Last night was the last of Barry Lewis’ “The City Transformed” lectures at the Cooper Union for the semester. It has been wonderful. If you’ve seen his PBS shows, you know he’s a delight, a Nu Yawker through and through. In February, he starts with the 20th century and the Beaux Arts revival sparked by Chicago’s Columbia Exposition. After the glories of Arts & Craft and the Richardsonian Romanesque end to Victorianism, the bozo "White City" is something of a let down (to me anyway).
Lewis’s main points have been how Modernism was prefigured by many aspects found in the 19th century and even earlier -- the spare lines, the concern for materials, the machine aesthetic; how the city radically (from the roots) changes over time, boom and bust, rise and fall, and at the end of each boom the decadent styles it brought forth are looked back at in disgust and regret, as if by a hung-over toad after an orgy in a puddle. So there’s hope for us yet. The McMansions, SUV-houses, and the glass blot-towers are over. Of course, sometimes, we go back to the old things and say, my god, this is so beautiful, how could they ever had rejected this? -- but I don’t think that will happen to this era’s architect, because ugly is forever. (4th Avenue, once lined with trees!, I'm thinking of you.)
I discovered that the long thin brick you see all over in late 19th century buildings is called Roman brick. Now, I don’t know if it’s Roman, but the narrow brick running up the length of the Lever House tower’s backside is quite handsome. It’s rather hard to see, though; best ground-level view is from 54th St. between Park & Mad. Since this is one of the first glass curtain babies in the city, I think Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill were trying to hide it, the silly boys.