Notes on Progress: An Englishman in New York
Reflections on the revolution in Manhattan
In this issue of Notes on Progress, Samuel Hughes writes about the urbanism and architecture of Manhattan. If you like it, please share it!
My late grandfather, himself an expatriate American, used to claim that every country is more similar to every other country than it is to the United States, so absolute is America’s distinctiveness. This claim is certainly false, but visiting the US for the first time since my childhood, I was occasionally reminded of it. A film playing at passport control in JFK Airport shows large, varied groups of people, smiling joyfully at the camera and waving American flags. The caption fades in: ‘EMBRACE OPPORTUNITY: BECOME AN AMERICAN CITIZEN’. Is there any other country that greets incoming travellers in this way?
I have often wondered what the maximum number of storeys for a good street is. No doubt an individual building can be indefinitely high, in the right setting. But this surely cannot be true of streets: a street with a thousand storeys would either be terrifyingly dark and claustrophobic, if the street were of normal width, or vast and bleak, if its width were scaled up to correspond with its height. So there must be some maximum beyond which pleasing street-based urbanism becomes impossible.
Some people think that the maximum is two or three. These people often believe that one is moving into inhumane scales when one goes above this point. Growing up in London, I knew the maximum must be at least four or five, since that is the norm for the Georgian terraces. I have a distinct memory of visiting Paris and realising it could not be less than eight, since that is the norm for the Belle Epoque.
Visiting Manhattan for the first time, I find it must be more still. The streets of Midtown Manhattan, each 60 feet wide, are often built up to ten or twelve storeys, with four or six more slightly set back above. The avenues, 100 feet wide, are often built up to fifteen or twenty storeys, with another five or ten set back. And to be clear: I refer to the height at which they are continuously built up, excluding the towers that rise above. The avenues of New York are perhaps not paradigmatic great streets, notably because they are almost invariably packed with four lanes of traffic. But their underlying form is good, as is borne out in the handful of cases in which they have been partly pedestrianised.
These streets evolved under New York’s famous 1916 building regulations. Before 1916, New York landowners could essentially build as high as they liked, and this did indeed generate streets that were sometimes rather menacing (pictured left). The 1916 system was designed to allow as much height as possible while preserving the amenity of the street, indexing the height of the buildings to the width of the street and setting back the upper storeys in the time-honoured European fashion (pictured right). This system lasted until 1961, when it was replaced with modernist regulations designed to generate slab blocks standing on open plazas; the results of this were so obviously inferior that the older system has been partly reinstated.
My sense is that Manhattan’s tallest 1916-61 streets could not take many more storeys without losing amenity: the regulators basically succeeded in allowing as much height as possible without compromising the public spaces. In a city at a more southerly latitude, where the light is more intense, perhaps a few could be added; and perhaps the avenues could be widened further, with a corresponding growth in the buildings. It is hard to judge imaginary streets. But at any rate, New York shows we can go a lot higher than I had once supposed: there can be great streets with twenty storeys, five or ten more under a light plane, and more again in isolated towers.
One of the most striking features of American cities for Europeans is their gridiron street patterns. There have been many generations of European street designers who liked straight streets, but they were usually supposed to terminate on some worthy object, like a cathedral or an opera house or a fountain: the rigour of the American grid means that every street just goes on forever, tapering away into nothingness. These endless vistas are certainly striking when one first encounters them, but since literally every street in a gridiron looks this way, the effect wears a little thin.
One way of realising how intensely this affects our experience is to visit New York’s financial district, which stands on the first few streets laid out by European settlers on the shores of the American continent, while the old manner still prevailed. Suddenly one walks down winding alleys; the street becomes an enclosure; there are nooks and crannies; towers are framed and celebrated by their neighbours, like the cathedrals of France and Italy. It feels curiously similar to the City of London, though its architecture is a great deal better. I regret that there is not more of New York like this: with its great romantic towers, perhaps there is no city in the world whose vernacular would be visually better suited to a street network that generated terminated vistas.
Gridiron street plans have been used for planned cities in many times and places - in Harappa, in Dynastic China, in European Antiquity, even in the Middle Ages - so I assume there must be something very good about them. But I have never quite worked out what it is. One annoying thing about gridiron plans is the great frequency of road crossings. Walking the 3.2 miles from the Empire State Building to 1 Wall Street, one must wait, by my count, at 62 traffic lights. Walking the 3.3 miles from the Tower of London to Buckingham Palace, one encounters only 12, along with 8 crossings without lights that probably do not require waiting.
That is a slightly extreme example, but I think frequency of crossings is a general truth about gridirons. A gridiron distributes crossing points evenly and regularly, such that there is no way to reduce the number that one passes. If one wants to go three blocks east and twelve blocks south in Manhattan, there is no way one can avoid traversing fifteen roads. In an organic street plan with an equal overall density of roads, the crossings will be grouped in irregular ways. If one walked randomly, one would average the same number of crossings. But of course people do not walk randomly: one chooses one’s route, with a view in part to reducing the number of roads one has to cross. And so, rather picturesquely, the street plans long called ‘irrational’ are in this respect preferable precisely because they are used by rational creatures.
One of the most famous buildings of New York is the Seagram Building, the vastly influential office block designed by the pioneer modernist Mies van der Rohe. The standard view is that the Seagram Building is a masterpiece that has attracted inferior imitators. I dislike many of the buildings inspired by the Seagram Building, but on the whole I like Mies, so this view has always appealed to me. On the other hand, I am slightly suspicious of accounts like these, which I call ‘evil imitator’ narratives. They remind me of the ‘evil counsellor’ narratives common in the Middle Ages, which allowed people to criticise the authorities without committing lèse-majesté by blaming all the authorities’ mistakes on the King’s advisors, rather than the King himself. Many people dislike steel slab blocks on empty plazas with facades of a single unvaried module, but it takes a lot of nerve to condemn the genius Mies himself. So it is easy to suspect a temptation to give a special exemption to the Seagram Building that it might not altogether deserve.
I was curious, then, to see what I made of this building in person. I had only a vague grasp of Manhattan’s geography and where the Seagram Building fits in it, so for my first three days in New York I kept having false sightings of what turned out to be evil imitators. Eventually I determined the location of the genuine article and sought it out. I carefully checked off the famous features – axial symmetry, clever corners, fictively structural I-beams, vertical emphases, classicising composition, bronze, travertine. But it didn’t work: in the end, it still looked to me like a grim building on a barren plaza, at most only slightly superior to the pack of evil imitators. I still wonder if I am missing something – many people with better judgement than mine subscribe to the standard view (I am not being ironical: this is really true). But I would prefer any generic Deco block of the 1920s, turned out by some forgotten architect with no imitators at all, evil or otherwise.
From the Gothic Revival to the Modern Movement, many architectural critics believed in theories of ‘structural honesty’. This meant roughly that the underlying structure of a building ought to be expressed on its facade, such that (to use the standard example) if a building has a structural frame, it ought not to pretend it has load-bearing walls. I don’t think this is true, for reasons I have outlined elsewhere.
Like many people, however, I do think there is an important truth mixed up in this, which is that architecture should generally look structurally plausible. If architects want their buildings to look as though they are built of stones laid on top of each other, the stones have to look big and solid enough that they would not collapse under their own weight or fall over in high wind. No doubt there are exceptions – sometimes crazy gravity-denying effects are exactly what is sought – but they require special intelligence of the designer. Maybe this is analogous to how we view fictions in other contexts: we do not typically believe that characters in plays and novels are real, but usually we want them to be plausible – unless the author has some special artistic reason to do otherwise.
There is thus, I think, some truth in the Gothic/modernist idea that the modern revolution in building types and technologies has implications for architectural style. This is frequently visible in New York. It is possible to build a skyscraper that looks as though it has walls of load-bearing masonry, if they are extraordinarily thick and massively buttressed, like a scaled-up version of a cathedral tower. But it often happens that a skyscraper built with a thin decorative coating of brick or stone looks a bit flimsy - the walls look obviously too weak to stand up, as indeed they would be if they were not in fact hung on a concealed steel frame (see e.g. the example on the left here).
What New York also illustrates, though, is the enormous variety of ways in which architects responded to this problem, often with great success. The two examples on the right here are steel framed and proud of it - their facades read as a system of interlaced piers and beams, not as a wall punctured by windows. But they are still beautifully patterned and richly decorated, one in a late Gothic style, the other a novel manner that we would now bring under the obscure label ‘Art Deco’. So far from concealing it, this ornamental treatment actually highlights the underlying structure, especially in the case of the Deco building.
New York teems with architecture like this. While European theoreticians agonised over the ‘problem of a modern architecture’, American commercial builders recognised an opportunity and embraced it – and today, everyone is delighted by the result. I was reminded of my grandfather’s remark about American distinctiveness once again.
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