Architecture, Style, History (Part Two)
3. The Nasty
The epitome of Nasty architecture, the unpleasant step-child of Brutalism, dominates the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue, arguably a gateway to Greenwich Village. There stands a building so outré in its refusal to fit in that I question the motives of its architect, Roger Duffy (ironically, like Gordon Bunschaft, also a partner at Skidmore Owings and Merrill partner). It strains credulity to think that this building was drawn–-figuratively speaking — on the same SOM drafting tables where Bunshaft created The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library fifty years ago.
This wound on a major site in New York City marks fifty years since A&A and Beinecke were built, and makes a fit comparison. It, too, is an academic commission (by The New School for Social Research) and, like the Yale buildings, clearly intended to assert its own importance as a University Center.
Duffy’s 370,000 square foot Leviathan arises in the midst of a mix of post-war white brick apartment houses, masonry masterpieces from the 30’s, and a new, quite elegant low-rise building just across 13th Street that serves as a counterpoint to the University Center as a reminder of restraint, discipline and simplicity.
Many buildings have a signature, usually a dominant design element, to which they are reduced: Johnson’s Lipstick and Chippendale buildings, Norman Foster’s Gherkin, or Saarinen’s Whale. This might be called Duffy’s Gash.
There are actually two major design elements, which are, in a way, contradictory. First, the brass “clapboards” and ribbon windows refer politely to Joseph Urban’s original 1936 New School for Social Research building nearby on West 11th Street. Duffy makes a gesture to context by quoting Urban’s brick treatment but then mutilates the homage with the easy and outrageous gouge of glass streaking across the West and South façades, representing—if nothing else—an outsized portion of the building’s construction budget. This grotesque stroke is meant to do what, exactly?
Its apparent function is to expose the stairways of the building so we can watch students, faculty and administrators walk from floor to floor. Yes, walking from floor to floor is a fundamental part of academic life, but does it deserve such prominent display? Maybe. After all, it reveals the users of the building in a transition from level to level, certainly a synecdoche of the whole academic enterprise. Could that be how Roger Duffy pitched the Nasty image to his clients while they sat with open checkbooks at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill?
There’s no need to guess. SOM’s Web site pitch spills the beans:
“The University Center is intended to become the “heart” of The New School. The LEED Gold building will provide space for all aspects of a traditional campus, with 200,000 square feet of academic space on the first seven floors and 150,000 square feet for a 600-bed dormitory on the levels above.
“Interactive spaces are dispersed vertically throughout the section to activate all levels of the building. Tying them all together are three iconic fire stairs that are unraveled to weave their way through the building, providing ample opportunities to chance encounters and unstructured conversation. This structure creates hives of activity that are traced along the façade with large glass windows. The result is an architecture whose identity is completely intertwined with the University’s identity, making the two indistinguishable.”
Blah. Blah. Blah. Whoa: “Three iconic fire stairs”? The phrase pokes through the archi-babble like the gash itself. How and why does a stairway get bumped up to “iconic”? Iconic, after all, means “executed according to a convention or tradition” and implies an elevation to memorial or even reverential status. How do fire stairs merit such veneration? Their function as routes for emergency evacuation is something I would call to the attention of tenants and pedestrians only if I were being . . . Nasty.
And besides, with all the other spaces in the breathlessly multi-use building intended for dorms, offices, lounges, restaurants—how does a stairway become a “hive of activity?” Yes, it shows constant motion, but all the action is elsewhere.
The ultimate irony is the architect’s indisputable achievement: the building’s Gold energy efficiency rating (read environmental conscientiousness). Ironic because there is a larger environment, which you’d think any major addition to the campus would consider.
After all, The New School is, like Greenwich Village, an environment, with an identity that arises in a quite specific history. During the 30s and 40s it was a safe haven for countless émigré academics in flight from the Nazis. These émigrés were European in their formality, rigor and clarity. Think Bauhaus, think Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. To make Roger Duffy’s porridge of postmodernism a nominal center of the New School and its diffuse campus flies in the face of the intellectual and esthetic foundations of the school. And despite the LEED rating certifying the building as non-polluting and energy-efficient, it brazenly intrudes on the neighborhood.
Duffy’s intrusion is a form of pollution. His glaring, (albeit energy-efficient) illumination is also pollution (trust me, at night you’ll expect to hear the chords of Close Encounters echoing down 14th Street). As is the uninflected size of the building, as is the Gash, which pollutes the façade and spoils the architect’s less-than-enthusiastic homage to Joseph Urban.
Perhaps that’s it—the best and most succinct definition of the Nasty: pollution; pollution of the streets–careless, self-promoting, self-satisfied pollution, making a space less appealing than it was.
I don’t welcome the transition, cultural, political, architectural, and psychological from Brutal to Nasty. But I make the distinction to mark the New Year on the assumption that once aware of it we can begin to avoid it like the plague it already is.
(See Part One: The Brutal and the Nasty, February 14.)