The Boston Visionary Cell

Homage to Gaudi

© Paul Laffoley 2001

Gaudeamus Igitur

(Let us then be merry, let us therefore rejoice)

Homage to Antonio Gaudi y Cornet (1852–1924), visionary architect

In 1908 the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi was retained to design a grand hotel for New York City. The location chosen was the site upon which the Twin-Towered World Trade Center would be eventually built between 1962 and 1974. Gaudi’s American patron was an extremely affluent financier who actually owned the land bounded on the north by Vesey Street, on the south by Liberty Street, on the east by Church Street, and on the west by West Street (which later became connected with the West Side Highway). Of course, at the beginning of the twentieth century the financier’s actual landholdings were not as sharply defined by streets as the World Trade Center would become. Back then the lower west side of Manhattan was zoned for low residential and light commercial buildings, such as shops that sold parts for wireless telegraphy and crystal sets. How the landowner came to believe he could obtain a zoning variance that would allow him to build what would have been the first really tall skyscraper for New York City remains only one of the many mysteries surrounding this project. Perhaps it was the fact that the American architect Cass Gilbert (1959–1934) had just finish a modestly sized gothic skyscraper (1905–07) on West Street and Broadway, near City Hall Park. That became the financier’s impetus.

At first Gaudi was extremely enthusiastic to be part of the American Dream, to such an extent that he felt destined to design the hotel. He made some preliminary sketches of a structure reaching to a height of 1016 feet, composed of clustered catenary-formed parabolic towers of varying heights grouped together like engaged columns around a central soaring shaft. But somehow the sketched plans never progressed to the design-development stage. The only possible explanation for this situation is Gaudi’s method of working, which he had developed in Spain.  From the earliest drawings, he went about building his projects like a master sculptor, collaborating with other designers, like the conductor of an orchestra of artists.  This was how he had been working on his ongoing masterpiece, the incredible expiatory church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  Gaudi planned to travel to New York to oversee the construction of the hotel with its huge halls and balconies, whose decoration he would improvise from debris discovered on New York City streets. He was hoping to hire an army of artists and architects, as he did in Catalonia, although in New York he planned to realize his fantastic vision in both the interior and exterior detailing.

Gaudi’s journey to New York was abruptly cancelled, and the project was stopped.  Why this happened is a mystery.  While the unknown reasons for the abandonment of the project remain the ultimate enigma of this enterprise, it is safe to surmise that the vision of Gaudi was ahead of its time.  The site remained unchanged until the early 1960s.

What remains of this project today are a few sketches from Gaudi’s own hand and more fully developed renderings by Juan Matamala y Flotats (1893–1968), the son of Leandro Matamala y Pinyol (1856–1927), Gaudi’s prime sculptor and “right arm.” Juan, also one Gaudi’s sculptors, created his drawings from memory in the 1940s, because as he tells us, “Nothing is left now of Gaudi’s studio: the studio, the casting, the archives, everything was burnt during the 1936 Civil War . . . ” This was the war that catapulted the fascist director Francisco Franco (1892–1975) to power in Spain.

What Juan had done was to have begun a series of improvisations on Gaudi’s singular vision, a process in which many would participate, in a modus operandi dear to Gaudi’s medieval sensibilities. Gaudi always knew that real architecture requires a group effort to bring a building to successful completion. Personal involvement in a project by others is ensured more by an invitation to become co-creators than by following the normal way of doing things, that is, by having a dictator assign a multitude of mindless and mechanical tasks to a mass of underlings. This assessment of Gaudi’s working method was first suggested by the contemporary architectural historian Georges R. Collins in a chapter he wrote about the American Hotel in a book entitled La Vision artistique et religieuse de Gaudi (1969).

Until his recent death,  (Juan) Matamala was Gaudi’s most active spokesman. It was he who, with passionate enthusiasm, convinced us of the exceptional importance of the American Hotel project. His fervent devotion to Gaudi’s legacy enabled us to imagine the prodigious influence the artist exercised over the men who surrounded him. Thus, if uncertain of the plans for the American Hotel, the vision of Juan Matamala seems rather obvious, we can be assured that he remained faithful to Gaudi’s creative spirit.

Gaudi’s concept of the American Dream included not only a melting pot of all races, religions, ethnic groups, and classes, but also the nexus of multi-opportunity. To most Europeans at the turn of the twentieth century, this idea translated in terms of architecture into the eighteenth-century vision of the utopian city.  New York City, nevertheless, had by itself bypassed this image of utopic space without any conscious effort. In 1887 Edward Bellamy (1850–1898), born in Chicopee, Massachusetts, wrote a very influential book setting out a future vision of the city of Boston in the year 2000. But the Manhattan of 1908 made this book, which purported to reveal modern life 113 years ahead, totally obsolete, as the artists and architects of Italian Futurism discovered. Ironically, Bellamy’s book, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, turned out to be correctly titled.  From 1900 on, those American who were Gotham-bound from other parts of the United States would seek utopic space not in the city itself but in its hotels. These were (and are) worlds of their own, forerunners of the mega-structured and multi-use architectural proposals of 1970s.  Now these hotels are often the only manifestations of this thinking that remain.

One can only imagine the mixture of joy and envy Gaudi must have felt while reading about existing hotels in New York City as part of his research for the project. This must have been especially true when he read the description of the most famous hotel in Manhattan at that time, the original Waldorf Astoria.  In 1908 it was located on the site of the present Empire State Building, on Fifth Avenue between 34th  and 33rd  Streets. The hotel was designed in 1893 by Henry J. Hardenbergh, architect, then demolished in 1929. During the early 1930s the current Art Deco version of the Waldorf was built on Park Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets, backed by Lexington Avenue. The original Waldorf was owned by Colonel John Jacob Astor. As a result, the hotel became one of the gathering places of the New York Four Hundred, besides Madison Square Garden. But unlike the Garden, which was an exclusive club, the Waldorf was open to the public day and night. The hoi polloi, therefore, were able to mingle with the elite in the lobbies, ballrooms, concert halls, theatres, and banks, which had up-to-the minute-contact with the stock exchange downtown.

The Waldorf’s public spaces included the huge dining rooms, the various shop, the mezzanine, where a full orchestra played from morning to night, the lavish corridors, and the open-air restaurant open in the summer on the seventeenth floor and the roof. It was only in the 1500 rooms and 1200 baths where one could find complete privacy; the rest of the structure was free for examination. It must have seemed to its patron and visitors as if they had entered a live-in museum where all the interior accoutrements were either selected or made by the best American artists. In essence, the immigrant’s American Dream symbolized by the Statue of Liberty was seen up close and realized in the Waldorf. To the people who entered this world, it became a visit to the end of the proverbial rainbow complete with privilege, urbanity, and culture. As an example of the drawing-power and opportunity-base of this hotel, one need only to be reminded of a famous immigrant to American soil, Nikola Tesla (1856−1943), the electrical genius who literally created the twentieth century. He arrived from Croatia to the Castle Garden Immigration Office in Manhattan. It was 1884, the year the people of France presented the United States with the Statue of Liberty. Tesla had with him twenty-five cents and a letter of recommendation addressed to the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847−1931). When the inevitable rift occurred between these two Promethean inventors, Tesla began to frequent the fabulous Palm Room at the Waldorf. It was here he would mingle with the giants of American industry in hope of finding the venture capital he needed to launch an independent career. Eventually, he did.  As soon as his personal situation improved, he took up residence at the Waldorf. Of all the strange twists and turns and turns his long career took, Tesla admitted at the end of his life that there were only two things that gave him the hope he needed to fulfill his dreams, his American citizenship and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

For Gaudi, it was the hotel with which he wished to compete, not America itself.He would accomplish his dream if he could but capture the attention of New York with a hotel so physically large, so grand in accommodation, so lavish in décor that it would surpass all existing designs, even future attempts.  But his hotel would not be like the traditional European palace that attracts and expresses the class system and unobtainable riches, or the cold uncaring bureaucratic building that repels and is simply a wall against the masses.

What Gaudi designed was a building whose basic structure was eight feet less than the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  But the addition of the observatory, which he called “the sphere of all space,”

added another 62 feet, bringing the total height of the Grand Hotel to 1086 feet, making it 282 feet short of the height of the World Trade Center. Directly under the observatory, Gaudi planned an enormous exhibition hall of 375 feet of vertical space. It would have been as high as the tower of the Sagrada Familia. The hall boasted a first and second circumferential gallery, both interior and exterior. The space was to be lit by huge stained-glass windows. The hall was supposed to contain giants statues of all the presidents of the United States, with enough pedestals remaining to take America into the third millennium. Below the hall was to  be a monster theater and lecture room,100 feet high, utilizing both amphitheater and proscenium staging. Immediately below that was to be a 30-foot high room to display the intricacies of the structure of the building, which was to involve double-layer reinforced concrete shells, steel columns, and compressive catenary-generated forms. After that were to be a series of six dining rooms, 50 to 60 feet in height, able to accommodate at least four hundred people at once. While they dined they would have been able to hear the sounds of full symphony orchestras. With a total capacity of 2400 patrons, it is unlikely that anyone would be denied seating. The ceilings were to have mythological themes representing the galaxies. If the hotel were built today the ceiling of the dining rooms would undoubtedly be decorated with the spectacular imagery universe obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope. Five of the rooms were to have wall décor symbolizing the five continents of the earth: Asia, Africa, Oceania, Europe, and America.

On the entrance level, one would have experienced a lobby and reception rooms varying in height from 80 to 100 feet. The actual hotel rooms would have been confined to the smaller paraboloid structures nestled around the gigantic main shaft, like children around their mother. The exterior of the building was to be sheathed primarily in alabaster, giving it a pearlescent luster against which would be the accents of forms in different colored marbles and carved granite at the lobby level. Finally, the surfaced was to be bejeweled with bits of building debris, terra cotta sculptures, minerals, and fragments of glass and tiles. This very late style of Continental Gothic—the Flamboyant—was to be illuminated at night, the way most New York City buildings are today.

The final mystery concerning the project involves the suicidal attack on the Twin -Towered World Trade Center by terrorists in September 2001. Why they destroyed the towers and murdered thousands of innocent civilians and service people going about their daily tasks can be thought about in two ways. On the one hand, the attack was an act of envy by those who have experienced the American Dream up close and realized that the Twin Towers are the icon of what they covet. On the other hand, the eleventh of September is the birthday of Christ, the most hated day of all by the terrorists. Current scholarship, combining history and archaeology with astronomy and computer astrology, has determined the birth of Christ to be September 11, 3 b.c.e. And according to numerologists, “eleven” warns of hidden dangers, trial, and treachery from others.  The Towers’architect, Minoru Yamasaki (1912–1986), who was afraid of heights, built the world’s tallest “eleven” into the New York City skyline. The first airplane to strike the north tower was American Airline’s flight 11. The second plane, United Airline’s flight 175 (which added numerologically equals 13, the number of upheaval and destruction) crashed into the south tower, which was the first to collapse. Twenty-three minutes later her sister, the north tower, collapsed also.  The resulting image of the ragged head of rubble at Ground Zero reminds one of the similar fate of another of Yamasaki’s buildings, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, Missouri (1950–58). Only in this case the destruction was intentional, due to the project’s negative social impact on its neighborhood. According to the self-styled apologist of postmodernism, architect Charles A. Jencks, the dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe complex on July 15, 1972, at 3:32 p.m. Central Daylight Time, marked the official ending of the heroic phase of modernism and the ushering in of postmodernism.

In like manner, the beginning of the third phase of modernism, sometimes called post- postmodernism, transmodernism, neo-modernism, or the Bauharoque, can, in my opinion, be marked by the ironic symmetry of the architectural and personal tragedy of September 11, 2001 at  8:45 to 9:03 a.m Eastern Daylight Saving Time. This phase of modernism will be characterized by the utopian impulse of the Bauhaus School united with the theatricality of the Baroque. Historically, it will transcend science fiction. Time travel will occur and all instrumentality will be actual living structures.

Now that Ground Zero is but a gaping wound on the body of New York City and in the soul of America, many have speculated as to what to do at the site of the violent laceration. I believe one thing is clear, that in order to begin the healing process, whatever is placed there must not proceed from the same living ego impulse that motivated Yamasaki.  That is why I feel Gaudi’s Grand Hotel would be the appropriate solution. Several facts support this idea: first, the Hotel was planned for the site in 1903; second, Gaudi has been dead for seventy-five years; third, the Hotel would function as a celebration of life, for which New York City is famous; fourth, it could act as a permanent memorial for all those who lost their lives in the disaster; and fifth, it would take the combined efforts of the entire artistic and architectural communities of New York City and other areas to bring the building into being.