PRINT January 1986


Parabuilding—the Postmodern tick on the Modern elephant.

THERE ARE BUILDING SITES, there are parasites, and then there are parabuildings, buildings designed not to stand on their own but to be attached to existing buildings—like ticks to dogs or lamprey eels to sharks, one might say, except that parabuildings can great]y surpass their hosts in size. Often, the host is paradoxically converted into a parabuilding by the architects of the new addition; such is the case with Michael Graves’ proposed addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art, which would convert the original Marcel Breuer building into a symbolic cornerstone of the museum’s ambitious program for expansion.

What is oddly unremarked amid the complaints that the Graves design saps the strength from the Breuer is that Breuer himself the example for this kind of generically New York solution—to the price of land, the lack of space, the ambivalent relationship to tradition—when, in 1968, he proposed to turn the concourse of Grand Central Terminal into a Beaux Arts plinth for a 55-story office building in the International Style. The recent explosion in parabuildings is exemplified by the Helmsley Palace Hotel (a g]ass box perched atop McKim, Mead and White’s 1884 Villard Houses); 500 Park Avenue (James Stewart Polshek’s residential co-op cantilevered over Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s. 1960 Pepsi-Cola building); and, the wild card in the deck, SITE’s PAZ Building in Brooklyn (a curtain-walled glass office block inserted into the crumbling masonry shell of an abandoned YMCA). This may be just the beginning. In time, today’s paratowers may play host to parapenthouses, and whole avenues may be converted into enclosed, Portman-like atriums, their walls studded with rows of twinkling parabuildings clamped to the sides of International Sty]e building boxes.

Many would love to nip this thing in the bud. Community boards have outlawed the “needle” skyscrapers that developers had begun to squeeze in behind narrow mid-block townhouses. The critic Paul Goldberger is campaigning against a related phenomenon which he terms “facadism,” the use of sheared-off building facades to adorn high-rise entrances. Another Whitney-like controversy has broken out over Charles Gwathmey’s proposal to cantilever an office tower over the northern rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

A good deal of this fracas can be attributed to a failure to recognize the parabuilding as a nascent contemporary architectural type. Historically, remodeling or expanding upon existing buildings is not new; but in the Renaissance incorporation of classical ruins, the Georgian terrace, the New York row house, or the visionary projects of architects like Yona Friedman in the early ’60s, the goal was ultimately to bring visual unity to urban form. Para-buildings, on the other hand, tend to emphasize rather than mask discontinuities of form and scale; they represent frankly the clash between preservation and an economy dependent on perpetual expansion. The resistance to this architecture has generated criticism similar to the writing on early skyscrapers; Montgomery Schuyler’s assessment of the Lower Manhattan skyline in 1897 was that “it is not an architectural vision, but it does, most tremendously, ‘look like business.’” Lewis Mumford wrote in 1924 that the skyscraper’s virtues were entire]y technical and economic and "have precious little to do with the human arts of seeing, feeling, and living, or with the noble architectural end of making buildings which stimulate and enhance these arts!’ Few today would deny the skyscraper its supreme place in visionary American architecture, but the same identity crises in architecture that it provoked are now being resurrected by the parabuilding—which also is mostly seen and written about as a commercial expedient, not an architectural vision.

To admit the parabuilding as an architectural form, and the architect as a parabuilder, would be to admit symbiotic relationships that our hierarchical systems prefer to repress. It would bring to the surface the architect’s dependency on other architecture, and, worse, on the builder, in a relationship analogous to that of the paramedic and the physician or the paralegal and the lawyer; and to admit that would undermine our reliance on the figure of the architect as the autonomous artist, guardian of our noble architectural plans. Who wants to be the one to tell the architecture student that years of study will probably purchase little more than the privilege of playing nurse and ego-buttresser to a self-made real estate speculator? The architectural significance of the parabuilding lies precisely in its power to reveal the kinship between noble pretenses and bottom lines, especially at a time like the present, when developers are falling all over themselves to hire architects with distinguished reputations. But more than this, the parabuilding offers us the opportunity to grant architecture its real mixed identity, to see historicism, to renounce the noble title inherited with the false concept of the blank slate, and to acknowledge instead the ethical mix of a built-up world where even the connective tissue is made up of fragments and discontinuities, where the stopgap becomes the enduring solution, where all buildings are parabuildings, pieces of larger pieces. There’s at least humor in the sight of a high-rise trying to hide behind a brownstone, and not a bit more cynicism than in the eagerness of the architect to hide a blockbuster development behind the cloak of prestige design.

To the early Modernist, unadorned works of structural engineering like Sir Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace exposed the folly of applying yesterday’s ornamental patterns over structural steel; the parabuilding exposes new follies. The International Style tower may have been faithful to its structural truth, but the parabuilding is faithful to the sociological truth of a city where real estate developers are our provisional nobility, where history is turned out on the sidewalk by Postmodern historicism and shivers like a doorman in a beefeater’s coat, where Donald Trump “offers” to build sports arenas and break tall-building records as though performing acts of noblesse oblige, while Leona Helmsley, our paraqueen in her paratiara, keeps guard at her parapalace and Philip Johnson holds the keys to paradise.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Criticism Workshop at the Parsons School of Design NY, and writes a column on architecture for Artforum.