New York Postcard: The Changing Face of the Empire

Art Life Jan 24, 2018 No Comments

From George Shaw...

I love buildings. My mother is an architect (retired), and when I was little I used to sit next to her at home and draw while she worked on sketches and plans at her drafting table. While she squinted at her slide rule before guiding/gliding a wooden T-square across large sheets of blue paper, I would pencil in endless versions of heavily armed and fortified houses, wobbly skyscrapers, and boxy New York-style skylines. To keep a short leash on my truant ways, I would spend most school holidays at her office; it meant inspecting construction sites, meetings with hard-hatted, hard-faced men, going up half-finished floors in lift cages, bouncing rides in trucks, and often falling in mud, or stepping on wet cement. Surprisingly, I was far from inconsolable when I didn’t end up becoming an architect: Maths Satan, a tragicomical inability to comprehend calculus or physics, and a non-specific numerical anxiety, took care of that. But I never stopped loving buildings.

22 January 2018


15 November 2017

  My favourite building to look at in New York is the Empire State because it seems that no matter where I am in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or New Jersey, I can almost always see it breaking through like a beacon. Although I have a solid sense of direction, it’s always nice to have an aesthetically pleasing geographical marker, just in case. Like a multi-tasking work of art, the Empire State Building engages the eye and imagination, provokes questions, and evokes associations both random and studied. In daylight, the art deco building reminds me variously of a pin-striped intercontinental missile, an awards trophy, an injection of the good stuff, or an empire-expanding space rocket. At night, the building’s head is lit by unalloyed white beams of light, no spill, just hard light for hard edges; an elegant way to resolve the knife-edge where dark and light meet. Depending on the vista you have from Fifth Avenue, the spot-lit façade can look like the features of a Japanese robot’s mask. An ultra-evil foe for Ultraman? Or a techy personal-aid-and-flashlight type tool? Or an Apollo space capsule detached from its rocket, not intent on orbiting but on continuing upwards into the night?


23 November 2017


 27 November 2017


In 2014, I had the good fortune to live in an all-glass, fifty-ninth-floor apartment next to the Empire State Building for a year. I stared at and photographed my neighbour every day. I studied its face and body, its individual style, and how the whole thing looked in changing light. I became a tad obsessed. Like a wary night-creature that suddenly emboldens at the sight of coloured lights, what switched on my Rainman obsession was the almost daily show of coloured lights that went up when the sun went down. It was like some nightly fireworks display without the scared dogs, crying babies, and bad TV-coverage.

22 November 2017


8 December 2017

The “light shows” of the Empire State Building are symbolic lighting displays that celebrate holidays, special events-sporting and otherwise, as well as benevolent causes. While the Empire State Building is privately owned, it instituted a Lighting Partner Program in 2006 to take requests from the public, organisations, and institutions for specific colour displays. However, the building reserves the right not to accede to requests for religious reasons, celebrate birthdays or anniversaries, or launch commercial products. From two colour combinations that honour various countries’ national day to polychromatic explosions that celebrate cultural icons like The Grateful Dead, the coloured lights atop the Empire State Building are the crowning jewels of a befitting, regally named building.

The World Trade Center building (WTC1) may now be the tallest building in New York, but it will always stand as a marker of the collective consciousness, while the Empire State Building will always be a building for the individual, and his or her own response to a signifier built on myths and legends, and from idiosyncratic expectations to perfect, private moments. I am now lucky to live on a thirteenth floor apartment in which one of my bedroom windows frames the Empire State Building in all its glory, gayness, and gravitas; while not so up close this time, it is as personal as ever.

George Shaw

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