Friday, September 12, 2008

NYC's Philosophy of Creative Destruction

Justin Davidson, architecture writer for New York magazine, has an interesting article this week called "The Glass Stampede," although admittedly it's the before & after shots of 54 buildings that really makes this article worth perusing. Davidson writes about the incredible rate of new construction and renovation work that has taken place in the City for the past 15 years. Over 76,000 new buildings have risen into the sky over that time. The sad part of it, of course, is that 44,000 other buildings were razed, and some were gems from a bygone era of New York's history. The picture here is of Avalon Bowery Place (11 and 22 E. 1st St.), where the building on the left was razed for the one on the right, which he describes as "pretty blah, but not without traces of urbanistic merit." Davidson is on the mark when he writes that "New York lives by a philosophy of creative destruction. The only thing permanent about real estate is a measured patch of earth and the column of air above it. The rest is disposable."

My tastes do not run toward the modern in architecture. While I can appreciate the minimalism of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, especially for its time, I really don't like it. Give me the Gothic traceries of Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building any day. And like many New Yorkers I lament the 1960s destruction of the old McKim, Mead and White Pennsylvania Station. But as I've learned from a class I've taken on Gilded Age New York, and from watching episodes of the fantastic PBS documentary by Ric Burns on New York, this "philosophy of creative destruction" is innate to New York's history. Ever since the island of Manhattan was bought in 1626 by the Dutch for $24 from the local Natives Americans (a legend since corrected, but still worth citing), New York has had an ongoing history of tearing down and rebuilding, spreading throughout the island and into the boroughs, and moving upward into the skies to create some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Even Gilded Age families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts thought nothing of spending millions of dollars on chateau-like mansions, and then twenty years later tearing them down and rebuilding new homes twenty blocks further north (of course, they could afford to do that). Two branches of the Astors lived in brownstones on Fifth Avenue on the corners of 33rd and 34th Sts. Despite their rivalry, both branches had their houses torn down and built the monumental Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1890s. By 1929, that hotel was long-gone (rebuilt further uptown) and construction had begun on the Empire State Building. This ongoing razing and rebuilding is all about progress and improvement, and no other city in the world does it better than New York.

So despite what it may seem regarding my personal architectural tastes, I will say that some of the newer construction in the City does impress me (even if I may not necessarily like it). I find the American Folk Art Museum an amazing, brutalist-like space. The Time-Warner Center at Columbus Circle is dazzling inside. And though Davidson critiques the Westin Hotel at 270 W. 43rd St., calling it an example of "jolie-laide, an ugly beauty," I think its bizarre colorful nature and warped visual towers work perfectly in the new Broadway/Times Square family-oriented environment dominated by oversized basketballs and M&M's, and a Madame Tussauds. That said, did I mention I absolutely hate going to Times Square?

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