“…there is a surprisingly rich and layered heritage of modern buildings proving our connection to contemporary architectural thinking which makes me wonder why we have so lost touch with this spirit. So many current new buildings can’t make up their minds what they want to be other than parochial regionalism… the meek wallpaper contextualism of today’s wrapping paper facades.” 

Stanley Saitowitz                     

Architects are making history on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In simple quantity of output, there is an enormous amount of residential construction going on in upper Manhattan. “The last decade has been a banner one for New York City construction. The five boroughs have rebounded from the recession and two major hurricanes to reach 25-year highs in construction spending,” according to the NY Building Congress, a forum for the design, construction, and real estate industries.

Projects that were planned at the height of the 10-year rebound from the 2008 recession and then put on hold during the pandemic, are now coming to completion all over the area from 57th street on upward. Much of this is on the Upper East Side. And much of it is ground-up, luxury-level condominium apartments.

But it is in the quality of the output especially that history is being made. Within the paradoxical framework of rehabilitating our nation’s decaying physical infrastructure as well as signaling a change of ethical agendas to favor conservation and “sustainability,” a curiously surreptitious set of guidelines for economic planning is taking hold, seemingly more intent on social engineering a new American mindset rather than generating viable investment growth programming.     

Nobody used the phrase “Build Back Better” when Rudy Giuliani took over the mayor’s office from David Dinkins in 1993 and made the city of New York safer for tourists, businesses and the ordinary citizen. His administration’s tactics, including his “broken windows” strategy of addressing the more visible (if less destructive) effects of crime as a way of inhibiting the less visible and more dangerous ones, were not always popular but they worked. Neither was that phrase used when Mayor Bloomberg salvaged and expanded New York’s economy after 9/11 with extensive new zoning that dramatically altered the city’s fabric and feel. “Mayor Mike’s” policies are variously blamed or celebrated, depending on who’s counting, for the widespread gentrification the city has undergone during and since his convention-defying, three consecutive four-year terms. 

Then 2020 happened.  Riots in the name of “racial justice” following George Floyd’s death swept through large cities across the country. Our government used a viral pandemic to force the suspension of the entire private economy and the mandated lockdowns of the polity from every sphere of public life.  Suddenly, the “Build Back Better” mantra was being advertised as the salutary doctrine for every one of civilization’s ills, however deliberately they were caused.  It is in this urban milieu of rebuilding and replenishing a city evacuated by the most financially well-off who escaped the crime and societal carnage that filled the vacuum of our emptied streets that the construction upswing has picked up speed and forged ahead. 

Developers have snatched up plots from the far border of East End Avenue all the way to what was the last remaining low rise, townhouse-sized building on Fifth Avenue to build large, multiple-residence apartment buildings.  And these builders are turning to architects to build in styles that will appeal to buyers in neighborhoods that are still the safest, cleanest, most economically stable “bedroom communities” in all the five boroughs: high-earning young families with children in private schools and second vacation homes, who will occupy these multi-room homes rather than flip or rent them as investments.    

To make these well-to-do buyers feel secure and at home in the once-settled but now less predictable neighborhoods of Lenox Hill, Carnegie Hill, and Yorkville, the approach to design favored overwhelmingly has been cautious, conservative, and immediately familiar in its expressive vocabulary. It is a mongrel style I refer to as “retro-historicist”: anodyne pastiches of earlier styles that were themselves backward looking assemblages of history-evocative architectural devices even when they were new. Technically this collaging technique is a hoary tradition as old as the city itself. So, when we say that history is being made, it may be more accurate to say history is being manufactured. 

Paris on the Hudson 

Since their earliest days, when Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam brought with them the brick walled, tiled roofs of domestic building from the Netherlands, NYC’s building owners naturally relied on European vernaculars. As the city and its economy evolved, builders relied on grander models to express their aspirations as inheritors of the centers of power—political, financial, and cultural, of the Ancien Régime. And of course, the French were the principal stylists for the material of modern Western civilization, which they achieved by the expert manipulation of classical-reductive architectural imagery, combined with controlled extravagance. Versailles and the Paris Opera House are grandiose, but they are also disciplined.  

More than the Italian model, which was the architectural lingua franca of the entire colonized world from the time baroque Imperial Urbanism in the days of Augustus replaced sedate Republican architecture, through to its rediscovery in the renaissance and on to its promiscuous revival in the 19th century New World, the Italian idiom has been more animated, more excessive, and less exclusive in the symbolism it has employed. The French, by contrast used the vocabulary of ancient Greece and Rome in more decorous, if also more contrived configurations and elaborations. 

When American architects of the late 19th century ventured to depart from the prevailing Victorian styles they belatedly still looked to, they alighted on the Beaux Arts. In contrast to the eccentric and freewheeling organizational logic and busy vocabularies of the Queen Anne and Neo-Renaissance, the classically inspired methodology brought back to New York from the eponymous Ecole in Paris by a new generation of European-educated American architects, lent itself to more rigorous handling. 

The Beaux Arts’ organizational rules—symmetry and hierarchy in both plan (the placement of rooms and spaces to move through) and elevation (the articulation of vertical surfaces)—were more composed, more clearly legible to the user than past styles; and its conjugation of Greek and Roman-inspired grammars was more flexible for use in the myriad different building types that defined the boom of building in the prolific development of the Gilded Age. Lending itself as easily to the public institutional buildings—libraries, post-offices, train stations—being built all over the country, as it was adaptable to the great private mansions, the Beaux Arts style filled a need. Even the nascent building typologies—the new luxury-level, multiple residence apartment buildings as well as the state-of-the-art department stores for which there was a quickly expanding market in a burgeoning city such as New York—were perfectly suited to the ceremonial Beaux Arts. Hand-in-hand, construction and architecture together quickly helped New York blossom into the nation’s epicenter of business and culture as the 19th gave way to the 20th century and the city flourished. 

Until the second half of the twentieth century, the multivariable application of Beaux Arts style defined New York City, and New York City defined urbanism: densely built, diversely populated, technologically advanced, and constantly transforming itself. Serving and expressing all this activity were its monuments to efficiency, democracy, and upward mobility: Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal welcomed immigrant and commuter alike; the Savoy, the Plaza, and the Ansonia Hotels, gave temporary shelter, and the Apthorp apartments offered permanent residence. The Municipal Building on Centre Street, the New York Public Library served the populace, the department stores from “Ladies’ Mile” to Macy’s on Herald Square. The Singer and the Woolworth towers housed commerce, Shearith Israel for worship, and Luna Park for leisure.  All of these were vehicles for bringing cosmopolitan Parisian monumentality to every facet of American urban life. And all of them typified the Beaux-Arts.     

International Stylin’ 

If the appropriateness of the Beaux-Arts style—a freely adaptable compendium of formal gestures whose purpose was to evoke the continuity of the March of History, and its inevitable destination in the USA—had its culmination in the years between the wars, then it’s not hard to understand what would be perceived by the arbiters of taste as its complete irrelevance in the years that followed. Two World Wars, the seductions of the Machine Age, the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), that promoted Functionalist goals for the building and decorative arts to speak more honestly, and for aesthetics more straightforwardly of the forms they expressed—all coincided to prove the incongruity of heavy, overwrought, and superficial treatments that no longer represented the collective unconscious in built form. 

International Style Modernism swept the world and became the stripped-down form and symbol for any developed or developing nation to show it was ready to participate on the world stage. Amazingly New York City continued to hold its place as the locus of power in business and culture through all the stages of High and Late Modernism. Only in the late 20th century did slick corporate austerity finally cede its stylistic hegemony over architectural output, in parallel to the waning, if still predominant, power of American culture. Post-Modernism—reflexively ironic, idiosyncratically eclectic, or, at its most self-serious, historically revivalist—served to undermine the monolithic pretensions of architectural expression. It became fair game to wear one’s style on one’s sleeve. Philip Johnson’s Chippendale-topped, thin-veneered skyscraper for AT&T completed in 1984 (now 550 Madison with extensive renovations) was the most conspicuous iteration of this style, and it winked and elbowed its Post-Modern bona-fides in every department: at once mocking tradition even as it alluded to its authority in heavy handed, colossally over-scaled, pink travertine. 

Until the second decade of the 21st century, when the city’s economy returned after first, 9/11 and then the Great Recession, there was not much space given over to newfangled architecture at all. Now that the government has abated its enforced privations, we are seeing what was gestating as we quarantined; and with that how advances in the design of urban infrastructure have lapsed, or even retreated to a refuge of false comfort.      

Bozo Arts on the Upper East Side

27 East 79th Street

Squished into the footprint of a single typical brownstone between two wider, more genteel, and sober-faced apartment blocks from the last century, is 27 East 79th Street. A 15-story sliver that spreads its vague historical motifs across its narrow 25-foot breadth, seemingly intent on not leaving a square foot unadorned. The sales website describes in the usual overheated real estate bromides that “Parisian design firm Cabinet Alberto Pinto” (actually, a decorator rather than an architect, though to quibble over any supposed deception would be to overlook the service truly being performed by his office, which is, indeed, decorating, albeit of a 232 x 25-foot curtain wall); “has created a truly contextual building with foundations in the past. The eight exquisite residences are housed within a boutique building (whatever that might be) that is influenced by the classical past architecture of Fin de siècle Paris. The building’s façade features rich details (unclear what this means) of Beaux Arts classicism and delicate Art Nouveau touches while taking its cues from the stately prewar neighbors.”—and to this last observation, we can say: Bingo! Finally, a correct if half-true admission of how this building’s facile facial expression was motivated, if not how shallow is its treatment. It was meant to take cues from its neighbors. Regrettably it doesn’t seem to have known what to do with them once they were taken.  

The “rich details” might allude to the feeble attempt at rustication, a way of treating joints between cut stone to accentuate its massiveness that here is more akin to scoring, as one does to cardboard to make it fold more easily. Or the surface-mounted, CNC-routed curlicues or dentil-inflected architraves that interrupt the prefabricated limestone panels in no discernable rhythm or relation to their periodic position across the building’s narrow height, instead of their natural place giving visual support to an attic story or pediment. Or the various keystones or medallions that interrupt still other applied gimcrackery from top to bottom.   

To borrow from classicism is what classicism was made for. At its simplest, it’s a set of platonic solids and elementary spatial volumes, that by their reference to the scale of the human figure, endow large, man-made objects like buildings with legible proportion and grace. Its parts are meant to be reconfigured, if according to rules derived from nature, like gravity, balance, order, and regularity. 

Art Nouveau, on the other hand, is a mannerist, idiosyncratic, and most importantly, reactionary play on the rules of expressive form-making that, in consisting of already abstract sources—highly stylized motifs taken from plants & flowers, is a direct rejection of academic classicism.  It is conceivable that any single building might have started out dressed in the garb of Beaux Arts classicism and was later introduced to some Art Nouveau flourishes, though I can think of no examples. But to start out with both of these diametric opposites and without any attempt at an integrated new hybrid that might result, is to mimic the neighbors’ speech without knowing what language they’re speaking. “Context” be damned!    

333 East 82nd Street

“MANOR82,” as its website & street signage refer to it, is a stoutly scaled, ersatz Chateau squatting between brownstone faced apartments on an otherwise motley if unassuming block between 1st and 2nd Avenues. Its pretensions to the great habitations of landed gentry begins and ends with its awkwardly unhyphenated name: it is too large and undifferentiated in its massing to suggest any relation to the primary residence of a country estate, even if transported to a dense and narrow cross street in Manhattan. And its division into 21 separate residences over its eight stocky stories results in apartments that, though possibly spacious by New York standards, are, with the exception of the penthouse unit, stuffed together with only two exposures at front and back, the latter of which look onto the fire escapes and rear windows of brick tenements to their north. 

While its developer, Rybak, refers in its promotional materials to its “classic limestone façade” and sales agent CityRealty’s online ads describe its “Hand-chiseled limestone,”  the managing architect’s web page devoted to the project candidly admits of the entire front façade’s being executed with a “patented glass fiber reinforced gypsum rainscreen with (cladding manufacturer) Zoho Stone’s ‘Forton MG product’,” while the rear is brick veneer, and lot-line walls made of “EIFS” —a sprayed on synthetic stucco. In other words, as it appears to this observer, the “rounded window bays, molding bands, and dentil course parapet comprise an opulent, pre-war-styled façade“ made of heavy-duty Styrofoam. 

That its windows are oversized and tinted insulated glass with false mullions, its molding bands extend horizontally and vertically irrespective of their supporting masses, and their dentil course clads a heavily looming cornice and not a parapet are only a few of the many things that prevent this building from being opulent or “pre-war-styled.” But even a simulated manor house of dubious provenance mysteriously dropped mid-block on a side street of upper Manhattan would not feature a 12-foot-wide garage door prominently if haphazardly akimbo from the vertical rhythm of projecting bays that bulge out over the sidewalk above it. 

200 East 83RD Street

200 East 83rd Street is on the corner of 3rd Avenue—slightly off the beat from the “Millionaire’s Row” of Fifth Avenue, or grand dames of Park Avenue. That it was designed by the office of Robert A.M. Stern, perhaps the single most preeminent architect in America, longtime dean and educator at Yale school architecture and respected author of multiple seminal histories of the architecture of New York, has strangely not stopped this from being a massive pile of banality. Never in recent memory has so much masonry been put in the service of so many indiscriminately applied decorative cliches in a single edifice. The sheer number of platitudes rendered in Indiana limestone is an embarrassment of moneys spent and taste sacrificed. 

Rising approximately 500 feet above ground the 35 story tower plunges into the sky above all other buildings that surround it. The air rights of the adjacent properties were secured by the developer to allow for such a height and to provide it with 360-degree views.

The vertiginous façade—real limestone so overly machine-finished that it looks fake—is interrupted twice with deeply set arched “loggias” suggesting open-air porches that could not possibly be occupied at such heights, making them “blind” if left open windswept empty holes. 

From the 3rd story setback and upward, it looks like the office’s junior designers rented a truck and raided a garden statuary salvage yard stealing anything that might be appended to what would otherwise be a bland but innocuous shaft of punched windows:  

Six story tall, bas-relief pylons with vertically-half-cut urn finials; inset panels of diamond lattice patterns adorning chamfered setback corners; projecting rectangular panels with circular giant half-story high, stone swag and tassel-based brackets supporting nothing above and engaged with shallow-relief keystone voussoirs below; miniature tapered Juliet balconies below windows far too high and too small to be functional. 

As it nears completion, the building is a theme-park—a veritable index of pseudo-Beaux-Arts motifs, without recourse to the ordering principals, or expressionistic logic that would have made its sources legible and provided the continuity with the great buildings of the past, and even a few of the past-facing other recent projects from this firm’s desks, tolerable, even admirable. 

Lost in Translation

You can believe and admire that Manhattan has always been the surrealist “exquisite corpse” game of addition and accretion and erasure and substitution by separate individual owners of adjacent parcels. And there is no one super-structural mode of holistic urban planning that is not susceptible to such shortcomings that allow for the production of ugliness, lack of utility, and other occupational failures of urban architectural planning.  

The complaint, if there is one, is not just about the failure of discrete instances of building designs that fail to adhere to any of their own internal logics, however derivative those are. Rather, the objection is to buildings that purport to place themselves into “contexts” or define or reflect on their neighbors in ways that enhance the former (themselves) and diminish the latter (their neighbors). Had any one of these three examples of meekly reactionary designs dispensed with the cloying quotations from misremembered style manuals, and relied on the inherent qualities of real materials, or even the creative opportunities of synthetic ones, it might have been quieter, but believable. Or if they’d exploited the tectonic methods that undergird their physical accomplishments, they might have been loud but authentic. And had they looked to the underlying thinking that originally gave meaning to the classical systems they so tepidly reference, instead of the calcified forms of its hackneyed application; or if they proposed their own new systems altogether—the buildings might not be so vaguely familiar (or familiarly vague), nor so safe. But they might have been respectable in their own rights. And they may have advanced the actual causes of the elaborated classicism they so lamely borrow from: the legible articulation of structural elements and their relation to the human form by systems of proportion, abstracted from nature and the essentials of built assembly.  

To complete the quote at top of San Francisco architect Stanley Saitowitz in his reexamination of the best of his city’s modern building design: 

“…. It is reassuring to see architecture express ideas of making in ways that users can understand construction and intentions and are set free to inhabit and interpret their spaces.”

If developers want to offer assurances of security, and architects the authority of history, their work will be more convincing, and our skylines more agreeable, if created with the courage – and the clarity – of conviction.     

Drawings by the author.