When news broke last week about JP Morgan Chase’s plans to tear down 270 Park Avenue, otherwise known as the Union Carbide Building, by Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), the New York architecture community predictably went up in arms. Critics like New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson lambasted the plans as “obscene,” while Curbed’s Alexandra Lange called the plan “shortsighted.” But after the initial shock at such a huge building being torn down has faded—it would be the tallest building to be voluntarily demolished—there has still been little to no convincing argument offered for JP Morgan Chase to save the building. The Union Carbide building should be torn down. In fact, we should cheer as it falls because it represents the worst of midcentury American corporate architecture, something that at the time was totalizing, banal, repetitive, and dogmatic—when everything began to look similar. The Union Carbide building is derivative of the Seagram Building just down the street, an exemplar of a time when copying Mies had gotten completely out of control. In fact, Stanley Tigerman’s “The Titanic” addressed exactly this phenomenon: Mies was great, but his copiers were not. Buildings like Union Carbide are what inspired Tigerman and his peers to develop architectural postmodernism. By defending this building, critics are creating an echo chamber reinforcing bad corporate architecture that offers very little to architectural culture. By 1961, almost 70 years of seminal modernism had completely altered the way we build and the way we see our cities. Just in the United States alone, there are many important projects of the movement, including Mies’ Farnsworth House (1951), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building (1939), and a number of projects in California by Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra that stand as important works that need to be saved to preserve this history. A nondescript corporate box from 1957 that isn’t even one of the most important buildings on its own block—the Seagram Building, the MetLife Building, the Lever House, and the PepsiCo Building are all better—shouldn’t be cried over. The Union Carbide Building is an offender of the high modernist co-optation of the guiding principles of Modernism—a movement originally fueled by a socially progressive agenda (better, cleaner, more egalitarian cities) and made possible by radical innovations in building technology, most notably machine precision and mass production. Davidson rightly notes that “before the 1950s, builders could hide approximations and errors with ornament or tolerant stone.” However, this disregards that fact that buildings like 270 Park paved the way for the co-optation of the original machine aesthetic of mass production in modernism. What started as something beautiful and new became something developers used to cut costs. The result is today's banal stream of terrible, stripped-down glass boxes that litter our skyline today: the late capitalist use of the modernist aesthetic and efficient production process to justify cheaper and cheaper buildings. Davidson claims, "To demolish one of the peaks of modernist architecture in the name of modernity is obscene, a sign that you consider your city disposable.” Unfortunately, this is an odd conflation of the idea of modernity and the contemporary. In architectural terms, modernity and modernism are historical periods, linked by the advent of the industrial revolution and the refinement of the machine aesthetic alongside it. However, Davidson’s linguistic trick falters when we realize that tearing down 270 Park would not be a quest for modernity, as we are now postmodern or something even further removed from modernity. Once we can move beyond an ideological idea that modernism is still important to the contemporary, we can treat it fairly as what it is: a historical style. Furthermore, 270 Park and many other midcentury buildings were built by the most ruthless cabal of capitalists the world has ever seen. They did it with style, but let’s not forget that the Madmen of this era reinforced a power structure that we are still struggling to shake off today. Theirs was a world fueled by misogyny, exploitation, white supremacy, and capitalist imperialism. Union Carbide is or should be notorious as the perpetrator of the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world, the Bhopal disaster, in which almost 4,000 workers and at least 15,000 people total were killed by a toxic gas leak at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. Midcentury clients were sometimes bad people with good taste. We shouldn’t tear the building down because of Union Carbide’s transgressions, but we should not assume that JP Morgan is a new evil desecrating some holy landmark. In fact, demolition is the only logical conclusion for a building like Union Carbide. It is a structure built precisely for the logic of the market to consume it: Capital exploits and extracts maximum value from whatever it uses and leaves behind a smoldering husk once it has been deemed worthless. Why not just let 270 Park die a natural death at the hands of the 21st century equivalent of Union Carbide: a multi-national bank? It’s really a beautiful story if you think about it correctly. It is true that this is a wildly wasteful proposal. But this building can be torn down as an exercise in tearing down such tall structures. The demolition could offer a useful case study to learn from. As skyscrapers age, this will become an important preservation issue. How will we deal with tall buildings in urban settings that can’t be imploded? What are the techniques for taking away glass at 40 stories? How does a curtain wall removal differ from a typical window assembly? This is not always a question of waste, either. How do we take down tall buildings that are severely damaged by fires, earthquakes, or other disasters? If the demolition is done correctly, companies like Rotor Deconstruction could also salvage much of the architectural heritage by saving a good amount of the building material, which could find new life in newer buildings. A strong proof-of-concept would help the entire profession. The Union Carbide building is the type of building that really isn’t that important, but has somehow become more revered because it is located in New York. However, this building is not any more remarkable than many like it all over the world. This myopic obsession with New York's past holds it back. Even Ada Louise Huxtable—who Lange quotes in her attempt to rationalize saving Union Carbide—once said in 1957, the year 270 Park was completed, “Today the old Park Avenue is being buried with remarkable and ruthless efficiency...For we must no longer just bury the past, we destroy it to make room for the future.” We have to wonder what she would think of the predicament today. However, just because 270 Park is not worth saving does not mean that what replaces it couldn’t be worse. The big question now is: What’s next? Architect Andrew Zago likes to say, “It’s ok to tear anything down, as long as you replace it with something better.” This is likely not JP Morgan Chase’s mantra, but the banking giant certainly has the resources to choose any architect it wants. How do we persuade Chase to hire an architect who will guarantee design excellence? One way is if the Department of City Planning were to hold the firm's feet to the fire. On such a high-profile project at the beginning of a neighborhood-scale transformation that the de Blasio administration seems invested in, DCP should have a say in what goes up. And they should care about design excellence. Let’s redefine what it means to be contemporary, not dwell on what it means to be “modern.”
Posts tagged with "Stanley Tigerman":
Tigerman’s Epiphany: New photomontage update of “Titanic” unveiled at the Chicago Architecture Biennial
On October 22nd, marking the 130th anniversary of the Chicago Architecture Club and as part of the ongoing Chicago Architecture Foundation's Currencies of Architecture exhibition, Stanley Tigerman unveiled a follow up to his 1978 “Titanic” photomontage. Entitled “The Epiphany,” the new image, somewhat ironically, is a protest against what Tigerman sees as a contemporary infatuation with icons. The image itself depicts Mies Van Der Rohe’s Crown Hall and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao sitting side-by-side on the lunar surface. From the same sky as the original “Titanic,” a bomb is falling to destroy them both. As with its predecessor, “The Epiphany” is less a critique of Van Der Rohe or Gehry, as much as it is of those that hold them and their work as the basis for their own work. “The problem with icon is that people use it as a starting point,” Tigerman explained to the crowd at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. “Instead of tabula rasa, a blank page. Inspiration is the emptiness of your page, or your blank computer screen.” “Architects need to teach, in some way,” Tigerman encouraged in the conversation around the unveiling, which was part of a larger event which included discussion of the state of the field and the current Chicago Architecture Biennial. Tigerman also took the time to express his pleasure with the current generation of young architects, and his ambition to hand off the field. “I am very pleased with the current generation. I feel good. I can go now.” "The Epiphany" and Currencies of Architecture can be seen for free at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
ARZU STUDIO HOPE and live/work furniture company Coalesse have teamed up with six leading architects to design a series of bold rugs and also provide economic opportunities for Afghan women. Chicago-based ARZU first approached Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry to design a collection of contemporary rugs, the proceeds of which support hundreds of rural women and their families through economic activity, and educational and health services. Rug weaving, which takes place in private homes, is one of the few industries where women can work safely. Tigerman and McCurry were so taken with ARZU's mission that they agreed to recruit high profile friends to contribute designs, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Michael Graves, and Robert A.M. Stern. The resulting Masters Collection ranges to from historically inspired designs that evoke both Louis Sullivan and Islamic art to contemporary, abstract works. The hand-knotted rugs are available to order now.
Stanley Tigerman: Ceci n’est pas une rêverie Madlener House, Graham Foundation 4 West Burton Place Chicago Through May 19 Curated by Yale School of Architecture Professor Emmanuel Petit, Ceci n’est pas une rêverie (“This is not a dream”), is a retrospective that examines the architectural and conceptual work of Stanley Tigerman (top, 1966). Occupying three floors of the Graham Foundation’s Madlener House, the exhibition is arranged in relation to nine dominant themes recurring throughout Tigerman’s 50 career: Utopia, Allegory, Humor, Death, Division, (Dis)Order, Identity, Yaleiana, and Draft. A variety of media, including models, photographs, and archival documents, offer a sampling of the architect’s output, and the exhibition includes one of Tigerman’s best-known pieces, The Titanic, 1978 (above), a collage that explicitly critiques the state of architecture in the late 1970s with S. R. Crown Hall sinking into Lake Michigan.
Ceci n’est pas une reverie: The Architecture of Stanley Tigerman Yale School of Architecture 180 York Street New Haven, CT Through November 4 The exhibition Ceci n’est pas une reverie (“This is not a dream”) celebrates the work of architect Stanley Tigerman. Curated by Yale School of Architecture Associate Professor Emmanuel Petit, this retrospective tells the story of Tigerman’s professional career, beginning with his years at Yale as an undergraduate and then a graduate student in architecture. Organized around several motifs—utopia, allegory, death, humor, and division—the exhibition includes models and objects, documents, cartoons, sketches, and drawings, like an axonometric of formica, above. Video material from lectures and interviews also capture Tigerman’s eclectic style as it has evolved over the past 50 years, encompassing his early work at the Chicago-based firm Tigerman McCurry Architects and his return to Yale as a visiting professor. Ceci n’est pas une reverie will coincide with the publication of Tigerman’s collected writings, 1964-2011 Schlepping Through Ambivalence, Essays on an American Architectural Condition, and his autobiography Designing Bridges to Burn as well as a series of lectures at the Yale School of Architecture.