24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

The Chrysler Building


As one imagines the New York skyline, what comes to mind? The Empire State Building? The Freedom Building? How about the Chrysler Building? With its glistening crown and elaborate Art Deco design, once one sees the Chrysler Building, like the noteworthy entrepreneurs that shaped society, its image is forever etched in their mind. However, how is it that the building is so dismissed despite its unique, well-praised design?

The Architect

The architect of this masterpiece was William Van Alen, whose whole life was surrounded by architecture. Andres Lepik, in his book, Skyscrapers, writes that Van Alen was “born in Brooklyn in 1882,” and “in 1908 he received a travel grant which enabled him to go to Paris for three years and study at the Ecole de Beaux Arts.” But, more importantly, Van Alen “made his mark with unusual designs for stores and restaurants in conscious contrast to ‘European’ traditions.” Unfortunately, Lepik mentions that Van Alen “was increasingly forgotten,” and that “there is no biography, no archive and practically no research relating to this architect [Van Alen].” That Van Alen has been forgotten is tragic, considering the fact that he designed the building that can be described as a monument that “has not only become a symbol of American Art Deco architecture, but since the advent of postmodernism has also acquired an almost legendary aura; it stands among the shining star in the Manhattan skyline." [1] Unfortunately, even the so-called reliable Wikipedia has mistaken, another man, Frank B. Rogers, the Vice President of the W. P. Chrysler Building Corporation, for William Van Alen, adding a picture of Rogers as the picture for Van Alen.[2] Fortunately, his magnum opus, the Chrysler Building, remains standing in New York City to this day; defying the mere thought of being forgotten. As well as the Post-Modern skyscrapers that now litter the modern city skyline.

The Lobby

The outside of the lobby is a masterpiece on its own. “Each entrance rises for a height of three stories in proscenium fashion and is enframed by Shastone granite. Set back within the deep reveals of the entrances are sets of revolving doors beneath intricately patterned metal and glass screens." [3] However, although the entrance to the building sounds exciting, it is juxtaposed by something that takes away from the aura of futurism that is presented by Art Deco. In David Stravitz’s book, The Chrysler Building Creating a New York Icon, Day by Day, there was a
picture of two taxis parked outside the lobby.[4] And the accompanying caption describes the taxis being in front of a car exhibition that is located on the ground floor of the building. [5] Although this may be a small insignificant detail in it of itself, the reasons behind such a room on the lobby
reveal something bigger, a little bit cynical take on the idealistic meaning behind the building: that the Chrysler Building may be more of an advertising gimmick rather than a building for running the Chrysler Corporation. Fortunately, the interior of the lobby says otherwise.

Unfortunately, most of the building is closed off from tours. However, the lobby is open to visitors. And thank goodness it is, because it is the epitome of Art Deco. John B. Stranges, in his article, describes it as comprising of “light-suffusing etched-glass windows, red Moroccan marble wall, cove lighting, travertine floors, white-veined marble staircases and risers, and elevator doors and interiors covered in rare and exotic woods,” [6] which gives the visitor a sense of “surpassing flamboyance and luxus.” [7] However, the special glass that cover the lighting as well
as the color of the wall gives an atmosphere of assurance that the degree of elaborateness is not beyond the realms of warm, optimistic values, despite the building being designed as the headquarters for the Chrysler company.

It should be noted that the Chrysler Building was mainly patronized by the car giant, Walther Chrysler, who was optimistic about man and machines, considering that he was successful as an automobile manufacturer. Stranges describes Chrysler as believing that “modern life revealed itself most fundamentally in the revolutionary inventions in transportation,” as well as the “new creative class of engineers, scientists and businessmen whose ingenuity made these inventions possible.” In order to convey this idea, Chrysler hired the muralist Edward Turnbull.
And Chrysler could not have hired a better person for the job. Turnball, made an “inverted Y,’” which allowed him to divide the mural into four triangles to represent each of them and their professions. There was the “muscular power intelligently guiding machines:” the working man being the master of the machine rather than the machine controlling the man; which is ironic to the way we are addicted to our phones, but I digress. The others: “the natural forces of fire, water, and lightning expressing themselves in electricity, heat and steam, the telephone, telegraph and wireless; groups of workers raising masses of steel and stone to nearly unimaginable heights; and the symbols of modern transportation-ocean liners, trains, aircraft,” all of which illustrate the manipulation of nature by man to overcome the boundaries that prevented him from progressing.[8] All in all, this art piece epitomizes the general optimism of not only Chrysler, but also the era before the 1929 Stock Exchange crash, which seems to reflect the shiny exterior as well. Shame the building was completed during the Great Depression. This tragedy is further exacerbated by the fact that the Great Depression had caused public opinion to go against the Chrysler Building, because of its disillusioned association with the American Dream that has failed to hold during the Depression.

The Body

The main body of the body of the building is mainly composed of bricks. However, the way the bricks are laid provide interesting meanings. Sorkin believes that the “basket-weave pattern in brick” is “recalling perhaps Semper’s vision of the primitive hut, but certainly clarifying the implicit haberdashery of the cladding of tall buildings.” Thus, illustrating that even the simplest components of the Chrysler Building possesses a unique meaning, which, in this case, blends the original, ancient architecture of the simple hut of the hunter gatherer to the then modern skyscrapers of the businessman. However, MaCaulay describes the main body as a “modest skin of white and gray glazed brick covers most of the building," [9] which is a contrast to the special meaning described brick patterns by Sorkin.[10] Thus, giving a more sober reaction to a
small aspect of the structure, and possibly, the overreaction of the various other aspects of the building. However, the body is not solely composed of bricks. Far from that. The bricks are complemented by windows which have “an unusual feature” of having “no reveals; frames are
set flush with the walls.” However, this peculiarity “was seen as another means of indication modernity and progress." [11] Fascinating, how even the windows have a special attribute.

In addition, the bricks are not arranged to form a single rectangular body. The shape of the building is so complex that it is rather difficult to describe it in a few words. Because of the Zoning Act of 1916, the building required to utilize setbacks, in which the dimensions of one section of a building is smaller than the one below it, effectively forming a boxes neatly stacked in the middle of the previous box. This gives the building an appearance of a step-like pyramid temple from one angle and of a U-shaped palace from another angle. However, these setbacks reveal a more special attribute: the various brick designs and ornaments that decorate the building. The first setback reveals the arrow like patterns of darker and lighter bricks, which indicate a sign to continue going up. The second setback reveals a “frieze of hub-caps and automobile tires,” [12] made from the Nirosta steel, which is a German steel that is designed to never rust, [13] as well as darker bricks that mix with the white bricks to convey the design of automobile fenders. Complementing these designs are “the oversized hood ornaments” that protrude from each of the four corners of the building.[14] Being the headquarters for the Chrysler Car Corporation, there is little to no mystery what these design elements pay homage to. The next setback reveals something intriguing. It can be best described as a Maltese cross (four “V”shaped arrowhead shaped concave four sided shapes that meet at the center at right angles) shape when looking at it from directly above. With the point of the “V” in the center, there are two points that are pointing out an equal distance, where Nirosta-covered, eagle designed protrusions are housed. And considering how the eagle, America’s national bird, are designed to look like they are facing the matters of nature in the sky, their inclusion of these birds seems to convey the idea of challenging nature, similar to how inventors and entrepreneurs were praised in the murals in the lobby, thus showing how much of the building’s attributes complements the idea of man conquering through intellect. After this unique setback is one more feature. And it certainly fits the bill as the icing on the cake.

The Crown

And finally, the crown. The most distinctive aspect of the Chrysler Building. The crown of the building is in the form of four sides of seven arches that are arranged in a terrace like manner, effectively forming four terraces of arches that meet neatly in the middle towards the spire. Each arch is composed of a shiny, special “Nirosta” steel and triangular windows that point downwards, giving off a beautiful Art Deco style. On the other hand, Macaulay’s opinion of the crown is more of a somber look of the building, describing it as “crescents of radiating sunbursts sheathed in chrome-nickel-steel and punctuated by triangular windows”, or in other words, a “gleaming madness,” putting a realistic weight on the wings of idealism and optimism,like the Depression. In addition, the crown seems to have a more practical purpose than just aesthetics: an attempt to achieve the status of World’s Tallest Building with that crown and spire. It should be noted that the spire was added to make the building 1,019 feet, which was higher than the tallest building in New York, the Bank of Manhattan as well as the Eiffel Tower, which was the tallest structure in the world, making it the tallest structure in the world, but by the end of its construction in 1931, the architects of the Empire State Building revised their design to make it 1,050 feet, and hence the Chrysler Building was beaten, despite possessing a spire and crown to rise above the competition; all in all, making the efforts of Van Alen futile.[15] However, regarding the “stainless steel crown”, Sorkin describes it as “the greatest top of them [skyscrapers] all,” the Chrysler Building reflects the American individualism that is often associated with America's entrepreneurs that built America, such as the car giant Walter Chrysler, who was the patron of the building.[16] Overall, one cannot deny the beauty and
individualism of this crown whether it be madness or heavenly. At the very least, it gives a fitting conclusion to the Chrysler Building.

Concluding Remarks

Although the Chrysler Building is a beautiful example of American Art Deco in the history of architecture, it seems that the building is often forgotten, because of three things: one, it was the tallest building in the world for only eleven months, being overshadowed by the
Empire State Building; two, it was more of an advertising gimmick by Chrysler, which did not last long with the advent of the aforementioned Empire State Building and the 1929 Stock Market Crash which turned optimism into sourness; and three, the architect, William Van Alen, has been obscured and even misidentified by the passing of time. All in all, this building, although a “Quintessence” of skyscraper architecture and an entrepreneur's dream, is forgotten or at best, dismissed by being a tad too early: a tragedy to say the least for such an iconic building.



The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Designation List 118 LP-0992: Chrysler Building, 405 Lexington Avenue, Borough of Manhattan. 1978.

Lepik, Andres. Skyscrapers . Munich: Prestel, 2008.

Macaulay, David. Building Big. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Sorkin, Michael. “Quintessence.” In Irace, Emerging Skylines: the New American Skyscrapers.  (New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1990), 42-43.

Stranges, John B. “Mr. Chrysler’s Building: Merging Design and Technology in the Machine Age.” Icon 20, No.2 (Hamburg: International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC), 2014): 1-19.

Stravitz, David, and Christopher Gray. The Chrysler Building Creating a New York Icon, Day by Day. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

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