September 19, 2010 Brutalist

Empire State Plaza: Wallace Harrison’s Mid-Century Modern Masterpiece

Empire State Plaza sign

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.

The Legislative Building stands in stark contrast to the 19th century State Capitol.

Empire State Plaza Overview

An overview of Empire State Plaza. The Capitol is behind me.

The Agency Buildings

The four Agency buildings.

Agency building close up in black and white.

Cultural Education Center

The Cultural Education Center houses the state museum, library and archives. It sits on the opposite end of the plaza from the Capitol.

Corning Tower

Corning Tower. The tallest building in New York outside of New York City. You can go to the top to take in the view.

The Egg and Corning Tower

The Egg and 1973 Erastus Corning Tower, named for the long-time mayor of Albany.

The Egg

The Egg performing arts center took 12 years to build.

The Egg

The Egg's stem goes six stories down to support the weight of the structure.

Snack Bar - Empire State Plaza

One of the coolest snack shops in the world.

Vintage Lighting - Empire State Plaza

The plaza's vintage lighting.

Sidewalk - Empire State Plaza

Harrison used the same walkway pattern in front of the Time-Life Building. The curving pattern is based on the sidewalk used at Rio's Copacabana Beach.

Ellsworth Kelly piece - Empire State Plaza

Ellsworth Kelly sculpture in front of one of the Agency buildings. There is plenty of modern art above and below ground.

Alexander Calder sculpture

The 1965 Triangles and Arches by Alexander Calder.

The Egg's Lobby - Empire State Plaza

Moving underground. The Egg's minimalist lobby.

Inside of The Egg

Inside The Egg.

Gene Davis Art

The 1969 Sky Wagon by D.C.'s own Gene Davis.

Isamu Noghuchi sculpture

One of three Isamu Noghuchi sculptures

Kenneth Noland, Via Ochre

Kenneth Noland's 1968 Via Ochre.

The Concourse - Empire State Plaza

The Concourse under the plaza. Mall and modern art gallery.