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11 / The Urban Experience

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

expert perspective

David B. BrownleeProfessor of Art History, University of Pennsylvania

Chrysler Building

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

expert perspective

David B. Brownlee 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.” 

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