The Rockefeller Center Wants To Disappear or Something That I Thought When I Went to New York Recently Part II 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It didn’t turn out quite as I had expected. From the moment the tour guide announced that he had helped Andrew WK write the lyrics for his latest album to watching the outside audience for NBC’s Today Show form an elongated cluster on the street so as to get into shot, the Rockefeller was something far more intangible than I had imagined. Before I arrived, I had understood that it was 14 different buildings but I hadn’t appreciated quite how detached they would all feel and how little opportunity there would be to consider it as a single entity entity. Just as an example, there are three conventional Manhattan towers on the western side of the Avenue of the Americas which I am sure most New Yorkers don’t think of as part of the Center but in fact are. 

Yes, I found an essay in a new kind of urbanism, which I’d expected from reading Delirious New York and other books. Of course, in a very literal way this was a building which was designed to extend out in new ways; down to the subway, over to the other side of the street creating new internal plazas and up into the sky to create a new landmark. But also, of course, the less obvious way. The Rockefeller when it completed in 1938 reached out in terms of catchment. Its amenities were designed to attract new types of city dwellers: the lower level gallery style mall for a sophisticated shopper who doesn’t want to wander the streets; the frieze adorned lobbies defining a new kind of semi-civic semi-corporate public space for a New Yorker who wants to think of his city as one which actually surpasses the antiquated European; new types of performance and media spaces (Radio City and the radio studios); serviced apartments above them for a new kind of urban elite who wanted to maintain contact with the city that had enriched them rather than escaping to the faux-village idyll of the suburbs.  Indeed part of the intriguing aspect of the Rockefeller, I realised was the way the desire of its architects to be new in an urbanistic (not exclusively architectural) way contradicted with their desire to cater to a new kind of urban dweller interested in their own status and comfort.

Indeed what I hadn’t expected was how hard it would be conceive of the building not just a single structure but as a single idea. Although it is hugely decorative in the art nouveau style its architecture has no clear personality, caused in no small part by being a product of a ruthless production line design process. The “managing agent” for the massive project was John R. Todd who was also the builder. The expression of the architect was subordinated to the construction. The principal architect was Raymond Hood, working with and leading three architectural firms including Wallace Harrison who would become the Rockefellers’ architectural advisor. And yet despite the austerity of the form, the Rockefeller was luxuriously, gorgeously, effulgently adorned in art. Was this simply a product of the highly divergent personalities of John D Rockefeller Jr. who pioneered the building and his gregarious wife Abby who commissioned the art?

Perhaps F Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” is even more true of buildings than people. Certainly the age in which Fitzgerald wrote – the same in which the Rockefeller was built – is thought of historically as an age of extremes but in fact the idea of contradiction runs in a fault-line from that day to this. Rockefeller-Center

This sense of contradiction brings us to the writing of Marshall Berman, and particularly his description of the Faustian aspect of development in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.  In this perceptive, beautifully executed text Berman explores how Marx in the Communist Manifesto praises the manner in which the emergent bourgeoisie has liberated “the human capacity and the drive for development.”  Simultaneously he also shows how the products of bourgeois society are vulnerable to destruction by the very processes that itself has liberated. What makes the Rockefeller a truly wonderful place is that it somehow through architecture attempts to reconcile this contradiction both in the way in which the crowning achievements of the bourgeoisie are susceptible to being swept aside by successive generations but also in the way in which these achievements are delivered through the exploitation of labour and the subsequent class conflict this engenders. Part of the intrigue of the Rockefeller Center is the way in which it provokes the question: is this an attempt to redeem a family from the sins of the father (John D. Rockefeller) or is it a genuine statement of optimism?

Intelligence Awakening MankindOne of the most stunning moments in the tour was the introduction to Barry Faulkner’s astonishing mosaic “Intelligence Awakening Mankind”. Perhaps it is because this incredible work of art is set back into the loggia above the entrance of 1250 Avenue of the Americas, and is not legible in its entirety from the street that means it is not a major part of New York’s lexicon imagery. It should be. A bravura piece of Art Nouveau narrative public art, it is dominated centrally by the figure Thought, deep in concentration, her arms on the shoulders of her two messengers Written Word and the Spoken Word. The picture unfolds from this centre, Science heading off to the right broadcasting information. To the left, it is Art. The mosaic conveys the social ameliorating potential of radio and adorns the front of the Radio Corporation Building. It is of course astonishing that the people that built this building wanted it to do good to society in general – an odd thing for a luxury development. It is even more incredible that they wanted to inscribe that goodness into its very fabric. But what makes the Rockefeller truly amazing is that it wishes to transcend even that. The blue and white lines on Faulkner’s mosaic represent the broadcasting of truth across radio waves. By dramatising its dissolution into air, the mosaic shows how Rockefeller’s architects sought to slip beyond the processes which Berman describes. The Rockefeller is also air.

It is not surprising therefore that Rem Koolhaas should note the Rockefeller Centers role as a vehicle for media. “It is the first building that can transmit itself,” he notes in  Delirious New York. It is more surprising perhaps that he does not continue with this line of investigation, (he is to be fair more interested in its role in confounding and then advancing his concept of Manahattanism, the way in which a grid can reconcile and organise competing economic forces only for it to be challenged and rethought and then reinvigorated). Koolhaas though makes us sensitive to the way in which the Rockefeller Center addresses its own mutability; its impermanence. It is in its way a temple of faith to the new dawning age of media. Thinking of the problematic way that the Rockefeller attempted to simultaneously provide a venue for technologies that were only just emerging such as television (according to Wikipedia it still contains 15 operational television studios) and yet also create a sense of awe-inspiring permanence is yet another intriguing and beguiling attribute of the building.

plaza rockefeller centerOne of the fascinating aspects of the Rockefeller is that it didn’t simply transmit to the rest of America, it called to it. The building became a sentinel for a new kind of creative class, an aspirational one. My guide, Kim, reminisced about the old days when he left Ilinois and how he arrived in New York never to return and how his best friend had gone out with a girl who was a Rockette called Ruby. The Rockefeller Center – or the Rock – as Kim kept calling it is a marker not just for a  moment when America went from being an industrial economy to a media economy but it is effectively the birthplace – more internationally recognisable than the one Hollywood gave birth to – of a new kind of media class. Although the waves on Faulkner’s mural show Thought transmitting to far-flung rural ignoramuses they could also show the bright lights of the big city shining as a beacon to them. It is the one point of melancholy in visiting the Rockefeller. Here is a building that is ostensibly a model for a new kind of living; a megastructure sat upon the first underground car park to be built in America; a city within a city as it was incessantly described when it launched, which became for a while a model for a new kind of American infrastructure. Instead it is a model for a new kind of communication infrastructure.  “Are you ready to Rock?” Kim shouted before he took us off on our tour.

This function for the building as a massive broadcast outlet was  of course decided upon once the original purpose of the building, to house an opera house, had – in the face of the depression – proved impossible. Having already leased the land from Columbia University and facing rents of $3m a year, Rockefeller Jr. put his faith in future media and  radio in particular. The opening event was broadcast live on radio and shows  very clearly how this new medium would resolve the class conflicts of the old technology. At this time, labour relations where straining under the very stark realities of mass poverty and huge unemployment was driving down wages for those that worked. Thomas A. Murray President of the Building and Construction Trades Council was invited to make a speech alongside Rockefeller at the official opening of the building. “In justice, in fairness and in tribute to those who conceived and directed this work, let it be said that these 14 buildings have been constructed by the unionized building tradesmen of the City of New York at union wages and under union conditions as per agreement with the employers of NYC,” he said.

Later in the broadcast, he added by way of compliment and implicit threat that: “Let capital in its dealings with organized labor follow the honorable course which was insisted up on Rockefeller Center by the owner and directors and there will be no industrial disputes, strikes or cessations of work.” The mayor of the city was at that time Fiorello Laguardia who spoke next and referred by way of passing to the industrial disputes of the age  that “these interruptions of services are sometimes rather irritating.”  Laguardia was no anti-unionist and had been a major sponsor of legislation defending the right of labour to organise itself.  What a benefit hindsight brings. The huge labour disputes of the 1920s were now being presented in this broadcast as a tame tit-for-tat; a disagreement to be sublimated in a media event. These two figures suggested that the construction of the building transcended the struggles of the Depression era. The Rockefeller Center probably was part of John D. Rockefeller Jr’s attempt to expiate previous sins of his father and the Rockefeller fortune. (Of particular note is  the Ludlow Massacre; when striking miners working for the Rockefeller owned Colarado Fuel and Iron Company were shot at by company guards leading to the death of around 20 including 2 women and several children.)  Yet while the Rockefellers insisted that the engagement of 70,000 workers in the project was a charitable act-  a continuation of John D. Rockefeller Jr. original intention to build an opera house – the sheer scale of the project was only achievable because of the relatively cheap labour available throughout the 1930s – despite union protection.  And yet one cannot help but admire the buildings attempts to transcend this. The launch of the building was just part of this. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Indeed if one considers the Rockefeller in a different way it ceases to be a building covered in art. After having visited Times Square it looks less like an ornately decorated, Art Nouveau clad master-work and  more like the prefiguring of a new media age; when a building advertises itself as opposed to simply broadcasting it. What is significant about the Diego Rivera controversy and his replacement by Setta is not that it was an ideological conflict per se. Without wishing to denigrate the strong beliefs of either participant, Rivera and Rockefeller knew enough about each others backgrounds and yet felt able to enter into a  contract with each other. The issue of Rivera’s Lenin is not an ideological debate so much as a sign of Rockefeller baulking at the logic of his vision of a new universal language of media. Marx believed that capitalism would always confound itself because it permitted its detractors the space to argue against it. At the Rockefeller we see this space as being hugely problematic and subject to constraint.

Rivera’s project was destroyed but he took it home in his mind and applied it to the walls of Mexico City and made the capitalists look like they were frightened. In winning though, he provided the fuel for the controversy that dominated and still dominates our appreciation of the Rockefeller revolutionary concept: that is a mega-structure on top of a transport system that could contain and provide all its inhabitants needs from the most basic to the most elevated; from containing shops in which one could buy a pint of milk to murals that could make them consider the most lofty ideas of the age.

It is almost as if the architectural principles of the Rockefeller Center were so shocking that the decorative art – wearing its symbolic significance as clearly and boldly as any art has ever done – was required to detract from it. Although the metro was routed underground only after the building was completed, its rationale emerges from the subterranean parking spaces. Oval circulation connected by ramps. The lower shopping concourse is effectively a track around which shoppers run. The mezzanines are the same. The attempts to make a complete subterranean tunnel system connecting shops is only partly delivered, passageways wander away from the lower plaza only to end  at partitions covered with signs pointing to the closest escalator up to street level.

rockefeller-center-nightEven today, the focus of the tours is the art work and the way in which the building lives up to its conception as a site of media production.  The Today Show and Saturday Night Live are still filmed and broadcast there. The only private street in New York City, leased by NBC, hosts outside broadcasts. Warner Brothers and RCA all found their homes here. In terms of the outlying buildings McGraw Hill and Simon Schuster are still tenants. In the USA, the main powerhouses of cultural dissemination outside Hollywood are in or around the building. The Rockefeller Center is the world’s first monument to media.

Looked at end-on the central structure of the Rockefeller looks not like a rocket as my guide Kim said. Perhaps it is presumptuous of me to disagree with a man whose band When People Where Shorter supported REM and 10,000 Maniacs when they played at the Radio City but I feel bound to. It looks less like a rocket and more like an antennae or to be more accurate a sculpture of an antennae. In the end the Rockefeller is not a beacon for a new world as was intended but a beacon for the exciting life of the rock star, TV writer or a dancer, reaching out if not as far as the mid-west then at least as far as New Jersey; it signalled the reconstituting of old class conflicts in a new way and sign-posted where the opportunities and social conflicts of the 1960s would take place. It is also the first sign of the faith in media as a social palliative; an issues that now confounds America’s relationship with technology.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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