On a mild October day in 1929, the architect William Van Alen stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, shaking with fear as he stared at a spot a few blocks east and very high up. Nearly eighty stories in the air, from out of a dense web of steel, the tip of a needle gleamed and began to climb; Van Alen later wrote that the spire of the Chrysler Building had emerged that day "like a butterfly from its cocoon." But the butterfly stood a hundred and eighty five feet tall and weighed twenty-seven tons, and nothing like the operation of securing such an object at such an altitude had ever been attempted before. Van Alen reported that he went on shaking whenever he thought about the possible danger to people on the street, who had received no warning of the architectural coup taking place above their heads. The previous week, the Times had announced that the Chrysler Building's framework was complete, after less than a year of construction, and that the building had reached its full height of eight hundred and eight feet, or sixty-eight stories, a figure that allowed Walter Chrysler's competitors to sit back on their foundations and gloat: he had, with remarkable docility, ceded his goal to build the tallest building in the world. Although the newspapers had been following the skyward contest almost foot by foot, there were no reporters or photographers on hand to share Van Alen's anxious vigil. The spire, a triumph of nerve as much as of ingenuity and steel, was meant to take the city by surprise. The highest thing on the Manhattan skyline rose into view in ninety minutes flat.
|The Chrysler Building's observatory|
But the exquisite
execution of this insane plan was kept so secret that the newspapers failed to
report it at all, and historians have never known exactly what day or even what
month the renowned event took place. The eminently practical Christopher Gray,
in a brief introduction to a new volume of rediscovered photographs, "The
Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon, Day by Day" (Princeton
Architectural Press; $45), scoffs at the notion that the spire's emergence
actually came as a surprise - how many workmen had to be in on the plan? - but
he allows only that it must have
been erected sometime in October or November; that is, after Chrysler's long
standing rival, the Bank of the Manhattan Company, down at 40 Wall Street, had
gone as high as it could go. One of the many gripping photographs that follow,
however, catches the drama nearly in the act.
the book's catalogue, the negative is dated October 23rd. The photograph shows a
small celebratory flag - a sure sign that a building has just "topped
out" - flying like an exclamation point above the triumphant obelisk-shaped
spire, which thrusts up from the skeletal ovoid ridges of the dome. Both
structures are in their raw steel state. In fact, the ineffably metaphorical
Chrysler dome had only recently taken its final form. The quintessential jazz
baby of buildings turns out to have been, in several vital aspects, an
improvisation: a riff on height and speed which kept altering shape as dares and
provocations forced it higher, the perfect symbol of an age of endless possibilities.
How eerily apt that the last risky upward rush seems to have taken place on the
eve of Black Thursday - October 24th, when the stock market brought the
boundless world that the Chrysler Building represented crashing down.
These photographs are themselves a remarkable souvenir. Large in format, nearly tactile in detail, they have been printed from a cache of negatives, many on flammable silver-nitrate film, found in the crumbling office of an elderly photographer who was going out of business. In another week, their rescuer, David Stravitz, writes, they would have been sold off and converted into silver. This magic, mercurial aura suits the subject well. Still, these are utilitarian pictures, most of them taken by a commercial firm for the purpose of getting the contractor paid. The majority are dated in bold white print at the corner of the plate, and some bear inscriptions such as "Boiler Room Vault Wall." Noone intended these as works of art. Yet, from the moment that the site is blasted down to bedrock, in November, 1928, to the slow striptease of scaffolding in 1930, from workers straddling the majestic eagle gargoyles to taxicabs the size of pumpkin coaches lined up in front of Schrafft's below, these coolly objective records can inspire intense emotion.
|The tower was clad in a revolutionary alloy that made it a beacon to ships at sea|
the pictures were discovered more than twenty years ago, it seems clear why they
are being published now: it is heartening to see images of a great building
going up. And if as seems inevitable with historical photographs, the surrounding
cityscape evokes nostalgia for a New York unreservedly optimistic and in bud-a
freshly painted ad for five-dollar shoes appears on a wall only briefly exposed
by construction; a movie theatre offers Laurel without Hardy - these pictures
are most valuable not in evoking what we have lost but in meticulously detailing
what we have right before our eyes: the Art Deco wonder of the world, its eagles
still fiercely guarding Lexington Avenue
against all incursions of reality. For nothing in the old carnival city appears
quite as fantastic as William Van Alen's pulsing automobile-age vision, materializing
with all the cathedral-age craftsmanship that Walter Chrysler's money could
buy. "The fulfillment in metal
and masonry of a one-man dream," a critic called the newly completed
building, yet historians have had reason to disagree about which man's dream it
represents, and whether its mythic symbols derive from German Expressionism or
from Coney Island. By the time the elaborately inlaid elevators made their first
run up to the splendiferous Cloud Club, in the summer of 1930, a new
"tallest building in the world" was under construction down on
Thirty-fourth Street, and Chrysler and Van Alen were at each other's throats.
But in their own brief flight toward the clouds they had managed to perfect,
as much as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Duke Ellington, the uniquely American style of
the honky-tonk sublime.
Chrysler Building would not look as it does if Dreamland had not burned down in
1911. Coney Island's white-towered Freudian fairway had been the brainchild of a
real estate entrepreneur named William H. Reynolds, whose reputation for
public mayhem was such that when a short circuit in the "Hell Gate"
exhibit set the entire blockslong place ablaze, some newspapers assumed
that it was just another stunt. Financially drained and cured of his taste for
artificial fantasy, Reynolds turned his attention to the real-life fantasy of
Manhattan, where he proposed to erect the tallest building in the world.
Although the Woolworth Building beat him to the punch, in 1913, and the war
slowed him down, by the time the late-twenties boom began he had got hold of a
choice piece of land at the new city hub around Grand Central Terminal, and had
hired William Van Alen to execute the design.
the association suggests, Van Alen had a reputation of his own as a showman,
albeit one in thrall to the most coolly modern materials and means. Scant record
of his early life exists, but his beginnings were apparently modest: a
Brooklyn boy, born in 1882, he enrolled in night classes at the Pratt Institute
after the sudden death of his father, in 1897-Jacob Van Alen was struck by a
locomotive while crossing the
Long Island Rail Road tracks -
and found work as an office boy in an architectural firm by day.
A few drafting and design jobs later, in 1908, he won the Paris Prize for
his drawing of a grand opera house; in the three years that he spent getting
wisdom at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the cafe Les Deux Magots, he was
transformed. One architecture
critic wrote that Van Alen was the only student to return from Paris without a
boxful of books, and he went on to quote the young architect's credo (whether
the indicated oddities of pronunciation were meant to reflect traces of France
or Brooklyn or sheer revolutionary intoxication we will never know); "No
old stuff for me! No bestial
copyings of arches and colyums and
cornishes! Me, I'm new! Avanti!"
was no cornice on the first building that Van Alen designed when he got back
to New York - in 1915, this was a guerrilla tactic.
And he does not seem to have mellowed with age.
During the twenties, in partnership with H. Craig Severance, he designed
a Madison Avenue shoe shop that dispensed with the usual dully inanimate
display of shoes; instead, in an enormous oval window two cobblers plied their
trade. The combination of glass
and theatre was even more striking in a Childs restaurant on Fifth Avenue, where
six stories of window rounded a corner, and the multitiered display of
ladies at lunch was rumored to have inspired Ziegfeld.
Van Alen's most radical design, however, was his original plan for the
Reynolds skyscraper, which featured a jewel-like glass dome and a base in
which triple-height showroom windows were topped by a full dozen stories with
glass-wrapped corners, creating an impression that the massive tower above
rested on air. Nothing as
artistically or technologically ambitious had been attempted before-and it was
not attempted now. Had it been
built, both Van Alen's career and the poker game of New York architecture would
have played out very differently.
evidently disapproved of this advanced and costly scheme. The official
"Reynolds Building" design, published in August, 1928, was a far
more conservative venture, with an Italianate dome that one critic said looked
like Governor Al Smith's derby hat, and with a brickwork pattern on the upper
stories which cleverly (and cheaply) mimicked comer windows, and which is a
recognizable feature of the Chrysler Building today. In fact, this design displays the central forms of the
existing building exactly: tower, flanks, setbacks, window runs.
Yet it differs in everything that makes us think of the Chrysler as
unique: the glittering fantasy that defied the austere new modernist ethos
(Lewis Mumford awarded the building a "Booby Prize" for 1930) by
turning decorative detail into architectural essence.
The transformation began that October, when Reynolds defaulted on his
lease and Walter Chrysler was ready with the money, reportedly two million
dollars, which got .him the property, the design, and the architect, too.
The money came from a personal account.
Although Chrysler had been searching for a site for his business headquarters
since he'd set up his corporation, just three years earlier - during which time
it had gone from thirty-second place among car manufacturers to third-this was
not a corporate acquisition. Chrysler wanted the building as a project for his
sons, who had suffered the misfortune of growing up rich, and whom he wished to
feel "the wild incentive that burned in me from the time I first watched my
father put his hand to the throttle of his engine."
Like his father, who had been a locomotive engineer on the Union
Pacific, Walter Chrysler was a hands-on mechanic for most of his life.
He had little formal education - he used to lie about graduating from
high school - but, as his biographer Vincent Curcio shows, his feeling for
machines was akin to genius.
in Kansas in 1875, Chrysler started out at sixteen sweeping train sheds for ten
cents an hour; at thirty two, he was master mechanic for the entire Chicago
Great Western line. When he moved to the ailing Buick car company, in 1911, he
saved General Motors a fortune by replacing old wood-carriage techniques with
methods suited to steel. He was earning a million dollars a year when he moved
to New York in 1920 to take over the Willys-Overland motor company, and by the
time his engineers were test-driving the first Chrysler car, in 1923 - "We
had dreamed about it as if we had been its lovers," he wrote-he and his
family were ensconced on a vast French Renaissance estate in Great Neck (not far
from Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's), complete with a boathouse and pier on Long
Island Sound; in good weather, he liked to sail his yacht to work.
real-life Gatsby, Chrysler had got rich enough fast enough to marry his
beautiful Daisy, only to realize that the true love of his life was his car. As
a young husband and father, he blew the family savings and went deep into debt
to buy a brand-new Locomobile, whose ivory body he recalled for decades as his
"siren's song." He didn't
long so much to drive it, though he waited three months for that - as to dissect
it, working in his garage over every valve and knob until he could have built
the vehicle from scratch. "Had
I been Aladdin," he wrote, "I'd have taken that old lamp apart to see
if I could make another, better lamp."
His own better dream machine made its debut in January, 1924, at a show
in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel; the first line of Chryslers came in a range
of "King Tut" colors aimed at the average middle-range pharaoh:
pyramid gray over desert sand was a popular combination.
The distinctive winged cap of Mercury atop the hood served as a silvery
pun - it was the radiator cap - but it was also a fair promise of speed: these
cars were beating uphill racing records that summer.
Fortune later noted that Chrysler had produced the perfect car
for the twenties, "a period when desires had supplanted needs" - what
better definition of being rich? - and it was not long before he determined to
produce the perfect building. It
might be taken as a sign that in 1928 a new model Chrysler was called the Silver
skyscraper is a psychological phenomenon. Economics
have always supplied a justification, but in truth the added costs of building
very high - deeper foundations, elevators taking up floor space - were often
unrecoupable. In 1929, the American
Institute of Steel Construction released a study that reported diminishing
returns above the sixty-third floor in midtown Manhattan; nevertheless, it was
only the Crash that killed a host of plans for edging up toward where profit was
near to nil. The Chrysler dome
begins at the building's sixty-sixth floor and officially rises to the seventy
seventh, but all the spaces above seventy one are so cramped and contorted
that these "floors" have not been rentable for anything but radio
equipment; from the seventy-fifth level up, the jack-o'-lantern windows"
are open to the winds. Skyscrapers
are about power and longing for transcendence and, as everyone will tell you,
about sex: the Empire State Building was known for a time as Al Smith's Last
Erection. But the great creators
themselves were concerned with an even more profoundly American drive:
advertising. And with seeing that
the other guy didn't get there first - particularly if the other guy was
somebody you knew.
Chrysler took over the building process quickly, and it seems that nothing was
too fantastic to be considered. In March, 1929, the press offered details of
an "artistic dome" in the form of a giant star "with thirty
points set up on end," to be surmounted by "a sculptured
figure sixteen feet high" -
whether of Walter Chrysler or
some other deity was not specified. And
then, in July, the Bank of the Manhattan Company, designed by Van Alen's former
partner H. Craig Severance and under construction at 40 Wall Street, announced
that it was building straight up to a tower of eight hundred and forty feet
- more than thirty feet beyond the Chrysler Building (which went unmentioned)
and therefore the tallest building in the world. Soon after that, on the
thirtieth of August, Al Smith announced his first plans since losing the race
for President: he was supervising the construction of a new office tower, to be
known as the Empire State Building, eighty stories tall, or exactly a thousand
feet, and eat our dust. And the man
who had hired Smith and put the plan together was John J. Raskob, a former
finance chief at General Motors, who had helped Walter Chrysler get his
corporation started, and who some believe had expected more than he got in
Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon, Day by Day" is a strictly
figurative title. Sadly, the book contains not a single picture from September,
1929, when all hell broke loose as plans for the top of the building were
stretched upward, in response to the summer's bulletins, while construction
forged steadily on. Van Alen noted mildly that "it was necessary to resort
to the unusual" because of the "after consideration nature" of
what he'd had to do. A drawing
published at the time shows that he had been planning a more reasonably compact
form of the crown we know-six rounded tiers instead of seven, a lesser spire-but
the change from stable semicircularity to elongated gothic tension, in one of
the most complex geometric structures built before Frank Gehry's museum at
Bilbao, supplied a shock that still registers on the eye.
was part of the process. A photograph from August 30th shows open sky beyond
the sixty-first floor. Through
September, curved beams akin to immense steel barrel staves were manufactured in
a New Jersey shipyard and assembled into vaults on-site.
By October 7th, when the shutter clicked again, a dozen new floors sprout
a crazy maze of steelwork, at the top of which, on October 14th, an enormous
platform is mysteriously perched. It is indeed hard to imagine that anyone who
could count believed the news that the building had topped off at sixty-eight
stories; or failed to realize that something was, literally, up.
Still, it would have been difficult to predict the scale of the cloudpiercing
"needle"-delivered in five unassuming segments and assembled in the
central airshaft-which brought the Chrysler Building to a title-clinching one
thousand and forty-six feet four and three-quarter inches.
And not a possible quarter inch more -as Raskob and Smith were well aware
when, a few weeks later, they
announced that plans for the Empire
State had been ratcheted up to a nose-thumbing thousand and fifty feet.
as Louis Sullivan, pioneer of the skyscraper, showed, there is more than one way
for a building to appear transcendently tall.
And, as Walter Chrysler knew, unlimited amounts of cash and glamour
always help. Although he had lost
the race for supremacy in height, as an architectural patron Chrysler now
managed to do what not even Louis XIV had done before him: he enlisted the sun
as a worker in his atelier. As
construction on the Empire State Building began nearby - plans soon added
another two hundred feet, and an airship-mooring mast was thrown in for dramatic
effect - the Chrysler dome and spire, hidden under scaffolding, were clad in a
revolutionary metal that looked like an alloy of steel and light.
The use of diamond-honed Enduro KA-2 steel, developed by Krupp in
Germany after the First World War and exhibited for the first time in 1926, was
Chrysler's most significant decision. He
had had it tested for months, to be sure that no amount of exposure would
tarnish its almost metaphysical silver glow.
When the top of the building was revealed, in 1930, critics marvelled
at the incandescence that made it a beacon even to ships far out at sea; not a
single metal sheet has ever been replaced, and on clear days the Chrysler
tower is still outshone only by the sun itself.
the first extensive architectural use of stainless chromium-nickel steel provided
more than a gleaming surface for Van Alen's design; it appears to have provided
an inspiration. Conjecture about the source and meaning of the Chrysler's
majestically heaped-up arches and triangles has ranged from car wheels (with
spokes) to a chorus girl's headdress (with feathers) to Angkor Wat.
In Van Alen's mind, the origins seem related to the imaginative leap from
glass and brick to the possibilities of steel, as signified by the peculiar
March announcement of an "artistic dome" that would have been, in essence,
a work of sculpture: a human figure standing on "a star with thirty points
set up on end." Luckily, the
figure never made it off the drawing board.
But the giant star may still be seen, visibly transformed into
architecture, in the silver dome's radiating burst of jagged, sharp cornered
windows. People will always make their own associations; that is part
of the building's power. But anyone
who looks up and counts will find that there are exactly thirty triangular
windows thirty star points set on end-per side.
clad in the new metal's glow were the nine-foot-high pineapples and colossal
radiator caps and fierce eagle heads that animate the building's corners like
grotesques looming out from a medieval cathedral. It seems odd today that such
extravagant fantasy was denounced at the time as being too commercial:
"advertising architecture," Lewis Mumford sneered.
True, the Chrysler decorative scheme offered a newly overt kind of
self-display: a brick frieze depicting hubcaps zipped around the thirtieth
floor, punctuated by those imperial radiator caps with wingspans of fifteen
feet. It was noted, by contrast,
that the Woolworth Building had not been covered in big nickels and dimes.
Yet so fixed has this notion of advertising become that the building's
most magnificent ornaments, the glowering thrust necked eagles, are often
presumed to derive from automobiles, although no eagle ever decorated a
Chrysler. In fact, the perfect
model eagle glowers just a block away, thrusting its head straight out from
behind the wing-capped god Mercury - who looks, under the circumstances, oddly
like the radiator-capped god Mercury - on the monumental pediment over the main
entrance of Grand Central Terminal.
many railroad stations, the original Grand Central, built in the nineteenth
century, was studded with sculpted eagles.
The pediment of the building that replaced it, in 1913, evokes this
aquiline tradition, but the towering Chrysler eagles evoke the power that trains
and steam and shrieking speed once had over the imagination - not surprisingly,
considering that they were designed by a man whose father was killed by a
locomotive for a man whose father was an engineer.
There is a boy's sense of scale and wonder in all the building's details
and public spaces, whether they look backward to Kansas or forward to a sort of
Emerald City, which a population of office workers entered every day through
granite portals shaped like Egyptian tombs and flecked with mother-of-pearl.
Yet, after passing through the lobby, with its rouge flamme marble walls,
and riding up in elevators styled like tiny Parisian drawing rooms, most
people found themselves set down amid plain white walls and dull square
windows-mere real life. Van Alen
did what he could to keep this sad phenomenon at bay, with elaborate radiator
grilles and patterned doorknobs, but the economic reality of so many floors had
to be conceded. This was the ultimate
distinction of Manhattan's Dreamland: even dreams came with a bill.
at the level of the Cloud Club did fantasy resume.
Occupying three linked stories at the base of the dome, this executives'
lunch club (which doubled as a speakeasy in its early years) was a stylistic
riot of Georgian lobby, Tudor lounge, and Bavarian bar.
The main dining room, however, was pure cosmopolitan "Cheek to
Cheek": faceted blue marble columns with white-ice sconces that melted
into a vaulted ceiling painted with clouds. Not many people got to see these
clouds; membership was reserved for the likes of E. F. Hutton and Conde Nast.
But for fifty cents anyone could go up to the observatory, on the
seventy-first floor, where the steeply tilted walls reflected structural
necessity masked as pure design through a close look at Expressionist film
sets, principally the angular madhouse of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."
(Such German movies had made a deep impression on architectural thought, if not
very often on practice.) The
observatory was open for only a few years, but photographs reveal that its
decor of painted sun rays and ringed Saturn lighting globes gave the glorious
space an unlikely, naive sweetness - an optimism that seems to emanate from
the prominent reliquary like case in which, there at the summit, Walter
Chrysler enshrined his first set of machinist's tools.
But the room itself enshrined an essential characteristic of the Chrysler
and Van Alen enterprise: the determined innocence that turned Krupp steel into a
crown of stars, and revamped the geometry of angst into an Art Deco heaven for
different characteristic of the enterprise was revealed in June, 1930, one month
before the Cloud Club opened, when Van Alen placed a lien on the building in
order to receive the balance of his fee. Although
he eventually won his case, word that Walter Chrysler had accused him of taking
bribes from subcontractors seems to have lost him his reputation. Little else
explains the sudden end of his career. The
Depression, limited construction, the war: all may account for even an eminent
architect's failure to get many commissions.
But, aside from a few experiments with prefabricated housing - there is
something heartbreaking about the shape of the great Chrysler portals being
refitted for a shower stall - Van Alen, "the Ziegfeld of his
profession," seems to have had no further jobs at all.
Walter Chrysler, writing his autobiography in 1937, failed to mention Van
Alen's name, referring only to "architects" and to his own hand in the
work. In 1941, a year after
Chrysler's death, a notice in the Times mentioned that Van Alen was
working on plans for an underground-garage project.
And then silence, extending to his death, in 1954.
The Times ran no obituary. He
left his money to establish an architectural scholarship fund, and to care for
his wife, Elizabeth Bloodgood, who by the time of her death, in 1970, seems to
have thrown away whatever papers or letters or drawings still existed.
There were no children. And there are no biographies, no serious studies,
no archives. One of the few
photographs we have shows Van Alen dressed up as the Chrysler Building at the
Beaux-Arts Ball in 1931: encased in silver metal cloth trimmed with eagle
epaulets, he peers out from under an immense tiered headdress that is fastened
down below his ears, so that he appears to be caught partway through the painful
metamorphosis in which he vanished, whole, into his work.
building has gone through its own vicissitudes.
By the time the Chrysler family sold it, in 1953, the sleek glass style
of Van Alen's initial design had become the standard by which every building was
judged; ornament was a crime, and the Chrysler Building was a major culprit.
Little loved and subject to a succession of sometimes ruthless owners, it
went through years of degradation: the tower sprang leaks; garbage piled up.
An exodus of tenants during New York's darkest period brought occupancy
down to a deathly seventeen per cent; foreclosure proceedings began in 1975.
But tastes were already changing: postmodernism and suburban burnout and
maybe even Saul Steinberg's drawings played a part in making urban eccentricity
beautiful again. Landmark status
came in 1978, and the current fizzy night lighting - said to be Van Alen's
original neglected scheme - was switched on
in 1981. Today, the building stands
proud: Tishman Speyer Properties, which took it over in 1997, has done a spectacular
lobby restoration and some vital repairs.
The tenant roster boasts a new-era glamour - Senators Moynihan and Clinton
have had offices there; the Saudi mission to the United Nations is headquartered
in Walter Chrysler's former private
office - and a sense of loyalty so strong that even those who never knew the
place in its prime are aggrieved by the destruction of the Cloud Club.
the club kept its doors open until 1979, and after that remained more or less
intact through an odd alliance of neglect and hope; tenant Christmas parties
were held there through the late nineties.
Then, in March of 2000, the Art Deco Society of New York issued a bulletin
accusing Tishman Speyer of tearing the place apart.
Tishman has refused access to
the press - invoking tenant privacy - but Christopher Gray assures us in this new
book that the decor "partly survives."
Whom to believe? A recent desperado visit by a reporter with a pounding heart
reveals, alas: everything is gone, stripped down to the fireproofing on the
columns where the white-ice sconces used to be, down to the brick on the inner
side of the building's arches. One
tenant reports that dumpsters were piled with bits and pieces free for the
taking. This destruction was not
illegal - only the facade and lobby have been landmarked. And it was not smart. The
club's three floors remain unoccupied: Dairnler
Chrysler's plan to relocate its New York offices here apparently fell through
when the dismal results of the merger quashed the upbeat symbolism of the move.
But the greatest shame lies in the fact that for twenty years no one had the wit
to find a use for what so abundantly existed.
And that the chance for any public space is gone; deprived of the smoke
and mirrors and clouds, the fabled rooms appear merely inconvenient and
May 1, 1931, at the opening ceremony for the Empire State Building, Mayor
Jimmy Walker, cheerfully facing impeachment, congratulated the builders for
providing "a place higher, further removed than any in the world, where
some public official might like to come and hide."
AI Smith, in his derby hat, read a telegram from President Hoover, and
Edmund Wilson recorded his impression that from these heights the Chrysler dome
and spire appeared "now dwindled, a tinny-scaled armadillo tail ending in
a stiff sting-like drill." The
following year, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the midst of a breakdown that seemed to
mirror the country's own condition, went up to the Empire State observatory, on
the hundred-and-second floor, to get his bearings.
And with a shock he felt that he understood it all: the delusions of the
past, the present unbearable loss. The
realization came to him, he wrote, as it came to everyone who had looked out
from this godlike height for the first awful time: New York had limits, the
green-and-blue expanse into which it faded on all sides went on forever, but how
could we have known? - New York "was a city after all and not a
The Chrysler observatory, monumentally overshadowed, had lost most of its business by then. Decades later, when the World Trade Center was nearing completion, architects for the Empire State Building considered replacing its famous upper profile with a tower that would rise to a hundred and thirteen stories; two designs were published but shamefacedly withdrawn. The issue of how tall our tall buildings ought to be has always vexed us. Louis Sullivan thought that illusion was as important as actual size - "the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it" - while his student Frank Lloyd Wright, sworn enemy of the urban landscape, liked a strong cornice, to show that a building was, "emphatically, finished!" Le Corbusier argued that New York's skyscrapers were "much too small." But William Van AIen, sworn enemy of the cornice, created a skyscraper that never visibly finishes at all. Anyone who looks up from the street will see. The Chrysler spire rises to an impossible slenderness that disappears gradually, like a bird flying out of sight: it becomes increasingly difficult to follow, but that doesn't mean it isn't there; our senses merely fall behind. This street-level vision may provide some consolation against Fitzgerald's sense of loss: somewhere in the empyrean, infinitely tall, the Chrysler Building is still going up.
By Claudia Roth Pierpont
This Article Appeared on November 18, 2002 in The New Yorker