The Architectural, Economic, and Urban Planning Fiasco that is Albany's Empire State Plaza

Lo Faber April 26, 2005

View from the East, on the off-ramp from I-787.

Battlestar Galactica on the Hudson.

The visitor, having driven several highway hours through the pastoral lowlands and undulating hills of the Hudson Valley, sees them first from a distance, one great rectilinear sentinel flanked by three smaller brothers, peeking, perhaps, with a discomforting and inorganic watchfulness, over the crest of an orchard or the ridge of a forested foothill, visible long before there is any other indication of a city; and as the visitor continues they grow, they glower, they gloom ever larger, until as the city is approached they are seen to dominate its horizon, mocking the gentler gradations of the earlier cityscape it overshadows, and scandalizing the three once-supreme church spires that still point skyward with indignant irrelevance.

The towers protrude skyward from a mammoth runway-like platform at the summit of a sheer marble wall, punctured by a single arched orifice, into which a tentacle of elevated highway pumps a sporadic flow of traffic. Against the cheery cerulean blue of a summer afternoon the boxy forms may appear incongruously stern; but the greasy ascetic bleakness of an ice-gray New York winter morning puts them at home, their white marble mirroring the frozen surface of the adjacent river. And if the visitor arrives at night, the complex exudes a queasy green effulgence, fluorescent office lights glowing in irregular patterns across the towers' glassy membranes--the somnolescent state of the surrounding city only accentuating their somber watchfulness.

For this is not Karnak, Thebes, or Lhasa--or even Manhattan, Chicago, or Los Angeles. No, this is Albany, New York, and the unexpectedly monumental Erector Set creation before you is the South Mall--or to give it its full name, the Nelson Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. Stretching south from the 19th-century State Capital, the Mall comprises not only the 44-story Corning Tower, and its four 22-story quadruplets, but also the matching Legislative and Justice Buildings at the North end (9 and 7 stories respectively), the 1200-foot Swan Street building along the West edge, the 8-story Cultural Education Building housing the State Museum and Library, and finally, the bizarre ovoid of the Meeting Center--now universally referred to, in keeping with the dictum that every truly awful building earns a nickname, as the Egg.

Bird's eye view from the North, with the
1899 State Capitol in the foreground.

The construction of this Modernist behemoth spanned eighteen years, and the price tag--almost two billion bucks out of New York State taxpayers' pockets--was by far the largest chunk of change ever plunked down for the glorification of government in United States history. [1] But the cost in dollars, incomprehensible as it sounds, was trivial compared to the enormous price paid by the City of Albany, as its geographic center was flattened and its urban fabric irreparably rent open, to make way for Nelson Rockefeller's masturbatory megalo-monument to himself. And the Plaza remains, its architecture outmoded and discredited even before it was finished, its urban vision revealed as a cynical sham, like other Modernist monoliths planted in the heart of American cities during the hubristic excesses of the 1960, to intimidate the pedestrian, confuse the observer, and confound the urban reformers who would like to remake the cityscape along something approaching human principles.

How did this happen? How did perfectly rational people, looking at their troubled cities and searching for answers, decide to ignore the needs of communities, to shelve the pressing questions of housing, commerce, and transport, to punt on every concern that urban reformers had been voicing for years, and instead spend billions creating sterilized spaceship architecture that few wanted, many resented, and absolutely nobody needed? And what's more, how did this sprawling and epic awfulness happen here--here, in this quiet and congenial town along the Hudson, the Platonic ideal of the backwater burg--here in Albany, New York?

From Rat Creek to French Renaissance.

The land lorded over by Rockefeller's creation was first seen by Europeans in 1609, when English pilot Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon blundered up this way while searching for, of all things, a passage to China; Hudson's Dutch employers decided to make the most of it, and set up a little beaverpelt-extracting operation on an island at the mouth of the tidal estuary that had proved so irritatingly unnavigable. In 1624 a northerly outpost was constructed and christened Fort Orange, and developed into a small trading and hunting community peopled by the usual handful of freethinkers, misfits, castoffs and lowlifes.

Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant.

But a lack of manpower, a general absence of proper capitalist ambition, and the colony's tranquil and benign relations with its Indian neighbors combined to make it the laughingstock of the various transatlantic mercantile enterprises (an impression reinforced by Washington Irving, in his sneering history), and when the English took over in 1664 not a shot was fired nor a voice raised in protest.

As every schoolchild knows, the Brits renamed the two Dutch colonies after the two names of the Duke of York and Albany: York being a real place, and Albany (or "Alba") being, depending on who you believe, either the Gaelic name for Scotland, or a sort of nonexistent mystic Celtic fairyland. Fort Orange was soon razed, and the nearby hamlet of Beverwyck became the town of Albany, chartered in 1686, and destined to spend the next few eternities in the shadow of its island neighbor to the south.

In the colonial yesteryear the future site of the South Mall was an inhospitable ravine known as "Gallows Hill", presumably the site of suitably voyeuristic executions, until it was subdivided into single-acre lots in 1762.[2] Well into the 19th century it remained bisected by a rocky seasonal streambed called the Rutten Kill ("rat creek"), eventually filled in with heavy Hudson River clay in a public works project spearheaded by Mayor Erastus Corning I.[3] Corning, a hardware-store founder, nail-factory owner, banker, land speculator, and eventual railroad tycoon, was the richest man in Albany, and no doubt got richer from the Rutten Kill property he leveled.

Well before Erastus I's time, the town had started to break out of the soporific stupor of its first century. Pressure from upstate landholders brought the New York state capital here in 1797; but things really got going with the 1807 debut of Robert Fulton's steamboat and the 1813 groundbreaking for DeWitt Clinton's Erie Canal. This was a huge victory for New York in the post-revolutionary Let's Build a Huge Westerly Canal Sweepstakes among the states (and a crushing loss for Thomas Jefferson's Virginia). The Canal era made Albany a key junction on the new transcontinental superhighway from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes; as New York City blew past Boston and Philadelphia to become the biggest town in the new nation, Albany became the ninth largest by 1830, with a population around 25,000.[4]

Meanwhile, artists like those of Thomas Cole's Hudson River School and intellectuals like William Cullen Bryant and James Fenimore Cooper were making the Hudson Valley corridor the cultural as well as the economic heart of the nation. And even when the Canal gave way, as it began to even while some parts were still under to construction, to the railroad, Albany made out alright, situated as it was at the nexus of the New York-to-Montreal and Boston-to-Buffalo routes, and the center of a burgeoning industrial area stretching to neighboring Troy and Schnectady.

By the time the country peered groggily out of the wreckage of the Civil War, New York was the largest and most prosperous state in the Union: the once laughable Dutch colony had become the "Empire State". Its banking and investment center at Wall Street would become the financial center not just of the nation but of the world, and its governorship would give the country three of its next fifteen Presidents--plus three narrowly defeated candidates.[5] As the capital of this powerhouse, Albany was due for a facelift, and got one in the century's final decades, when wunderkind architect H. H. Richardson designed the new City Hall, completed in 1883, and the new State Capitol, "declared complete" in 1899 after three contentious decades of construction.[6]

Richard, Eidlitz & Perry's State Capitol.

This was the height of the École des Beaux-Arts period, and the Paris-trained Richardson, who had "burst on the astonished world as a sort of saviour", in the words of one contemporary, was largely seen as the man single-handedly crafting an American idiom from French Romantic and Gothic ingredients. The Louisiana-born architect built everything from churches to banks to lavish private homes: "to live in a house built by Richardson was a cachet of wealth and taste; to have your nest-egg in one of his banks gave you a feeling of perfect security; to worship in one of his churches made one think one had a pass-key to the Golden Gates."[7] New York's State Capitol had already been under construction for ten slow and inefficient years when, in 1875, Richardson was brought in to the project as part of a three-man commission, along with Frederick Law Olmsted and New York architect Leopold Eidlitz; the legislative, bureaucratic, and aesthetic wrangling would stretch two more years until the decision to proceed in French Renaissance style, and the actual construction would continue thirteen years past Richardson's demise, until Teddy Roosevelt, nixing the proposed final central tower, simply called a halt to it.[8] The state finally had a palace worthy of its eminence, having forked up the equivalent of about half a billion 2005 dollars to build it (even so, large rocks soon began to crack away from Eidlitz's extravagant groined Assembly ceiling, nearly braining several legislators, and a papier-maché ceiling was hastily erected four feet below the original).[9]

The next four decades were the glory years of Albany's urbanism. A steady stream of immigrant labor, a vital and varied manufacturing sector, and the hefty political clout that came with being New York's Capital combined to continue the city's growth up through the 1940's. New neighborhoods sprouted: towards Schnectady down Central Avenue, West and South of the new Olmsted-designed Washington Park, and South of Downtown, on the land Erastus Corning had filled with clay a century before, where a blue-collar Italian district came to be known as "the Pastures". Corning's name was still legend in the town, and his great-great grandson, the handsome and genial Erastus II, was elected mayor in 1942--having served his tutelage under Albany County Democratic boss Dan O'Connell.[10]

Incredibly, Erastus II would occupy the Mayor's office for the next forty-one years, a longer term of incumbency of any mayor in U.S. history; a charming and charismatic patrician, with back-alley political instincts and a formidable County machine behind him, Corning hardly ever even faced a serious election threat. But for the most part, the years of his tenure would be years of decline. In Albany as in so many other Northeastern industrial towns, factors like the decline of the railroad, the rise of the automobile, the growth of the West, and the simple decay of city infrastructure had made "urban blight" a buzzword by the 1960's. A decade and a half after World War II the city had become "a shabby, dank and crumbling backwater, with about as much pizzazz as a Dutch wooden shoe."[11]

It was into this depressing environment that a new Governor came in 1958. Corning was well acquainted with this new Governor, having played tennis and raced sailboats against him when they both summered, as silver-spoon teenagers, at Seal Harbor, Maine.[12] And surely, Corning must have felt just the slightest bit intimidated by the new occupant of the Mansion on Eagle Street. His own family was wealthy, but the new Governor's was far more so; his own name was illustrious in the small world of Albany, but the new Governor's was known around the world: Nelson A. Rockefeller.

The Sun-King of Kykuit.

Rockefeller's vast wealth was to Corning's much as Corning's was to the average Albany bricklayer: inconceivable. His predecessor in the Governor's mansion, the blueblooded Averill Harriman, was often considered unimaginably wealthy--yet Harriman's personal fortune was probably one-fifth that of Nelson's, and less than one one-hundredth that of the combined Rockefeller family holdings.[13] And Rockefeller was willing and able to use both his own wealth and the enormous financial clout his family wielded through the Chase Manhattan Bank to his advantage in the no-holds-barred world of New York power politics.

Rocky poses before one of his many public housing projects.'Let them eat concrete'!

Perhaps some men, born to great wealth, find that it stifles their ambition; Nelson Rockefeller was not one of those men. A month before he was elected Governor of New York for the first of his four terms, his image graced the cover of Time magazine, above the caption: Full of a desire to do big things.[14] Nelson Rockefeller had in fact been doing big things for quite some time; this was, after all, a man whose entry-level job fresh out of college consisted in directing the construction of Midtown Manhattan's Rockefeller Center (where he famously tangled with mural artist Diego Rivera).[15] The man who later admitted to having an "edifice complex" would go on from Rockefeller Center to help build the United Nations, to overhaul the state's transportation and park systems after mercilessly squeezing Robert Moses out of the position where he had reigned invulnerable for thirty years,[16] and to redesign the five college campuses of the State University of New York. Rockefeller's SUNY building program stretched from 1962 to 1980, cost even more than the South Mall (as much as $2.5 billion), created even newer forms of creative financing that did not require voter approval, and gave the college students of the system one new feature that may not have been universally appreciated: tuition payments.[17]

The true grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil tycoon who had price-gouged every competitor on the scene until he created the most powerful and detested monopoly in American history, Nelson understood the game of power as well as the most ruthless ward heeler. He understood that to spend money was to increase power, and during his time in office the State's budget and debt alike would both quadruple. He understood that personality was power, and cultivated an arrogance "easy, charming, gracious--the arrogance of a man handed at birth the power to enforce his will."[18] He knew that power in his own party was the necessary foundation of power outside it--but that was no problem, since, as Theodore H. White recalled, the New York Republican Party was essentially "a dependency of the Rockefeller family"; and for years Nelson kept a small blue folded piece of paper in his jacket pocket, which he would pull out on occasion to remind himself and others "precisely of the total the Party had cost the family over the years, a very large figure indeed."[19] And finally, there was no question, in his mind or that of most observers, that he wanted to be President, ever since a mid-1950's stint in the Eisenhower State Department--or that he very well might have been, had not a messy divorce ruined his chances in 1964 and let the nomination devolve onto the curmudgeonly Barry Goldwater.

The urge to power and the drive of ambition were balanced in Rockefeller's psyche by a stubborn commitment to principle, what White called " a strange, pietistic sense of responsibility"[20]--a crusading sense of mission on behalf of "ordinary people". But it is doubtful whether Nelson Rockefeller ever really had any concept of what an "ordinary" person looked like, thought, or felt. Samuel Johnson observed that "the rich and the powerful live in a perpetual masquerade, in which all about them wear borrowed characters,"[21] and Nelson Rockefeller had more combined wealth and power than any human being alive during his lifetime. Certainly his commitment to laudable causes such as civil rights in the South, which he stubbornly espoused at great political sacrifice in the '64 Southern primaries, was unshakeable--but his support for the "little man" was an abstraction, an empty surface, and ultimately, a self-delusory veneer for ever more personal aggrandizement.

Kykuit, Nelson's Hudson River estate near Tarrytown.
No steel and glass towers here.

But this ruthless and ingenious billionaire politician had another side, one just as significant as the Sun King who ruled New York: the artist. For from an early age Rockefeller had suffered from dyslexia and, rarely reading books, was drawn instead to the visual.[22] He wrote his family a long and earnest letter shortly before graduating from Dartmouth to say, with characteristic braggadocio, that he had "been thinking seriously of becoming an architect--probably a fine one."[23] Instead he became a boss of architects, and a patron of artists. And his interest in art and architecture was clearly related to a psychological urge to control the minutest details of his environment--an urge that asserted itself in the man's most public actions and his most private moments. One intimate recalled that the household staff at his palatial Hudson River estate, Kykuit, was required to take Polaroid photographs of every single household object--ashtrays, lamps, vases and so on--so that they could be repositioned, after cleaning, precisely where Nelson wanted them.[24]

This, then, was the Governor who arrived in Erastus Corning's dilapidated Downtown in 1959. But before we go on to explore the effects of Rockefeller's potent cocktail of political power and aesthetic passion, it is worth a glance back a half-century or so, to the birth of the various movements that would shape the Governor's aesthetic sense.

The Fumigators.

The Beaux-Arts architecture of H. H. Richardson and his generation was rich with lavish material choices, self-conscious ornamentation, and the solemn historicism of the Art Nouveau; Richardson's so-called "Million Dollar Staircase" in the New York Capitol is a perfect case in point, with its 77 faces carved in stone, from Presidents of the United States to anonymous models chosen by the stonecutters.[25] Like all popular movements, this one had a backlash; in this case, one that went quite a bit further "the other way."

The attack on decoration was led by Vienna architect Adolf Loos, author of the 1908 essay Ornament and Crime. Loos compared ornamentation to excrement and proclaimed, "I have made the following discovery and I pass it on to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects".[26] Like the Bauhaus school he would inspire, the dogmatic Loos saw Utopia in a world free from decoration: "The time is nigh, fulfillment awaits us! Soon the streets of the city will glisten like white walls. Like Zion, the holy city, the capital of heaven. Then, fulfillment will come!"[27]

These sentiments might have remained the far-out creed of a crapulous crackpot had the Archduke Ferdinand not been shot shortly thereafter, and the entire world plunged into a cataclysm of mindless carnage for the next four years. World War I formed a psychotic disconnect in the continuity of Western consciousness, as an entire generation of intellectuals, appalled at the horror of technologically enhanced slaughter, asked themselves where their sunny culture of progress had gone off the rails--and what they should do about it. The answer was to sweep away everything that had gone before--and thus was born the postwar avant-garde, as chronicled brilliantly by Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New.

Now 19th century architecture was no longer just tacky, or over-decorated; it was immoral, evil, part of the cultural progression that led to the slaughter of a generation in the muddy cornfields of France. In Germany the banner of Adolf Loos was taken up by architects like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, whose unadorned concrete boxes patterned after American industrial buildings would, ironically, evolve into unadorned glass and steel boxes in America, when Adolf Hitler chased out the "degenerate" Bauhaus school en masse, and its leading lights became enshrined and canonized at the U.S.'s leading architectural academies.[28] And in Paris, a Swiss-French maverick designer who affected the handle of "Le Corbusier" generalized the Bauhaus teachings, added his own weird design sense and a healthy dose of the 19th century's terror of disease, and preached the cleansing voodoo that would become known under the general rubric of "Modernism".

Corbu's idea of the perfect living environment:
Unité d'Habitation, Marseilles, France.

Modernism's "alarming obsession with social hygiene", which characterized every sub-movement from the Bauhaus on down, was perhaps a reaction to the organic, heterogenous, chaotic, and frequently unclean nature of industrial urbanism: "In future, instead of lurking on streets and squares and alleys, the human beetle would be made to live in tower blocks, to commute by monorail or biplane or moving pavement, to scuttle about in allotted green space between skyscrapers, and in general to do one thing at one time in one specified place, which accorded with the coming rationalization of all human life."[29] Corbusier was the master prophet of this conception, and preached it in a series of tendentious books, filled with doctrinal aphorisms and shrill manifestos. He had clearly learned from Loos, as when he called added decoration in architecture or design "baubles, charming entertainment for a savage";[30] but in proper avant-garde style, he had to push the envelope even further. Decoration was a social disease, and in his essay A Coat of Whitewash Corbusier proclaimed his mission to fumigate the world, as it were:

Whitewash is extremely moral. Suppose there were a decree requiring all rooms in Paris to be given a coat of whitewash. I maintain that that would be a police task of real stature and a manifestation of high morality, the sign of a great people.[31]

Carried Away by the Joy of Power.

Corbusier soon expanded his vision from architecture and design to the broader sphere of urban theory (never much of a detail man, Corb could bloviate on theoretical generalities like nobody's business). His proposed "City of Tomorrow" consisted of a series of enormous skyscrapers, joined by elevated superhighways, with lots of space between them filled with sylvan woodland--in other words, not far from the recipe for every Title I low-income housing project the U.S. would build in the 1960's. His mercifully ignored 1925 Voisin Plan for replacing the center of Paris with a similar "Radiant City" concept prefigured both the

A Modernist "Study for the Ideal City".

devastation that Rockefeller would wreak on Old Albany and its evangelical fervor: "Imagine all this junk, which till now has lain spread out over the soil like a dry crust, cleaned off and carted away and replaced by immense clear crystals of glass, rising to a height of over 600 feet!"[32]

If Corbusier was unconcerned with the prospect of casually and indiscriminately nuking an urban fabric that was hundreds of years in the making, he was also unworried about the growing dependence on automobile transportation his schemes would entail, or its consequences for city life. In fact he saw the coming annihilation of the street by the automobile as the best of all possible outcomes, waxing rhapsodically about "....the titanic rebirth of the traffic. Cars, cars! Speed, speed! One is carried away, seized by enthusiasm, by joy....enthusiasm over the joy of power."[33] Clearly Corbusier never whiled away his hours in a traffic jam; nor did he consider, as Lewis Mumford would observe, that his plan of tall buildings in a park was more likely in practice to become "buildings in a parking lot".[34]

But as silly as the Modernist manifestos may seem in retrospect, in their time they exerted immeasurable influence. The new architecture would spread, like a hardy and adaptive virus, through the multifarious aesthetic movements and political dogmas of the twentieth century. With a chameleon-like suitability for any ideology, it would pass through the Italian Futurists to become the house style of Mussolini's Fascists, morph into Russian Constructivism in the early Stalin years, and, in the expatriate hands of Gropius and Rohe, become the steely visage of Big Finance and Corporate America on this side of the ocean. For this was, whatever its intellectual underpinnings, ultimately and essentially the architecture of power, its creations the ultimate symbol, in an age "carried away with the joy of power", of the individual's abject fealty before indomitable forces both economic and governmental.

Van der Röhe's Seagrams Building:
Bauhaus grows up to be the
face of Corporate America.

Only Hitler, among the 20th century's murderous maniacs, would deny the new style, preferring the columned neoclassical schmaltz, on an epic scale, that dominated the never-built design for Berlin he created with official Nazi architect Albert Speer. Ironically, this would only help, for as James Kunstler has pointed out, Hitler's rejection of it only reinforced Modernism's moral superiority in the postwar period to the point where by 1945 "no decent person in the Western world could speak against....its practitioners".[35]

And thus the dictates against adornment, the iconoclasms of the Bauhaus, and the whole Radiant City hokum crossed the Atlantic to become the face of the Establishment, what Robert Hughes called "the international power style of the fifties and sixties.... scaleless, opaque, the metaphors out of control."[36] This reached its logical Western Hemisphere apotheosis in Brazil's new national capital: Brasilia, laid out in the late 50's along strict Le Corbusian lines as an entire city dedicated to the state bureaucracy--and considered by its many critics a disaster of both aesthetics and function. Like the modern artists in general-- who had begun as fiery revolutionaries, only to wind up as apolitical court jesters to the Rockefellers and their ancillary privileged peerage--the Modernists flashed mercurially across the cultural horizon, covering the entire sweep, in about twenty-five years, from bold innovators ready to tear down every vestige of a cancerous past, to pillars of the status quo, ready and waiting to do power's bidding.

And as we have seen, serving power, in the early 1960's in New York State, was synonymous with serving one man: Nelson Rockefeller.

And Rockefeller, of course, had been to Brasilia. And he liked it.


The Desire To Do Big Things.

There is an oft-repeated story about Rockefeller's original inspiration for building the behemoth that became the Albany Mall, a story that seems more a result of journalistic convenience and the longing for a good anecdote than from any basis in truth. It concerns a diplomatic visit to Albany from Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, during Rockefeller's first year in office, and the new Governor's embarrassment and chagrin when she rode in his limo through the "Pastures", and witnessed the seediness of the neighborhood around the Mansion-- this was the moment, it is alleged, that Rockefeller resolved to build something monumental, fitting the grandeur of his administration, so that foreign dignitaries could pay calls without having to see the slime and grime of a typical Northeastern city.[37] The story may contain a grain of truth--and the visit was certainly real--but it also seems clear that Rockefeller even before his swearing-in, had begun, in consultation with longtime right-hand man William J. Ronan, to think about fixing up the deteriorating neighborhood where he'd be spending the next few years.[38] And intuition tells us that the man who had helped build Rockefeller Center and the U.N., who had by this time a stable of the nation's most prominent architects in his inner circle, and who was "filled with a desire to do big things", did not need Queen Beatrix to give him the idea for a grand government complex in Albany.

He did need something else, though: political approval. The need to work through democratic channels would prove a challenge for the autocratic Rockefeller, whose philanthropic housing projects built throughout Latin America in the 50's "were his and went up in the manner he directed; if he did not like one site, or if one country's laws were too constraining....[he] could simply look elsewhere."[39] As Governor, Rockefeller would be constrained by all the inconveniences and obstructions of democracy: a legislature, a bureaucracy, and occasionally, even the voters. And, though he answered to the citizens of New York State, his Capital was a resident of an actual city, which meant he would have to deal, as well, with the considerable political power of that city: his old regatta rival, Erastus Corning.

Once a certain number of people were sold on the idea that something was needed in the way of facilities for the expanding State Government, the next step was deciding on an appropriate site--and here, perhaps, the new Governor and art connoisseur recalled Corbusier's maxim: "the anachronistic persistence of the original skeleton of the city paralyzes its growth."[40] In any case, though numerous locations were proposed for the development including some on the outskirts of town or across the river in Rensellaer, Rockefeller always had his sights set on the middle-class, predominantly Italian neighborhood known as the "Pastures" that lay directly south of the Capitol. To win civic approval, though, he cleverly pitched his scheme not as State expansion but as slum clearance, referring repeatedly to the area to be demolished as "the Gut"--an old red-light district that in reality lay just to the southeast, along the river.[41]

The Pastures, circa 1950, looking Southeast from the roof
of the Capitol; the Hudson is in the distant upper left.

The area to be thus, no pun intended, gutted, was a rectangle comprising 29 entire blocks and parts of 11 more, home to an estimated 7,000 people lived, along with one police station, three churches, two public schools, and 350 small businesses.[42] One of the tools Rockefeller used to make his vision a reality was that favorite plaything of 20th century autocrats, the blue-ribbon commission: in this case, the Temporary State Commission on the Capital City, chaired by Lieutenant-Governor and longtime ally Malcolm Wilson, which predictably discovered an urgent need for "a Capital City for New York State second to none in our nation--or indeed, in our world."[43] The site the Commission recommended for the setting of this modest plan was, in an amazing coincidence, exactly that which Rockefeller himself preferred.

Mayor Corning, however, had opposed the Commission from the start. It was considering issues, he objected, "that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be remotely considered of state concern".[44] A preservationist by nature and instinct, Corning now came out swinging against the new Governor's pet plan, calling the proposal "a ruthless takeover" and accusing Rockefeller of "planning to carve out from the heart of the city a large, sterile area for a monumental group of buildings which will look most spectacular on postcards but will, in fact, hurt the people of Albany."[45] The Mayor's objections to the project stemmed not from architectural or aesthetic concerns but from his feeling for the citizens of Albany (and, a cynic might add, their consistently Democratic votes), as he made clear in a speech on in April '62: "Do not build this magnificent monument on a foundation of human misery."[46]

But "Rocky" would win the first round against his Albany rival. In 1962 the Legislature, at the urging of the Commission and the Governor, voted for $20 million to appropriate the land and buildings on the 98.5 acres of the proposed site, and begin demolition work. The canny Rockefeller had learned, from his downstate rival Robert Moses, the value of "stake driving"--beginning a project on the flimsiest of pretexts, with the barest of budgets, and then forcing it down legislators' throats as a fait accompli. As it turned out, the initial $20 million "opened the door to all the subsequent events", starting an unstoppable process in which almost two billion dollars would be squandered over the next eighteen years.[47] In 1962, however, even after the groundbreaking, it was by no means clear that Rockefeller would find a way to appropriate even the lowball $250 million estimated cost of realizing his vision, let alone the actual cost.

Show Me the Money.

For in spite of the Legislature's apparent willingness to play ball, there was still one massive problem with Rockefeller's plan: it was completely illegal. New York State law specifically and unambiguously forbid the state to contract such a massive debt unless it was both authorized by the Legislature, and approved by the state's voters in a bond issue referendum. Both the spirit and letter of the law were clear: state politicians could not build huge and expensive boondoggles without public approval.

Publicly Corning and the Albany Democrats were still railing against the project, calling it "hasty and ruthless....what might be expected in a dictatorship".[48] But behind the scenes the Mayor could see which way the wind was blowing. It was clear there was going to be some sort of massive development between the Capitol and the Governor's Mansion; the thing now was to make the most of it. And Rocky was twisting in the wind; he had gotten his groundbreaking, all right, but now it was apparent there wasn't a chance in hell the voters were going to spring for a $250 million tab for a few office towers filled with State bureaucrats (and an esoteric collection of modern art). Sensing the pickle the Governor was in, and realizing that in solving it, he would dramatically increase his own power, Corning experienced a dramatic and sudden change of heart, and having begun as the Mall's sharpest critic, went on to become its financial godfather.

Through the rest of his life, Corning took pride in the Byzantine creative accounting scheme that circumvented the law, the legislature, and the taxpayers of the state--a scheme so convoluted that the legal document spelling it out ran 33 pages. Albany would issue a series of 40-year municipal bonds to build the South Mall, then hire the state as contractor to carry out the construction; the state would pay an indemnity in lieu of taxes to compensate the county for lost revenue, and take legal possession when the bonds were fully amortized in 2004.[49]

Erastus Corning in the prime of his power.

Eventually it would be not the city but Albany County, which had a "broader tax base and lower current bonded indebtedness", which issued the bonds; it didn't hurt that through the still-potent O'Connell machine Corning wielded almost monarchical powers over the County. Day-to-day financing throughout the construction would come from a series of cash appropriations by the Legislature, which would be periodically reimbursed by the County as it issued municipal paper. Corning took advantage of a law allowing municipalities to issue bonds in excess of their debt limit without voter approval, provided the bonds were self-liquidating--which they would be, because of the state's commitment to what was essentially a forty-two year lease-to-buy contract.[50]

Although the scheme's end run around the democratic process did not endear it to the city's residents and taxpayers, Corning had little to fear--and everything to gain. After thus crafting the deal to be "landlord to a Rockefeller", the Mayor proceeded to milk it for all it was worth: extra revenue, contracts for crony companies, even spare landfill for his own private investment property. Corning owned a number of ravine-crossed acres in neighboring Glenmont, and when the South Mall's clay fill was being excavated in 1965, Mayor Corning would make sure to have the contractor bring it across town by the truckload--thus leveling his own lots with the same dirt his great-grandfather had dredged from the Hudson well over a century before.[51]

Forgotten was the "foundation of human misery"; Erastus Corning was now singing a different tune, and the Mall was now, in his words,

...a living monument, a place for pleasure as well as work, a place for homes and music and beauty and culture as well as the most spectacular complex of government offices ever dreamed of.[52]

Bailing out the imperious Rockefeller was a memory he would openly cherish for the rest of his life. In a hospital bed, a few months before his 1982 death, when close friends asked him what he wanted to be remembered for, the forty-year Mayor replied--no doubt with the trademark genial grin that was his political signature--"that I had Nelson by the balls".[53]

Rocky and Erastus, tolerating
each other for the cameras.

The Plaza's original cynically stated cost figure of $250 million never fooled anybody. Since the city was getting reimbursed no matter what, and the state was just "leasing to buy", there was effectually no financial oversight for the duration of the project. (It also probably did not help, in the fiscal probity department, that the Plaza's guiding force was an oil heir to whom a million dollars was a nice week's trust income.) State Comptroller Arthur Levitt did raise a continuous stream of objections (self-serving, some said), but to no avail. Legally obligated to sign each amendment for an increase in estimated cost--of which there turned out to be many--he attached a rider to every such increase noting that the financing not only cost extra millions in interest by using local rather than state bonds, at correspondingly higher rates, but "circumvented the method prescribed by the State Constitution--approval by vote of the people--for incurring debt."[54]

The eventual cost of the Mall, when the dust began to settle, was estimated at $1.9 billion. This colossal cost overrun did not seem to perturb Nelson Rockefeller overmuch, although when it came to building low-income housing for some of the displaced residents of central Albany, he justified pulling the plug on the project on the grounds that the projected cost had risen from 10 to 20 million dollars--a difference of about one-half of one percent of the ultimate price tag for his personal Brasilia-on-the-Hudson.[55]

The King and His Court.

Rockefeller was probably too busy sketching ideas on napkins and tossing ideas around with his picked circle of prominent architects to spend much time with the accountants' dreary columns. Ever since his Rockefeller Center experience, the frustrated artist-politician had cultivated this court, which comprised some of the best-known names in the field; and the most distinguished of these, who would become the primary architect associated with Empire State Plaza, was the redoubtable Wallace Harrison.

The courtly, six-foot-four Harrison was a Massachusetts native who had never been to college but cut his teeth instead at the Mount Olympus of the architectural profession, the legendary firm of Mead, McKim, and White. Though bred in the Beaux-Arts tradition, Harrison was an aesthetic chameleon who by the postwar period was thoroughly happy to drink the Modernist Kool-Aid, a model Corbusian who campaigned, in fact, for "Corbu" to be on the team designing the United Nations complex (and, confronted with the Frenchman's "extraordinary artistic conceit", came to regret it almost immediately).[56] Over an impressively long career Harrison would go on, from his initial stunning success at Rockefeller Center, to design or quarterback an impressive number of the iconic structures of the twentieth century: the "Trylon" and "Perisphere" of the 1939 World's Fair, the U.N., La Guardia Airport, and the Lincoln Center complex, including the Metropolitan Opera House.

The Governor and the architect.

Early on, the renowned architect enjoyed an equal and mutually respectful relationship with the young Nelson Rockefeller. His "rare combination of intelligence, ethical behavior, and warm human understanding tempered the millionaire's hard-nosed impetuosity,"[57] and there is no doubt that during the Rockefeller Center years, Harrison's experience and judgment made him a mentor of sorts. But by 1962 things had changed; Harrison was getting on in years, while Rockefeller was in his prime, tasting the power of the Governorship, and ready to seize more control. As another architect in the inner circle recalled, "the wonderful thing about Wallace was that he would say no to Nelson. But that changed. Toward the end Wallace did what Nelson wanted."[58]

What Nelson wanted, and got, was complete control. Harrison, George Dudley, and other architects were there to turn his vision into reality--not to offer their input. Dudley, who actually did most of the nitty-gritty draftsmanship while Nelson and Harrison scribbled on napkins and posed with hardhats, later gave the Governor credit for his adherence to the core tenets of Modernism: "the articulation of functions and their implementations broadly and deeply always came before the emergence of design in the forms."[59] No one questioned that, regardless of what firms were involved, the ultimate architect was Rocky. The master plan for the site was his, and interestingly enough for a capital in a democratic country, was inspired by the capital of a theocracy: the Palace of the Dalai Lama at Lhasa, Tibet,[60] where a huge platform across a ravine functioned as base for a series of towers. Rockefeller also overruled his architects in choosing the stone surfaces that would dominate the Plaza: lavishly expensive Vermont Pearl white and Georgia Cherokee marbles, both "forbiddingly cold and characterless white stones that intensify the stiffness of the South Mall buildings."[61]

It was also Rocky, if local legend can be believed, who single-handedly designed the curvilinear Meeting Center--later to be universally known as "The Egg"--when at a breakfast meeting with the architects he put a half-grapefruit atop a small pitcher of cream.[62] One can imagine the sycophantic scribbling that followed his offhand comment, "we need something like this!" --and the formidable engineering talent that, in the wake of one billionaire's offhand whim, went into fashioning the ovoid structure that one critic would liken to a "futuristic Italian bidet."[63]

Architecture, of course, was only the beginning; for Rockefeller's vision involved not only a monumental series of buildings in a suitably awesome setting, but an art collection, displayed both outdoors and on the underground Concourse, that he saw as integral from the beginning. At his insistence every building contract contained a clause which dedicated a portion of the total cost to the purchase of artworks.[64] The pieces were all, of course, chosen personally by Nelson Rockefeller.

Early rendering showing Harrison's proposed
'Freedom Arch' where the Cultural Ed
Center now stands.

Ultimately, Harrison, Dudley, and the many other architects and engineers brought to Albany to make Rockefeller's plan a reality were there as the Sun King's High Court, ready to do his bidding. As Carol Krinsky put it, in a brilliant essay comparing the Plaza development to Peter the Great's 18th century founding of St. Petersburg: "The entire Mall was developed in a way that suggests if not royal power, then at least that a strong will can still be exercised in a democracy, and what the consequences may be."[65]

Strong will, indeed! When it comes to Nelson Rockefeller, those words seem deeply inadequate. Implacable, relentlessly persistent, aggressive and merciless: Rockefeller's will was all these and more--and what was the combined power of his money and his Governorship if not "royal"?

His response to critics showed a monarchical indifference as well. As the construction got underway, a growing chorus of skeptics was starting to question whether Albany or New York State needed a Halicarnassus or even a Brasilia on the scale that Rockefeller was building. Drawing on the Governor's reputed libidinous prowess, dubbed the sprawling undertaking South of the Capitol "Rocky's Last Erection"--to which the Governor cheerily replied that if it was his last, "it was going to be a beaut!"[66]

Of Steel, Concrete, Graft, and Gravy.

The progress of the "beaut" was not always pleasant to behold. One engineering debacle after another threatened to sink the project. Over 3 million cubic yards of clay and mud had to be trucked away from the site before the first of 24,000 steel pilings were driven six stories deep, to where there was solid bedrock--enough girders, if laid end to end, to stretch from Manhattan to the Adirondacks.[67] 232,000 tons of steel, 900,000 cubic yards of concrete, and 40,000 tons of marble[68] were trucked, ferried, and flown to the 98-acre construction site, where they created confusion of Hieronymous Bosch dimensions as multiple contractors tripped over and collided with their materials, their machines, and each other.

Rocky singlehandedly directing the construction?

Architectural and construction contracts were doled out like ice cream to firms from all over the state. Although they worked under Harrison's aegis, most were chosen on the basis of geography and Rockefeller's political needs: a Buffalo firm, for instance, was picked to do the Legislative Building at the Mall's northern end, due to the need to appease powerful State Senate Majority Leader Walter Mahoney.[69] The resulting chaos can be imagined. Fires erupted periodically, including major outbreaks at Swan Street and in the Corning Tower that caused lengthy delays. Water mains broke, including one that poured 2 million gallons into the already-chaotic construction site.[70] And the haphazard, rushed, and graft-riddled nature of the bidding and contracting process led to every imaginable manner of labor-related headaches: "fights between workers, interference with the work of neighboring contractors, pilferage of materials....because only an unsupervised guard force was present, organized crime activity, suspicion of arson, and work stoppages caused by petty union rivalries."[71]

Cost overruns were a way of life at the South Mall, and projects would stop in their tracks for days waiting for the Legislature to appropriate another cash infusion, or for Albany County's bankers to sign off on yet another bond issue. While the average regional cost of office space was about $40 per square foot, the Empire State Plaza complex's square-foot costs would eventually be estimated as high as $200.[72]

How to build a 'futuristic Italian bidet'.

For Albany residents the disillusion came years before the Plaza's completion, and it was bitter. Trucks carrying sludge, cement, steel, and marble rumbled through their quiet neighborhoods at all hours of night and day; work crews were disorderly and left garbage in the streets. In the summers a corrosive dust rose from the exposed clay and sediment and rose over the overheated town in a noxious cloud, burning lungs and covering buildings with a sooty film. Years passed with no end to the construction in sight, and the long-suffering Albanians coined nicknames for the unseemly colossus in their midst: ''The Great White Elephant,'' ''Rocky's Erector Set'' and ''The Albany Maul."[73]

In 1971, with the project far over budget and no end in sight, one State Assemblyman drew an analogy to the international scene when he said the Mall had become "the Legislature's Vietnam", and they had no choice but to "continue and finish it so we can get out."[74]

And just as America bungled its way out of a Southeast Asian civil conflict on the globe's far side, Rockefeller's extravagant undertaking stumbled to its ignoble close. The graft and corruption of the Plaza construction would be the stuff of Albany legend for years to come. Mostly completed by November of 1973, the Mall would not be officially christened the "Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza" until 1978. By that time Nelson Rockefeller had been out of office for five years, seen his Presidential hopes dashed, and served two humiliating years as Gerald Ford's Vice President. It was left to successor Hugh Carey to dedicate the complex that Rockefeller had dreamed up, gushing in proper ribbon-cutting mode of the way the Plaza "was more than buildings. This complex is a unique concentration of great architecture, great art and of New York's great place in history."[75] But the last word went to Mayor Corning, who, devious as ever, gave his longtime rival the most poisonous of backhanded compliments: "this was, purely and simply, Governor Rockefeller's dream and a very great one, and based, I think in part, on what he had seen in Brasilia....that was a nickname of the Mall at one time, 'Brasilia on the Hudson', and Governor Rockefeller never objected to it."[76]

The Debacle.

After the ceremonies were over, the trucks and workers long gone, and Rockefeller's administration a fading memory, a rather prosaic and anticlimactic reality remained: legions of architects and engineers had collaborated, Albany's citizens had suffered, its politicians had schemed, its bankers and lawyers dotted i's and crossed t's, all for a result of rather overpowering mediocrity. Aesthetically it was a disaster, outmoded before its completion; from an urbanist perspective it was in Jane Jacobs' words "planning insanity....only succeeding in destroying a good amount of housing and small business";[77] and to the purposes for which it was ostensibly built, it was manifestly inadequate.

The offices in the Corning Tower and its satellite structures were supposed to meet the state government's administrative needs for generations to come. Actually, the Mall's inefficient and profligate use of urban space meant that, even before the ribbon-cutting the State was already hunting for additional office space elsewhere in town.[78] Meanwhile, the goal of attracting tourist dollars to Albany has yet to be fulfilled: "for a grand complex at the crossroads of the Empire State, the 15,000 visitors a month that the Visitor Assistance arm of the plaza counts is a modest number."[79]

Those visitors who do come do not find Empire State Plaza a welcoming or even comprehensible place. A 1996 Albany Times-Union article entitled Empire State Plaza Creates a State of Confusion quoted a vendor at the lower concourse's Coffee Cart: "Believe it or not, the question I get asked almost every day? 'How do I get to the outside world? How do I get onto the street?' I swear to God, I get asked it at least two or three times a day." [80] One design expert noted that the average visitor was apt to be "disoriented once inside--by the complexity and extent of public circulation space"[81]--a fancy way of saying the place is huge, and while it may be long on bizarre and abstract art installations, it is short on basic signage and intuitive layout. As curator Dennis Anderson, currently trying to make the complex more "user-friendly", blandly remarked, "thinking of how to get to places may not have been part of the design".[82]

If getting out of the Plaza can be bewildering to the newcomer, getting in can be a daunting challenge for those in the surrounding areas. The most populous adjacent neighborhood is the Lark Street/Center Square region, just to the West; the pedestrian who would like to visit the Plaza from this direction faces the prospect of sprinting across Swan Street--a thoroughfare unbroken by lights or crosswalks spitting a continuous stream of automobile traffic up from the I-787 interchange--and then scaling a sheer marble wall, or walking several blocks to one side or the other in search of one of two inconspicuous openings. One neighbor looking for solutions noted that the Plaza is "cut off from the surrounding community by a wall both physical and psychological"[83] while merchants' groups both on Lark Street and Downtown have complained that the limited pedestrian access in or out of the complex makes it prohibitively difficult for potential customers to venture back and forth from the surrounding neighborhoods: "you have to go out of one of the sides, then walk up State Street then down Lark Street. It's only two blocks away, but it's seven, eight blocks to walk."[84]

Nausea and confusion inside the Egg.

As for the ovoid spaceship that is the Egg, not a state building at all but a performing arts center, it continues and expands on the same leitmotifs that pervade the rest of the complex: disorientation, alienation, and confusion. Many visitors have remarked that "once inside...all sense of elevation and direction disappears, and a vague sense of claustrophobia can creep in"; while even the building's marketing manager conceded that "a feeling of bewilderment is not unusual"--and "chuckled" that it took her six months of working there every day before she stopped getting lost.[85]

Nothing to See Here, Folks.

Though enormous expense and lavish materials went into their construction, the outdoor portions of the mall, with their multiple reflecting pools and symmetrical rows of trees recalling Versailles (Sun King again!), are rarely frequented by outsiders; only the state workers really use them, and even they only in the summer months. The outdoor portions of the Mall are, in fact, closed from Christmas through April, as all through Albany's severe winter, gale-force winds, aided by the Plaza's north-south orientation, sweep down the Hudson Valley from Canada with enough force to knock over a man, and huge ice sheets form on the grey marble expanse. But the Mall's ultimate purpose, as a proper monument to power, is not to invite visitors, but to awe and intimidate them; and its aesthetic effect, not to bring them in, but to keep them out.

This is true not only of the sheer marble walls that face most of the Plaza's residential neighbors, but the looming twin sentinels at the North end of the complex, facing the old Capitol as if in defiance: the Legislative and Justice buildings. These matching seven- and nine-story structures, looking for all the world like castoff props from the set of The Empire Strikes Back, form the approach from the old Downtown Albany of State Street and Washington Avenue. And a daunting approach it is. Critic Charles Goodsell cited the Legislative Building as an example of the second of three types of undesirable bureaucratic structures, the "government fortress", explaining: "it presents itself as an alien object, from which one backs away psychologically. The citizen standing in front is made to feel like an outsider, rejected and excluded."[86]

Left: Rockefeller's Cultural Education Center; Right:Mussolini's Palace of Italian Civilization.

Rejected and excluded: exactly the purpose. For the whole purpose of the architecture of Empire State Plaza is containment, control, coercion; its message to the individual always that of the overwhelming authority of the State. Consider the unintentionally revealing language of the 1963 report of the initial State Commission: the frugal and obvious solution of housing state offices in varied locations throughout the downtown area was rejected because it would have meant mean a "failure to create as a unit a structural symbol of the State Government."[87] What was need was not just a functional space but a "structural symbol"--that is to say, an emblem of state supervision. Big Brother is alive and well in Albany; as Robert Hughes writes, "authoritarian architecture must be clear and regular on the outside, and let the passing eye deduce nothing of what goes on inside. It must be poker-faced to the point of immobility; the mask must not slip."[88]

It is perhaps telling, in this light, that Gail Starr, perhaps the most fervent Plaza booster currently in print, waxes even more enthusiastically about the security system than she does about the art, architecture, or history:

Plaza security is maintained ably via a system as sophisticated as the air conditioning, water cooling, or any of the other support systems. A giant Central Security Console constantly monitors activities in 15 buildings and throughout all six levels of the platform. Through 100 data-gathering panels, the Console scans 2,000 remote points in under five seconds, while a computer cathode ray tube projects onto a display panel detailed floor plans of any area of alarm.[89]

One pictures Nelson Rockefeller, if he were still alive, seated at the helm of the Giant Central Security Console, his grinning face bathed in the bluish light of the cathode ray tubes--would he not relish the security, the authority, the control? Would his roving eye, transmitted through 2,000 remote points, scan over his abstract art collection and his legions of bureaucratic drones, taking an equal and proprietorial pleasure in both? And would he find some satisfaction in it all?

The Architecture of Coercion.

Wallace Harrison had been designing the biggest buildings in the western world since the 1920's; he had all the prestige of Frank Lloyd Wright--or more--without any of Wright's mercurial contrarianism, and a stellar reputation for forthrightness and integrity. His defense of the South Mall was rooted in the doctrine of Corbusier: "It's one of the few places in the world where that invention, the American skyscraper, is given its proper place in relation to the buildings around it".[90] But this was halfhearted. An old and tired man by the time of the Mall's completion, disillusioned and indifferent, Harrison would never design another major building. Empire State Plaza was a failure, and he knew it; and the critics, by and large, would not be gentle.

There is no relationship at all between buildings and site, neither at grade nor atop the podium, since all vestiges of the existing site have been so totally obliterated. Thus, as one stands on the Plaza itself, there is an eerie feeling of detachment. The Mall buildings loom menacingly, like aliens from another galaxy set down on this marble landing stripÉ.a naive hodgepodge of barely digested design ideas....rumors of Le Corbusier, eavesdroppings of Oscar Niemeyer, threats of Albert Speer. --Martin Filler, Progressive Architecture[91]

Rockefeller Center had been acclaimed by both urbanists and architectural critics, and more importantly, embraced by the public as a welcome addition to its city's urban fabric. Empire State Plaza's boosters were few and far between at least outside of Rockefeller's inner circle--some of whom continue to praise it, a bit halfheartedly. Even Harrison's biographer, Victoria Newhouse, condemned it for "its formal rigidity and complete failure to relate to the existing city",[92] called the forms "trite Le Corbusian", and noted the unfortunate contrast with the gracefulness and ease of H. H. Richardson's Capitol.[93]

Looking north across the Plaza, under a sky worthy of Frederic Church.

Le Corbusier had proclaimed that "the luxury object is well-made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture."[94] But the Mercedes materials hand-selected by Rockefeller throughout the complex were not spared from ridicule any more than the discredited Radiant City concept: the immoderate use of costly Vermont and Georgia marble reminded Carol Krinsky of "a showroom for quarry owners."[95]

Perhaps the saddest aspect of all, regarding the Albany Mall, is neither its brutal power nor its gross excess, but its simple amateurishness. Nelson Rockefeller may have been a fan of architecture, but he was, in the end, not an architect; he may have appreciated modern art--in fact, its cool abstraction probably said more to him than to any of the "ordinary people" he dedicated his work to--but he was certainly no artist. The striving for immortality of this latter-day Ozymandias would grasp instead, not tragedy, but mediocrity, insignificance, and irrelevance. There is something almost touchingly pathetic, in retrospect, about the Governor's sunny 1963 prediction that Plaza would "turn out to be the greatest thing to happen to this country in a hundred years."[96] Nelson Rockefeller believed this; he expected to be loved by posterity for the gifts he bequeathed. Instead he has been, with shocking rapidity for one so celebrated, largely forgotten and ignored, and his architectural legacy has become, after less than thirty years, an urban conundrum, an embarrassment, and a joke.

The artist who has not properly learned how to speak, in his chosen medium, finds that the medium speaks for him. It may speak a message that is unintended; it may also reveal messages and intentions not consciously apparent in the artist's mind, displaying, with merciless caprice, recesses in his soul he may have never wanted exposed. For Nelson Rockefeller, who dabbled in art but lived for power, the unintended message is the one that lives on:

What speaks from these stones is not the difference between American free enterprise and, say, Russian socialism, but the similarities between the corporate and the bureaucratic states of mind, irrespective of country or ideology. One could see any building at Albany Mall with an eagle on top, or a swastika, or a hammer and sickle; it makes no difference to the building.[97]

The Legacy.

New York's decline continued, through the Rockefeller years and beyond--the state having just lost two more electoral votes in the latest reapportionment. No Governor of the state since Rockefeller's run in 1964 has made a serious challenge for the Presidency. Albany's population, meanwhile, went into a steep decline right about the time the ground was broken for the Mall, eventually dipping humiliatingly under 100,000 around the turn of the century, and still falling.

Symbol of today's downtown, the combination
thrift shop and pregnancy care center.

The post-Corning years have seen the demise of the O'Connell machine, the rise of reformers and historic preservationists, and one scheme after another to "revitalize" the city; yet all have failed, and as the suburbs of Colonie have become affluent yet culturally barren suburban expanses of strip malls and box stores, the Capital of the Empire State limps along with an economy revolving around state bureaucracy, hospital services, and public assistance.

Like many of history's frauds and con games, the Modernist movement began in earnest idealism, among Utopian dreamers--but its destructive and debilitating effects have proved as durable as its idealism was evanescent. Its creations may have come to look "inhuman, or even absurd"; they may have even "ceased to work, and to a point where the social pretensions behind them no longer seem credible";[98] but its buildings will be enduring among us for a long time yet to come.

During the same years Nelson Rockefeller was conceiving and creating his epic monument, some thirty miles up the Hudson, the General Electric company was churning out capacitors whose dielectric components, compounds called polychlorinated biphenyls, were seeping into the Hudson River, where they would linger carcinogenically and indestructibly, inexorably working their way up the food chain in a frightening process known as bioaccumulation, until only a thorough dredging of the river could even hope to minimize--but never undo--the long-term damage. Was it the hubris of our World War victory, or the anxiety of our nuclear Cold War paranoia, that led us to invent and propagate such things? The Albany Mall monoliths are the PCB's of architecture, never decaying, too hardy to destroy, too inorganic to assimilate. And the thoughtful mind is apt to wonder, apprehensively, somewhere in the back of the mind, what the long-term cultural health risks are in allowing them to remain standing in our midst.

We will never know what central Albany could have been, had the same amount of money, energy, talent and imagination wasted on the Plaza been spent instead on a redevelopment that honored the public, served the community, and related to the city as an organic living entity. We only have the possibly indestructible evidence before us of "what not to do", and as much as the purists might call, ultimately, for demolition, the realists are going to have to figure out a way, not only in Albany but in Detroit, Atlanta, Boston, and around the world, of integrating these monstrosities back into some sort of workable city environment. Perhaps a first step would be to carve Martin Filler's words into the Vermont marble of the Plaza:

....the built embodiment of a government rampant, gorging on its citizenry for the benefit of its own growth and self-perpetuation...the ultimate cautionary evidence in this country of what can happen if the appetites of the beast go unchecked.[99]

And with that we leave Albany, and allow our anonymous visitor to go on his way, drawing his own conclusions about the bizarre alien superstructures on the Hudson's upper shore--in all likelihood, forgetting them moments later--or perhaps, if he is the curious sort, venturing into the city to explore further: Why is this here? What proud latter-day Ozymandias, "whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command", erected this pile of marble, glass, and steel--and for what reason?

And what the hell was he smoking?


Appendix 1: Empire Plaza Creates A State of Confusion

Albany Times-Union, February 18, 1996
By Darryl Campagna, Staff Writer

   From a distance, it looks so easy: a long, curving exit ramp off the highway,
with signs clearly pointing the way.
   The unmistakable profile of stark, futuristic office towers dominates the
horizon and soars above the older, lower skyline of Albany. It's impossible to
miss. Empire State Plaza, this way. Straight ahead. Stay in this lane.
   Then you shoot into a dark tunnel, like Alice through the looking glass.
North Parking or South? And cars are coming up fast behind you.
   You zip by an illuminated visitors parking sign. Straight ahead, you
literally see light at the end of the tunnel, which is not actually good because
that means you're heading back onto the highway that takes you out of the city.
Slightly frantic now, you pull into the next lot, which is clearly not for
   Already you're lost. How did this happen so fast?
   ''Where do I go from here? I'm a visitor,'' you yell through your window to
the attendant near the entrance. Just behind you, cars keep whipping through the
tunnel far faster than the posted 30-mph speed limit, many of them are making
abrupt right turns into the lot you're blocking.
   ''Pull out here, stay in the left lane, go all the way through the tunnel,
make a left as you come out and do a big loop all the way around,'' the
attendant replies in a practiced manner that makes you wonder how many times a
day he does this. ''That'll bring you back to visitors parking.''
   Right. Welcome to Empire State Plaza, showcase for the city of Albany.
   Completed 20 years ago this year, the Plaza is one of the state capital's
prime tourist attractions. Here, people come to tour the Capitol, stroll through
the State Museum, catch a concert at the Egg, take the elevator up to the
Observation Deck or simply ogle Nelson Rockefeller's love-it-or-hate-it
marble-and-concrete legacy.
   That's if they can find the way.
   ''Believe it or not, the question I get asked almost every day? 'How do I get
to the outside world? How do I get onto the street?' '' said Timothy
Moynihan-Skye, who works at the French Quarter Coffee Cart in the concourse near
the North Lobby. ''I swear to God, I get asked it at least two or three times a

   In the last few years, attrition and state cutbacks have reduced from 12 to
eight the number of full-time guides at the plaza's Visitors Assistance Office.
(Four part-timers also were cut a year ago when the state eliminated a contract
with part-time workers.) It's been at least four years since the state offered
tours of the Plaza. The little Visitors Information cubicles spaced along the
quarter-mile plaza Concourse are no longer staffed full time.
   The state Office of General Services, which oversees the plaza and its
operations, recently has realized that there might be a better way to welcome
visitors here.
   ''There are a number of different aspects to making it user-friendly,'' said
Dennis Anderson, director of the OGS Curatorial Services Office. ''I think tours
are part of it.''
   The tour of the state Capitol was recently redesigned to make it more '
'interactive'' and increase the involvement of the groups that take it most
often. For example, a guide leading a group of schoolchildren would engage the
students in question-and-answer sessions appropriate to their age, instead of
simply talking to them. OGS would like to revive the general Plaza tour, and is
looking for volunteers who would be trained as tour guides.
   ''We're also looking at signage, to make clearer signage on the approach and
then indicate elevators and have signs move you through the space and get you
where you want to go,'' Anderson said. In other words, OGS officials have
realized that confusion can start with the overhead highway signs for ''North
Parking'' and ''South Parking'' on the Empire State Plaza exit ramp off
Interstate 787. With no indication of which buildings are near which parking
area, people have mere seconds to choose North or South.
   (In case you're wondering, South Parking will put you near the State Museum
and the Corning Tower. North Parking will put you near the Legislative Office
Building, the Capitol and the Justice Building. Visitors can park in lots on
both sides.)
   Anderson suspects that people who need to park at the Plaza only occasionally
will make a quick decision on North or South their first time through the tunnel
and stick with it forever, on the theory that it's better to know where they are
than to go exploring.
   Which raises another, more philosophical point about the design of vast
mini-cities like Empire State Plaza, which combine grand-scale above-ground
architecture with sprawling underground passageways, bereft of natural light and
   In the year since Anderson's office took over responsibility for the Plaza's
Visitors Services from the plaza's convention center, OGS administrators have
had a number of meetings and discussions on the best way to make Empire State
Plaza a little easier to get around.
   One conclusion: Places like this -- and Anderson cites New York City's
Rockefeller Center as a similar example -- were never really designed for
visitors in the first place.

   ''Once you're inside, they're complex,'' Anderson explained. ''It's expected
of you to know your way around because people use it all the time. So thinking
of how to get to places may not have been part of the design
   Yet visitors are indisputably an important part of Plaza business. No one
knows exactly how many come on a typical day. But more than a million people a
year go through the State Museum, and OGS suspects a good number of them see
other parts of the complex.
   And in the winter, visitors have no choice but to get around underground, as
the above-ground portions are officially closed after the annual Christmas
tree-lighting ceremony until spring. Winds strong enough to knock a person down,
coupled with large patches of ice on the marble paving stones, make getting
around the above-ground Plaza in winter somewhat hazardous.
   Illustrated directories of the plaza are spaced along the Concourse
underground, but they can add to the confusion of even experienced Plaza-goers.
   John Lansing, a delivery driver for Graybar Electric Co. Inc. of Albany, left
his truck parked in the ground-level loop, where conventioneers board and
disembark buses, one recent morning while he dashed into the Concourse and
peered at a directory. He had to get his truck three levels down to the P-1
South parking, the Plaza's subterranean loading dock and delivery area, which
visitors almost never see except by accident. But on this morning, he found his
usual entry point for P-1 South closed.
   ''Now I got to go back out and find it,'' Lansing muttered as he strode back
to his truck. ''Oh, boy.''
   Still, for the first-time visitor, Empire State Plaza can be as fascinating
as it is confusing. For all practical purposes, it is a self-contained
community, a place where a state employee on a lunch break can drop off the dry
cleaning, get a haircut, mail a letter, rent a video, get a medical checkup,
join an exercise group or stroll along the Concourse for a look at the
museum-quality artwork on display.
   But the lack of natural light or landmarks in this underground world, coupled
with the first-timer's feeling that the merging white and gray walls are
identical no matter which way you turn, can hinder a visitor's sense of ease in
the Plaza.
   ''I know how to get here, but don't ask me anywhere else,'' said Marie
Armstrong of Princetown. She was sitting at a small table at the Concourse
farmer's market surrounded by baked goods, cheeses and yogurt from her goat
farm, and defined ''here'' by pointing at the floor under her table, where she
is stationed every Wednesday in the winter. ''Before I ever started here, I made
an exploratory trip, because it is very intimidating.''
   But because Armstrong is often the first person visitors spot as they walk
through the doors separating the North and South concourses, she's taken for an
old-timer who can give directions.
   ''What do I do?'' Armstrong asked. ''I tell them to look for a directory.
Because I just have no clue.''


Appendix 2: Ozymandias

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley



[1] Newhouse, Victoria. Wallace K. Harrison, Architect. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1989: p. 244, and Filler, Martin. "Halicarnassus on the Hudson." Progressive Architecture LX:5 (May 1979): 106-109: p. 106.

[2] Starr, Gail W. Mall. Albany: Envision Communications, 1980: p. 2.

[3] Grondahl, Paul. Mayor Erastus Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma. Albany: Washington Park Press, 1997.


[5] The three who narrowly missed were Samuel Tilden, who defeated Rutherford Hayes in the popular vote of 1876, only to lose a dubious Congressionally brokered post-election; Alfred E. Smith; and Thomas Dewey of "Defeats Truman" fame.

[6] Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl. H.H. Richardson, Complete Architectural Works. Massachusetts Insitute of Technology, 1982: 157-159.

[7] Smith, G.E. Kidder. A Pictorial history of Architecture in America. New York: American Heritage, 1976: 18.

[8] Ochsner, H. H. Richardson, 157-159.

[9] New York State Assembly: Tour of the Capitol. Online at

[10] See my essay on Albany Politics and the story of the O'Connell Machine--online at

[11] Grondahl, Mayor Erastus Corning,  457.

[12] Bleecker, Samuel E. The Politics of Architecture: A Perspective on Nelson A. Rockefeller. New York: The Rutledge Press, 1981: p. 182.

[13] Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974: 1067.

[14] Newhouse, Wallace K. Harrison,  244.

[15] See Bleecker, Politics of Architecture, 13-49.

[16] Moses was, of course, the legendary and dictatorial New York State Parks Commissioner and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Chairman whose unelected power had defied Mayors, Governors, and Presidents since the early 30's; his story was brilliantly and unforgettably told in Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker, and the final showdown with Rockefeller is covered on pages 1067-1144.

[17] See Bleecker, Politics of Architecture, 135-175, for a thorough discussion of the two decades of SUNY construction.

[18] Caro, The Power Broker, 1069.

[19] White, Theodore H. The Making of the President 1968. New York: Athenaeum, 1969: p. 226.

[20] Caro, The Power Broker, 1069.

[21] Lynch, Frank. The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page. Online at

[22] Hurd, Norman T., and Gerald Benjamin, eds. Rockefeller in Retrospect: The Governor's New York Legacy. Albany: The Rockefeller Institute of Government, 1984: p. 88.

[23] Bleecker, Politics of Architecture, 19.

[24] Hurd, Rockefeller in Retrospect, 89-90.

[25] NY State Assembly: Tour of the Capitol.

[26] Hughes, Robert. The Shock Of the New. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980: p. 180.

[27] Ibid.

[28] The whole saga is told with great verve in James Howard Kunstler's ingenious The Geography of Nowhere, New York: Touchstone, 1993, pp. 67-80.

[29] Hughes, Robert. The Shock Of the New. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980: p. 180.

[30] Le Corbusier. The Decorative Art of Today. 1987: Cambridge, MA., M.I.T. Press: p. 85.

[31] Ibid, 192.

[32] Hughes, Shock of the New, 188.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Kunstler, The Geographyof Nowhere, 79.

[35] Ibid, 76.

[36] Hughes, Shock of the New, 106.

[37] See, for example, Newhouse, Wallace Harrison, p. 245, or any number of Rockefeller biographies.

[38] Bleecker, Politics of Architecture, 177.

[39] Bleecker, Politics of Architecture, 109.

[40] Le Corbusier. The City of Tomorrow  (L'Urbanisme). 2nd ed. 1947: Cambridge, MA., M.I.T. Press: page 86. The idea was not unique to Corbusier; and it resulted in such similar eviscerations as Detroit's wishfully-named Renaissance Center and Boston's widely loathed City Hall.

[41] Newhouse, Wallace Harrison, 245.

[42] Starr, Mall, 3.

[43] Krinsky, Carol Herselle. "St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson: The Albany Mall." Art the Ape of Nature: Studies in Honor of H. W. Janson. Moshe Barash and Lucy Freeman Sandler, eds. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1981; p. 772.

[44] Bleecker, Politics of Architecture, 181.

[45] Grondahl, Mayor Erastus Corning, 457-458.

[46] Ibid, 460.

[47] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 776.

[48] Newhouse, Wallace Harrison, 250.

[49] By far the most complete discussion of the deal is in Grondahl, Mayor Erastus Corning, 467-469. There is a valid parallel with the technique of Robert Moses, as chronicled by Caro, which used an ancient British governmental entity called a public authority to create vast amounts of leveraged financing for public works beyond the control or oversight of voters or elected officials.

[50] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 780.

[51] Grondahl, Mayor Erastus Corning, 473.

[52] Ibid, 474.

[53] Ibid, 453.

[54] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 781.

[55] Grondahl, Mayor Erastus Corning, 477.

[56] Bleecker, Politics of Architecture, 87.

[57] Newhouse, Wallace Harrison,  244.

[58] Max Abramowitz, quoted in Newhouse, Wallace Harrison, 259.

[59] Hurd,  Rockefeller in Retrospect, 81.

[60] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 777.

[61] Newhouse, Wallace Harrison, 258.

[62] Cahill, Timothy. "The 'Egg' Rolls Out a 20th Birthday Party". TU, January 29, 1998. Other versions have the Governor using an actual egg cup, either for the base or the top; the actual structure more closely resembles the grapefruit version. Rockefeller booster Samuel Bleecker rejects the story, saying the Egg's shape "was derived directly from the functionally evolved shapes of its interior spaces"--whatever the hell that means.

[63] Filler, Martin. "Halicarnassus on the Hudson." Progressive Architecture LX:5 (May 1979): p. 108.

[64] Sandler, Irving. Introduction to The Empire State Collection: Art For The Public.  Elizabeth Easton, ed.  1987: Albany, Empire State Plaza Art Commission, in conjunction with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York; p. 14.

[65] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 774.

[66] Kennedy, William. O Albany! : improbable city of political wizards, fearless ethnics, spectacular aristocrats, splendid nobodies, and underrated scoundrels.  New York : Viking Press, 1983. Albany's foremost literary chronicler, Kennedy gives a balanced view of the Plaza development--and a more positive one than most critics, though he does give an entertaining account of the graft-riddled construction process.

[67] Grondahl, Mayor Erastus Corning, 460.

[68] Filler, "Halicarnassus on the Hudson", 108.

[69] Newhouse, Wallace Harrison, 255.

[70] Starr, Mall, 14.

[71] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 781-782.

[72] Starr, Mall, 8.

[73] TU, July 11, 1995.

[74] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 781.

[75] Starr, Mall, 6.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Quoted in Grondahl, Mayor Erastus Corning, 483.

[78] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 782


[79] Bray, Paul. "Showplace at a Crossroads: Empire State Plaza Fails to realize Rockefeller's Vision." TU, July 11, 1995.

[80] Campagna, Darryl. "Empire State Plaza Creates a State of Confusion", TU, February 18, 1996. See Appendix 1 for the complete article.

[81] Goodsell, Charles T. "Bureaucracy's House in the Polis: Seeking an Appropriate Presence". Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: J-PART, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul., 1997), 393-417: p. 405.

[82] Campagna, Darryl. "Empire State Plaza Creates a State of Confusion", TU, February 18, 1996.

[83] Quoted in "A Plan To Link Plaza to the Rest of Albany", TU, June 18, 1994.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Cahill, Timothy. "The 'Egg' Rolls Out a 20th Birthday Party". TU, January 29, 1998.


[86] Goodsell, "Bureaucracy's House in the Polis", 401.

[87] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 775.

[88] Hughes, The Shock of the New, 105.

[89] Starr, Mall, 41.

[90] Starr, Mall, 5.

[91] Filler, "Halicarnassus on the Hudson", 108.

[92] Newhouse, Wallace Harrison, 247.

[93] Ibid, 255.

[94] Le Corbusier, The Decorative Art of Today, 85.

[95] Krinsky, St. Petersburg-on-the-Hudson, 782.

[96] Ibid, 778.

[97] Hughes, Shock of the New, 106.

[98] Ibid, 207.

[99] Filler, "Halicarnassus on the Hudson", 108.

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