What are New York City’s best cultural spaces?

What are New York City’s best cultural spaces?
What are New York City’s best cultural spaces?

From a stunning books palace and a curvaceous art temple – to the city’s transformative high point – the Big Apple has it all, writes Andrew Dickson.

The architectural guru Rem Koolhaas once wrote a book entitled Delirious New York, and glancing at Manhattan’s skyline, it’s easy to figure out why. The metropolis is a jumble of vertiginous towers, plunging canyons, and glittering steel and glass. New York City has more than its fair share of delirious buildings too, whether it’s sleek Art Deco classics such as the Chrysler or the super-skinny ‘pencil-tower’ penthouses for the super-rich that have shot up in recent years around Central Park.

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But there’s more to New York architecture than skyscrapers and commercial real estate, and it’s when you start exploring the city’s public and cultural buildings that things get genuinely interesting. Driven by the urge to make money, and the equally powerful impulse to give it grandly away, New York’s philanthropists have gifted the city some world-class temples to culture over the past 150 years, and hired some of the most exciting architects anywhere to build or convert them. Visit Gotham’s museums, galleries, concert halls, dance spaces, cinemas and theatres, and you’ll see almost every architectural style and form in the book. Neo-gothic, brutalist, industrial, deco, post-modern, high-modern, high-tech: it’s all here. And not just buildings…

Here are three of my favourites.

The New York Public Library

Occupying a hefty site on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, the monumental main branch of the New York Public Library, built in 1911, somehow manages not to be dwarfed by the new skyscrapers around it. Funded by private money (steel magnate Andrew Carnegie made a sizeable contribution), the NYPL was nevertheless intended as a public good – part of the city’s plan to educate its ever-increasing  immigrant population during the late 19th Century. It embodies New York’s noblest civic ambitions, and the philosophy that high culture can be for anyone.

What are New York City’s best cultural spaces? View image of (Credit: Getty Images)

That urge to enlighten and edify is writ large in the design that got architects John Mervin Carrère and Thomas S Hastings the commission. Large is very much the word – the site was originally a reservoir – and they produced a swaggering Beaux-Arts edifice, finished in dove-white Vermont marble, that looks more like a French palace than somewhere where you go to read and borrow books. Simply to get in, you walk up a monumental staircase guarded by a pair of stone lions (known as Patience and Fortitude), and dominated by paired Corinthian pillars, which flank the main entrance.

Once you’re actually inside, and have nodded deferentially towards the busts of the architects in the entrance hall, the building is even more impressive. Each public area and reading room in the building has its own character, from the gloomy splendour of the Map Room (all gilt and coffered ceilings) to the cloistered intimacy of what is now the DeWitt Periodicals Room (more carved dark-oak panelling than Hogwarts).

What are New York City’s best cultural spaces? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

The crowning jewel is the main Rose Reading Room, an airy space on the top floor that runs the length of the building – two city blocks, no less. Illuminated by rows of massive domed windows, it features a painted, Renaissance-style trompe l’oeil ceiling depicting cherubs frolicking among the clouds. Little wonder that to find a seat you have to shoulder your way past gawping tourists.

Guggenheim Museum

Koolhas devoted part of Delirious New York to Manhattan’s ‘grid’ – the system, cooked up at the beginning of the 19th Century, to regulate the growing city into a tight street plan of 2,000 or so rectangular blocks, separated by 12 north–south avenues and 155 streets running east–west. It’s true that the grid gives Manhattan its particular (some would say unremitting) tension and scale, and helped make straight-edged international modernism the city’s go-to style during the mid-20th Century. Niemeyer and Le Corbusier’s taut UN Secretariat Building (1952) is curtain walled in rectilinear panes of glass – a grid system on the vertical – while Mies van der Rohe’s blocky Seagram Building, completed in 1958, is about as angular as it comes.

What are New York City’s best cultural spaces? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

All of which means that buildings which don’t play it by the rulebook are especially refreshing. In New York, there are few more glorious examples than the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, designed by the maverick American talent Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1959, just after the Seagram. In contravention to the spirit of the times, Wright’s vision was for curves, loops and arcs – organic shapes that push back against the hard edges of the surrounding city. Inspired partly by the winding paths and meandering prospects of Central Park, the architect produced a design wrapped around a spiral ramp, “one great space on a continuous floor”, like the whorls of a seashell. He referred to it as an “inverted ziggurat”, referencing the pyramids of South America as well as the natural forms he so admired.

Inside, the staircase soars upwards, making the experience of visiting feel rather like ascending into the sky

This ramp forms the heart of the building, visible outside and balanced on the other end by a smaller tower, which resembles the bridge of a ship – a gentle nod to art deco, particularly given that the concrete edifice is painted cool white on the outside. Inside, the staircase soars upwards for nearly a quarter of a mile towards a glass-topped atrium, making the experience of visiting feel rather like ascending into the sky.

What are New York City’s best cultural spaces? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

Ironically, though, the building’s great asset – its sculptured curvaceousness – works against its function, which was to hang Guggenheim’s remarkable collection of paintings. Generations of curators have cursed its curved walls and unorthodox spaces, until an extension was built in the 1990s. This, notably, has walls that are at right angles.

The High Line

Every so often, New York City seems to remember that the almighty dollar isn’t the only thing in town, and that people – around 8.5 million of them – live there too. The Manhattan grid is dominated by the great green lung of Central Park, some 800 acres (3.2 sq m) of grass and trees, planted in the 19th Century. The most distinctive recent addition to the cityscape, in 2009, is the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway on the lower-west edge of Manhattan that has been converted into an urban park.

What are New York City’s best cultural spaces? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

Though it’s not exactly a building, the High Line is certainly a cultural space –  a mixed-use environment that’s part footpath, part garden, part wildscape, part art installation. Masterminded by the landscape architect James Corner and the garden designer Piet Oudolf, supported by the major firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the project features some 1.5 miles (2.4-km) of disused track and bridges that have been brought back to life with plants, shrubs and sculptures. It’s transformed a post-industrial eyesore into a living space in the heart of the city.

Its greatest achievement is that it transforms the city itself into a piece of sculpture

Running from the Meatpacking District through Chelsea then up to Hudson Yards, the High Line offers a carefully curated stroll, at a height of around 25ft (7.6m) above street level, through contrasting urban textures. Flowers and footpaths tangle with ironwork bridges, railway tracks with spars of old concrete. One moment you’re passing beneath the gaunt edifice of the Standard hotel; the next you’re gazing over blackened abandoned piers on the Hudson River. A few minutes later, you’re looking directly east down West 20th Street, with yellow taxicabs rushing beneath you, and the silver spire of the Empire State Building in the distance.

What are New York City’s best cultural spaces? View image of (Credit: Alamy)

Although the High Line has hosted temporary art installations over the past 11 years, its greatest achievement is that it transforms the city itself into a piece of sculpture. Courtesy of a smart bit of special recycling, New York becomes an ornament in itself.

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