Although architectural elements may constitute a language, strictly speaking, buildings cannot speak. That’s why they make such poor characters for any movie or book—just standing there dumbly, emotionally inert, and only occasionally swaying about in a stiff wind. Imagine, however, an architectural subject striking enough to engage an educated reader with a gripping narrative, infinitely more compelling and commanding than, say, The Apprentice. Livelier than a Ken Burns documentary. As real, and as grand, as life.
It would take an epic. Fortunately, Daniel Okrent has ascended sky-high with his material, embracing the clutch of buildings forming Rockefeller Center as his protagonist, and weaving a tale as insistent as a Norse saga. If you read a single book about architecture during the coming months, or recommend a book for your banker or therapist, put away your Derrida this once and pick up Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. Who said architecture had to hurt?
Throughout its pages, the author conjures the soul of New York City. We all know the mise-en-scène, from the radiance of Radio City Music Hall to the heady, musical swank of the Rainbow Room, the articulated elegant cascade of the Channel Gardens to the Prometheus fountain. But how did such a coherent wonderment—limestone-sheathed, sculpturally insistent, tactile—come to be? Only in New York, says Okrent.
From the perspective of the architect-reader, the author tells a fully shaded tale. In a way that more ascetic architectural history cannot, Okrent casts a narrative thread for New York’s and America’s greatest urban ensemble that begins in fact, waffles through ironic twists, and builds in sonorous chords toward wholeness. Nary a pedantic whiff drags the edifice down. Instead, the author inserts a playbill filled with characters, coloring each scene with the moneyed and talented and peculiar folk who oversaw its birth: great designers like Raymond Hood, who forged the classic American Radiator Building (1924) and the turquoise McGraw-Hill Building (1931), and Wallace Harrison, who later planned the United Nations and Lincoln Center; Harvey Wiley Corbett, who wrote for this magazine; and characters like S.L. Rothafel, aka “Roxy,” the eponymous movie-palace czar; as well as great artists, including Diego Rivera and Georgia O’Keeffe. Along the ride, we encounter Depression-era architects—shoulder to shoulder in Manhattan’s Graybar Building, churning out details—such as Edward D. Stone, who worked on Radio City but was fired on Christmas Eve for moonlighting while on the Rockefeller payroll. Who still connects Stone’s name with Rockefeller Center?
Closest to a singular hero must be the client. The author offers an intimate a portrait of a shy John D. Rockefeller, Jr., thrust into a public role of gargantuan scope with structures that would eventually bear his family’s name, and growing in calm assurance through the process. By contrast, his son Nelson emerges power-wired, it seems, and ready to charge.
Okrent washes this burgeoning mural with minute facts. Details both mammoth (556,000 cubic yards of Manhattan schist were removed before construction began) and granular (the actual bronzy color for the interiors of one building were derived from an ashtray handmade by an executive’s daughter) complete the canvas.
The recorded tale has meaning from a contemporary perspective. Today, we confront a scenario in Lower Manhattan, where the scope of work on the former World Trade Center site suggests analogies, but no single family, institution, or personality holds sway. Without a didactic word, the Rock Center story portrays the intersection of human design and planning with fate, reiterating throughout the strength of willpower. Yet when the architectural stakes in the drama reach such heights, the author suggests, the protagonist overshadows and outlives the dramatis personae. Builders exit. Buildings remain.