Friday, June 24, 2011

Being and Breuer in the Bronx

My trip to see Marcel Breuer's buildings at the New York University Heights Campus in the Bronx  was a much deeper experience than I was expecting. Consciously, I thought that I had a beautiful sunny day to see another work by a modern master that was close enough (accessible enough by public transportation) that I wouldn't need to spend the money on renting a car again. Perhaps the reading I've been doing lately (at the moment: White Papers, Black Marks--Architecture, Race, Culture)--and my interest in the intersection of architecture and issues of race, gender, and so on--subconsciously made the name "Bronx" shine a little more brightly than usual on my Trips map. But for certain I didn't consciously expect University Heights to necessarily be a neighborhood inhabited predominantly by people of color. The Bronx is a big borough, after all, and I really don't know it all that well.

In some weird way, I appreciated being one of the only white faces on the street. I know this is an experience that many people of color have every day of their lives, so I wanted to pay attention to it. But the reason it made me uncomfortable (the emotion I was examining, and honestly, it was not strong) I found very interesting. It wasn't because of some stupid "these are not my people" sensation, and of course no one made me feel even slightly unwelcome. Rather the discomfort came from the fear that I was intruding, that my very presence would be seen as offensive in some way. What I mean is, I imagine many of the residents of this neighborhood, in their day-to-day lives, have to deal with entitled white people all day long who have no clue what "entitlement" even means. Their own neighborhood, therefore, I would think becomes an escape from that. For me to just waltz down the street, invading their retreat, their safe zone(?), felt intrusive on my part, like I was invading something sacred to the long-time residents and off-limits to me.

And that's where another conflict arises. No matter where I am, I always make the point to be comfortable in my own skin. While in Montreal, for instance, it worked; at least four or five people asked me for directions, assuming I lived there, that I belonged there. Certainly being in any urban area with the look of "I'm lost and confused! Where am I?" all over your face (or having a big-ass camera hanging around your neck) is a great invitation for a questionable character to try to scam you...or worse. And I don't think there was any question that I'm not a resident of University Heights, not just because I'm white, but a whole lot of other things, the simplest of which being that I'd never been there before, had never been seen before in a neighborhood of presumably familiar faces. 

Maybe I'm projecting my own issues, but a lot of the looks I got seemed to say not "what is he doing here?" but at the very least, "oh, there's a white guy here." But the reason that pun--"in my own skin"--is available to me in this discussion is precisely the problem. I have no doubt that what enables me to feel at ease in an unfamiliar urban environment are my privileges as a white man that, historically speaking, "entitle" me to go with impunity wherever I choose to go.

The question this uncovers is this: Where is the middle ground between a respectful acknowledgement of not belonging in an environment carved out, commanded, and valued as a retreat (merely my empathetic assumption) by people of color, and comfortably inhabiting one's own (white) body in that environment so as not to appear naïve and out-of-place? From the other direction, I almost feel like most any reasons I might have to feel uncomfortable in a neighborhood that's largely Black and Hispanic would have to have racist roots. So how much of my comfort level do I gain from my white privilege, and how much do I get from my devotion to anti-racism? Is it possible to determine what kind of "comfort" one is feeling? I was unable to get a grasp on the answer during this brief excursion.

I'd like to add the disclaimer that my ideas about the racialization of the urban, architectural environment are immaterial in a discussion that is best had by the people of color who shape and inhabit those environments. My hope is no more than that another voice in the mix might help to shed added and helpful light on a subject that should concern all of us in the twenty-first century, despite the fact that my voice is a white male one. I mean only to be an ally, not a colonialist. Take them or leave them, as is everyone's prerogative.

Across the board, my interactions with people on this trip were remarkably pleasant. Perhaps too pleasant, and I do hope my experience wasn't glossed over with an insincere veneer. I was diligently studying the map of the campus to try and figure out which buildings I was looking for when I suddenly realized there was a cute couple of Hispanic kids behind me looking at it also. I quickly stepped aside and apologized for blocking their view. They were trying to find their bearings, so I pointed out to them where on the map I suspected we were.

Finding the buildings by name was not at all easy because the names have changed. The original campus is by McKim, Mead & White, not surprisingly, and is beautiful, if staid. I looked fairly closely at the original buildings but won't include them here, which I'll explain below. Breuer's buildings started to appear in the 1960s and are otherworldly. Because of the financial crisis New York faced in the early-1970s, which also affected its many institutions, NYU was forced to sell their Bronx campus to the City University of New York in 1973. It then became Bronx Community College (BCC). Finding Breuer's work by sight was not difficult at all. I just needed to know where to walk. The first one I found was Technology I & II (1972), now called Meister Hall for Dr. Morris Meister, BCC's first president.

When you see it in person, it looks entirely 1972. But something about the two-dimensionality of the photographic image allows me to see something more. Meister is H-shaped in plan. The front wing (the left side of the H), which houses classrooms and seminar rooms, has proportions that are a bit too unusual, and its piers too Corbusian. The tower behind it housing laboratories and offices, on the other hand, reads like an updated version of a typical turn-of-the-century office building. In fact, I'm seeing shadows of Louis Sullivan in it.

A sign of Breuer's genius is what he does with the entrance here. And one might be tempted to say that no mid-twentieth-century master could do a building entrance as dramatic as Breuer. Wright's, Mies', and Johnson's were all pretty straightforward. Corbusier, Saarinen, Rudolph, Pei, and Gehry mostly allow(ed) their building's ideological conception and sculptural expressionism to all but swallow them whole. Kahn seemed more concerned with arrival than with entrance, and Meier more with circulation. One always knows exactly where and how to enter a Breuer building, but more than that, doing so is an event.

The front of Meister is mostly uniform, with the regular piers along the bottom with a four-window bay above each. The entrance is perfectly visible between those third and fourth piers, but is tucked away behind them. Instead of something stuck onto the front of the building and disrupting its horizontal mass, a sheer, asymmetrical brick tower rises up behind it to announce the entrance.

Seeing this image in a thumbnail size in order to load it, there's something about the forms that appear vaguely Italianate or perhaps even Collegiate Gothic to me. Okay, very vaguely. But squinting or unfocusing your eyes maybe you can tell me I'm not crazy?

At the eastern end, the horizontal front volume pronounces itself by standing on its piers with just parking underneath. At the western end, the glass-enclosed lobby space continues out to the edge. Because the land slopes downward, at eye level here the underside of the building opens up revealing the contrast between the solid concrete structure and the bright, seemingly weightless glass enclosure.

Back around to the east, a gradual progression begins, in between the two wings of the H, toward a more muscular, purely geometric Brutalism. Notice how the windows now are nothing more than tiny slits in their deep, inverted pyramidal recesses. The sun at this angle also happily helps to amplify the strength of the geometry.

Windows are permitted to interrupt the massive brick and concrete forms in only the most reluctant slivers, in between them and mostly recessed out of sight.

When I came around this corner and the southern façade came into full view, I could barely breathe enough to whisper to myself "Oh. My. God."

I honestly think this has to be one of the most brilliant moments in all of twentieth-century architecture (one of many, of course). This entire façade of the building is nothing more than one enormous entrance. The texture is pure architectural sculpture, a wall, a great dramatic play of light and shadow. I can't say what it would be like to work in a building with no windows on one whole side (although I suspect this side may be the laboratories).

The terrace at the back seems to be a mildly unfriendly place to gather, as many of the great works of landscaping were up to this time, for better or for worse. It may have only looked so barren because of the very fact that there were no students using it at the time. Visually speaking, I think it is one of the most stunning places I have ever been.

And to be fair, there is a group of shade pavilions in the center that I would be very surprised people didn't enjoy using to have their lunches.

After that experience, I was very excited for what I would find next. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a let-down.

In fact, when I first came upon the Gould Hall of Technology, now called Carl Polowczyk Hall, I thought to myself, "that can't really be one of the Breuer buildings, can it?" And as much as I have (hopefully successfully) defended a lot of buildings on this blog that people hate(d), I think I can safely say I find this building ugly. This and the rest of the Breuer work to follow was completed in 1964, except for the last building at the end.

Never one to condemn the work of someone with this much talent in such ultimate terms, I'd like to try to defend him. I have a very hard time believing that the corrugated metal nonsense on the top was ever Breuer's idea. In fact, I suspect that floor wasn't even in his original plans. Why anyone would put a prefabricated farm machinery storage shed on the top of this building is beyond me. Without question the college should employ a uniform type and color of window blind (I'm going to presume I understand what Breuer was doing here and suggest a light grayish-blue). That might require a maddeningly fascist co-op board in a residential building, but this isn't even a residence hall. It's classrooms for math, physics, and medical technology. There is really no excuse for it to look like they hung brown paper bags in the windows.

Buildings from this time period suffer from an unfortunate circumstance which I also discussed in regard to Harrison & Abramovitz' buildings at Rockefeller University. It's the continued Modernist use of relatively strict, regular horizontal bands of cladding materials on buildings built when central air conditioning was not yet seen as a basic necessity. Possibly Polowczyk employs electric radiators precluding the possibility of incorporating air conditioning into a centralized duct system. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that individual units could have been installed by a conscientious contractor that would have been far less visible on the outside. Assuming cost was the major controlling factor, at the very, very least, those visible units should have been all exactly the same brand and size (many are, too many others are clearly not) and installed at precise, uniform intervals. As it looks now, it's just a disaster that quite conspicuously helps to ruin what might be not an altogether awful building otherwise.

No one, not even a professor I was transferred to on the phone, could tell me anything at all about why there are cannons on the grounds. The best I could piece together from his cryptic explanation is that perhaps top-secret military research was being conducted here during World War I and there needed to be some kind of artillery protection. But he also said, "no, I don't think it was to protect the property," so who knows. Then he suggested I would need to ask someone in Washington, D.C., as if they'd ever tell me anything.

I was also a little bit disturbed by the yellow brick. But I quickly noticed that the original McKim, Mead & White buildings were built of similar brick. While his results might have been a bit questionable in this case, it was actually rather smart of Breuer to take this material and frame it in modern concrete construction as a way to relate contextually to the rest of the campus. One section of this eastern façade with a pattern of flower-pot-shaped openings in it was the first little hint that this was indeed a work by Breuer. That shape, the isosceles trapezoid, is also reflected in other forms, the plan of Begrisch Hall and the plaza around the Community Hall for two examples discussed below. It was clearly one of Breuer's favorite and signature shapes.

Cementing this (pun intended) as a work by Breuer was-- surprise--the entrance. The soaring, sculptural canopy screaming expressively up into the sky is so spectacular it almost makes up for the numbing banality of the building it adorns. As much as I would love to be able to just dismiss this building outright, the entrance canopy makes it entirely impossible.

On the western side of the building, it all starts to make sense. Here we find an incredible piece of architectural sculpture, the Begrisch Lecture Hall.

Although connected by a suspended walkway rather than being a sculptural adornment like the entrance canopy, it's not difficult to imagine how brilliantly this was conceived. Polowczyk Hall, tight, rigidly ordered, stacked horizontal bands of warm concrete, cold aluminum-framed glass, and traditional gold brick, punctuated by three intriguing and unique sculptural moments: entrance canopy, trapezoid orifice wall, and this lecture hall. I'm convinced that in a simple water-color rendering, this would have seemed the very highest form of the art of architecture on a 1964 par with contemporary Zaha Hadid.

Begrisch is a concrete sculpture that just happens to be large enough to contain an inhabitable interior space. The way it teeters so perfectly and precariously on only two legs is the most incredible feat of engineering prowess and speaks of incredible balance and precision.

Unfortunately some idiot decided it was necessary to dig a hole and put in some lame addition with a shingled roof and a metal fence around it? One would expect CUNY, as a whole, to have enough architectural historians on their payroll to throw a tantrum over something like that. Where were the professors of Architecture when this crime was being perpetrated?

In any case, thankfully, with some rustic stone walls, Begrisch still retains some of the qualities of, like, aliens landing on earth and creating Stonehenge. The contrast between the ancient form of the stone wall and the Space-Age concrete sculpture hovering above it is magical. This is what Architecture is all about, in my humble opinion. It's a tour de force.

Behind this is the Community Hall. On this lower level, it has the forms of a modest 1950s residence, which caused another small epiphany for me. The neglect and misguided uses of this part of the campus I found a bit disturbing, however. It's as if a collective agreement has been made to turn this wonderful, homey, almost domestic-looking enclave into something useless and unappealing.

Three lonely wood-plank boxes planted with random crops of indeterminate purpose that no one really cares to maintain. Weeds growing up around everything. An upside-down trash can. Some random potted plant as if forgotten sitting on the stone wall. A broken window replaced with what appears to be translucent Plexiglass? Walkway fieldstones completely surrounded by weeds, part of it replaced with asphalt, and then back to cement like some kind of sad patchwork quilt. A desk chair holding the door open, and why? The inner door is still closed. A garden hose someone couldn't be bothered to coil back up after using it. And last but certainly not least, that awful oversized plastic day-care-center picnic table.

I refuse to accept that no contract furniture company is making inexpensive versions of something along the lines of Harry Bertoia's patio furniture from the 1950s that would compliment the architecture here in the most delightful way.

The long, narrow terrace around to the left of this entrance, although accessed more directly from the far end, would be the loveliest cool, shady spot to sit around at little cafe tables on hot summer afternoons, but is riddled with weeds and pools of water too large to step over and no doubt festering with mosquitoes. I find the whole scene very unfortunate.

None of this was able to ruin my enjoyment of what Breuer accomplished to the west of this. My mouth just hung open when I came around that corner.

He swings back and forth between a familiar 1950s Modern aesthetic and these moments that were easily 1969. These raised walkways, as much as Begrisch, must have seemed incredibly futuristic and so groovy when the building was completed in 1961. This westernmost building was originally Silver Hall and is now called Colston Hall, named for Dr. James Colston, the college's second president. It's a residence hall, but the BCC website hints that it now also contains some classrooms and labs. This shallow U-shaped plan looks suspiciously similar to Breuer's UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, which also happens to have a sculptural entrance canopy very similar to Polowczyk.

Colston evidently towers up over Fort George to the west quite majestically, but for me to walk all the way around the campus to Segdwick Avenue on the other side probably would have taken me another hour and a half. Here's the beautifully modernist top level of the Community Hall with Colston behind it, what I first saw coming around the corner from Polowczyk.

My story unfortunately ends abruptly here. My camera chose exactly the wrong moment to run out of memory. I mean exactly wrong because if it had run out not much more than five to ten photos earlier, I almost certainly would have left the campus, bought a new memory card, and returned to finish taking pictures. But as it was, I only would have taken around five or so pictures after this. It really wasn't worth it for me to walk all the way back over here for so few additional images. Still, I left feeling a little bit frustrated that I wasn't able to capture my visit to full completion.

I walked around a bit more to check out the original buildings (which, as I mentioned above, I'm unable to include here) and left the campus. At one intersection I asked a woman if she'd ever spotted an electronics or camera store in the neighborhood. I quickly realized she was on some type of drug. To me it seemed like some kind of sedative, maybe drunk, but a little different than that. There was just something kind of unstable and hazy about her behavior. She said she thought there was such a store back down Burnside Avenue, where I'd come from the subway. She was headed in that direction and offered to show me herself. She was walking extremely slowly, though, so I asked her what side of the street she thought it was on, thanked her, and continued on my way.

It wasn't on that side of the street. What I found was a cellphone store that happened to carry the memory card I needed. Even though I was finished with BCC, I was going to need a new card anyway. But I also had a second Breuer stop to make before returning home. I also went to see his Shuster Hall and Fine Arts Building at Lehman College a few subway stops north. What I never could have known is that it was Lehman College's graduation ceremony that day. As incredibly irritating as it is to have to deal with graduations every day for weeks on end at Lincoln Center, I had to choose this day to visit Lehman. So the first issue was that the entire Lehman campus was absolutely lousy with graduates, professors, family members, events, picnics, bands, balloons, and festivities. It was a mess. Had I gone only a week later, I could have gotten pristine photos without so much as a single human in sight.

The other thing is that the one wing of the building has been altered beyond all recognition with a new black glass cladding, and the other wing that remains as Breuer designed it is not nearly as impressive as BCC, especially since it no longer has a matching wing to mirror it. On top of this, one of the best things about the buildings is how the interiors were constructed with sort of upside-down umbrella-shaped structures, not visible on the outside obviously, and badly lit and very difficult to photograph properly on the inside. So I snapped a couple photos I won't bother to include here and returned home.

Nevertheless, seeing BCC and the revelations about Marcel Breuer it caused in my brain made this trip anything at all but a bust. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte.


kellerme said...

I think this is your best post yet!

Ryan Witte said...

What a nice compliment, Kellerme, thank you!

Anonymous said...


As a volunteer at BCC, it was interesting to read your comments on the Marcel Breuer buildings and your photographs of them. They show an understanding of his intentions measured against the results. Largely, the students respond to the buildings as sites for their education. Their appraisals as classrooms are less than positive.

My feeling is that the buildings work more as
sculpture than as practical classrooms. The interiors, which you did not experience, are "brutalist" in the worst sense, especially in Meister Hall. More importantly they don't embrace the student: the spaces are graceless and inhospitable. Colson is a little more hospitable to the student population.

But then again, neither are the Stanford White buildings practical classrooms. They are slightly more accepting of students than Breuer's. Let's hope that the new building by Robert A. M. Stern, a pastiche of White, not yet completed, will have more gracious learning and studying spaces then the previous buildings.

Beagrish Hall, to me, seems an early study for the Whitney Museum of Art.

You should come to New York more often and appraise our architecture. Different eyes different views.

Remo Cosentino

Ryan Witte said...


Thanks so much for your comments. It's true that I didn't get to experience the interiors. From what I could see from the outside, however, I suspect they are not being utilized to their best advantage. A talented interior designer or interior architect I believe could remedy most of the problems with those buildings.

I've said about the Whitney Museum that it's such a wonderful place for the display and viewing of artworks. I have a hard time believing that someone capable of creating that space would be entirely ignorant of the functional needs of an educational institution. I'm also beginning to think that powerful architecture is also confrontational architecture in some way, but that's a discussion for another time.

I have great respect for Robert Stern, if anyone can create great buildings on that campus, he can, in my humble opinion.

I'm in New York quite often, because I live here.


Unknown said...

Hello Ryan,

My brother and I recently visited BCC to see the Hall of Famous Americans. It is quite beautiful and the rotunda of the old library is stunning.

We accidentaly came across the cannons and as Vietnam veterans and retired Army, we realized they had to be preserved. These cannons were place there in the ealry 1920s by Sir Thomas Lipton as a memorial to New York Universirty men who served alongside Britsh troops in the Great War and also to commorate Fort Number 8 which was a British Revolutionary fort in the ground of BCC.

We have recently started an effort to restore the cannons and site to its past glory, for all to remember.

Bill Farrell

Ryan Witte said...

Hey, Bill,

Thanks so much for your added information. It's amazing and also a little bit depressing that more people don't know why and in honor of whom those cannons are there.

Good luck in your efforts to have them restored. I welcome any visitors here to support your cause and encourage them to do so.


Josh said...

I'm doing a website on NYC brutalism and this post was amazing! Great to read your eloquent and emotional experience with the Breuer buildings! - Josh

Ryan Witte said...

Josh, please post a link to your website! It sounds awesome.