An Introduction to the Chrysler Building, New York’s Art Deco Masterpiece, by John Malkovich (1994)

No old stuff for me, no bes­tial copy­ings of arch­es and columns and cor­nices. Me, I’m new.  
             — archi­tect William Van Alen, design­er of the Chrysler Build­ing

Many peo­ple claim the Chrysler Build­ing as their favorite New York City edi­fice and actor John Malkovich is one such:

It’s so crazy and vig­or­ous in its exe­cu­tion, so breath­tak­ing in its vision, so bril­liant­ly eccen­tric.

Malkovich, who’s not shy about tak­ing pot­shots at the city’s “vio­lence and filth” in the BBC doc­u­men­tary short above, rhap­sodizes over Detroit indus­tri­al­ist Wal­ter P. Chrysler’s “lat­ter day pyra­mid in Man­hat­tan.”

Malkovich’s unmis­tak­able voice, pegged by The Guardian as “waft­ing, whis­pery, and reedy” and which he him­self poo poos as sound­ing like it belongs to some­one who’s “labored under heavy nar­cotics for years,” pairs well with descrip­tions so plum­my, one has to imag­ine he penned them him­self. (No writer is cred­it­ed.)

After show­ing us the open-to-the-pub­lic lobby’s “deli­cious Art Deco fit­tings,” ceil­ing mur­al, and intri­cate, veneered ele­va­tor doors, Malkovich gives us a tour of some off-lim­its upper floors.

Unlike the Empire State Build­ing, which best­ed the Chrysler Building’s brief record as the world’s tallest build­ing (1046 feet, 77 sto­ries), you can’t pur­chase tick­ets to admire the view from the top.

But Malkovich has the star pow­er to gain access to Celes­tial, the sev­en­ty-first floor obser­va­to­ry that has been closed to the pub­lic since 1945 and is cur­rent­ly occu­pied by a pri­vate firm.

He also has a wan­der around the bar­ren Cloud Club, a sup­per club and speakeasy for gen­tle­man one per­centers. Its mish­mash of styles rep­re­sent­ed a con­ces­sion on archi­tect Van Alen’s part. The build­ing’s exte­ri­or was an ele­gant mod­ernist homage to Chrysler’s hub­caps and hood orna­ments, but between the 66th and 68th floor, the Cloud Club catered to the promis­cu­ous tastes of the rich and pow­er­ful — Tudor, Olde Eng­lish, Neo-Clas­si­cal…

The New York Times reports that it boast­ed what “was reput­ed to be the grand­est men’s room in all of New York.”

Duke Elling­ton sound­track and vin­tage footage fea­tur­ing Van Alen cos­tumed to resem­ble his famous cre­ation sup­ply a taste of the excite­ment that her­ald­ed the building’s 1930 open­ing, even if those with a fear of heights may swoon at the sight of pret­ty young things reclin­ing on high beams and per­form­ing oth­er feats of der­ring-do.

Malkovich, ever the cool cus­tomer, dis­plays his lack of ver­ti­go by casu­al­ly prop­ping a foot on the rooftop’s edge to com­mune with the icon­ic eagle-head­ed gar­goyles.

The building’s unique flour­ish­es caused a sen­sa­tion, but not every­one was a fan.

Malkovich clear­ly savors his swipe at crit­ics who decried the new build­ing as too shiny:

For­tu­nate­ly these crit­ics are long dead so we can’t even call their offices and taunt them as they should be taunt­ed.

He’s more tem­per­ate when it comes to author and social philoso­pher Lewis Mum­ford, whose beef with the sky­scraper is under­stand­able, giv­en the his­toric con­text — the stock mar­ket crashed the day after the secret­ly con­struct­ed spire was riv­et­ed into place:

Such build­ings show one of the real dan­gers of a plu­toc­ra­cy: it gives the mas­ters of our civ­i­liza­tion an unusu­al oppor­tu­ni­ty to exhib­it their bar­barous egos, with no sense of restraint or shame.

Near­ly one hun­dred years lat­er, bar­barous egos con­tin­ue to erect sky­scrap­ing tem­ples to their own van­i­ty, but as Malkovich points out, they’re far bland­er, if taller.

The Chrysler Build­ing is now wide­ly rec­og­nized as one of New York City’s most mag­nif­i­cent jew­els, and the Land­marks Preser­va­tion Com­mis­sion recent­ly approved plans to con­struct a pub­lic obser­va­tion deck on the Chrysler Building’s 61st floor, just above its icon­ic Art Deco eagles, though it’s too ear­ly to tell if it will be ready in time for a cen­ten­ni­al cel­e­bra­tion.

Until then, the gen­er­al pub­lic must con­tent itself with explor­ing the Chrysler Building’s lob­by dur­ing week­day busi­ness hours.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Why Do Peo­ple Hate Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture?: A Video Essay

Famous Archi­tects Dress as Their Famous New York City Build­ings (1931)

A New Inter­ac­tive Map Shows All Four Mil­lion Build­ings That Exist­ed in New York City from 1939 to 1941

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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