Metropolitan Memories

An early Metropolis editor looks back on two decades of New York architecture.

In 1981 greed was good and architecture was confused. Should it serve the new robber barons or hold on to the torn remains of its 1960s ideals? Should it design shiny new cities or try to rescue and revive what was left of the past? As a young, green member of the equally new Metropolis staff, I was as confused as anybody, not yet sure what style to like, what past to admire, or what future to believe in. But I knew one thing for sure: architecture served power. Whatever the styles or words used to justify the forms, the end result was that architects helped owners to house what they had, sell what they developed, and express their power. As I said at the end of the first article I ever wrote for this now august magazine, summing up the dazzling spate of skyscrapers then on the boards: “Whatever the array of brick, granite, metal, and glass walls currently being thrown up against the sober steel and concrete skeletons of new skyscrapers, they are only a new wardrobe. The emperor is still the emperor, and architects have given up trying to tell him how to rule. A tailor, after all, is only a tailor.” In an age of naked power grabs such as the ones taking place at Ground Zero, it is worth remembering that architecture has always wound up as a handmaiden of power, no matter what its style or ideology.

What I chronicled in my few months as a Metropolis assistant editor was the emergence of a New York in which the rich and powerful put their stamp on the city with more success than they had been able to at any time since the Second World War. This was true not just in the realm of big buildings for big business. On the Upper East Side, as I wrote in August 1981, “New Yorkers must face the fact that the city’s rich can use [preservation] for their own purposes, with possibly as much justification as the city’s poor.” I didn’t know at the time what an understatement that was. The movement to landmark the hundred-block area was meant to ensure, as Municipal Art Society director Margot Wellington said, that “a certain way of life is being preserved.” Since then preservation has in fact evidenced itself as the conservative and even reactionary movement it is by its very nature. Nowhere has this been more clear than on the Upper East Side, so carefully preserved that it has become even more homogeneous than it already was. The fact that most of the buildings being preserved were and are mediocre, and that there was little coherence to the district did not matter then and does not matter now. It was a question of a social cohesion more than a physical one. Now even Madison Avenue, which was meant to be exempt from the ordinance because of its commercial nature, has become a controlled haven for the world’s most expensive stores.

Central Park, then a rather worn-out reminder of the great Olmstedian glory that once occupied New York’s heart, was also the site of a debate between the elite—who wanted places such as Sheep Meadow preserved as peaceful oases where the idle cultivated class could repose—and populists, who argued for a more accommodating update of the park that would encourage active uses. With a steering committee including “a group of some of the most powerful businessmen in the city,” I wrote, “we are left preserving the genteel and now elusive sensibility of the nineteenth-century gentleman.” The result, after the renovations had been completed a decade later, was a magnificently restored park. But rereading the debates from a quarter century ago makes one wonder if there might not have been a place for other uses and newer designs as well.

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The problem with such arguments then was that the new had messed up while tried-and-trued recipes worked. It was extremely difficult to find a single example of good modern design that looked the part and produced, even in some small way, a better environment for anybody but the rich. Richard Meier’s Bronx Developmental Center was already a disaster and has since been completely altered. The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies was, under the leadership of Peter Eisenman, veering off into more and more esoteric landscapes (though, as I noted in Metropolis, it did produce inventive proposals for redesigning Columbus Circle). The housing projects of the Bronx and Brooklyn had disintegrated into dystopia. No wonder Ronald Reagan was promising a “morning in America” that was essentially rural and nostalgic, and Ed Koch was trying to recapture that old-time feel with his “How’m I doin’?” routine. It was a time when the past looked like the future, and the idea of a future was passé.

If the future had a place, it was somewhere way out there—not just in some imagined future but either in the far-off suburbs or in a drug-induced dream. In one of my more enjoyable assignments, I convinced the rather button-down leadership at Metropolis to let me continue my forays into Manhattan’s clubs as a paid reporter. There I found the future that was indeed to shape the city in the coming decades: either the raw loft look, in which dirt and grime turned into aesthetic beauty, or a technologically defined environment that let one imagine oneself being anywhere. In this “high-tech journey into the future,” I wrote, “the machine takes over and creates an illusion of freedom …within its invisible rhythmic structure.” Within a few years the AIDS pandemic was to preclude, at least for a while, even this dream as it shut down the places of escape and killed off most of its now unheralded and undocumented designers.

In the Meadowlands the new world would rise for real. I was amused to read last winter in the “newspaper of record” that this will happen any day now. Though dreams of monorails have been replaced with more mundane modes of transit and the crystalline towers of a new Edge City have become low-rise distribution centers and shopping malls, utopia will, I am sure, arise out of the swamp. Unfortunately it will look more like the destination Tony Soprano arrives at during his show’s credits, his suburban home, than like his implied starting point, the glittering towers of Gotham.

With its futuristic machinery carefully hidden inside its neo-Georgian walls, suburbia rules and sprawls everywhere. Except, that is, in Manhattan, despite Robert A. M. Stern’s best efforts. In the early 1980s this sultan of Shingle Style chic dreamed of “subway suburbs” on the ruins of the South Bronx. It actually seemed like one of the more sensible proposals for an area that was devastated then and still is today. Unfortunately the financial logic was absent from Stern’s romantic dreams, and he retreated into making mansions for the rich, following that task up by designing their corporate headquarters and business schools. Doubly ironically, he also went from being a Columbia professor who defended the uses of the past to architecture dean of Yale, supporting the kind of experimentation that, as I noted in a piece on the history of architectural education at Columbia, was so sorely missing then in New York.

The revolution that we quasi-Marxists and post-Generation of ‘68 types longed for, in other words, did not happen—certainly not on the island of Manhattan. In the years following my brief stint at Metropolis, the AT Building made Post-Modernism the official style of the rich and powerful. Cesar Pelli built the towers of Battery Park. In adoration for the Twin Towers, their skins undressed themselves from the solid veneer of Manhattan into a glassy abstraction. And then the Twin Towers disappeared. The Upper East Siders helped prevent Michael Graves and Rem Koolhaas from building additions to the Whitney. BIDs removed dirt, grime, and the homeless from Grand Central Station. Central Park became safe again, both visually and physically. And finally 25 years later, Modernism was old enough that it could be elegant again, leaving even Stern wanting to preserve its worst mistakes (Two Columbus Circle), and the rich and famous to see it as their own house style.

And me? I left New York, went back to school to learn how to be an architect, practiced, failed, and in one way or another kept reporting. After Metropolis I found other ways to describe what I saw, and still see, as the core debate of architecture: the struggle between those who would use architecture as a means to represent the values and needs of the status quo and those who would see it as a critical endeavor seeking to build a better world. New York has survived, even thrived, and so has architecture. The past and the future are now so wound together in our culture that their images are nearly indistinguishable. Metropolis is all grown up. But questions remain. Is the architect still just a tailor? Can there be a critical architecture, or is all we can hope for in this mixed-up metropolis the building of beautiful forms?

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