intersection 07.20.16

Timeless Design
Every Person in New York

New York is always about change, and though the losses lately feel especially frequent and lamentable, there are some relative constants to celebrate. In 1995, we asked some writers, designers, architects and others for some examples of timeless design in New York—building, space, area, or object. Appropriately enough, their answers are still relevant two decades later. (Note that we have left the individuals' titles as they were at that time.) 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."

Todd W. Bressi, urban design and planning teacher: "Broadway north of 59th St., where the traffic runs in both directions and there is a mall. The street has been in this configuration for 100 years. This is one of the great streets in the world. It is a great civic space, lively and animated, providing lots of different types of places for people who want to do lots of different types of things. It is constantly changing as the needs of the neighbors change. It doesn't look now the way it did 50 years ago. It provides the city with a place for future inventive uses."

Glenn Gissler, architect: "Walter de Maria's installations The Broken Kilometer and The New York Earth Room, open since 1979 and 1977, respectively. The installations are dramatic and meditative spaces—they remain 'pure' art spaces and stand out as vestiges of the 'original' Soho. For me they live as almost sacred spaces which operate on a plane above the commerce and politics in a constantly changing and increasingly commercial art district."

John Tauranac, mapmaker and urban historian: "The Empire State Building. One of the joys of the building is that every time you look at it, you are liable to find something new and satisfying about it. The buildings that came before it were coarse, unrefined; the buildings that follow lack its style, its panache, its warmth. Now [85] years old, I am happy to see that local souvenir shops are still selling little figurines of the Empire State Building, some with thermometers clinging unceremoniously to its facade or King Kong dangling from its roof. I think it's safe to say that the building is timeless in all its permutations. Like a Faulkner character, it is enduring. It is a classic."

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." [Photo: David Shankbone]

Peg Breen, president of the NY Landmarks Conservancy: "City Hall, built between 1802 and 1811, was meant to symbolize New York City's emergence as the leading city in the country and New Yorkers' pride in their city's accomplishments. It was the first city hall located within a park. It is prized for its grand interior space and elegant Federal and French Renaissance exterior. It also houses one of the premiere collections of early American full-length portraiture and a statue of George Washington cast from life. President Lincoln's body lay in state at the top of the stairs."

Corliss Tyler, vice-president of Takashimaya: "The Delacorte Clock in Central Park. Spirited with all the elements of classic design, the pirouetting bronze animals not only complement the past, but function in the present and will undoubtedly withstand the critical eye of future artists and designers. My own enthusiasm is not only supported by the design value, but the fact that so many people derive so much pleasure in seeing and hearing the clock—plus it just makes me feel good."

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.

Coming from Fifth Ave., one encounters the Palladian architecture of the University Club anchoring a handsome row of landmark buildings. Continuing down the street, we pass by Number 5, with its fantasy animals ornamenting gates of black iron. Number 7 is the former residence of arts patron Robert Lehman. Its fabled art collection is now installed in its own wing at the Met. Numbers 9 and 11 were sensitively restored by U.S. Trust Co. The red brick McKim, Mead & White buildings have period interior furnishings, mahogany paneling, and flocked wall covering equal to its graciously proportioned facade. Number 13, formerly the Museum of Primitive Art and 15, were the home and office of Nelson Rockefeller. Knowns as the Rockefeller Apartments, Number 17 (along with 24 W. 55th) is a modern landmark designed in 1935 by architects Harrison and Fouilhoux as pied-à-tierre apartments for people who worked at Rockefeller Center. These buildings, grand and well-designed, suit New York's urbane diversity. As you continue down the street, you will find clubs, hotels and MoMA's sculpture garden. 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." [Photo: jimbay]

Jason Polan started Every Person in New York in March of 2008. He plans on working on the project until it is finished. Look for more at Jason's site and his book Every Person in New York.

Jacob Riis Park

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