The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream
The Pan Am Building and the reaction to it signaled the end of an era. Begun when the modernist aesthetic and the architectural star system ruled architectural theory and practice, the completed building became a symbol of modernism's fall from grace. In The Pan Am Building and the Shattering of the Modernist Dream, Meredith Clausen tells the story as both history and cautionary tale—a case study of how not to plan and execute a large-scale urban project that seems especially relevant in light of the World Trade Center and the ongoing discussions over what should be built in its place.
The Pan Am Building was despised by many as soon as the plans were announced in 1958. The star power of the celebrity architects—those deans of modernism, Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi—overrode critics' objections. When construction was completed in 1963, it became more than an architectural question; this "mute, massive, overscaled octagonal slab," as Clausen describes it, built over Grand Central Terminal, blocked the view down Park Avenue, created deep shadows where there had been sunlight, and poured 25,000 office workers on the sidewalks each morning and evening. As Clausen tells it, the story of the building—which was undistinguished architecturally but important because of its location and its moment in history—encompasses the end of modernism's social idealism, the decline of Gropius's and Belluschi's reputations, the victory of private interests over public good, the revival of architectural criticism in the press (both Ada Louise Huxtable and Jane Jacobs emerged as prominent and influential critics), the birth of the historic preservation movement, and the changing culture and politics of New York City.
About the Author
Meredith L. Clausen is Professor of Architectural History at the University of Washington, Seattle. She is the author of Pietro Belluschi: Modern American Architect (MIT Press, 1999.)
"Clausen has rifled through the archives and peered behind the glass curtain of mid-century modernism to spin a gripping tale of financial and aesthetic hubris run amok.", Tom Vanderbilt, Bookforum
"Clausen's saga should be read by every New Yorker who cares about the city's future.", Julia Vitullo-Martin, New York Post
"Clausen's fascinating study focuses on yet another modernist symbol, one that is still very much with us, despite its status as first among 'the buildings New Yorkers love to hate.'"—WBUR
"From the birth and life of one of Manhattan's most detested icons, Meredith Clausen spins an engrossing tale that shows how large iconic projects in New York City all too often get built: through a complex dynamic of manipulable zoning statutes, real estate economics, and corporate image-making. This is also the story of how the extraordinary personal hubris of public officials can provoke ineffective, if voluble, interventions by municipal agencies, the popular press, and the public. If you think that the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site is at all unusual, read this book."
—Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University
"Are you one of the millions of people who hate the Pan Am building? Read this book!"
—Christopher Gray, "Streetscapes" columnist, New York Times, and author of New York Streetscapes
Winner, Trade Illustrated Category, 2006 Association of American University Presses (AAUP) Book, Jacket, and Journal Show.