Site review: New York State Pavilion, Queens

Architecture can be thought of as a mediator between mind and body: A practice of using thought to create possibilities and boundaries for the body. This is also in response to one of the problems of Modern era, which is the ever increasing disconnect between the mind and the body. While knowledge does not hesitate to renew itself, what body does is bound to unadapted values and morality creating a ‘worn out neurotic body’ (Cinema 2, Deleuze p 205). The response to this disconnect has been different in different times and within different cultures but the major confrontation place has always been large urban environments. In Paris in 19th century people were having a new experience of “fill[ing] their day fully without making it fulfilling” (Cult of distraction – p 94).

miscommunication and in-communicability is a result of this mode of being. Thought touches upon realms that it is not the zone of possible action or speech act. Making the medium of communication transparent was once considered as a solution for this problem. Modern architecture also can be thought of as a response, and an effort to create a transparent and universal medium for ‘spatial being’ by removing everything that creates ambiguity and replacing them with transparency of glass.

All new media, have been compared to language according to the degree of communicability and transparency they create. If we consider architecture as a medium that mediates the space, transparency and the possibility of new forms of communication it allows become a major critical objective in design.

New York City, in the past 100 years, was a center of such confrontation and examination of both different media and architectural forms. The architecture in New York City is a representation of this struggle. But what specifically has been interesting for me is the culmination of this phenomenon happened in Robert Moses’ development projects.

Robert Moses and 1964 World Fair site in the background

Robert Moses, was the “master builder” who was the main figure behind most of the construction projects in New York City from 1920’s to late 1960’s. Most of  the highways, parks, bridges and tunnels in New York were planned and developed by him at that era. He has also participated in the organization and the construction of two major World Fairs, as global showcase for technological solutions for modern life, in New York City in 1939 and 1964. The exhibition space for New York World Fair of 1964 in Flushing Meadows park in Queens was one of his last projects before the decline of his authority.

Most of my recent impression about New York City before moving here, were coming from the book titled ‘All that is Solid Melts into the Air’ by Marshall Berman which also deals with the experience of modernity through history, from the earliest works of literature dealing with this concept, Goethe’s Faust, to the 1920-1960 developments in New York city by Robert Moses. So I chose the New York State Pavilion as the site to visit and review.

Commissioned by the state of New York for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City (Queens), the New York State Pavilion was the largest in the Fair, and is one of the few structures from the Fair to remain standing today.

According to Galinsky website, “The New York State Pavilion consists of three main components, each with its own purpose, rather than being one single building intended for multiple uses. The largest structure in the complex is an elliptical plaza measuring 350 feet by 250 feet. This space is surrounded by 16 steel columns (each one hundred feet high), which once held up a colorful canopy that covered the plaza underneath. The ground of the ‘tent’ was covered with 567 mosaic terrazzo panels weighing about 400 lbs. each, creating the map of New York state Highway system.”

The other two elements are the observation towers and Theaterama, “a 360-degree film about the state of New York during the fair” (Galinsky), both made with steel and reinforced concrete.

The pavilion has been made with a budget of six million dollars by Philip Johnson. The building was made by the time that a shift was happening in Philip Johnson’s practice. By that time he had close relation with ‘pop art’ artist. He commissioned artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rushenberg to install paintings and morals in the Theaterama of the pavilion.

Using all these different media, from map to 360 degree film and paintings and morals, perhaps might be a reference to the rise of of attention to media in that time.

Unlike his early designs such as  Seagram building, in Midtown Manhattan, which were close to Miesian Modernist architecture, Later in late 70’s Johnson’s AT&T building (now Sony building) created a total break from the ideals of Modern Architecture, as we know it as Post-modern architecture.

The partial break from Modernist architecture is not only in the design of the pavilion, but also the concepts and symbols, including the name ‘tent of tomorrow’ which is a connection between the optimism about future and the simplicity and purity of past.

But this building is now abandoned and was in 2008 list of the most endangered sites in United States by World Monuments Fund. The major parts of it are not accessible though it is possible to get inside the ‘tent’ from a hole in the fence. The tiles with the map of New York has been removed and the stairs are destroyed from rust.

It is very interesting that nothing but skeleton has remained from this once media rich building. Being in the center of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, it is inevitable for visitors not to notice the structure, but even the strange form of the building and the rusty look of it doesn’t create much interest in the visitor to look at it from a closer distance. For the entire time that I was inside and around the structure nobody came close to the building.

The visibility of the building from the nearby highways, and the ramps that arriving visitors take on the way from JFK airport to Manhattan also creates a very interesting cinematic effect like what Eisenstein has described about Acropolis. But in this imaginary shot, at the exact moment that the camera gets close enough to the building to let it reveal itself, the ramp turns and the building gets hidden behind the trees.

New York State Pavilion, once being the representation of ideals, is another example of architectural ephemera. Ironically, Crystal Palace which was made in 1854 for the London World Fair to exhibit technological mastery of Great Britain to the world had the same fate and finally it burned down in 1936. Crystal Palace was an very early prototype of the ideas that culminated in modern architecture such as utopian enlightened transparency.

This brings us back to Marx quote (and also title of Marshal Berman’s book) ‘All that is Solid Melts into  Air’. Modern life implies that whatever that is held most dear, is more prone to destruction or being melt into the air.

With the destruction of ornamentation and media specific usages, what is remaining is the brutal forms of concrete and steel that I tried to capture in these photographs:


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