||Aug 3, 2008 10:25 PM
New York as Skyscraper
The city's spirit is captured by the Chrysler Building
By BRET STEPHENS
August 2, 2008; Page W14
Last month, Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund forked over a reported $800 million for a 90% stake in New York's Chrysler Building. As with the Japanese acquisition of the equally iconic Rockefeller Center in the late 1980s, the Chrysler purchase may not wind up being a success, financially speaking. But if it was an architectural masterpiece -- or just a chunk of New York's heart -- that the oil sheiks were after, they got it.
That New Yorkers have long been in love with the Chrysler Building is not in doubt. "You can't leave New York!" the fictional Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex and the City" implores her beau when he announces his plan to move to Napa Valley. "You're the Chrysler Building! The Chrysler would be all wrong in a vineyard." Her metaphor is well chosen: Among New York's skyscrapers, the Chrysler is New York in the way that the Twin Towers never were while they stood, notwithstanding their solemn bearing and size. Even the venerable Empire State, storied and iconic, has more mass than grace. And it's a tourist trap.
The Chrysler Building as it stood in 1930.
Not so the Chrysler, where the casual visitor cannot get beyond the lobby (though that alone is worth a trip). Instead, the building tends to be admired from afar, above all for its instantly recognizable top: the eagle-headed gargoyles, which seem ready to take wing from their perches on the 61st floor; the huge triangular windows arranged along the curves of seven concentric setbacks pushing centerward and pointing skyward; the ribbed, stainless-steel crown that sparkles by day and is lit from within at night; and, as befits any skyscraper worthy of the name, the needle-like spire.
Today, we tend to think of this design as "extravagant," "exuberant," "swaggering" or "brash" -- words that could just as well describe the city in which the building stands. Early appraisals were less generous: An "upended swordfish" is how one critic saw it. A "stunt design," said another.
Indeed, it was a stunt. Architect William Van Alen's original plan called for a fairly ordinary 56-story tower topped by a glass dome. Owner Walter P. Chrysler had the more ambitious idea of putting up the tallest building in the world. Plans changed first to a 67-story, 808-foot design; then to a 77-story, 925-foot one. The building reached its ultimate height of 1,046 feet in October 1929 only with the addition of the spire, constructed in secret and hoisted into place almost immediately after its nearest skyscraper rival, Wall Street's Bank of Manhattan, had topped out at 927 feet.
The Bank of Manhattan was designed by architect H. Craig Severance, a former partner of Van Alen who later became a personal rival. That ego, ambition and vanity (Van Alen's as well as Chrysler's) had so much to do with the Chrysler's ultimate design is not incidental to its attraction: These qualities, too, are pure New York.
Yet it is not simply on account of height that the Chrysler Building earns its status as a masterpiece. Nor is it, quite, for the legends the building evokes: of photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who so loved the building that she applied for a janitorial position there in the hopes of being allowed to live in it (she was turned down); or of the members of the old Cloud Club -- boxer Gene Tunney, financier E.F. Hutton, aviation mogul Juan Trippe and publisher Condé Nast among them -- stashing their Prohibition-era booze in hieroglygh-encoded cabinets; or of the mysterious goings on in the building's top floors, rumored to be a U.S. government listening post. (The Chrysler has a direct line of sight to the nearby United Nations.)
Rather, what distinguishes the Chrysler is its ability to inspire, as few modern buildings do, a sense of fantasy. For one thing, it achieves a skyscraper's fundamental task: It soars. From its first recess, just above the Lexington Avenue entrance, it follows an uninterrupted vertical path directly to the 68th floor, and only then begins to taper toward the spire.
Then there is the way the building remains perennially modern, perhaps because it is forever the past's imagining of the future. The entrances -- framed in black granite, zig-zagging patterns of metal and opaque yellow glass -- seem drawn from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" or a Batman comic.
Inside the lobby, one finds "a dark, bizarre cavern of crystalline angles and indirect lighting behind onyx stone, more the kind of place to encounter a Valkyrie than make a business appointment," as architecture critic Eric Nash has written. A superb mural by Edward Turnbull, about two-thirds the size of the Sistine Chapel's, decorates the ceiling. It is called "Energy, Result, Workmanship and Transportation," and its centerpiece is an image of the Chrysler Building itself. It is an optimistic scene, very different from Marxist-inspired murals that Mexico's Diego Rivera would paint in New York for his Rockefeller and New School patrons just a few years later.
Nor is the mural the only way in which the Chrysler is like no other building. Consider the elevators, 32 in all, each paneled in exotic woods, each masterfully decorated with Art Deco motifs and -- what's extraordinary -- no two of them alike.
And finally -- again -- there is that fabled Chrysler top. Today's tall buildings (few of which really deserve to be called skyscrapers) are often nothing more than stacks of all but identical floors, none really different from the other except, perhaps, for the view. Not so in the Chrysler Building, where the highest nine stories become progressively smaller as they rise toward the vanishing point. Seen from within, it conveys the sensation of an aerie, or a crow's nest, or a mountaintop -- not merely a higher place, but another world.
Is there some other skyscraper that succeeds this way -- that sets the hearts of nearly all those who see it aflutter? One can only hope its new owners feel the same way about this joyful building, surely the most brilliant jewel in their crown.
Mr. Stephens writes "Global View," the Journal's foreign-affairs column.