What We Will Lose When the Union Carbide Building Falls

construction the Union Carbide Building Falls

What We Will Lose When the Union Carbide Building Falls

The Union Carbide building, on Park Avenue in New York City, soon after its completion in 1961. It is now the headquarters for JPMorgan Chase, which plans to demolish it. Credit Archive Photos/Getty Images

To paraphrase the famous Blackglama fur advertisements: What becomes a landmark most? Is a building a landmark of architectural design or of architectural taste? Or is it the role it plays in a city’s memory as an embodiment of a set of cultural, economic and political values?

The Union Carbide building, now the headquarters of JPMorgan Chase, on Park Avenue in Manhattan fulfills all these criteria. That is why architectural historians were dumbstruck last week when Chase announced plans to demolish the 52-story glass-curtain-wall skyscraper, which opened in 1961, and replace it with an even bigger structure.

The news prompted two immediate responses. The first was an outcry by preservationists. That part was predictable; what is surprising this time around was their wistful sense of resignation. Instead of campaigning to save the building, critics are already wading through its ruins, lamenting an earlier age when corporate skyscrapers married design precision with extraordinary material beauty and symbolized the collective spirit of a surging society. No battles will be waged over this building, which is not protected by landmark status: Everyone knows it is a goner.

In 2016, we lost Philip Johnson’s the Four Seasons restaurant, which was arguably an integral part of the Seagram Building’s original design. Many of Paul Rudolph’s best buildings have been obliterated or wrecked, including his two mold-breaking high schools in Sarasota, Fla., and more recently — and excruciatingly — the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y.

My heart still sinks when I walk past Edward Durell Stone’s camp folly at 2 Columbus Circle, now the Museum of Arts and Design. The bitter, fruitless campaign to save that building dragged on for years. Ironically, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee favored its destruction, revealing itself to be deeply compromised in the process. The architect behind the redesign, Brad Cloepfil, ultimately kept Stone’s original structure but replaced the facade, effectively turning it into a sad phantom of its former self.

The second response is more controversial, and subtle. In the rush to explain the building’s significance, critics are also losing sight of what made the era of corporate Modernism so distinct.

In the days after the announcement, some critics attributed the Union Carbide tower to Natalie de Blois, a senior designer in the office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm that designed it and many other prominent corporate towers around the world. At the time de Blois worked under the direction of Gordon Bunshaft, the firm’s lead architect, who is often, by default, credited with its design.

The desire to right what people seem to see as a historical wrong may be well-meaning, but it distorts the historical record. In interviews, de Blois stated that she shared Bunshaft’s design sensibility, and could therefore execute his vision. But she was one of a team of designers who worked on the project under his supervision.

This isn’t a minor debate. The misattribution obscures the organizational nature of the firm, which is partly what makes the building significant. Corporate clients such as Union Carbide chose Skidmore precisely because it married the architectural language of European modernism with American business ethics; crucially, the architect remained invisible. This made it seem as if the building had arranged itself around the corporation’s internal drives. The corporation was de facto the architect.

It’s true that architectural guidebooks usually list Bunshaft as the architect of Union Carbide, along with other midtown Manhattan landmarks as Lever House, Manhattan House and the Pepsi-Cola building. But in a 1989 oral history conducted by the Art Institute of Chicago, he evades this attribution for those buildings. He depicts himself as the conduit through which a corporation’s mission was translated into architectural form. He credits his administrative partners, who headed up research specific to each commission and oversaw logistics, and the designers who produced drawings and thus helped to work out various kinks in the design.

Bunshaft always put the corporation first. But he also makes clear that he set the architectural parameters and, just as important, sold them to progressive chief executives, whom he wonderfully equates with Renaissance princes: “They were the new Medicis, and there were many of them.”

Today, the Seagram Building, a few blocks north of Union Carbide on Park Avenue, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is universally acclaimed as the pinnacle of postwar modernism. But when it was completed in 1958, another architect, Louis Kahn, criticized it as stunning but somehow false. “She is a beautiful bronze lady but she is all corseted inside,” Kahn said. “She is not true.” Set 50 feet back in an isolated plaza framed on either side by green marble monoliths, it asked to be admired, but refused to participate in the everyday life of the avenue.

Union Carbide, by contrast, fills its entire site. The base of the block, however, is dematerialized with a glazed ground story: it looks as if the tower miraculously rests on thin planes of glass. Twin escalators lift you into a double-height, glass-walled atrium. The sensation is one of levity, suspension and translucence, yet the building remains human-scaled. The energy of the city’s grid is carried right up onto the building’s facade by the I-beams, which rise almost from street level. The architectural language is similar to Seagram, but Union Carbide’s looser syntax results in a totally different, much more pragmatic compositional effect.

Along with Wallace Harrison’s Time & Life Building, from 1957, and Eero Saarinen’s CBS skyscraper, from 1964, which face each other on Sixth Avenue, Union Carbide and the Seagram Building exemplify the post-World War II cultural narrative: the United States’ vision of itself as a savior of Western civilization and heir to the great traditions of antiquity.

This narrative was imparted through an aesthetic of massed shimmer. The totemic majesty of ancient monolithic architecture was joined with the limpidity of the glass curtain wall. These skyscraper colossi positioned postwar American corporations as gateways to the world’s boundless resources and cultural treasures, which existed to be exploited, just as the buildings exploited the possibilities of epic form. Their noble, classicizing piers and temple-like porticos, which recall Greek and Roman architecture, and the soaring romantic I-beams, which recall the intricate ribbing of Gothic cathedrals, proclaimed that a democratic, capitalist country like the United States could carry on the traditions of a great civilization — “America’s humanistic nationalism,” as the religious scholar Martin E. Marty said at the time.

When corporations or governments say they need to demolish an architecturally or historically significant building, it is almost always under the guise of needing more space. But there is also always an underlying ideological cause. The nature of capital, and its place in American culture, has changed. The Union Carbide tower will no doubt be replaced by an even more transparent, yet paradoxically completely opaque skyscraper of inhuman proportions that better represents the menacing ethics and aesthetics, and vague nature, of global finance.

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