Together we can shape the future.” So proclaimed a construction fence poster at the gargantuan new Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s Far West Side. But who would want a future that looks like this? A future of towering expanses of sterile glass grids enclosing buildings devoid of formal resolution or human scale?
A nearby poster read, “Work where it matters.” But the new buildings of Hudson Yards add up to nothing but high-end visual clutter. They are towers of babble, speaking no civic language, as public architecture should.
Another poster assured, “You’re in good company.” Meaning good corporate company, as the panoply of logos attests. It is a message worth pondering. There was a time when we built handsome commercial edifices, clad in stone, brick, or terra-cotta, that reflected an awareness of private enterprise as a means to an end—as the generator of the prosperity that allows civilization to flourish. In Manhattan as elsewhere, civilized commercial buildings were the logical result: magnificent banks resembling ancient temples or Florentine palazzi, soaring towers like the Empire State, Chrysler, and Woolworth Buildings (and the fabulous, much-lamented Singer Building), along with august piles erected for the likes of AT&T, Standard Oil, and the Cunard Line—not to mention the elegant redoubts of Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany & Co. Though they incorporate varying degrees of stylistic innovation, such buildings betray a respect for archetypes, for the forms and patterns that endow a city with aesthetic and symbolic depth.
Architecture can reflect the progress of a civilization, but Hudson Yards is not about civilization. Its buildings reflect the futility of a “progressive” design sensibility cut off from the past and wedded to novelty and formal dissonance as ends in themselves. The mixed-use development rises above decks erected over the Long Island Rail Road yards west of Pennsylvania Station. When completed in 2024, it will sprawl over twenty-eight acres between Tenth and Twelfth Avenues and 30th and 34th Streets—the largest private real estate development in American history. Its eastern portion opened in March.
Hudson Yards is perversely in accord with its surroundings. It extends and intensifies a Far West Side epidemic of bad buildings spurred by the creation of the High Line, the pedestrian park that runs along an old elevated freight railway. The High Line opened in 2009. With the completion of its northernmost section in 2014, it extends for nearly a mile and a half from 34th Street, around the Yards’ western and southern perimeters, through West Chelsea and down to the new Whitney Museum in the old meatpacking district. The Whitney, fashionably abrasive in its awkward massing and neo-industrial imagery, thus serves as the southern terminus of the architectural freak show abutting the park.
Even so, there is much to like about the High Line, which attracts an estimated eight million visitors per year. A stroll from the subway station at the north end of Hudson Yards, proceeding through the heart of the development, and continuing south along the High Line from 30th Street down to the Whitney, offers impressive vistas and some pleasing landscaping. But it also offers cause for concern for anyone who cares about our nation’s public realm.
Civic buildings and spaces should impart an engaging sense of formal order. This requires adherence to architectural idioms grounded in a civilization’s past, not just its fleeting present. It requires acceptance of history not as a series of disposable evolutionary phases but as a treasury of enduring achievements and the source of a shared civic purpose. It requires that we value service to the community more than the assertion of personal identity.
In some great venues—the Place de l’Opéra and the Place Vendôme in Paris, or Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village” in Charlottesville—coherence in style and massing is rigorous, as it is in major portions of the Federal Triangle in Washington and the Civic Center in San Francisco. In other venues, an underlying order of scale transcends style—as with Baltimore’s superb Mount Vernon Place, the celebrated streetscapes of Charleston, the high-rise apartment buildings along Park Avenue, or the historic cores of college campuses with their often eclectic arrays of Georgian, Gothic, Romanesque, Greek Revival, or Beaux-Arts edifices. Elsewhere, we may observe an order that overcomes the absence of formal grouping, as with the monumental porticos of the classical courthouses facing Lower Manhattan’s vast Foley Square. These are not static conventions. The humanist tradition in design is a mighty river from which new tributaries have branched off time and again, as with the Art Deco idiom that shaped Rockefeller Center in the 1930s.
After World War II, America underwent an architectural revolution involving an absolute rejection of the cultural continuity that had remained relevant to Rockefeller Center’s creation. A huge accumulation of aesthetic experience and know-how was swept off the table so that some theoretically-oriented people with extremely tidy minds could get to work. Their outlook was diagrammatic and picturesque—geared, it might seem, not to the real-life experience of form, space, and orchestrated detail in three dimensions, but to the production of “icons” of “modernity” that looked sensational in photographs. The results included some remarkably lifeless high-end ensembles, such as the United Nations compound along the East River and Lincoln Center on the other side of town.
The basic problem is simple. The wellspring of the Western world’s humanist tradition in architecture is the anthropomorphic transfiguration of structure. This transfiguration originated with the classical Orders—the several types of column and the entablatures they support—formalized once the temples of ancient Greece began to be built in stone rather than wood and mud brick. The architecture of this tradition idealizes structure in a way that speaks to our embodied state: Each column is a sturdy figure upholding the structure of civic life.
This approach to building has nurtured the architecture of community across the ages. The instinctive predicates of classical architecture are twofold. First, the human body, in its ideal state, is the most beautiful of natural forms, with the relationships among its minor and major members the supreme model of proportion. Second, mankind is endowed with a particular cosmic significance as the point of intersection between the realms of matter and spirit. The other historic idioms of Western architecture, all of which ultimately derive from the classical, bear the humanist imprint as well, particularly in the way their massing and detail relate to the human scale.
Modernism has never found a substitute for the human form as the basis of design. From its origins, it has been infected by a ruthless materialism, which has motivated a war on art’s metaphysical, humanist dimension. And whereas technology should be architecture’s humanized servant, the Far West Side highlights the elementary fact that today’s fashionable architecture is technology’s slave. When we lose sight of the cosmic significance of the human body and its ramifications for the world we build, we’re bound to lose sight of the soul as the animating form of material reality and retreat into technological fetishism.
The modernist revolution failed to win over the public because the public could see that the rejection of cultural continuity, accompanied by aesthetic reductionism, resulted in new buildings that were uglier than the buildings they replaced. Something is seriously wrong when the architects shaping our built environment no longer consider it their responsibility to embody a community’s past as the foundation for its future. At Hudson Yards, architecture is not even about “the future”—it is about what’s happening now, what’s “progressive” now.
Hudson Yards, the Whitney, and many buildings in between embody the modernist conviction that because we live under a radically different dispensation than our ancestors, our architecture should be radically distinct from the humanist building traditions that shaped the world’s great cities. Under the postmodern dispensation, a new building may resemble a glass box, a cloud, an abstract-expressionist sculpture, the surface of the Hudson River, or a deconstructed freighter. But its design must be divorced from architecture’s past.
When we emerge from the subway at the north end of Hudson Yards, we encounter a scene of disorder dominated by the glazed grids cladding the towers. The Public Square and Gardens within the development’s eastern portion feature a 150-foot-tall lookout, or “Vessel,” situated a stone’s throw from a luxury shopping mall. Resembling a titanic robot’s thoracic skeleton, Vessel (no definite article, please) serves as a glitzy, sculpturesque counterpart to the World Trade Center commuter transit terminal’s Oculus, a spiky, white structure resembling the abstracted skeleton of a dinosaur. (The Oculus encloses a subterranean concourse that serves as—you guessed it—another high-end shopping mall.)
Just beyond Vessel lies The Shed, featuring an odd structure clad in a translucent, Teflon-based quilt that rolls on huge wheels—westward, to cover a glass-box visual and performing arts building and engage with the gaping maw of 15 Hudson Yards, an adjoining residential tower; or eastward, to reveal the stationary glass box and expand the event space. Unlike the rest of Hudson Yards, The Shed is a nonprofit venture. It may represent the ultimate in cultural-programming flexibility, but it is ugly, and so is the rest of the jumbled ensemble of which it forms a part. The dark glass residential tower, bedecked with the familiar clusters of vents and pockmarked with glazed panels tilted out for air, morphs toward the top from a rectilinear profile to resemble fused smokestacks.
Two of the tallest towers, 30 and 10 Hudson Yards, are connected by the shopping mall. Both afflict the eye with huge fragments of dark reflective glass that are variously smooth-faced or piled up in shingle-like patterns. The fragments are combined into bizarre, deliberately unresolved agglomerations devoid of harmonious proportions. The taller of the two, 30 Hudson Yards, is the third-tallest skyscraper in the city. It features a chevron-shaped, cantilevered deck, dubbed “Edge,” near its summit. When it opens next year, Edge will no doubt attract many people with a stupendous panorama from eleven hundred feet, not to mention an eye-popping, vertiginous view through the glass window in its floor. In terms of its effect on the tower’s profile, however, Edge reads as a picturesque gimmick on a structure with “iconic” pretensions.
The two towers’ disjointed profiles are accentuated by their tops, which are sheared off at oblique angles to face in different directions. Their tilt away from each other is sufficiently emphatic to make them look structurally unstable. (Such deconstructionist antics are on display in a couple of twisting new towers along the High Line.)
But it’s at ground level that 30 and 10 Hudson Yards and the emporium linking them cause the greatest offense—especially along Tenth Avenue. The absence of an encompassing structural logic; the emphasis on fractured volumes and fragmented surfaces of metal, glass, concrete, and cast stone; the miasmic welter of visual impressions made by large glazed segments, serving as shop windows, which seem only somewhat transparent and are highly reflective; the barbaric indifference to the human scale—all make for a dreadful streetscape. Corbusian stilts known as pilotis have found their way into the hodgepodge. The entrance to 10 Hudson Yards from the avenue features five big, misshapen pilotis that lean to the left in line with the building’s tilt. “Progressive” architects have a hard time understanding that a streetscape requires details whose scale and configuration allow them to relate to and reinforce one another, so that the resulting whole amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Hudson Yards is about parts, period.
The spacious Public Square and Gardens extend south from 33rd Street and are laid out in a backward L-shape, so that the space is open to the west. Vessel lies at the juncture of the base and stem of the “L.” The stem extends several blocks northward into a new city-owned park that includes the subway stop. This axis should have been emphasized. It isn’t, and the Public Square and Gardens are broken up into pavement interspersed with curvilinear plots with flowers, shrubs, trees, and turf. The planting is agreeable and there are benches. But the landscape echoes the architectural clutter.
To understand the failed urbanism of Hudson Yards, take a stroll around Rockefeller Center, which covers three-fourths as much ground as the Yards. From its towering centerpiece, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Rockefeller Center’s stylistically coherent buildings downscale so as to integrate into the urban grid of midtown Manhattan. The scale of its Fifth Avenue frontage complements that of St. Patrick’s Cathedral opposite. Hudson Yards, by contrast, is a self-contained superblock that makes a mockery of stylistic coherence. It lacks the formality, the harmonious spatial contrasts, the many figurative sculptural accents, as well as the abundant pools and fountains, that make Rockefeller Center a welcoming environment.
Leaving the Yards behind, we head south to walk the High Line through Chelsea. In the late 1990s, a proposal was made to preserve the elevated freight line, which was threatened with demolition. The proposal caught on, not only thanks to the fascinating views (especially of the Hudson waterfront), but because the rail line is an industrial relic. The riveted-steel infrastructure is saturated with authenticity, the supreme aesthetic value of our emotivist culture.
The High Line is justly celebrated for its varied episodes of informal planting. These picturesque “incidents” are intended to convey the impression that they might have sprouted up naturally amid the disused tracks. There is a conceptual consistency here. The abandoned railway is a “found” artifact—a huge-scale objet trouvé—from the industrial era, and the plantings are likewise to be experienced as “found,” not designed. Strolling through Chelsea at third-story level, those walking the High Line are apt to feel that they are “in” but not “of” the city, which becomes a kind of visual amusement park. Postmodern “incidents” in the form of temporary installations of conceptualist art contribute to the follies.
At 28th Street one encounters an eleven-story residential structure, L-shaped in plan but with rounded corners. Its glassy elevations boast a metallic cladding in schematic, horizontally looping configurations that suggest a high-tech jigsaw puzzle. Then, at 24th Street, comes an architectural Rubik’s Cube whose black structural frame is filled in with window walls or left open to accommodate balconies. The adjoining edifice to the north sports shiny metallic panels textured with little tread-like diamonds and punctuated by square, glazed voids arranged seemingly at random.
On the south side of 23rd Street, a thirteen-story luxury apartment building boasts rectangular panels in black, white, and pale green—the latter tint reserved for the shades—arrayed in curtain walls drably framed in concrete. It evokes De Stijl and early modernist abstract painting, while the shimmering, undulating glass and metal volumes of an architectural curiosity on the opposite side of the park suggest some latter-day Dubuffet doing his computer-enabled thing. A bit farther down, at 21st Street, there’s a rather unpleasant structure wrapped in ribbon windows and a black material—vertically striated on the rectilinear lower level, horizontally striated on the more curvaceous mass above—that presumably is concrete but oddly resembles rubber. And despite the hubbub of new construction—including a gridded plethora of large, bulbous condominium windows resembling bug eyes—we can still glimpse a grayish, remarkably vaporous structure on 18th Street, which serves, perhaps appropriately, as headquarters for an Internet and media holding company.
At 14th Street the High Line runs through a cavern in a 1930s meatpacking plant faced in brick painted jet-black, and surmounted by a ten-story glass box framed in black steel. When the glass box was erected nearly a decade ago, the result was unremarkable. Since then, two totally incompatible volumes of grayish concrete and dark glass, the latter curiously gashed in a faceted pattern, have been appended to one side. A block farther on, a more extravagant structure, The Standard Hotel, straddles the park on bulky exposed-concrete pilotis recalling those on which Le Corbusier erected his delirious public-housing asylums (Unités d’Habitation) after World War II. It is brutalism redux for those who can pay top dollar, and the hotel’s financial success shows that this raw-concrete idiom has capitalized on modernist nostalgia.
The landmark at the High Line’s southern end is, like The Standard, calculated to induce the frisson of industrial-strength authenticity: the new Whitney Museum of American Art. Pale-green metallic volumes are attached to a concrete core picturesquely equipped with open-air stairways suggesting a factory. The building’s smokestacks, like its stairways, are conspicuous when the building is approached from the north. On the jumbled southern elevation facing Gansevoort Street, the metal masses—starkly fenestrated with irregularly placed groups of smallish rectangular voids—are raised on skinny steel posts, like a cubist freighter in dry dock, with the window-walled lobby and shop stashed beneath.
Also visible from the High Line are specimens of what we might call adult architecture. The very fine London Terrace residential complex, whose contiguous buildings rise seventeen to nineteen stories high, cover the block between Ninth and Tenth Avenues and 23rd and 24th Streets. The complex was built to house white-collar workers in the aftermath of the Great Crash of 1929. Achieving a richly polychromatic, skillfully massed and detailed variety within an overall unity in a project of such dimensions is a tall order. There was a time when American architects were trained to do just this.
Appealing new buildings along the High Line are the rare exception. Two condominium structures located next door to each other east of the park on 18th Street, each a dozen stories tall, engage the eye. One consists of two large interlocking volumes, clad in opaque black and white panels, with the white volume rising above and behind the black one to conform to zoning requirements. The considerably wider building next door consists of stratified and gently angled curtain walls in mainly bluish tints inspired by the Hudson. The buildings somehow complement each other, at least when viewed from a distance. Yet their idiosyncratic design means that neither building can serve as the source of an urban vocabulary. If you reiterated them as architectural types throughout the neighborhood, it would look ridiculous.
By contrast, The Fitzroy, a new ten-story condominium building on 24th Street just west of the park, is a model of contextual contemporary design. It is clad in dark green terra-cotta with an abundance of copper detail. This remarkably stylish Art Deco building enriches its setting, reinforcing a larger urban pattern while engaging an architectural heritage that wasn’t born yesterday.
The United States emerged after World War II as the richest, most powerful nation in history. Yet in the same period, the quality of its public art and architecture and community planning deteriorated catastrophically. Compare the civic heart of Manhattan—the magnificent City Hall with its fine park and fountain in front, the high-rise Municipal Building (a supremely monumental classical landmark), and the Foley Square courthouses—with the Urban Renewal wasteland that is Boston’s Government Center. Or compare Rockefeller Center with Hudson Yards.
Hudson Yards and many of the new buildings erected along the High Line embody not the aspirations of a civilization but a latter-day barbarism grounded in the seemingly progressive delusions of a presumptuous elite. Such barbarism enjoys the loyalty of art and architecture departments at colleges and universities, museum curators and trustees, prestigious media outlets, and bureaucracies or commissions involved with urban planning and architectural design review, historic preservation, and the commissioning of government buildings. It enjoys the patronage of major corporations, which employ fashionably “iconic” architecture as a branding tool.
There is a counterculture in architecture, urbanism, and fine art that seeks to reestablish our best traditions and has long been ignored by the legacy press. The official journal of the American Institute of Architects devotes precious little attention to traditional architecture and urban design. It focuses instead on the latest exercises in structural pyrotechnics, up-and-coming “progressive” architects, hot-button topics such as workplace diversity and “cultural appropriation,” the quest for “carbon-neutral” buildings, and the elusive goal of “social justice by design.”
The elite suppression of tradition is not a sign of cultural confidence. Modernist design is the expression of a highly politicized Weltanschauung. Our cultural elites assume that if the anorexic, dehumanized, deracinated forms of so-called progressive architecture were abandoned in favor of architecture rooted in the traditions of particular places, the whole progressive grand projet would be undermined. Modernist architecture, in other words, is not really about architecture. It is about something else, a function of something else—of ephemeral fantasies of brave new worlds. Thus, it is not appraised on its own terms but justified in terms of its progressiveness. In contrast, traditional architecture, like classical music, engages the pre-political dimension of our being—specifically, the aesthetic sensibilities that ought to be the common ground of our inevitably varied political lives.
Until its excommunication by the modernist clerisy, the humanist tradition proved supremely adaptable to changing social and technological conditions. In ancient times, the classical idiom expanded to embrace not only sacred buildings such as the Parthenon and Pantheon but also a range of secular structures: the commercial stoas of Athens and other cities, the council halls, theaters, and gymnasia of Hellenistic towns, the basilicas and public baths of Rome, and the villas of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The humanist tradition underwent a number of stylistic transformations in the various Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque styles, and in early modern styles such as stripped classicism and Art Deco. But there has always been a uniting theme: A building’s public face is an idealized structure that portrays its response to the force of gravity. Whether that portrayal is fact (as with a Greek temple) or partly or wholly fiction (as with an Italian Baroque church or even a Gothic cathedral) hardly matters as long as the scheme resonates with us as embodied beings. The architecture in this tradition, in other words, is mainly about itself, as architecture should be, with figurative decoration and ornament contributing additional layers of meaning as well as aesthetic enrichment.
What Gotham needs right now is a major dose of adult architecture, both as a civic amenity and as proof that there really is an alternative to adolescent jeux de théâtre. An opportunity lies just a couple blocks east of Hudson Yards—at the site occupied by the dismal cylinder housing Madison Square Garden, the banal tower-slab of 2 Pennsylvania Plaza, and the hellish catacombs known as Pennsylvania Station. Charles Follen McKim’s majestic railway temple, erected at this site in the first decade of the last century and unconscionably demolished during the 1960s, should be rebuilt.
McKim’s station was one of the greatest civic venues ever created in the United States. If it were rebuilt, hundreds of thousands of daily commuters would experience poetic inspiration instead of the squalor that greets them now. The reconstruction of McKim’s station would be the most important architectural event in New York City since the creation of Rockefeller Center. When the great station rises again, we will know that “together we can shape the future.”
Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture.