In the 1968 film Coogan's Bluff, Clint Eastwood plays Walt Coogan, a rambunctious Arizona deputy called upon to extradite a fugitive who has fled to New York City. The story presumes to draw its dramatic tension from the contradiction of a rangy latter-day Wyatt Earp making his way in Gotham, presented in the film as a redoubt of seedy hotels, pill-popping scenesters, and criminals emboldened by the torpor of liberal permissiveness. And of course, what more striking way could there be to mark Coogan's passage from the desert West to the big, modern metropolis than to whisk him in from JFK via twin-rotor helicopter and set him down right in the heart of midtown, on the roof of the Pan Am Building? There's Deputy Sheriff Coogan, serious as a stepped-on snake, strolling across the heliport—the summit of Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi's corporate colossus—in his cowboy boots and country-western suit. He might as well have been walking across the surface of the moon.
When the Pan Am Building was completed, in 1963, we learn from Meredith Clausen's meticulously well-observed, elegiac study, it could legitimately claim to be the world's biggest, most ambitious, most staggeringly modern edifice: It boasted the largest mortgage ever, the most steel ever ordered for a single construction job, the largest internal transportation system (sixty-three high-speed elevators), and more square footage than any other office building. Not only that, but it was designed to hold as many people as the entire city of Butte, Montana, and had its own special automated centralized telephone exchange, the world's first. Its heliport was the highest in the world. And to top it all off, it was designed by the academic giants Gropius and Belluschi, European émigrés with storied pedigrees.
How, then, did the Pan Am Building become perhaps the most loathed structure in New York's history, the Waterloo of modernist architecture in the United States? Why is it that what should have represented the apogee of a career for two accomplished architects turned instead into an embarrassing footnote that judicious obit writers strove to omit?
Clausen begins her tale with the heyday of Cornelius Vanderbilt's New York Central railroad, which by the early twentieth century had consolidated its power in the new Grand Central Terminal, described by the author as an "extraordinary synthesis of a complex, dynamic, futuristic transportation hub, a stately, monumental Beaux-Arts building, and lofty City Beautiful Movement civic ideals." Intersecting Park Avenue, Grand Central was intended as the visually uplifting terminus of a long, harmonious vista. Capitalist power flexing its muscles, to be sure; but it was also infused with a sense of civic obligation and public art. By the 1950s, however, the dream was beginning to crumble. The rise of automobile culture shifted attention and money away from the nation's railway lines, and as they struggled to meet operating costs they began to examine their extensive real estate holdings—the New York Central, for example, owned nearly a dozen blocks of prime midtown real estate. Even the space above the old, relatively short Grand Central Terminal—the "air rights"—was beginning to look precious. Wouldn't a high-rise tower be more profitable than this outmoded relic?
As proposals started coming in, from a range of architects (including I. M. Pei, whose never-published scheme called for razing the terminal and building a six-million-square-foot tower), an effort to save Grand Central, led by Architectural Forum editor Douglas Haskell, began to coalesce. Whether it was the attendant pressures or not, the developers started instead to consider plans that would essentially build around the terminal, the leading candidate being the "Grand Central City" plan, by Emery Roth and Erwin Wolfson. Roth's firm was becoming notorious for lining Park Avenue and other locales with what architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable dubbed "Rothscrapers," uninspired glass-and-steel boxes that were stepped back in whatever fashion necessary to make them fit the maximum zoning envelope. This was form-follows-finance architecture at its dullest.
For reasons that are unclear, the developers felt that Grand Central City deserved a bit more aesthetic firepower—hence the recruitment of Gropius and Belluschi, each of whom had his own motives, as Clausen notes: Gropius had always wanted to do a tall building, while Belluschi was pursuing a modernist agenda, "to shake architecture out of its lethargy, slay the 'Beaux-Arts dragon' . . . 'clear the ground for a new era.'" Perhaps fatefully, Roth was kept on the project and given responsibility for such issues as interior space planning. Indeed, despite the expensive imprimatur, this seemed to be a Roth building on steroids: a fifty-six-story monolith with a concrete facade that loomed over the terminal like a foreboding rune stone. The architects, describing the octagonal shape whose facets were meant to reduce the visual mass of the building, declared that the structure's "crystal form is bound to become, by its contrast to the many square and rectangular shapes of other towers in the vicinity, a significant new landmark of New York City."
What it was to become as well was a lightning rod for architectural criticism, a rallying point around which an entire generation of critics—Huxtable, Peter Blake, Lewis Mumford—gathered to hurl invective. "Into one of the most congested square half-miles in the world a new building of colossal size will bring another 50,000 people each day," wrote Edgar Kaufmann Jr. in the May 1960 issue of Harper's. "Why was it allowed to happen? What will it do to New York?" Blake, writing in Architectural Forum in 1962, observed: "So we now find that everyone—even its builder, I suspect—is really against this huge clod rising in the middle of one of Manhattan's worst bottlenecks—but nobody seems to be able to stop it." Even before the building had a name, it had become a symbol for overcongestion, greed, and, in the words of Philip Johnson, "distressing visual ugliness and ungraceful cost accounting functionalism."
The decision by Pan Am in 1960 to adopt the building as its headquarters was symbolic of the shift in power that had occurred as the lumbering, unprofitable railroad industry, and the ways of thinking that went with it, gave way to the jet age, then approaching its zenith in terms of its cultural power. Even as a symbol, though, the Pan Am Building was deficient. As one project manager put it early on: "Although from all sides I have been told that the building would be 'unique,' different from most all other modern office buildings, I couldn't put my finger on a concept." The lobby, filled with artworks by Richard Lippold and Josef Albers, seemed to be trying too hard to compensate for the structure's overall lack of interestingness; the same was true of Edward Larrabee Barnes and Charles Forberg's wonderfully evocative, Saarinen-like lobby design—all white swooping forms and low-slung furniture and sculptural relief maps. One of the many salacious historical kernels Clausen has unearthed concerns a never-built sound installation that would have paired a work by John Cage with the Lippold sculpture on the building's west entrance: "Cage devised a system whereby the movement of people going in and out of the lobby would activate photoelectric cells; these in turn would release Muzak . . . that had been electronically pulverized and filtered in the process . . . [a] 'concert of music in three-dimensional space.'" This work, had it been realized, would have been as far ahead of its time as the Pan Am Building was soon to be behind it.
Clausen has rifled through the archives and peered behind the glass curtain of midcentury modernism to spin a gripping tale of financial and aesthetic hubris run amok, as much autopsy as cautionary tale—When Bad Buildings Happen to Good Architects. Ultimately, the most disturbing thing about the Pan Am Building was less the edifice itself than its disregard for sensitive, contextual urban design—it emerged from the most ruthlessly dehistoricizing tendencies of European modernism, itself born out of the post–World War II desire to sweep away the past and erect in its place shining monuments to the future. It was with this aim in mind that the building's rooftop heliport was installed, despite the vociferous protests of New Yorkers (this was a statistically risky form of travel, after all). As with the Concord, however, the convenience and pleasure of the few took precedence over the comfort and safety of the many—until 1977, when a fatal helicopter crash atop the building brought an end to rooftop landings. Pan Am, once the world's preeminent airline, was already beginning its descent into bankruptcy, and the crash seemed to augur not just the airline's coming demise but the final flameout of jet-age modernism. From now on, Coogan would have to take a cab.
Brooklyn-based critic Tom Vanderbilt writes frequently on architecture and design.