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A Few Words About Rockefeller Center

April 2023
3min read

The currently fashionable Postmodern architects like to creep through Rockefeller Center as if they were off on an archaeological dig. Beam it over here! Over on that wall by the rink! Look! A golden statue! It’s—Prometheus! You would think you were listening to the Italian architect Domenico Fontana and his men stumbling upon the buried city of Pompeii in 1592. Pompeii was built in the fifth century B.C. and was buried six centuries later under twenty feet of lava and volcanic debris from Mount Vesuvius. Rockefeller Center was built in the early 1930s and buried within five years under something that was, believe me, far denser: the simpleminded sect mentality of the Bauhaus movement.

Like most of the great building projects in New York following the First World War—e.g., the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Park Avenue Building, the Waldorf-Astoria, Tiffany’s, to name but a fraction of them—Rockefeller Center was built in the reigning European architectural fashion of the moment, which was known as Style Moderne. Our archaeologists call it Art Déco, a term used at the time only by interior decorators. Style Moderne architects flattened out and abstracted the forms of Classical, Gothic, and Beaux-Arts architecture and added highly conventionalized floral and geometric ornament, especially ziggurat shapes and zigzags. The materials they used would have made a Bourbon Louis blink: acres of marble, architraves and mantelpieces of malachite, walls of amboyna wood and leather, balustrades, doors, and cornices of stainless steel, aluminum, and brushed brass, and ceilings (as in Rock« feller Center) of copper leaf.

But by 1935, even before Rockefeller Center was completed, European taste in modern architecture was already taking a sharp turn to the left, toward that stinging rebuke to the fat on one’s grand luxe, copper-leaf bourgeois soul known as the Bauhaus or (in America) the International Style, as typified by the work of Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Oud. Then, as now, Americans remained the most obedient little colonials in matters of taste in the higher arts. In no time American architects themselves began looking at Rockefeller Center through Bauhaus eyes. All those “grand” entrances and “soaring” lobbies, all that “elegant” granite cladding on the piers outside and all those “rich” green-veined marble walls inside, all those “modernistic” zigzags and sunbursts, all those “inspiring” murals and friezes, and—how they sniggered!—that “heroic” golden (gold yet!) statue of Prometheus, rampant, by Paul Manship on the wall by the ice-skating rink. The quotation marks multiplied like wrinkles as the Bauhausler and their American followers depicted Style Moderne as pompous, old-fashioned, fat, and bourgeois.

Over the next thirty years Bauhaus glass boxes—buildings without ornament, masonry, moldings, color, or even main entrances (the Bauhaus was egalitarian about doors)—changed the face of American public architecture. That story is well known. Less well known is the Red Guard-style cultural revolution that came with the box. At the major architecture schools Bauhaus was regarded not as a style but as the millennium. Students drew up manifestos and refused any longer to do such things as laborious China-wash renderings of Classical and Beaux-Arts details. Professors who persisted in the old methods and old models were forced out. Other faculty members either caved in or were swept up themselves in the fervor. The janitors were instructed to throw out the plaster casts, those thousands of Corinthian capitals and Esquiline vases and whatnot that students had been using as models for architectural drawing. For that matter, the hell with drawing itself. It was an outmoded requirement. In the Bauhaus millennium all you needed was a straightedge and a pencil.

Entire chunks of history disappeared down the memory hole. Who were (a) William Van Alen, (b) Ely Jacques Kahn, (c) Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, (d) Cross and Cross, (e) Schultze & Weaver, (f ) Reinhard & Hofmeister, Corbett, Harrison and MacMurray, Hood & Fouilhoux? Oh, who cared. … Their great Style Moderne “achievements”—(a) the Chrysler Building, (b) the Park Avenue Building, (c) the Empire State Building, (d) Tiffany’s, (e) the Waldorf-Astoria, (f) Rockefeller Center—had been good for nothing but obscuring the true path of American architecture. When I was in graduate school at Yale in the early 1950s, I knew architecture students, some of them prominent practitioners today, whose version of American architectural history jumped as if in a time machine from Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in 1895 straight to Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in 1958. They could see nothing in between, save for the occasional speck, such as Hood’s Daily News Building, which was regarded as a foreshadowing of the Bauhaus look.

Today the Bauhaus style has finally exhausted itself, and the American architectural profession reminds me of characters in a science-fiction story emerging from a cryogenic freeze. They awake, blinking, looking at the past half-century of American architecture, as if for the first time. They see glass box after glass box. … But what’s that? Beam it over here! Look! Here are grand entrances and soaring lobbies and rich materials and inspiring murals and friezes and. … Over here! On the wall by the rink! It’s a statue! Of gold! It’s—Prometheus.

The upshot is the movement now known as Postmodernism. Philip Johnson’s much-talked-of AT&T Building in New York has a grand entrance and a soaring lobby, both six stories high. Michael Graves’s Public Service Building in Portland has highly flattened and abstracted Classical forms, modernistic ziggurat shapes, and (in the original plan) a heroic statue of Portlandia rampant across the main facade. Postmodernism is turning into a step back, however timid, toward the Gotham grandeur of Rockefeller Center in the early 1930s. I predict that it will soon be known not as Postmodernism but as Style Moderne, Phase Two. Or if it will please the archaeologists prowling Rockefeller Center, Neo-Deco.


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