Skyscrapr’d

There’s not a little irony in the truth that, for all my constant ranting about metropolitan experience, Nurri is a much better ferreter-out of a city’s secrets and joys than I tend to be. I may display some remaining usefulness when it comes time to manage the logistics of actually getting to these attractions, but almost invariably she’s the one that finds them in the first place. This is just as true of our hometown as it is of any other place in which we touch down.

Last weekend she took me to a place I had never even heard of, the Skyscraper Museum downtown. As small as the space is – so tight that it seems a little grandiose to call it a “museum” – I thoroughly recommend the trip to any fan, critic or user of urban verticality.

And not merely because there can be no such thing as too much Hugh Ferriss in my book, either. The show that’s on right now, the first third of an omnibus called Future City 20 | 21, strikes me as a very useful reminder that in many ways, and for whatever its glories, the twentieth century should probably be considered the prehistory of the very tall building.

The installation looks at the historical development of the skyscraper typology in New York (and, to a lesser extent, in Chicago) as prelude to upcoming episodes devoted to the form’s current native environments, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The inescapable sense you walk away with is that the entire body of built work in this mode has merely been about getting the basic engineering details down, that only now does the delirium truly begin.

Or at least can begin, wherever cheap money, labor and energy continue to flow, an envelope of contraints which largely excludes the cities of North America. Even before September 2001, we’d turned against XL here, in no small part due to that current of righteous Jacobianism so alive in American urbanist thinking of the last forty years, and it turns out that the twenty-first century offers many environments more hospitable to the progressive development of the form than those of its birth. (I suppose a Skyscraper Museum installation on Dubai will eventually become inevitable, but the less said about that regrettable place, the better.)

The show is a trifle short on curatorial connection-making – honestly, I’m not sure how much I would have gotten out of the walltexts had I not had a longstanding interest in the topic myself – but it does manage to bring together in one place at one time an impressive variety of wonderful artifacts. If nothing else, it sure is frontloaded with fabulous futurist visions of the early twentieth, from circa-1908 visions of the beguilingly multi-layered City of Tomorrow to rare footage from 1930’s half-legendary Just Imagine and the inevitable 1939 World’s Fair.

There are shocks, too. Although I had a low opinion of it at the time, and in absolute terms I continue to feel that it was an inappropriate solution for the site, a particularly painful aspect of seeing a circa 2003 model of the first Freedom Tower design is how much better – more daring, more innovative in every way – it looks than the current, utterly and tragically banal iteration, i.e. the one that’s actually going to get built.

Finally, for an institution of any size, the Skyscraper Museum has an unusual and very welcome theory on how to do giftshop. They’ve got the usual variety of t-shirts, tchotchkes and kulturkitsch – red-white-and-blue commemorative WTC lapel pins, for example, from the badly overrated Paula Scher – but they’ve also got a really great book selection, augmented by the staffers’ own forays into bookstalls, flea markets, and online auctions. I picked up an immaculate ex-library copy of Philip Nobel’s problematic but useful Sixteen Acres in hardcover for next to nothing, and Nurri grabbed the reasonably hard-to-find catalogue from a 2001 show called On the Job: Design and the American Office.

So, yeah, if you’re planning a visit to NYC I’d certainly recommend putting this place on your list of things to do, especially if you were going to see Ground Zero anyway. The New York segment of “Future City” runs through the first week of January 2008, and then the exhibit’s attentions turn east. I can only imagine that it will help put things in some much-needed perspective.

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