Monday, July 02, 2012

Book Review: New York City Landmarks

New York City Landmarks, photographs by Jake Rajs, text by Francis Morrone
Antique Collectors Club, 2012
Hardcover, 236 pages

What are the new New York City landmarks? The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, Central Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge obviously spring to mind when considering the city's tried-and-true landmarks, but this book by photographer Jake Rajs with historian Francis Morrone spurs consideration of the city's 21st-century landmarks. It's a loaded question because, outside of official designations coming from New York City's Landmark Preservation Commission, the label is one that comes from a building or space's longevity and its appreciation by both residents and tourists. To call something a landmark, legal label or not, is to see the city and the landmark in synonymous terms: Think of New York City and the Statue of Liberty comes to mind; think of the Statue of Liberty and New York City comes to mind. But can the same thing apply to new buildings and spaces?

Of the 76 entries, I count around 15-20 entries dating post-2000. Defining this number is complicated by the fact that many of these 21st-century buildings are additions or renovations to historical structures, such as the Morgan Library & Museum, Hearst Tower, the Museum of Modern Art, the High Line. Like the city itself, these projects have evolved over time, gaining more buildings as they gained more land, adding amenities in response to contemporary times, renovating buildings or infrastructure for other uses, whatever the case may be. So a count of ground-up, post-2000 buildings (like the historical structures mentioned at the beginning of this review) brings us to a third of that, five or six, maybe seven. Buildings designed by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and SANAA are accompanied by a memorial in Lower Manhattan, twin-ish towers overlooking Columbus Circle, and two cubes: the Apple Cube and the Rose Center for Earth and Space. The defining characteristics of these new landmarks during a time of prevailing stylistic pluralism are attention-getting facades, lots of glass, and a desire to stand out from their neighbors. If they will still be landmarks in 75 years, just as the Chrysler Building is now (initially it was greeted with lukewarm reception), certainly remains to be seen.

This search for 21st-century landmarks illustrates that this guidebook offers plenty for travelers, not just the same old historical structures. Rajs and Morrone acknowledge the changing facets of the city; the former turns his camera on these attention-getting buildings while the latter tempers his usual distaste for contemporary architecture (people may remember his articles at 2 Blowhards). They are both adept at highlighting the best the city has going, be it the formal aspects and plays of light upon a building's surface or peeling away the historical layers to present obscure but remarkable stories about a place. With its handsome photographs and skillful descriptions, it's a book that is as fitting a memento as it is a guide.