Has New York architecture missed its moment?

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But will it happen like this? ()
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The Center for Architecture currently has, on exhibition, a piece called the “liquid wall,” the winner of a competition for “innovative” material for building exteriors, as part of a show called Innovate/Integrate, which will be on display until Jan. 15.

Displayed in the back of the soaring concrete-floored gallery two floors below street level, the liquid wall has the clean, white, sculptural appeal of something from a movie that takes place in the future; it’s made of an elegant poured-concrete grid and glass panels, each of which frames what looks like a semi-transparent garden hose that snakes up and down several times as you watch the display. This cladding has never actually been used on a building, but according to the curator, everything chosen for the contest could feasibly be used as one.

The liquid wall is made possible by Ductal, a fortified concrete strong enough to bear weight in thin, sculptural forms.

In the prototype, water runs through the hoses, making a passive solar collector that can heat the building. The winning design is the central attraction of the "innovate" part of the exhibit. The "integrate" part of the show is meant, according to A.I.A. New York’s president, Anthony P. Schirripa, to teach the public about modern construction, which requires much more collaboration between architects, engineers and builders, and more technologically advanced modeling than it once did.

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A few New York City projects qualified: Yankee Stadium for its Building Information Modeling, the Barclay Center for using 4-D Visualization, Beekman Tower for its B.I.M. Consulting, HOK's New York office for Integrated Project Delivery, the World Trade Center for 4-D Scheduling. (The fourth "D” being time.) All were honored for one of three things: construction management, construction logistics, or construction technology.

In other words, not the actual building, so much as the way of visualizing it, and not the architecture, so much as the construction method.

“There are a lot of projects in here that are New York-based,” said Sara Hart, the curator of Innovate/Integrate. “But that—the liquid wall—is a use of Ductal that you see almost exclusively in Europe; same thing with the Corian-clad building upstairs.” (Corian is a non-porous surface material that can be heated and molded; it's popular for kitchen and bathroom countertops.)

“Corian’s been trying to get people to use it as an exterior,” Hart said. “It’s a beautiful material and I think eventually ... but you need a client.” She paused. “I think it will happen. I don’t know if it will happen in New York first.”

THIS KIND OF DOUBT ABOUT NEW YORK'S willingness to create space for really new ideas in architecture and building design and construction is not a new thing. Among architects it's axiomatic. Despite a long history of innovative building, New York, for a number of reasons, hasn’t produced much in the way of interesting architecture in the last 50 years. And in the course of a conversation, Hart became more explicit.

“We just don’t like to try new things,” Hart said. “And so the construction industry is very conservative, and so are clients.”

She blames the city's “opposition to everything” for some of this, but especially that of unions operating in the engineering and construction sectors. If a project demands a complex facade, it will likely be built overseas, as it was the case of the 2002 facade of the Burberry building. The components were completed in Germany, by Germans, shipped here, and assembled on-site.

And when the company tried to bring German craftsmen to do the installation, the unions wouldn’t allow it. “So to get the quality they wanted, they had to handpick some New York construction people and train them, the German way,” Hart said. “There are some non-union jobs that happen in New York, but it’s—clients don’t want the hassle; they don’t want the bad publicity. In other states it’s different. New York is different than the rest of the country.”

New York’s last great period of architectural achievement, during the 1950s and '60s, was bolstered by a massive postwar public works and jobs drive fueled with money from the federal government, which made possible public-facing projects like the United Nations complex and Lincoln Center. It was also a period in which architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius were designing buildings with distinct and memorable profiles, like the Guggenheim Museum, the Seagrams Building, and the Pan Am Building for corporate clients, in those days when expressions of corporate power on such a scale were applauded by the public with an almost jingoistic fervor.

It didn't last. Possibly the last and greatest moment in this period was the construction of the World Trade Center, the world's tallest buildings, and in many ways as the culmination of that postwar corporate aesthetic.

To say that architecture gave up on New York would gloss over several projects that garnered significant attention. Philip Johnson did the AT&T Building (now Sony) in 1984 and the Lipstick Building in 1986, and Trump Tower went up in 1983—but when these buildings were not hated by the public and derided by critics as kitsch, they also didn't add up to anything in the development of a new idea of a New York style; they were more like hodgepodge of eccentricities.

"We went into the, sort of, post-modernist phase," said Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the Department of Real Estate Development at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, "but in some ways it was the same building, just dressed up differently."

BEGINNING IN THE 19TH CENTURY, FEATS OF ARCHITECTURE and engineering were possibly the central element in the identity of New York City around the world. The Brooklyn Bridge, of course, is not strictly architecture but once it was built, in “a literal and genuinely religious leap of faith in 19th-century American engineering,” as John Perry Barlow wrote, it helped to establish the city as a center for what Edwin Burroughs and Mike Wallace defined in Gotham as “skilled intellectual labor.”

The Beaux-Arts style in architecture was not originally New York's, but students who went to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris around the turn of the century brought back ideas of the kind of architecture they believed was needed, not to establish New York as an innovator, but to make a statement about the kind of city New York intended to be.

“In the establishment of the modern state during the nineteenth century the role of the Beaux-Arts must be viewed not so much as a cultural phenomenon but as a political operation,” wrote Leon Kirier in Architectural Design, responding to a 1975-76 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called “The Architecture of the Ecole of Beaux-Arts.” The New York Public Library (1911), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1902), the original Penn Station (1912), Grand Central Station (1913), and other buildings in the style were a “an instrument of domination in the hands of the bourgeoisie.” The elaborate monumental, white neo-classical buildings were the sort of landmarks that defined the city as an international intellectual capital, and not just a commercial backwater of Western Europe. It's what made us not Australia or Canada, and made New York a city that could compete on its own terms with London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Berlin.

New York was the center of international fascination, if not approval, once its skyscrapers started going up, and the collection of early tall buildings began to form the dizzying skyline that became the signature of the city. The most famous buildings—the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building—were for the most part not received as art, but as a bold statement, “a celebration of self-advancement within the American economic system,” writes William Curtis in Modern Architecture Since 1900. “Here was a ‘Cathedral of Capitalism.’” According to Curtis, Le Corbusier was repelled by the buildings, but drawn to the romantic skyline, and either way impressed feat of finance, technology and management; he described Manhattan as “the workhorse of the new era.”

The reaction of European architects to the developing idiom of New York continued along those same lines in the following decades: they saw a certain artistic emptiness, but found in the audacity of what the city could accomplish something quite amazing, and in the use of technology, awesome.

In a 1946 essay, "Returning from America," Marcel Lods wrote, “Encounters are violent, rapid, sometimes brutal...but what power, what plenitude!”

"The French now feel themselves a little 'flat,'" Lods went on, in an eerie echo of what is often heard, in certain circles, in New York these days. "They now feel exhausted by eternal negotiations, perpetual saying of 'it’s impossible,' or 'that’s not done,' finishing with the inevitable 'that’s not done in France.'"

“It is necessary to conduct the evolutions, not submit to them,” Lods wrote, “Whereopon we can draw a solid lesson from our American friends."

"They have pushed mechanization and the equipment of the building site as far as possible."

Similarly, in a 1957 issue of Architectural Review dubbed "Machine Made America," the editors called America “a success story—the story of how America is adding sheer quantity to the preexisting qualities of modern architecture. In terms of quantity, the U.S. is now the homeland of the modern movement, and quantity, backed by wealth, industry and technical skill, is the prerequisite of architectural quality today.”

Anthony Vidler, writing about the same 1975 Beaux-Arts exhibit, wrote, “In Europe modern architecture forged itself not only as an aesthetic but a social movement; it was the expression (however misplaced in retrospect) of social democracy, sometimes even socialism in action—it was avant-garde, and progressive, when the idea of progression was not a cheap dream of cars and suburbs."

“But in America, this was never the case," he wrote. "When finally the Modern Movement was imported to the U.S. (by the mechanism, it is interesting to note, of an exhibition [in 1932] at the museum of modern art [sic]), it was as International Style, not movement....Americans, always uncomfortable with the brief, and temporary, identification of modern style with the social premises of the new deal [sic], were now relieved to see the divorce between art and society ratified by the art exhibition.”

THE DIVORCE DID NOT ENDURE. The postwar "urban renewal" money dried up, and sites once lauded as expressions of the city's postwar ambition decayed, like much of the city, strapped with debt. Great architecture is the expression of a city's self-assurance, and by the late 1960's that self-assurance was in short supply. There were economic factors: by the 1970's New York was widely regarded as a sort of hellhole by the rest of America. And of course, everything about the commercial ambition and values of the generation that returned from World War II was under interrogation.

"By the 1960s, we knew that urban renewal was a failure, we knew it had taken the heart and the gut out of cities," Ada Louise Huxtable said in an undated interview with WNET.

What could seem more demonic to the mind of the mid-to-late 1960's than these giant, disruptive and sometimes rather brutal buildings? The cold International Style, and the top-down planning that had defined development in the city for decades, had been by that time, to put it mildly, rejected.

Jane Jacobs published her magnum opus, The Death and Life of American Cities, in 1961 and subsequently formed a coalition that before long had some influence over what was built in New York.

“I would say that people my age, and perhaps, I think, everybody here who was born after the Second World War, has grown up and come of age in the intellectual shadow of Jane Jacobs,” architectural historian Jennifer Hock said at a recent forum at CUNY's Graduate Center. “I think that when we think about the city we are almost instinctively wary of the excesses of the post-war redevelopment program.”

Where the city's architectural elite had not taken this point of view it became even more defensive, its processes even more secretive, conducted with the minimum of press. Buildings were designed in boardrooms and made possible in backroom political deals. The buildings that resulted looked like what they were: a rebuke to the counterculture, to the street level, and to the public sphere.

“With the decline of the city in the '70s you saw a decline in architecture,” said Chakrabarti. “If you look at the great buildings from the '50s and '60s in New York—you look at the Seagram’s building or Lever House,” he said. “They were buildings that were opening up out to the city in a certain way. There was a big plaza; there was a sense that the city flowed into the building.”

“New York in the '70s then—because of crime and physical decline and all that—went into a defensive crouch,” he said. "If you look at the Ford Foundation or—Skidmore did the Bank of New York building downtown—[there’s] an inward defensive focus."

The post-'60s buildings displayed a “fairly repellent facade on the street,” Chakrabarti said. “And so I think—then Modernism started really getting questioned, as a consequence.”

Meanwhile, architects looking to build something bold, or experimental, or sweeping, learned to look elsewhere for locations. Reflecting, in 2009, on the death of Charles Gwathmey, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote of the 1970s, "The country’s creative energy shifted westward, to Los Angeles, whose vibrant mix of urban grit and nature, abundance of relatively cheap land and lack of confining historical traditions allowed architects to experiment with a freedom that had become virtually impossible in New York."

For a number of years, no one in New York seemed particularly concerned about the architectural profession. In the 1970s New York wasn't growing much of anything. The city of the 1970s and 1980s established a different kind of international position, rooted in neighborhoods like Soho and the Village. Out of Jane Jacobs' New York we had given the world Bob Dylan, and much of what continued to make New York special in the minds of its citizens and the world drew from that template. It was drawn against, and not from, the built environment of the city.

As Alex Garvin, urban planner and professor at Yale, articulated it, “The attitude that existed around the turn of the century in New York, when we were building skyscrapers and everybody was trying to go higher and higher; that world—'we can do everything in New York’—has evaporated."

In the popular imagination, the removal of power to the private sphere, to a sort of secret society that ran the town, was reflected in the popular culture in the seriously conflicting points of view of the power elite in movies like Wall Street and Working Girl, one a parable of outrageous and self-destructive greed, the other an epic journey, undertaken on the Staten Island Ferry with the World Trade Center looming in the foreground. What's secret becomes an object of fascination. The New York Observer began publishing in 1987 as a rather earnest community newspaper, distributed in the lobbies of doorman buildings on the corridors of Fifth and Park Avenues and Central Park West, and quickly became the newspaper of record for a certain set, fascinating because it told the stories that weren't supposed to be told about ambition and power in New York.