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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
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The Chanin Lobbies
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The Chanin Lobbies
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The lobbies of this building are among the most interesting in the city. They tell a story about New York as the city of opportunity. And the city of opportunity was Irwin Chanin's life. Chanin was a poor immigrant who was able to find success in New York because it offered him abundant opportunity. He became one of its great developers and believed there was opportunity for all in both intellectual and physical pursuits. With its two main lobbies, one dedicated to each type of pursuit, the Chanin articulates these beliefs. Both lobbies also house a stylized figure that represents some aspect of either the intellectual or the physical life. And below each figure is a bronze grille that represents this same force in an abstracted way. So you see a figure striding forward atop its abstraction below. This is probably the first use of abstract ornament in an American building. Chanin designed it with the assistance of the artist René Chambellan, who specialized in architectural sculpture and was very popular in 1920s New York. The plaster figures have this kind of stylized, almost hypermasculine form and they are somewhat cubist in detail. It was a style that was very popular in the 1920s and the early 1930s. You can see the impact of European modernism on these sculptures. And so in each one of these lobbies, there are four of these groupings—four physical pursuits and four intellectual pursuits.

Then you walk into the main lobby and find beautiful elevator doors that use the same geese motif used outside. You could take one of the elevators all the way up to the top floor, to Chanin's office. But before you entered the office, you had to pass through a pair of bronze gates that were every bit as much a part of the building's story. The gates represented the greatness of the city, with its art and commerce and its tremendous dynamism. You notice their gears, which signify the industrial prominence of a great city like New York. And, at the top, in the center, you see a violin that splits in half, indicating the cultural life of the city. Then you spot these very dynamic bolts that shoot through, indicating the city's dynamism. Or perhaps you might interpret them as representing New York, the communication empire. Note, though, that none of this would have been possible without a great deal of money and so these gates rest on piles of gold coins. So he designed these gates to sum up for you what the city was all about, before you entered his private offices, which were also elaborately designed with art-deco details.

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