Wednesday, June 1, 2005
Chrysler Building turns 75
This New York Times story (registration required) celebrates the 75th anniversary of what is perhaps the most elegant, beautiful building ever built. Completed in May 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, it was criticized by architectural historian Lewis Mumford as "inane romanticism, meaningless voluptuousness, void symbolism", all the characteristics that make it so stunning today. The Times story is accompanied by a great slide show of gorgeous photos and narration by an architect who once worked in the building.
It is fitting that the most poetic expression of these forces was built by Walter P. Chrysler, an automobile manufacturer. He was not the nation's top seller of cars; those on top do not need to strut so conspicuously. The Chrysler Building is the act of an upstart, cockily challenging the supremacy of General Motors and the Ford Motor Company. (In 1927, when Ford unveiled the Model A, with its revolutionary hydraulic brake system and a choice of colors as bright as neon - another novelty of the 1920's - there were mobs and near riots in every city where it was shown.) Unable to best those companies on the streets, Chrysler took them on at the skyline.
THE genius of Chrysler and Van Alen was not in making a carlike building. (Their whimsical frieze of hubcaps, which wraps around the building midway up, was along the lines of an in joke.) Instead, their building was about the idea of the car, and its associations: speed, excitement, liberation. To do this, a new architectural language was required. Most skyscrapers, shaped by New York's zoning codes of 1916, which required setbacks at prescribed heights, were bulky ziggurats; Van Alen's building, by contrast, was a missile, its energies surging up rather than down. The final ecstatic leap of the spire is no afterthought, but is implicit almost from the sidewalk. The gargoyles are placed where the building tapers, flaring out as the walls tuck in. It is as if the building is jettisoning weight and picking up momentum as it rises.
According to another story also in the Times today:
The project was hatched by William H. Reynolds, the financier of Dreamland at Coney Island, before being taken over by Walter P. Chrysler and turned into a marvel of marketing that continues to generate oblique publicity for his company half a century after it moved out. (The word Chrysler appears more than 150 times in this section. Talk about product placement.)
Updated 11:43 AM