Two NYC Exhibits Tackle the Supertall—One Stumbles, One Soars

“Urban Fabric: Building New York's Garment District" explores fashion and architecture; "Towers and Skyscrapers: From Babel to Dubai" delves into the mythology of the form.

The number of supertall buildings has already trebled in this century. With so many more of them on the drawing boards, the visual culture of 21st century urbanity is very much a work in progress. To speculate about the significance of this surging architectural form is to trade in science fiction. That is why the New York Skyscraper Museum’s edifying new exhibition, “Urban Fabric: Building New York’s Garment District,” may come off as frustratingly backward looking.  Meanwhile “Towers and Skyscrapers: From Babel to Dubai” at Barcelona’s Caixa Forum delves into the mythology and physics of the form, while never flinching at its silliness.

“Urban Fabric,” which runs until next January, explores the crossroads between two sibling icons of everyday life: fashion and architecture. It also sparks conversation on the industrial class conflict underlying both. The ready-to-wear revolution in the mid 19th century enabled efficient mass production on an unimaginable scale at a time when most clothing was stitched at home. The unfortunate (though probably intentional) byproduct of this was an alienated work force at the bottom of the steep social hierarchy known in business parlance as the “value chain”.

At the top of this ladder were the real estate speculators and mostly middling architects who, we’re told, could rise, Horatio Alger-like, by building the spaces needed to pull off a highly intricate division of labor. Whether or not these innovations were a good thing is an unanswerable question. But the ever expanding specialized floor spaces were undeniably efficient, yet they also kept laborers physically, socially, and politically separated. These low-wage pillars of progress were responsible for much of their surrounding tenement squalor. The most searing episode of labor abuse during this era is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It killed 146 people in a highrise factory, helping catalyze a long-needed countermovement. The legal structure of the time, we learn, was as hostile to the interests of workers as the structures of these hot, crowded buildings. The term “fireproof” to insurers meant that the superstructures of these vertical factories were guaranteed to survive any conflagration, not that any living being might make it out alive. But clothes manufacturing in New York’s garment district, “Urban Fabric” explains, gradually declined in the 20th century, handed off to poorer more exploitable workforces abroad. So the story ends. But why stop there? New York’s fashion industry continues to resonate. New York remains the world’s most important fashion center, the heart of a $1.5 trillion industry. It is headquarters to more than 800 fashion companies, twice that of any other city, and there are 170,000 workers in fashion sectors. New York’s fashion week may be the city’s most important event, with rival cities pressing hard to hold similar extravaganzas. Nor is clothing manufacture a thing of the past in New York. More than one-quarter of all manufacturing employees in the city work in its fashion industry. Small scale manufacturing abounds across the city, including in the present day garment district. Much of it is cleverly tucked away in the hidden corners of New York’s vast building stock, giving rise to the same aesthetic questions raised in “Urban Fabric.” In a city ever dependent on an invisible workforce, it is perhaps a fitting irony that this workforce goes missing here.

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Manhattan’s Garment District during its industrial heyday. “Behind each window,” reported Fortune in 1930, “are banks of spools, long cutting tables, long ranks of sewing machines, ornate showrooms, narrow shoulders and unshaven faces bending over films of fabric.”

The most comprehensive exhibition on skyscrapers I have ever seen, “Towers and Skyscrapers,” is very much worth seeing before it closes on September 9th. Where “Urban Fabric” zeros in on the economics of a certain type of building, “Towers and Skyscrapers” ambitiously aspires to capture the history of tall construction as it exists in the realms of fantasy and reality. As its subtitle promises, this fascinating exhibition takes us from biblical times to today’s very real speculative, ethically challenged building binge. The spires of the 21st century have reshaped the visual culture for millions of urban dwellers. They have entered the class experience of the narrowly targeted global elite they cater to, and reshaped urban districts in harsh ways for many others. While brilliantly capturing the most vertical of subjects in the most horizontal of spaces, the Caixa Forum asks the timely question of why. Fortunately this exhibit does not answer by repeating shopworn assertions about supertall buildings as solutions to global warming, or as useful tools for economic competition. Instead it looks at tall construction as a deliberate art form helped along by tectonic innovations in load bearing techniques. Tall structures may exist for the sufficient worship of some deity, to convey messages about societal strength, or an altogether intrinsic desire to break ethereal barriers for their own sake. After all, what was the use of World’s Fair construction? Their centerpiece towers, the exhibition reminds us, were built (or planned) to raise people to the heavens, only to bring them down again after nothing more than a relaxing gaze.

Joshua K. Leon’s writing on cities has appeared in venues including Cities, Foreign Policy in Focus, The China Beat, The Brooklyn Rail and Next American City. He is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College. He lives in Manhattan.

Categories: Architecture, Arts + Culture

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