Monday, July 16, 2012

Flatiron Building Essay

Flatiron Building Essay

The multitude of choices a person is confronted with on a daily basis is astonishing. It is especially relevant at the pinnacle of Information Age, when information flows are becoming more and more intense and pervasive. Arriving at any decision implies careful consideration of a variety of aspects of a certain phenomenon, thus it takes more time then ever. However, people always had to make choices. The Flatiron Building, also known as the Fuller Building, has been symbolic of choice for many generations of New Yorkers.

This building, which is situated on a triangular island block at 23rd Street, Fifth Avenue, and Broadway, facing Madison Square, was completed at the beginning of the 20th century. Contemporaries were astonished by the building since its shape and design were totally new to them:
‘Built in New York City in 1902, the building looks like a triangle-shaped tower. Its strange shape surprised people since no one had seen a building that looks like the Flatiron’ (Landau, p.28-29).

Being 285 feet tall, which is barely impressive for a skyscraper from the contemporary perspective, it still dominates the panorama. A brilliant example of Chicago Early Modern style by Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root, it is one of the most impressive buildings in the overly impressive New York City.

In this paper, the building will be analyzed from three major socio-cultural perspectives. Given the depth of the Flatiron Building’s symbolism, it should be viewed using postmodern notions of cultural layers and cross-references. Thus, the Flatiron Building will be analyzed as the symbol of choice, time, and New York itself.

Starting with the discussion of the Flatiron Building as a symbol of choice, it is impossible to ignore the specific shape and location of the building, which both provoke deep reflection upon the problem of choice. If the building is approached from the north, from Broadway or 5th at the intersection of 23rd, its magnificence strikes you so that you would be silent and wonder-struck fir several instances. There are basically two ways you can choose from, and either way seems to be equally luring and attractive. Yet when you are surrounded by a crowd of busy New Yorkers, you feel the pressure to arrive at the decision as quickly as possible, and this is exactly what modern mode of life requires from everybody. There is very little time to stop and contemplate what choices are right, true to oneself, and beneficial in the long run.

In addition, the fact that from every perspective there are only two ways to walk by the building is philosophical as well. The majority of decisions in our life are dilemmas, i.e. imply only two possible solutions. Binary opposition, represented by the Flatiron Building, has played a significant role in the development of Western philosophical thought. In critical theory, a binary opposition is perceived as two theoretical opposites. Structuralists have viewed it as an important organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language. Post-structuralists have perceived it as a distinguishing feature of Western culture and mindset; in addition, one of the two opposites usually plays the role of dominance in relation to another.

The presence-absence dichotomy is one of the most illustrative examples of a binary opposition. Differentiating between presence and absence as polar opposite is a building bloc of many Western schools of thought, in structuralism. Since Western thought is logocentric, i.e. the pursuit of truth and reason, which translates in regarding one binary opposite as superior in relation to another.

Indeed, when you stand in front of the Flatiron Building, you are preoccupied with the desire to make the correct choice. While rationally you may be well aware of the fact that your life wouldn’t change dramatically if you took either of the two street going from the Flatiron Building further across Manhattan, at the irrational level every and each of us is trapped in the Western paradigm suggesting that either of the two should be perceived as dominant and, consequently, more preferable.

Typical binary oppositions that pervade Western culture include male v. female, reality v. representation, presence v. absence, heterosexual v. homosexual, literal v. metaphorical, transcendental v. Empirical, speech v. writing, rational v. emotional, mind v. body etc. Looking at one of the examples of binary opposition, e.g. presence v. absence, presence is in a position of dominance in Western philosophy over absence, since absence is usually perceived as what you get when you take away presence. If absence were dominant, presence would be eventually perceived seen as what you get when you take away an absence. This issue was first brought up in post-structuralist criticisms.

Another example of a binary opposition is the man v. woman dichotomy. Several Western philosophers, e.g. structuralists, believe that the world is structured according to male and female constructs, roles, words, and notions. A post-structuralist perspective is that male can be seen, in line with the underlying values typical for the traditional Western mindset, as dominant over female because male is the presence of a phallus, while the vagina is an absence or loss. If female were regarded as a presence, then male would be viewed as the absence or loss (University of Waterloo Faculty of Arts, 1998).

Thus, the Flatiron Building represents the ambiguity of every choice we make. While it appears to us that there are only two ways, and of them is dominant over another, a closer analysis of this phenomenon suggests that such way of thinking is dictated by the Western paradigm we belong in. Yet even in the Western paradigm certain schools of thought criticized the division of the world into dichotomies. The critique of binary oppositions is an significant feature of post-feminism, post-colonialism, post-anarchism, and critical race theory, which hold that the generally accepted binary dichotomy between male v. female, civilized v. savage, and caucasian v. non-caucasian have perpetuated and legitimized Western power establishment endorsing ‘civilized’ white men for the disadvantage of others. Post-structural criticism of binary oppositions is not merely the reversal of the opposition, but its deconstruction, which is perceived as apolitical, i.e. not endorsing one arm of a binary opposition over the other. Deconstruction is the ‘event’ or ‘moment’ at which a binary opposition is regarded as contradicting itself and belittling its own legitimacy. Although deconstruction can not explicate how rational grounds for defending itself can then be sustained after it has removed any objective grounds in structuralism it may have had (University of Waterloo Faculty of Arts, 1998).

The Flatiron Building makes every person reflect upon such fundamental issues as the polar nature of choices we make. It is interesting in one more way: from each perspective, only two sides of the building can be seen. However, every New Yorker is aware of the triangular shape of the building, although all three sides of the building cannot be seen simultaneously. Such a shape of the building suggests that there is always the Third Way. Many situations in life seem to be a total cul-de-sac for the ample reason that only two solutions are on the table, and neither of them is acceptable. However, the ability to see a bigger picture helps to grasp the availability of this Third Way.

The fact that only two sides of the Flatiron Building can be seen at once also suggests that human choices are in no way unlimited. Human choices are limited by both internal and external factors. Internal constraints include habits, preferences, and upbringing. External constraints include social position and environment.

In certain aspects, the Flatiron Building resembles a Japanese garden. In such a garden, all the stones cannot be seen simultaneously from one perspective. Therefore, looking at the Flatiron Building may be regarded as a sort of meditation, since Japanese gardens are used exactly for these reasons:

‘In the background of the design and rock arrangements of the Japanese garden there is a respect for the nature and abstract representations of the utopian world of the time which were derived from the religion and philosophy…They are arranged to show many expressions of sometimes dynamic forms and other times extremely subtle and sensitive forms’ (Shigemori, 2000, ‘Introduction,’ para.4).

Proceeding with the analysis of the Flatiron Building as a symbol of time, it is necessary to mention that it was completed at the very dawn of the 20th century, and it embodies the previous century in many ways. The 20th century brought about dramatic changes in the social and economic structure as well as people’s lifestyle and mindset. Its form is thin and sharp like a blade, which is symbolic of the accelerated tempo of life and eventual brutality of the modern times. Its outward restraint represents the alienation of human beings in the mass society and hints on the advent of the age of corporate uniformity. Its loftiness and airiness are symbolic of the magnitude of human dreams and designs that were translated into life in the 20th century, such as electrification, telephones, computers, and spacecrafts.

At one hand, the building is overwhelmingly modern, and will remain this way for centuries to come. Yet it also embodies the concept of time and inherent connection to the past. Its rusticated exterior manifests the continuity of architectural styles throughout the years, and in such a way the Flatiron Building emphasizes the notion of time and eternity:

‘Flatiron’s ornate but restrained facade is composed of stone and terra-cotta panels whose forms simulate the effects of rustication’ (Emporis, 2007, ‘Facts,’ p.1). It is especially eye-catching given the busy nature of Flatiron’s neighborhood. When you stand in front if this building, surrounded by a hurrying crowd and noisy traffic, you cannot help stopping for an instance and thinking about values common to all mankind -- values that haven’t changes for millennia.

It is true that a person is influenced continuously by his or her origin and roots; yet there are certain pieces of tangible and intangible heritage that unite the entire mankind. Masterpieces of art, music, or architecture move everyone irrespective of nationality, age, and affiliation. For this reason the most prominent artists frequently turn to Great Masters for inspiration and guidance, and they combine classical forms with modern ideas and materials. For example, a steel skeleton used for the construction of the Flatiron Building, was an important innovation at the dawn of the 20th century, and this skeleton allowed the building to be as high as this: other construction methods available at those times wouldn’t make it possible.

While the Flatiron Building is an example of Chicago Early Modern style, it bears the influence of classical European architecture:

‘Bearing the influence of architectural trends introduced at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham’s eye-catching design combined elements of French and Italian Renaissance architecture’ (Emporis, 2007, ‘Facts,’ p.2).

In addition, the building resembles a classical Greek column in certain aspects, since its limestone and glazed terra-cotta front is horizontally divided into three parts: the building ‘employed the base-column-capital formula with powerful effect on a triangular New York City site’ (Wiseman, 2000, p.6).

Therefore, looking at this graceful and refined 21-storeyed building, you get the feeling of everlasting triumph of man’s though and aspirations over incompliance of space and time.

Yet the modernity of the building may be proven by a fact that it remains of current importance for contemporary pop-culture. The Flatiron Building is a recognized contemporary cultural artifact, and it was ‘[f]eatured in the motion pictures Spider-Man 1 and 2 as the office of the newspaper Daily Bugle’ (Emporis, 2007, ‘Facts,’ p.7).

Getting a deeper insight into the history of the Flatiron Building, it becomes evident that there is far less magic associated with it as may seem at the first glance. For example, the building was constructed solely for the reason of getting profit; furthermore, it was unsuccessful at the initial stages of existence: ‘The developer built the skyscraper as a speculative project with the intention of renting out offices to various commercial and financial enterprises which was unusual at this time…This steel-framed terra-cotta and stone-clad skyscraper represents the developers' first (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to create a new business center north of Wall Street’ (Emporis, 2007, ‘Facts,’ p.2 & 4).

Since one of the distinctive features of the building is its triangular shape, many people are astonished by the creativity and innovative approach of the architects. In reality, the shape of the building was dictated by the availability of space on Manhattan:

‘The building’s triangular plan was a clever response to the awkward site produced by the intersection of Broadway and 5th Avenue’ (Emporis, 2007, ‘Facts,’ p.3). However, all these earthy and utilitarian details in no any way depreciate the significance of the building. As a sign of recognition of its socio-cultural importance, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 (Emporis, 2007).

Finally, getting to the discussion of the Flatiron Building as an embodiment New York itself, it is reasonable to start with drawing attention to the fact that this building has been a symbol of this city for many decades already: ‘One of the most famous landmarks of the city, a postcard with this building is a must-have inventory for nearly all city souvenir shops’ (Emporis, 2007, ‘Facts,’ p.5).

In fact, this building perfectly represents what New York stands for. The city is prominent, busy, turbulent, dangerous, mesmerizing, and alchemic -- and every peculiarity of New York City is reflected in the design of the Flatiron Building. It is especially striking that the building embodies a classical example of a binary opposition, since big city life is all about facing dichotomies. When a person comes to New York for the first time, he or she thinks that the city offers an unlimited multitude of choices. However, city life is notorious for even less freedom that village life. In a city, there are only two ways: either up or down the social ladder, and every instance of inaction results in downward mobility.

The Flatiron Building is an example of complexity of organization of big city life. The realization that our choices are limited comes together with comprehension that someone has already made choices for us, leaving only a binary opposition to choose from. And this is very symbolic of the pressure the society exerts on an individual. Initially, humans are free to do whatever they prefer, but the strict provisions of social morale and etiquette often prevent people from pursuing their aims and dreams. Instead, they are faced with dichotomies formulated by the society, e.g. to marry or stay single, and very few people dare to explore other options, such as civil marriage.

Making a comprehensive conclusion from all the aspects investigated in this paper, it is necessary to say that the Flatiron Building has an enormous socio-cultural and symbolic significance. It can be perceived as an embodiment of choice, time, and New York as a megacity.

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