Empire State Plaza — of Future’s Past

A local architect offers an appreciation of Albany’s oft-derided modern buildings

Until now, it’s been almost impossible to find a good review of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza that dominates Albany. Built between 1965 and 1978, New York magazine called it a “Daliesque nightmare.” Some criticized it because it was built by a megalomaniacal governor; it pushed aside romantically earnest slums; and it suffered cost overruns, delays, and a dash of corruption. (And the pharaohs were nice guys with a few weekend home improvement projects?) Others think the ESP just looks weird. So what? Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower when it was first built.

The idea for the plaza came about after Gov. Rockefeller felt embarrassed when showing Albany to a Netherlands princess. Rockefeller — with his modern tastes — and architect Wallace Harrison (whose previous projects included the UN, Rockefeller Center, and Lincoln Center) together laid out a grand scheme to give Albany a visual identity. For better or for worse, it worked.

The Empire State Plaza is a compilation of modernist buildings that gesture toward the French Renaissance State Capitol Building on its northern end. The old capitol was built in the late 1800s by famous architects, including the Beaux Arts-trained H. H. Richardson. His heavy, earthy-colored masonry edifices, which drip with detailing style, spawned the adjective Richardsonian. (The Capitol Building, incidentally, had its own set of scandals and delays.)

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The plaza appeals to me because it is a futuristic vision built with great optimism. In many ways, it could have been a set on the original Star Trek. In plan, it is classical, with strong centrality and balance. Vertically, it is all modern. On the west end, small towers appear as rising glass wedges suspended above ground on stone spines, their repetitive monumentality reminiscent of the stone heads on Easter Island. To the east, the Corning Tower mimics the same glass skin of the small towers but with a bladelike slenderness that reaches even higher. The affectionately/derisively named “Egg” punctuates an otherwise rectilinear composition. And to the south, the modernity of the New York State Museum balances the neo-French Renaissance Capitol Building.

I like all styles of architecture, and have never felt the need to pick one as a favorite. I prefer that whatever style an architect chooses should be as pure in its aesthetic vision as the laws of God, the laws of man, and the laws of economics allow. ESP achieves this. It looks dated now because we currently like to affect older historical styles. Give ESP another 40 years and it will no longer be old, but venerable and — perhaps — an authentically quaint vision of a hopeful future.

The ESP reminds me — and only I will mean this as a compliment — of Italian fascist architecture of the 1930s (epitomized by the Esposizione Universale Roma complex, known as EUR, in Rome). Both ESP and EUR transformed styles of the past into modern materials. Both were built as a powerful prophesy (albeit one not realized), saying that our best days were not behind us, but lay before us. But as Yogi Berra reportedly said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Either way, Albany has its identity.

Michael Molinelli, AIA, is an architect who lives in Briarcliff Manor with his wife and three children. He has had his own firm in the Hudson Valley for more than 20 years (www.molinelliarchitects.com).

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