically deformed version of a “social condenser,” the modernist beau ideal of an architectural pressure cooker meant to form the new socialist citizen. While the truth the Maison was meant to propagate wasn’t exactly Pravda’s, its mecans were familiar, sibling in spirit with the Vesnins’ 1923 tower for the abovementioned daily. Both were transparently graphic, literally communicative, kinetic and mutable as the “news.”
The Maison fronts the Champs with an ever-changing facade of “information,” projected in luminous electric signage. Nitzchke’s vision concentrates a phenomenon that was transforming European cities: the enlightenment of neon times. This was the heyday of the movie palace which, with an array of vast illuminated facades, helped re-form urban nightlife. But Nitzcbke’s signage is not simply veneered, it’s consistent and continuous with a fully configured overall vision. At street level, the building presents an exhibition area meant for a changing show of products, a space anchored by four squarely composed cylindrical columns that broaden to dramatic mushroom capitals. Up a level is a cafe, overlooking. Down a level, an egg-shaped newsreel theater, cranked winningly into a corner of the volume. The upper-story offices are organized into two buildings, flanking a central cafe court and linked along one side of it by an undulating circulation spine of glass block. It’s beautifully done and beautifully drawn, so strong and so assured as to, at least partially, dissipate the sad question of “what if.”
Oscar Nitzchke’s triumph is not merely one of talent but one of keeping the faith. In project after project be sustains modernism’s enthusiasm for its version of the new. In 1929, Nitzchke and two collaborators won a competition for the design of a “Maison Metallique.” It’s a swell solution to the confrontation of architecture with new, industrially produced materials, one of modernism’s favorite intersections. The project is thoroughly realized and unsentimental, a machine for living. Reconfronting the question of the metal building in the late 1940s, while working on the design of the Alcoa Tower in Pittsburgh for the office of Wally Harrison (bis long-time employer), Nitchke’s enthusiasm for the problem is undiminished. While my feelings about the final project are mixed (intervention of committee design?), there’s no mistaking the vigor of Nitzchke’s investigation. Later projects reveal the same drive: a church in Tunganyika echoing Ronchamp, a cathedral in San Salvador under the Perret sway, neither built, yet still tributes to modern architecture’s possibility. And this does seem like Nitzchke’s legacy, this enthusiasm for prospect, this optimism for architecture.
One Show, Too Quickly
The current show at Rick Kaufman’s Art et Industrie is very good. The best piece is a table by Richard Snyder called Moto. Sitting atop four cylindrical black steel legs is a hollow truncated cone of colored spun aluminum which widens to support a square glass top. Moto is primarily engaged with issues of support, both its own and that of the objects it’s ultimately meant to bear. The location of the point of instability is always central to the art of furniture: each work describes an equilibrium.
The theme of statics runs through the show. Forrest Myers’s Manifold armchair of patinated half-inch steel plate is a complete solution to the hoary origami issue of the jointless chair, an ideal problem delimited by self-imposed technical constraints: take this plate, cut and bend, make … a chair. James Hong also contributes a structural tour de force with his coffee table Iggy. A circular glass plate is supported by a series of accordion-folded pieces of parachute fabric, stiffened with clear resin, tenuous and improbable. Howard Meister’s suite of spindly hand-wrought black-painted steel pieces are like frail sketches come to life. They’re minimalist in means but liberated from mainstream Minimalism’s ponderous addiction to geometry.
As you may know, I haven’t euctly been reticent in concealing my hostility toward the proposed expansion of the Whitney Museum. Now there’s a good opportunity for you to judge for yourself. At the Max Protetch Gallery a group of Michael Graves’s recent projects are on display, the Whitney scheme among them. Graves always makes a compelling graphic case for his work, and the projects in this show are no exception. Whatever one thinks of the work itself, the volume, consistency, and conviction are striking.
A Piece of Good News
It’s always nice to have the winds taken out of your journalistic sails by the arrival of an event you were just preparing to argue for. On November 19, the City Council passed an extremely important piece of environmental legislation, requiring strict regulation of the way in which buildings are demolished in order to prevent the poisoning of both workers and the public by asbestos. It should be an object of great pride that New York has become a national leader in this crucial issue. Although uae of asbestos by the construction industry bas been widely curbed, vast quantities of the stuff remain in many buildings, ready for release into the air during fires, demolitions, and other decompositions. If well-enforced, the new legislation will offer crucial protection to many of those moet directly at risk from this terrible pathogen. ■
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 12, 2020