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Learning from 30 Rock: Grand plans and citybuilding today

Posted by Anthony Flint  September 16, 2010 02:51 PM

Walking around Rockefeller Center earlier this week with Time and past New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, author of Golden Fortune: The Epic of Rockfeller Center, made me marvel at this extraordinary place anew. The tour was put on by the Forum for Urban Design, a partner of the Lincoln Institute that mixes history with today's challenges.
For once, it was OK to stagger around with neck craned, looking up. To take it all in. Growing up around New York I used to come here for the obligatory roasting chestnuts, skating rink and tree viewing at holiday time.

Rockfeller Center.jpg

The Today show and Tina Fey and the Top of the Rock observatory -- inexplicably closed for 15 years, but now getting two million visitors a year -- keep the tourists coming in throngs these days, but it's really Raymond Hood's masterpiece of urban design and architectural details that create the sense of place that is so compelling: the way the promenade slopes down to the skating rink, or the use of escalators as a kind of ornament or sculpture.

Escalators Rockefeller Center.jpg

Rockefeller Center, envisioned as a cultural and commercial center originally including a new Metropolitan Opera House, was also a triumph of marketing and financing. The idea to create the rooftop gardens on the shorter buildings fronting 5th Avenue was based on charging property owners in the towers all around who would enjoy the view.

Gardens Rockfeller Center.jpg

Returning to Boston and enjoying the sunset at Sams, the contrast with the slow-motion citybuilding on Fan Pier was striking. It's been more than 10 years since I wrote about the Seaport public realm plan. A visitor couldn't be blamed for wondering if the location of the ICA, amid a sea of parking lots, was some kind of statement of industrial chic. Boston's version of midtown, Downtown Crossing, is also famously stuck in neutral. I asked Daniel Okrent if there are any lessons from Rockefeller Center for these large-scale infill redevelopment projects today. "It takes a czar," he said. But at the same time a vision that ensures the project blends in with the existing urban fabric, as Rockefeller Center did, and does. (Plans to blast a short north-south avenue to MOMA, otherwise known in the Rockefeller Family as "Mother's museum, were derailed by the influential owners of 21.) It helped, as well, that Rockefeller Center was all considered on private land, including the street between 49th and 50th streets, and that the driving force was a family with a bit of influence in its own right.
As such. this may be purely an exercise in nostalgia. But we can dream.

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About the author

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on More »

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