An Architect Demystifies the Art Deco Design of the Iconic Chrysler Building (1930)

The Chrysler Build­ing was once the tallest struc­ture in the world — a hey­day that end­ed up last­ing less than a year. The loss of that glo­ri­ous title owed to the com­ple­tion of the Empire State Build­ing, twelve blocks away, in 1931. But it was all in the spir­it of the game, the Chrysler Build­ing hav­ing itself one-upped its close com­peti­tor 40 Wall Street (then called the Bank of Man­hat­tan Trust Build­ing) by installing a non-func­tion­al spire atop its sig­na­ture crown at the last moment. But how­ev­er much of a tri­umph it rep­re­sent­ed, that moment was poor­ly timed: the very next day would bring the Wall Street Crash of 1929, har­bin­ger of the Great Depres­sion. The sub­se­quent decade would inspire lit­tle pub­lic favor for extrav­a­gant mon­u­ments in the Big Apple.

Yet com­pared to the life of a tow­er, eco­nom­ic cycles are short indeed. By now the Chrysler Build­ing has seen the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca through a fair few ups and downs, only gain­ing appre­ci­a­tion all the while. Removed from its imme­di­ate his­tor­i­cal con­text, we can more keen­ly appre­ci­ate archi­tect William Van Alen’s elab­o­rate yet ele­gant Art Deco design.

In the Archi­tec­tur­al Digest video above, archi­tect Michael Wyet­zn­er takes us on a tour of that design, explain­ing how each of its fea­tures works with the oth­ers to make an endur­ing visu­al impact. Some, like the gleam­ing over­sized radi­a­tor-cap gar­goyles, impress with sheer brazen­ness; oth­ers, like the Native Amer­i­can-derived pat­terns that repeat in var­i­ous loca­tions at var­i­ous scales, take a more prac­ticed eye to iden­ti­fy.

Despite hav­ing been sur­passed in height over and over again, the Chrysler Build­ing remains a sine qua non of under­stand­ing the New York sky­scraper. Hence its appear­ance at the very begin­ning of “Why New York’s Sky­scrap­ers Keep Chang­ing Shape” from The B1M. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured that chan­nel here on Open Cul­ture for its inves­ti­ga­tion of why there are so few sky­scrap­ers in Europe; in New York, how­ev­er, the ambi­tious­ly tall build­ing has become some­thing like a force of nature, tamed only tem­porar­i­ly even by cri­sis or dis­as­ter. Some have used the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic to declare an end of the office build­ing, even the end of the city, and much like ear­ly in the Depres­sion, sky­scrap­ers now under con­struc­tion reflect the pri­or­i­ties of a pre­vi­ous real­i­ty. Yet the 92-year-old Chrysler Build­ing con­tin­ues to inspire us today, and to that extent, we still live in the world that made it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

New York’s Lost Sky­scraper: The Rise and Fall of the Singer Tow­er

Watch the Build­ing of the Empire State Build­ing in Col­or: The Cre­ation of the Icon­ic 1930s Sky­scraper From Start to Fin­ish

How the World Trade Cen­ter Was Rebuilt: A Visu­al Explo­ration of a 20-Year Project

A Whirl­wind Archi­tec­tur­al Tour of the New York Pub­lic Library — “Hid­den Details” and All

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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