text and photo by Cristian Balint
New York lives in a permanent retrofuture state. Probably nothing that will be built from now on in the Empire State won’t haunt the collective imagination as the buildings built 100 years ago do. As futuristic and cutting edge current technology is, or the materials and the engineer’s designs nowadays, the art-deco, neo-gothic or beaux-art buildings born after 1900 are, aesthetically, unmatched. For now. We could use the cliché that stone has more “soul” than glass and steel, but it’s more than that. They simply are architectural jewels which, even after many years of living in NY they seem as impressive as the first day you saw them. As a tourist, walking through Manhattan can be a dangerous sport. When you constantly walk looking up, with your mouth open, bumping into a signpost or another tourist is just a matter of time. This if a rushing New-Yorker, who can’t afford to just stroll, doesn’t angrily drop a “fucking tourist” between the teeth.
In the New York of 2015 buildings are developed fast and without much interest for aesthetics. Specifically, interest is low. Practicality is priority. Maybe because most are apartment buildings. Demand is continuously rising so that the detailed ornaments that you find on buildings from the ‘30s are superfluous today, in a time and place pointed forever towards money. Just as an artist with a long lasting career who has already reached his peak many years ago and now creates out of inertia or need, New York continues to fascinate with the buildings that Fritz Lang was long haunted by so much that he made up “Metropolis” in 1927 (reprinted recently alongside with a soundtrack signed by disco meister Giorgio Moroder. The Result? A brilliant retrofuture overload).
So, the global fascination that New York has it’s in no way thanks to the new World Trade Center which Bansky, to the general outrage of New Yorkers, rightly named it “a really tall kid at a party, awkwardly shifting his shoulders trying not to stand out from the crowd” or the “steel and glass” buildings built on fast forward to satisfy the appetite of the many which want even a small bite out of the big apple. Until then, the Flatiron (of which it was believed that it will fall immediately after its finalization or the first strong wind), Grand Central Station, Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Woolworth Building, St. Patrick Cathedral, Plaza Hotel etc. are still a flagpole of aesthetics. And this is mostly thanks to a law that came out in 1965, which categorizes over 30.000 buildings as historical monuments, ensuring that the faith of the fabulous Penn Station, built in 1910 and demolished in 1963 to make place for a building with simplistic architecture but which hosted legendary events – Madison Square Garden.
It would be hard for me to pick a favourite building. I still have a fascination for the Bryant Hotel, which I’ve obsessively photographed one January night, when I first came to NY. The Penthouse on the last floor, whose lights got lost in the steam that came from the chimneys, seemed like the lair of a comic book superhero. It’s amazing how chameleonic is the Chrysler Building when the weather changes. When the sun shines it looks like a veritable axis mundi, a vertical explosion of light which connects the sky with the earth. When it rains and is cloudy though, the shiny eagles which decorate it become menacing and the films noir and Batman’s Gotham are the ones that take Metropolis’ place. The Gehry Building intrigued me the first time I saw it. It was named “the nuclear meltdown” (for the silhouette of contorted torpedo and the rocketship prices that it required) and “the only building built downtown that is worth existing next to the Woolworth Building (1913).
This is a reshaped and updated version of the article that appeared for the first time in Cockaigne Magazine #6. Click here to check out the full issue.