THERE is not much that cools the blood more than the phrase ”visionary scheme” except possibly the words ”architect’s dream.” A lot of this disdain for great, sweeping visions is based on the fact that large-scale planning has only rarely served us well, that it has all-too-frequently been conceived in arrogance and resulted in disaster. But at least some of this current mood must be written off as just simple cynicism – an unwillingness to trust, or even respect, any kind of broad vision at all.
This is not a surprise when there are few broad visions coming off anyone’s drawing board that are of much value. But it is worth remembering that there have been, over the years, architects who have had dreams of what the city might be that were not altogether absurd, visions that may have been idealistic but were not far- fetched, unbuildable or born of the certainty that architects knew what was best for all of the rest of us.
If there is any architect whose career proved that idealism need not be at the expense of pragmatism, it was Raymond Hood, perhaps the 20th-century’s greatest molder of skyscraper form. Hood, who died in 1934, designed the McGraw-Hill, American Radiator (now American-Standard) and Daily News buildings in Manhattan and was the guiding design genius behind Rockefeller Center.
These are great buildings all, and they alone would have assured Hood’s place in history. But he was also an architect with a clear, consistent vision of what the skyscraper and the city should be, and, at a time when we seem to throw buildings into the city with little sense of what kind of overall environment they are making, Hood’s dreams are as relevant as his built works.
Hood’s visions, as well as his realized skyscraper designs, will be the subject of a small but thoughtful exhibition that will open Saturday at the Whitney Museum’s branch at the Philip Morris Building, 100 Park Avenue. Entitled ”City of Towers,” the exhibition includes original sketches showing the design development of Hood’s first major building, the Gothic skyscraper headquarters of The Chicago Tribune, designed with John Mead Howells; blueprints and drawings of major buildings in New York, and sketches that relate to Hood’s dreams of the city.
Everything in this small exhibition, organized by Carol Willis, is of interest. But it is those informal sketches that are the real prize. Hood, as firmly as the architect who became more famous for it, Le Corbusier, had a belief that the placement of skyscrapers in the city had to be rationalized. Vast buildings could not be allowed to go everywhere, chockablock against each other as they have come to be in recent years.
But unlike Le Corbusier, Raymond Hood did not hope for the utter destruction of the random, helter-skelter city and its replacement by an all- too-rigid order. Hood was much more pragmatic, much more realistic, more willing to have a city that embraced contradictions and differences. He wanted great towers, and he wanted smaller buildings. He believed passionately in the virtues of congestion – it is just that he believed just as passionately in the balance between congestion and order.
Hood envisioned a set-back shape for the skyscraper, something that, as we have now come belatedly to realize, was probably the best way to merge great height and graceful form. The exhibition includes sketches from a series Hood did in 1929 entitled ”Manhattan 1950” that say much about the architect’s hopes – the city’s skyline has both the vitality and the self-assurance of Rockefeller Center, the one place in midtown Manhattan in which a powerful order is never inconsistent with vibrancy, energy and human scale.
The architect Percival Goodman, like Raymond Hood, has always believed in the perfectability of the city – perhaps more so, in fact, since Mr. Goodman has spent much of his life pondering the question of Utopian cities. Though Mr. Goodman has never added anything to the skyline as conspicuous as Raymond Hood’s towers, he is one of the city’s most venerable architectural presences, and this could not be a better moment to salute him, for he is about to reach the age of 80.
A longtime professor of architecture at Columbia University and for years an active designer with a specialty in synagogue design, Percival Goodman retains, more earnestly, surely, than most of his colleagues, a commitment to the possibilities of rational planning. That is, in many ways, the ultimate legacy of modernism – not the esthetic of sleekness and technology, which can be shifted and redirected into all sorts of different contexts, but the belief that a new way of thinking will bring about a better life for everyone.
Mr. Goodman’s interest in the ideal city extends far beyond that of Raymond Hood, though both architects could, in their own ways, be called pragmatic figures. Along with his brother, the poet and philosopher Paul Goodman, Mr. Goodman wrote ”Communitas,” a kind of blueprint for ideal communities. And since he retired from active practice and closed the office he ran for so long on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he has spent much of his time working on a manuscript entitled ”An Illustrated Guide to Utopia: An Architect’s Travel Diary,” which is just what it says it is – thoughts on what such places as Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia might possibly look like, along with drawings to make the fantasy yet more literal.
The manuscript takes the form of a narrative, recounting Mr. Goodman’s purported ”visits” to these imagined places and his conversations with their creators. But what it is more than anything is a testament of love for the ideal, a hymn to the perfectability of the human environment.
If Mr. Goodman has had his head in the clouds of Utopia, he has long had his feet planted fairly firmly in the all-too-imperfect environment of New York City. For years he has been a voice calling out for more sensible planning in the city, and the record is full of his efforts. In 1945 he designed an immense master plan for Long Island City that, had it been realized, would have turned that industrial district of Queens into a residential community for 13,000 families. It is a project that today seems much more rigid and sweeping than necessary, for it would have meant the total destruction of the industrial landscape of Long Island City.
But it emerged out of Mr. Goodman’s recognition that the site of Long Island City could have been one of the city’s premier residential neighborhoods and that it could be changed without major displacement of existing residents. The architect’s failing was in his belief that what could have been, or would have been, logical and right necessarily should have been.
But Mr. Goodman mellowed, to the point where he became an early and strong voice against poorly conceived large-scale developments. In 1962, Mr. Goodman wrote a strong letter to The New York Times to complain about the blocks of excellent old row houses in Chelsea that were demolished to make way for the Penn Station South complex of high-rise towers, and his letter took issue with the philosophy of bulldozing that was virtually the only way cities were renewed in those days.
”With a more thoughtful approach to the rebuilding of the city and some love for architecture as well as community, the old row houses could have been combined with high-rise buildings to create a handsome and friendly environment,” Mr. Goodman wrote, in language that seems ordinary today, but was almost radical 22 years ago.
And here is Mr. Goodman’s description of the situation that resulted when a few landmark buildings were allowed to remain amid the high- rises: ”A few buildings, spared as if by chance from a bombing, huddle under the overbearing presence of a series of bulky filing cabinets designed for the part-time storage of servo-mechanical devices called, in the good old days, human beings. Such cabinets, as dull as can be, are called ‘soundly planned developments.’ ”
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