Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Shopping-Mall Legacy of a Mid-Century Sculptor

Most visitors to the North Face store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan are looking for a parka. But several times a month, while working the door, manager Lucas Gustin spots people who don’t fit the brand’s usual demographic: “They are well-dressed, older,” he says. “They usually come in couples too. I’ll think to myself, OK, they are in here for the Bertoia.”

“The Bertoia” is sculptor Harry Bertoia’s largest extant U.S. work, a 70-foot-long, 16-foot-high steel screen, made of staggered golden rectangles interspersed with abstract forms resembling leaves and birds. It was specially commissioned by architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for 510 Fifth Avenue’s original tenant, Manufacturers Trust. It presides over the second floor of the building, once the primary banking hall, filling the eye as you travel up the east-west escalators. When the building opened in 1954, critic Ada Louise Huxtable noted the sculpture’s “Byzantine splendor,” while critic Lewis Mumford wrote that “it humanizes these quarters,” contrasting with the building’s cool metal, marble and grids. “It suggests something frail, incomplete … and thus lovable.” (A landmarks battle in 2011 mandated the screen’s return after renovations.)

That outerwear shoppers should have access to such grandeur may seem like a liability, but Gustin insists it is no trouble. A modest blond wood plaque, located at the north end of the screen, identifies the artist. “Little kids are always running around and they don’t touch it,” he says. “It is boldly silent.”