Wally’s Vision, from Clay to Concrete

“It is hard,” said Wallace K. Harrison, the chief architect of the South Mall, quoting Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi.  Harrison wasn’t referring to the tons of concrete poured for the structures; instead, he was referring to the numerous design and construction complications faced by the architects and engineers of the South Mall.  He believed the resulting complex was extraordinary.  His patron, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, agreed.  At the 1978 rededication ceremony, Rocky told reporters, “Well, every time I see it I’ve got to say, honestly, its more beautiful than I anticipated it could be.  It’s quite a thrill.”

Wally, as he was known, was bound to Nelson through marriage, previous commissions, and the Rockefellers’ philanthropic largesse.   As the architect of some of New York City’s most celebrated and dazzling buildings, among them Rockefeller Center, the Metropolitan Opera House, and the United Nations, Harrison’s reputation lent luster to the South Mall.  The problem was he was beholden to Rockefeller and seems to have accepted the post almost as a personal favor to the Governor.

It is difficult to determine which elements of the design originate with Rockefeller or with Harrison.  Each spoke of the other as the visionary.  In his unpublished memoir entitled, “Builder: A Personal Memoir of Nelson K. Rockefeller,” Wally tells us that he could not remember when Nelson first discussed the Mall with him, but he recalls that the Governor sketched his concept on the back of an envelope while they flew together from Washington to New York.   That sketch has not been found.  While the Mall’s signature elements were indeed conceptualized by Rockefeller, they were realized in concrete, marble, steel and glass by Harrison and his firm, Harrison and Abramovitz.   

Harrison with George Dudley. Used by permission of the Times Union.

The Governor’s aesthetic stamp marked the very foundation of the project: the platform that reached north to south, described by Harrison as “a bridge between State Street and Madison,” that paralleled the Hudson River.  According to Harrison, this “great wall,” which “would separate the Mall into a kind of community,” was inspired by the Governor’s visit to Tibet.  “[T]hat was one of the main things he kept asking for, as it developed….I think that entitles him to be called a designer or architect,” Harrison opined in an oral history conducted just as the South Mall was completed, in 1978.  The fanciful structures Rockefeller sketched reminded Harrison of Brasilia and Chandighar, with towers, an ovoid shape, and reflecting pools.  The broad demands of the Governor may have been fanciful and futuristic to most Albanians, but to Harrison it evoked a “conservative” design, one in keeping with the great architectural traditions of mass and scale.

Harrison’s most detailed explanation of his contributions are to be found in his 1978 oral history, archived at Columbia University.  In it, he recalled that he was not involved in many aspects of planning, including site selection.  He described the South Mall redevelopment area as “a fairly dismal site. “[T]hey cleared it off, cleaned it up.  They hadn’t gotten the housing out of there, but it was cleaned up so you could see the whole thing from standing up, even in the Capitol, you could look out and see what the whole site was.”  As with the clearing made for his Manhattan projects, Harrison expressed little concern about the relocation of the site’s inhabitants.  “No.  I don’t know why people have had so much trouble clearing sites.  We’ve never had any trouble….[T]hey had a good man to go through it.”  In his memoir Harrison notes that the State Division of Housing and Urban Renewal assigned a social worker, who had grown up in the area, to spearhead the relocation effort.  As for the initial stages of the project, Harrison was struck by the engineering difficulties presented by the foundation.  Gelatinous blue clay had plagued construction of the Capitol and would vex the engineers of the South Mall.  “[T]he minute we started drilling into the ground we found out what we were up against…. [W]e knew we were in trouble.”  If you left clay in a shovel by accident, “the next day it was a solid piece of stone, and you’d have one hell of a job getting it out of the shovel.”  Inflation did not concern Harrison much, either. A 1973 article quoted him as dismissing rising costs as “par for the construction course.”  Keep in mind, however, that both Harrison’s oral history and especially his Rockefeller memoir sought to justify slow pace of construction and the cost overruns by placing blame, correctly or incorrectly, on the challenging topography, the rising cost of building materials, and the scarcity of labor.    

With legislators, at the 1973 dedication, Harrison is to Rockefeller’s right. NYS Archives.

Harrison’s role in the project was central as a manager and coordinator, and though he was designated the principal architect, he did not actually design any of the buildings.  Seven architectural and engineering firms were employed on the project.  As the overall architectural coordinator, Harrison was responsible for the aesthetic unity of the complex.  It remained for him to, in his words, “get the building right for the site, then join it with other buildings.”  His firm that had final say on all designs and materials, as well as the exterior design choices, from the planters and plantings to the paintings and sculpture that dotted the complex.   A persistent thorn in his side was the free rein granted to state legislators, who wanted to select their own architect, style, and artwork.  “We are afraid that it will be attuned to the Mall…and be too modernistic,” wrote Secretary of the Senate Al Abrams on behalf of a committee of legislators who would occupy the building.

Harrison maintained that the Mall was very much a team effort.  When Rockefeller offered him the job, he told Harrison, “I have got to have a group of people working on Albany, because it’s a very big job, and we need to give work to a lot of people.  It’s got to be spread around the state.  You cannot have it all coming from New York City.” Important features of the complex originated with local architects, particularly George Dudley.  It was his notion, for example, that the Swan Street Building (which houses the Department of Motor Vehicles), would be of the same scale as the townhouses to its west.  This would “let the mall spill over into the community rather than divide it from the community like a moat.”  Nevertheless, the main engineering, architectural, management, and construction firms all were from New York City, with the exception of some of the initial planners hired by the Temporary State Commission on the Capital City as part of a national search.  According to Harrison, these were “some of the best city planners in America.”

Enormous concrete c-clamps hold the form of the building in a viselike grip, as the steel front of each building is suspended in the air. NYS Archives.

It was Rockefeller’s idea to incorporate one of Harrison’s unrealized skyscraper designs into the South Mall plan.  The four agency buildings are modeled on Harrison’s c-clamp design, the cantilevered construction of which was viewed as an engineering marvel.  When he discussed the Mall’s design, Harrison balanced his praise for the engineering innovations, such as the construction of the Egg, with his love for some of the details.   By details, he was not referring to ornamentation.  For Harrison, there was beauty in the spacing of the buildings.  He was also proud of the texture of the complex, as a whole.  He loved the smooth pools of water between the buildings, the tile patterns on the platform floors, the “curves, snake curves, and that sort of thing, [which] give you a shade of play and light on the flat.”

Used by permission of the Times Union.

Since it was first unveiled, the design of the Empire State Plaza has been skewered by critics.  Paul Goldberger of the New York Times dismissed the buildings as “a compendium of clichés,” though he allowed that the four Agency buildings, taken together, were “not unimpressive as a piece of minimal sculpture.”  Progressive Architecture described the complex as “monumental, megalomaniac … a naïve hodgepodge of barely digested design ideas.” On the ground in Albany, opinions were mixed. A Times Union reporter observed that while some passersby “winced visibly” at the construction, others thought it was  “beautiful.” Recently, the project received a sort of backhanded redemption in the New York Times.  As one of the world’s “most hated buildings,” contemporary architect Annabelle Seldorf gave it a hard look.  “I know that others find it too brutal or forbidding, but I think it’s beautiful in its monumentality and starkness.”  Wally might appreciate that Seldorf’s praise is accompanied by a photo of his beloved Agency buildings.

Three of the Agency Buildings in the foreground. NYS Archives.

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