Machine City Over Manhattan
February 6, 2005
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
THE PAN AM BUILDING AND THE SHATTERING
OF THE MODERNIST DREAM
By Meredith L. Clausen
MIT Press, 477 pages, $45
LIKE most cliches, the contention that the Pan Am Building (now called Met Life) towering over Grand Central is New York's most reviled building is almost certainly true.
To win this title a building must not only be ugly, which the Pan Am Building surely is, but famous. Your basic garden-variety, hideous new development in some obscure neighborhood won't do. What's more, the title-winner should offend the soul by desecrating a landmark infinitely superior to itself. Even better, the building's architects should themselves be eminent and eloquent, capable of defending their creation even against the onslaught of public fury.
All these elements were held in spades by the Pan Am Building which, writes Meredith Clausen in this brilliant new book, "was despised from the moment the plans for the mute, massive, overscaled octagonal slab were announced." Conceived in 1958 and completed in 1963, it immediately came to symbolize all that had gone wrong with the once idealistic modernist vision.
At 59 stories tall and two blocks wide with 2.4 million square feet of space, it was the largest commercial building in the world it blocked the vista that had formerly been open down Park Avenue, created deep shadows where the sun once shined, dwarfed adjacent buildings and poured 25,000 workers into what was already one of Midtown's most congested areas.
Yet Clausen's riveting tale is not the familiar one of philistines thoughtlessly erecting a monster structure on a sacred site. Rather, she tells of men trying to do the right thing -- and failing.
The highly respected real estate developer Erwin Wolfson, for example, rejected the mundane plan proposed by the Emery Roth architectural firm. He turned instead to two of the nation's most illustrious architects: Walter Gropius, a founder of the Bauhaus and former dean of architecture at Harvard, and Pietro Belluschi, dean of architecture at MIT. Together the team would implement the modernist ideal of the "machine city," celebrating technology and futurism.
Wolfson got far more than he ever could have hoped for, writes Clausen. But he also got far less. The rejected Roth design continued to dominate. It was efficient, buildable and beautifully engineered. Gropius negotiated hundreds of details, like the facing stone, but ultimately acceded to Roth.
Plus, time was of the essence. Distressed about overbuilding in midtown, the City Planning Commission announced it would change the zoning in order to reduce the bulk of buildings just like this one. Gropius's bluntness did not help his cause. When Today Show host Dave Garroway asked him to justify the huge building he said, "Every citizen has the right to use the law as far as he can."
The zoning, which permitted a tower of unlimited height on 25 percent of the site, would have allowed for an even taller building, but they were limited by practical problems, said Gropius, such as the number of elevators, which take up so much interior space. So much for modernist ideals.
The Pan Am Building permanently blemished the reputations of both architects. Other consequences, says Clausen, included the rise the preservationist movement and the resurgence of architectural criticism in the popular press. (Ada Louise Huxtable and Jane Jacobs both cut their teeth on Pan Am.) Clausen's saga should be read by every New Yorker who cares about the city's future.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2005 New York Post
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