History : May-Jun 2018
martinis Mies van der Rohe drank at lunchtime. Standing in its own custom-designed plaza, the Seagram Building became a model for countless, lesser, straight-up-and-down office towers built around the world from the 1960s onward. Sky- scraper architecture in New York became rather uniform as stepped towers, spires, and spirited decorative details all fell out of fashion. Le Corbusier is often cited as the villain be- hind this move away from more intricate archi- tecture, yet when he visited New York in 1935 and witnessed the physical impact of skyscrap- ers for the first time, he said: “The skyscrapers of New York are romantic, a gesture of pride, and that has an importance of course. But the street has been killed and the city made into a madhouse.” Today his observation hardly seems true: Manhattan’s skyscrapers failed to kill the street—for the most part, New York City re- mains one of the world’s great walking cities. Manhattan’s avenues and streets are lined by towering giants born of a golden age of unbound- ed opportunity and ambition reflected in the gleaming architecture of the era. A Modern Age In the years following World War II architec- ture in New York transformed again. The new- est buildings did not aim to be the tallest and favored a new sleek, modern look. Clean lines and gleaming surfaces would be the look of the new skyscraper. Completed in 1952, the United Nations Secretariat Building was constructed in this streamlined style on the site of a former slaughterhouse facing the East River. Designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and the Bra- zilian architect Oscar Niemeyer under the direc- tion of Wallace Harrison—who had played a key design role in the development throughout the 1930s of the charismatic Rockefeller Center— this was Manhattan’s first curtain-walled sky- scraper. The slim, relentlessly geometric tower was like nothing the city had seen before. The trend toward modern lines continued into the 1950s. With the completion in 1958 of the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, rectilinear of- fice buildings were to become the norm. The bronze-clad and meticulously crafted structure was neither the tallest nor the biggest building in the city. It was, though, the apotheosis of mid- century Park Avenue cool, as elegantly dry as the A DARK DAY In the 1945 accident one of the plane’s engines was sent flying through the air, landing on the roof of a nearby building, starting the fire shown in the photograph. SKYSCRAPER SURVIVES FIERY CRASH ON JULY 28, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell bomb- er was flying from Boston to Newark. Flying was hazardous that day, with low cloud cover and fog. The pilot ignored the control tower’s warnings to change course and flew through New York City. He lost his bearings and crashed into the north side of the Empire State Build- ing. The impact opened up a gaping hole around 900 feet up, between floors 78 and 80. The three crew members and 11 people inside the building died. The entire building shook, but matters could have been a great deal worse: In their book Why Buildings Fall Down, engineers Mat- thys Levy and Mario Salvadori suggest that if the plane had directly hit one of the skyscraper’s pillars, the whole tower could have collapsed. BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES 86 MAY/JUNE 2018 JONATHAN GLANCEY WAS ARCHITECTURE EDITOR FOR THE GUARDIAN UNTIL 2012; NOW HE REPORTS ON ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN FOR THE BBC.