The neoclassical building designs of Max Abramovitz (born 1908) figure prominently into the architectural history of the mid-twentieth century.
Architect Abramovitz helped to define the shape of the twentieth century skyline during the years following World War II. Abramovitz, together with his partner, Wallace K. Harrison, were remembered for his innovative contributions in the design of many of New York City's finest buildings. The Secretariat tower of the United Nations complex and Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts are among his most impressive accomplishments.
Abramovitz was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 23, 1908, the son of Benjamin and Sophia (Maimon) Abramovitz. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, in 1929.
The Great Depression
After college, he moved to New York City where he attended Columbia University, and earned a Master of Science degree, in 1931. It was during this time that he first began to work in the architectural office of Harrison, as part of an apprentice team from the university. It was an excellent opportunity for Abramovitz, because Harrison had recently made a name for himself as a key architect in the design of Rockefeller Plaza.
In 1932, Abramovitz took second place in the Prix de Paris design competition. He received a fellowship from Columbia University to study at the world famous École des Beaux Arts in Paris for the next two years.
When Abramovitz returned from France, he rejoined Harrison, who had just opened a new architectural office at Rockefeller Plaza. The field of architecture at the time was in a depression, along with the rest of America, but the members of Harrison's firm used ingenuity to stay busy. They spent some of their time entering competitions, and even came up with a scheme to redesign Central Park in New York. It was around this time that Harrison became partners with the French architect, André Fouilhoux. The three architects-Harrison, Fouilhoux, and Abramovitz-would soon form a partnership, which would significantly influence twentieth century architecture.
In 1936, Abramovitz was assigned to develop the final drawings of the elegant art deco designs of the Rockefeller Apartments at 17 West Fifty-fourth Street, in Manhattan. In November of that same year, the firm of Harrison & Fouilhoux won a contract to design the Theme Center for the upcoming 1939 New York World's Fair. Abramovitz was assigned to the project.
He worked intensively as part of a design team which included Harrison. The architects came up with a futuristic exhibit consisting of a 610-foot vertical spike, called the Trylon, and a 180-foot diameter globe, called the Perisphere. The Perisphere housed the exhibit, where visitors entered by means of "the world's longest escalator," and exited down a 950-foot ramp, called the Helicline. In Wallace K. Harrison, Architect, publisher and architectural historian Victoria Newhouse compared the impact of the Trylon and Perisphere structures to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and declared the exhibit, "One of the most popular architectural symbols of our time."
On September 4, 1937, Abramovitz married Anne Marie Causey. They had two children: Michael and Katherine. The couple divorced in 1964, and Abramovitz married Anita Zeltner Brooks, on February 29, 1964.
Partnership with Harrison and Fouilhoux
Abramovitz became partners with Harrison and Fouilhoux, in 1941. The partnership continued until Fouilhoux's death, in 1945, after which Abramovitz and Harrison remained partners until 1976. Newhouse commented of the alliance between Harrison and Abramovitz, "[It] became a major force in the torrent of architectural activity after the Second World War."
Between 1939 and 1942, the partners, Abramovitz and Harrison, were both employed as associate professors at Yale University. The two men were credited with revitalizing the study of architecture by introducing "new academism," a modernist approach, in place of the classical École des Beaux Arts school of thought, that permeated architectural schools in the United States, at the time.
In 1941, with the outbreak of World War II, Abramovitz enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served as a colonel and designed military installations, in China. He served the government until 1952, at which time, he was made a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.
Back in New York, the partnership of Abramovitz and Harrison survived the war, and the country moved into a post-war business boom. The Harrison & Abramovitz architectural firm was already renowned for its neoclassical designs and for its ability to manage expansive buildings and large projects.
Post-war Contributions to Architecture
It came as no surprise that the two architects were asked to oversee the project to build the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City, from 1947-52. Abramovitz was named deputy director of the UN Headquarters Planning Office. The international design team included Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil, Le Corbusier from Switzerland, plus noted professionals from China, France, Russia, and England. Sir Banister Fletcher critiqued the completed complex, writing in A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, "Sited by the East River … dominated by the towering slab block of the Secretariat Building … its narrow end walls rising like sheer white cliffs and its longer sides clad in glass curtain walling, [it] has had considerable influence on subsequent high buildings throughout the world."
In 1953, shortly after the completion of the UN complex, the firm was contracted to design the Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The architects were instructed to do something that had never before been done: to design the huge building entirely of aluminum, except for the structural steel. The 30-story building, made of pre-fabricated, pressed aluminum panels, was the first aluminum skyscraper.
In 1955, Abramovitz contracted to design three chapels at Brandeis University. This was the same year that an Exploratory Committee was assembled to develop Lincoln Square, in New York. In 1958, Abramovitz was officially designated to design the Philharmonic Hall for what would be the new Lincoln Center in New York. Abramovitz's Philharmonic Hall, which was renamed as the Avery Fisher Music Hall in 1973, was perhaps Abramovitz's most recognizable design.
Along with Abramovitz, the Lincoln Center project team involved many of the most respected architects of the twentieth century: Ralph Bunshaft, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson. The public mood altered dramatically between the conception of the center and its completion in 1966, and this affected the final design. Although the Philharmonic Hall was completed in 1962, Abramovitz admitted to Newhouse, in retrospect, "Lincoln Center was to be the biggest and best of its kind in America…. [S]uch an undertaking created a feeling of unlimited possibilities. The staff… threw in every technical and design innovation they could think of. The sky was the limit. Then realistic estimates came in."
According to Trewin Copplestone, editor of World Architecture: an Illustrated History, the Lincoln Center design was praised as, "The monumental side of the growing Neoacademicism … transforming and reshaping the innovations of the twentieth century…a New-academic idiom of colonnades and arcades, in unexpected shapes and proportions, to mask the complexity of interior services and functions."
The year 1963 saw the opening of another of Abramovitz's unique designs, the Assembly Hall of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. The building featured one of the largest edge-supported domes in the world (400 feet in diameter, 128 feet above ground).
The End of an Era
In the late 1950's, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller began planting the seeds for a massive complex of administrative offices for the state to be constructed in Albany. The mall, which was known as the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, was eventually completed after eighteen years and nearly one billion dollars had been expended. The project did not go forward until the 1970's, when the firm of Harrison & Abramovitz was contracted to design the mall.
It was not clear what happened, but the Albany Mall project somehow signaled the end of the 35-year partnership between Abramovitz and Harrison. Abramovitz spent much of his time working independently, away from New York for the duration of the mall project. Then, in 1976, Harrison, quietly moved his belongings and equipment to a private office, and the grand partnership ended.
Abramovitz reorganized his business interests into the firm of Abramovitz-Harris-Kingsland, of New York City. The firm turned over once more in 1985, and became Abramovitz-Kingsland-Schiff.
Abramovitz was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He was chairman of the board of the Regional Planning Association, from 1966-68, and assumed a directorship of that association, in 1968. Additionally he was a member of the Architectural League of New York, and a member of the Century Association of New York City. He was governor of the New York Building Congress, from 1957-64, and was a trustee at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
He was the author of two books and a number of articles. He was honored each year by his alma mater, the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana campus, with an annual lecture series given in his name.
Contemporary Architects, Third Edition, St. James Press, 1994.
Copplestone, Trewin, editor, World Architecture: an Illustrated History, McGraw-Hill, 1963.
Fletcher, Sir Banister, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, Athlone Press, 1961.
Lampugnani, Vittorio Magnago (general editor) Encyclopedia of 20th-century Architecture, Harry N. Abrams, 1986 (English translation).
Newhouse, Victoria, Wallace K. Harrison, Architect, Rizzoli, 1989.
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