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.
(b. 23 May 1908 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 12 September 2004 in Pound Ridge, New York), modern architect known for innovative commercial buildings and his role in designing the United Nations headquarters and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Abramovitz was one of four children born to Benjamin and Sophia (Maimon) Abramovitz, Jewish immigrants from Romania. Abramovitz’s father ran a dry goods and grocery store in Chicago. After graduating from Crane Technical High School, Abramovitz enrolled in 1924 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the second-oldest architecture program in the United States. Abramovitz was an excellent student, and in 1929 his project won the first top prize awarded to the university by the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York City. After graduation that year, with little work available in Chicago, Abramovitz stayed on as a teaching assistant. In 1930 the Illinois dean Lemuel C. Dillenback became head of the Columbia University School of Architecture in New York City and offered Abramovitz a teaching position. In 1931 Abramovitz earned an MS degree in architecture, and in 1932 he won a two-year scholarship to study in Paris, France, at the École des Beaux-Arts.
When Abramovitz returned to New York City in 1935, Wallace Harrison gave him a job, and he soon became office manager of the firm Harrison and Fouilhoux. Harrison and Fouilhoux designed the Eastern Airlines Building at Rockefeller Center (1939) and the African Habitat at the Bronx Zoo (1940), and were members of the 1939 New York World’s Fair design team. On 4 September 1937 Abramovitz married Anne Marie Causey, with whom he had two children. From 1940 to 1941 Abramovitz supervised a team sent to the Panama Canal Zone to design an overland route and a naval base. His performance earned him a partnership, and in 1940 the firm became Harrison, Fouilhoux, and Abramovitz. With the outbreak of World War II, Harrison followed Nelson Rockefeller to Washington, D.C.; Jacques-André Fouilhoux ran the firm; and Abramovitz joined the army in June 1942, designing airfields in southern China as a Flying Tiger. After Fouilhoux died in 1945, the firm became Harrison and Abramovitz and remained so until its dissolution in 1976.
Rockefeller and military connections produced commissions after World War II. Harrison and Abramovitz became directors of architecture and planning respectively for the United Nations headquarters in New York City, designed by an international team of architects including Le Corbusier of France and Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil. Abramovitz designed embassies in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1952), and Havana, Cuba (1952). In the army reserve, Abramovitz learned nuclear physics from a physicist at the Atomic Energy Research Program in order to design bombproof buildings capable of resisting the impact of hydrogen bombs being developed by the Manhattan Project. His architectural and managerial skills were in high demand, and through a swift political move by Anna Rosenberg, deputy director of personnel for the air force, Abramovitz was abruptly decommissioned in 1951 and two minutes later recommissioned as a full colonel in the new air force, assigned to manage construction of airfields in Turkey, Greece, and Spain. Frustrated by bureaucratic tangles between the two services, he conducted an organizational analysis of construction practices for the new air force bases. In 1955 Abramovitz resigned from active duty as a full colonel but remained an adviser on architectural and engineering issues into the 1960s. When the Central Intelligence Agency needed a new building, Harrison and Abramovitz were tapped for its headquarters in Langley, Virginia (1961).
In the 1950s economic boom Harrison and Abramovitz designed innovative tall buildings for American corporations. With an aptitude for engineering and a limitless curiosity, Abramovitz created a system of prefabricated panels for steel frame construction (Alcoa Building, Pittsburgh, 1950–1952; and Socony-Vacuum, New York City, 1956) and a unique triangular building of an exposed Cor-Ten steel frame for U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh (1971). Abramovitz collaborated with the developer John Galbreath on corporate office buildings in the Midwest through the 1980s, including Erieview Plaza (Cleveland, Ohio, 1965), Westinghouse (Pittsburgh, 1970), the Cincinnati Center (Cincinnati, 1969), and the Borden Building (Columbus, Ohio, 1973). Sleek, refined, and anonymous, these glass, steel, and concrete buildings were planned to promote office efficiency in a new corporate culture. They brought in a steady cash flow that maintained Harrison and Abramovitz as a leading postwar firm. Abramovitz also retained an independent streak that, in conjunction with a sympathetic client, produced buildings of singular character, such as the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company headquarters (1964), a slender curved tower set like a sail on a platform overlooking downtown Hartford, Connecticut.
Abramovitz was also closely associated with institutional design. For Abraham Sachar, head of Hillel Foundation and then founding president of Brandeis University, Abramovitz designed two Hillel buildings (University of Illinois and Northwestern University, both 1954) and revised the master plan for Brandeis (Waltham, Massachusetts, 1952–1960). Ultimately he designed more than a dozen buildings for the campus, notably the Three Chapels (1955). For his alma mater, he designed the General Assembly Hall (1963) and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (1964–1969). The Hilles Library at Radcliffe (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1966) and Temple Beth Zion (Buffalo, New York, 1967) are considered two of his finest works. At Columbia University he designed the Law School (1962) and the School of International Affairs (1970).
Abramovitz is best known as the architect of Philharmonic Hall (1956–1962, now Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. The Philharmonic, the first building constructed on the site, was opened with a performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein on national television. Initial acclaim gave way in subsequent months to complaints about acoustics, and Abramovitz twice redesigned the interior without remedy. Philip Johnson was then asked to redo it a third time. Publicly Abramovitz shouldered the blame, and this controversy often overshadowed the success of his other work. Nevertheless, his widely admired Krannert Auditorium prompted Bernard Jacobsen, a music critic for the Chicago Daily News, to write, “How many concert halls drive one to lyricism? Krannert is amazing.”
In 1976, after the breakup of his partnership with Wallace Harrison, Abramovitz became lead partner in Abramovitz-Harris-Kingsland until 1985. From 1985 to 1992 the firm was known as Abramovitz-Kingsland-Schiff. Abramovitz continued to work on commercial projects in Ohio, including Nationwide Plaza (1977), Capitol South (1985), and American Electric Power (1990) in Columbus and Owens-Illinois (1985) in Toledo. A lifelong Francophile, Abramovitz designed two buildings for Groupe des Assurances Nationales in Paris and Bordeaux, France (1976 and 1978). The firm also worked on industrial and laboratory facilities at Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, New York, 1985) and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (Miami, 1985). Returning to his military connections, Abramovitz designed the Jewish Chapel at West Point (1985). In 1992 he retired from full-time practice, ultimately resigning his partnership in 1996.
Esteemed for his intelligence, judgment, and willingness to consider all sides of an issue, Abramovitz served as an adviser for many organizations, including Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, Brandeis University, the Hillel Foundation, American Building Congress, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Regional Plan Association of New York. He was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1952.
In 1964 Abramovitz’s first marriage ended in divorce, and on 29 February 1964 he married Anita Zeltner Brooks, a writer, who died in 2003. Abramovitz died of natural causes on 12 September 2004 at his home in Pound Ridge, New York. He is buried in Pound Ridge.
Abramovitz’s archives as well as Wallace Harrison’s are housed in the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University. John Harwood and Janet Parks, The Troubled Search: The Work of Max Abramovitz (2004), documents the exhibition and contains essays and an extensive chronology, a bibliography, and a list of buildings. Victoria Newhouse, Wallace K. Harrison, Architect (1989), provides excellent coverage of Harrison’s career and the context of his partnership with Abramovitz. An obituary is in the New York Times (15 Sept. 2004). Abramovitz recorded two oral histories, the American Jewish Congress (1975, with Jayne Hilary Bruns) and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (1990, with Sharon Zane).
ABRAMOVITZ, MAX (1908–2004), U.S. architect, born in Chicago. From 1947 to 1952 Abramovitz was deputy director of the Planning Office of the United Nations. He was partner in the firm of Harrison & Abramovitz, which built the United Nations Secretariat, New York (1950). The design incorporated the ideas of an international panel of architects that included Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. This construction, the east and west sides of which were faced almost entirely with glass, proved a prototype of later buildings. His firm specialized in office buildings such as the Alcoa Building, Pittsburgh (1953), and the Socony Mobil Building, New York (1956), in which story-high metal units were used for the curtain walls. He also worked on projects of Jewish interest. These include Temple Beth-Zion, Buffalo, n.y., and the Hillel Foundations on the campuses of the University of Illinois (1951) and of Northwestern University (1952). His three chapels (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish) at Brandeis University (1954) expressed the harmony and equality of the three faiths as represented on the campus, while at the same time respecting their differences. The chapels were similar structures placed around a pool. In 1963 Abramovitz built the new Philharmonic Hall, New York. The facade features two superimposed rows of concrete shafts softened with flattened vaults. It has been regarded as an example of American "neoclassicism." In 1973 Philharmonic Hall was renamed Avery Fisher Hall. Located at the northern end of the Lincoln Center Plaza, the concert hall is home to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and can seat an audience of more than 2,700. The Plaza, built in 1964–65 by Harrison & Abramovitz, was rebuilt in 1984–85 by Lew Davis and renamed Paul Milstein Plaza in 1997. Abramovitz's auditorium of the University of Illinois at Urbana (1964) is a vast saucer dome surrounded by a circulation gallery that can accommodate more than 18,000 spectators.
The Empire State Plaza in Albany, n.y., considered one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects in modern U.S. history, was designed by Harrison & Abramovitz and built between 1965 and 1979. The government complex consists of ten buildings set on a six-story platform, which forms the plaza.