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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Urban Experience Art: Chrysler Building

» William van Alen (American, 1882/3–1954)

Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building
Artist / Origin: William van Alen (American, 1882/3–1954)
Region: North America
Date: 1928–1930
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Steel frame, brick, concrete, masonry, and metal cladding
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: H: 1,046 ft. (318.8 m.)
Location: 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, New York, NY
Credit: © Alan Schein Photography/CORBIS

At the beginning of the twentieth century, some American cities began looking to skyscrapers as a way to accommodate their expanding populations.

Advancements in building materials and techniques made taller and taller buildings possible. Furthermore, safe and reliable elevators and other facilities made occupying these tall buildings feasible. As in all New York City skyscrapers built after 1916, the Chrysler Building includes a series of “setbacks,” or places where the tower narrows as the building rises. As more and more skyscrapers rose alongside each other, the setbacks gave them aesthetic variety and also prevented the tall structures from completely blocking the sun. This allowed the city to expand upward without destroying the quality of life on the ground.

A dazzling showpiece in midtown Manhattan, the Chrysler Building was the tallest structure in the world when it opened in 1930. The skyscraper, designed by architect William van Alen, was self-consciously modern, and even somewhat futuristic by the standards of the day. It was as much a commercial for the Chrysler brand as a place to house the company’s offices. The ornamentation at each setback along the exterior makes reference to either particular emblems of the company or automobiles more generally. For example, a decorative brick frieze at the thirtieth floor sports a wheel and fender motif, while a series of chromed steel, eagle-head gargoyles at the sixtieth floor are associated with a specific make of car. One of the most distinctive and recognizable buildings in the New York skyline, the Chrysler Building is a monument of Art Deco, machine aesthetic architecture.

Expert Perspective
David B. Brownlee, Professor of Art History, University of Pennsylvania

“The skyscraper is the architectural form that, I think we can say, is most assuredly the emblem of American industry. It is, in its individuality, a representative of the competitive commercial spirit of American life. And as the skyscraper form developed in the 1890s and through the twentieth century, it is in the design of the skyline and the shaping of American cities that corporate America put its imprint on American life most indelibly.

The Chrysler Building was already under construction when the Chrysler Corporation purchased it. And in an act of what has to be called, in our current jargon, ‘rebranding,’ they hired an architect, William van Alen, and engaged him to skin the building with something that would make it look like it was the Chrysler Building. And van Alen borrowed from the decoration the hood ornaments of Chrysler automobiles to create gargoyles on the upper levels of the building; wrapped the building in friezes of dark and light brick that, rather than showing a parade of warriors as a classical frieze might, showed a parade of Chrysler automobiles; built in its ground floor a showroom for Chrysler with turntables that spun the latest products at a stately speed; and, topped the whole building with a gleaming armadillo-spike of stainless steel that made the building the tallest building in the world just by a hair, because it was in competition with a building in lower Manhattan. And the spike, secretly assembled in an elevator shaft and pushed skyward on a windless day, was the thing that clinched the title for Chrysler, and gave Chrysler, in that, the greatest advertisement of them all, literally being on the top of the world.”

Additional Resources

Douglas, George H. Skyscrapers: A Social History of the Very Tall Building in America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.

Meikle, Jeffrey, L. Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925–1939. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Moudry, Roberta. The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

The Skyscraper Museum Web site. http://www.skyscraper.org/home.htm.

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

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2