New York

“Terminal New York”

Brooklyn Army Terminal

The Brooklyn Army Terminal, Cass Gilbert’s poured-concrete structure of 1918–19, looks large, solid, and rather unexceptional from the outside, a massive warehouse. But the interior is astonishing. Eight cavernous floors, with relatively low ceilings supported by imposing ranks of squat, Egyptian-like columns, open on a breathtaking enclosed loading dock for rail freight. This so-called atrium space combines the simple grandeur one associates with the monuments of early civilizations with a kind of futurist, science fiction imagery. Empty and slightly dilapidated, the space retains its impact as mise-en-scène for the spectacle of the war machine. One can only imagine how impressive it must have been filled with clamor and steam as munitions and matériel were loaded onto waiting trains—an almost cinematic wonder.

A well-chosen, carefully installed art show might have been able to survive such competition, might have been able to complement Gilbert’s design. But the show was a disaster. Yards and yards of undistinguished, often unabashedly derivative work were littered throughout a good part of the main floor of the building. In some areas tacky little paintings hung pathetically between columns, in others predictable and often witless installations gathered dust, while balloons, banners, and noisemakers cheerlessly festooned the atrium. There were a few happy exceptions, but the overall impression was so depressing that they were easily overlooked. Instead all one came away with was a sense of enervating desperation, a desperation like that of the child who stages a tantrum to gain attention, any attention.

Tom Lawson