Raymond Hood did not live to see the completion of the vast Rockefeller Center complex. An untimely death in 1934 at the age of 53, he had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. His architecture practice had already slowed down, largely due to the economic effects of the Great Depression. He worked on a project to house the poor, but the finances for the project didn't materialize. More shocking, he received a letter threatening to kidnap his children. Gravely concerned, especially at the time of the Lindbergh tragedy when others received such threats, Hood sent his family to Bermuda and followed them a short time later. Upon hearing the news that the perpetrator had been caught, he collapsed, and after returning to his home in Stamford, Connecticut, he never regained full health.
Rockefeller Center is still unequaled as a grand modern urban plan, at least one so popular with the public. Though the buildings share some uniformity, the variation of taller and smaller buildings within the development, the art deco visual touches, and the artful design elements of the plaza combine to create just the right amount of theatricality. It's not too much. It's what we mean when we use the word "elegant."
In thinking about comparable urban developments of our own era, the kind that fuse private economic power with state ambition, the extraordinary projects in Abu Dhabi and Dubai come to mind, or maybe, the building of contemporary Berlin. But what new projects await Gotham? Well, several developments of some scale are in the works - the High Line/Hudson Yards redevelopment projects on the west side of Manhattan, Atlantic Yards in downtown Brooklyn, designed by Frank Gehry, and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site downtown.
Still, whichever of these large projects come to fruition in this uncertain economy, contemporary architects and urban planners could learn a few lessons from Raymond Hood's skills and visionary design. A trip to Rockefeller Center is a start, watching people take pictures of friends and family in front of the fountain and enjoying the scene of people falling down on skates. Sure, the Rock's often crowded, but isn't that precisely the point?
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