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Rockefeller Center, Explored & Explained

Today on AD, architect Adam Rolston takes us on an insightful walking tour of Rockefeller Center, exploring the history and details of New York City's most famous holiday season destination.

Released on 12/22/2022


Hi, my name is Adam Rolston, and I'm an architect.

I happen to be working on a project

here at Rockefeller Center. [gentle piano music]

And today, we're gonna give you

an architectural walking tour of the Rock.

[upbeat music]

So Rock Center, often called The Heart of New York.

I think everyone knows famously the plaza

that has the Christmas tree.

The brainchild of John D. Rockefeller Jr.,

completed in 1939,

was really conceived of as a city within a city.

The design of the center is very much a collaborative effort

but was led by Raymond Hood.

He beautifully combined form and function,

classic and modern ADMs in a very New York style.

And we're gonna go take a look at some of those things.

Here we are at the top of the Channel Gardens

at Rockefeller Center.

It is the site of the original Elgin Botanical Gardens,

which were the first public botanical gardens in the nation.

It's called the Channel Gardens

as a reference to the English Channel

because it's right in between the Maison Francois

and the British Empire Building.

The most interesting aspect of the Channel Garden

is that it slopes down towards 30 Rock,

which opens up the view to Prometheus

and the larger building

in a slightly forced perspective that shortens it

and brings you into the center.

You can see the Art Deco moves

in this very classic architecture.

One of the most interesting things about Rock Center to me

is that it's this interesting combination

of both very classic civic architecture

and deeply modern architecture.

The limestone, the symmetry,

all that evokes a kind of neoclassical character,

and yet it's a deeply modern set of buildings.

And you really see that in 30 Rock,

where it is almost like a church tower,

but as you start to see it three-dimensionally,

it is this massive office building.

When it was built,

not as tall as the Empire State Building,

but actually greater volume than the Empire State Building

in its total size.

[upbeat music]

So we made our way down to the famous Rockefeller ice rink,

you can see the tree behind me.

Rock Center is one of the most visited sites

in New York City,

but it's also during Christmas because of the tree

and because of the rink.

In 1931, the first Christmas tree

was placed here in the plaza,

and it was actually the construction workers of the complex

pulled their money and placed the tree here themselves.

And it was just a modest 20-footer.

That modest 20-foot tree grew into a tradition,

and now they run between 80 and 100 feet.

It's fitting that we're here on the day

that the teams here are setting up for Christmas,

a little bit like the first Christmas tree

with the construction workers setting up their tree.

So the ice skating rink opened on Christmas in 1936

and was meant to be temporary,

but it was so popular that it's been a tradition ever since.

There's a story or a legend

that an ice skate salesman jumped onto the frozen fountain

and started skating,

and that was the spark or the idea

that prompted the ice skating rink.

Over my shoulder is the sculpture of Prometheus

by Paul Manship.

And of course, Prometheus stole fire

and gave it to the mortals.

So you can't see it because of the tree,

but Zeus, the sculpture over 30 Rock,

is looking down at Prometheus and kind of scolding him.

So Rockefeller Center was planned as the city of the future.

And one of those things

is a kind of multi-level planning effort

that went along with it.

So there is the retail on the street level,

all of that action restaurants.

And then there's a whole lower level

that the sunken plaza was built to connect to.

Although Rockefeller Center was privately developed,

it gave back to the city that it belonged to.

And here, the public space is the biggest gift.

[upbeat music]

The 30 Rock Lobby,

one of the few landmarked interiors in New York City,

is one of the most beautiful spaces in the city.

It is literally one of my favorite spaces in New York.

And the story of Rockefeller Center's Interiors begins here.

It's got the drama, the mural,

attenuated vertical readed columns,

the horizontal storefront,

brass and black terrazzo floor.

It just combines all of the elements

of what made Rockefeller Center sexy and romantic

in the classic Art Deco style.

The Lobby's main feature

is the José Maria Sert murals titled American Progress.

The José Maria Sert murals are appraised prone

to both the brains and the bran of American progress.

They're both at one's classical and modern,

it's a classical style and yet modern imagery,

from Titan to airplanes.

The floors are made of black terrazzo, green terrazzo,

and bronze inlay.

And they're a beautiful representation

of classic Art Deco pattern-making,

where a stepping pattern creates this radiating form,

but then it exists in this beautiful regular grid.

Another great example of the ways

in which art is incorporated into the architecture

is the glass that is above the entrance

at 30 Rock by Lee Lawrie.

Here, a sculpture is literally the glass storefront

that separates inside from outside.

The Lee Lawrie glass sculpture is a beautiful collaboration

between the architects and the sculptor

in the sense that it is structural.

The architecture is holding up the glass.

So it's been said that the first columns

were made by the Egyptians,

and they were actually bundles of papyrus branches,

and the column capital was the leaves,

and those reeds were not concave, but convex,

which created a kind of convex floating

in the very first columns that you see in Egypt.

Here that's been appropriated to create this convex floating

around the heroic main columns

that mark the entrance to 30 Rock.

And beautifully,

lighting is incorporated into these columns,

a flute peels away at the top,

and then even incorporated within those glutes

is the radiator, believe it or not,

in these brass inlays that you see here.

So there's a beautiful scaling device of the drama

of the vertical columns

and the horizontal storefront capped by this brass detail.

Below is the rich, dark, grounding black granite,

and then above is the white plaster,

and that pulls you into the lobby in this beautiful way

that is both great architecture and great wayfinding.

[whimsical music]

Here we are at 50 Rock, just north of the plaza.

And over my shoulder is the entrance

that has Isamu Noguchi sculpture above it,

wrought in stainless steel.

It's the only time he ever worked in stainless steel.

And somehow Noguchi managed to make stainless steel

look like platinum leaf.

And you can see it in the handwork

of the grinder that he used,

this incredible texture that he got.

This sculpture is called News

and very much connected to the sculpture

throughout the complex,

where the artwork connects

to what's happening on the inside.

So this was the home of the Associated Press,

and the sculpture represents that.

You can see a guy in a typewriter, notepad, photographer.

And Noguchi was working with the theme of News.

And directly across from 50 Rock,

it's a bas-relief by Gaston Lachaise,

which was dedicated to the workman

that built Rockefeller Center.

So there are a lot of artists incorporated in the complex,

working at the height of their powers.

These included, of course, Isamu Noguchi,

José Maria Sert, Lee Lawrie,

and Paul Manship, among others.

John D. Rockefeller's wife, Abby,

was very passionate about art

and pushed to incorporate it

into the architecture of the center.

In fact, she was also one of the founders

of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Prometheus is apparently the most photographed

public sculpture in New York City,

and it's also important as a symbol of art

incorporated into the public sphere,

which is something that Rock Center has been dedicated

to both historically, but also in the present.

So the original idea behind the the Rockefeller Center

was a very democratic one.

The idea was to create a set of office buildings

that helped create a deeply civic space.

So you see this in the vision for the center

that JD Rockefeller and Abby Rockefeller had for the artwork

that was to be incorporated

into the architecture of the buildings.

[upbeat music]

The building behind me is Radio City Music Hall,

America's Theater.

This was the first building

completed in a Rockefeller Center.

Radio City Music Hall is kind of remarkable

because it takes up an entire city block.

It's symmetrical, and you would expect,

like most theaters, the entrance would be on the middle,

right down the center.

The original designers, Edward Durell Stone,

doing the architecture,

and Donald Deskey doing the design work,

they decided to put the entrance on the corner

to draw the visitor not only to Radio City Music Hall,

but also into the Rock Center complex in general.

So when you're at Rockville Center in Christmas time,

you think of the Rockettes.

Radio City Music Hall

was very much designed around the Rockettes.

The Rockettes actually had a different home,

and they were brought here from that theater.

The impresario that brought us Radio City Music Hall,

S.L. Rothafel, no relation.

His nickname was actually Roxy,

and that's where the Rockettes got their name.

So there was a dance group that preexisted the Rockettes,

but they got their name from Roxy.

Rockefeller Center is very much defined

by a very heroic, masculine architecture.

And what's sort of remarkable

about the interior of Radio City Music Hall is,

it's very sexy and feminine.

And that comes outside a little bit in the marquee,

and the marquee is characterized

by this beautiful sweeping curve that wraps the corner.

And then of course, I think at the time,

fairly controversial, 75-foot vertical sign.

So you'll notice that most of Rockefeller Center

is limestone and bronze and glass.

Here, stainless steel and aluminum have been used

to distinguish it from the rest of the center.

And interestingly, stainless steel and and aluminum

are very much the hallmarks of the Art Deco style.

So Radio Studio Music Hall was completed in 1932,

and the last rivet was placed just down the street in 1939

by John D. Rockefeller.

The last rivet was a ceremonial christening, if you will,

of the completion of the center

and was actually driven in by John D. himself.

And you can actually visit it.

There's a beautiful little peephole

where you can look through a column and see it.

[upbeat music]

We've made our way down to the lower level concourse.

This lower level is not landmarked.

So over the years, it had been renovated.

Originally, the casual visitor

couldn't have even stood here.

There was a restaurant in this location.

The restaurants removed across the corridor

to give everyone access to the rink in the courtyard.

One of the tasks that we were given as a studio

was to open it up,

was very confusing down here originally,

the whole goal of the sunken courtyard

was to get access to the trains

and transportation that's down here.

New Yorkers know it's really easy to get turned around

when you're underground.

So part of our wayfinding effort was to embed

and inlay the names of the various buildings

within the terrazzo.

And one of the interesting things

about Art Deco architecture

and this context of the complex

is Art Deco was all about this modern,

forward-thinking aesthetic

that was very much rooted in skyscraper style,

this vertical character

of the lion's attenuation towards the sky.

But there's always this tension

between the exterior architecture

and the interiors that were found here,

which were very much based on the horizontal.

So we decided to riff on the horizontal

as a kind of wayfinding strategy.

And we established this idea

which was common in many of the interiors in the center,

including Radio City Music Hall,

is this idea of flow and enthusiasm

for speed and high speed trains,

locomotives of the era.

During our initial sight walkthroughs,

we discovered that the fountains above in the plaza

were lined in glass box,

which allowed us to use them as skylights

within the concourse.

A forensic aesthetic approach

drove all of our decision-making.

So you can see,

from the biggest detail to the smallest detail,

every aspect of our thinking.

So here at the handle,

you see the ideas of stepping of three,

flow in the handle,

and flutes, the vertical flutes,

or this tension between the horizontal and the vertical.

There's this beautiful detail of the coping

of the fountain under Prometheus of this curve

that flows down to the lower level of the fountain.

That same curve was turned upside down

to define the curve that went throughout

and even the light fixture over my shoulder.

And so, the flow through the space

was the most important thing,

connecting all of the buildings in the complex

at this lower level.

The terrazzo here is slightly lighter than in 30 Rock,

lightening the space.

[piano music]

Believe it or not,

we are standing on top of Radio City Music Hall

and this is the secret that no one knows about.

It's hard to believe the complexity

in putting a park on top of a roof

and a roof that literally spans an entire block.

But here we are,

the fruition or the completion of J. D. Rockefeller's dream

of having parks on top of every setback within the complex.

And this one, this particular park, is dedicated to

and used by the people that work in the center.

Radio Park, a half-acre park,

is one of the most recent projects completed here

at Rockefeller Center,

but it's also a return to the original vision,

which was a complex that would be covered

in green roofs and gardens.

Some of the earliest plans for Rockefeller Center

included parks on every one of the setbacks

within the complex.

So this idea of a multi-layer development,

where you begin with the underground transportation,

the plaza level, and the retail and restaurants,

the office workers above,

and then rooftop gardens,

that's a very modern idea

and part of the original vision.

It's hard to imagine that we're standing literally

on top of the world famous Radio City Music Hall stage.

The Radio City Music Hall vault

has these light coves that reach across the stage.

Developed during the heyday

of Trans-Atlantic shipping and travel,

apparently the stage, which is this beautiful arc,

was inspired by the sunset over the Atlantic,

and that the Music Hall spans the entire block.

So that's a long span space.

And this is very heavy stuff.

All this dirt and trees. [piano music]

So the complexity of building something like this

on top of the roof is kind of a miracle.

Building a park like this on a roof,

it's all about waterproofing. [laughing]

Your roof at home leaks,

can you imagine this?