New York City Architecture

Instructor: Ela Poursani

Ela has taught college Architecture, Interior Design, and Culinary Design and has a doctorate degree in architecture.

New York City has a spectacular and inspiring architecture. In this lesson, you'll learn about the prominent buildings, debates, and architectural styles that make up this architecture.

New York: Architecture

New York City (NYC) has a spectacular architecture that spans many centuries and styles created by influential architects and groundbreaking debates. NYC is defined by its architecture, but architecture is redefined with NYC, too. As a city that sets trends globally, NYC has always pushed the boundaries of architecture. Let's focus on this powerful, pioneer, and popular city, and its role in architecture.

NYC Skyscrapers
Skyscrapers of New York

Classical New York

Before the 1880s, NYC meant Manhattan Island, which was a seaport. It changed to a crowded and chaotic metropolitan city with the Industrial Revolution when millions of people emigrated to America. As a tiny island delimited within a grid street plan, Manhattan needed to expand upward, which resulted in its skyscrapers and famous skyline.

In its vertical growth, NYC has taken in classical architecture. Architects ornamented their buildings with features like arches, vaults, and columns borrowed from the classical styles. Today, the City Hall (1812, Renaissance Revival) and the Woolworth Building (1913, Gothic Revival) which inspired the first zoning law (1916) in America are examples of the classical NYC.

In the 1910s, buildings were constructed in the Beaux-Arts style where the Greco-Roman and Baroque architecture were taken and built higher. With their monumental and flamboyant looks, the Public Library (1911) and many structures in Central Park demonstrate the characteristics of the Beaux-Arts.

Art Deco eventually replaced the revivalist Beaux-Arts in NYC. Art Deco was a radical decorative style characterized by geometric shapes, zig-zag patterns, and streamlined forms inspired by machinery, like the cars of the 1920s.

Empire State Building
Empire State Building

Today, the most famous skyscrapers of NYC, including the Chrysler Building (1930), the Empire State Building (1931), and the Rockefeller Center (1939) are examples of Art Deco. These buildings along with countless apartment houses and public buildings have made NYC the Art Deco capital of the world.

Modern New York

The 1920s brought a drastic change in NYC architecture. The International Style emerged in NYC which was even more radical than Art Deco in embracing the machinery and industrialized mass production. The International Style promoted a new, modern, universal, and utilitarian architecture characterized by simplicity, rationality, functionality, and absence of ornamentation.

The ideas of the International Style were originated from the Bauhaus and transferred to America by its architects who had to escape from Europe for political reasons. In NYC, those modernist architects designed boxy skyscrapers with new materials such as steel, glass, and reinforced concrete.

The Seagram Building (1957, Mies van der Rohe) is considered to be the best example of the International Style. Greatly influencing the 1961 NYC Zoning Ordinance, it became the model for skyscrapers and set the standards for modern architecture all over the city (and the world).

Seagram Building
Seagram Building

Equally important, the United Nations Building (1952, Le Corbusier), the Guggenheim Museum (1959, Frank Lloyd Wright), and the Whitney Museum (1966, Marcel Breuer) are iconic buildings of modern NYC.

Architectural Debates

During the building boom of the International Style, the most famous debates of architecture took place in NYC. In the 1960s, a modernist plan for demolishing the Beaux Arts style Pennsylvania Station stormed a protest. Penn Station was eventually replaced with the Madison Square Garden, but this protest led NYC to establish laws for architectural preservation.

Also in the 1960s, prompted by the preservationist Jane Jacobs, another protest saved lower Manhattan from demolition. This created a grassroots movement which kept many of the most precious neighborhoods of NYC from destruction. With its stance in stopping urban demolitions, NYC inspired many other places in the world including Boston and Toronto.

New York After-Modernism

In the 1970s, when the Museum of Modern Art held a series of exhibitions in NYC, another debate was sparked between the ''Whites and Grays''. The Whites were the supporters of Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier, or the ''New York Five,'' and the Grays were a counter-group of architects including Robert A. M. Stern, Charles Moore, and Robert Venturi.

Both groups were against modernism and determining architectural form by function (like keeping a text simple with minimum words). Instead, the Whites created form by dismantling, distorting, dislocating, and deconstructing the building elements such as structure (like displacing words in a text). The Grays brought back history and incorporated meaning and signs in architectural form (like using metaphors in a text).

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