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Friday Night at the Chrysler

by Dan Fox

One suffocatingly hot July evening just recently, I visited an anonymous office on the 31st floor of the Chrysler Building in New York City. I had, for a long time, wanted to visit the Chrysler, a skyscraper shorter than the Empire State Building but so much more elegant; its radiating crown as instantly evocative of old-fashioned Gotham City modernity as a George Gershwin composition or Ab Ex painting. (At least, that’s what it does for this European.) Unfortunately, with the exception of its stunning Art Deco lobby, the building is closed to the public. So when an invitation arrived to attend the first installment of ‘The Chrysler Series’, curated by Summer Guthery, I was out of the door and on my way to midtown faster than you could say ‘rhapsody in blue’.

It was a Friday night, long after many offices had closed and their nine-to-five inhabitants had gone home for the weekend. I arrived in the sumptuous, machine-age marble and gold lobby, gave my name to the security guard, and took the elevators up to the 31st floor. Naively expecting something closer to the Cloud Club than Floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich (1999), it was something of a contrast to walk out of the lift, decorated with intricate dark wood marquetry, and into fluorescent-lit beige corridors and brown carpeted office suites.

In the (temporarily) emptied out offices, Guthery had assembled a video work by Becca Albee and a photograph by Kevin Regan, and invited writer Snowden Snowden to give a reading, followed by a performance by composer and musician Alex Waterman. Albee’s video, shot from an undisclosed vantage point high up on the Manhattan waterfront, depicts the arrival of Barack Obama and his entourage by Chinook helicopter: the grainy footage looks like surveillance material – a locked-off shot using a telephoto lens, a clandestine, perhaps threatening, citizen record of the powerful that reversed the usual top-down hierarchy of who usually watches who. Next door hung a small familiar photograph – Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void (1960) – doctored by Regan to remove Klein’s airborne body from the image, leaving just the street and the man cycling along in the background. Somewhere between Albee and Regan’s simple works and the fact of a small group of us milling around a skyscraper after hours, lurked the understated topic of height; of bodies in relation to it, of height as representative of power and ambition.

Gargoyle on the 61st floor of The Chrysler Building

The office in which Regan’s photograph had done its disappearing act on Klein was at the northeast corner of the building, from which juts the lowest set of the Chrysler’s famous steel gargoyles. (On the 31st floor, the corner ornamentation is modeled after the 1929 Chrysler radiator caps; 30 floors higher up, they are based on the eagles that graced the bonnets of the same model of car.) From the bland box of the office, we could step out onto the balcony and watch the city twinkling below, around and above. Touching the metallic ornaments – like flying buttresses straight out of Batman or Ghostbusters – you could feel the city’s vibrations flowing through the building. A friend told me about how, in the race to build the world’s tallest buildng, the architect of a rival skyscraper at 40 Wall Street – completed just before the Chrysler in May 1930 – had claimed the record at 283 metres tall. In response, the architect of the Chrysler had a 56 metre-long spire made in secret inside his structure during its construction, which was hoisted in place near the skyscraper’s completion less than a month after 40 Wall Street, stealing the world’s tallest building title at 319 metres. (The Empire State’s 381 metres topped it just a year later.)

Ornamentation on the 31st floor of The Chrysler Building

In this corner office, Snowden read Donald Barthelme’s 1981 short story ‘The Balloon’, which tells of how one night, a vast balloon inexplicably appears in Manhattan, covering most of midtown from 14th street up to Central Park. It describes how New York’s residents each deal with the presence of the balloon, how its appearance effects people’s attitude to each other and to the city. As well as being a fine example of Barthelme’s singular literary vision, it seemed a good analogy for the Chrysler: a structure that existed long before anyone in the room that night was born, a visual icon there to see but not visit or touch, something that represents a city’s culturally constructed character by physical presence alone. Like Barthelme’s balloon, its symbolism hangs suspended across the Manhattan skyline.

Snowden Snowden reading  The Balloon by Donald Barthelme

Snowden’s reading was followed by a performance by Waterman of a work (or work in progress, as he modestly put it) composed specially for the building. Earlier in the week he had visited the Chrysler, and placed contact microphones in its air ducts, mail chutes and other parts of the structure, recording the resonant frequencies of the building. He arranged these recordings into a 20-minute long composition to which he added a ‘cello part. Alternating between long, quiet, sonorous notes and rapid, almost staccato phrases, and played using two types of bow – a large, outwardly arching Baroque model, and the straighter, slightly inwardly curved modern type – Waterman harmonized his ‘cello with the recorded humming, buzzing, clanking sounds of the building. His playing created richly textured passages of both creaking dissonance and beautiful counterpoint, seeming to embrace both accident (the sound of a distant siren, for instance) and close listening. We sat in rapt silence, letting his ‘cello tune us into the Chrysler’s sounds.

Alex Waterman

As I listened, I thought about finally being inside this architectural icon, about touching the steel flying buttress outside and feeling the hum of the city, and how despite this physical proximity, in an odd kind of way, I was no closer to understanding it, no closer to tapping what I had perhaps subconsciously hoped would be some kind of ‘essence of Chrysler’. Maybe it just had something to do with being only halfway up the building. Its exterior surface represents so much, but in its interior, there’s just a blankness, an ‘every-office’ blandness. The meaning of the Chrysler exists elsewhere. Perhaps this skyscraper’s effect is similar to that of Barthelme’s balloon; ‘As a single balloon must stand for a lifetime of thinking about balloons, so each citizen expressed, in the attitude he chose, a complex of attitudes.’

About the author

  • Dan Fox's photo

    Dan Fox is senior editor of frieze and is based in New York.