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2006 05 05
Mark Kingwell Writes on The Empire State Building - Part 3
imageTo some eyes, the Chrysler remains aesthetically superior: a function, in part, of Deco’s nostalgic appeal and Van Alen’s instinctive grasp of Gotham’s Batmannish soul. Compared to the slimmer Chrysler, it is easy to underestimate the tough masculine beauty of William Lamb’s design for the Empire State. Unlike the giddy modernism of the Chrysler, the Empire State combines subtle Deco grace notes with an assured, almost classical sense of proportion. Its solid central shaft rises gracefully from cleverly arranged volumes at the base, lifting to an understated cap of layered sections. In a Vanity Fair feature of the day, Lamb was named one of New York’s 10 “Poets of Steel,’’ an honor denied to both Van Alen and Severance.

But even absent such aesthetic rehabilitation, the Empire State would be superior in meaning, the distinctive image of mythic New York: the New York of film and fiction, beckoning and false, corrupted and sometimes corrupting, but irresistible for all that. The building is-obviously-a tower, indeed the central tower of New York. Thus it functions, as the modernist master Robert A.M. Stern once said, as “the lighthouse of Manhattan.’’ But like all towers, it is no mere structure or landmark. A tower speaks of and to the human ambition for transcendence, that restless desire to transcend what the Futurist theorist Emilio Filippo Tommaso Marinetti called “the vile earth.’’ The paradox of the tower, any tower, is that it stands fixed to the ground even as it stretches up and tries, somehow, to achieve liftoff.

The Empire State is not Futurist in design, nor is it explicitly utopian. Indeed, its workaday offices and no-nonsense design are deliberately utilitarian in conception. Most people who visit the building pay no attention to its often under-rented interior, a kind of urban time machine filled with diamond merchants, insurance companies and private investigators, among many, many others. Nevertheless, with its machine-made grace, the Empire State Building towers above the island grid and fixes the scene. Standing at the center of Manhattan, it gathers up the city to itself and then redeploys it, out and down, to every spot from which it can be seen.

Towers spring from military desire as well as spiritual urges, and the central position of the Empire State might raise, as towers do, the specter of surveillance. Especially in these Patriot Act days, one can imagine that it drapes a visual net over New York, a sort of heaven-suspended security system.

And yet, the grid it overlooks is, for all its constraints, a stage of freedom and spontaneity. Its very rigidity seems to offer new invitations to liberty. The streets crush and bend and mangle their straight lines, giving way to the wonky charm of the West Village, for example, or the Battery. The Empire State, meanwhile, resolutely resists any link to the security state. Its empire is not the one of watchful eyes and foreign invasions; rather, at its summit assemble the free citizens of the world, multilingual and blessed, who ascend to gather in their views and memories, not data or evidence.

The Empire State holds New York’s eight million souls together in a way the taller World Trade Center never could -- and even now, in dark memory, does not. The older building’s unlikely birth in the middle of the 1929 Crash; its defiant optimism steered by Al Smith and the financier John Jacob Raskob, those quintessential self-made men; the astonishing assembly line of steel and stone that made it the fastest mega-project the world had seen; its gathering of workers from all nations and trades-all this combines to make the Empire State the ultimate dream building. Monument and promise, folly and wonder of the world, it can be no surprise that no other tall building even dared challenge it for pre-eminence for almost half a century.

We sometimes speculate about a particular feature of a city, and wonder what things would be like if it did not exist. Especially because of what happened to those taller buildings downtown, the answer in the case of the Empire State Building is clear. Like our ideas of God and happiness, if the Empire State Building did not exist in the New York skyline, we would have to invent it.
[email this story] Posted by M. Kingwell on 05/05 at 11:25 AM

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