September 19, 2010 Brutalist
Empire State Plaza: Wallace Harrison’s Mid-Century Modern Masterpiece
Our country’s own mini version of the the grand Brasilia can be found in a city–Albany–with a very different climate than the capital of Brazil, which was designed by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. Empire State Plaza in the capital city of New York was designed by Wallace Harrison (think Time-Life Building in Mad Men) with the help from art and architecture aficionado, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. Rockefeller worked with Harrison to design the modern plaza and brutalist buildings. The modern structures stand in stark contrast to the 1880s state capitol building, which sits at the north end of the plaza. Construction of the plaza, which sits atop a six-story platform, started in 1965 and was completed in 1978 for a cost of $1.7 billion. The 10 buildings are home to more than 11,ooo state employees.
While many people did not like the brutalist architecture at the time or now (many at the time described it as fascist), I think it is a must visit for modernists. Not only are the buildings and plaza a grand American example of modernism, especially The Egg (a performing arts center and engineering marvel that took 12 years to build), but underneath the plaza is one of the most significant modern art collections in the country outside of a museum. The collection (you can see the entire collection here) was picked by Rockefeller, whose mother was one of three women to found the Museum of Modern Art in 1929. Most of the works are from artists of the New York School and created in the 1960s and ‘70s. D.C.’s own Gene Davis has one painting in the collection, which also includes paintings and sculptures by Isamu Noguchi, Ellsworth Kelly, Ken Noland, Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko to name a few. The collection lines the walls of the concourse level under the plaza, which also includes some shops and places for the state workers to eat. It feels a bit like MoMA combined with an old-school mall or college student center. Enjoy the pictures from my recent trip and I urge you to take a trip to Albany to see Harrison’s work for yourself.