On Frank Lloyd Wright and the Architectural War For New York’s Skyline
When a City Values Functionality Over Form
The New York City to which Frank Lloyd Wright returned in late 1926 was dramatically different from the metropolis he had encountered in 1909, but its evolution was not a mystery. The dramatic skyscrapers, the stock market, airplanes, jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, radio, and even organized crime, which gave the 1920s their fame, did not appear from nowhere. All had developed from the preceding decades. The risk was large, but for greater New York, still barely 20 years old, “the ties that bound—subways, bridges, schools, amusement parks, police, theaters, jobs, water, public health, Tammany, the excitement and pride of living in a great city—overmatched the innumerable antagonisms and kept them with bounds.” Squinting at risk, its citizens might assume “so far so good.”
With the cultural flux, modern art had made inroads in not just New York but America with the epochal Armory Show of 1913. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was one of several works that introduced the European avant-garde to Americans. In contrast to the art scene, the city’s architectural evolution in the 1910s had developed erratically. Although the Architectural Record ran a short piece, “The Wild Men of Paris,” profiling French painters, throughout the 1910s the publication demonstrated a pervasive architectural conservativism. The editors extensively published the work of traditionalists like Carrère & Hastings and John Russell Pope. Standard fare included “Gothic” residences, “Modern” colonial doorways, neoclassical libraries, and Spanish revival villas.
Though architecture leaned toward traditionalism, advances in media and technology had become woven into modern life. Times Square evolved into a rollicking visual spectacle, the forebear of the place we know today. Flashy movie palaces, like those built by Thomas Lamb, proliferated. From the lush interiors of the Rivoli (1917) or the Capitol (1919) theaters, Manhattanites could see Hollywood’s latest. The “palaces” intoxicated visitors with flashing signage and grand marquees, their seemingly endless upholstered chairs, and climate-controlled interiors, bedecked with opulent neoclassical flourishes. Electricity was only one manifestation of energy physics: Einstein had ushered in the relativity of space and time. The two phenomena collapsed even further when, in 1915, the first transcontinental call was placed between San Francisco and New York.
World War I had ended isolationist tendencies and fundamentally disrupted the cultural flow between Europe and America. American perceptions of Germany and Germans, formerly positive, became irresolutely negative. After two years of war, 116,708 U.S. soldiers had died and 204,002 had been wounded. As a percentage of the entire force deployed, this number was miniscule compared with that of European nations, some of which had lost almost a third of their enlisted military. Yet the war produced Ernest Hemingway’s Lost Generation of artists and writers: Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce, among many others, reacted to the horror of the conflict and its lasting reverberations.
In the 1920s, New York was overrun by a novel sight: the automobile. Already by 1920, 57th Street, with its various car showrooms, was considered to be the “automobile district.” In less than ten years the car would become ubiquitous, with one out of every six Americans owning one. The automobile drove some of the city’s greatest feats in civil engineering, such as the Holland Tunnel, which would connect Manhattan to Jersey City beneath the Hudson River in 1927, when construction started on the George Washington Bridge.
Production of domestic architecture expanded. The Upper East Side swelled with new townhouses, while Elsie de Wolfe, the doyenne of interior decoration, shook high society loose from its stuffy Victorian furniture. The postwar economy swung into popular consumer culture. Through innovations in workplace technology, the average citizen suddenly had leisure time. Radio was on the rise, and innovative models for marketing and advertising flourished. The new sounds of jazz—tinny trumpets, sizzling snares—spilled forth from the city’s speakeasies. The Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom, and African American artists, such as Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and Zora Neale Hurston, came to the fore. Further north, from the Bronx, came the roar of the Yankees’ multiple wins throughout the 1923 World Series at their new stadium, and George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue suffused New York’s Aeolian Hall.
The sound was modern America, but the hall where the Rhapsody unfurled, a neoclassical building with four-story frontal Corinthian columns, suggested the dilemma of architects: What was the role of the classical tradition, and what was the image of modern architecture to be? Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building (1913), located at 233 Broadway, had earlier synopsized the debate that would obsess architects for decades. Technologically advanced, but clad in the vaulting pinnacles of the neo-Gothic, the Woolworth Building looked at once forward and backward.The future of New York itself would turn on the skyscraper and its development, providing both images of modernity and a flood of creativity.
The dilemma increasingly engaged architects as the modern city expanded. Although occasional works of Functionalist architecture had appeared—the Flatiron Building and the Equitable Building—alongside factories and bridges, the hopes for the future identity of American modern architecture lay in a single building type: the skyscraper, or what the journalist John Taylor Boyd Jr. called in 1922 “the one supreme feature of modern architecture.”
The future of New York itself would turn on the skyscraper and its development, providing both images of modernity and a flood of creativity. One major stimulus occurred when the city enacted its 1916 planning code for “stepped-back structures.” Architect and illustrator Hugh Ferriss delineated “wedding cake” buildings—monumental, shadowed, stepping, and ziggurat-like—that embodied the visual aura of evolving 1920s Manhattan. Dramatic renderings, they remained on paper but inspired others.
From regulation came revolution. The dramatic profile liberated architects, and alongside the freedom to explore form was a burgeoning interest in the ancient and primitive, totally independent of Wright’s earlier interest. Exoticism permeated the air, feeding on the Egyptomania following the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Wright had drawn from primitivist sources in the early 1910s with serious intention, but with the results so scattered, the effort was little understood.
Now interest became widespread. In the 1920s, American architects began to look to non-Western cultures for the kernel of something “close to nature,” something, in the words of art historian Patricia Morton, “simpler and more profound.” The Aztecs, the Maya, and the ancient Egyptians inspired the revivalism. Even Cass Gilbert, architect of the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building, later in the decade fell under the sway of the exotic: his mid-block loft building in the fur district on West 30th Street included terra-cotta reliefs derived from ancient Assyrian sources.
This exotic outburst suggests an ideal moment to pause to see how modern architecture had been evolving, and in doing so we get a better sense of how Wright fit and did not fit into its evolution. In Europe, among the varieties of modern currents that had floated across the continent, two fundamental directions began to emerge, an expressionist wing represented by a cadre of Dutch and German architects—they most appreciated Wright’s work—and a rationalist wing that was antihistory, anti-ornament, and skeptical of Wright. By the early 1920s the rationalist wing began to dominate. The rationalists opposed historical reference and, with socialist leanings, emphasized mass housing and prefabrication characterized by simple surfaces, flat planes, and flat roofs. Generally, these efforts fell under the rubric of “Functionalism.” By the late 1920s and early 1930s, images of Functionalism would be imported to New York, and it was eventually referred to as the “International Style” for its global ambitions.
During the 1920s, Le Corbusier emerged as the leader of the pack—and for Wright, his major competition. Born in 1887 as Pierre Jeanneret, a whole generation younger than Wright, in his earliest years he had worked through historic styles and systematically studied the fundamentals of architecture in search of the essence of construction and art. The young Franco-Swiss architect was also aware of Wright—he’d bought Wright’s Wasmuth picture book during the war—though he never acknowledged him directly. For Le Corbusier and his sphere, the machine, as metaphor for technology, expressed the spirit of the times, the Machine Age. The house was a machine to inhabit. His domain was the city onto which the architect imposed his principles of urbanisme, in which he took on the central role of rationalizing the city’s activities, buildings, space, and circulation systems.
The American situation had been quite different. Its architects had little anxiety about historical reference while they created the most technologically advanced and tallest buildings in the world. Constructed of steel, efficient with the most powerful elevators and mechanical systems, and serving expanding commerce, they could still have cornices and ornaments as evidence of historical continuity.
Wright followed all these developments carefully. In contrast to Le Corbusier, for Wright, the house was a refuge, built by machines but an escape from them. As he explored his own aesthetic, even if his projects were doomed, he increasingly insisted that his organic architecture was the only viable style for a proper modern architecture.
The situation in the mid-1920s was, however, still fluid, as architects and critics competed to find a dominant and winning idiom. A new generation of big buildings emerged, mixing motifs and elements, often with rich visual effect, but too varied to be identified by a single style. The vast Barclay-Vesey Building (1923) at 140 West Street was the largest telephone building in the world. It featured a broad base bifurcated into two towers that cradled another soaring block. These big volumes had edge details of intertwined vines, exotic animals and birds, and even aborigines above the entries. Lewis Mumford, the young critic who would soon become Wright’s protégé., described the lobby “as gaily . . . decorated as a village in a strawberry festival.” It also was an international marker: the frontispiece for the English-language edition of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, which Wright would review.
In 1924, John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood designed another landmark, the American Radiator Building at 40 West 40th Street. Two years earlier they had won the competition for the Chicago Tribune Tower with a controversial neo-Gothic skyscraper. But in New York for American Radiator (also known as the American Standard Building), Hood further abstracted the neo-Gothic and clad the building in black brick. The results were, according to the standard reference on the period, “condemned, applauded, and discussed.”
The pyramidal structure, rising 23 stories, featured terra-cotta friezes and Gothic pinnacles, each of which was coated in gold. The bronze-and-black granite base fed into a black marble and mirrored entrance hall. To some, the building itself communicated “glorious radiator.” Even the carved ornament, allegories on the conversion of energy into matter, spoke of the heater product. As a journalist from the Villager commented soon after the skyscraper’s construction, “New York is no blank; New York has a meaning, and Radiator gathers it up and distills it.” The city surged with the chatter of a million voices—so, too, its buildings were to speak.Energized by France, American architects and designers proceeded to create their version of the idiom that has since become synonymous with the Roaring Twenties: Art Deco.
In the midst of this excitement, New York could not anticipate the explosive impact that the 1925 Exposition internationale des Arts d.coratifs et industriels modernes in Paris would have on American design. The exposition, which the United States bowed out of (the federal government saying it had nothing “modern” to present), woke Americans up. The existing disconnect could be seen in the 1925 issues of the Architectural Record: period rooms of America’s country houses looked bloodless next to Konstantin Melnikov’s Soviet pavilion or Le Corbusier’s geometric composition at the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau. They were the lone exceptions to—and reactions against—the dominating aesthetic of sensuality. Avoiding the challenge of expressing technology for its own sake, the architecture of French designers, with its focus on symmetry, muted classicism, and material sensuality, provided inspirations that resolved—for the moment—the dilemma of traditional versus modern by being both.
Energized by France, American architects and designers proceeded to create their version of the idiom that has since become synonymous with the Roaring Twenties: Art Deco. It provided in America the first great exuberant burst and the first large-scale expression of its modern culture since the grand Beaux-Arts architecture of Progressivism at the turn of the century. Art Deco broadly represented the Machine Age, and in New York it represented the Jazz Age as well. The term “Art Deco” was actually in limited use at the time: Zigzag style, Jazz Modern, Skyscraper style, and Modernistic, among other terms, were more common. Later in the decade the style morphed into the moderne or “Streamline” style, in which curves in buildings recalled the curves of locomotives and, by association, speed, power, and the machine. For our purposes, the term “Art Deco” works well.
The firm of Buchman & Kahn emerged as major purveyors of commercial Art Deco building by the time Wright returned to the city in December 1926. Trained at the École des Beaux-Arts, the designing partner Ely Jacques Kahn was fully aware not just of French stylistic motifs, but also of the vocabulary of the late Vienna Secession movement, which merged abstract geometries and primary motifs. He had already produced real buildings equivalent to Ferriss’s stepped profile drawings; Kahn’s name became synonymous with this architectural form. The firm’s Insurance Center Building just north of Wall Street gave prominence to a bold zigzag banding that became a stylistic cue. Kahn’s masterpiece, the Park Avenue Building, on Park between 32nd and 33rd Streets, would be finished in 1927. It pulled together color, texture, vibrant patterns, and a rich interplay of terra-cotta to efficiently house a pulsating commercial enterprise.
Mumford approved, though it “may well serve to crystallize all the fumbling and uncertain elements in present-day architecture.” Kahn’s Squibb Building on Fifth Avenue (1929/30) comprised a composition of stacked vertical masses that receded in size as the building rose 34 stories. Between 1925 and 1931, Buchman & Kahn would build over 30 such buildings, many situated in the Garment District immediately south of Times Square and as far downtown as Wall Street.
Art Deco flourished in New York. Its impact was so powerful that it had overtures of a national style, with examples cropping up from Gotham to the oil boomtown of Big Spring, Texas. It ushered in what would be some of New York’s greatest architectural contributions to modern culture: the Chrysler Building (1930) by William Van Alen, the Empire State Building (1931) by William F. Lamb, and Radio City Music Hall (1932) by Edward Durell Stone and Donald Deskey. Jazz Age New York swaying with Art Deco towers characterized the city into which Wright walked. His response was to criticize the buildings and search for his own version of the skyscraper.
Reprinted from Wright and New York: The Making of America’s Architect by Anthony Alofsin, published by Yale University Press © 2019. Reprinted by permission. The publication is available at Yale Books.