LET’S ALL GO TO THE LOBBY
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE OF THE SKYSCRAPER IS TRULY ONE OF THE MOST SUSTAINED PERIODS of garish grandeur in American history, and, for photographers, it’s an embarrassment of riches. However, walking in the country’s towering monuments to self and substance, it’s important to remember that only half the story is told in the sweep and scope of their gaudy exteriors. In many cases, the ego-driven lords of commerce who commissioned these urban headstones wrote their legends just as loudly inside their palaces’ lobbies and vestibules.
Lobbies created during the ‘scraper craze are every bit as extreme as their hosts’ outer skins, but in a more personal way, since they are the common space where actual people live and work. The scale of person-to-building is demonstrated more dramatically than when one views a tall spire from four blocks away. Also, in grand propagandistic style, the ideals of the sponsoring person or company become part of the decor and design, with words like prosperity, integrity, health, industry or happiness gracing crests, plaques, mailboxes and elevator cabs. If the outside of the structure celebrates how beautiful a building can be, the lobbies of those same places celebrate how wonderful a person can become.
Friezes, murals, mozaics, statuary, and custom lighting all make grand lobbies a rich hunting ground for photographers, even as they often pose some real challenges for all but the fastest lenses. Still, the rewards are great, and, as time moves on, the very act of documenting these urban leviathans becomes downright crucial, given the dodgy luck of urban evolution. Today’s taken-for-granted treasure is tomorrow’s pile of salvage (I needed to slide that in on the fiftieth-anniversary of the destruction of New York’s Penn Station, one of the most savage acts of urban desecration in the history of this country).
So, when it comes to great buildings, go ahead and judge a book by the cover. But take the time to leaf through some of the chapters as well.