Saturday, December 25, 2010

X-Mas Presence

This isn't all that appropriate for this blog, but I suppose it's still "visual." For any of you who happen to live in other parts of the world, here in America on this day every year we celebrate what's called "Christmas." Around 2000 years ago, a man named "Santa Claus" was born. He's also gone by the name "Chris Cringle," hence the holiday, "Christmas."

To celebrate Christmas in America, we start about two months earlier. We spend those months listening to the same twenty or twenty-five songs over and over and over again on all our radio stations and in stores and in elevators and everywhere that music is played.

There's also a sort of pre-Christmas holiday called Black Friday. Since we Americans love to shop, we celebrate Black Friday by waiting on lines starting around 5AM and aggressively waddling our morbidly obese selves into stores like Walmart, starting riots, and beating people to death in a competition to see who can buy the most stuff. The people who leave the store having maimed the most other shoppers and forced the most sought-after products out of their bloodied hands are said to be "Christmas Winners."

For the next month after that, we spend the entire time mocking the poverty and strife of people in other parts of the world by whining and begging and harassing our loved-ones about all the many, many gadgets and toys and baubles and products we don't have and need to have, most of them useless and disgustingly overpriced. American children learn this skill very early and are quite good at it.

Then on Christmas, Santa Claus--or perhaps it's the ghost of Santa--on a single night mind you, visits all of the approximately two billion homes of people who "believe" in him, enters their houses, and leaves gifts behind. The next morning Americans celebrate a festival of greed and consumption where they ravenously tear open every present in sight, creating millions of tons of garbage in the process that our country has no idea what to do with, and grumble to themselves about how the gifts were not precisely what they wanted, despite the fact that millions of people starve to death on this planet every year. It's a wonderful, wonderful time.

So I have gifts for my loved ones!

I actually think that I enjoy wrapping the presents more than I like choosing them. I used to sometimes make gifts for people, create paintings for them and other hand-made things. But who has the time for that anymore? Buying the gifts takes thought, to be sure, if you don't want to get the person something they'll hate. But the gift is something someone else made, probably in China somewhere, although my gifts were a little bit more local this year. So wrapping them is how I get creative. It's a lot of fun. In years past, I've not had any sort of concept. I just tried to have the most beautifully-wrapped gifts under the tree. This year, I had a theme.

Ugliest Presents Ever.

I'll have to tell you, wrapping a present badly is not as easy as it sounds. Wrapping paper, ribbon, bows, everything is pretty much designed so that you can easily wrap a gift and have it look relatively good. We all know the techniques for folding paper around a box properly, like we know how to make a bed with hospital corners. Trying to do it wrong just seems to defy all common sense.

Anyway, I wanted to show my horrible wrappings this year. I think they came out perfectly awful and I was totally cracking myself up with this. I love them. I think they're hilarious. I probably should have looked around for some tackier, more obnoxious wrapping paper, but this one was pretty cheesy.

Next year I'm thinking maybe I should have an Ugly Present Wrapping Contest. With two winners, so each winner gets the ugly present of the other winner as a prize. Of course, I'd probably get only one contestant and then the whole thing would be a bust.

Happy Holidays, everyone!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Man on Campus--Part 4 (Jackpot)

After all the incredible nonsense I was required to endure to get a look at these materials, I'll have to say that Columbia's holdings were so much more than I ever could have hoped. I'm not going to give everything away, you'll just have to come on my Art & Architecture Tour. But to be honest, I would never go into such vivid detail on a tour anyway, unless a visitor specifically asked me; there's just way too much to discuss and never enough time to discuss it all. At long last, here are some of the more interesting aspects of how Philip Johnson's New York State Theater evolved.

His first complete scheme appears in 1958:
All NYST drawings courtesy Drawings and Archives, Avery Library, Columbia University.
He'd decided from the very start that the auditorium would be circular, so in this version he expresses it on the exterior by wrapping a semi-circular lobby space around the auditorium enclosure. Who knows how this might have looked if actually executed in structurally sound materials, but I love what happens at the top of the colonnade. If you look closely, the sort of latticework at the top is made up of twisting ribbons of presumably steel or perhaps reinforced concrete. The ribbons are so thin
as drawn here that, when seen from certain angles, they seem to disappear entirely. It gives the building such interesting texture.

Photo courtesy Dennis Wong.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind to understand what he's done here. The first is that this building was originally supposed to be built at the World's Fair site in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. So the companion to this building would have been Johnson's New York State Pavilion. While not precisely, monotonously identical, the similarity of the forms is not difficult to notice. Johnson's Queens Theater in the Park, which was ultimately constructed there, becomes kind of like the miniature step-brother of the State Theater.

Photo courtesy The Wallpapers.
Robert Moses first presented plans for Lincoln Center in 1956, when it was thought that the site would be much larger, extending from Sixtieth to Seventieth Street. This first plan called for a number of free-standing theaters in a landscaped park setting. The buildings were a number of windowless cylinders containing performance and retail spaces. Descriptions of them call to my mind Charles Luckman Associates' Madison Square Garden building from 1968. Especially interesting in this context is the engineering of the Garden's ceiling/ roof, which is practically identical in principle to the NYS Pavilion.

After Johnson's first scheme was finished, John Rockefeller III, who was intimately involved in the creation of Lincoln Center, began to worry. All the architects had been given free rein to design whatever they wanted, regardless of how the individual buildings would work together in the complex. So Rockefeller called a series of meetings to discuss aesthetics with all six architects and Rene d'Harnoncourt, director of the MoMA at the time. They agreed on a few things and fought over a lot more, but it was finally agreed that the three main buildings would present similar colonnaded façades to Robertson Plaza, with spacing between the columns in multiples of twenty feet. Johnson went back to the drawing board.

One of his new proposals was not all that different from the first, but his idea was to wrap his latticework colonnade around the whole plaza in a rectangle, connecting the three main buildings. Quite a characteristically arrogant move on his part, since his design would have affected the front of the other two main buildings. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was just brainstorming.

These drawings were not dated, so I had to sort of interpolate them at around the beginning of 1959. One of them is pretty much just a Romanesque cathedral, perhaps even specifically the one in Pisa, foretelling what I have long believed, that this complex was one of the first great works (read "large" more than qualitatively) of Postmodern architecture. Who knows what that weird wing is on the right side.

The next sheet of yellowed paper gave me chills for so many different reasons. Mostly it was because I was touching something that Philip Johnson himself most certainly touched, where he had actually picked up his pencil and started doodling, working out ideas. More than any of the others, with this one I really felt like I was in intimate contact with a piece of architectural history. But then there was what was on it. The large drawing was one thing.

But even better was this tiny little rough sketch upside-down on the same sheet of paper. I thought my head might explode.

Does that remind you of anything?


Here's what Wallace Harrison had for the opera house in 1958. I knew from some of the stories that by the following year, Johnson had said to Harrison, "you have to put a flat roof onto that thing." Over the years, poor Harrison had devised forty-three different proposals for the new opera house. I'm sure he was just so beaten down by this point that not much blunt criticism from the opinionated and outspoken Johnson was necessary to influence his design decisions.

Of course it's very possible that the arches had always been Harrison's. It's also possible that, whether the rectilinear frame had been added at his insistence or not, Johnson knew that's what the Opera House was going to look like. Maybe he was just sketching it there to give himself a point of reference for his adjacent theater, to remain contextual. Some suspicion has to remain, however, that the Met looks the way it does because of Philip Johnson. We may never know, but either way, I'm fascinated.

This sketch I'm putting here in the ordering of them, because it's closest in appearance to the second completed scheme. What he's done is to take the arches at the top and wrap them all the way around each of the bays, so it approaches a sort of oval inside a rectangle.

Photo ©2010, Ryan Witte.
 Quite by accident I recently passed by the MoMA and noticed its East Wing at 9 West 53rd Street, a building designed by Johnson and completed in 1964 that now houses the MoMA's restaurant, The Modern. There was originally supposed to be an identical building on the west, forming bookends on the original Edward Durrell Stone building, but plans got changed.

It has windows with the same curved corners. I think it's a terribly exciting transitional moment, because it's the first tiny inkling that Johnson is rejecting the cold, hard, orthogonal rectilinearity of strict Modernism and embracing a softer, more organic approach.

Here's the studio rendering of the front façade of the State Theater--a little taller--but this is actually the scheme from 1960, to which I'll return a little further below.


Here's the longitudinal section for the next scheme at the end of 1959. He goes one step further with the arches in each of the modules of the lobby and promenade, curving the corners not just on the vertical axis as in MoMA's East Wing but also on the horizontal axis. So more than just ovals inside rectangles, he's getting something closer to eggs inside of boxes.

Photo courtesy SMoA on FB.
With one simple gesture, he's leaped from the 1950s into the following decade. There's something so deliciously groovy and 1960s about this that I can't quite pinpoint, exactly. The lobby level, especially, reminds me of the deeply-vaulted Cellar Bar at the Bryant Park Hotel in Raymond Hood's American Radiator Building (1924). Although the State Theater ultimately evolved away from this form, it first became the miniature Lake Pavilion at Johnson's Glass House estate in 1962 (while it is small--for anyone who's never been there--it looks a lot smaller there than it actually is; taller folks might have to bend down, but it is large enough to walk around inside it). The following year he was able to execute this idea in a building of a scale similar to that of the State Theater, the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska. The chances of me going to Lincoln, Nebraska any time soon are extremely thin. In the meantime, it's practically impossible to find any good photos of the Museum's building.

I was particularly interested in the State's grand staircase. Johnson changed it three times. Beyond the drama inherent to a grand stair in any theater, he was obviously acutely aware of how significant circulation would be, both experientially and symbolically, in a building dedicated to the art of Dance. In that previous drawing you can see that two flights start at the Plaza level and ascend to a single central landing.

In the slightly altered next scheme from early 1960, a single flight starts at the northern side of the lobby and takes you up from Plaza level to the landing before turning south toward the auditorium. A separate short stair takes you up to the lounge outside the orchestra level auditorium entrances. Somewhat more dramatic being a single flight rather than divided in two, this staircase floats more than the previous one and far more than the version to follow. Floating staircases were fine for the 1950s, in fact, it was their ability to seemingly defy gravity and visually dematerialize that made them so very cool. But this is a little late for that, and Johnson realized it. He needed something more solid and therefore monumental.

The other thing he realized was that, although it produced a pleasing trio of modules combined with the balcony outside, the Promenade inside would much more likely read as a single, self-contained volume. I also suspect he was becoming aware of how the lobby would feel intimate and cavernous, while the Promenade would be expansive and airy. So instead of leaving it divided in half by the modules like the lobby level below it remained, he visually opened up the Promenade into that single, wide-open space, now square in section.

The next scheme is from early 1961, and it's getting very close to what we see today. These drawings were on linen, a very thick, waxy, durable paper that I'm not sure I've ever felt in my own hands.

A few things stand out here. The lobby is no longer divided into modules at all, but reads as one continuous space. A short flight of five or six stairs runs north-to-south the full width of the lobby on the east and west sides, taking you up into a squat space approaching the grand stairs on each side. The grand staircase is now more the firmly-grounded solid stone as it was built, but takes you south toward the auditorium in one direction. While still somewhat angular in section, it's more curvaceous in plan...sort of like George Balanchine's choreography.

Also gone is most of the lyrical, subtle classicism of the front façade. Instead the colonnade now has the chunky, faceted shapes as it was finally constructed.
The auditorium is now less of a perfectly circular space, but more the shape of the rubber bellows of a basting syringe, likely as a result of acoustic recommendations. For the first time one can see the jewelry-box forms beginning to appear. The chandelier does come off a bit like a jewel-encrusted brooch, but it's not yet spherical in shape. The proscenium arch struck me as looking like a curled up sheet of paper, and although it was well before my time, I was told that it had this look to it until the somewhat extensive renovations were undertaken in 1982.

Very strangely, even if it had been created by Balanchine himself and not Johnson, only in the very last longitudinal section (at bottom) was there the slightest indication anywhere of the innovative sprung-wooden stage floor construction that would make this one of the best theaters for dance in the world. Evidently Johnson provided Balanchine with numerous drawings for it until, finally, an exasperated Balanchine said "look, I'll just design it myself."

The final scheme for the New York State Theater was completed at the end of 1961. One thing I loved was the detailed specifications for the hand-dripped interior balcony grilles, of which no two are alike.

The careful circulatory progression created by the grand staircase now incorporates all the best aspects of the previous trials. The Elie Nadelman sculptures, Two Female Nudes and Circus Women, Johnson's gifts to the building, so controversial and so integral to the humane scale, proportions, and character of the Promenade, are actually depicted in these final drawings. In other words, these aren't perspective presentation drawings just for persuasion or show, but construction documents. Johnson clearly believed the Nadelmans were an inexorable part of the architecture itself, as much as any Beaux-Arts architect might have.

One last drawing put a bit of a grin on my face. The spherical gemstone chandelier had been such a last minute decision, one has to wonder how close it came to not making it in on time. Most of the final drawings were already finished, and Johnson changed his mind one last time in favor of the ball of diamonds. The only solution, evidently, was to create a chandelier sticker and stick it onto the ceiling plan diagram. Over the years the adhesive has degraded, so you can see it peeling off.

Maybe if Peter Martins and I become good buddies, or he hires me as his head of marketing, I'll have more opportunities to walk around and explore their backstage facilities more extensively. Aside from that, I'd like to believe I understand the evolution of the architecture of this building better than probably anyone, with maybe the exception of JCJ Architecture, who were responsible for the most recent renovations. As I said, getting a good look at these materials was an incredibly frustrating, comical journey. In the end, it was absolutely worth every clenched fist and facepalm.

©2010, Ryan Witte


James Vanderberg, In the Dark in the Light
Back to our regularly scheduled programming shortly, but my friend and coworker, James Vanderberg, is a talented painter doing some very interesting work in abstraction with an adept eye for color. He's applied for a grant and a chance at a solo exhibition, but needs votes. Please check out his portfolio here and if you'd like, give him a nice strong vote. For the record, I get no benefit out of it if you do, I just think his work is solid and deserves it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pei Day

Since I just mentioned it, I figured I may as well talk about the visit to I. M. Pei's Kips Bay Towers, completed in 1963.

All Kips Bay photos ©2010, Ryan Witte.
This is a private housing complex, so Open House New York was really the only way to see it. Once again, DOCOMOMO came through both by arranging for access and showing visitors around with tours. We couldn't see inside one of the original apartments, unfortunately, but there were floor plans to check out.

I'm sure the organization has been watching Pei's work all along, but it seems like they've been paying an awful lot of attention to it recently. I suppose it's timely because his work has been in the news an awful lot. In fact, if they hadn't heard about NYU's upcoming plans for Silver Towers (which no one mentioned at the time) then the tour they sponsored of those buildings was somewhat prophetic.

I was lucky to have accidentally joined a tour led by Kathleen Randall, with whom I'd corresponded back and forth about Lincoln Center a few times by email. We'd never met in person, but when I saw her trusty name-tag, I figured it must have been her. I was right.

Like Silver Towers, Kips Bay Plaza, as it was originally called, was built by NYU. One might be inclined to suggest that NYU hire today's equivalent to an architect of I. M. Pei's caliber for the new buildings they're putting up--if they're going to overrun all of Greenwich Village with their garbage--rather than the firms of questionable taste that they have.

Kips Bay was middle-income housing and was intended in part to provide residences for the nurses and other staff of NYU Medical Center, which is directly to the east and will be the subject of a later post. I later asked if this had been a Zeckendorf property, and Randall said yes. I'm not sure why I thought that, except I knew he owned a ton of land at the far east of midtown, but I'm going to concede that I probably read that somewhere. I also asked if "we have Robert Moses to blame," which we do, but that wasn't difficult to guess. The area was mostly tenement buildings before this, and those kind of neighborhoods always made Moses' fangs drip saliva. It was a middle-income rental property until the mid-1980s, when it was converted into condominiums.

I've seen the buildings referred to as Brutalist, and I suppose they are quite clearly more Brutalist than they are International Style. But in my mind '63 is a little bit too early. The Brutalism here is not really evolved enough to give them the formal impact that title might normally evoke. I don't mean that to say that the architecture here is weak in the slightest, only that it doesn't have the overbearing fortress-like
structural quality of a lot of later Brutalism.

The buildings were built in much the same way as Silver Towers, one floor at a time out of precast concrete modules, rather than being hung from a steel frame erected first.

It gives them a pleasing rationality, in that the apartments were divided by window bays in multiples of three and five, which you can see in some of the longer shots.

It's great, in a way, that the individuality of the building's residents--how they choose to dress their windows--actually amplifies what's great about the design, rather than hindering it. It's somewhat refreshing considering how many modern buildings require Fascist co-op board regulations to maintain a sense of uniformity on their façades.

Even more notably humane here is the landscaping. Looking at these towering slabs of concrete construction, the unaware viewer might see any other oppressive, dehumanizing housing project. The difference here is, first of all, that the landscaping is both so lush and so orderly.

The rambling, fake naturalism of the typical tower-in-a-park scenario is a sign saying, basically, Loiter Here. Towers of masonry with only the most reluctant, obligatory windows turn their backs on the greenery surrounding them as if to become their own separate, monolithic entities. Meandering paths force the contrivance of a natural setting while creating isolated nooks and hiding spots requiring extensive security measures and caustic flood-lighting.

Randall had actually pointed out how the ground floors of the buildings are quite open, airy, and filled with sunlight.

Despite their Brutalist leanings, the Kips Bay buildings are drenched in glass. While one might lounge around and enjoy the natural qualities of their inner park, the buildings are an audience, ever watchful, psychologically a great expanse of potential eyes. These grounds are no invitation to mischief. Instead the buildings are in sympathetic harmony with the landscaping around them, a relentless urban grid that nonetheless complements and supports its grounds. I guess I should mention that the inner gardens were once open to the public, and their being privatized did create some controversy.

In any case, it's encouraging to see an example of Modernist housing--especially when associated with the name Robert Moses--that really does seem to work so well and continues to work well so many years later. I overheard at least one woman involved with the open house who owns an apartment in the complex and appeared to have a sense of pride in that. It just goes to show that no architectural style is without potential for success when put into the hands of a talented practitioner.

At the end of this little tour we were dropped off in a sort of community recreation room space where they had some really nice large prints of old photographs from the original construction and immediately after Kips Bay was finished. There I got a chance to meet and speak with Abby Suckle, the architect who had renovated this part of the building. She was very nice and also told me about this fascinating website she started called, which is a way to keep track of galleries and gallery shows, but also all the public art that may only temporarily be on view around New York City at any given time.

Unfortunately, Randall had to run off to take around the next group of visitors (they were going out every fifteen minutes or so). I never got a chance to speak to her further (she'd told me she'd written a dissertation on Lincoln Center, I think she said while in college, so I was eager to ask her about it) or to formally say goodbye. Regardless, it was another great event from DOCOMOMO. The following day I participated in yet another one. That story later.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Sunday, December 5, 2010


When I first started this blog, I expected to concentrate on the architecture of my city, New York. And I have diverged from that plan on some occasions. But I guess I wouldn't have expected that anyone aside from other New Yorkers would be interested in what I had to say, or at the most, it would be people from the northeast of the United States.

Instead I've learned that many of you reading these posts are from all over the planet. The UK, Russia, India, Indonesia, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, Australia. You've all come to see what I had to say for one reason or another. I can't tell you how flattered I am by that. I just wanted to say how honored I feel to be a part of this world community of people like you who care about art and architecture, design and beauty. Thank you, my brothers and sisters. I hope you've enjoyed what I've written. Thanks to our technology, we are a family, and I hope our family continues to grow. Together, we can make our planet a more beautiful place to live, if we choose to do it.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Man on Campus--Part 3

My second trip to the Library for the Performing Arts was almost as comical as the first, but for different reasons. At least this time I knew exactly where to go, so I headed straight for the Dance & Drama desk. Unfortunately, the very nice woman handling the desk this time had no idea what I was talking about or how to provide me with a Metrocard. I probably stood there for a good fifteen minutes while she searched through the computer database, having no luck, becoming increasingly flustered and annoyed at me for distracting her by attempting to provide her with additional information that might speed things along. Finally she called for back-up. This required her to dial three or four different extension numbers before she could actually reach someone who was available.

Before she could return to her database search, a 127-year-old gentleman approached the desk. I said she may as well go ahead and help him, assuming he'd be faster, and he was sort of making me uncomfortable hovering around like that. He was looking for the photograph of some actor or something. She told him she was sort of busy with my issues, and that the card catalog just to our left would be the best place for him to start. Well, it turns out this guy can't see well enough to read the cards in the card catalog. One might be inclined to wonder what good a photograph is going to do someone with eyesight that bad. One might also be inclined to wonder what someone who can't see well enough to read would hope to accomplish at a library. I mean, plenty of people carry little pocket magnifying glasses around with them, don't they?

So the woman who was helping me had to take this guy by the hand and lead him personally over to the card catalog and go through the whole thing with him step by step. Who knew how long it would take her back-up to arrive, so I just sat down to wait. I was only on a break from work, so I could hear the clock ticking in my head. By the time the other person arrived who could help me, the first woman was finished with the old guy. As it turned out, nothing needed to be found in the database anyway. I got my Metrocard.

I'd checked the weather ahead of time and was fairly certain I'd have sunny skies a few days later, so I called and made an appointment with Jason at Avery's Drawings & Archives Department.

Getting my access pass the second time around was considerably easier because Madame Unhelpful was not working Butler's front office that day, and Jason had also kindly emailed them up front (which the girl said was not normally necessary) to let them know I was coming.

I had arrived much earlier than my appointment, though, so I could see another one of the buildings. It's the academic building I talked about in my first post, but it was only later I realized that it was the other Harrison & Abramovitz (H&A) project. It's the International Affairs Building (IAB), completed in 1971.

All photos ©2010, Ryan Witte.

It's a great Brutalist building, but there's a lot more to this, also. In one of the drawings of this façade, it reads a bit differently than as executed. It appears more like a sheer mesh screen supported by those two giant piers.

If you concentrate, you can still see it, but it's a bit too meaty, and the top floor of windows in the center section somewhat disrupts the effect.

Directly underneath this is a sunken court in the plaza that connects IAB to Greene Hall. Philip Johnson was doing a lot of this kind of thing, also, but this really reminds me of what H&A did at the President's House at Rockefeller University.

I could be mistaken, but the curving brick benches don't really look like H&A to me. They look more like something that was maybe added later. I can find no way to confirm that. Either way, the glass bubble is extremely cool. I don't care if it's a little goofy, I love it. The way it reflects the image of the IAB above the courtyard is great. A student sitting out there eating her lunch told me it lets light into the Lehman Library underneath.

I also asked her if there were a way to get up to the plaza level (which is actually the sixth floor) without having to go all the way around the outside of the building. She told me to use the elevators. Whoever wrote the Columbia University Wiki page about this building had a very good sense of humor about what s/he refers to as "Those Goddamned Elevators." Evidently Columbia's president at the time, Grayson Kirk, saved a ton of money by getting extremely cheap elevators instead of ones from a trusted manufacturer like Otis. They're considered to be so cramped and irritatingly slow that allegedly students will sometimes opt to climb thirteen flights of stairs rather than be subjected to the elevators.

That's the southern façade. The northern façade displays a bit better how IAB is really a more evolved version of Greene and works quite nicely adjacent to it. It has the same vertical fin window mullions, but a bit more muscular and here only slightly more pronounced than the horizontal lines of the floor slabs.

Below this is a sort of unfortunately unfriendly base that presents a blank concrete wall to the pedestrian. I'm very much liking the thin ribbon of windows at the top, which tells you that the concrete base, despite its apparent structural strength, is not actually supporting anything. Instead it reveals columns at the corners of the interior that hold up the plinth. Apparently, H&A thought this building would be built in a desert, because they clearly made no provisions whatsoever for the flow of rain water off that base. If they do decide to clean it up, they definitely need to rethink drainage.

This is something that more generally needs to be addressed. When the Modernists rejected all the trappings of traditional building methods, they neglected to take into account that a lot of them were there for a very good reason. The pediment over a window or door, for instance, would keep the rain out and direct it away from the window or door frame. There have been some studies done on how rain water flows off buildings, but I think the subject could use a bit more study. Few talented architects ignore the angles and quality of sunlight in relationship to their structures, but in my opinion, new architecture also deserves new solutions to water flow. The design and shape of the roof, most specifically, could be re-examined to capture and direct water in very interesting, useful, even beautiful ways and, in more rural settings, ways that won't disrupt the natural water systems.

Where the building rests on the plinth are some really nice terraces that look as if they're barely ever used (don't look at the graffiti). I really like the use of the glass here, because the concrete structure above it looks so heavy and massive. Then the beams of concrete protruding out at the corners give these two "legs" a nice shot of steroids to make up for the transparency of the glass in between.

The west façade of the IAB is really the building's finest moment. It's where it all starts to make sense.
There's something vaguely 1970s about this that could mislead you into thinking maybe it's ugliness. I don't think so. The smooth, pale concrete was a wise decision here over, say, red brick with concrete accents--as by Davis, Brody & Associates--or the rusticated concrete so loved by Paul Rudolph and deplored by everyone else. Its compositional rigor and formality is stately and impressive, its symmetry unapologetic. While using the same vocabulary, it has a significantly different character from the other façades.

Rather than for geometric acrobatics or to put on a mask of unsubstantiated formal grandeur, here the Brutalism is used most honestly to express the structure of the building. It's as if you could take a bunch of concrete slabs and posts and stack them up to create this like a game of Jenga. It's all right there in front of your face. In addition to this, and very likely because of it, it speaks of raw, uncompromising strength.

Truly my favorite thing about it, though, is what you see when you get directly underneath it.

Unlike with Greene, which changes its structural character only from one side or another, here it's from every angle. The windows disappear entirely leaving you with nothing at all except pure architectural form. And in its robust structural simplicity, it looks absolutely ancient. From some angles it looks like something you could easily find in North Africa or the Middle East. From others it looks radically modern.

The other factor is that the United States is a young country. So any ancient quality this building might be said to have will automatically need to be foreign, and therefore international: the International Affairs Building. Even the plaza entrance strikes me as something akin to a Mayan temple.

Just for kicks, since the sun was a bit different, I got another shot of the Henry Moore piece for you from a different vantage.

I asked the women standing behind it if they'd ever seen it being turned. They said yes. I said I tried pushing it but obviously I'm not strong enough. They thought that was funny. They said usually it takes a group of people all shoving at once to get it to move.

Next up: The New York State Theater.

©2010, Ryan Witte