Rebirth of Reason


The Fire Tower
by Alexandra Ceely

At one time, I believed that Ayn Rand must have based her characters in The Fountainhead on the real players in the story of the Chrysler Building. I have since learned that she had Frank Lloyd Wright in mind, but the parallels I saw years ago are striking enough that I think she must have drawn from them in some form.

Our players:

William Van Alen (Howard Roark): Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1883. He attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and in 1908 won a fellowship to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He established his practice in New York in 1911. He designed several Child's Restaurants, and a few other minor buildings, but the Chrysler Building is his only large scale, famous work.

Van Alen considered himself thoroughly modern. He once said, "No old stuff for me. No bestial copying of arches and columns and cornices. Me, I'm new! Avanti!" He was known for using new materials as well as new designs: he was one of the first architects to use Nirosta steel, a new chromium nickel alloy from Germany. After the building's completion, Chrysler made several accusations against Van Alen's business practices, which he used as an excuse not to pay Van Alen (or so the story goes). He did not enjoy a Howard Roark-like triumph: Van Alen died in obscurity in 1954.

Walter Chrysler (Gail Wynand): Born the son of a railroad worker in Kansas in 1875, he became an apprentice in the railroad's machine shops at an early age. After years of working his way up in the automobile business, he transformed the Maxwell Motor Company into the Chrysler Corporation. Over the next three years, he introduced two new lines of cars, the Plymouth and the DeSoto, and bought the Dodge Brothers Motor Company. By 1929, the Chrysler Corporation had become a leading force in the automobile industry.

In 1928, Walter Chrysler founded a corporation, separate from the car company, which would be responsible for building his headquarters in Manhattan. The land they bought had already been marked for an office building and William Van Alen had been working on the designs for some time. Chrysler commissioned the building as a monument to his own success. For many years, his original mechanics' tools were displayed in a case on one of the upper floors of the skyscraper.

Raymond Hood (Peter Keating): Born in Rhode Island in 1881, he studied at Brown University and MIT. Later studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and established a practice in New York in 1914. In 1922, he won a competition for the design of the Tribune Tower in Chicago, with a gothic revival skyscraper that harkened back to earlier ages. Not ten years later, he won a commission to design the News Building in New York: a series of black and white striped slabs that climb anonymously into the sky. Hood was now designing International Style boxes which had no ornament, no style, no soul. But the International Style was the way to go, or so said all the right people.

"T-Square (Ellsworth Toohey)": George S. Chappell wrote under the nom de plume T-Square as the architecture critic for The New Yorker in the late 1920's and early 1930's. Born in 1878, he studied architecture at Yale and later trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. As George Chappell, he was better known as a humorist and novelist. As T-Square, he was a vociferous opponent of the "old style" and a proponent of the International Style. He loved Hood's later designs - and he hated the Chrysler Building.

The fact that three of our four players all studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at about the same time leads one to conclude that they probably knew each other, or at least of each other. Since Van Alen and Hood had practices in New York at the same time as well, they almost certainly knew each other. At the very least, we know that they both showed up to a famous ball dressed as their most famous buildings: the Chrysler building and the Daily News building. These men played their own parts in the development of the New York skyline.

Walter Chrysler instructed William Van Alen to create the tallest building in New York. Van Alen succeeded spectacularly with what he called his "fire tower," a crowning sunburst design wrapped in steel and topped with a needle spire. Along with the fire tower, each setback has its own striking feature. On the corners of the fourth setback are winged helmets of Mercury made of steel - overblown replicas of the hood ornaments on Chrysler automobiles. On this same story runs a band of brickwork designed as stylized cars, with giant hubcaps placed in the center of the tires. On the 61st story setback, giant streamlined eagles, also reminiscent of hood ornaments, adorn each of the corners. For the interior, artist Edward Trumbull was commissioned to paint murals on the lobby walls and ceiling with the theme: "Energy and Man's Application of it to the Solution of His Problems." In these paintings, men work hard to produce machines for the modern age: they fly bi-planes and drive cars, and lines of energy swirl about.

Everything about the Chrysler building screams "technology," "modern man," and "industry" in the most dramatic fashion. But the critics of the day did not appreciate Van Alen's dramatic masterpiece. They were looking towards Europe, where the International Style had developed. This new architecture was simplified and totally devoid of ornament. Raymond Hood's Daily News building (1930) was applauded for its International Style design. It is a monument to minimalist design, stripped of ornamentation. Highly innovative at the time, it is lost in a sea of imitations today. The critic at The New Yorker magazine, writing under the byline "T-Square," admired the Daily News building as the best and simplest of the new designs.

T-Square was hostile to the Chrysler building. While he liked the interior, he would not accept the exterior. He said, "When the sunlight strikes [the spire] at the proper angle, it is as if someone were flashing a huge mirror in your eyes. We are not sure we like it, but fortunately, it is so far up that not looking at it is easy." A month later he definitely declared that he did not like it, saying, "It is distinctly a stunt design, evolved to make the man in the street look up." And, since it was not only a "stunt design," but not done in the International Style, T-Square declared, "It has no significance as serious design."

The Empire State Building (1931), which eclipsed the Chrysler building in height less than a year after it was built, was not an International Style building, but it was more acceptable than the Chrysler building. Most critics found the Empire State Building's design praiseworthy. The American Magazine of the Arts declared that it was one of the best modern structures, that it expressed the new imagination of the steel and machine age. This same critic asked of the Chrysler building, "Are the series of bubble forms, pricked by a metallic point at the top, architectural? Or are they merely a rather theatrical attempt at novelty?"

These critics were all looking for a new style of architecture that would be more appropriate for a new technology. They did not believe that skyscrapers should rely on design elements of an earlier age, and they were right. Modern architecture should be modern. Yet, if one were to follow the logic presented by some of these critics, the Chrysler building should be applauded as a symbol of the modern age. There are no battlements, no classic columns, no baroque tracery, no romanesque arches. The theme of the modern age dominates its ornamentation. If the critics were looking for architects to come up with totally new designs for a totally new art form, then why were they so down on the Chrysler building?

One reason was the theatricality of the Chrysler building. It was, cried the critics, showy, gaudy, tasteless. It did not sit in quiet grace and allow the viewer to behold it. It shouted to be looked at. It was a Busby Berkley musical where only dirges were acceptable. Even the entrances are huge, art deco prosceniums of black marble and steel, which draw one into the building's dark, warm interior. It is not a modest building by any means.

However, the real crux of the matter is Van Alen's audacity in putting the most spectacular, most dramatic part of his design on the top of the building, making people look up to admire it. If you look at other buildings from this era, you will find some of the most beautiful ornamentation down at street level where every passerby can see it. Van Alen's less stunning ornament doesn't start until the 28th floor, with its two color brickwork, and the helmets on the 31st floor. The majority of architects were bringing their designs down to a human level, entirely accessible to the common man. The International Style had no ornament at all, so there was no problem with where to place stunning effects.

T-Square was more right than he knew: the Chrysler Building was "evolved to make the main in the street look up." Van Alen deliberately put a shining crown on his building, a symbol of man's modern ingenuity, an homage to the industrial age. This was Van Alen's crime: to construct a building which placed man's ingenuity on the level of the divine.

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