New York City - which in this context has to mean Manhattan - is a big sneak. She’s perfectly ready to support any hypothesis about her you bring to her. Every argument has merit. Anything infinite has this luxury: since it already iseverything. But I think she’s especially sneaky about architecture. What may very nearly universally be the inner image we have of her, largely induced by 30s Hollywood movies, is her brash sophisticated Art Deco phallically jagged skyline. Surely, one assumes, she must have the best buildings in the world.
Indeed, some are noteworthy, one or two perhaps ‘great’, but to me no one of them strikes me as the exemplar, the adequate personification of her, not even the ‘best’ urban architecture in the world. Numerous cities - Paris, Vienna, Rome, et al - might be said to edge her out in single ‘great’ buildings. But none can claim, I think, the same power of collective effect.
Certainly many buildings are iconic - the Empire State Building probably wins that prize - but if architecture defines New York, for which I think an air-tight case can be made that it does, it’s architecture in the aggregate. It’s the effect of a great interior decorator whose vision is very much more the point than the furniture she arranges, fine or desultory as it variously can be, to carry it out. New York’s special effects, part of her sneaky beauty, are what grab you, stay with you, get under your skin. The skyline is the great accomplishment, even though coming upon it in the distance on a grey day when driving in from Long Island, it can look unprepossessing, grim, even a little puny. Of course that’s another of her change-artist ploys: you want grim? Oh baby, she’ll give to you. You have no idea.
But back to where we want to be: the best and the brightest. I confess right off I lost interest in imagining I could come up with a building that exemplified architecture in New York. Of much greater interest to me is the building that suggests the heart and soul of New York. So that became my divining rod. And that stick led me to two contenders for the crown. One just barely edges out the other.
That close second is the Chrysler Building. Like all great art, she defeats any attempt to nail down exactly what moves you about her. But I choose her as almost the Number One Synechdoche for New York - the single brand or specific instance of and in the city that as semaphore and metaphor might stand in for Manhattan herself - because she’s a gorgeous freak. You want her hat. You want to live in it - be it. You want to ride her tightly rising Art Deco adornments all the way up, you want to have her. She stands out the way Garbo overtook any movie she was ever in. Her strangeness rivets you.
But to me there is an even more abundantly strange and enticing lady in the city who still awaits the acclaim she deserves - 121 years after her année de naissance, that magical year the sound of whose very array of numbers seems to define something poignantly essential about New York just before she passed into our era - 1897: the Bayard–Condict Building which stands at 65 Bleecker Street and is the only work of architect Louis Sullivan in New York City. Here’s Wikipedia’s entry on her:
She’s breath-taking when you come upon her. She’s always unexpected - even when you know exactly where she is. She exalts the vertical as the “skyscraper” (a term relatively contemporary to her) she agrees to be seen as, which she does with such a delicately glorious amassing and vining up of some of the most intricate carved stucco surfaces you’ll see anywhere in the world, and which in this gritty block of mercantile Bleecker Street, sings out like choirs of ‘better’ Gibson Girls, both more voluptuous and heavenly than that earthbound crowd. The surface decoration embraces art nouveau but in a way that unites it decoratively both backward to the rococo and forward to the sleekness of Art Deco, if really only the barest hint of the latter (not least its strong verticality). What it is, is Chicagoan Louis Sullivan’s great love letter to New York. This is part of what gives her the sense of BEING in some measure New York.
In a way all architecture in Manhattan are love letters to her. The small deli, the ugliest early ‘60s rectangular box apartment buildings, an 1858 row house in Chelsea, and on and on. But Mr. Sullivan’s sole edifice in New York to my mind amounts to the best of them. She forms and breaks the heart and forms it again. Like the best beauties she defeats photography. The swatches of her you’ll see in the Wikipedia article (all with attributions) do point out her glories in chopped form. But none do her any but remote justice.
You have to come see her to see her.