Monday, April 4, 2011

Investing in the Past

This time of year, I always get incredibly busy and think I'm going to lose my mind. I asked my manager at Lincoln Center if he's trying to kill me. He's not the homicidal type, but I do give him a hard time when I have the opportunity. Of course I still always give a kick ass tour, but spring is pretty hardcore. It's also been a bad year for road trips. We've had some beautiful, crystal clear, sunny days, but with the temperatures we've had this winter, the thought of walking around the rural/ suburban campus of some twentieth-century architectural masterpiece gives me psychosomatic frostbite just thinking about it.

But I'm not going to drop the ball, so here are some photos I got of the Manufacturer's Trust Company Bank Building (MTCB, 1954) by Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

I did talk about this building in my post about Bunshaft long ago. I also mentioned it in comparison to their little bank at JFK. This is a remarkable building. It's already been put at great risk because the people who bought it wanted to gut it and turn it into some disgustingly lame retail store. As it is, they removed the Harry Bertoia screen that helped define the interior. But the good news is that the interior has gotten landmark status. It's very difficult to landmark an interior. I think that's a shame because I might even venture to say that interiors define our eras even better than the exteriors of buildings. They're very often more exuberant in their expression of style. I suspect the folks at DOCOMOMO were instrumental in the endeavor to get it landmarked and I applaud them, although I was unable to attend the hearing.

With MTCB, the exterior and interior are one and the same commodity. The very fact that the interior is so plainly visible from out on the street is exactly what makes this building so revolutionary. The way the bottom stories dematerialize make the volume of the top two floors hover as if by magic. That the mezzanine level floats above the ground floor is directly dependent on it being visibly distinct construction from the steel and glass curtain wall. The escalator lifting customers to the mezzanine not only amplified this sense of floating, but also cut through the raised slab in a delightfully modern, technological way. The ground floor has since been unfortunately chopped up.

I've discussed the bank vault elsewhere. It really is the most genius moment of this building. That it is in such prominent display to the street is its most revolutionary quality. It being the work of the legendary Industrial Designer, Henry Dreyfuss, makes it all the more valuable as the recipient of preservation and protection.

This building has so few defining moments and each one of them a singularly exquisite piece of twentieth-century artistry and design. To say that the interior deserves any less honor or recognition than the exterior is to completely misunderstand Bunshaft's monumental achievement here. I've heard it said that the three main buildings in Lincoln Center present a mostly glass fa├žade to Robertson Plaza specifically because of the MTCB. Max Abramovitz' first drawings for Philharmonic (Avery Fisher) Hall show a striking resemblance to it (the drawing from 1958 that I have in my head didn't come up in a Google search). The MTCB was wildly influential in many ways, but remains sadly underrated, especially by the heartless, artless, undignified investors who buy and sell and destroy our culture, against our will and without remorse or accountability. An architecture professor I spoke to recently from California Polytechnic called it "remarkable," and he was taking his students to see it. Let us all hope the Bertoia screen gets returned and the new owners respect the glory of this twentieth-century work of art.

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte.

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