Revealing the Empire State Building
It’s the scale that gets you, as the horizon becomes a memory.
In a jet lagged haze, I stare through a window, laying prone on a stretched out sofa in my front room. I gaze at terraced houses, adorned with chimneys and swaying TV aerials which underscore a blue sky. Yet, for a split second I am taken aback. As I finally halt my homebound trajectory and sit still, the sky becomes a brief beige, punctured with abstract black and grey squares, before snapping back to its semi-permanent sky blue.
For 6 days I had been negotiating my way around the grids of Manhattan, utterly in awe of the most incredible architecture the globe has to offer. Often lacking in beauty, the iconic skyscrapers of New York score highly in the sublimity stakes. Whilst the skies of residential Cambridge (home) share equal billing with bricks and mortar, complementing and reinforcing each other, in Manhattan the soft summer sky is firmly placed as a backdrop. The relentless moving associated with transatlantic travel, with an entire day sliding by before we pumped the brakes, created a disconnect. Whilst my mind was still bathed in the noise and grime of a New York minute, my body floated atop the stasis of relative Cambridge calm. The sky before me was a temporary skyscraper.
In Manhattan the sheer repetitive verticality of the offices and condos enables much to be lost, hidden and obscured. A well groomed beard strutting out of gnarled, rutted skin, the New York vista presents a cohesive whole of glinting steel and glass. However, much like the oil paintings of the pre-modern period, the majority are found wanting, for not every skyscraper is a masterpiece. A building which would dominate the skylines of most cities is easily lost amongst a scrum of verticality.
Yet, saying this, there are some real gems… obviously. You know what they are. The Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and One World Trade Center are globally renowned, iconic examples of American architecture. These share the limelight with other influential, yet slightly less renowned examples, such as the pearl-like optimism of The Oculus adjacent to the World Trade Center and the high standard of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. However, there is one building which is instantaneously synonymous with the thrusting boosterism of high-rise architecture and is perhaps the most recognisable building in the world; the Empire State Building.
Call it a hunch, but I doubt there is a building anywhere which has had its image reproduced as much as the Empire State Building. To enter the homeware section of Primark, H&M or TK Maxx is to be, more often than not, greeted with images of this icon printed onto posters, canvases, bed sheets and ironing board covers. Even a picture of its construction, the one with the construction workers eating lunch whilst balanced on a steel girder, is one of the most famous and recognisable images of the 20th century. When I was growing up, my mum even had it framed on our kitchen wall.
28 years on from when that picture was first hung, I found myself clattering over the crumbling asphalt of a Queens highway en route to the corner of 44th & 8th, whilst straining to see through the restrictive windows of a yellow people carrier. Given the celebrity status of the Empire State, I was half expecting it to stand tall and shine like the north star, yet, this was a somewhat naive assumption. As we crested one of the numerous overpasses which vault over Brooklyn, the skyscrapers of Manhattan emerged, distorted and obscured by a combination of low grey cloud and a crumpled plastic sheet — a hangover of covid-19 which separates driver from passenger. Although it didn’t register, this muffled view would be my first sighting of the Empire State Building and, vicariously, would set a theme for the next 24 hours. As referred to above, given the nature of Manhattan’s built environment even the most monumental and iconic of structures is easily obscured at ground level.
Cities are mysterious things. They are more obscured than visible and to wander around the city is to have it unfold before you. For a city reveals itself. To adopt a bird’s eye perspective, in the thoughts of Michel de Certeau, is to detach yourself from the reality produced from the ground up. This sensation is only enhanced in Manhattan, where the jutting angularity of a skyscraper presents the ultimate impenetrable veil. Yet, this is somewhat disconcerting to the uninitiated.
For the first morning of our trip, my girlfriend and I wandered around the repetitive grids and vibrant blandness of corporate sponsored Midtown. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that the most famous building in the world could be hidden from view. I had done my research before heading to Heathrow, with evenings spent thumbing my way around Google Maps, planning my route from iconic building to iconic building — ‘I could go from 432 Park Avenue to the Seagram Building, then on to the UN building… and so on’ — so roughly knew my proximity to the Empire State. Yet, I was still to lay eyes upon it. Then a curious phenomenon began, it began to slowly reveal itself.
In most other cases, a landmark as profound as the Empire State is revealed in its totality. The Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or the Pyramids of Giza are clearly separated from that which surrounds; they are the Paris Saint-Germain of structures, with little to no competition arresting your gaze. The last iconic structure I had visited was Berlin’s TV Tower (one of my favourites) which imposed itself upon me as I left the metro station at Alexanderplatz; utterly dominating everything around. Yet, given the high-rise density surrounding the Empire State, a ground up perspective is all but impossible, it’s always obscured in some way. I first noticed this when I glanced down 5th Avenue and noticed its nickel-plated spire (initially designed to be a place for airships to dock) radiating in the humid sunlight. This first proper sighting sent a jolt through me, for after seeing innumerable representations of it, there it was! But an obscured vignette does not an experience make. Sure I saw it, but I only caught a glimpse, a wink. Yet, the next encounter would be the most surreal.
Wandering down 42nd Street we approached oasis-like Bryant Park from Grand Central, via the library. Before my trip, the American Radiator Building was high on my list of places to visit, with its unique art deco contrast of black facade and golden ornament facing onto the shaded public square. After spending half an hour or so taking in the relative serenity and an iced coffee, we headed uptown towards the Rockefeller Center, exiting Bryant Park down ornate steps onto the scorched pavement of 6thAvenue. As I turned to the right and proceeded up river, I glanced into the reflecting glass of 1108 6th Avenue, and there it was, a distorted Empire State Building reflecting back at me through a cool blue filter.
The influential postmodern scholar Fredric Jameson states that the reflective glass of ‘postmodern’ architecture prevents the outsider from seeing into a building. This produces glass that is one directional, reinforcing the demarcation between the private and the public by presenting a distorted reality to those outside. Whilst the inhabitants can see out, the pedestrian is a part of a funhouse-mirror representation of the world. It was from this perspective that I first clearly saw the Empire State’s spire. We popped back into Bryant Park and I took the below photo.
From this the Empire State would continue to reveal itself more and more. We meandered through the crowded but flowing streets of Midtown, eventually finding ourselves at Macy’s department store. After we dipped in, to sample some air conditioning and poke around the luxury handbags which populate the ground floor, we stood back outside, into the stifling air and straightened our backs and raised our heads in awe of the grand dame before us. There it was again, the Empire State Building finally dominating as I always expected it to do. We walked across the street and took a closer look. Yet, from up close, these legendary buildings (the same can be said of the Chrysler Building and One World Trade Center) lose some of their iconography, with spires and antenni rendered invisible when up close, becoming another rectilinear high-rise, distinguishable from other buildings only by the presence of tourists and signage.
For the rest of the trip the Empire State Building would adopt a spectral quality. As the nickel spire glints in the sun, paired with the haze of a New York summer, the building takes on an almost ethereal presence, emerging when least expected. Often my girlfriend and myself would turn around and chuckle as, yet again, the Empire State Building would be shining over us. This was the case when we caught our breath in Madison Square park, took in the marble arch at Washington Square (along with the omnipresent weed fumes) and, most poignantly, when we ate alfresco in Little Italy, with a nearby waiter belting out a robust rendition of New York, New York by Frank Sinatra.
Maybe it was the overconsumption of mozzarella on my baked ziti or the glass of Chardonnay which came with it, but I couldn’t help but think of what it would have been like to grow up and live there, before the onset of gentrification, when the neighbourhood was a working class enclave, home to a diaspora striving to ‘make it’. To have this resplendent presence glowing in the distance, I thought, would be to have an anchor; the north star shining bright. It was from this position, on the ground in Little Italy that I got it, the allure of this building, the monumentality. It was then when it sunk in, I was in New York city and there was the Empire State Building, finally revealed in all its glory.
By Will Brown
All pictures taken by the author.