Weingarten: NYC's mid-century skyscrapers, icons that soar
Midcentury design aficionados are in for a treat with the Museum of Modern Art's new exhibit celebrating one of modern architecture's founding fathers: Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier. The exhibit opens this weekend.
Many midcentury modern devotees get their weekly design fix from AMC's "Mad Men," but for a series ostensibly set in and heavily influenced by New York City, there isn't actually much of the city to be seen. Though the weekly drama pays incredible attention to detail and nuance, there's precious little representation of the distinctive architectural style born in that era and still visible -- for instance, at the UN complex, which Le Corbusier helped design -- throughout Manhattan to this day.
Some of our most iconic skyscrapers, including the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, were precursors to the soaring midcentury high-rises that now occupy most of the Manhattan skyline. For several decades, buildings were feverishly erected, crowding Manhattan's bustling streets. In 1961, however, new zoning regulations meant to curb overcrowded streets were passed.
A recent report by the architectural firm Terrapin Bright Green called "Midcentury (Un)Modern: An Environmental Analysis of the 1958-73 Modern Office Building," declares that while midcentury architecture was exciting for its era, it wasn't built for the long haul and doesn't support modern life. The report ultimately suggests that the buildings can't sustain the energy-efficient heating, cooling and lighting systems desired today and that it would be more efficient to raze these architectural gems than retrofit them. But what would Manhattan be if stripped of the silhouettes that make it most memorable?
"Mad Men" fans tend to fall into two main categories -- those fascinated by Don Draper's antiquated mating and relating rituals and those obsessed with midcentury style. The show lets us connect to a fictionalized version of a common creative past that helped form our collective present. The great canyons of Manhattan remain an enduring thread weaving fact and fiction, past and present. And Le Corbusier's enduring aesthetic helps connect the notions of art and architecture in everyday life.
Rachel Weingarten is the author of "Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America '40s-'60s," which will be reissued later this year.