Of all the places that Lewis Mumford wrote about in his years as The New Yorker’s architecture critic, none got more attention, and more page space, than Rockefeller Center. The largest building/development project of its time, RC stands on three full blocks, and it was “the first time that any such tract [had] been cleared away in the middle of the city for development as a unit.” It was the subject of his first column for The New Yorker, and his last. His criticism shifted through the years (the first article was in 1931, the last in 1940) but his most consistent complaints are about the height of the tallest building. “In other words, the tall skyscraper is the businessman’s toy, his plaything, his geegaw… in the interests of congestion the businessman is willing to make the streets impassable…. waste millions in building more subways to promote more congestion, and in general to put up with any and every nuisance so long as he can feed his inflated romantic dream.”
Now that buildings are routinely over 40 storeys, we don’t think much about height or density. But it’s interesting to look back at Mumford’s pieces as the debate around the World Trade Center continues, and large-scale development on the West Side and in Brooklyn looms in the future. What does density mean in a city that seemed jam-packed in 1931, and is just beginning to split at the seams? I live in a neighborhood serviced by a single train, the L, and some mornings the crowds are such that I have to wait for a second train. And this is before the real development has even begun. Proposals for 30- and 40-storey towers along the East River have been approved, but no new train lines have been proposed. At what point can we, must we, say “enough?”
The highest profile building project in this city’s history is grinding on, in much the same way that Rockefeller Center did. The only good thing one can find in 9/11 is that it gave us the rarest of gifts, a “vast tract in the middle of the city.” And we have blindly stepped back on to the path of greatest development. In his last piece for “The Sky Line” Mumford concludes with a hopeful vision to temper his criticism: “Rockefeller Center is still to be seen as our descendents may see it in another generation. Once we lay out parks and ribbons of open space around such units… they will form a new kind of urban organism. Don’t think that the future opening up of the city is just a pipe dream. The parking lots of today… will be the gay playgrounds and squares of tomorrow.” Would that it were so.