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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
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Chanin Building
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One of the first great examples of a building that uses the French-inspired art-deco motifs is the Chanin Building, located on the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and Forty-second Street. The architect, Irwin Chanin, had built Garment Center loft buildings and a number of other buildings in New York. He planned this one for his own offices and as a speculative venture—that is, his private offices were on the top floor while the rest of the building was open office space. Construction began in 1927. Chanin trained at Cooper Union as an architect, but in 1927 he was not yet registered. He eventually became a registered architect, but that year he worked with the architectural firm of Sloan and Robertson. The firm had worked on the Fred French Building and was involved in many different office buildings in New York. Chanin worked with Sloan and Robertson to come up with a spectacular design (which is very closely modeled on Eero Saarinen's plan for the Chicago Tribune Building) that features a massive, horizontal base, soaring setbacks, strong verticals, and buttresses. The building soars above the corner of Forty-second Street and Lexington Avenue, right down the block from Grand Central Terminal. And the light bounces off its façade. So this building was highly visible.

Besides being a spectacular ornament on the New York skyline, the building is filled with French-inspired ornamental detail. Chanin had visited Paris in 1925 and toured the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. He was so inspired by it that when he came back, he almost immediately started using these French-inspired forms. A building like the Chanin was designed not only to attract your attention from a distance but also to be both enjoyable and even educational on the ground floor. And it was designed so that on the lower stories it would attract not only pedestrians but also potential tenants. The detail on this building is some of the most exquisite art-deco ornament ever created in New York. There is a band of stylized terra-cotta with curving and angular leaflike forms not unlike those on Ferrobrandt's Cheney Silk Company doors. There is a frieze over the storefronts that was meant both to entertain and to educate. It depicts the theory of evolution. The frieze starts with amoebae and then, as you move along, the amoebae become jellyfish, the jellyfish become fish, the fish become geese, and yet there it stops. At that point, the theory became too controversial.

There are also dynamic storefronts covered with zigzag patterns. This design has come to be probably the most popular ornamental detail that people are familiar with from art-deco buildings. But one of the interesting things about the use of this pattern on such buildings is that the zigzag almost never appears by itself. The angular, geometric, mechanical zigzag is almost always overlaid with ornate, curving flower petals. This combination of the mechanical and the natural overlaying each other creates a very complex iconography on these buildings.


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