Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Tribute to The Men Who Built…

… The Empire State Building

On October 24, 1929 - “Black Thursday” - shares on the New York Stock Exchange tumbled in value. Over four long days the financial world trembled on its foundations, only to collapse on October 29th, pulling with it into the abyss 5,000 banks and 9 millions savings accounts. America found itself in the Great Depression, the most extensive financial debacle in history.

But barely six months after the stock market crash work started on what was to be the tallest building in the world: the Empire State Building. The plans for this office building were drawn up in a time when New York City was experiencing explosive growth. In just the first three decades of the 20th century 18 million immigrants had arrived to seek their fortune in the New World. Of all resources in Manhattan, land is the scarcest. The only way to satisfy the booming demand for housing and offices was to build up rather than out. Rotterdam architect Rem Koolhaas wrote about the building of Manhattan in 1978. His authoritative book quickly acquired cult-status. The central theme in Koolhaas’ book, Delirious New York is what he called ‘the Culture of Congestion”. Koolhaas has long been fascinated by unusual solutions for nearly impossible assignments.

One difference from when the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built, or the Colossus of Rhodes, not to mention the lighthouse at Alexandria or the pyramids at Gizeh, was that photography was available to memorize its construction as the Empire State Building rose to take its place among the Wonders of the World.

Lewis Hine took on that job. Hine was a passionate photographer who wished to record the human condition. He had done that already when he took pictures of immigrants who arrived on Ellis Island with little more than the clothes on their backs and what they could carry in hampers and bags. He also recorded the gloomy world of lightless cold water flats and filthy yards in which they had to live. His, too, are the pictures that revealed the shameful extent of child labor. These are among the photographic icons of the 20th century.
After these bleak images of life in America, Hine wanted to produce a sign of optimism in the midst of the Great Depression. Even he thought he had served up enough sadness. He wanted to do something positive. In 1930 he was commissioned to document the construction of the Empire State Building. For six months he followed where the high ironworkers walked and recorded his ode to labor as the world’s tallest skyscraper rose, floor by floor. He also recorded human resiliency and faith in a better future.

… De Rotterdam

The fall of the Lehman Brothers merchant bank on September 15, 2008 echoed in a chain reaction throughout the financial world in an international credit crisis. Merrill Lynch was taken over by Bank of America, JP Morgan merged with Chase Bank to survive, and the Dutch government took over the banks Fortis and ABN AMRO.

While the world officially entered recession in 2009, the first pile was driven on Rotterdam’s Wilhelminapier to what would be the largest building in the Netherlands: De Rotterdam. Following its design by OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), Rem Koolhaas’s architectural firm, a vertical city of three towers 150 meters (492 feet) tall will rise on the bank of river Maas. With 160,000 sq. m. of floor space, this will be the largest building to be constructed in the Netherlands in a single project. Land is scarce in the Netherlands, so this project is being shoehorned onto a lot about the size of a football field along the river. This now vacant land was where the Holland America Line’s pier stood, from which a stream of European emigrants left for Ellis Island between 1873 and 1978. The narrowly confined strip of land presented just the sort of challenge that engages Koolhaas: conceiving an unusual solution to what appears to be an impossible task.

Rotterdam photographer Ruud Sies tracked and recorded construction from the moment the first shovel of dirt was turned. Like Hine, Sies is an optimist. He uses the medium of photography to offer the world some perspective. Sies is also no more strictly a photographer of architecture than was Hine. He is not out to portray the magnitude of the construction project, even if that was the immediate reason. His is more the appreciation for the work of craftsmen, for physical labor. Or, as Hine, himself, wrote: “Cities don’t build themselves, machines cannot make machines, unless [at the] back of them all are the brains and toil of men. We call this the Machine Age. But the more machines we use the more do we need real men to make and direct them.”

Sies’ photos show the rough and ready construction workers in what appears to be a ballet of precisely choreographed dance poses. Taut muscles, focused gaze, nerves well under control. They are a team who, like dancers or athletes after long and intensive practice, have coordinated their moves and rely on each other to be where they are needed.


© Pim Milo, 2012

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