Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The Empire State Building, New York

I've been familiar with images of the Empire State Building since I was a child. When I visited New York in February 2007 and made the trip to the 86th floor Observation Deck, I decided that the building's iconic status was well-deserved. Subsequent study of the history of the building has reinforced that judgement. During my visit, I purchased John Tauranac's book 'The Empire State Building', published in New York by St. Martin's Press (ISBN 0-312-14824-0). I drew on this excellent book for information, but interpretations and errors are my own.

For centuries, building design was limited by the ability of the materials used in the lower floors to support the weight of upper floors. It was the advent of steel-framed buildings around 1880 which allowed the concept of the 'skyscraper' to become a practical proposition.

New York, constrained as it was by the Manhattan site bounded by the East River and Hudson River, was the perfect home for adventurous building design which made best use of expensive land. Initially, steel-framed buildings were built to look like conventional buildings and used the styles already in vogue. It took a while for a modern architecture to evolve which exploited the full potential of the steel frame. New York introduced zoning laws in 1916 which laid down rules to restrict the creation of dark canyons on streets lined with tall buildings. These rules introduced the idea of 'setbacks' such that a building could not rise directly from the street without restriction. After a few stories, the building line had to be set back to reserve light to the building and adjacent developments.

The rules still allowed considerable freedom in architectural layout and it's interesting to compare two of New York's tallest developments of the 1920s and 1930s - the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. The Chrysler Building at Lexington Avenue and East 42nd Street preceded the Empire State and the buildings have always been rivals. Indeed, the 200-foot stainless steel Art Deco spire was partly added to the basic design so as to overtake the anticipated height of the Empire State Building. The Chrysler Building is an impressive structure by any standards and the distinctive spire makes it instantly recognisable. But when the Empire State Building appeared, it incorporated a number of innovations which I think make it thoroughly modern, even by today's standards.

In a daring move, the Empire State added a 200-foot airship mooring mast which significantly exceeded the height of the Chrysler Building, even with its spire. In the early '30s, people really believed that huge airships would replace the ocean liners which had become the last word in luxurious, long-distance travel. As we now know, speed always wins and, in fact, passengers were willing to accept the more limited comfort of the aeroplane because of the higher speeds it can offer. Only one airship is recorded as mooring at the Empire State, experimentally and for only a few minutes. It's hard to believe that passengers would ever have willingly boarded and disembarked 1,000 feet above Manhattan, but the sheer idea was enough to give the building a cachet it's never lost.

The rapid growth of New York early in the twentieth century made real estate very profitable and it was common for buildings to be pulled down after less than twenty years to make way for something larger. The original building of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building and the hotel was rebuilt on its present site in Park Avenue.

The Empire State Building was announced in 1929 only weeks before the economy crashed. Many building projects failed but John Rascob, who'd made his money and reputation with General Motors, brought the Empire State Building to triumphant completion. He was joined by politician Al Smith, who became the public face of the project. Al Smith loved, and was loved by, New York. His affection for the city and commitment to the Empire State Building must have been crucial to the success of the project. The team of financier and publicist went on to make inspired choices for both architects and building contractors. Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, as architects, produced a design of great subtlety: modern but not strident, innovative but eminently practical. Styling incorporated Art Deco motifs, but in a restrained manner subordinated to the need to be easily built and low maintenance. William Lamb's fanatical attention to detail is usually credited as the key but he was a modest man who considered himself a member of a team.

Starrett Brothers and Eken were given the construction contract and their professional approach achieved the remarkable result that the building was completed on specification, on time and - perhaps most surprising to us in this age of massive cost overruns - on budget.

The Empire State Building has seen many changes since it was completed in 1931 but it remains, truly, a Landmark Building.

For my photographs of New York, including views from the top of the Empire State Building click here.