The Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza: a monument to democracy

by Lucas Gray - McGill University

“…We will get the inspiration and spiritual rewards out of our buildings that we put in them…What we are recognizing in these buildings is that we have an aesthetic nature - that we have cultural values, and that these values are what lifts us up above the scurrying ant heap of those absorbed only in survival, and make us a society touched with Divine Grace.”
- Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller at the dedication of the Empire State Plaza, November 21, 1973 (Halicarnassus 106)

Originally called the Empire State Plaza but later renamed for the governor who initiated the project, this complex is one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in modern United States history. It took over fourteen years to complete and cost almost 2 billion dollars as it was constructed from 1965 to 1979 (Corgliano 7). Nelson A. Rockefeller’s goal was to create a massive group of buildings that would centralize all of the government agencies in Albany, as well as beautify the downtown area. With this goal he hired architect Wallace K. Harrison to make his idea a reality. As part of the new complex he wanted to create a vast public space for large gatherings. This idea first struck the governor when he hosted Crown Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands who was on a state visit to the USA (Halicarnassus 106). Rockefeller was embarrassed when their limousine drove through the squalid red-light district of the decaying city to reach the Governor’s Mansion and the capitol building (106). With the construction of this new urban centre the downtown took on the appearance of a modern and attractive city - fit to be the capital of New York State.

However, this design, said to be in the international style, also brought on vast criticism. Many critics believed that the architecture had symbolic links to fascist and centralized powerful governments (…). Rockefeller approved the plans of this complex in order to show the world that he was a powerful leader and that New York State is one of the most important and dominant states in the United States. In a way these critics were correct; Rockefeller was indeed looking for architecture that demonstrated the power of his government. In the Empire Plaza, Rockefeller created a monument to democracy much like in Washington D.C.

There was great effort put into to the decision of where to build the Empire State Plaza. Rockefeller had several ulterior motives for building such a large complex of new buildings for the state government. The expanding government needed new office space, but this was secondary to the goal of slum clearance in Rockefeller’s mind. He cared about the appearance of the downtown area more than anything else and that is why the plan of the plaza was designed to stretch out directly south of the state capitol (“The Empire State Plaza” 3). There was a committee in charge of the site location and they chose a number of more practical sites than the one eventually used, but Rockefeller wouldn’t accept any of them. Rockefeller wanted a stunning approach to the capitol and the Governor’s Mansion for diplomatic visitors. When he looked south out of the capital he saw acres upon acres of low-income housing and felt it was a black eye for the capital of the state.

At first this location seemed to be ideal for beautifying the decaying downtown. However, this decision soon turned out to be disastrous. The location was a shallow valley that leads towards the river and is filled with sedimentary clays (Halicarnassus 106). This was terrible for the structure needed for such a massive complex. The supports had to be sunk over 80 feet deep in order to reach bedrock strong enough to support the massive weight of the concrete and steel structures. The procedure of sinking the supports was one of the primary reasons this project went over the estimated budget by such a large margin (106) – almost 4 times the initial allowance.

As well as the terrible land conditions, this location was unfavorable for social reasons. The plaza displaced thousands of lower income families living in these alleged slums (Newhouse 245). At first Rockefeller included low-cost housing as part of his plans for the renewal of the downtown area. This housing project would have only been a small relief to the growing need. Unfortunately he only planned to build enough housing for less then half of the amount of citizens being forced to move. However, this is a moot point as Rockefeller scrapped the housing plan, complaining that it was too expensive (246). His argument was offensively weak. The housing was estimated to cost $20 million, only one percent of the final cost of the plaza, which ended up costing almost two billion dollars - approximately one and a half billion dollars over the original estimated cost.

The more likely reason he scrapped the housing plan is that the new apartment buildings were going to be built in the underdeveloped part of Albany on the east of the plaza. This would have blocked some of the view of his plaza from the Hudson River, which would have taken away from the grandeur of the elevation (248) – and the east façade is incredibly grand with a giant 5 story stone wall looking like a colossal dam holding back flood waters. Although this new plaza was being built as a public space to revitalize the downtown area, Rockefeller was so caught up in the monumentality of the whole formation that he disregarded the practicality and usefulness of it. Pedestrian access is surprisingly difficult from the surrounding neighborhoods and buildings.

The main axis of the plaza runs north south, directly through the state capitol and parallel to the Hudson River. The river was significant because it must be crossed in order to reach Albany from the east. To reach Albany from the north or south you had to exit off of route 87, which also runs along side the river. This means most travelers approaching or passing through Albany were presented with a stunning view of Rockefeller’s plaza. Ships that navigated up and down the river would also gaze upon the dazzling complex.

The capitol building in itself was a highly regarded work of architecture and Rockefeller wanted to use this to his advantage. By situating his plaza so the capitol closed off the north side he placed this historical building at the apex of the plan. Everyone walking along the plaza would have a view of it if they looked along the main axis. The whole plaza was created in order to glorify the government of New York State and there is no better way to celebrate democracy than to create a public complex that places the capital at the head.

To close out the southern end of the plaza Harrison originally designed a memorial arch, much like the one in St. Louis, Missouri. However, as different government agencies pushed for new upgraded office space the plans were altered to include the Cultural Education Center. This futuristic looking 8-story structure is home to the New York State Library, the State Archives, and the State Museum. It also has a theater and a large events room overlooking the plaza to the north and a large park to the south.

The Cultural Education Center actually rests on the opposite side of the street than the remainder of the plaza. However, there is a large, extremely broad set of steps that form a bridge over the road and descend to the south side of the plaza (“Empire State Plaza: Design for the Future.” 9). These steps also act as seating for public concerts and other cultural events held on the plaza. There is a raised marble stage at the foot of these stairs, aligned with the north south axis. This set up shows off the magnificence and monumentality of the entire plaza as it provides a backdrop for the performances.

The entire complex consists of ten buildings set up on a 5-story platform, whose roof becomes the plaza. The plaza is highlighted by three reflecting pools along the axis and is bounded on the west by the four Agency buildings, and on the east by the soaring Corning Tower and the so-called “Egg” - a performing arts theater. Behind the agency buildings is an incredibly long building called the Swan Street Building. This structure acts as a wall separating the Plaza from the surrounding neighborhood. The Cultural Education Centre, raised on its own platform, is at the south end while the 19th century State Capitol, in the French Renaissance Revival style, closes off the north end. Two additional buildings frame the capitol on north end - the Justice Building and the Legislative Building.

The three reflecting pools with a solitary line of fountains marking the center accentuate the main axis. In the center of the third reflecting pool, the closest to the cultural education center, there is a large black metal sculpture by Alexander Calder that ends the line of fountains. This sculpture is one of many that Rockefeller commissioned to beautify his plaza. Throughout the entire complex there are various works of contemporary art, including a portrait of governor Rockefeller by Andy Warhol. One of the primary uses of the unused space in the concourse on the second level of the plaza is for art exhibits and shows. These exhibits and showcases are important because they bring art of the modern era into the eyes of the public. Most people don’t go out of their way to go to art galleries but by bringing art into the place they work or visit gets them to see things they normally neglect. This is another way Rockefeller made this into an important public space as far as the city’s culture was concerned. A large permanent collection graces the walls and is one of the largest collections of modern art outside museums.

Besides the obvious, large structures that outline the plaza there are many other particulars that Rockefeller insisted on including, all of which he designed himself. Most of these details had the common goal of making the plaza more enjoyable for the masses. Running parallel to the reflecting pools are raised platforms on which rest carefully trimmed trees, and grassy areas. Built-in to these platforms are benches for citizens to sit comfortably in the shade to observe the plaza, eat lunch, or read a book. He also insisted on including sculpture gardens, a playground for children, a place for senior citizens, a restaurant with glass walls, and many large installation artworks (“The Empire State Plaza” 6). He was passionately obsessed with the appearance of the plaza. He wanted it to be a beautiful place that would bear his name for numerous years to come. Like Rockefeller Center in New York City, he wanted to leave his mark permanently on the state capital of New York State.

Every aspect of the plaza was designed for use by large numbers of people. Rockefeller wanted this to revitalize the downtown by drawing people there. He wanted large gatherings to assemble at the plaza and designed it in such a way that this was possible (“The Empire State Plaza” 4). The broad steps below the museum doubling as seating is a perfect example to demonstrate this. By turning a simple staircase into a theater proves that every part of the plaza was thought out carefully with the public in mind. The benches built into the sides of the platforms holding the trees are another example, while the broad walkways on either side of the reflecting pools is designed to allow many people to congregate and walk around. This was most likely modeled after the mall in Washington D.C. where many large rallies and protests have taken place to lobby the national government. Rockefeller was very successful in achieving this goal, as there are dozens of festivals, live concerts, and cultural events that take place in the plaza every year. They even opened the plaza for camping when the Grateful Dead passed through town in the 70s and 80s.

Entertainment was only one reason to make the plaza comfortably accommodating to large groups of people. By building this complex and thus centralizing all of the government offices in Albany, Rockefeller successfully created a place that makes it easier for the public to take an active roll in the government. Instead of having different agencies spread throughout the city in rented buildings these new government owned structures allowed people to come to one place and argue their point more efficiently to many government officials. This reinforces the ideals held true to democratic societies.

Furthermore, all of the structures in this complex are connected to each other by means of an underground concourse, which also connects them to the Capitol, the Education Building, and the other state offices in the Alfred E. Smith Building. The concourse contains shops, cafeterias, and meeting rooms that make the entire complex more efficient. It also allows people to be more active during the cold winter months by being able to move around comfortably between offices. This once again allows the public to become more involved and active in government proceedings. Another notable aspect of the concourse is that it is sheathed in marble imported from Italy (Fickies 20). This makes it glamorous and noble but also caused the cost of the plaza to skyrocket.

This compound isn’t only immense in plan. All of the towers and other structures are resting on a 5-story pedestal that creates a colossal wall across the valley when viewed from the east (“A Working Capital” 3, 4). Rockefeller was inspired by the palaces of the Dalai Lama in Tibet with their walls that would close off valleys between vast mountains (Newhouse 245). He wanted something similar to demonstrate the great power of his democratic state (247). The pedestal appears to be a vast wall constructed of large rocks out of which emerge five soaring rectangular towers, one eccentric “flying saucer” looking theater, and a futuristic looking square building. All of these structures seem to loom over and are detached from the rest of the downtown buildings situated on the north and south of the complex. It almost appears as if a giant alien city landed in the midst of a small American town. This demonstrates that Rockefeller’s government over powered the rest of the downtown of Albany.

After examining this plan as a whole we get a feeling of the vastness of the entire plaza. Narrowing our vision to the plan of the four agency buildings and the Erastus Corning Tower we get another perception of the design. From most angles the Corning Tower appears to be two rectangular boxes one being a few floors higher. After closer observation it becomes apparent that rather than being two rectangles they are actually two wedges expanding out towards each other. The Corning Tower’s diamond shaped plan accommodates the requirement for large conference spaces and a number of uniform offices on each. Around the utility core are spaces for individual offices with larger conference areas at the left center (Newhouse 251). The agency buildings mimicked this idea but approximately by a half. In the back of each, Harrison placed a triangular, marble clad utility core. Off of these supporting towers the glass and steel clad offices are cantilevered. The offices begin two stories above the plaza level, to leave the plaza open for pedestrians. By utilizing a cantilevered floor slab Harrison allowed for maximum flexibility in the office layouts. These buildings didn’t have the larger conference areas that the taller tower boasted, but were more flexible when it came to individual offices (251). The fact that the four agency buildings were cantilevered over the plaza to allow easy flow of pedestrian traffic below once again demonstrated the primary function of this as a public space.

The arts center - commonly known as “The Egg” because of oblong curved form - is the most unique and recognizable feature of the plaza. Rockefeller approached Harrison with the idea of the shape of the egg, took a half a grapefruit and placed it over a cup and said, what the plaza needs is something like this (255). Harrison liked the idea because it allowed him to steer away from the typical rectangular elevation most theaters had. He wanted to design something that could reveal the structure of the theater. The cross section reveals two auditoriums, one on each side with the stages in the center, as well as how the entire structure is lifted off the ground by a pedestal to allow people to easily move around it from the outside (256). It also protrudes far under the plaza level to allow access from the concourse, which is beneficial for the winter months. Since this building expands upward it leaves the plaza feeling very open and free.

The Plaza was controversial for a number of reasons: the dislodgement of thousands of inhabitants and businesses, the cost, and the inefficient use of space. While these practical criticisms have mostly dissipated, chiefly since the plaza is a giant tourist attraction as well as essential for local use, still the complex is often criticized on aesthetic grounds. The structural design is described as unfashionable and the buildings as pretentious. Others, however, praise the complex of buildings for not being trendy and predict this architecture will stand the test of time. For all its shortcomings, economic problems, and disconnect from its surroundings the plaza is an efficient space that is truly monumental. Visiting it and wandering around the plaza and concourse is an amazing experience and shows the true power of architecture. At times it makes you feel small and insignificant and a moment later you feel like you are standing on the edge of the world overlooking the city flowing towards the Hudson River. The interiors are grand, impeccably well maintained and filled with fantastic art. About 30 years after it was completed the entire project is in fantastic shape, feels new and the architecture truly has stood up to the test of time in both durability and style. Having worked in an office there for a few months over a summer I can testify that it was a joy showing up to work every morning, lunching near the fountains and perusing the art collections during breaks. Architecture is ultimately designed for its users and in this case the design seamlessly integrates bold aesthetics with incredible functionality.

Works Cited
• Corgliano, Linda J. “Two Changed, But Strikingly Similar Skylines: A capitalistic report on the architecture of Brazil and New York State.” O.G.S. Visitor’s Assistance (August 1990).
• Fickies, Robert H. and Dinnen, Robert J. “The Use of Industrial Materials in Construction of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza”.
• Newhouse, Victoria. Wallace K. Harrison, Architect. Rizzoli, New York, NY. 1989
• “A Working Capital For New York State.” Office of General Services: A. C. O’Hara, Commissioner.
• “Empire State Plaza: Design for the Future.” Office of General Services: James C. O’Shea, Commissioner
• “Halicarnassus on the Hudson” Progressive architecture (May 1979): 106-109
• “The Empire State Plaza” Office of General Services: A. C. O’Hara, Commissioner.

Popular Posts