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A Walk for the Optimistic Modernist: From MoMA to the United Nations

Great modernist architecture and design, in form and function, should be uplifting, utopian, and optimistic, embed with hope for the future. Some people loathe modernist architecture, but it's usually a dislike directed toward the sort of buildings that have corrupted and ravaged this hope, structures that end up crushing the human spirit rather than uplifting it. For fans of sleek International Style and postwar design, and I am one of them, a walk connecting several fine modern buildings and public spaces in Midtown can lift up the spirits.

An architect friend, a self-professed fan of modernist architecture, claims New York is still basically a 19th century city. He has a point. Many of us spend our New York days surrounded by less-than-modern buildings, from the residential townhouses dating from the mid-19th century to cast-iron buildings popular in the 1870s and 1880s to Beaux-Arts-style commercial buildings and monuments. We're well-versed in Gothic Revival, Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne, and Roman Revival. In many places, however, such as in Midtown, the historical trends in architecture from the 19th century to the present are often assembled in the visual field all together at once. The older buildings often nicely set off the modernist ones and vice versa.

From A Walk from MoMA to the UN
Lever House, Park Avenue and E. 52nd St.


This self-guided architectural walk from MoMA to the UN highlights the promise of New York at mid-century and the civic optimism of the postwar years.

The walk begins at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), a symbol of the modern movement and one of the first American museums to advance modern art. The term "International Style" derives from the name of the book by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, a treatise on the landmark 1932 exhibit at MoMA that defined the emerging global trends in modernist architecture.


View Midtown Treasures in a larger map


A few walking notes -

• Two buildings considered masterpieces of modernism serve as focal points of the walk. The first is Lever House (1950 - 1952), a glass-box building by Gordon Bunshaft of the firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, at the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 53rd St. At the time it opened, the Lever House, designed in part to showcase the cleanliness of Lever's soap products, heralded the much-delayed arrival of the International Style in the U.S. Fifty years or so after its construction, the green-tinted Lever House looks humble in the company of nearby giants. Across the street, on the southeast corner of the intersection, the more imposing Seagram Building (1954 - 1958) by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (and Philip Johnson) at the corner of E. 52nd and Park Ave. The steel and bronze skyscraper, set back from Park behind sleek fountains, stands as a paradigm for the well-made modern glass office building. (Until September 30, a giant teddy bear lives here.)

From A Walk from MoMA to the UN
Seagram Plaza, with Urs Fischer's "Untitled Bear/Map" on temporary display 

• Don't miss the groovy Doubletree Hotel (see related post from March 2009) at the southeast corner of E. 51st and Lexington. Originally named The Summit (later, Loews New York and after, the Metropolitan, before the Doubletree), the hotel was the creative inspiration of architect Morris Lapidus. Opened in January 1961, the building seemed way outside the limits of New York architectural tastes. The building also seemed out of place among its more restrained modernist neighbors. It's fun and beach-like, from the same architect who designed Miami's The Fontainebleau in 1954.

• Well-designed pocket parks can function as an oasis in the city but also serve to foster public democratic culture. The walk encompasses two of the most serene - Paley Park and Greenacre Park. What makes them work? They both have places to sit alone or converse with others, movable chairs, soothing water features (and the waterfall in Greenacre Park is unexpectedly grand!), accessibility to the street but still away from it, and the availability of nearby food. All these ingredients add up to a successful urban space.

Greenacre Park: From A Walk from MoMA to the UN
Greenacre Park, 51st St.

From A Walk from MoMA to the UN
At E. 51st St. and 2nd Avenue -  the sort of eclecticism typical of many areas of the city. Older buildings at street level; modernist high-rises all around. In the far background, the Art Deco Chrysler Building.  

• The United Nations complex (see related post), built in 1949 and 1950 on seventeen acres, symbolizes international utopianism. Like Rockefeller Center, completed a decade before, the buildings were designed by an international committee of architects. The main building housing the Secretariat is based on a design by Le Corbusier.

From A Walk from MoMA to the UN
The United Nations headquarters, currently undergoing extensive renovations

• Two great movie stars, Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn, are evoked in this walk. Look for the sign indicating Katharine Hepburn Place at the corner of E. 49th Street and 2nd Avenue and the garden at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza. She was a longtime Turtle Bay resident and neighborhood activist who loved flowers. I'll let you discover the Audrey Hepburn reference yourself (more fun that way), but look for a sculpture in another little urban park on E. 44th St. near the United Nations. Audrey, while best known as embodying one of the most famous New York women, actively served as a UNICEF ambassador.

Beaux-Arts/Egypt Mission: From A Walk from MoMA to the UN
Beaux-Arts Institute of Design/ Permanent Mission of Egypt to the United Nations

• After leaving the UN complex, look for the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design at 304 E. 44th St. (above) The building, constructed in 1928, was designed to train designers in the style of the École des Beaux-Arts. By the time the school was constructed, the modernist movement was staging a revolution against the ornamental trappings of the established school, and the traditional skills and accompanying design philosophies were fading out. The Beaux-Arts Institute of Design building now houses the Permanent Mission of Egypt to the United Nations. How rich is that?

Read the companion post: Scenes from a Visit to the United Nations.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from April 2011. Coming next - a tour of the United Nations.

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