September 1, 2010
Gio Ponti’s New York
A new museum exhibit casts light on a Manhattan masterpiece—and its uncertain future.
When Wallace Harrison’s Time & Life Building rose over midtown Manhattan in 1959, it seemed like just another skyscraper in a cluster of statelier giants. But it had one thing no other tower in New York had: an exuberant little pavilion by the godfather of 20th-century Italian design, Gio Ponti.
The pavilion—small, private, deliciously strange—is one of dozens of architectural projects featured in the retrospective The Expression of Gio Ponti, at the Triennale di Milano New York. Opening in November on West 53rd Street (just blocks from the Time & Life), the Triennale is an arts space dedicated to Italian design and culture. Ponti, whom curator Germano Celant describes as “a global designer, architect, writer, curator, artist—an Andy Warhol of the design world,” was an obvious candidate for the inaugural show. “My task as curator is to push for certain recognition of Italian design,” Celant says. “The idea here is to connect Ponti to New York.” Nothing does that more than the pavilion, a prime example of Ponti’s lighthearted, decorative style and his last surviving building in New York. There’s just one problem: the recognition might be too late.
From the street, the pavilion is barely noticeable, a bauble tacked onto the eighth-floor terrace of an International Style behemoth. It was primarily designed as an auditorium for Time, Inc., and according to archival materials, it was supposed to be “the most versatile and complete business-meeting facility in Manhattan.” The details of the commission are murky, but the stories generally point to this: the Time media magnate Henry Luce enlisted Ponti for the job at the behest of his socialite wife, Clare Boothe Luce, who befriended the Italian designer when she served as the American ambassador to Rome. Around the same time, Ponti appeared in a Time magazine article that celebrated his “effervescent genius.”
The Luces wanted to make Ponti into America’s Next Big Thing, and Ponti did his best to deliver. He produced a shell shaped like a hexagon (his favorite geometric figure) and painted the roof in bright, modish triangles, so employees peering down from their offices had something cheery to eye. He designed a pair of abstract sculptures for the terrace. And indoors, he whipped up the closest thing to a playground a stark, midcentury office building had seen: green-and-blue marbleized floors; saucers and brass strapwork in the ceiling; obelisk sconces; and a smattering of irregular nooks, foyers, and bars. Architectural Forum, a Time publication, breathily declared in 1960, “only the design-wily Italian Ponti could so dare the critics.”
Then, suddenly, the building was forgotten. It was too small, too private, too deliciously strange. And yet, as the Manhattan preservationist Michael Gotkin tells it, its legacy is felt in unexpected places. “Harrison was very influenced by Ponti,” he says. “His entrance canopies are almost a rip-off. Gradually, Ponti does infiltrate 1960s architecture, and you start to see more playful, fanciful design elements.”
Now, the sad news: in 1981, the interior was gutted and redesigned by Davis, Brody & Associates (now Davis Brody Bond Aedas). HOK renovated it again in 2007. But the building itself and the sculptures are still more or less intact, and Gotkin’s organization, the Modern Architecture Working Group of New York City, considers them worthy of landmark status. “The pavilion was [the Luces’] attempt to really make a mark on American architecture with Ponti,” Gotkin says. “It sort of did, and then it didn’t—but ultimately, it did.”