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The Heart and Soul of Buildings: Architecture as Experience

0d6d80f68c0b625a9730654d355e5863This month, we’re focusing on the experience of architecture. We welcome our special guest blogger, architectural historian John Kriskiewicz, Assoc. AIA, who takes us on a journey through two iconic New York buildings to illustrate his views on “architecture as experience.” 

A native New Yorker, John holds a professional degree in architecture from Pratt Institute and is a board member of DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State.  Over the past two decades, he has taught courses focused on architectural and planning history at Parsons School of Design, The Cooper Union, Fashion Institute of Technology, Stern College for Women, and Manhattan College, while designing tour programs and lectures for many of New York City’s institutions and corporations. His many exhibitions and articles have revealed history and preservation issues to a broad audience. John admits to a special affinity for New York’s extensive infrastructure, as well as its Mid-Century Modern heritage.

“When I enter a dwelling, I experience atmospheres one after the other – sequences of light and shade, of narrowness and space. There is a scenography, a dramatic structure for the space. Architecture is great cinema.We design buildings like films, whose power lies in leading us through worlds and catching hold of our emotions.”  – Architect Thomas Willemeit of the Berlin-LA-Beijing firm Graft , 2015

The importance of scenography and sequence was understood by architects trained according to Beaux-Arts philosophies at the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. They knew this carefully choreographed procession through space as “marche”, the French verb “to walk”.

“Marche” is the sequence we experience at Carrère and Hastings’s New York Public Library of 1911 on Fifth Avenue.

Ascending a set of broad stone stairs, from the level of the sidewalk, to a spacious terrace, we are encouraged to pause a moment to take in our surroundings, just above the heads of the crowds on the avenue behind us. In front of us, we survey a wide, white marble façade. The triple arched entry beckons us forward, up a higher set of white marble stairs, to the entrance portico. Here we are in transition, neither quite inside nor out. Through a low bronze door we are compressed for a moment, then we are released into an eruption of space. Surrounded by creamy white marble lit by both electric and natural light that pulls us ever upwards, towards the vast reading room. This most spacious, brightest, most elaborate public space, is the heart and soul of the building.

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Through this choreographed sequence of spaces, materials, and light, we’ve made a journey from the quotidian, into the realm of the intellect. An architectural metaphor for the process of enlightenment.

Often, the most dispiriting of architectural experiences is air travel. Eero Saarinen’s whimsical 1962 Trans World Airlines Flight Center, now part of Jet Blue’s Terminal 5 at Kennedy International Airport reminds us of a different era. In his words,

We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world.”

Saarinen’s concept, provided the passenger with a similar journey from the everyday into the glamorous world of air travel. A “jet-age” reinterpretation of “marche”.

For this example I must revert to the past tense. There are plans, however, that may allow us to experience what was, once more.

New York International Airport at Idlewild, planned by architect Wallace Harrison as “Terminal City”, placed TWA at a prominent bend along the circumferential roadway.

Designed to be experienced first through the windshield of a private automobile or taxi, this location was critical to the initial experience. Like the Beaux-Arts Public Library on its broad terrace, we are given the opportunity to comprehend the whole from the roadway before we enter. The building’s iconic silhouette was both a progressive corporate symbol and widely understood metaphor for flight.

If architecture is “frozen music”, TWA is Bossa Nova. Like that lyrical fusion of samba and jazz, TWA is smooth, sensual, expressive and Modern. Thin shell concrete, sinuously forms a porte coche, as we stepped from the car. Through glass automatic doors into a day lit, sculptural space, matte white circular tiles grew into fantastic forms; bridges, terraces, reception desks, arrival and departure boards. Up a half flight to a “TWA red” carpeted terrace. There, a sunken, red upholstered seating area where we could pause to survey a panorama of jet craft, through a broad, curved glass wall.

No need to descend to the tarmac to then climb up a rolling stair to the entry door of the plane, like all other terminals of the day. Instead, we walked from the daylight of the terminal terrace through white tubes awash with a luminescence whose source is hidden beneath the crimson carpeted paths. Gradually ascending, our destination was momentarily hidden by the arch of the tube, and then revealed: the “flight wing”. Here once again, daylight poured through glass walls and “jetways” connected directly to the aircraft.

From automobile drop off to aircraft, a seamless journey, made memorable by attention throughout to space, form, color, material.

From different eras, designed for different functions, yet The New York Public Library and The TWA Flight Center share that unmistakable, memorable quality of architecture as experience.