Sunday, January 25, 2009

Urban Disobedience

Everyone has a favorite building. We may not have consciously thought about it, but we all have that building that we associate with our own happiness. Maybe we had a good experience in that building, maybe we like the story behind the building’s construction, maybe it was the first building we looked up at after a goodnight kiss, or maybe we genuinely admire the architecture of the building…whatever the reason may be, I encourage you all to think about the building that makes you happy, the one that you associate with a great moment in your own history or the history of the world.

After having been fortunate enough to see and experience the breathtaking Renaissance cathedrals of Europe, the colorful Buddhist temples of Southeast Asia, and some of the most historic religious structures of the three Western religions in the Middle East, I come back home for my favorite building. The Flatiron Building, just south of 23rd Street between Fifth and Broadway, here in the greatest city in the world, is unequivocally the building that does it for me. Whenever I find myself in need of some inspiration, a little pick me up after a tough day of work, or if I just need to spend some time away from my apartment, I find myself heading straight towards the Flatiron Building. I equate this to some sort of perceptive, sympathetic, well-cultured magnetic field.

So why this admiration for such an odd shaped piece of architecture? Could it be the beautiful limestone and glazed terra-cotta fa├žade that references the three distinct sections of a classical Greek column and is adorned with ornate symbols of the classic style? Could it be it’s proximity to Madison Square Park and the incredible photo ops that it offers? Could it be the commonly held beliefs that the building was New York’s first modern skyscraper and the first building to built in its trademark triangular shape (both of these notions are actually flawed as the first skyscraper in New York was the Park Row Building completed in 1899, and the first triangular shaped building was the Gooderham Building in Toronto, built in 1892; the Flatiron was not completed until 1902). Could it be the symbolic nature of the building and all the attention that it receives in popular culture (Sprint television commercial, David Letterman credits, Spider Man movie, etc.)? Could it be that the awe-inspiring artistic luminance that eminates from the building on a cool, clear evening?

The short answer to all of these questions is yes, but there is something more. Something more deeply psychological, more deeply philosophical, more personal. As I have previously noted, NYC is a grid city through and through. We appreciate the grid for its convenience, its comprehensibility, and its symmetry. There is something mathematically beautiful about right angles and parallel lines. But as in life, the most consequential experiences come when we are taken out of our comfort zone, when our previously held notions are turned on their head and we are exposed to new schools of thought and new courses of action. The same goes for architecture, and there is no better example than the Flatiron Building. With its unique shape, the Flatiron throws conventional notions of architecture and building to the wayside. It turns its nose up at the steel boxes that dominate the New York skyline. It potently disregards the orthodoxy and obstinance of our beloved grid. It represents true architectural rebellion in a city where rebellion has become more a good topic of conversation than a call to action. Where else in this city can you so clearly see down two avenues at the same time (it doesn’t hurt either that these avenues happen to be Fifth and Broadway)? What other building comes to such a dramatic point at the intersection of three so historically and commercially important roads.

Oscar Wilde once said that “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” The Flatiron Building is the architectural archetype for such a view. Progress is not achieved through comfort. Beauty is not achieved through convention. Inspiration does not come from the standard. I guess it’s no coincidence, then, that I find myself time and time again wandering towards the Flatiron.

1 comment:

  1. I always wanted an office on the curved side of the Flatiron building (on a high floor of course). I want to put my face next to he rounded window and get that wide angle view of NYC in action. I want to see the traffic coursing right at me and then suddenly splitting in two down the avenues.
    Let's make a date to do it
    P.S. Love the blog