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The Greatest Building: “If I Had To Pick One Tower, It Wouldn’t Be the Empire State Building”

And it’s not the Chrysler Building, either.

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Grand Central Terminal, 1927; the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1966.  

Justin Davidson: I want to get to our core question—which is, what’s the best New York building ever?—by asking you another. What makes a good New York building?

Winka Dubbeldam: One that encourages others to live up to its quality, and raises the level of the neighborhood. The High Line is great; even better is that we now have all these fantastic buildings around it. The New Museum was really interesting, and now along the Bowery we have a lot of other interesting buildings.

Bernard Tschumi: Every one of those buildings is a bad “citizen”—in a good way. Before 2000, everything was about being contextual, and buildings were supposed to be good citizens. And when somebody from out of town asked me what new architecture to see, I had a hard time giving them an answer. Now I can tell them about all these exciting new buildings that break the pattern and don’t play the typical New York game of the podium with the tower on top. So suddenly we have buildings that no developer in their right mind would build— but they did.

Davidson: One example, Bernard, might be your Blue condo, a glass tower in varied shades of, yes, blue that looms over the brick tenements of the Lower East Side. Does violating New York traditions make a building less New Yorky?

Tschumi: No. New York can take it.

Davidson: Has any building gone beyond what New York can tolerate?

Dubbeldam: I wish!

Robert A.M. Stern: Well, the buildings that entertain Bernard’s friends, who jet in from wherever, don’t really make any contribution except as big art objects. The city can take them, but what are they telling us? They don’t offer any new insights about how people live, or about the relationship to the street or to the sky. Just a new curtain wall, and a strange one at that. To be a good citizen is to work with the city and not against it.

Gregg Pasquarelli: I disagree. Like other kinds of art, great buildings contradict everything else. They make us think. They start conversations, so people talk about what it means to fit in, what it means to have courage. It’s okay for some buildings not to work.

Tschumi: Maybe that’s what a city is: confrontation and complication. In New York, the name of the game is to have one’s own envelope. When you arrive from the airport and you look at the skyline, you see this incredible variety—a symphony of envelopes.

Davidson: So who wants to nominate a candidate for the soloist in this symphony: the best New York building ever?

Pasquarelli: My pick is Grand Central Terminal. It’s so New York, so ahead of its time, it integrates so many technological ideas, and it gives the city that incredible space.

Bergdoll: Grand Central creates a new type. It will soon be 100 years old, and it still has that original power. It’s really an indoor urban room that’s absolutely stunning. And it’s not closed in on itself but open to the entire neighborhood.

Pasquarelli: You can arrive at it from everywhere.

Tschumi: And if you live in the area, you walk through it to cross the street.

Rosalie Genevro: And it’s so legible. You can say “Meet me by the clock,” and even if you’ve never been there before, you’ll find it right away. The pedestrian circulation inside the station works so well.

Bergdoll: It’s not only what it looks like; it’s what it does.

Davidson: Does it function as an exciting violation of New York’s fabric, or as a good citizen?

Stern: It’s a very good citizen.

Davidson: Looking at it now, when the country’s infrastructure is crumbling and out-of-date, it strikes me that in 1903, Grand Central embodied a national optimism about the future of transportation.

Vin Cipolla: Right. Prior to the fifties, the interest of the federal government in building cities was real. That’s changed profoundly, which is why we’ve got hundreds of miles of cul-de-sacs at the expense of urban centers.

Pasquarelli: You know, we complain that the government isn’t doing enough about infrastructure, but Grand Central and the original Penn Station were built by private industry, not by government. The Pennsylvania Railroad was the most highly capitalized corporation in the world. They were the Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates of their generation.

Genevro: In fact, Grand Central was really an enormous real-estate proposition. Decking over the tracks made it possible to build Park Avenue.

Davidson: Isn’t anyone going to nominate the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building?

Genevro: The Empire State Building may be the symbol of New York, and it has an interesting history—the quickness and organizational genius of its construction—but it doesn’t have the same qualities or complexity that Grand Central does. For one thing, it’s not a public space.


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