The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream
Publication Date: December, 2004
Publisher: MIT Press
Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, — which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.
— Walter Gropius
It’s there, and it’s not ever going away.
The reader of Meredith Clausen’s sad, sad tale must begin with acceptance: the MetLife Building (née Pan Am) will live to be scorned by your children and your children’s children. Once that’s accomplished, you can ponder a kind of redemption: there might be some good in it if the lessons of the Pan Am also live on. Ms. Clausen’s done her part. An exhaustive history, The Pan Am Building progresses with Homeric fatality to the damnable result, providing an invaluable instruction in the forces that shaped (and continue to shape) the face of our city.
The moral of the story is twofold: 1) Beware of architects who speak of symbols rather than buildings, and 2) A window-dressing capitalist will throw design out the window the very first chance he gets.
In 1954, while New York was in the midst of an unprecedented building frenzy, the chairman of the New York Central Railroad looked to the open sky above Grand Central Station and decided that there was only one way to save his ailing company. Where the average New Yorker saw sunlight streaming freely down Park Avenue to brightly silhouette the pyramidal roof of the New York Central Building (now the Helmsley), the chairman only saw lost revenue and wasted space. In a climate so familiar with the erasure of the past, he thought nothing of trumpeting the news that Grand Central was to be demolished and replaced by an I.M. Pei building 100 feet taller than the Empire State. The storm of protest alarmed him, and so a subsequent proposal, drafted by the villainous Richard Roth, saved the 1913 station by setting the skyscraper behind it. Such a benevolent gesture should have mollified the public, but murmurs of dissent continued, which was when Erwin Wolfson, the aptly named developer behind the project, brought in two of the biggest names in architecture to pacify the critics.
“Grand Central City” was to rival the Pentagon in volume — the railroad could afford no less. How could such a mass in such a location be palatable, let alone artful?
Enter Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi, continental geniuses, reverend sages of modernism, confident in their powers to transmute the capitalist’s gambit into a “crystal symbol.” Gropius had led the epochal Bauhaus and then Harvard’s school of architecture; Belluschi headed MIT’s architecture program. Each was a model of high modernism; each was the source of an unstemmable tide of high-minded theory. Every time Gropius found himself behind a podium, he’d tell his audience about producing a “bold, imaginative interpretation of the democratic idea.” Belluschi held forth on guiding “the great mass of peoples” in “the realization of their obscure ideals” to whoever would listen. But they were to be paired with Richard Roth, a species of architect politely called an “investor’s architect,” whose colossal firm would really run the show. When it came to rhetoric, Roth was less eloquent, but far more honest: money built buildings, not genius. “Architecture reflects society,” Roth said, “and this is not a great age.” Anyone who doubts the unrealized greatness of Roth’s age can look at any one of the over 100 buildings erected by his firm.
Nevertheless, greatness understates Gropius’ aim. He wanted the building to span Park Avenue so that it was sufficiently “monumental” and insisted that its “crystal form” (octagonal rather than rectangular) would create “an image subconsciously in the mind of the passers-by, totally different from the towers… within the whole of New York.” He chose a concrete and quartz mixture for the façade so that it would sparkle in the sun. The building was to be a light unto the world. The overall result of the design, however, is a giant shadow, a looming presence that enforces the very conscious impression of a visible darkness. To call it an artistic failure is an understatement. For this, Gropius and Belluschi deserve the blame heaped on them by critics — one of the chief pleasures of the book is keeping count of the multiplying epithets for the Pan Am: “an arrogant, faceless colossus”; “a colossal collection of minimums”; “a garage door pulled down on Park Avenue.” The duo deserves further blame for dealing with the devil and expecting eager collaboration. Wolfson rubbed out the idea of a plaza because it meant a sacrifice of rentable office space, and Gropius could have whatever modernist frills for his lobby he wanted so long as it didn’t cost too much or weird out the tenants (it was on this score that John Cage’s proposal of a looping, motion-activated piece of compressed and distorted Muzak didn’t make it in). Once Pan Am leased 15 floors, Gropius had little choice but to accept the addition of 30-foot PAN AM signs atop the building, ruining his carefully orchestrated effect of soaring verticality (which, let’s face it, probably wouldn’t have worked anyway). The Pan Am Building is that rare example of both money and genius run amok.
The punch line, of course, is that even with the erection of the Pan Am, the railroads continued to drown in debt and desperately scramble for income. Their effort to build a 44-lane bowling alley in Grand Central failed only because they could not attain the required zoning variance; and the newly formed Landmarks Commission successfully defeated their proposal for a 55-storey building to be built directly on top of the station. The Pan Am, with its 59 stories, 2.4-million square feet of office space (roughly 56 acres), and capacity for up to 25,000 workers, simply wasn’t enough. Nor was it enough for Pan Am Airways, which purchased the building only to itself collapse.
So now we have the MetLife Building, a symbol (of failure), a money machine (for an apparently solvent insurance company)…and a blight on the landscape that won’t ever, ever go away.