Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Garry Winogrand’s “Park Avenue, New York”

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See image of Garry Winogrand’s from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In a 1959 black-and-white photograph by Garry Winogrand entitled Park Avenue, New York, our camera line of vision starts from an image-producing apparatus in the car behind or mounted on the back of a Chevy convertible with folding top down in the muggy summer, traveling on this most prestigious of Manhattan thoroughfares. The car is halted at a red light. Its passengers are a man, a woman, and a monkey. None of them is looking at the road ahead. The blank-faced male driver and his equally expressionless front-seat female companion are unaware of the camera’s gaze. Each of them distractedly stares backwards, askance, in the direction of the opposite sidewalk, and at nothing. Tight-lipped and crouched in the cramped cockpit of this vehicle of the era of immense tail fins, we see only the couple’s heads and shoulders. The full-bodied agile monkey with long arms, thick tail, deep eye sockets and relaxedly agape mouth sits sovereignly astride the back cushions of the front seat. The simian is the focal endpoint of the lens’ sightline. He is wholly dimensional and present, his robust reflection patently visible in the driver’s rear-view mirror. The viewpoint of existentialist-humanist subjectivity is teetering in the crisis of modernism. Hesitantly reigning over the image’s background and upper half is the old New York Central Building (former headquarters of the New York Central Railroad, now the Helmsley Building), an elaborately adorned, moderately tall Beaux-Arts grande dame of the skyline. The ornate construction with “useless” pointed tower is not realistically depicted in the photo. It is out of focus and enveloped in a blinding porous haze of indirect sunlight.

Following the tradition of early architectural critics like Ada Louise Huxtable and Jane Jacobs, it has become the mainstream consensus view among New Yorkers “in the know” that the Pan Am Building is a hideous slab structure that brought congestion to the area, blocked the magnificent Park Avenue vista, and shrouded the iconic masterpiece of the New York Central Building. For me, on the contrary, the imposing midtown edifice exists in two distinct dimensions. In the kneejerk “critical” perspective, the giant erection of steel and concrete exemplifies the appropriation of my father’s mathematical genius in the service of ethically dubious Pax Americana trans-world capitalism in ascension. In a partially hidden parallel universe, the Pan Am Building is a “monster” architecture in the positive, ironic sense of issuing a challenge to the urban space of New York City – a radical illusion beyond the officially lamented (lack of) aesthetic sensibility of its builders. The structure is dense, but leaves space for movement. There is an elaborately engineered system of human circulation and interconnections between places of business and the train terminal. The many high-speed elevators and complex of escalators are complemented by the intricate passageways and tunnels leading to rail and subway service. Poised above the commuter stations, the construction bestows a nearly columnless open expanse that furnishes an austere transitory ambience to the ticketing promenade surrounding the majestic analog clock. Home on its upper floors to innumerable tiny windowless offices housing foreign currency changers and language translation agencies, the parallel universe Pan Am Building is symbolic of a secret affirmative cultural exchange of America with the rest of the world.

The edifice’s octagonal shape and east-west aligned perpendicularity to the buildings lining the north-south arranged sides of streets institute a singular communication to peers and environment. The structure shrewdly divides elitist Park Avenue into north and south segments rendered invisible on the ground to each other. On the skyscraper’s flat roof, the heliport of NY Airways offers a speedy transfer to LaGuardia, Idlewild (JFK), or Newark airports – a thrill ride to be discontinued in 1977 after a fatal helicopter crash. In Escape From New York (1982), Snake Pliskin – played by Kurt Russell – makes a nearly as perilous landing of his one-man stealth plane onto the flat top of one of the Twin Towers. My civil engineer father gave me an exclusive souvenir miniature reproduction of the Pan Am Building. It is a heavy metal paperweight ruler, coated with gold paint, divided into the horizontal part of the straight-edged strip and the vertical facsimile of the office tower welded to the middle of the physical measuring instrument. Although a prized object, I would later lose the replica into the abyss of mementos in my clothes closet.

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