By Samuel Gottscho, 1931 Source
The silhouette of Manhattan is unmistakable. It is symbolic of this city and its values to people worldwide: aspiration, wealth, struggle, diversity, sophistication, and a distinct feeling of ordered chaos. The Art Deco towers of the 1930s defined a new vision of urbanity. They broke boundaries and challenged people, and drew criticism as all progress will. I believe the genius of their design is a reference to the past, embedded in their futuristic profile.
A good design resolves countless variables, so neatly that it seems the only possible solution. William Lamb, architect of the Empire State Building, had to consider vertical structure, wind force, airship docking, elevators, and the commercial spaces of the building (and much more). Yet an artist knows to step back, and keep control of the composition. These buildings had to function in unprecedented ways, and have beauty. Louis Sullivan said, “I make a design simple, then complex, then simple again.” Towers like the Empire State and Chrysler have refined proportions, pleasing materials and ornament, and symbolic meaning in their form.
These structures are many things to different people. A lightning rod, a Buck Rogers rocket, masculine hubris. Yesterday, I saw church steeples. One sat in the Brooklyn foreground, Manhattan’s radio age versions loomed beyond, and the Gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge spanned the center. I wondered if the Art Deco designers recognized a continuum. Since the Middle Ages, European city skylines have been dominated by a Gothic church spire. Colonists brought this tradition to New England towns, and early New York once bristled with churches.
As New York raced into the future, its residents must have found the new towers somehow familiar. By then, the tall spire was an urban symbol firmly rooted in the European psyche.
The Empire State wasn’t the first peaked tower, or the last. By intent or serendipity, its design challenges our imagination while comforting our soul. It shows that to balance progress, archetypes always resurface.