PRINT November 2016


Arias Serna Saravia, Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower, 2011, Panama City. Rendering.

“WHOEVER SAID LESS IS MORE never had more. And they’ve certainly never stayed at the Trump® International Hotel & Tower Panama. . . .”

You can’t make this stuff up. Or can you? As it happens, I have stayed at the Trump® Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower in Panama City, and I can personally attest that whatever one may think of Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated formula, “more” is definitely not the Trump® Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower—regardless of what the ad copy says. It’s a fat, unlovable building that should probably be paying monthly royalties to the Burj Al Arab, the svelter sail-shaped tower in Dubai it attempts to impersonate.

Guests enter their rooms to be greeted by Ivanka Trump herself, appearing in a prerecorded video to extol the many fine features of the project. Ever the soul of tact, Ivanka makes no reference to the problems that plagued the building long after its construction was ostensibly complete. As late as 2013, two years after the official opening, portions of the internal elevator shafts remained unclad, the ganglia of their wires and cables exposed. Nor does Ivanka mention the windows in the lobby, often covered in perma-fog due to some failure of the HVAC engineers. Certainly she says nothing about the fact that only months after its completion, Fitch Ratings downgraded the building’s bond rating from B- to CC based on the lack of demand for its 627 ultraluxurious condominium units.

This, as the promotional materials assured us, was “opulence at its absolute finest.”

It was ever thus—kind of. All the way back in 1899, third-generation copper heir William Earle Dodge Stokes set the stage for the Trump family’s high-end real estate theatrics by determining to build the most lavish, most sensational residential hotel New York had ever seen. Hiring a sculptor from France and an architect from Louisiana to build it for him, Stokes nonetheless awarded himself the title of “architect-in-chief,” an appellation with little precedent in the building trade but one that Stokes evidently thought himself qualified to assume by dint of wealth if not experience. He named the building for his grandfather, Anson Greene Phelps.

Ian Volner on the architecture of Trump.

When the Ansonia Hotel opened on the corner of Seventy-Third Street and Broadway, it too was opulence at its absolute finest. A rippling Edwardian folderol of mansard roofs, turreted corners, and double-height archways, it boasted amenities that make today’s high-end condos look like glorified yurts—fresh eggs were delivered to tenants daily from a rooftop farm, and live seals were brought in to frisk in the lobby fountain. But in the decades that followed, the building suffered a long spell of misfortune, as architectural tastes turned to more stringent pleasures and the area around the hotel went into steep decline: There it is, a sublime wreck, in the background of 1971’s Joan Didion– and John Gregory Dunne–scripted The Panic in Needle Park; in Saul Bellow’s 1956 novella Seize the Day, the hard-luck protagonist hits rock-bottom when he is forced to hole up in the rotting Ansonia with his pensioner father.

“It looks like a baroque palace from Prague or Munich enlarged a hundred times,” wrote Bellow. “Under the changes of weather it may look like marble or like sea water, black as slate in the fog, white as tufa in sunlight.” It is hard to imagine today, but all this magnificence was only barely saved from demolition in the early 1970s. The weather changes, and architecture shifts in the light.

By 1988, when the Plaza Hotel, completed just three years after the Ansonia, was purchased by the Trump Organization for $407.5 million, the public had come to recognize the city’s eclectic fin de siècle buildings for the treasures they were. No one would have turned up her nose at an apartment in the Ansonia, and everyone was stunned when the Plaza’s new ownership threatened to mar the historic structure by adding an upper-story penthouse addition in a crass bid to recoup their hyperinflated investment. How relieved, then, was the New York Times critic Paul Goldberger to find that Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates’ and Lee Harris Pomeroy’s proposal for the nineteenth floor made “much sense, and should enrich this splendid building.” The expansion did not, in the end, move forward, after the Trump real estate group entered one of its perennial bouts of bankruptcy. But the Plaza fared remarkably well under the company’s stewardship, its rooms attractively and faithfully restored: One of the renovated suites has a gorgeous turn in King of New York (1990), the filmmakers having been given the space gratis in exchange for promising that their star, Christopher Walken, would pose in a photo with Ivanka’s mother, Ivana—a huge fan.

Truth to tell, the great sin of the Trump Organization over the past three decades has not been the consistent perpetration of bad architecture. Many of the companies’ projects are fine, or at least do no harm. The problem is one of attitude. Just as philosopher Harry Frankfurt distinguished bullshitting from lying by pointing out that the former is simply indifferent to the truth, the problem is that all the Trump company’s buildings, good or bad, just don’t care one way or the other.

The situation is more unique than one might suppose. In New York in particular, there is a long and still- thriving tradition of developer-collectors—reaching as far back as old Stokes and including latter-day figures such as Sheldon Solow, Harry Macklowe, and Larry Silverstein, who believe deeply that their portfolios of built work are evidence of their personal aesthetic discernment. (It is hardly a coincidence that many of them are also collectors of art.) What gets built is not infrequently a lie—their commitment to the public weal, to urban life, to architecture itself, all a convenient vehicle for their own enrichment. Capital makes liars of us all, as we know. But a lie is different from bullshit.

The special equivocality of the Trump machine can be charted in the wildly varied reception of its buildings over the years: Martin Filler, writing in Art in America in 1983, savaged the company’s first major monolith on Fifth Avenue as “a gaudy looming interloper”; Goldberger, meanwhile, regarded the interior, with its crowd-pleasing sprays of brass, as a “pleasant surprise.” In 2002, Herbert Muschamp, Goldberger’s spirited successor at the Times, hailed the Trump World Tower on First Avenue as “undeniably the most primal building New York has seen in quite a while”; only six years previously, the same reviewer slighted the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Columbus Circle as “a 1950’s International Style glass skyscraper in a 1980’s gold lamé party dress.” Ada Louise Huxtable praised some projects and sniffed at others, while the more pugilistic Michael Sorkin has made the Trump team a favorite punching bag for decades, reserving the same vitriol for its projects that he has long directed at sometime–Trump hireling Philip Johnson.

Johnson, along with Costas Kondylis, Der Scutt, and David Childs, rounds out the short list of major American architects who have at one time or another been seconded to the Trump Organization’s eponymous “architect-in-chief.” Most of their tandem projects, however, belong to the distant past: Scutt and Johnson are both dead, and Childs is in semiretirement. The Trump name has yet to grace any building by a contemporary designer with the star power of a Gehry, a Meier, or a Herzog & de Meuron, all of whom have secured commissions with other, more ingenuous megadevelopers. For most of the Trump Organization’s recent projects, as in Panama, it has been a marginal player, a licensor brought in to enhance the salability of a design from some well-meaning bread-and-butter firm in this or that foreign capital.

Mixity, proposed Trump Tower, Baku, Azerbaijan. Rendering.

What is interesting, in retrospect, is that this degree of remove does not reflect the failure of, or even a shift in, the company’s modus operandi as a maker of architecture, precisely because it has no modus operandi. The Trump Organization does not seem to be guided by any feeling for what it wants its buildings to look like, and obviously not (given the propensity of its projects to land in the red) by simple economic horse sense. Not only is there no there there, but the more theres they build, the less there there is.

A good measure of the brand’s peculiar vacuity might be the enfilade of prosaic residential high-rises that began sprouting along the West Side Highway in the late ’90s, which fall at about the middle mark for the Trump Organization’s accomplishments, quality-wise. Designed over the course of a decade by Johnson and Kondylis, the suite of buildings took so long to build that its flat-footed postmodernism, all symmetrical massing and masonry cladding, would be almost quaint but for its preposterous scale. It could have been worse: When the Trump people acquired the site in the mid-’80s, their original proposal included a Helmut Jahn skyscraper that would have been the tallest in the world, flanked by a cluster of smaller structures that gave it the exact silhouette of a middle finger. The city was spared this fate in part because the Trump Organization couldn’t afford to see the project through, eventually settling for a mere 30 percent stake in the development despite the ubiquitous TRUMP fixed to the facades of several towers.

As they stand, emblazoned with the familiar logo, the buildings of Trump Place seem like a curious inversion of the polemical fantasy Robert Venturi proposed as a kind of distillation of his brand of postmodernism, the “recommendation for a monument” that consisted simply of a plain box slapped with a billboard reading I AM A MONUMENT. In Trump’s case, the signifier, evacuated of all meaning, tells us precisely what the buildings are not. What they are, by most accounts, is empty—many of the apartments within have been snapped up not as homes but as investment properties for out-of-towners who rarely stay there.

Emptiness is the leitmotif of the Trump Organization’s portfolio, and it is what makes all its buildings so horrible, so chilling, in a way that has little to do with their architecture. (Incidentally, atop this replicator of emptinesses there stands a kind of singularity of emptiness—a creature that, as has been reported, sleeps but little, seeks meat constantly, and is separated at present writing by perhaps a single WikiLeak from control of the largest military arsenal in the world.) And yet, improbable as it may seem, architecture will eventually reclaim these buildings. In thirty years or so, some future owner will assume control of the West Side towers, and when the workmen descend on them with hydraulic chisels to pry the gold letters from above the door, there will arise such a hue and cry from the preservationist lobby as will rattle the windows of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. By then, whether anyone likes it, Trump Place and all Trump buildings past will have been invested with meaning, now precious as representatives of the Kunstwollen of a bygone era.

It is a process that has overtaken buildings even more obnoxious to architectural values in particular and to human values in general than Trump’s. But the company will not go down without a fight, and even now it is busily hollowing out another void for history to fill. Not to be outdone by its own superlatives, the Trump Organization has been trying (unsuccessfully, as it’s been stalled for a year) to build another, absolute-finest-in-opulence tower, a copy of the Panama copy, in the Azeri capital of Baku. Trump is reported to be in tangential cahoots with the local podesta, President Ilham Aliyev; in a gratifying geopolitical coincidence, the full itinerary of Aliyev’s international pilferage was exposed just recently—as part of the Panama Papers.

Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and design to The New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker online. His next book, a biography of architect Michael Graves, will be available from Princeton Architectural Press in fall 2017.