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Architectural Style of the Rockefeller Tower

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 3875 words Published: 1st May 2018

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Skyscraper is a vertical small town rising in the sky with thousands of people who work in. And hundreds of thousands more who experience it and subrogate every day. According to (Renzo Piano 2000) tall buildings are firm and cocky symbols of power and ego. The Rockefeller had almost the same approach as Piano 90 years ago. John D Rockefeller had a vision to build a top of the rock monument to Manhattan, and to be his greatest gift for the people of New York. His vision began in 1928 when he least a land from Colombia University in the heart of Manhattan. The land intended to house the metropolitan Opera House. But unfortunately in 1929 a disaster struck in the nation economies. Thousands of men and women lost their savings and their jobs, and people were desperate for work. John D Rockefeller was the resolver, he decided to build the tower and the city he called his own will rise again. In 1930 the construction of the Rockefeller center began, and the project has engaged 75000 men and women to work to support their families.

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Upon it’s accomplish in 1939, the Rockefeller center became the largest private structure in the modern history. It lives in legend, the mark of a civilization greatest achievement at this time. The tower is no longer a dream center of the art, it’s a complex were all New Yorkers conjugate. Were business is transacted, were strangers meet, friends and families unite. From the top deck of the Tower, is the ultimate full-film of the Rockefeller’s dream. New York rose again, to become the acme of the global culture in commerce. The center became an epicenter of community in the heart of New York. Top the rock is more than a breath taking view of Manhattan, it is a testament of the power of this city. The vibrancy of its community, the splendor of its culture and the magnificent diversity of its people. The essay will investigate the Rockefeller tower in details, its architecture and programme. Looking if the building is harmoniously friendly and coherent with the city and in context. It’s a city within a city and one of the early skyscrapers of the 20th century and a significant icon of New York. The Seventy stories structure has changed the life of the city.


By the time the new century began, New York was a city in the process not simply of change but nearly of alchemy. The invention of the elevator in 1853 and the steel framed construction method that was developed in the early 1880’s were the most obvious propulsive. The visible forms of a city is created by its architecture and its environment. At the beginning of the twentieth century a city like New York was in the process to define itself and its identity. Over the years Manhattan was testing the type and the form of its vertical style of architecture. First example with the Woolworth building in 1910 and then twenty years later the birth of the Rockefeller center in 1930. It’s the example of New York’s greatest monumental skyscraper that was proclaimed as a national monument in 1987. It was the right time for some development to happen to refresh the economic depression after a nine years crash in 1920s’. The project employed almost 75,000 workers, the impact of a massive undertaking was felt even more on the city’s morale boosted by Rockefeller’s smart move. Construction of the original complex began in 1931, and ended in 1939. The site was subsequently enlarged by the construction of the Esso (now Warner Communication) building in 1946 and by the (Manufacturers Hanover) building 1950. Both of these structures were designed in harmony with the complex of the Rockefeller Center’s architects. Few years later the complex has been extended with new buildings on the west side of Sixth Avenue but not related to the historic core. It’s one of the most prestigious mixed used complexes in New York and America.

The project was a result of many architects collaboration, the most familiar one is Raymond Hood. Hood was one of the distinguished skyscraper architects of the America’s Metropolitan era. After graduating from MIT, Hood decided traveling to Paris to resume his studies at the Ecole de Beaux Arts. His rise to prominence came as the result of his victory in the international competition of Chicago Tribune Building in 1922 when he was forty years old. After his huge success and a lot of tall buildings under his belt, he was commissioned by John D Rockefeller to work on one of the biggest projects in New York, the Rockefeller center. Hood was the head of the associated architects who worked on the project. Including Harvey Corbett, William H.Macmurray, Wallace Harrison and Hennery Holfmeister. Both Corbett and Harrison studied as at the Ecole de Beaux Arts. And Harrison was very involved in the design work especially after the death of Raymond Hood in 1934.

The structure conferred Raymond hood, with the possibility to make one of the best projects of 1930’s artistic movement of urban style. John D. Rockefeller was familiar with the clef of the economic actuality in building modern structures. He was looking for architects to explore their full potential of the artistic movement, not tied up to the monotony of architectural modernism. What the Rockefeller center needed is nice attractive plan as much as possible with pure looking exteriors. These specifications were suited nicely with the art deco style, with the advantage of a hopeful architecture that appeared clearly in the Rockefeller tower.

The RCA tower

The architectural design of the tower was the result of many conditioning factors. On the most primitive level was the accommodation of varied tenant recruitments and the maximum utilization of available land. The architects had considerable freedom in determining the mass of their tower. The solution was the integration of three different buildings into a single structure. With more than 1,000 feet long which spans the full block between the Rockefeller plaza and Sixth Avenue. The coherence results from the limited palette of material and architectural vocabulary. All the buildings are covered with buff colored, Indiana limestone cladding with gray aluminum spandrels in the skyscraper. All have two-over one steel sash recessed slightly behind flat piers to produce a significantly cohesive impression of the precinct as a virtually one structure. The RCA building includes three different types of spandrels, all of which have a delicate Gothic arcades behind. Stepped vertically ridged spandrels appear on the building’s lateral setbacks and at the top of the NBC studios.

Leaf clusters rendered in an angular version of the art nouveau style appear in a two eyelet above the setbacks. The building is terminated with similar leafy spandrels, but with four eyelets. Lewis Mumford (A historian of the 20th century) considered these spiky terminations and the arcaded balustrade behind, as no more than architectural tension. The balustrade is usually attributed to Rockefellers’ preference for Gothic. The leaves however might well derive from the admiration of the Egyptian architecture. Some weight is given to this by the frequent appearance of the “Lotus”in the center’s bronze screens. In the timeless monumentality of the Rockefeller center is the entrance to the building which recalls such a geometric structures and symmetry as at “Temple Deir El Bahary”of Ancient Egypt. Also the aluminum spandrels were practical as well as decorative features that weighed and cost less than stone. They surmount the building’s 5,817 windows creating a significant decorative pattern within the whole exterior.

One of the things that Hood learned during his studies at Ecole de Beaux Arts that the first principle in effective urban composition was the axial plan. Which means a street or boulevard or even a formal garden surrounded by harmonious structures that leads to a clearly defined focal point. So pedestrians are guided through the passage, animating the scene and contributing to the pleasure of the city life. By far the promenade or channel gardens created at the margin of the Rockefeller center, follows the principal of the axial plan. A steeply pedestrian corridors from the East West extends the ambience of Fifth Avenue into the heart of the complex.

The RCA West

The RCA building west, is a sixteen story extension of the RCA tower that its construction began four month after the 31 story RKO building (now 1270 Avenue of the Americas) to its north. The building served as a backdrop to the Rockefeller center which is oriented to Fifth Avenue, but as the corporate front of the complex. It also shares the same materials and unique four eyelet leafy spandrels at roof levels. The RCA west is distinguished by the fact that its façade rises sheer from the sidewalk and by the stepping back of its façade around two low-rise corner properties.

The Elevators Cores

One of main factors that conditioned the Rockefeller center’s design was the New York Building code and the introduction of new elevators whose high speed reduce the number required for the building service. Actually the tower stood in marked contrast to most contemporaneous skyscrapers were zoning setbacks created a wedding cake effect. The architects were required to group high speed elevators into the center of the tower and ring the center with corridors and offices that surround it on each floor. The architects came up with the solution of grouping elevators on both sides of the corridor which totally eliminate the wedding cake effect. In addition to those regulations that all lifts servicing the building should have a setback from the main streets. The pure geometry of the Rockefeller’s functional slab was paradoxically distributed by Raymond Hood’s desires to give full rational expression.

After a big controversy debates between the associated architects, Hood finally succeed in introducing setbacks at each point of elevator elimination. And cutting out all the unnecessary spaces left and letting the building stand on its own. The progressive narrowing of the building mass maintained the 27 ½ foot relationship of offices to building core and clearly expressed the decreased number of elevators required for the upper floors. 42 at ground level narrowing to ten on the 53rd floor. The functional expressions on both the north and the south sides of the RCA building and the setbacks are pure romance on its east façade where their primary function is to dramatize the soaring 850 foot tapered shaft.

Ventilation and Illumination

John D.Rockefeller had the intentions to build a high quality business spaces. He insisted that all offices doesn’t exceed a 27 feet from a window. The main idea was to maximize the amount of daylight and air to be able to penetrate the building. The sixteen story building in the west of the RCA is benefiting with much less light, it’s almost unpenetrated by daylight. This space is less desirable for office space, it has perfectly fitted NBC’s broadcasting studios which needed no windows or any natural light. They needed a large amounts of horizontal layered spaces, the technical details of this unit were specially exacting. In order to insure soundproofing all the studios units were designed with floating insolated walls, floors and ceilings suspended and insulated from the building’s structural frame.

They operate twenty six casting studios in the building, with six auditions rooms. One studio is the largest in the world, will be more than three stories high. The studios surrounds a central control room that will be used for complicated productions. One studio for the actors, one for the orchestra and one for the sound effects. This plan of grouping several studios around the central control room, is admirably adaptable. In anticipation of the imminent application of TV technology, NBC conceives the entire block as a single electronic arena that can transmit itself via airwaves into the home of every citizen. The nerve center of an electronic community that would congregate at the Rockefeller center without being there, it’s the first structure that can be broadcast. This part of the building was a dream, it’s a media city within a 70 story building, a new instruments of pervasive culture that simply broadcast life.

The Sunken Plaza

The genesis of Rockefeller Center’s sunken plaza dates back to 1927 when Benjamin Wistar Morris was commissioned to prepare designs for the Metropolitan Opera Company. After a trip to Europe where he studied opera designs and such famous Piazzas as the one in front of St.Peter’s in Rome. Morris argued that the success of the entire project depends on the amount of increased revenue obtainable due to the creation of an open square. The sunken plaza is lactated in front of the RCA building from the east side at Fifth Avenue. A rectangular plaza about 18 feet below ground level. Having made the decent, strollers had the option of entering the shopping concourse or retracing their steps in an uphill direction. As the architects realized most people would avoid the last option. Other stairways were provided along the rear facades of the French and British buildings but these were designed as subsidiary passages.

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Aside from the open space itself, the Plaza’s focal point is Paul Manship’s bronze statue of Prometheus. Which illuminated at night dominated the center a gray granite rectangular fountain. 18 feet high and weighs around eight tons. The sculpture is covered by more than a pound of gold leaf. The plaza is one of the most distinguished achievements of modern urban design. Together with the channel gardens to its east and the private road (Rockefeller Plaza) to its west, it provides nearly two acres of open space in the dense congestion of midtown Manhattan.

Rooftop Gardens

The introduction of rooftop gardens was one of Raymond Hood’s poetic contributions. One which like the building setbacks was a paradoxical outgrowth of his functionalism. Convinced that building from should evolve from interior requirements and not from the exterior appearance. Hood designed for the tenant not for the passer-by on the street. Rooftop landscaping is not a loss of commercial space, they enhance rental values by improving the quality of the visible environment and nature. The gardens were concessions to the office workers who looked down from the skyscraper windows onto what otherwise would have been an unsightly sprawl of neglected roofs. There is a various types of gardens on the rooftops, including vegetable, rock and modern gardens as well as one for children. Inspired by the international theories of such architects as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, this combination of gardens and architecture of the RCA building was quite unique in modern times. Hood also was thinking financially not only architecturally, since the project theme is to maximize the rental values of spaces, he considered all the offices overlooking the rooftop landscape as a financial asset. Higher rents could be charged for these offices as they are more benefiting from a nice greenery view through their windows.

Does the Rockefeller executed all wishes?

According to Rem Koolhaas “the Rockefeller center has fulfill all the Manhattans desires”. Prettiness, utility and service were all combined in one tremendous project that has totally changed the life of the city. The Rockefeller center collected different values, the balance of Greek architecture, the retaining flavor of Babylon’s magnificence, and the continued qualities of mass and strength of the Romans, as Koolhaas mentioned in (Delirious New York 1978). The vertical form of the whole ensemble was meant to symbolize humanity’s progress toward new frontiers, a dear theme to Rockefeller, who sought to advance that cause through his charities.

The city is not a single existence, it’s a combination of many layers that integrates together to formulate the city. These layers includes the architecture with the people that occupies it, the streets, landscaping and monuments. All of these aspects creates the concept of an urban city. In New York, the skyscraper adopts the same concept of the numerous strata but in a different way. Rem Koolhaas described it with the word “schism” in his book (Delirious New York 1978). Which means a skyscraper consists of many layers that are not connected to each other creating an unlike form of interior urbanism. All together in one single structure that work independently and detached from the city. This concept is called a skyscraper which best described as a city within a city.

Raymond Hood believe passionately in the virtues of congestion, the balance between congestion and order. Hood was more pragmatic and willing to have a city that embraced contradictions and differences. What he wanted is to have great tall towers and smaller buildings as well. He envisioned a set-back shape for skyscraper, something that as we have now come lately to realize, was probably the best way to integrate great height and a good form.

For Hood, traditions mean nothing to him, he was fascinated by the concept of an architect designed urban future and believed that skyscrapers should be the defining structure and the city’s future. Raymond Hood’s faith and hopes in the future of tall buildings, that are widely spaced, afforded both advantages of dense and concentration and efficient traffic circulation. He was described as a ‘brilliant bad boy’. Hood remained free of any theoretical literary attached to styles, so he went after strong design inhabiting misconceptions about what an architect should be doing.

My Argument

After the completion of the Rockefeller center, people saw it as a huge success. As it presented a new means of solving the problem of skyscraper congestion. It’s not only about the image or the power of the high rise buildings, but the relationship between these structures and the urban composition of a city. As skyscrapers looks nice and tall, they also negatively impact on the city. Crating problems relating to the land, the traffic flow light and air. According to Daniel Okrent in his book (Great Fortune 2003) “the skyscraper was nothing more than a machine makes the land pay”. The vertical style of architecture that for a centuries had belonged exclusively to the exaltation of the church could now be adapted to the needs of commerce by the transformation power of technology. By the end of the twentieth century, New York has been transformed to a frightful forests of stone and steel high rise structures germinating in Manhattan. Especially in downtown where narrow streets were now shrunken and shadowed by parallel rows of skyscrapers. When you walk down in Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue you can realize how scary is to be surrounded by tall buildings, Rockefeller Center on your right, facing 1221 Avenue of the Americas by R.Hood, and the Olympic Tower etc.

When you look at the Rockefeller center, you can see the prettiness of the design and like Koolhaas described it in (Delirious New York 1978) “Beauty, utility, dignity and service are combined in one project”. Aside from Koolhaas opinion, I think if you are standing in Sixth Avenue and looking up, you might not be able to see the sky. Because of a three mountain chunks intersecting in one huge structure rising up, which at some point you can’t see its end and you start losing the sense of scale. Which was the encouragement of the developer to the architects to utilize their full potential in determining the volume of the tower. As resulting of a gigantic building that even after it was completed, they were struggling at some point to fill many floors with new tenants.

The idea of making a sunken plaza was brilliant, a new way of creating a gathering space inspired from the European architecture such as Place Vendome in Paris and the St.Peter’s square in Rome. But here at the Rockefeller, I think it has failed, for two reasons. First it was unable to retain the intended retail tenants. The main idea was to increase the amount of revenue which didn’t happened. Also when you decent 18 feet below ground level, you feel yourself drowning and strangled by the hulking structures that surround you. The sunken plaza shouldn’t be sunken it was supposed to be the contrary, a rising plaza with a nice view and a connection with the urbanism rather than an obscured one.

The purpose of the glass windows that covers the Rockefeller center is to maximize the amount of natural daylight and ventilation within the office spaces. Nowadays almost a quarter of the building is unpenetrated with light, as a result of super-scaled buildings that became a trend in the 20th and its clear appearance in the urban of New York, especially Manhattan. The consequences led to a negative impact on the city, the 70 stories block is brooding shadow darkening the streets and antagonistic the nature.


I think the Rockefeller center has affected the normal routine of the city somehow. It’s not only about how big or tall or stunning the building is, it’s what this enormous tower can offer to the city in a friendly way. The main aspects of any architectural developments is how it could use the full potential to be consistent and coherent with the vernacular of the city. This kind of connection and relationship that merges with the urbanization of the city is really important and shouldn’t be avoided or ignored. The case here of the Rockefeller center is the contrary, it didn’t really succeeded to offer these qualities. A seventy story skyscraper that isolated itself from the city ignoring all the values and meanings of a cohesive and intimate architecture. A complex that tried to separate a hundreds and thousands of people from the circumference and the city life. Aside from the nice exterior looking, if you look at the architectural qualities you can see that some of it failed and didn’t worked well and efficiently. The gigantic volume of the tower without a defined reason, the sunken plaza that looks like an obscure hollow with no natural light and air, and many other things. The consequences of Manhattans skyline architecture became a jungle of super-scaled buildings that negatively impacted on the city, according to Daniel Okrent “it was an architecture of brutality” (Great Fortune 2004).


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