Loving -- and hating -- the Empire State Plaza

egg corning tower museum from esp

Impressive -- and maddening.

By Martin Daley

soap box badgeLike lots of Albanians, I have a love/hate relationship with the Empire State Plaza.

I've never known Albany without the ESP. It's just always been there for me. I know I'm coming home when I see it on the horizon. It's a symbol of this city, and there's no changing that.

Nelson Rockefeller sure knew how to make his mark.

yellow sculpture at esp

When I was a small child the plaza was a place where we went to watch fireworks, attend festivals, see plays at the Egg, check out exhibits at the State Museum, and to get unparalleled views of Albany from atop the Corning Tower. I used to go to the concourse auto show and sit in every single car.

When I got older I rode my bike and jumped it off stairs and platforms. My senior prom was held in the plaza Convention Center. I spent many nights with friends playing manhunt at the playground or shooting chase scenes for our crappy home-made action movies. During college, I thought I was incredibly suave bringing my dates to the plaza -- it was like my own secret "lovers lane" and that's all I'll say about that :-P

What is

state capitol from plaza

The ESP is a unique and awe-inspiring structure. Few cities in the US have such a defining skyline, and we should be grateful for the plaza's role in shaping this city's visual identity.

The plaza's public space, albeit difficult to access, is attractive and begs exploration. I've been fortunate so see a lot of great public spaces in the US and abroad: Central Park in NYC, The Mall in DC, the Riverwalk in San Antonio, St. Mark's Square in Venice, La Defence in Paris, Park Guell in Barcelona, Piazza San Pietro in the Vatican City, and the list goes on. I honestly consider the ESP to be very close to that high of a standard. It's easy to lose track of its uniqueness simply because it's so familiar.

When I rate great public spaces, I think the plaza is awesome. Sure, it's under-utilized, but it evokes a strong reaction. Consider Boston's Government Center. I love the city, I love brick, even the building itself ain't so bad. But the plaza around it -- awful. The worst. BORING. It's offensively bland. No one will ever call the brutalist Empire State Plaza "bland."

the egg from plaza

What was

Until I was at least in my late teens, I'd never seen images of the buildings the ESP replaced, so I never had any understanding that this complex didn't just arise out of empty space. I think Rocky must have sold his grand idea by telling folks the plaza would come to life as if a phoenix rising from the ashes. It's no secret the guy was embarrassed by the Albany the ESP eventually replaced. Even William Kennedy -- who sometimes seems to take literary freedom with how good the good-old days really were -- refers to this area of the city, once known as Nighttown, with a little disdain. Although his obvious love for the characters of Nighttown soften the criticism, it's still only thinly veiled.

But you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Back in the 1960's, like other cities tempted by urban renewal, Albany had already suffered so greatly that people were willing to accept a gigantic risky solution rather than face the music.

Let's face it, that plaza wasn't built for workers that lived in Albany. The South Mall arterial and defunct plans to ram a highway through Washington Park were proof of that. The plaza is an office park built for suburban-dwelling office workers. White flight was already in full thrust, and Rocky's tomb made no effort to reverse that problem. Drive in, rock the cubicle, drive out. No wonder the downtown Albany of today is a ghost town 6pm to 7am.

Appreciation, but...

Standing upon the mall, looking over downtown Albany or at the reflecting fountains, I can't help but love the space. However, you don't need to travel very far to see how the design of the plaza is severely flawed. Stand on South Swan, Eagle, or perpendicular streets in Center Square and it's clear that the mall isn't a public space -- it's a fortress. The DMV Building screams "Don't come this way" and the slate wall on the Eastern facade of the plaza is as impenetrable as the Helderberg cliffs.

I had an urban design professor once sum up how he felt one could easily to determine if a building was "good" or not. "Is it polite to the street?" he would ask. The ESP is not entirely polite to the street. The massive scars left on our streetscape by 787 and the South Mall arterial are not polite to the street.

elevated highways near esp

What do these elevated highways say to the street, or the people underneath? They say "I don't care about you. I need you for support. But what's underneath me is below me. I care not for the trouble and toil of the city."

So, yes, I'm deeply conflicted about the plaza.

Perhaps most off all, I'm conflicted by the belief that we lost a lot of history and architecture because the plaza is in the right place by being in the wrong place, downtown. How CRAZY is that?! Just drive uptown past the Harriman office campus and you'll realize that it could have been worse.

Sure, I hate the mega-scale urban renewal of the 60s and 70s, and modernist architecture is god-awful -- but the ESP is such a fantastic exception that I still can't make up my mind whether I hate it or love it.

It's just not that easy.

Martin has a great -- and very appropriate -- username on Twitter: daleyplanit.

Earlier on the Sunday Soapbox: An urban planner grows in Albany

Comments

I honestly couldn't have said it better myself- I feel the exact same way.

I agree for the most part. I'm not sure if I agree with casting the Arterial and the Plaza itself as one entity. And about those walls that you described as a fortress--especially on the Swan St side--it'd be cool if they put some art there to spruce it up!

Wow spot-on assessment of the space. That said my kids and I

I've got a friend who calls the Plaza "Rockefeller's Bird" and he isn't referring to a winged creature when he says it. I feel about the same as Martin does about the Plaza. It isn't nearly as bad as the connected monstrosity: 787, I'd really like to see that come down.

The arterial was designed to show off the plaza. And it's ugly. I too love the plaza, having spent a good chunk of my childhood exploring the entire complex because my mother did transcription work for the DMV. I spent many winters iceskating there and later it became a common hang out spot for me and my first boyfriend. But the arterial? Ugh. As a kid I thought it was great, flying above the streets as others are flying along in their cars above you. But it cuts the city off from one of it's great natural resources: the river. Corning Preseve just doesn't cut it.
I'm not fond of the towers they built next to the arterial that ended up being boarded up as well.
If infinite resources were available, I would love it if the could put the arterial underground akin to "the big dig" in Boston, (but not taking as long or costing as much...) and giving that area back to living, not driving.
And hey, can we get light rail too, since I'm wish casting? ;)

Great article Martin - thanks for sharing. So what are your recommendations for the 'student ghetto' in Pine Hills (she asks tongue in cheek)?

Fantastic work, Martin.

I have no mixed feelings.

The ESP is an unmitigated disaster, the so-called "good side" to the plaza are nothing but nostalgia. You'd think the same about any place you spent significant time in your formative years.

It's an insult to everyone who's ever lived in Albany...it and the massive swirling freeway overpasses should be torn down.

It's not 'Modernist', it's 'Brutalist', a descendant of modernism.

Good from far, but far from good.

Sure it looks nice driving in on I-90, but on the pedestrian level, walking the ESP feels alienating, especially when it's empty. The public art is great, but lots of cities have public art, and not in settings this sterile. It's a strange non-place. The office buildings, the Egg, the state museum, all those buildings are great. But other than that, it just seems like a lot of wasted space.

Ahhh, light rail and a river front? That would be too good to be true! We would have a downtown!

WHAT? you compare that imperialist neighborhood hating rectangular unfeeling monstrosity to central park and park guell? to Vaux and Olmstead and Gaudi? i'm speachless with bile. i can''t read any further. I ... I... it is incomprehensible

fah.

and another thing:

loook at the 6 structures on the plaza. every one of them narrower at teh bottom than the top as if to say: we don't want to touch albany.

and another thing: give someone the bird and you notice 4 short fingers, a taller finger and a rounded palm.

and another thing:

when i first visited albany and saw swan street, the first thing that came to mind was that that wall was somethiing out of a science fiction horror story where the galactic emperor had build his palace to make humans feel like puny nothings and in fact that wall spoke to me of a place where the storm troopers would line up dissidents to be executed.

central park? park guell? living breathing colorful swirly places? are you out of your mind?

Well, it certainly cannot compare to Central Park,....not even close, and in light of the rest of Albany, it is rather odd don't you think? I've lived in the area for well over a decade and have not yet decided if I like ESP or not. It is almost other worldly there at times, and certainly the highway there is definitively ugly. Blech! I am, however, grateful because the Belgian granite that made up the roadways which were torn up to make way for the ESP is now part of my home up in the Helderbergs,.....and I'm lucky enough to see all the way to Albany on a clear day, with a fine view of the ESP.

I grew up here--a stone's throw from the ESP, so I generally feel the same as you do. Conflicted in some ways, because I have such strong feelings of nostalgia and connection to the place, and I can't really get beyond that.

It also helped me an awful lot in trying to win a Mad Men themed contest.

Wow. I never thought I'd be discussing my feelings surrounding the ESP at 10:30pm on a Sunday night, but here I am. Say what you will about the "structure", but this post certainly made me think about a place that I simply take for granted. I never considered what was there before, either. Meanwhile, let's talk about the concourse underneath. Every time I walk through it's wide-open sterile whiteness I expect a hoarde of zombie businessmen will be massing around the next corner, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting Albanians. Dear Hollywood, Call me.

Good article…
However, the view cannot compete with the view from the observation deck of the Alfred E. Smith building. Unfortunately, that is a view we are no longer have. What a pity, a true 360 degrees (N,E,S,W): the Corning Tower only offer only 270 degrees (no west view). Perhaps some well-placed calls to ???? could reopen this true treasure.

I remember reading something in an architectural mag. Or article that used the ESP as an example of Fascist architecture. Designed to exalt the state and leave the groundlings awestruck. Just struck in my opinion.

I like the ESP. It's unusual. And really, I feel like the ESP hate is a fairly new phenomenon. I know there have always been detractors, but the venom and hatred seems to have developed in the last 5-10 years.

Personally I love 787. I am a huge fan of bridges. The way 787 arcs through the air is beautiful to me.

Ah, ESP... Looks so much like a Lenin Square in a Soviet city I grew up in.


The only infactuation I have with ESP is that it is one of the few remnants of attempts to create the world Corbusier dreamed up in the 1920s.

Its a failed vision of the future, and its really interesting to see it attempted, but the reason it failed was because it has no consideration for human culture, and assumes the car would permanently replace walking.

I moved here as an adult, and had never visited Albany before deciding to move here, so I have no fond youngster memories of it. My first job in Albany was at the Empire State Plaza. I hated it at first sight, and I hate it now. It's a terrible place to work, full of '70s infrastructure and ugliness. It's an impenetrable alien space station plopped on the city with no regard for the native population. It's Battlestar Galactica on the Hudson.

Like LB, I moved here as an adult as well, but I seem to have had the exact opposite reaction. While the underground section may very well have been pulled from a sterile futuristic horror movie, the above ground "face" of the plaza is quite awe inspiring. It may be a little more grandiose than what's required, but what the hell? There's room in our society for larger-than-life personalities, why not a plaza with a larger-than-life personality. I love it. It's a fantastic space.

It certainly has its grandeur as a man-made open space, and on sunny days I find the plaza very pleasant, but I agree with your points about the inaccessibility and off-putting presenc. Also with LB's likening the plaza to a spaceship. It does look like the agency buildings and corning tower could blast off at any moment.

Plus the square trees creep me the hell out of me.

I for one, would love to read more about that neighbourhood that lived there before it was destroyed to make way for this project. You think of all those beautiful houses, brownstones, churches in center square. Did this extend down below Swan? What a terrible loss.

Sure, it's an impressive skyline coming from East Greenbush, but I remember what was there. It wasn't nice in the 60's, but Center Square was a disaster then, too. And look what that became? Beautiful brownstones, much rehabbing, picking up those houses for a song in the 70's. My uncle and future husband both worked there building it, but the destruction of the heart of a city was too, too depressing. It's almost fascist architecture. PBS did a special on modern architecture over 20 years ago that featured "The Mall" (still called that by Albany old timers, or The South Mall) titled Shock of the New. And I still mourn those neighborhoods forever lost. Thanks to Queen Beatrix visiting, and Rocky being embarrassed, we got the cold, concrete jungle of ESP.

I've been working in one of the Agency buildings for a year and I still make a point to walk on the plaza as often as I can. The concourse I find depressing, but staring down from one end of the plaza to the other is always a nice break for me. The view across the river is great as well.

From the outside I can understand it looking like a fortress, but for me the inside is pretty unbeatable.

I'm a little late to the party, but I've always thought that the story of Empire State Plaza - from conception to completion, with the tales of the buildings and neighborhoods that were annihilated, and the workers involved in the construction, and the back-room deals made in the halls of government - would make a fascinating book. I can't believe no one has taken on such a task.

Whether you love it or hate it be careful when you go there, because the 787 bridge that leads to it has just been rated as deficient:

http://www.timesunion.com/default/article/No-quick-repair-for-aging-bridges-1315709.php

Its a weird place, but I do so enjoy the museum and the Egg. And TMBG's song about the Egg.

I have mixed feelings about ESP, too. I love walking around IN the plaza, checking out the retro-quasi-futuristic structures, discovering little sculpted-out hidden garden spaces that I've never noticed before... but on the whole, it doesn't even TRY to play nicely with the rest of Albany (it is NOT polite to the street, as you've said--love that phrase). From outside of the plaza, it looks like it doesn't belong there. Like a giant patch of smooth scar tissue on weathered, but otherwise healthy, flesh.
The elevated south mall arterial gives me the same feeling as the elevated section of henry johnson blvd. That the highways are trying to bury the existing town of Albany, and all it's perceived flaws, and cover it with a fenced-in layer of smooth "perfect" concrete. So many parts of the road system (and the plaza) refuse to even touch the city, except to dominate and overpower it.

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