Daily Archives: October 21, 2015

The Empire State Plaza Strikes Back

I’m a firm believer that you can’t really understand a work of architecture until you’ve seen it in person.  The Empire State Plaza in Albany bears this out. – photos can’t do it justice .  Going to Albany to see it is well worth the trip.

I had been there a few times in the past, most memorably at night in deep snow back in the 70s.  I had a few pictures of it which I used in my class, but I needed better ones.  More importantly, I had to see if my memories of it could possibly be real, or whether I had built it up out of proportion over the years.  I hadn’t – it exceeded my memories in many ways.

I think that the Empire State Plaza is the worst urban redevelopment project to ever be built in this country.  It is not nearly as well known as it should be – being in Albany, as New Yorkers famously ignores everything that happens in Albany.  If this project were in New York, it would be known world-wide.

It is terrible in at least three ways:  as a whole, as individual pieces, and for what it did to the city of Albany.

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The scale of it is enormous – 4/10 of a mile (12 blocks) long, 1/4 of a mile wide.  It is a vast, empty plaza, devoid of all but smokers even on a warm day.  In the winter, I’m sure no one ever goes onto it, as there is a whole subterranean concourse level beneath, which connects all the buildings.  DSCF2254

To walk into the plaza is to be humbled, to feel the power of the state poised to crush you.  Greta hummed the imperial march from Star Wars the whole time we were there. The newer buildings dwarf the Capitol, and their massive solidity seems about to crush the dainty Capitol between them.cropped-dscf2262.jpg

The State Capitol sits on the top of a hill, and the plaza has been built up to a slightly higher level – perhaps symbolizing that the power of the state lies not in the feckless legislature, but in the inertia of the bureaucracy?  DSCF2268

The buildings range from the banal to the truly awful.  Wallace K. Harrison was Nelson Rockefeller’s favorite architect, their association going back at least to the design of the UN (where Harrison first began copying Corbu).  He was of the grandiose modernist school (which is often detectable through the excessive use of marble), and in New York he was partially responsible for Lincoln Center.  The buildings fit into the simple parti of the plaza design – a museum facing the Capitol at the end of the axis, four smallish towers on one side facing a large tower and the “Egg” on theater, with a couple of bookends near the Capitol.

The towers are not so bad as objects.  Elegant and slim, there are two nested masses, expressing core and office floor area.  The idea of a series of identical towers works, and their footprints are actually quite small, with the potential for good daylighting.  The problem is all that empty space in between them.  The large tower refers to classic slabs such as the RCA Building, but in the extreme tower-in-the-park vein.DSCF2271DSCF2352

The Egg is rather funny.  Sometimes it looks like a boat, sometimes a duck, sometimes an egg. This is another element in the channeling-Corbu vocabulary – the expressive, playful highlight which contrast with the preponderant rationality (think of the stuff on the roof of the Unite).   I can’t imagine they named it the Egg to start with; I like it when a nickname is so perfect it has to be acknowledged.DSCF2255

The museum is ponderous and looming, at the top of a huge staircase that spans a street.  Most schoolchildren enter from the streets way below, so they don’t experience the whole effect.DSCF2241

The two building flanking the Capitol are the worst.  Massive, clunky, ill-proportioned.  (They are so ugly that I suspect Harrison’s even-less-talented partner, Max Abramowitz, must have had a hand in them.)  They try to articulate some aspects of their systems – such as the beams which support the overhanging upper stories – but the differentiation of parts doesn’t work if you just cover everything with marble.  Greta and I have been defining a few building types on this trip, related to popular culture, with the Barad-Dur type showing up pretty often.  Greta immediately classed this building in the Star Wars ATAT type.  DSCF2258

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But the biggest problem with this project is what it did to the city.  The Capitol sits at the top of a hill, with the commercial and residential districts on the slopes below it.  Albany1

The neighborhood seen to the left in the old postcard above was obliterated, and the podium / plaza run straight out from the Capitol.  By the time you get to the south end of the museum, the edifice looms above the city.DSCF2237

To the west, a long, lower building presents an impenetrable wall.DSCF2362

And to the east, facing the Hudson, there is a giant rampart, from whence the defenders can look down upon the populace.DSCF2246

But there are no people here (except a few lost pedestrians), as the area has been cleared for approach ramps that lead to the parking garages in the podium below the plaza, and to the streets on the west side.DSCF2356

The relationship between the plaza and the Capitol may be problematic, but that edge is by far the most successful.  The imagery and message of the other three sides is clear:  the government is secure behind its defenses, and the danger and messiness of city life has been pushed far away.  There is a megalomania of architectural vision here that is seldom seen so clearly (the only other example that comes to mind is the Renaissance Center in Detroit).  Harrison, the lesser acolyte of Corbu, has achieved the complete destruction and negation of the city that the master was never able to fully carry out.

Dave McGann

Dave McGann was a good friend way back in high school, and we haven’t seen each other in almost 30 years. Dave is a year younger than me, and was the assistant editor / editor in training on the high school newspaper when I was editor.  What stands out in my memory of those days was how much effort we spent trying to sneak double entendres past the faculty advisor. Dave was smart and serious even back then, and as always, it’s been fun to see how your friends have gotten older but haven’t changed that much.

Dave attended SUNY Albany, and then stuck around the area, working at what seems to be the intersection of policy, research and media.  At his current position, he runs a group that deals with trainings, both live and online.  Dave says that if you’ve ever done an online training on harassment or something like that, there’s a good chance that they made it.  (I’ll be posting his email so you can send him comments.)

Greta and I spent a fun evening with Dave, his wife Louise, and their son Chris, who is about to head  off on a post-doc appointment near DC.  What really pre-occupied us was a discussion of beer.  I had been aware of Dave’s proclivities in this area from his Facebook postings;  actually, I’ve been aware of his proclivities since high school, so maybe now it’s more his accomplishments that are in the foreground.  Besides having rare microbrews that you have to drive to secret locations in Vermont to procure (and which can be sold at enormous markups in Brooklyn), Dave and his son have been brewing for ten years (it helps to have a PhD scientist in the family), and their beers were superb.  We drank great beer, ate fabulous Italian food (finally back in the part of the country which does real Italian), and talked about the vicissitudes of late middle age.

Dave and I had many of those heartfelt, serious conversations about the meaning of life in high school, and it’s wonderful to see how he has lived since then.  Like most of us, the facts of his life are pretty normal – career, marriage and two kids, suburban house – but it struck me that Dave has a keen appreciation of how good that has really been. Perhaps it’s partly due to Louise’s work as a social worker, where she deals with people much less fortunate every day.  But for whatever reason, Dave seemed really content, knowing that he’d made some good choices in his life, and that things had turned out better than we ever expected back in the day.

HH Richardson

Having left the midwest and arrived last night in the Boston area, the Architecture Greatest Hits tour moves along from FLW to Richardson.  Before I dive into the Richardson trove that is Boston, I think I’d better get the Richardson outliers to the west out of the way.

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh is one of his most complete, extended and perfect buildings.  In previous visits, I’d focused most on the courthouse itself, with its solid mass, beautiful tower, commodious entry and stair, etc. DSCF1221

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This trip we spent more time looking at the jail.  We often speak about Richardson as a proto-modernist, looking at the rationality of his planning, structural bays, how he led directly to Sullivan, etc.  But in the jail there are other elements at play that we would now regard as quite current – the play between order and disorder, symmetry vs. asymmetry, colliding grids and organizational systems.

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The site is irregular, but Richardson drops some axial, rectilinear volumes onto it, as if the site weren’t an issue.  Then he wraps all of this in a wall that addresses the streets.  Sometimes this is just a wall, and there are courtyards behind it,

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and sometimes the wall becomes a building, with a whole different geometry.

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For formal entries and foci, symmetry is used to emphasize the centerDSCF1252

but in other areas, an asymmetrical  composition is made of the facade, tying into the field of the wall, but existing on its own terms.  DSCF1227

A building you can study for a long time, or as I pointed out in Minneapolis, you can just copy it.

The psychiatric hospital complex in Buffalo is more conventional than this, and at first glance, it is one in a long line of buildings that might not be the most comforting for people having mental problems.   DSCF1897

It is a really large complex, with multiple pavilions and wings.  The central piece is very formal, establishing a clear hierarchy for a large building which rambles around.DSCF1877

but Richardson breaks down the scale nicely in the repetitive wings, each of which reads as a building (again, symmetry and asymmetry):DSCF1887

which are then linked by little connector pieces, and step back to form a series of open spaces.DSCF1886

In Albany we saw the city hall, a well-balanced exterior massing, with a simple, straightforward interior.DSCF2288

and the State capitol.  It’s hard to understand exactly what Richardson is responsible for here, as quite a few architects worked on it throughout a few decades.  However, he is generally given credit for the overall design of the elevations.DSCF2277

It seems that this massive exterior stair exists primarily to buttress the east facade, which started subsiding down the hill:

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He also completed much of the interior planning, and the basic design for the over-the-top western stair.DSCF2312

This is truly the most extraordinary stair I’ve ever seen.   The space and procession are incredible, DSCF2302

The detailing is insane, but apparently much of that was added by a later architect.DSCF2324

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Albany is a place that is disdained (or more usually ignored) by downstaters, but this stair alone is worth the trip.  Beaux Arts planning meets Piranesi.

We now head into Boston, and more Richardson will follow, next week.