Manhattan was first glitzed in late 1979 when developer Harry Helmsley and architects Emery Roth & Sons began making over a block-long property on Madison Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets. Under their direction, a mansion designed by McKim, Mead and White (1882) after the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, was reborn as a luxury hotel. Helmsley persuaded the city that simple preservation of this historic building was unprofitable. His plan took the existing structure, restored its lavish interior, and converted it to an elaborate lobby and pass-through for a sleek bronzed-glass and anodized aluminum tower that housed the guts of a new hotel. Only the color related the old building to the new. Helmsley was a pioneer.
At a time when austere functional glass office buildings defined serious East Coast cities, glitz with its brash concern for effect was thought acceptable only for the provinces: Las Vegas, Miami Beach, and Houston. The Helmsleys brought it to the heart of the city. The ripple effect has been widespread in art circles, high and low. The work of America’s most prolific designers in the 1980s—Helmut Jahn, William Pedersen, John Portman, Philip Johnson, and John Burgee —reveals how glitz has gone upscale, transformed from a developer’s strategy into a serious urban architecture. This transition has occurred at a time when architects have achieved celebrity status, finding themselves on the covers of Time and Newsweek. In the way that personality displaces ideas as a subject for the media, architecture’s current love of glitz has made a difficult profession more accessible to the public, transforming the artistic process, not just the product, into a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded. New York’s Max Protetch Gallery does a brisk business in contemporary architectural drawings, often of projects that will never be built. Prices are graded on the relative fame of the architect, not on the inherent quality of the work.