New York architecture: Five buildings to see

We asked Martin Filler, author of the Makers of Modern Architecture series, for his take on the lesser-known gems of New York architecture.

  • Photograph: Alvina Lai

    University Club

  • UN Secretariat Building

  • Photograph: Nicolas Lemery Nante

    TWA Flight Center

  • Photograph: David Shankbone

    The former American Folk Art Museum building

  • Photograph: Chris Cooper

    The Juilliard School

Photograph: Alvina Lai

University Club

Gotham’s skyline is dotted with buildings that make an onlooker marvel in awe. Others are less impressive—some, downright ugly. But which structures are worth a hoot, architecturally speaking? Author Martin Filler shares his thoughts.

University Club

University Club

Built: 1899–1900
Architect: McKim, Mead & White
Unless you have high-society connections or seriously deep pockets, chances are slim that you’ll ever see the inside of this hyper-exclusive social club, which requires male members to wear a jacket and tie at all times, and forbids mobile-phone use in public areas. But there’s nothing to stop you from admiring the Classical Revival edifice from the street, where you can catch a glimpse of the luxurious interiors through the tall arched windows.
Filler: “The foremost American architectural firm before World War I, McKim, Mead & White had a bipolar identity, pulled between the suave theatricality of Stanford White and the learned gravitas of Charles McKim. The destruction of McKim’s Pennsylvania Station, which began 50 years ago this fall, remains a stain on our civic consciousness. But the University Club, his majestic brownstone palazzo on Fifth Avenue, survives—an imposing, impeccably proportioned expression of Gilded Age grandeur.”

  1. 1 W 54th St at Fifth Ave
UN Secretariat Building

United Nations Secretariat Building

Built: 1948–50
Architects: A ten-member international team headed by Wallace K. Harrison
Although some sections of the U.N. Headquarters—such as the security council chamber—are accessible on guided, roughly hour-long tours ($9–$16), this 39-story International Style tower is not open to the public. However, you can view the eye-catching construction from First Avenue as well as from the water.
Filler: “The greatest freestanding minimalist sculpture in New York is the slender slab of the Secretariat Building, with glass on its broad east-west sides and marble on its narrow north-south ends. Though the design was a collaboration among architects from several member nations who agreed that no one among them would claim credit, the U.N.’s bold office-tower monolith (now undergoing a thorough renovation) was clearly the brainchild of Brazil’s 40-year-old Oscar Niemeyer, who here gave a preview of his capital city of Brasília a decade before it would arise.”

  1. First Ave between 44th and 45th Sts
TWA Flight Center

TWA Flight Center

Built: 1959–62
Architect: Eero Saarinen
The TWA terminal, where parts of Catch Me If You Can were filmed, is closed to the public except during special events such as Open House New York (Oct 13 11am–4pm, Seize the opportunity to inspect it while you can, as there are proposed plans for the Standard hotel’s André Balazs to redevelop it into a luxury hotel and flight museum.
Filler: “Saarinen confounded critics by veering wildly in style from job to job, but here he soars above categorization. This paean to the thrill and glamour of human flight—concepts that today’s harried travelers find inconceivable—was intended to impart an aerodynamic sensation of takeoff and uplift even before you stepped onto a plane. Famously evoking a graceful bird on the wing, TWA’s swooping rooflines, flowing level changes and organic interiors morph imperceptibly from one form to the next, a marvel of evocative transportation architecture that celebrated the dawning era of mass air transit.”

  1. Terminal 5, John F. Kennedy International Airport
The former American Folk Art Museum building

The former American Folk Art Museum building

Built: 1997–2001
Architect: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien
The AFAM moved into this custom-built structure in 2001, but couldn’t afford to stay in the striking bronze building and returned to its original Lincoln Square location in 2011. The neighboring Museum of Modern Art snapped up the edifice, and announced in April of this year that it would knock it down and expand into the space, prompting a public outcry (including from TONY’s art critic and editor-at-large, Howard Halle).
Filler: “The uproar unleashed earlier this year when the Museum of Modern Art announced it would demolish this jewel-like gallery prompted MoMA to hire Diller Scofidio + Renfro—wizards of adaptive reuse at the High Line and Lincoln Center—to devise an alternative solution. The controversy proved that Williams and Tsien’s lovingly crafted gallery (now closed to the public) has countless admirers. Its richly textured white- bronze facade was deemed by MoMA incompatible with its own glassy aesthetic, but that’s all the more reason to preserve this metallic miniature amid the corporate sprawl.”

  1. 45 W 53rd St between Fifth and Sixth Aves
The Juilliard School

The Juilliard School

Built: 2006–09
Architects: Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with FXFOWLE
Originally constructed in 1969, the city’s premier multi-arts conservatory added almost 39,000 square feet of space in a major expansion that included a four-level, glass-fronted wing above Alice Tully Hall’s lobby. From Broadway, passersby can see directly into the building’s in-use spaces including a bustling dance studio and the backlit, glowing box office.
Filler: “Few contemporary designers pay sufficient attention to how their buildings will look after dark, but this firm’s exhilarating remake of Pietro Belluschi’s monumental 1969 Brutalist landmark demonstrates that architecture can wake up when the sun goes down. By cladding the new facade in minimally detailed transparent and translucent glass, DS+R reveals the busy backstage life of this renowned performing-arts institution.”

  1. 60 Lincoln Center Plaza at 65th St

Filler’s Makers of Modern Architecture: Vol. II (New York Review Books, $29.95) is out now.

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