Tag Archives: Harrison & Abramovitz

United Nations

The fledgling United Nations took great pains to demonstrate international cooperation (and independence) in the design of its headquarters. But by some accounts, the world’s architectural elite were as combative as a room full of generals.

As New York Magazine summed it up:

“The pragmatic New Yorker Wallace K. Harrison found himself placating squabbling visionaries. Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, in particular, fought over the shape, number, and orientation of the buildings, whether the glass curtain wall should include a sun-shading grid of stone, and — most ferociously — who got credit for what. Le Corbusier complained to his mother of the ‘apparent kidnapping of [his] U.N. project by USA gangster Harrison.'”

The result was a landmark that influenced skyscraper architecture throughout New York – and worldwide.

I’m fascinated by the buildings’ changing personalities, depending on your vantage point and the time of day.

It’s a minor miracle that the United Nations has managed to accommodate its membership over the years. In 1947 the U.N. had 57 members, and building plans allowed for growth to 70 members. In 1964, expansion allowed for 126 members. The assembly was expanded again in 1980, and the U.N. now has 193 members. The U.N. is in the last months of renovating its headquarters. The six-year program (to be completed in 2014) removed asbestos, rewired, added sprinklers and fire alarm systems, even replaced the famous glass walls. Fortunately (for traditionalists), the world body chose to preserve the buildings’ appearance. It’s a massive project: The original construction cost $65 million; the renovation will cost $1.8 billion.

United Nations Vital Statistics
United Nations Recommended Reading

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Socony-Mobil Building

Socony-Mobil Building, aka 150 E 42nd Street, is another piece of New York City “love-it or hate-it” architecture. Landmarked in 2003 as an “impressive skyscraper” with “dramatic stainless steel arches,” it is also on some critics’ “ugliest buildings” list.

The original design, by John B. Peterkin, was a 30-story brick tower rising from a garden atop a three-story granite base. The developer, Galbreath Corporation, was unable to attract prime tenants, so in 1952 new architectural muscle was called in: Harrison & Abramovitz. Principals at that firm had worked with Galbreath on other projects and, incidentally, with the Rockefeller family during construction of New York icons Rockefeller Center and the United Nations.

The Harrison & Abramovitz-revised plan was for a 42-story tower with 13-story wings, clad in stainless steel. The firm was a pioneer in metal-clad architecture, earlier completing the Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh. Aluminum was considerably cheaper than stainless steel, but the steel industry agreed to match aluminum’s price for the opportunity to promote their product.

Why metal at all? Partly marketing – to give the building a modern identity. Partly structural – like glass, metal is lighter and thinner (leaves more rentable floor space) than masonry. Partly speed – metal panels go up faster than brick.

The 7,000 steel panels were embossed with four patterns (selected from more than 100): a rosette-like motif for above and below the windows; a large and small rosette to flank the windows, and two variants displaying a design of interlocking pyramids. These last panels are less wide and appear at the eighth floor where the ceiling is higher, or at the corners of the side elevations.

These controversial patterns were explained as necessary to stiffen the panels, diminish reflections, and create a self-cleaning surface (via wind and rain). The New Yorker‘s architecture critic, Lewis Mumford, called the design a “disaster” and said that the elevations looked as if they were “coming down with measles.”

The “self-cleaning” aspect wasn’t entirely accurate – the building was scrubbed with detergent in 1995.

The building’s four-story blue glass base, not nearly as controversial, is no less striking. The E 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue facades feature massive shallow eyebrow arches of stainless steel, resting on granite piers.

One wonders: Did the architects realize how well the Socony-Mobil Building frames the stainless steel spire of the Chrysler Building across the street? It’s a spectacular photo op!

Trivia: According to the building’s website, elevators to the top floors operate at 1,200 feet per minute, while elevators in the lowest floors operate at only 500 feet per minute.

Socony-Mobil Building Vital Statistics
Socony-Mobil Building Recommended Reading

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