Skip to main content

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.









Popular posts from this blog

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had

Circling the Met: A Springtime Visit to Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For a double feature of art and nature, the Metropolitan Museum of Art happens to be conveniently situated in Central Park. The front of the museum faces Fifth Avenue, its monumental wings stretching the blocks between E. 80th and E. 84th. The sides and the back of the museum are within easy walking distance of several prominent landmarks within the park.  Cedar Hill in Central Park Before a visit to the Met, consider taking a walk around the museum beginning on the southern side. A walk in the park can serve as a good preparation for a museum visit, because looking at or noticing the shapes and colors of the built and natural environment can enhance the art experience. Cedar Hill in Central Park The path south of the 79 Street Transverse leads to a scene at Cedar Hill very much like a panorama, with a vast wide-angle expanse of green grass and hill. Take the first path that leads back over 79th Street to the southern side of the museum. This path brilliantly disguises the motor traffi

MoMA in Masks

Update. Beginning September 28, MoMA will require all members to reserve tickets in advance.* Walking into the gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c 1920) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Saturday afternoon, I saw a woman seated on a bench. She was looking at the artist’s dreamy depiction of his garden at Giverny, and I thought for a moment she might be dreaming as well. As she was the only person occupying what is usually a packed room for fans of Impressionism, I was hesitant to invade her private garden reveries. At MoMA I would enjoy my own such private moments with my favorite MoMA works that afternoon, including Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911). The painting depicts a colorful and geometric fairy tale of peasants and animals, memories of the artist’s childhood home outside Vitebsk. And I had a long time to feel the scorching sun of photographer Dorothea Lange’s Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), a setting closer to my hometown. Later I wou

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge:  "The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apr

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima