Earlier this month while visiting New York, I took the enclosed photo of the Met Life Building (originally known, of course, as the Pan Am Building). Actually, it was on the way to LaGuardia Airport going out of town. The reason the image seems distorted is because it was shot through the filter of the bus's tinted window.
Rising above Grand Central Station in the middle of Park Avenue, the building's location alone makes it a monumental piece of architecture. And because it was co-designed by Portland's Pietro Belluschi (along with the great Walter Gropius), I feel on some level a more personal connection to it, even though while I was attending college in New York the skyscrapers of Midtown felt far less human than my home turf in Greenwich Village.
Despite my guarded affinity (it is on the brutal side, after all) for the Pan Am, the building received almost universal derision upon its completion in 1963. After searching on Google for information about the project, I came across a website for Meredith Clausen's book, "The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream"....
The Pan Am Building and the reaction to it signaled the end of an era. Begun when the modernist aesthetic and the architectural star system ruled architectural theory and practice, the completed building became a symbol of modernism's fall from grace. In The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream, Meredith Clausen (also a Belluschi biographer) tells the story as both history and cautionary tale -- a case study of how not to plan and execute a large-scale urban project that seems especially relevant in light of the World Trade Center and the ongoing discussions over what should be built in its place.
The Pan Am Building was despised by many as soon as the plans were announced in 1958. The star power of the celebrity architects -- those deans of modernism, Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi -- overrode critics' objections. When construction was completed in 1963, it became more than an architectural question; this "mute, massive, overscaled octagonal slab," as Clausen describes it, built over Grand Central Terminal, blocked the view down Park Avenue, created deep shadows where there had been sunlight, and poured 25,000 office workers on the sidewalks each morning and evening. As Clausen tells it, the story of the building -- which was undistinguished architecturally but important because of its location and its moment in history -- encompasses the end of modernism's social idealism, the decline of Gropius's and Belluschi's reputations, the victory of private interests over public good, the revival of architectural criticism in the press (both Ada Louise Huxtable and Jane Jacobs emerged as prominent and influential critics), the birth of the historic preservation movement, and the changing culture and politics of New York City.
I'm curious what local architects (and enthusiasts) think of the Pan Am, particularly with the hindsight of history. Forgetting for a moment the previous judgments of this building, how does it look in 2006? I feel like that building's simple forms give it a degree of enduring dignity, especially since this era of modernism yielded some awe-inspiring architecture. But I'm not sure how many others out there would feel the same. Belluschi is revered here, and deservedly so. But what do y'all make of this one?