Friday, January 7, 2011

Here, Loeb

I suppose it may seem as if I'm on a Harrison & Abramovitz kick lately. It's true that, like I said, I've been trying to see all the buildings by Lincoln Center's architects in the tri-state area that I can. But really it was just by chance that I got around to seeing this one. It's directly adjacent to Kips Bay Plaza, so I figured the day I went there would be a great opportunity to see this one.

I asked the DOCOMOMO folks if they knew where it was, because I had tried to look it up myself and it was surprisingly difficult to figure it out. Much like Philip Johnson's East Wing of the MoMA, this building is not as much on the radar of works by H&A in New York. In fact, I'm not even sure I could tell you how I knew it was there. I feel like someone mentioned it to me at some point, but I have no idea why it would have come up. It's small, for one thing, and it's also sort of hidden in the huge complex of NYU's Langone Medical Center. I just got the Victoria Newhouse book about Harrison in the mail. I had read most of it back when I worked at Rockefeller Center, but I never owned a copy myself. I'm very much looking forward to reading it cover-to-cover. It barely mentions this building at all.

Built in 1957, stylistically, it's sort of halfway between the United Nations and the Metropolitan Opera House. It was originally called the Loeb Student Center and is now evidently called Alumni Hall.

Yes, I know the United Nations includes a roster of architects far greater than Wallace Harrison, but there are some similarities that can't be ignored that I'll get to below. It's a wonderful modestly-sized mid-century building--in fact, not much larger than a very large house. Fortunately, since I didn't know exactly what I was looking for, as soon as I walked into the hospital's front lobby, it was immediately obvious that this was the work of H&A.

Newhouse attributes this solely to Abramovitz. I'm quite sure the author knew what she was talking about. I'm just always a bit reluctant to attribute the work of a firm to any one, single practitioner in it. It may very well have been predominantly his responsibility, but the idea that Abramovitz created this building start to finish without even the slightest input from Harrison just doesn't fly with me, somehow. We do say the same about Avery Fisher Hall, myself for the sake of simplicity more than anything, but to me that's even less plausible because it was so much larger of a project. Granted, Harrison was probably busy pulling out his last remaining hairs trying to deal with Rudolph Bing, the Met's General Manager at the time, and was happy to leave the majority of Fisher (and this little project) in Abramovitz' hands.

Like the United Nations tower, Alumni Hall has two transparent (long) walls and two solid (short) walls.
I'm going to ignore the large window on the north wall for the time being. I don't believe the masonry wall is supporting much, which I'll also get to below, but it gives this building and the others like it by them an extremely primary form. It's as if the entire structure is nothing more than two posts and a beam, stretched out deep enough to form an enclosure. It's simple, but in the best and most straightforward possible way. By separating them so sharply, it also amplifies the two aspects of building, one as old as architecture itself--the masonry wall--the other not much more than a generation old--the steel and glass curtain wall.

It's nice to see the window mullions at this early stage, also. They're not quite as evolved as they would become in later projects. But they still beg questions. Why bother to include them at all? They're obviously not supporting much more than perhaps the glass itself; you can see the columns supporting the roof right inside the window line--also the reason the masonry end walls don't exactly work as posts. And why have the mullions protruding outward? Most buildings using this technology did their best to emphasize the shiny sleekness of the glass in perfectly flat planes (as with Lever House). And one might be inclined to suggest it would be appropriate here to conceal the mullions, to create further contrast with the masonry. One might even use rusticated stone instead of brick to take this to the next level, but that was Richard Neutra's business, here I think they were going for something a little different.

The mullions accomplish the same thing here that they do at Greene Hall, but in a more polar way. On one axis, the building is wide open, from the other, it reads as a solid block. Also similar here is how the prominent mullions emphasize the verticality of a building only two stories high, quite short.

They also employed the same strategy that Eero Saarinen would with the CBS Headquarters, "Black Rock." Instead of lowering Alumni Hall down below grade like Saarinen, H&A built up the surrounding ground a few steps. The effect is the same, though, that the base of the building is concealed from view. You don't notice where it starts, just where it goes, that is, up. I'll have to admit I think the lion statues are completely bizarre. They seem utterly out of place and I really can't imagine H&A specifying them, especially considering how much great works of Modern Art they used in other projects.

So let's go back to that window on the north wall. First of all, why is there a window there at all? It seems like it's deadening the impact of solid versus transparent that they appear to be exploiting in the building overall.

But there's something purposeful about it. It's not just a bare opening of glass in an otherwise solid brick wall. Its frame is fairly thin, but the fact remains that it does have a frame. Although very minimal, the window frame is a conspicuous bit of ornamentation on an otherwise modern building. Clearly, this window was intended to accomplish something specific. It was given weight.

The other thing about it is where it's located. The location of this window on that wall is almost...strange. One might easily guess that it opens onto the second floor, but even that isn't exactly clear, especially considering that the lobby space around to the right is full-height. Beyond that, it seems to defy its nature as a window, because it doesn't give any indication of having a relationship to the interior of the building, what windows are generally supposed to do. In other words, it's not really large enough or in the right proportions to allow you to see much of the interior. It's not one of a regular pattern of bays next to it. It isn't paired with an identical window on the first floor directly below it. It feels very alone somehow, but at the same time, it's just large enough to be sufficient by itself on that wall. In fact, one might argue that this wall didn't want any more windows.

By having some weight but not accomplishing the things that windows normally do on the exterior of a building, this window becomes a purely compositional element on the fa├žade. It becomes a purely architectural gesture in the design of the building. I see some parallels with the prominent balconies of Greene Hall, and if I wanted to extrapolate, I might suggest that the entire arched portico of the Metropolitan Opera is an evolution of this same idea, coerced into shape by the exigencies of the Lincoln Center campus.

The interiors of Alumni Hall I found really quite lovely in a pared-down 1950s sort of way. The floating staircases mirroring each other at either end and the overhanging balcony are elegant in their simplicity. The formality of their arrangement is pleasing in response to their diminutive size.

The palette of materials is also vibrant yet restrained, and has a luxurious feeling without being overly formal. The wood paneling framed in aluminum looks strikingly contemporary to me. I also think mosaic was a fantastic choice that gives the wall surface a tactile, hand-crafted sort of texture, offsetting perhaps the other cold, hard surfaces.


And there you have my visit to Alumni Hall. Another H&A project down, many more to go.

All images ©2010 and text ©2011, Ryan Witte.

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