The Architecture of Politics


Interboro took another field trip today, this time to Albany, NY. For one reason or another, Interboro decided it would make the most of the two or three hours it had by exploring the city’s hardcore modernism, of which there is plenty. Interboro didn’t know this before hand, but its first stop, Wallace K. Harrison’s and Max Abramovitz’s (and Nelson Rockefeller’s) famed Empire State Plaza is the most expensive government complex in the world ($2billion), surpassing Chandigarh, and even Brasilia. Was it worth the price? Of course not, though Interboro was flattered to learn that, as a citizen of the fine state of New York, Empire State Plaza belonged to it as much as anybody. Anyway, it’s a real pleasure to gawk at, and is certainly worth a visit. In fact, the experience of driving through it (and one does, quite literally drive through it), is worth the trip alone. If ever there was a city that should be experienced from the highway, Albany is it; driving west from Rensselaer, one crosses the Hudson before encountering what looks like a heavily fortified modernist castle wall. A disproportionately small tunnel leads you inside, where an array of underground parking garages beckon. Avoiding them leads you out, and before you know it, you’re in downtown Albany. It’s incredibly cinematic. Interboro wonders to what extent Wallace K. Harrison was influenced by castle architecture.

The plaza itself (which, it turned out, we had driven under) was a trip. Interboro has never been to Brasilia, but Brasilia can’t have that much on Empire State Plaza, whose modernism is unrelenting. If you’ve never seen it, its dominated by three reflecting pools, bordered on the west by four identical modernist slabs (Agency buildings), and on the east by a tall modernist slab and the “Egg.” The Cultural Education Center, raised on its own platform, is at the south end while the 19th century State Capitol closes off the north end.

Remarkably, at least on the outside, the Plaza was immaculately maintained; compared to, say, Government Plaza n Boston, Empire State Plaza looked almost fresh. Granted, the place was barren as hell (today was a scorcher), but it sure looked nice, which is twice what you can say about that Boston atrocity. Maybe it was the travertine.

Inside – or, rather, downstairs (the plaza is actually the roof of the six-story “castle” we drove through earlier) was a different story. Not only did it look like a dead mall, it smelled like a dead mall: musty, as if it hadn’t been aired out ever. Poking around some of the rooms brought on more of that “time has passed this place on” feeling so familiar to so many shopping malls. Interboro is particularly fond of the pictures it took of the “conference center.”

After a brief stop at the State Office Campus, Interboro went to the University at Albany, which was designed by Edward Durell Stone in 1964. The 400-acre campus follows a symmetrical plan, with a large plaza in the center, administration and classroom buildings surrounding the plaza, and four dormitory towers at each corner of the campus. A highpoint of “defensible urbanism,” the campus was designed for the express purpose of controlling a “riotous” student population.

What did Interboro think? First, it’s massive. Really, awe-inspiringly massive. Second, it’s so massive, it’s tough to think of anything intelligent to say about it. Third, it was lovely in its own way. Stone certainly wasn’t stingy with the greenery, which is more than you can say about Harrison and Abramovitz. Whatever, look at the pictures!