Building or jewelry?

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This is Saul Steinberg’s illustration on the cover of the 1958 French edition Robert Frank’s legendary book The Americans (Les Americains). It’s a satire of the soulless corporate architecture that was starting to take over the world’s cities – graph paper ridicules the alienating grid of International Style skyscrapers.

At about the same time the photographer Ezra Stoller made a picture that resembles it.

 

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Alienation was not what the architects intended. But what was intended? A building in Manhattan is a case study in the ideology of high modern architecture. Manufacturers Hanover Trust, a bank on Fifth Avenue at Forty Third Street, is a key building of the International Style. Built in 1954 by Gordon Bunshaft of the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the heavyweight champions of modern architecture at that time, it was a showcase of the new ideas of transparency and lightness in corporate architecture.

The construction superintendent described the building as being more like jewelry than buildingand it even features a kind of jewelry in the mural sculpture by the great Harry Bertoia (see gold image below). The building is uncompromisingly modern, facing the street with a sheer wall of glass – an exciting new idea for a bank. The second floor contains an architectural coup, as you ascend the escalator, you emerge as if on a stage elevator into the bright open-plan main hall. The openness, transparency and clarity was very different from the heavy stone banks with their image of security and secrecy.


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These images of the building by Ezra Stoller were made when it opened in 1954. Stoller was the great visual interpreter of high modern architecture. His clarity and precision as an artist perfectly matched the same qualities in the buildings he photographed.

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I have a copy of the promotional booklet that announced the new Manufacturers Trust bank, published on its opening in 1954. It is beautifully designed in the mid-century style, with illustrations (not photographs) showing off the building. The fifties was a golden age for illustration, only giving way to photography as the main form of commercial representation in the 1960s. Unfortunately, I can’t make out the name of the illustrator.

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