Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pei It Forward

This past Tuesday, I went to hear a great tour sponsored by Docomomo about University Plaza, also known as Silver Towers, in honor of their being designated a city landmark. It was led by historian Matt Postal, who helped write up the designation report.
Click to enlarge.
--All Silver Towers photos ©2009, Ryan Witte.
It was freezing cold out for June, but luckily it happened to be this thirty-seven second window of time where the sun decided to peek out before the monsoon rains started back up again. On my way over to the starting point in front of Philip Johnson's Bobst Library, I realize that I had been inside Silver Towers before. Back when I was going to Parson's I became friends for a brief time with a fellow student whose father I think was a professor at NYU. It was at their apartment that I first saw a few scenes of Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy, beginning my life-long love affair with that film.
Don't ask me why on earth I remember that. But I'm extremely glad the plan was scrapped to do a remake of it. There's absolutely no way anyone could ever hope to improve on the original masterpiece. Coincidentally, Silver Towers were completed one year before Barbarella, in 1967. The office of I. M. Pei got the job, but it was James Ingo Freed who designed them. Postal first discussed how the whole thing came to be, and as with anything of this size during that time period, it was of course Robert Moses who cleared the land in an effort to "clean up" the neighborhood. The first buildings to go up were Washington Square Village by Paul Lester Weiner in 1958.

Weiner worked with Le Corbusier for some time, and I suppose in 1958 they might have looked kind of cool. Honestly I don't think they've aged very well. They look a little bit too much like a tacky airport Holiday Inn for my taste. Somewhere along the way for mysterious reasons the developer abandoned this project--there was supposed to be a third building--and the land where Silver Towers ended up was transferred to NYU. They really are stunning and fully deserve their landmark status.

Postal said they all went up together, because the construction teams would do one floor on one tower one day, then do the same floor on the next tower the next day, around and around until they were finished. This also allowed the concrete time to dry. The structure is made up of T-shaped slabs of concrete, which you can see if you click one of those images.

Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Sylvette (original maquette 1954) stands outside, in the middle of the three towers, which are arranged in a pinwheel formation around the central square.
Evidently it's Picasso's only public sculpture in New York City.
Lydia Sylvette David was his muse for a while, she was gorgeous and only nineteen, and I'm sure he tortured her.
--Photo courtesy Academy of Neuroscience.
Oh, and get this. She was allegedly the inspiration for Brigitte Bardot's character in ...And God Created Woman by Roger Vadim, who directed Barbarella. How weird is that?

Anyhow, one of the things that really sold me on going on the tour--before I realized I'd already been inside one of the buildings all those years ago--was access granted to two of the apartments, one of which has a mostly intact kitchen. I didn't bother to take pictures because the interiors are more or less just plain white boxes with practically no ornamentation at all. The great thing about the kitchen, though, was that the aluminum detailing on the kitchen cabinets had the exact same profile as the columns on the front of the building. Nonetheless, it did offer a chance to get some wonderful views out the extremely dirty windows.
Those of us on the tour had a few kind of funny discussions about how dirty the windows were and why, and how one might ever be able to clean them. It wouldn't be terribly easy, we determined, but for sure someone needs to get a squeegee up there and do something about it.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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