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.


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


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.

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