Monday, September 04, 2006

Albany: Governor Rockefeller's "edifice complex"

This 3-day weekend we decided to take a little trip to our new state's capital: Albany. Sounds like a boring, dead-on-the-weekends, bureacrats' town, I know, but nerds like us were lured by the politics, architecture and history of the place. It did not disappoint!

The most breathtaking part of the whole weekend was coming into the city at night- the skyline is incredible, thanks to the efforts of Governor Nelson Rockefeller (Gov from 1959-1973). Apparently, good ol' Nelson pretty much spent his tenure as Governor working on a massive building campaign that, among other things, resulted in the State University of New York increasing its enrollment 10-fold (with scads of new campuses and buildings to match).

His crowning achievement, at least in the way of building, was the Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, which you see pictured above. The Empire State Plaza is adjacent to- and stands in stark contrast to- the outrageously ornate and expensive (a cost of $25 million was spent over 3 decades before NY Gov. Theodore Roosevelt "declared" the building finished in 1899, without the dome ever being built!) state capitol building, which is worthy of a trip to Albany all by itself.

Rockefeller Plaza is really remarkable, though. Here is the recipe:

1. Wipe yourself a new urban canvas: In true 1960s "urban renewal" form, he started by wiping out almost 100 acres of "blight" (today we would more likely call the area "historic neighborhoods full of quaint but probably a bit shabby brownstones"); then

2. Take your sweet time: Undaunted by the highly controversial way in which the existing residents and property owners were unceremoniously displaced (we have MANY laws against this type of manuever these days), the Plaza took 13 years to build (1965-1978); then

3. Pick the most offensive style of architecture available: Although the Plaza is defensible today, with almost 40-years of perspective, its style - described as "International Power Style of the '50s"- was certainly not widely embraced in its day. Let's be frank, it looks like a 1960s-era medical office building on steroids: all sharp angles, cold colors (black & white) and materials (marble), and huge modern art installations; finally

4. Make sure it costs an unimaginable amount to build: $1.7 billion when all was said and done. 'Nuff said.

The first thing that came into my mind when I saw Rockefeller's pet project was "edifice complex" followed by "he must have been REALLY short!"

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