info 05.9.03

Timeless Design

The passing of the subway token into history and the reopening on May 17th of the 'blue whale room' at the Museum of Natural History got us thinking about an article we first published in 1995. We asked some writers, designers, architects and others for some examples of timeless design in New York - building, space, area, or object. Here's what they said.

Akiko Busch, contributing editor of Metropolis: "I have always thought of design as the graceful intersection of unlikely ingredients. What, then, might be more perfect and more timeless design than a room that accommodates a Great Blue Whale and a dance floor. These are, of course, the improbable furnishings that cohabit the lower level of the American Museum of Natural History. The 94-foot fiberglass whale hovers with absolute grace overhead. And on a section of the floor below is a parquet dance floor. The space is a marvel - at once illogical, incongruous, romantic, sexy, epic, grandiose, and grand. What is more timeless than the human love of dance or than our fascination with secrets of the deep? Here is a room that accommodates them both, a space in which frivolity cohabits with the mysteries of the deep sea as though they were natural accomplices. This is the basement of my dreams, and it is a room to dance in if there ever was one."

Terence Riley, Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA: "The Manhattan street grid - New York's most impressive and democratic space."

Hugh Hardy, architect, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates: "Rockefeller Center is timeless. It invented midtown. Its juxtaposition of public spaces and private places makes it an urban ideal. It's all there - the Rockettes, the Rainbow Room, television studios, ice skating, roof gardens, art works, and offices all come together in a place that is New York."

Andrew Dolkart, architectural historian: "The subway token is an object that is a very identifiable New York thing. It is so simple and so useful and so readily identifiable as to what it is that New Yorkers don't want them replaced. They are also wonderfully recyclable."

Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz, public art consultant: "Midtown Manhattan, the tourist center of the city, is defined by commerce - retail shops to street vendors. Yet there is a special street, W. 54th St. between 5th and 6th Avenues, that confounds generalities. It is identified by its very special character and architecture. Walking down this unique street, we get a sense of what New York was like during another era. The buildings, grand and well-designed, suit New York's urbane diversity. Few streets have the ambience of West 54th."

Nicholas Quennell, landscape architect, Quennell Rothschild Associates: "In response to your question, I find I am divided in my loyalties. My first reaction to your question was almost instantaneous: The most extraordinary example of 'timeless design' in New York is the Long Meadow at Prospect Park. And I would be happy to leave it at that. The Long Meadow is certainly one of the greatest manmade landscapes in the world. As three-dimensional sculpture (no, really four-dimensional - it has to be moved through to be experienced); as a place which satisfies spatial needs for social interaction and recreation; as a slice of country brought into the city; and as the perfect climax to the 200-year tradition of picturesque landscape which preceded it.

"At the same time I keep going back to some of the places in New York which satisfy not because they are great works of art or could even be categorized as 'timeless design' but because they stand for what is so wonderful about the City - its ability to constantly surprise you with buildings, neighborhoods, and spaces which are in some way extraordinary.

"To mention a few: the old terra-cotta factory mansion under the Queensboro Bridge abutment in Queens; the old Steinway mansion overlooking LaGuardia airport, its yard filled with aging automobiles and 'Beware of Dog' signs; 'Soundview' - a neighborhood of varied houses and splendid views of the Sound at the southern tip of the Bronx; Sailor's Snug Harbor on Staten Island (an architectural gem which could certainly be classified as 'timeless design'), the mysterious remnant of a neo-Egyptian archway hidden behind a Broadway storefront in Inwood; Brighton Beach Boardwalk, as much for its inhabitants as its physical character. My list could go on and on, and will certainly continue to grow as long as I travel around the city. This process of discovery is certainly one of the great pleasures of living in New York."

We never need an excuse to visit the Roof Garden at the Met but the six Roy Lichtenstein works there now are an extra delight.

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