Behind the scenes at Rockefeller Center.

What we build.
Dec. 14 2005 7:10 AM

Flags Snap, Heels Tap

The holiday glory of Rockefeller Center.

30 Rock provides the seasonal backdrop 
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30 Rock provides the seasonal backdrop

The Christmas tree is up again at Rockefeller Center. And behind it, as always, is 30 Rockefeller Plaza, once known as the RCA Building. RCA is my favorite Manhattan skyscraper. It strikes a perfect balance between drama and engineering. It's not as flighty as the jazzy Chrysler, but less serious than the dour Seagram. Raymond Hood's masterpiece is all verticality, like a Gothic cathedral, and, as with a cathedral, as the building soars we soar with it.

The impact of RCA can't be separated from the 22-acre ensemble of which it's a part. Most attempts to design large chunks of American cities have foundered. San Francisco's Civic Center lacks, well, a center; Boston's City Hall area is generally considered a failure; Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway was never completed; and the less said about Chicago's superblock public-housing projects, the better. Rockefeller Center, on the other hand, is an undoubted success, urbanistically, architecturally, and economically.

Attilio Piccirilli, Youth Leading Industry 
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Attilio Piccirilli, Youth Leading Industry
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Why has Rockefeller Center succeeded where so many other urban mega-projects have not? Of course, it's a great location, right off Fifth Avenue and across from St. Patrick's Cathedral. There is also the synergy of its parts—the office buildings, the underground shops, Radio City Music Hall, the Rainbow Room. Others would point to the compression of the outdoor spaces. Rockefeller Center ruthlessly maximizes its three-block site. Most of the buildings follow the sidewalk lines—no windswept plazas here. Instead, there is a narrow pedestrian walkway, a closed-off piece of street, and a sunken skating rink. Not much, but it's more than enough.

Nor should one underestimate the architecture. You can have great buildings without good urban design—think of Wright's Guggenheim Museum—but you can't have great urban design without great architecture. The success of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, for example, is a function of the marvelous buildings that surround it; just as the failure of the central space of Lincoln Center is attributable to the heavy-handed architecture. Rockefeller Center's architecture is coherent, self-assured, and glamorous. In Vincent Scully's inimitable phrase: "Flags snap, high heels tap: a little sex and aggression, the city's delights."

Lee Lawrie, Mercury
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Lee Lawrie, Mercury

Rockefeller Center is also a rare example of a happy fusion of modern architecture and modern art. Walls, entrances, lobbies, and plazas are adorned with a profusion of murals, reliefs, carvings, and statues. What is remarkable about the art is how fully it is integrated into the very fabric of the buildings. Three examples only: Attilio Piccirilli's cast glass (Fascist) figures dominating the entrance to the International Building North; Lee Lawrie's intaglio Mercury, flitting across the facade of the British Empire Building; and Lawrie's gilded and polychromed limestone Sound and Light, carved right into the wall of RCA. Can one imagine an architect today who would allow artists such liberties?

Lee Lawrie, Sound and Light
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Lee Lawrie, Sound and Light

Rockefeller Center, which was designed in the 1930s, represents a special moment in American architecture. Hood, though trained in the tenets of the Beaux-Arts, was open to new styles. While influenced by European fashions, particularly Art Deco, he did not consider himself an International Style modernist. Why would he? Le Corbusier, Mies, and Gropius had done nothing remotely as large and ambitious as a Manhattan skyscraper, let alone Rockefeller Center. Hood's designs were modern in a particularly American way: technologically refined, commercial, brash, and distinctly nonideological. But after World War II, the moment passed. Euro-Modernism came to the fore with a vengeance (resulting in the banal westward expansion of Rockefeller Center). Hood's brand of design fell out of favor. To walk around Rockefeller Center it to see a great example of what might have been.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.