With the promise of rain, we walked up Fifth Avenue (coffees in hand like our American friends) and gawped up at the Empire State Building. It doesn’t look as impressive from below as it does from far away, but I still like the design of it.
After that, we made an astonishing discovery. For some reason, nobody had said to go into the New York Public Library. We decide to walk past on our way up to the Chrysler Building and the library was so beautiful on the outside that we decided to try and go in. It was even more stunning inside: chandeliers, painted ceilings, gorgeous wooden desks, soaring stairs and – of course – miles of shelving containing beautiful, beautiful books! I felt so moved by the elegance of it all – what a way to inspire a love of reading and a love of learning!
Another building we worth a visit is Grand Central Terminal. They don’t make stations like this anymore, and it felt like an iconic moment standing inside the main concourse admiring the eloquent arches and star-spangled ceiling. How many bustling commuters, I wonder, stop to admire this amazing tribute to the great age of train travel?
The Chrysler Building is probably one do my favourites. A monument to Art Deco design, it must have been even more staggering to look at when it soared above the skyline so briefly before the Empire State Building overtook it. Certainly, it outstrips the ugly, monolithic block of the United Nations building, which was next on our list (and where I could admire the Zimbabwean flag, flapping in the breeze, as soon as we rounded the corner to the UN – an irony in itself).
Torrential rain left us scurrying to the subway to go uptown to the Guggenheim – which has an architecture totally unlike the solid squares and rectangles of Midtown and Lower Manhattan. The Guggenheim’s curves reminded me of a giant snail, crawling along Museum Mile with its precious cargo. Sadly, the famous ramps were closed, but we started with Robert Motherwell’s early collages. More my scene was an exhibition of Kandinsky. I’ve always had an appreciation for Kandinsky, but (as is so often the case when you see original art, rather than prints), the colours on the canvas were truly luminous and there is just no way to imagine the texture without being able to see it close. Love it! But even better was the collection of Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Monet (my favourite artist), Pissarro and some beautiful early Picasso. Breathtaking!
We rounded off the afternoon with the Rockefeller Centre and Radio City Music Hall, viewed from behind sheets of falling water, a total contrast to the dazzling sunlight and deep blue skies of the following day, spent cruising round Manhattan on the Circle Line. Definitely worth it, this boat trip allows you to see Manhattan arguably from its best vantage point. The skyscrapers are so much more impressive from afar as their height becomes relative against the rest of the famous skyline.
More surprisingly beautiful architecture can be seen on Ellis Island. Graceful and, I would even argue, colonial in style, Ellis Island would have been a lovely trip if the Federal Government hadn’t got in the way. Lady Liberty was, funnily enough, smaller than I had expected, but still one of those monuments to Americanness if ever there was one. The symbolism of both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty cannot be denied, although, turning round to face Manhattan this larger island has its own comment on Americanness: this time modern (and even post-modern) America more so than the one of empire. One World Trade centre dominates this cluster of impressive skyscrapers already, and it’s mirrored twisting is, I think, a beautiful memorial to 9/11. When Two and Three are built, the archetypal Manhattan skyline will, once again, shift into a new era.
For many people, New York is the concrete and glass giants of Manhattan, but for me the best of the buildings are those looking down at the city from the Art Deco era. Often you will glance up and be surprised by a facade of gorgeous geometric design, by shell-like curves as a medium-sized city block creeps upwards, or by a pyramid of angles ten storeys up. These are the unsung heroes of New York’s architecture, bringing a touch of art to this solid and unrelenting city.