J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Treasures of New York: Ralph Walker, Architect of the Century

Ralph Walker did not design the Empire State Building, but he arguably made it possible by popularizing a striking Art Deco style for skyscrapers and perfecting the mandated setback structure. The architect’s very Manhattan work is briskly surveyed in Treasure of New York: Ralph Walker, which airs on Tri-State PBS outlets this weekend.

Born in reared in Connecticut, Walker was a man of New York destiny and a lifer in the McKenzie, Voorhees, and Gmelin firm. Early in his career, the City Council passed an ordinance requiring wedding cake-like “setbacks” for skyscraper construction to prevent wind canyon effects. Walker would be the architect who really understood how to make them work functionally and aesthetically. He also had a talent for richly ornate entryways and imposing lobbies. As a result, he captured the late 1920s architectural zeitgeist in buildings like the Barclay-Vesey Building, the Irving Trust Building, and the Western Union Building.

At one time, Walker was honored by his American Institute of Architects peers as “The Architect of the Century”—an admittedly lofty and ambitious honor, considering the century was then only 57% complete. Yet, he has since been overshadowed by the largely European International School, despite the fact most architectural laypersons find their glass and steel rectangles rather cold and severe compared to the Art Deco buildings built by Walker and his contemporaries. Of course, a scandal at his firm (rather mild by today’s standards) did not help.

Unlike many previous entries in the Treasures of New York series, Ralph Walker is less of a guided tour of City attractions and more of a short but proper documentary profile. Indeed, its brevity is a virtue, covering most of Walker’s signature New York buildings, which also represent overall career highlights.

Written and produced by Julie Cohen, the half hour Ralph Walker is a nice little piece of television that ought to foster greater appreciation of the New York skyline without overstaying its welcome. Recommended for arts-minded viewers, it will be available for online viewing at the Treasures of New York site, following its broadcast this Saturday (10/4) on WLIW and Sunday (10/5) on WNET 13.

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