Wednesday, September 16, 2009


I think it's about time that we discussed Donald Trump. I don't know exactly how many square feet of development he's erected in the United States, although it'd be interesting to see that figure. Suffice it to say, he has had a greater impact on skylines across our nation than most other developers and is a colossal--and by the way, extremely publicly visible--figure in the world of real estate. His responsibility to the evolution of architecture is directly proportional to the amount and size of his projects and real estate holdings.

Donald Trump has a responsibility to us. He has the responsibility to erect stunning architecture that graces our cities, that pushes boundaries of style and aesthetics. Furthermore, there is absolutely no excuse, with the kind of wealth he has amassed, for him not to be building LEED-Platinum structures (or beyond, for that matter, to the point of innovating) across the board. Trump has not lived up to his responsibilities by any possible stretch of the imagination, and I think it's disgusting.

To be completely fair, there are a few names in the bunch. Swanke Hayden Connell is respectable enough, and I won't piss on Michael Graves, although his work for Trump was a very long shot from his finest work. Philip Johnson was a great choice, and the first Trump project on which he worked was probably a perfect match for Johnson--arguably a stylist above all else--since his contribution was a new shell for a pre-existing building. Costas Kondylis is probably the best choice for Trump. As far as is concerned the corporate (read: safe) architecture Trump seems to prefer, Kondylis has done some beautiful work. I understand that development is a business first and foremost. Radical, sculptural, avant-garde architecture has little place in a successful business model. But the rest of these architects? Who the hell are these people?

Let's take a look at who's alive today: Gehry, Hadid, Ando, Calatrava, Koolhaas, Lynn, Meier, Foster, Diller, Rogers, Nouvel, Portzamparc, Tschumi, UNStudio (they may seem like an unlikely addition, but I adore what they're doing), the list goes on and on and on. For Trump's intended clientele, Robert Stern would seem an ideal choice: refined, classy, sophisticated. He was lined up to do a building at Trump Place in New York, but it just never materialized. Has Trump even approached any of these other people? Perhaps he has, and they turned him down. I can't say I would blame them, and Frank Gehry did, of course. If Trump is going to build THIS much stuff, and the rest of us have to look at it and live with it, this is the caliber of architects to which he should be talking. Instead he hires the most bland, corporate conglomerate firms to put up one pile of garbage after another, presumably for no other reason but because they bid lowest. He needs to be stopped.

I'd like to run through the monstrosities he's perpetrated on the continental United States, in chronological order--that is, the structures he had built, himself, rather than existing ones he purchased--and make fair note of the high-quality exceptions. The fact that, in so many cases, it's practically impossible to even determine who the architect was proves my point perfectly. The architecture of these structures is not the selling point it so easily could be. In fact, it's more of an afterthought, as if Trump would just as happily hire a contractor to put up fifty floors surrounded by glass with the involvement of no architect at all.

Trump Tower (1983)
New York City

Clicking on most images will provide larger views.
--All images understood to be in the public domain unless otherwise noted.
Trump's first major erection (pun intended) is actually a stunning building: a beautifully elongated, crystalline structure with terraced balconies planted with trees. Its marbled lobby atrium is particularly dramatic, with interlaced floating escalators and the waterfall cascading down one full wall, probably four or five stories high. One might have believed he had some promise at this early stage. SHCA has built some beautiful buildings over the years and were a fine choice, but are mostly known for their interiors work. They've been involved in the historic preservation of a number of New York's buildings, including Harrison & Abramovitz' Time & Life Building. They also designed 130 East Fifty-Ninth Street and the graphics and website for the New York Historical Society.

Atlantic City, New Jersey

--Photo found here.
There really are no good photos to be found of this one. I guess I'm not all that surprised. I mean, if the man who put his own name in huge letters on the side of the building didn't care what it looked like, why should anyone else? Martin Stern, Jr. (1917-2001) built extensively in Las Vegas, and is possibly best known for the International Hotel (1969, now the Las Vegas Hilton), which was the largest hotel in the world when it was built and is said to have ushered in the era of Las Vegas' towering casino hotels. He also designed the original MGM Grand (1973), also the largest hotel in the world at the time, which was destroyed by fire in 1980, was rebuilt, and is now Bally's Las Vegas.

Trump Plaza (1984)
New York City
Philip Birnbaum & Associates
--Photo courtesy City Realty.
I don't remember ever noticing it, but this mostly boring Y-shaped apartment building is on Third Avenue at Sixty-First Street. Philip Birnbaum (1907-1996) designed over 300 buildings, examples of which I'm not going to bother mentioning. Aside from allegedly innovating the rooftop swimming pool, he was mostly known for the efficiency of his floor plans, which would waste little to no space. Listen to what Trump said about him: "...he probably designed more buildings in New York than anyone else. Not all of them were good, but they all made money." Mmhmm. Because of course, making Donald Trump more money than he already has is definitely more important than creating quality architecture. This doesn't particularly look like the work of Costas Kondylis, but Kondylis worked for Birnbaum, so if nothing else, this is most likely how he became acquainted with Trump.

Trump Plaza (1985)
West Palm Beach, Florida

--Photo courtesy Casa Bella Productions.
Schwab and who? With their mountain of institutional, scientific, retail and corporate projects around Florida, STH has built mostly in this kind of cold, bland Modernism and hackneyed, McMansion-style neo-Postmodernism. These towers are inoffensive enough, but I'm inclined to wonder, "why bother?"

Atlantic City, New Jersey

Okay, so let's look at some of the architects whose work makes it onto "Ugliest Buildings in the World" lists, shall we? Although I don't despise it in theory, I guess I won't argue with the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but Forbes accuses Richard Rogers, I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Mario Botta, Paul Rudolph, and Edward Durrell Stone. At the very top of a lot of other lists is Boston City Hall. Others include its British counterpart, the Birmingham Central Library. The list for Gridskipper, allegedly compiled from the opinion of "experts," includes Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Norman Foster, and--although one is a Trump building, not surprisingly--two by Philip Johnson. Those are the ugliest.

Now, granted, a lot of this comes from kiss-ass tourist sites and/or is quoted from Trump's own advertising propaganda, but here's what's said about the Taj Mahal:
Need I go on?

I'll be the first one to defend kitsch. I read and adored every last word of Learning from Las Vegas. While Atlantic City is really only a pale facsimile, I think Vegas is one of the most truly astonishing cities with some of the most important architecture in the world (however incredibly tacky it may be--I said "important," not "beautiful" or any other qualitative adjective). But seriously? "Architectural masterpiece?" The Trump Taj Mahal? Are you freaking kidding me? It's not so much that the casino would market itself that way. That, of course, is understandable. It's the fact that so many people who don't know any better, looking for a hotel to patronize in Atlantic City, will see this description over and over again and presume it to be an unbiased assessment by those in the know.

Plenty of these same people will stumble onto a major newspaper or similar publication and glance over a fun top ten list for a laugh, with Walter Gropius listed on it. Walter Gropius, easily the founding uncle of Modernist architecture, if Mies and Corbusier are its founding fathers. There is something very, VERY wrong with this picture. And the architectural press is nowhere near innocent in the equation, either. I think it's a disgrace.

More amusingly, Francis Dumont--who I'm not trying to blast, not exactly--also conceived a renovation plan for the Liberace Museum.

Stay tuned for part two.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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