Manhattan’s skyscrapers were not only the playground of superheroes, but giant beehives of business: headquarters of global corporations, central offices for far-flung plants and facilities, the focal points of vast commercial energies. Their lines of communication and authority spread to the ends of the planet; with utter confidence, their builders considered them to be the very center of the modern world. No sooner have we entered their doors, in fact, than we are presented with symbolic renditions of the earth itself: an enormous translucent globe in the 1937 lobby of Top of the Town’s ‘Radio Center’ [below], for example, or a futuristic, two-story-tall chronometer, ringed by a map of the world and its twenty-four time zones, which sits in the lobby of the Manhattan headquarters of Janoth Publications, a Time-Life-type media empire that is the setting of the 1948 film The Big Clock. As a tour guide explains to his group, the clock’s complex mechanism does not simply keep time, but actually regulates activity throughout Janoth’s global domain. The symbolism is obvious, of course: the towering device stands for the skyscraper headquarters just as the skyscraper itself stands for New York — the ultimate ‘big clock’, constantly pacing the world and tracking its progress.

Art department sketch from Top of the Town (1937)

These symbolic elements also suggest something else: that the skyscraper holds an entire world within itself — a complex microcosm of society whose trajectory is drawn from the shape of the building. In the movie city, we regularly follow characters on their ‘way up’, locating in the tower’s upward thrust a model for other, less visible kinds of movement. Rarely has this parallel been presented more bluntly (or amusingly) than in a racy 1933 film called Baby Face: the audience follows the career of an ambitious newcomer named Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) by tracking her physical rise within the offices of the ‘Gotham Trust.’ After Lily gets her first job by seducing the manager of the personnel department, the saucy strains of ‘St. Louis Blues’ start to play as the camera pulls out of the forty-seventh-floor window, rises two stories to the filing department, and returns inside. Here Lily meets another supervisor and makes another conquest. ‘St. Louis Blues’ plays again, and again the camera pulls out the window, rising this time to the mortgage department, on fifty-one. And so on, through the accounting and executive offices, until finally Lily has reached the very top of the building — the penthouse of the bank’s handsome young chairman, George Brent.

However unorthodox her technique, Lily at least works her way up one step at a time, her gradual ascent precisely calibrated by the building’s tier upon tier of windows. Yet in the classic skyscraper era, lavish architectural efforts were expended precisely to circumvent this sort of plodding, floor-by-floor rise; instead, the exteriors of skyscrapers sought to suggest a single, daring leap, an express track to the sky that would mask the unglamorous stacking of floors within. It is just this distinction — between interior and exterior, between a hardworking climb and a swift, dizzying leap — that frames Joel and Ethan Coen’s parodic exploration of the classic New York skyscraper, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

Constructing the New York skyline for The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

It is 1958, and at the center of a mythic Wall Street skyline rises the headquarters of Hudsucker Industries, an imposing depression-era tower whose exterior design — like those of the actual Manhattan buildings it is based on — seeks to sweep the eye in an unbroken line from bottom to top [left].

And it is precisely at those two extremes that the story begins. At the foot of the building, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a bumbling but ambitious newcomer from Muncie, Indiana, is arriving for his first day on the job, ready and eager to work his way up. At the top, meanwhile the man who built the building — and the immense corporation within it — has chosen that very moment to make a dramatic move in the opposite direction, leaping out of the forty-fifth-floor boardroom window and plunging to his death. Cinematically elongated in time and space, the fall of corporation chairman Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) feels not scary or tragic but oddly exhilarating, as we sail right alongside the plummeting figure, the vertical lines of the building’s sleek exterior racing beneath us like railroad track, the camera angled, for much of the distance, up the length of the soaring tower — as if to recall, even at this most terrible of moments, its original ascendant promise.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

Indeed, within hours, the hapless Norville is making that very ascent — at a rate only slightly less impressive than Hudsucker’s fall — when he is elevated from a lowly position in the building’s inferno-like mailroom to its airy executive offices, not through any hard work or intelligence on his part, but as the unknowing patsy — or ‘proxy’ — of a boardroom scheme to depress stock values and buy up the company at a bargain. That these executive offices, for all their imposing size and high polish, may have grown a bit too detached from the world below is powerfully conveyed by a shot of Hudsucker’s successor, Sidney Mussburger (Paul Newman), silhouetted in the high boardroom windows. Not only Mussburger — the cynical, grasping executive who has instigated Norville’s rise — but Wall Street’s towers themselves are reflected in the mirror-smooth boardroom table, so as to appear to float weightlessly, utterly disengaged from everything else [left].

But there is far more to the skyscraper then the airy, detached realm at its top, as we discover when Norville pulls an idea out of his pocket — a crude pencil sketch of something that turns out to be the hula hoop — and, indulged by Mussburger, is allowed to carry the idea through to execution. In a succession of rapid shots that, among them, manage to spoof almost every New York office movie ever made (from The Apartment to The Crowd to The Big Clock itself), we tour the divisions that fill the length of the Hudsucker Building: the design department, the advertising department, the accounting department — even a proving lab where Norville’s innocent invention is submitted to explosive testing. But all of Norville’s good intentions are no match in the end for Mussburger’s evil designs, and the film’s climax finds the young man in the sad position of Hudsucker himself — standing outside the forty-fifth-floor window, contemplating a fatal plunge. ‘You had a short climb up, kid,’ Mussburger gloats, ‘but it’s a long way down.’ For all its layers of irony, The Hudsucker Proxy ultimately takes us on a surprisingly full and complete tour of the New York skyscraper, inside and out, revealing along the way the profound disjunction between the reality of its interior, whose stratified hierarchy of office floors might well take a lifetime to surmount, and the seductive (if potentially treacherous) promise of its exterior — that the entire length of the building might be negotiated, one way or the other, in a single, breathtaking leap.


An ambulance races through the city’s streets, rushing the legendary modern architect Harry Cameron (Henry Hull) to the hospital. Inside, the great man is flat on his back, close to death, hardly able to speak — the ideal opportunity, apparently, for him to deliver a lengthy disquisition on the buildings he sees through the ambulance window.

‘Skyscrapers,’ he proclaims, as his protégé Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) draws close, ‘the greatest structural invention of man! Yet they made them look like Greek temples, Gothic cathedrals, and mongrels of every ancient style they could borrow. I told them that the form of a building was to follow its function! That new materials demand new forms! That one building can’t borrow pieces of another’s shape, just as one man can’t borrow another’s soul!’

Catching sight of a modernist apartment house (actually 240 Central Park South), Cameron brightens briefly. ‘That’s one of my buildings,’ he says, before relapsing. If not exactly supernatural, it is indeed a strange world we have entered — the fervid, peculiarly airless precincts of the film called The Fountainhead.

Directed by King Vidor and released by Warner’s in 1949, The Fountainhead closely follows the themes of the best-selling Ayn Rand novel on which it is based — not surprisingly, since Rand herself wrote the screenplay. Most everyone knows the story. Howard Roark, a brilliant modern architect, struggles to build his bold designs in a compromising world. Rival architect Peter Keating (Kent Smith) is a timid, conventional designer who produces neoclassical skyscrapers and at first meets with great success. But when his career stalls, he implores Roark to design a housing project called Cortlandt Homes and let it be submitted under Keating’s name. Roark agrees, knowing that no project bearing his own signature would be accepted. When Roark’s radical design is grotesquely compromised during construction, he dynamites the structures, reaping widespread public fury. But Roark wins his trial and is vindicated; by film’s end he is building the tallest skyscraper in the world.

Intense (and sometimes commercially surreal) subplots of passion and ambition embroider the film, but at heart Rand sought to present a parable of ideas, using the battle of architectural modernism against the older eclectic tradition to exemplify her philosophical belief in the value of the individual versus the collective. The year of the film’s release, 1949, was propitious: the first modern, glass-walled skyscraper, the United Nations Secretariat building, was just coming out of the ground, soon to be followed by the first steel-and-glass commercial office building, Lever House. New York’s skyline was about to receive its first taste of the new International Style.

It was a dramatic change. For generations, New York’s skyscraper architects had pursued their own distinctive course as they raised up the world’s first and most famous skyline. For them, the skyscraper’s internal steel frame was a means rather than an end, something to be freely manipulated wherever necessary to provide a suitable armature for the picturesque exterior effects they sought to achieve. They readily used spires, pinnacles and complex setbacks to shape their towers into ‘artistic’ compositions, then clad these structures with ornamented masonry facades that first drew from classical and Gothic-inspired styles and then, with the coming of Art Deco in the 1920s, explored their own decorative motifs.

The design of the new postwar skyscrapers, by contrast, proceeded from entirely different principles. For modernist architects, the steel frame beneath the building’s skin was not just the enabler of its height but the prime generator of its form. No longer would the steel frame be elaborately shaped to fit the building’s exterior; now that exterior would take the form most naturally suggested by the frame itself: simple, repetitive, boxlike. Nor would buildings be clad in masonry, or covered with any kind or applied decoration. Now, sheer flat panels of glass and metal would fill in the frame’s openings, allowing the internal grid of columns and beams to become visible on the facade of the building — at least symbolically. (Fire codes generally disallowed the exposed use of actual structural elements.) The building’s structure would become its decoration.

As Cameron’s soliloquy might suggest, The Fountainhead took sides without apology. In the film, the older eclectic tradition symbolizes spineless collectivism, while Roark’s bold modernism embodies Rand’s philosophy of rugged individualism. We are intended to agree solemnly when Roark states firmly that ‘a building must be true to its own idea.’ We are meant to jeer when sinister critic Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas) attacks Roark’s work at an architects' meeting by asserting that ‘the conflict of forms is too great. Can your building stand by the side of his?’

The Fountainhead (1949).

Indeed, Rand’s insistent message is conveyed not only by the dialogue, but through the film’s representations of its competing architects’ work. Under the direction of Edward Carere, the Warner’s art department drew up numerous examples of both Roark and Keating’s ‘projects,’ allowing audiences not only to hear of their relative merits but also actually to see for themselves. We see a model of the modern slab Roark has designed for a New York bank, and stand over the array of widely spaced slabs he has proposed for Cortlandt Homes [left].

We also review several renderings of Keating’s office buildings, presented by the cynical Ellsworth Toohey [below].

The art department did its work well: we instantly grasp the intended distinction between Keating’s pallid, overrefined classicism, stretched somewhat absurdly across the face of thirty-story buildings, and the daringly elegant Modernism of Roark’s designs. Between these loaded examples and the film’s tendentious dialogue (painting everyone except Roark as incompetent, weak, or downright evil) it might be easy to get swept away by Rand’s polemic. But in almost every scene, another message keeps intruding, utterly contradicting the rest of the film.

Rand’s novel had been set in New York, but in the film the city becomes an active, dominating presence through sweeping skyline views, placed behind almost every one of the movie’s interiors. These views are made available to the audience through enormous walls of glass, each one bigger than the last, each allowing in a different part of the skyline — Park Row, Fifth Avenue, or, in one case, a starling composite view that joins midtown and downtown Manhattan. The thinnest possible metal mullions, often stretching from floor to ceiling, frame these vivid cityscapes [below]. A moment’s reflection reveals something odd about these dramatic window-walls. Nearly all are in buildings that were not designed by Roark — buildings that, indeed, predate his rise. Isn’t this strange? Shouldn’t we have merely glimpsed the skyline through conventional, smallish windows, until we saw it spread out, spectacularly, in the first of Roark’s daring modern interiors? Yet every room in the film, the entire ‘world’ in which Roark exists, seems already to have this light and airy architecture in place.

The Fountainhead (1949).

In fact, another priority was at work. The big windows have one overriding purpose: to make the skyline of New York a powerful, near-constant force throughout the film. By allowing the skyline to frame, quite literally, the film’s debate about architecture, the filmmakers were likely answering a concern voiced aloud in the movie itself when — in response to the notion that a Roark project might make a good subject for a tabloid exposé — a harried city desk editor wails ‘Oh, who cares about a building?’ Warner’s executives may well have had a similar fear, that the popular audience would not easily connect with the film’s ‘highbrow’ debate about architectural styles: Hollywood movies, after all, are hardly known for drawing their storylines from obscure aesthetic controversies.

If architecture was an esoteric topic, however, the New York skyline was not. Film audiences everywhere knew it, connected with it — in no small part, of course, thanks to the movies themselves. So the presence of the skyline in almost every frame of The Fountainhead was likely prompted by a similar connection. ‘Pay attention to this debate about architecture,’ the producers were saying in effect to the audience, ‘because architecture shapes this skyline that you know so well.’ The skyline became the popular passport into what might be considered an elitist subject.

But there was a price. The sustained prominence of the skyline, even in the background, worked to subtly subvert the film’s intended message. Seen as renderings, one by one, Keating’s classical office towers do seem insipid and perhaps ridiculous — the ‘big marble bromides’ that one character calls them. But that skyline out there, made up of buildings not at all dissimilar to Keating’s, is something else entirely. It is dramatic, exciting, bursting with energy — as no one knew better, obviously, than the filmmakers themselves, who used it shamelessly to capture and hold the public’s attention. Roark’s modern skyscrapers, meanwhile, undergo a transformation just as profound, but in reverse: while his solitary Manhattan bank tower is convincingly sleek and daring, his plan for the multibuilding Cortlandt Homes appears to be the drab, single-minded work of a dull student. The scheme evinces no notion of a ‘city’ beyond the repetitive placement of identical buildings; it offers no means of varying the mix nor composing the group to achieve any sense of vitality or energy.

We are left with a paradox that has troubled observers of the city for more than half a century — and that still remains largely unanswered. Even the most elegant or dynamic of modern skyscrapers have tended to remain wrapped in a kind of urban solipsism, focused on their own ‘integrity’ at the expense of all else. Obsessed with being ‘true to their own idea,’ they speak most significantly to those relatively few observers — critics and historians of architecture, as well as architects themselves — who are inclined to view each skyscraper as an individual work of art, and who, furthermore, consider the skyscraper’s status as ‘the greatest invention of man’ to be its extremely important aesthetic fact as well. Yet as The Fountainhead itself implicitly admits, most everybody else sees things quite differently. The film’s high-flown arguments for the skyscraper as a singular work of art, an object whose form is determined first and last by its structure, were entirely undercut by the producers’ shrewd and knowing recognition that, in fact, the public was devoted to a skyline built on entirely contrary principles, a skyline in which any single structure was but one piece of something larger, its shape to be freely manipulated to contribute, scenographically, to the overall ensemble. As The Fountainhead made clear almost despite itself — what was perhaps banal or absurd in the single electric building could somehow become dramatic or alive when joined with its neighbours. Before our eyes, The Fountainhead reasserts the powerful transformation that takes place when the frame of architectural reference shifts from the unit to the group, from the one to the many — a strange and potent alchemy that has proved the puzzlement, and the bane, of the modern city.