Robert A. M. Stern, et al.
New York 2000: Architecture and
Urbanism between the Bicentennial
and the Millennium.
Monacelli, 1,520 pages, $100
New York 2000 is the fifth in the monumental series of encyclopedic tomes by the architect and historian Robert A. M. Stern, always in collaboration with two other scholars. The first volume was “New York 1900,” co-written with John Massengale and Gregory F. Gilmartin, and published in 1983. While at the time it seemed a massive production—at 502 pages—it has been so dwarfed, in both size and quality, by the series’ later volumes that one presumes it will be completely redone to stand up to the rest. The second volume, New York 1930 (1987, 847 pages) by Stern, Gilmartin, and Thomas Mellins, is about halfway between New York 1900 and the next volume, New York 1960, in size and scope, and it, too, may warrant a new edition. The three volumes of such massive scope as to defy reason are New York 1880 (1999, 1,164 pages) and New York 1960 (1995, 1,374 pages), both by Stern, Mellins, and David Fishman, and, now, New York 2000, by Stern, Fishman, and Jacob Tilove. At 1,520 pages, printed entirely in color (all previous volumes were black-and-white), the book is so big and so heavy that the editors at The New Criterion had to assign the review to one of the contributors who lived in New York so he could pick the book up at the office. Mailing the book could have bankrupted the magazine.
That the book retails for a mere $100 (and is, at this writing, available for $63 from Amazon.com) is an example of an astonishing phenomenon of our time, namely the high-quality, finely printed, all-color, profusely illustrated book that is half the price of a book only half as nicely produced fifteen or twenty years ago. The key is in the fine print of the title page: “Printed and bound in China.” The combination of new printing technology and overseas outsourcing has made books like this accessible to most readers. By contrast, New York 1960, which is shorter (1,374 pages) than New York 2000, and entirely in black and white, retailed for $125 in 1995 (which equals more than $155 in today’s dollars). New York 1960, published, like the present volume, by Monacelli Press, was printed and bound in Italy. Adding together the price difference, the size difference, and the change to color printing, and it’s very nearly the case that oversize, copiously illustrated books on art and architecture have, in fact, decreased in price by half in the last ten years. Add in a typically steep Amazon discount, and quality books have never been more affordable in the history of mankind. Am I the only one who finds this to be one of the remarkable phenomena of our time?
I know I am not the only one, at least, who finds the Stern series to be one of the remarkable phenomena of our time. With New York 2000 (maybe indeed with New York 1880, the fourth published in the series), Stern et al. have created a modern-day successor to Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes’s Iconography of Manhattan Island. Stokes, who was like Stern both an architect of high accomplishments and a historian of New York City, published his Iconography in six volumes between 1915 and 1928. The architect Norval White called it “the most exhaustive record of a built place ever attempted, let alone fulfilled.” Like Stokes, Stern et al. seek to provide a record based on images (prints in Stokes’s case, photographs in the case of Stern et al.) and carefully chosen snippets of contemporary accounts of historical phenomena.
New York 2000 begins with a 145-page introduction comprising eleven sections. Since the rest of the book is organized by neighborhood, the introduction is where Stern et al. deal with citywide matters. They provide a concise, judicious overview of the city’s economy, politics, and social problems from 1975 to 2000, and deal with housing, homelessness, infrastructure, and waterfront issues. The introduction also covers the way the city was portrayed in film, television, and books. Other sections concern the stylistic evolution of the period, from the postmodern pop-classicism of the 1980s to the psychologically abrasive “deconstructivist” postmodernism of more recent times, and the decade or so in which modernist buildings of the 1950s and 1960s got resurfaced to look like they were built in the Patrick Bateman era. Finally, the introduction discusses the New York Times’s three architecture critics during the period: Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Goldberger, and Herbert Muschamp. While the introduction is a joy to read, and the book is so thorough as to make any cavils sound captious, still some readers may feel that the introduction misses something crucial, or treats of it insufficiently, namely the sheer growth of what Stern elsewhere has called “archi-culture”—the archi-culture that called the five books by Stern et al. into being in the first place.
In the twenty-five years from 1975 to 2000 it seems as many books about New York were published as had been published up to 1975. University courses in New York City history were extremely rare before 1975. As recently as the early 1980s, when my wife took a graduate school course on the history of New York City, the professor, a very distinguished historian, assigned Jack Finney’s science-fiction novel Time and Again for want of more readily available material. Such a thing is inconceivable today, when such courses abound and, if anything, suffer a surfeit of first-class materials. Similarly, city architecture interests more people than ever before. The Municipal Art Society offered the city’s first architectural walking tours in 1956. But it was not till the end of the twentieth century that such tours truly became established as an essential part of the city’s cultural offerings. Stern has both fed and benefitted from this phenomenal growth of archi-culture, and, somewhat disappointingly, it remains to be chronicled.
Again, in the context of this book, that is but a minor cavil. Perhaps it jumps out at me because, well, it might have balanced with some good news what is otherwise an encyclopedic compendium of architectural bad news. Between 1975 and 2000, it seems that New York architects basically forgot how to design a decent building. The first four volumes in the series by Stern et al. ravished the eye with the splendors of the city’s past, when even tenement fronts could stir with their ornamental flourishes. Even New York 1960 contained many good buildings, while its bad ones bore an affecting conviction. It’s the conviction, perhaps, that’s missing from 1975–2000. The architects are too self-consciously disengaged, or ironically distanced, or fiduciarily constrained, from any serious grappling with architecture’s role in shaping successful urban environments. It’s as though their immediate predecessors, the modernists, got it all so patently wrong, while at the same time there’s a sense that there’s no going back to earlier, proven methods of doing things, that the result is that never in the city’s history has the architect been so stumped, or his architecture so stupid. Herbert Muschamp used to say that archi-culture itself, particularly historic preservation and the focus on past glories, sapped the creative energies of today’s architects. More to the point, as I see it, is that 1975–2000 is the first period of our architecture dominated almost exclusively by architects who had only a modernist training, unlike earlier architects who did modernism from a solid foundation of traditional technique.
Of course I am generalizing. Some architects in this period produced consistently high-quality work, such as Cooper Robertson, architects of Stuyvesant High School at Battery Park City. (For all its obvious faults, Battery Park City, to which Stern et al. dedicate a very lengthy section, comes off as one of the best things produced in its era in New York.) Stern’s own firm designed several buildings, including Brooklyn Law School and the Kol Israel synagogue (in Midwood, Brooklyn), that would do any era proud. Interestingly, the best architecture of the era seems to be in the outer boroughs. Stern, Anthony Cohn, and Ike Kligerman Barkley designed fine houses in the interesting “Mediterranean”-style enclave on East 5th Street in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Other interesting works include the Gerritsen Beach Branch Library (1997), by John Ciardullo Associates (another firm responsible for consistently fine work in this period), in Brooklyn, and Robert A. M. Stern Architects’ Wave Hill Visitors’ Center (2004) in the Bronx. Even “bleeding edge” work in the outer boroughs seemed better than its Manhattan counterparts, as with the New York Presbyterian Church (1999) by Greg Lynn, Michael McInturf, and Douglas Garofalo, in Queens. This church at least makes you want to know what was going on.
With few exceptions, the era’s best works were sensitive building additions, like John Barrington Bayley’s 1977 expansion (including a Russell Page-designed garden) of the Frick Collection, and Kevin Roche’s 1993 addition to the Jewish Museum. (Then, too, some of the era’s worst works were additions: Davis Brody Bond’s utter desecration of the Harvard Club may stand for several others.) Under Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan Museum of Art did one of the best things in the whole quarter century, namely got rid of the André Meyer Galleries, replacing them with new European-painting galleries designed largely by the Philadelphia classicist Alvin Holm. Another notable museum job was Annabelle Selldorf’s transformation of a Carrère & Hastings town house into the Neue Galerie (2001). In general, however, museums led the way in architectural ghastliness. And if Herbert Muschamp worried that the preservation movement had sapped architectural creativity in New York, he is probably happy now that “landmarking” is (as Tom Wolfe recently pointed out in a vicious op-ed in The New York Times) at a forty-year low ebb as a coalition of avant-garde design mavens and “conservative” economists champion the “creative destruction” of New York City, presumably to preempt any future terrorist attacks. While Stern et al. bend over backwards throughout New York 2000 to present balanced appraisals of buildings, there’s none of that in the writers’ treatment of 2 Columbus Circle, the Edward Durell Stone-designed Gallery of Modern Art. Love it or hate it, it did not even get the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing it manifestly warranted, thereby signaling that preservation as we know it has effectively come to an end in New York. It is the rueful coda to a shabby and shameful period.
This bad time for architecture in New York has been a great time for books on New York architecture. The best of them all are the volumes by Stern et al. Now let’s hope that a beefed-up New York 1900 is in the offing. At the rate we’re going, we’ll soon have little left but to read about how the buildings of the past once amounted to a city.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 5, on page 76
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