The Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza

August 19th, 2010


Last Thursday, I tagged along to drop some friends off at the Albany Airport. Afterward, the remainder of our group walked around the historic district of Albany starting at Lark St. Emerging from cool, tree lined streets of colorful walk-up apartments, we were greeted by possibly the most glorious beacon of modernity I've yet to see. Stark, clean, and imposing, it was obviously an aftermath of urban renewal. In reading about the architect afterward, I had to smile to see he was a friend of Robert Moses. In true urban renewal fashion, 9,000 lower-income residents were displaced and small ma & pa shops were ruined by the loss in business if not by the loss of their physical store. Like many city downtown areas in the 1960's, Albany's was blighted, worn, and inhabited in large by newly immigrated Italians and Jews. After what Governor Rockefeller saw as an embarrassing visit from Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands for the celebration of Albany's strong Dutch history, Rockefeller decided to give the seat of the state government a make-over of epic proportions.

Although, what has been lost to urban renewal projects can sadly never be reclaimed, the movement in itself interesting and deeply revealing of the aspirations and fears during that era. Aside from the Empire State Plaza, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller is remembered as a prolific philanthropist in the realms of art and business. As President of both the Museum of Modern Art and Rockefeller Center, Gov. Rockefeller, who looked oddly similar to the character Jack from 30 Rock, played an influential role in the selection of art and architecture in New York. Governor Rockefeller worked with architect Wallace Harrison to develop the impressive government plaza in Albany. Expansive, lavish, and monumentally scaled, the complex is everything an ideal of modernism ought to be. The buildings are overbearing and onerous, yet elegant and aloof. The reflective pool and stone plaza were awash with sunlight, setting an inviting atmosphere while the buildings are secretive in their monotonous repetition. The stoic Agency Buildings are balanced by the artistically expressive form of The Egg, which rightly houses the performing arts center. I felt as though I was walking through a work of art and a t-shirt and jeans seemed utterly out of place. For being an expression of democracy, the architecture had a peculiar conflicting aesthetic between Imperial importance and that of the Soviet Communists. In turn, the space made you feel both self-important and inconsequentially small.



Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

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