Do I Look Good in this Building?
Fashion is architecture. Or, wait, is architecture fashion? Good architecture shares a lot with good fashion. The classics stick around and always look good.
But if you built your wardrobe on classics alone you’d be boring. And a city of classic architecture alone would be dull—like seeing every woman on Fifth Avenue dressed in a navy blazer, a knee-length skirt, and low pumps.
It is variety, rich materials, and a touch of the unexpected that make a wardrobe work, and it is these same characteristics that make New York City’s skyline so interesting. It is filled with examples of every era—our collective past in glass, brick, terracotta, and steel.
Stand in the middle of Bryant Park and pivot around in a circle. You’ll see the angular white One Bryant Park Tower, the soft slope of the W.R. Grace Building, the reassuringly solid masonry back of the New York Public Library, the striking black and gold brick of the American Radiator Building, and the slippery green-glass 1095 Avenue of the Americas. Plenty of contrast!
Because just as fashion is reinvented from year to year, so is architecture. There are some good technical reasons for this. Right now, everyone likes a glass curtain wall. They are easy to build (well, sometimes), developers like them because of the views and the feeling of spaciousness, and they let in the daylight.
There are other reasons too though. Architects like glass. It’s icy and aloof. It plays games with opacity and clarity. It’s as sleek, slippery, and alluring as an expensive silk blouse.
Travel up the east side, however, and you’ll see evidence of a façade material that architects used to like: white glazed brick. In the 60s, this was as lovely and stylish as a full skirt and a long cigarette. If you loved NYC in the 60s, you love that speckled white brick.
Sometimes those old-style buildings are maybe too recent for comfort, or speak to us of troubled times. Those from the 80s somehow remind us of shoulder pads, big hair, and a hard-up city. Probably the most famous example is the 1984 AT&T Tower (now the SONY Building) by Phillip Johnson. I like that building, but many don’t. It is a reminder of an uncomfortable past; a pair of ruched leg warmers over shiny tights. Did we really think we looked great in those shiny tights?
What about the classics? Which buildings stand the test of time? Take a look at the façade of Renzo Piano’s Morgan Library Renovation and Expansion. It’s simple and proportioned. Next take a look at Charles T. Bunting’s Friends Meeting House and Seminary, 221 E. 15th Street. Although it was built 150 years earlier than Piano’s masterpiece, it is, again, the epitome of understated and elegant. I might argue the same for many of the buildings that make up Rockefeller Center. Solid, linear, balanced. The buildings along Wall Street: mostly classics. Battery Park City: an enclave of classics, which is why many people find that area rather dull.
Here’s a whiff of what’s to come in architectural fashion: wood. Good old-fashioned wood. It’s being used instead of steel for structural purposes and it’s showing up on cladding. Other predictions? Let me know.