The Chrysler Building: Art in Transition

June 29, 2008

During the late 1800s, as architects and structural designers were learning how they would incorporate the then-new advances in the composition of metal, the skylines of cities in Europe and America began to transform. The Chrysler Building came to be recognized as New York’s most recognizable skyscraper, conveying an optimistic look toward modernity through its use of new materials and visual themes which adapted to practical purposes.

Built in 1930, the Chrysler Building by William van Alen is a monument that represents art in transition. Unlike painting, literature, or music, architecture is practiced within the confines of real-use application, and depends the most heavily on science among the above-mentioned arts. When architects and engineers gained the ability (and desire) to build higher, for example, they had to keep human/social aspects of the use of spacing in mind. For example, New York adopted zoning rules which required super-tall buildings to be tapered at the top so that the street level wouldn’t be suffocated by the blocking of sunlight.

The Chrysler Building as seen in 1931. The building is placed at the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 42nd street, Manhattan, New York. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery:

As I interpret it, the building clearly does not conform to its surrounding aesthetic, and neither does it convey the notion of clarity and logic through straight lines and industrious spacing that would characterize later works. To this extent, The Chrysler Building is a transitional piece. Ian Sutton’s contribution to the “World of Art” series, Western Architecture, places the building in such a context:

Between the purely commercial products of Art Deco, the Odeons and the Roxys, and the more serious, high-minded Modernism of Gropius and the Bauhaus, there is a middle ground which shares something of both. Like the latter, the architects in question also believed in the future (or at least the present), but for them ornament was no crime. The new materials, steel glass, reinforced concrete, were an opportunity, not a discipline. They favoured the curve rather than the straight line (the style was nicknamed ‘Streamlined Moderne’); it was chic, it was up-to-date, it was avant-garde with a touch of elitism, the perfect background to the jazz age.

Speaking of the jazz age, a few auteurs—notably Fitzgerald—come to mind. And actually, I can see how this building for some New Yorkers might have represented an embrace of futurism, technology, and success (even in the midst of the 1930s). For four months, the Chrysler Building was tallest building in the world (a title overtaken by the Empire State Building. (I am reminded of today’s climate in which the status of tallest building—whether in Taiwan, Dubai, Chicago, etc.—changes hands during and shortly after construction). The building is decorative, romantic, non-economical. Sutton describes the technological environment that made such buildings possible:

Three new inventions made it possible to build higher One was Elisha G. Otis’s perfection of his elevator, an essential requirement for tall buildings. Another was Sir Henry Bessemer’s new process of manufacturing steel, an alloy that provided greater strength with less weight and had tensile properties lacking in cast iron. Both these inventions date from the 1850s, but their effect was not felt until the 1870s. The third was the development of fireproofing for the iron (later steel) frame.

The Chrysler Building under construction in 1929. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery:

In the future, I will look at architecture characterizing periods before and after the Chrysler Building’s reign. Though, the building remains one of the tallest in New York City, which implies that such a reign never ended (if you are judging such things by height). Later buildings would be less decorative and seemingly more judicious in its use of space. It is possible that the spirit which inspired the building’s was stifled in part by the economy (the depression erupted in 1929), or other more “pragmatic” reasons for not producing such buildings.

1. Sutton, Ian. Western Architecture: From Ancient Greece to the Present. London: Thames & Hudson; 1999. 311, 322.