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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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Buildings That Stand Out
Using Traditional Forms
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You could also hire a façade architect for your project. This is a building across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, right next door to 998 Fifth Avenue. It's flanked by 998 Fifth Avenue and a wonderful Beaux-Arts–style town house from the early twentieth century. And in the middle, Philip Birnbaum, an architect who specialized in speculative apartment-house construction, was commissioned to design a building. And the neighborhood was appalled by what they saw. And the developer then went and hired Philip Johnson, one of America's most prestigious architects, to design the façade of the building.

Johnson had nothing to do with the apartments inside the building, but he was responsible for building a façade on Philip Birnbaum's plan. And on this building Johnson introduced the idea that later became known as postmodernism, that is, to take architectural forms from the architecture of the past and plaster them onto a contemporary building. So this apartment house picks up almost every molding from the buildings to either side, so that a molding from 998 Fifth Avenue continues across the façade of Philip Johnson's apartment house and then the entire thing is crowned with a faux mansard roof, just like the mansard roof on the town house to the north, except the town house has a mansard that's three-dimensional and actually has rooms inside, whereas the mansard on Philip Johnson's apartment house is merely a façade that's propped up on the back by two struts, so it's merely an ornamental device to make the building seem to fit in more with the neighborhood.

You'll also notice that the moldings on 998 Fifth Avenue and on the town house actually go from one end of the building to the other, whereas the moldings, which sort of resemble Tootsie Rolls, on Philip Johnson's building don't go to the end of the building. And it's a little architectural conceit so that you'll know that they're not structural, you'll know that they're just applied on. It's almost like a child has glued the moldings onto the façade of this building.

This establishes a whole idea of designing buildings, designing apartment houses in New York, that will look like New York's earlier apartment buildings.

In fact, when the master plan was put together for Battery Park City at the southern end of Manhattan, which was landfill that was going to become a new town in New York, the master plan specifically looked at New York's most successful apartment-house streets. It looked at West End Avenue and Park Avenue and looked at what was it that made those streets such nice places to live. And they noted that these buildings had stone bases and then brick above, that they tended to be horizontal in their massing, that they tended to have something interesting at the top that projected out. And the master plan for Battery Park City required that some of these things be incorporated into the new buildings. And many different architects were commissioned to design buildings, and some were more successful than others.

And here the architect Charles Moore has taken the form of the New York apartment house with a limestone base, horizontal bands, projecting balconies, and created something new out of the basic form of the New York apartment house.


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