In Jacques Tati’s 1958 film, Mon Oncle, modernism bites back. The Arpels—mom, dad, son, dog—live in an up-to-date villa on an up-to-date suburban street. Monsieur Arpel commutes to his job at a plastics factory in an up-to-date automobile. Madame Arpel cooks with buttons and sprays (and yet still has to spend much of her time dusting).
What could go wrong?
Young Gerard and his pet desperately try to find something to do in an environment where everything has its place. Eventually they escape to the old part of the city where his uncle, Tati regular Monsieur Hulot, lives in an accidental building, made by accretion. There, they enjoy dirt, food, bicycles, life. Whenever Hulot encounters the new, whether in his sister’s kitchen or in his brother-in-law’s factory, something goes haywire. The interface has been designed for looks, not intuition, and he hasn’t been trained to follow their commands.
On the January 21, 1958 episode of To Tell the Truth, a quiz show in which a panel of actors attempt to tell which of three contestants is the real deal, three women in sensible skirt suits introduce themselves. “My name is Natalie de Blois.” “My name is Natalie de Blois.” “My name is Natalie de Blois.” All three pronounce it “de Bloy.”
The true de Blois, the announcer says, is a registered architect, a member of the American Institute of Architects, has designed two American consulates and a Hilton hotel, and is now senior designer for a little project that is once again in the news: the block-wide, 50-story Union Carbide Building on Park Avenue. She is also, he notes, the married mother of four.
The three women sit down, ready for questions that should reveal which of them is actually an architect. But the panelists prove too ignorant about architecture to ask anything incisive: a third of the questions involve Frank Lloyd Wright. Which Hollywood actress is his granddaughter? What’s the name of his house and what town is it in? What’s special about his Tokyo Imperial Hotel?
The first question is the best one: What is the name of the building torn down in order to build Union Carbide? Contestant #1, the real de Blois, answers easily, “Hotel Marguery.”
“Lange skillfully explores how the design of children’s toys and built environments reflects evolving philosophies of child-rearing and development … Powerfully remind[s] readers of the importance of constructing spaces that make all people, including children, feel both welcomed and independent.”
Does it feel like I am always yelling at you that this plaza from 1968, or that building from 1983, must be saved? It feels like that to me, because I am, because the architecture that makes New York great, giving it variety, texture, and some generosity amid the towers, is constantly under threat.
I was genuinely shocked to wake up yesterday and read that the Union Carbide Building (1960), designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and occupying prime real estate on Park Avenue just north of the Pan Am Building (1963), was going to be torn down to build an even bigger skyscraper.
Principally, I was surprised that the Union Carbide Building wasn’t a designated landmark. The bureaucracy and strategy required to get buildings landmarked in New York too often means that advocates are playing defense, and the building under immediate attack gets the attention.
Union Carbide, however, is a superlative example of what Ada Louise Huxtable named “The Park Avenue School of Architecture” in 1957: sleek, shiny buildings that to her seemed like the city shaking off masonry, somnolence, the past, and marching up Park into the future. “In a surprise shift,” she wrote, “elegance has moved from domestic to professional life, from the apartment house to the office building.”
This fall, a 300,000-square-foot shopping mall will open in suburban northern California, built around a landscaped outdoor courtyard inspired by an Italian piazza.
The first floor is all glass, the better to see the wares; above that, corrugated stainless steel. An Equinox gym anchors the mall at one end, a dine-in movie theater anchors the other. You can drink boba tea or a Berkeley microbrew, slurp ramen, or down a burger.
From the rooftop parking garage, visitors can look down on the piazza—“it is a sweet climate” says its European architect—or out to the surrounding hills. “I don’t want to be nasty to shopping malls,” he adds, in a promotional video for the shopping mall. “I just want to say, this is not a shopping mall, it is something completely different. Instead of something artificial, we need to make something very California.”
In March 1954, a 990,000-square-foot shopping mall opened in suburban Detroit, built around landscaped outdoor courtyards, inspired by Italian piazzas. The first floor was all glass, the better to see the wares; above that, brick panels framed in concrete. A Hudson’s department store anchored the center. You could get a bite at the snack bar or candy store, or shop for dinner at the supermarket while your kids worked up an appetite at the playground.
Around the time I was putting this column together in my head, the new owners of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1984 AT&T Building decided to take a wrecking ball to the building’s lobby, with its inlaid black-and-white floor, circuit of round arches, and intricate brass elevator doors. While the exterior of the building is being considered for landmark designation, the lobby (which I thought of as an inside-out palazzo) was fair game.
It was made vulnerable, as interiors so often are, by an earlier renovation that robbed AT&T of its most interesting spatial effect: the hollowed-out loggia at the base of the top-heavy highboy. Johnson loved spindly arrays of columns, stretching them like taffy in his city hall for Celebration, Florida. His idea of the public realm, at least on narrow Madison Avenue, was softening the sharp street corners with arches and providing a base through which people could flow.
That was a quirky idea, especially when coupled with the opulence of the lobby, where the sculpture “Golden Boy” once pointed skyward, with lightning bolts. I had been hoping against hope that the owners, and renovation architect Snøhetta, would see the lobby as I did: as an experiment with materials, space and art more distinctive than their proffered Scandi-adjacent discourse on light and air. Midtown has plenty of brightly lit, forward-facing, gridded lobbies. What it has precious little of is drama—or texture.