Defending the architecture of the ESP

ESP from library

In a T Magazine* feature -- "Seven Leading Architects Defend the World's Most Hated Buildings" -- Annabelle Selldorf defends the Empire State Plaza. A clip lifted from the middle of her (short) defense:

I know that others find it too brutal or forbidding, but I think it's beautiful in its monumentality and starkness. Monumentality always suggests supreme power, and that's scary. I somehow think that if you could populate the Plaza with more gardens, and make it feel more part of everyday life -- which they've tried to do with farmers' markets and using the basin for ice skating -- then it wouldn't feel so hostile.

Two decades ago apparently there was an idea floating about to to convert one of the ESP's reflecting pools into a large lawn -- we posted it about it on AOA last year, and it got a mixed reaction from people. We were thinking about that again during a recent evening walk on the ESP. The reflecting pools do have a grandeur about them, but maybe they're also part of what makes the space feel cold to people.

[via @scottpwaldman]

Earlier on AOA: Loving -- and hating -- the Empire State Plaza

* It's a NYT magazine, but not the NYT Mag.

Comments

I know I'm in the minority when it comes to appreciating the plaza, but I actually like it as it is. I love googie architecture because the midcentry style had a lot of optimism to it. It is often frowned upon and degraded, but the 50s and 60s were part of history too. The ESP is not googie, but it is a product of its era, and just like I can appreciate brownstones and victorians, I also find there is something delightful in the imagination that went into the plaza.

Perhaps some people are too attached to the story of what was there before it was built, and at one time so was I, until I realized there is a balance between preserving our past structures, but also building new ones. There are many sides to every part of history, and 100 years from now there may be a lot more appreciation for the plaza than we have today.

The plaza is organized and very orderly, even of other things in Albany (state govt) are not. The plaza looks clean and impressive in all seasons. I for one (and perhaps am the only one) think we are lucky to have it.

I think there should be kayak and canoe rentals in the central large reflection pool at ESP. Not only would it be a fun way to get some exercise during the workday, but it would be an absolute blast to sit and watch folks paddling around in there. It would look really fun and colorful gazing down from the office windows above to a kayak filled pool below. Also... hey, the state could raise a little money from kayak renters. Or... lease that rental business to a local "entrepreneur." Anyone intrigued by this idea? It would certainly liven up the space.

I don't dislike modern architecture, but I suspect part of the reason why the plaza engenders so much hate is how it came about, and the utter devastation of the neighborhood it stomped on.

what's "googie architecture"?

I think the architecture of the plaza is absolutely breath-taking and that it serves as one of the truly defining images of our city. Personally, I can put aside the man that made it happen (and the well-documented cost on the former neighborhood) and just appreciate the designers + laborers that imagined and built it. It's truly awe-inspiring.

The history of the plaza is not great, but the plaza itself is quite beautiful. The architectural style was more concerned with space (utopian space) rather than with people. This modernist approach to structures can be observed in many parts of the world, but the greatest example is Brasilia, in Brasil. The ESP mimics, in smaller scale, the buildings in Brasilia, which were designed by Lucio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Berle Marx (landscaping architect). If you look at images of Brasilia, you'll immediately recognize the sleek design of the towers, the sculpures, and even the Egg. Since we cannot reverse the past, perhaps we should gain some appreciation of the present, and of the fact that we have an almost unique architectural marvel right in front of us.

@Duncan:
I hope you're joking. It would be like opening a McDonalds
inside MOMA.

Following up on Duncan's comment, while I don't know whether kayaks would be feasible, what about something like the model sailboat pond in Central Park? http://www.centralpark.com/guide/attractions/conservatory-water.html

@Joe A,

I'm quite serious. I used to canoe to and from work from Troy to Albany, when I had an office downtown. I called it "canoeting."

http://albarchive.merlinone.net/mweb/wmsql.wm.request?oneimage&imageid=6476514

If I were still doing that, I would have already wheeled my canoe right up to the reflection pools and gone for a paddle on lunch break... maybe even into the smaller pool and around that Alexander Calder installation.

I have no doubt it would lead to arrest, yet I seem to recall the signs around the pool make the classic mistake of getting too specific in the prohibitions they list... and "canoeing" or "kayaking" are not on the specific list of prohibited activities.

I urge folks to just start doing this now. Paddle the pools. Take back and activate this large public space. It could be considered a form of "Tactical Urbanism"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tactical_urbanism

P.S. "It would be like opening a McDonalds inside MOMA." ... Nah. It'd be like having kayaks in the reflection pool of the ESP. People would love it, the media would love it, then more people would love it, etc. Try it. You'll like it.

I can appreciate where folks are going with preserving the pools as is, for I find it relaxing and tranquil to watch them (especially as the sun sets), however, I find the idea of kayaks, paddleboats or any other mechanism that would draw folks to this space an interesting concept. Like many younger folks, I’ve been ambiguous towards the ESP and in fact have grown to enjoy it, especially during those lonely times when there is barely another soul to enjoy a piece of real estate that takes up so many city acres and arguably at an inextricable cost to those who had once resided on its footprint. But it’s here, and even if some of the optimistic ideas of its time (that it would bring the city together, much like the market squares of old or the current plazas of Europe do) haven’t quite pan out, I do think it’s a great challenge to today’s urban dwellers to seize the potential of this city “asset.” With more and more folks considering our urban centers as home, from the young millennials like myself, to empty nesters looking to downsize to more active, walkable communities, I think the ESP offers a wonderful opportunity to capture what many of our European counterparts have done with their plazas.

Duncan, I love canoeing, but I don't think that the pools are the right space for that. You have to look at the plaza as a whole - a piece of architectural art. It's not a park, like Central Park or Washington Park. The entire thing was designed as a massive sculpture. You don't need to "take it back." It's already there for all to enjoy In fact, I even object to food trucks being there. They don't belong there, anymore than a McDonald's belongs inside MOMA. Some things are meant and built to be admired. I feel that the plaza was built with that intention. I don't find it nice that a tourist taking a picture of the EGG has to circle around to avoid the "Slick Sausages" food truck. It's a lack of respect for the space and, frankly, results from people's ignorance. Not everything should have a tent and a paddle boat.

JoeA takes it a little bit far, but I do agree that the space is already there for everyone to experience. I'd go in a slightly different direction by saying that the space was designed to give off a certain atmosphere and your #OccupyPlazaByKayak suggestion could negatively impact that atmosphere. I'd put it in the same boat (har!) as kayaking in the reflecting pool (DC) or playing laser tag amidst the holocaust memorial (Berlin).

@Joe A -- sorry, Joe, you are just too pure. For starters, ESP is not just a piece of sculpture, it was built to house a massive amount of office space. That makes it a functional space for humans, inside and out. You could apply your strict standards of no tacky commercialism to any grand or historic structure: no anachronistic hot dog stands in view of the Capitol because it might mar a snapshot. The workers and nearby residents have to work in and live near this work of art on a daily basis so you can't expect it to be a holy shrine to brutalist modernism. (And p.s. I like modernist architecture.)

As for canoes and kayaks, I doubt those pools are deep enough.

"The workers and nearby residents have to work in and live near this work of art on a daily basis so you can't expect it to be a holy shrine to brutalist modernism."
______________________________

I like your use of "brutalist modernism," which in fact is the case ( and a bit more, which has to do with the use of concrete and its elasticity). I don't see how keeping the plaza for what it is - a piece of architecural art -- would interfere with people living and working there. We don't paint little flowers on Picasso's mdernist paintings to make them more appealing, or put a rhyme in Eliot's poems to make them sound better, etc. Modernism is a style (albeit by the time the Plaza was built, largely plagiarized, it was on its way down). The point being that some spaces, like the plaza, were built to inspire a certain mood and tone, to evoke something. All those food trucks and tents represent the aesthetics of ignorance and the bastardizing (sorry about the word) of public spaces, because it's "convenient." You're correct: I would not allow food trucks along Washington Ave, any more than I would allow hot dogs stands under the columns of the ED building. The Concourse was built for and can acommodate those demands. And you're also right when I think that there's not a natural space, like preserves, or a work of art, like some buildings in Albany, that we don't spit on, because of business, licenses, convenience, etc. Some spaces should be kept pristine and immaculate, if they represent something that lends meaning to our existence, which in my opinion is not tied to pulled pork sandwiches or canoes. Of course, that is only MY opinion.

Joe, Joe, people (workers) need to eat. Most state workers get only 30 min. lunch breaks. So, yes, "convenience" is a value to them. And in nice weather it's a respite to be able to go outside to eat. I suppose you think the picnic tables are part of the Aesthetic of Ignorance and should be removed. And the concerts, skating, and fireworks. And that live Christmas tree is not nearly moderne enough -- should be aluminum.

"I suppose you think the picnic tables are part of the Aesthetic of Ignorance and should be removed. And the concerts, skating, and fireworks. And that live Christmas tree is not nearly moderne enough -- "
------------------------
You took the words right out of my mouth. We are the stewards of our past for future generations. There are plenty of bars, restaurants, watering holes, with the "walk ability" that people desire. Leave monuments, plazas, historic places out of the every day litter. How is that so hard to understand? If the engineers and architects of the ESP and the Parthenon meant for it to have "Slick Burger" trucks on it, they would've included them in the design. Why is it so hard to understand art and architecture? Why should the plaza be filled with garbage cans and litter, when it has one of the biggest collections of art available in open spaces in the world? How ignorant do you have to be to put a dumb tent and food truck next to it? Come on, man!

@Joe A -- you use the word "ignorant" a lot and seem to think you are singularly equipped to understand and appreciate art and architecture. I worked my entire career in the cultural realm right there at the Plaza, in the State Museum. Public art in public spaces functions in a much more complex, multi-use context than the cloistered art and artifacts inside museums. And the original designers of public spaces are not the sole deciders of how a public space gets used into the future. To some extent the public (the tax paying public in this case) has a say in that. The end result will be a mediated compromise between your pristine vision of Pure Art and a commercial free-for-all. Plazas (and parks like Capitol Park) were intended for people, whether the aesthetic is modern, Victorian, or some other design mode. Food trucks are part of the current environment. (And food trucks do no permanent damage to the design.)

As for food options being in walking distance for the many thousands of state workers, I gather you've never walked to a restaurant blocks away, tried to order take out along with hundreds of others, and walked back to your desk to eat it within your 30 min. lunch break.

I'm with chrisck on this one. The idea that food trucks are anything close to a negative is utterly absurd. If anything, we could use more of them.

Also, one of the major criticisms of ESP is how poorly it interacts with the city, and how it's literally walled off from it. Farmers markets, concerts, Christmas trees, fireworks, food trucks, ice skating and yes, maybe even something fun in a reflecting pool can help mitigate this issue. It's part of a city - it's not an art exhibit even if it may be a monumental structure.

"Food trucks are part of the current environment. (And food trucks do no permanent damage to the design.)"
_____________________________________

I beg to disagree. The constant traffic of trucks and tractor trailers for concerts will certainly cause damage to the brick paved walks, which are cracking (and being replaced by patches of concrete). Skateboarders inflict constant damage to the edges of marble walls and rails. Food and drink spills on marble, a highly porous stone, may damage it forever. The dozens of garbage cans needed to collect the garbage deface the look of the plaza...and on, and on.
_______________________________________
"As for food options being in walking distance for the many thousands of state workers, I gather you've never walked to a restaurant blocks away, tried to order take out along with hundreds of others, and walked back to your desk to eat it within your 30 min. lunch break. "
_________________________________________

I did, but I generally would have no problem, since I pack my lunch.
__________________________________________
"you use the word "ignorant" a lot and seem to think you are singularly equipped to understand and appreciate art and architecture."
___________________________________________

Yes, I call it the "aesthetic of ignorance." I'm not calling you ignorant, but rather our decision-makers. It wasn't intended directly for you. Sorry if you understood it that way or I didn't express it properly.
___________________________________________
"Public art in public spaces functions in a much more complex, multi-use context than the cloistered art and artifacts inside museums. "
_________________________________________
I disagree. Art is art, no matter where you put it. In this case, and in my opinion, the ESP complex and the art displays function as one harmonized piece of art, denoting a specific time period. Why wouldn't we put food trucks in the Washington monument, or the Veteran's memorial (we have at least 6 or 7 memorials at the plaza, btw)? It is, in my view, very shortsighted to think that your (royal your)pulled pork sandwich takes precedence over the preservation of the plaza, or the desire of visitors and Albanians alike to admire it without the impression that there's always a fair going on. Why not some kiddie rides, a ferris wheel? But, to each his own, right? And, yes, I'm a liitle snotty when it comes to what I perceive is a complete disrespect of beautiful places, like the ESP.

Thanks for your feedback, Chris.


I don't find it nice that a tourist taking a picture of the EGG has to circle around to avoid the "Slick Sausages" food truck.

That's ironic enough to make me happy. Someone could be so shocking as to suggest that a photo the egg and sausage is artistic! Could be a dilemma in the making...

We don't paint little flowers on Picasso's mdernist paintings to make them more appealing

Nobody's suggesting permanently parking a food truck on the plaza or storing kayaks on the museum steps either, right? The uses being discussed don't change the fundamental art of the plaza -- the architecture. You're still free to visit it at 8:00am on any given Sunday to experience all its (deserted) glory.

I would not allow food trucks along Washington Ave

You know they're on wheels? Which is why they're called trucks?

The Concourse was built for and can acommodate those demands.

Because being Mole People certainly "lends meaning to our existence".

If the engineers and architects of the ESP and the Parthenon meant for it to have "Slick Burger" trucks on it, they would've included them in the design.

AOA has brought attention to a lot of the original design documents and ideas of the ESP, and the historical context within which it was built. Some of it might be shocking to you. Google doesn't turn up many documents by the Parthenon's designers, but in 2400 years maybe we can compare the ESP to it.

Why is it so hard to understand art and architecture?

That's a really good question. Plaza: a public square, marketplace, or similar open space in a built-up area. It's right there, in the name.

Okay, enough fun. JoeA, I actually admire your dedication here, you obviously care a lot about the architecture of the ESP, even if at times it sounds like your understanding comes entirely from podcasts (don't be too impressed when other people use the term brutalist, it's right there in the Wikipedia entry). You're right that's it's gorgeous as it is. But it's a public space, and the current public use doesn't detracti from or alter the complex in any permanent way. The food trucks motor out, the echoes of the concerts die off, and at sunset (or sunrise) in August the view across the 787 ramps toward the river is as appropriately bleak as it ever was. Walk through after midnight and truly feel the insignificance it was designed to inspire. Don't fret too much. The garbage cans and litter come because people are visiting one of the biggest collections of art available in a public space. If they don't enjoy it in exactly the same way you do, it's not their problem.

"You're still free to visit it at 8:00am on any given Sunday to experience all its (deserted) glory."
___________________________________

I do. I find it breathtaking. And B, thanks for proving my theory.

"even if at times it sounds like your understanding comes entirely from podcasts"
-------------------------------------
You're correct. Now in my late fifties, my entire education comes from podcasts and Wikipedia. They were quite common in the classrooms of my youth.

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