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2006 05 04
Mark Kingwell Writes on The Empire State Building - Part 2
imageIn business terms, the Empire State Building may be the most famous white elephant on the planet. Built against all logic during the Depression, it has never succeeded in its ostensible function as an office building. Early years of indifference gave it the label “Empty State Building,’’ and vacancy rates have recently climbed again, from a low of 1.7 percent in 2000 to more than 18 percent.

The current rent of just $37 a square foot falls well below Midtown averages of $48, and yet the building’s owners still can’t fill it. The small offices and antiquated infrastructure are part of the deterrent, despite projected upgrades; but so is a continuing feud between the two companies that control the building, Helmsley-Spear and Wien & Malkin, which complicates leasing arrangements. The dispute arose a decade ago when heirs of the building’s co-owners since 1961, Harry Helmsley and Lawrence Wien -- both now dead -- could not agree on control.

Meanwhile, some four million visitors a year make their way to the Observatory on the 86th floor (the higher deck, near the building’s 102nd-floor sumit, reopened last fall after being closed for years). Here, the weight of the building’s significance seems to outstrip its financial woes, even its very material existence. Like all great monuments, the Empire State Building shelters meanings that extend well beyond its gorgeous Indiana limestone cladding and tiny throwback offices. Consider just three of the many factors that make the building memorable: the idea of the skyscraper, the mythical functions of the tower and finally the peculiarly American dream-logic of the building’s astonishing construction.

When the Empire State Building opened its rather modest Fifth Avenue doors on May 1, 1931-Al Smith was there, of course, with photographers, kids and a band-the event punctuated a period of architectural ambition and civic glee that the world is not likely to witness again.

In the span of two short decades, New York’s congested street plan and material wealth-together with crucial developments in science and technology, tempered steel and the elevator-led to the invention of a new architectural form. From Lower Manhattan to Midtown, from Wall Street up to the 40’s, Manhattan pushed into the sky the planet’s first vertebrate buildings, shoving aside the squat crustaceans that had held sway for so long.

The Empire State had several distinguished predecessors. During the 1920s, the “race for the sky’’ contest - between H. Craig Severance’s Manhattan Company Building, way downtown, and William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building - gripped the city’s imagination in a manner that is hard to imagine now. When Van Alen won the race by hoisting the Chrysler’s distinctive SPIRE from a secret mechanism built inside the peak, the skyscraper and the idea of war over architectural one-upmanship seemed settled for good.

For many, the Chrysler is Manhattan’s best tall building, a Deco masterpiece, even though it was mocked mercilessly by contemporary critics, not least for the distinctive sheathing of its “Aztec pinnacle,’’ to quote the poet Charles Tomlinson.

The race was not over, however. One of the most poignant pictures ever captured of the Chrysler-not by Margaret Bourke-White, that disciple of the Chrysler cult-shows the rising column of the Empire State construction at 34th Street through one of the triangular slash-windows of the uptown rival.

Taller buildings would come, in Manhattan and Chicago and elsewhere, but the Empire State would not be surpassed. Even without its now distinctive (and never used) dirigible mooring of chrome-nicket steel and faceted glass, added at Smith’s behest and over Lamb’s objections so that the building woujld have “a hat,” the Empire State would have been taller than the Chrysler. The spire made it 1250 feet high -- a figure that would settle skyscraper hash for almost 50 years. This span as world’s tallest building is itself worth a meta-record in this age of Asian gigantism, where such structures as Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers straddle the summit of summits for, at best, a few years. (The world’s tallest building as of this writing is Taipei 101 in Taiwan, and at least three taller buildings are already planned in Shanghai alone.)
[email this story] Posted by M. Kingwell on 05/04 at 11:50 AM

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