The Troubled Search: The Work of Max Abramovitz

Troubled Search: The Work of Max Abramovitz is the first major retrospective of this important modernist architect, perhaps best known for his work on major urban, postwar projects such as the United Nations Headquarters and Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

For much of his career, Abramovitz was one-half of the noted architectural firm Harrison and Abramovitz. Although Wallace Harrison has received much critical attention, notably in the 1989 monograph by Victoria Newhouse, Troubled Search is the first in-depth study of Abramovitz. Max Abramovitz, born in Chicago in 1908, has had a long, prolific, and varied career. His work encompasses the corporate and the religious, the cultural and the military, architecture and urban planning. The exhibition, comprised of more than 300 works, together with the accompanying catalogue, covers his student work and travels, military and teaching careers, and professional activities including his work with the Regional Plan Association of New York. It also provides a thorough overview of his major architectural works: the U.S. Steel Building (Pittsburgh), Phoenix Mutual Headquarters (Hartford), Brandeis University, Krannert Center and Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). Biographical material on his student work and travels, military career, teaching career, and professional activities, such as his work with the Regional Plan of New York, is also presented.

This project continues the Wallach Art Gallery's series of exhibitions and publications that make Columbia's extensive collections visible and conceptually accessible to the general public. The Abramovitz archives, housed in the Department of Drawings and Archives at Columbia University's Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, are the foundation for this important and timely project.

The catalogue, to be published by the gallery, will include a biographical survey of Abramovitz's early career by Janet Parks as well as an essay by John Harwood on the corporate structures, placing them in the context of America's postwar, industrialized culture. Also included in the catalogue will be an annotated checklist of the exhibition as well as a chronology, a building list, and a bibliography.

Both the exhibition and the catalogue coincide with the biannual conference of DOCOMOMO (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement) conference held at Columbia University in September 2004. As the landmarks of International Modernism age, questions of maintenance, renovation, obsolescence, and preservation emerge. The international organization DOCOMOMO is dedicated to the preservation of modern buildings, sites and neighborhoods, attempting to define preservation and conservation standards for buildings that still look new to our eyes.

In September 1962, the Philharmonic opened to national fanfare. The first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, was on hand for the premiere, and that evening the building was the subject of a live two-hour television special on CBS, with a voice-over narrative by Abramovitz. Despite the acoustical shortcomings of the hall that were pointed out in reviews during the following weeks and months, the building's classicizing exterior and its dramatic, almost garish, blue and gold interior were seen as the height of fashionable modern architecture. Images of the building, both interior and exterior, appeared everywhere: on television, in newspapers, travel brochures, magazines, and even on the cover of the Manhattan telephone directory.

The Wachovia Bank Building introduced two architectural features that Abramovitz would deploy in several of his later office buildings. The most striking was the precast-concrete curtain wall—according to Architectural Record, the first of its kind. Beside allowing a rich but simple rhythm of light and shadow to play across the façade, amplified by the use of white quartz in the concrete mixture, the panels were aligned to shade the window openings and thus reduce glare on the interior.

The second new aspect was more subtle. The services—elevators, ventilation shafts, electrical conduits—were moved to a separate but connected tower. This, according to Abramovitz, opened up the interior and promoted greater flexibility in spatial arrangements. Harrison & Abramovitz used this planning technique again in a skyscraper than for the Equitable Life Assurance Society's Gateway Center development project in Pittsburgh, in 1964, the service tower sheathed in stainless steel rather than concrete panels.

In an essay written at the University of Illinois, Abramovitz examined the history of synagogue design. He concluded that there was no specific style associated with the temple and that modern architects should search for their own forms. On these two sheets, he has already found the prayerlike form of the sanctuary and is trying out specific shapes and their relation to the community and administrative buildings at the temple.

Originally founded as an orthodox synagogue in 1850, Beth Zion became the first Reform Jewish congregation in Buffalo in 1863. In 1890, a temple on the Delaware Avenue site was built, a Byzantine structure with a huge copper-clad central dome, which burned to the ground 4 October 1961. Abramovitz's replacement opened in 1966 and immediately became a landmark in Buffalo, drawing more than 2,000 curious visitors.

As a brochure published by the synagogue noted, the vertical reach of the synagogue itself is suggestive of arms raised in prayer. The feeling of expansiveness and openness continues inside the sanctuary. There are no internal columns supporting the ceiling, which is sixty-two feet high, and the sweeping curve of the balcony emphasizes a feeling of movement. The interior is sculptural and clean; even the sound system has been concealed in the light fixtures. All attention is focused on the altar, dominated by thirty-foot-high Commandment Tablets, the Ark, and the east window designed by Ben Shahn. The window illustrates the suffering of Job, the intertwining lines symbolizing the voice that spoke to him out of a whirlwind. For the west wall, at the Delaware Avenue entrance, Shahn designed a calligraphic interpretation of the 150th Psalm.

The most heroic of Abramovitz's buildings—in scale, apparent simplicity of form, and engineering prowess required—the Assembly Hall ranks among his favorite. Commissioned by his alma mater in 1962, the Assembly Hall reaffirms his lifelong commitment to putting to architectural use the scientific advances of engineering. In the Assembly Hall, Abramovitz strove to develop the new possibilities promised by prestressed concrete into the basis of an entirely new architecture. As he wrote in an essay on the future of prestressed concrete, "The post and lintel and arch forms are the substance of most building spaces; the shell types have added variations to perhaps justify a third type; will the prestressed technique add a fourth possibility, or will it fall into place as a refinement of one of the three mentioned? That I leave to the engineers and research scientists to analyze and to the designers to seek out...the intrinsic expression of this development. This expression will only be found if it deserves to be found and has a right to exist."

The Phoenix Mutual Building was to be not only a suitable home for the company's operations, but it was also to be a "flagship" building—as it was hailed at the time—that would revitalize Hartford's economically depressed business district. The glamorous tower was intended to draw investment into the area, sweeping away tenements and filling vacant lots with the hum of (and tax revenues from) big business. Although the effort to revitalize the center of Hartford was largely a failure, the efforts of Phoenix Mutual and the hard work of the city and state government did result in attracting several large businesses and real estate developers to invest in the area, as is evinced by the sweeping skyline of the city today.