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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Raymond Hood

Hood's soaring Rockefeller Center
from Prometheus' fountain and
ice rink
It's been called "...the greatest urban complex of the 20th century." It's certainly one of the things that makes New York, New York. No, it's not the Empire State Building, or the United Nations, or Grand Central Station. The National Broadcasting Company, having their world headquarters there, sometimes refers to it simply as "30 Rock." It started out to be the home of the Metropolitan Opera Company, but the stock market crash of 1929 also crashed their participation in the deal, which soon after came to be known at Rockefeller Center. We see it every day as the backdrop for The Today Show. Every winter we look forward to its soaring Christmas tree and the graceful skaters looping in its shadow. Its Prometheus Fountain is probably the most famous and beautiful bit of waterworks in the nation. Its rooftop gardens seem an island of genteel sanity in an otherwise harsh sea of megalithic cubes. And its leading architect, one of many involved in the project, was primarily responsible for making all these humanizing elements part of the design. His name was Raymond Hood.

Hood's Tribune Tower, Chicago, 1923
Though born in 1881. Until December 23, 1922, Hood was an obscure, not-very-successful, New York architect, struggling to make ends meet by designing radiator covers in five different decors, taking on overload from other architectural firms, designing a few homes, remodeling restaurants, and a bathroom. However, on that date, it was announced that a design he and John Mead Howells had submitted in competition for Chicago's Tribune Tower had won out over those of 263 other architects; and would be awarded the $50,000 first prize. It was not the most revolutionary design, nor the most influential, but the soaring, Gothic structure was the one that best met the needs and taste of the Tribune's owner, Col. Robert R. McCormick. Two years later, a somewhat smaller, more restrained, black brick version designed by Hood went up in New York. It was called then, the Radiator Building (now the American Standard Building). And shortly thereafter, casting off the last remnants of eclecticism in skyscraper design, Hood's Daily News Building set the tone for New York architecture for the next twenty years.
Hood's McGraw-Hill Building, 1931

His best independent work is the trademark for a great publishing empire--McGraw Hill.  Foreshadowing Rockefeller Center, the structure is an interconnected manufacturing and administrative complex whose unadorned tower with its alternating vertical banks of soaring windows and brick shafts crowns a series of modest, smaller masses at its base. Raymond Hood was never hired to be the leading architect for Rockefeller Center. He rose to that position merely by the dominating influence of his buildings, making him the number one designer in the new International style in New York. His talents were a mix of the visionary tempered by the practical, and the shrewd manner in which he was able to meet the needs of clients while selling them on the needs of the building itself. Sadly, Hood left his mark on Rockefeller Center while never living to see it completed. He died in 1934. Amazingly, his prominence in his chosen field amounted to little more than a decade. Yet, it was a critical period, and his was a critical input, marking the transition in urban architecture from the decorative to a functional, yet humane, form of beauty.

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