Monday, January 7, 2008

The past and future in New York …

Condenastbldg     Before I get to a more serious land use comment, please indulge a little architectural criticism from a complete amateur, just back from New York. 
    As styles of commercial buildings continue to change radically from one generation to the next, we can assess whether certain "in" styles survive the test of time.  In my opinion, two landmarks of '50s and '60s -- generally considered banal times for commercial architecture -- have held up superbly.  The Lever House (1952) on Park Avenue, which was the first great glass box, still looks elegant, in large part because of its humane size and detail.  Meanwhile, the dramatic atrium garden of the Ford Foundation (1967) still plays off well against the rugged rusted metal of the interior (and helped by the fact that building sparkles like new).      
   By contrast, two east midtown skyscrapers of the 1980s that were acclaimed for breaking the model of the "box" -- the Sony (nee AT&T) and Altria (once Philip Morris) Buildings -- now seem uninspired.  The Chippendale top of the former seems silly, and the appliqué stone panels on both facades have become streaked and downright ugly. (Can a 25-year-old building be cleaned?) Without a sense of detail, the faux "historicism" of the 1980s now looks tacky. 
    Today's trend is a return to glass, but in odd shapes that today look intriguing.  But will the whimsical twists and turns of the Conde Nast (see photo) and Bank of America Buildings (plus Ernst & Young and Reuters) around Times Square still look as exciting a generation from now?

    Now back to something more within my bailiwick.  New York is often admired for retaining its own distinctive culture, resistant to the homogenization of America -- a homogenization against which land use law sometimes tries to act.  But generic America continues to make inroads, even in New York.  I had to stop by quite a few promising looking "delis" in midtown Manhattan before finding one that could make me an "egg cream" (seltzer, chocolate syrup, and milk) instead of a generic hot chocolate.  And the free-standing pretzel stand in claustrophobic Penn Station is … an "Auntie Annie's"!  If New York can't nurture distinct local businesses (and yes, I concede that the situation is probably less generic in the outer boroughs), how can it elsewhere in America?

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