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The book examines such classic ...
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The book examines such classic landmarks as Grand Central Station, the Flatiron Building, and Gracie Mansion; such renowned skyscrapers as the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building and recent architectural masterpieces, such as the LVMH building, completed a year ago.
When Frank Woolworth approached Cass Gilbert (see also the Custom House) in 1910 to design the New York headquarters for his F.W. Woolworth & Co. variety store empire, corporate towers were slowly rising to replace church steeples as the most significant members of the New York skyline (in fact, the very idea of the "skyline" as a significant element of a city's appearance was just taking form). It was discovered not long before that the high-rise commercial building that had become possible with the advent of the structural steel frame and the elevator was not only a practical ideal - allowing optimum land usage, high levels of natural light, and the inexpensive inclusion of additional revenue producing, rentable floor space - but it was a form that could be manipulated into a massive, highly visible, iconic architecture that would impress the significance of its creator upon anyone whose eyes fell upon it. Woolworth, who was very clear about his desire for the new headquarters to stand out from the rest, requested a tower modeled on the impressive Gothic form of the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament in London, thereby placing his tower in contrast to the nearby modern-French mannered Singer Building (Ernest Flagg, 1908).
For New York's evolving skyline, he foresaw a romantic composition of towers, much like those with which he had been so taken during his travels abroad through medieval Flemish cities. In Gilbert's New York, the Gothic, a medieval creation that with its lofty spikes had epitomized man's eternal quest to reach the heavens, would be a perfect architectural expression for the rising city.
He began with a massive base, surmounted by a tower that was positioned toward the center of one end, much like a steeple perched above the entrance of a church. Long vertical lines at regular intervals along the façade served to visually lighten the mass of the base while uniting base and tower. A series of setbacks tapered and scaled the tower to its ornate culmination. And at that, each setback was engaged with ornate tracery, which culminated in peaks and spikes, relentlessly negating the horizontal lines wrought by the setback. The overall composition was insistently vertical, ever oriented toward the sky.
Any ecclesiastical sensation invoked by the organization and detail of the exterior was heightened by the interior. The cruciform layout of the foyer recalls the typical floor plan of the Gothic cathedral, while glistening mosaics on the ceiling recall the extravagant material detail of Baroque churches, despite their actual imagery which is that of the modern world of commerce.
"Cathedral of commerce", an epithet that the structure acquired soon after its completion in 1913, was keenly appropriate, not only because it was a office tower that looked much like a colossal Gothic cathedral, but because of its power to inspire, its success as a powerful symbol signaling the beginning of an architectural tide that would transform New York's architectural, commercial and psychological character forever. Just as intense spirituality had motivated medieval Europeans to thrust cathedral spires high into the heavens, each one rising higher in an effort to assert ultimate spiritual dedication, so too would the spirit of capitalism inspire modern businesses to puncture the sky with ever taller, ever more fantastic towers, each one attempting to assert the superiority of one corporate identity over the rest.