January 3, 2011
strut groucho
1001 Fifth Avenue designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, New York City, 1979 (Photo by Author)
Philip Johnson (Photo Poorly Photoshopped by Author)


Funny buildings are rare. Given the cost and effort required to produce a building, this isn’t really surprising. Architecture is serious business, and those who develop, design, and build are understandably reluctant to risk humor. After all, no one wants to live in a bad joke (or even a good one for that matter). Occasionally, however, a funny building like 1001 Fifth Avenue comes along. Designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee and completed in 1979, it is seriously, intentionally funny architecture (not a funny-looking oddity or mistake). And like the best comedy, its humor draws on just enough seriousness to give it a degree of relevance and meaning.


Located on a high-profile site directly across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on New York City’s Upper East Side, 1001 Fifth Avenue had to placate its incredibly wealthy and influential preservation-minded neighbors. Johnson and Burgee also had to satisfy a profit-minded developer determined to pack the site with the maximum possible number of apartments while following local building codes which limited any massing projection to ten inches beyond the building line. The solution? A thin limestone-clad façade, vaguely recalling pre-war towers, crossed by wisps of moldings which pick up the stronger horizontals of the adjacent 1910 McKim Mead & White 998 Fifth Avenue. Behind this façade is a typical high-end 1970s developer apartment building—a fact which is intentionally revealed by the exposed and widely visible bare façades to the north, south, and east. This is naughtily funny stuff, especially given the prevailing modernist tastes at that time. What makes 1001 Fifth Avenue hilarious, though, is the top: a thin false-front pseudo-mansard roof, propped up from behind by struts which—again, intentionally—can be seen from just about everywhere. The Hollywood back lot comes to Fifth Avenue, and the millionaires have moved in.


And the joke worked! Johnson and Burgee’s absurdly ‘contextual’ design managed to satisfy all the various competing interest groups with a stake in the site. While upon its completion 1001 Fifth Avenue was given a lukewarm review by the local architecture critics (Goldberger, Huxtable, et al) the building was an undeniable success as far as the client and local preservationists were concerned, setting off a historically-inclined ‘designer’ building trend in Manhattan that continues to this day. Of course—and this is the problem with engaging in architectural humor—the question remains: other than architects, who else gets the joke?


Jacob Reidel


You’d think people who spend all day building giant wangs would have a better sense of humor about their work. Yet architects rarely go for laughs, which is unfortunate, since their eyewear is usually just a fake nose and mustache away from Groucho glasses.


I kid, o hewers of steel and of stone! Please do not avenge yourselves by building a prison complex next to my apartment with construction taking place every night between the hours of 3:00 am and 6:00 am.


Now, I may not be a licensed architect, or an unlicensed architect, or a student of architecture, but I do pride myself on staying inside buildings much of the time (I’m in one right now!), so I consider myself qualified to suggest architectural improvements to the following structures:


— The Sony Building. Philip Johnson and John Burgee modeled the upper levels after a Chippendale chair, but it would be a better joke if someone reshaped it into a Chippendale dancer. If this is considered too risqué, a second option would be to add a large seat to the front of the building, so weary giants visiting from the Midwest could sit a spell before heading to Broadway to catch Wicked.


— The Chrysler Building. William Van Alen designed the crown like hubcaps and the gargoyles like hood ornaments, but this building has fallen behind the times. Some intrepid young architect should give it automatic windows, power locks, and heated seats throughout. (Show-offs need not apply; the building would look awful with hydraulics.)


— The Great Sphinx at Giza. Two words: Keyboard Cat. Either that, or change the face to Omar Sharif, arguably the world’s most famous living Egyptian.


In conclusion, if anyone out there builds any of these, you better rename it after me. (Sorry, Mr. Sharif!)


Frank Lesser


Edited by Erandi de Silva




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