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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Skyscraper City The International-Style Skyscraper
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The International-Style Skyscraper
International Style
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Lever House and the Seagram Building were followed by other office buildings, some better than others. The simplicity of international-style design, the perfection of its geometry, and the necessity to choose very carefully the most beautiful materials and juxtapose them with one another was very sophisticated. Yet it was so easy to debase this idea. And there are so many ugly international-style buildings, which really are, I think, what gave modern architecture such a bad name. People tended to forget the great buildings like Lever House and Seagram and only look at the speculative buildings that went up around them on Park Avenue and other streets of the city.

Some speculative buildings rose above the average. This is the Time-Life Building on Sixth Avenue, part of the expansion of Rockefeller Center to the west. And although Time-Life gave its name to the building, this was a speculative office building that was built in part by the Rockefeller interests. It was built in the late 1950s and, like Seagram and Lever, it occupies only 25 percent of its lot area and has plazas around it with fountains. These all became wonderfully popular public spaces in New York. It was this building and the success of the building like this that led the city to change the zoning law in the early 1960s. The city did away with the setback massing and the slender towers that had been required earlier, and went instead for the requirement of slabs on plazas that would give a lot of open space and light and air to the densely built-up commercial areas of New York. And when planning decisions were in the hands of designers or builders who really cared about such things, you were given beautiful plazas, as you have with Time-Life or the Seagram Building. But, for the most part, when the speculative builders started erecting these buildings under the zoning law, the plazas were hidden in the shadows and became really bleak places. So, unfortunately, a lot of uninteresting plazas were created.

Buildings like Time-Life also used beautiful lobbies in the same way, in a sense, that the Chanin and the Chrysler and the Irving Trust Company Building did. They wanted to impress you when you walked in. But with modernism, with the international style, it was done in a different way. Instead of adding applied ornament as part of the structure, instead of having murals that were part of the building or mosaics on the walls, many of the best modern buildings purchased or commissioned works of art that are removable. They were placed in the interior to be a part of its drama, not designed structurally as part of the building's interior. The Time-Life Building is a good example of this. It has very dynamic terrazzo floors, as you can see. And there are murals that were commissioned and placed on the wall. But if this building were ever to be torn down, which I certainly hope it will not be, this mural by Fritz Glarner could be picked up and moved out and placed someplace else.


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