Rockefeller Center Vintage Travel Brochure (2018)

The city architect can no more afford to neglect the roofs that continually spread out below him than the country architect can afford to neglect the planting about a house.”(1)

There are only three observation decks on the top of skyscrapers in New York—in chronological order, the Empire State Building, which is a cake-stack top, the Rockefeller Center and the World Trade Center – and only the top of the Rockefeller Center has twice received an award, vouching for the acknowledgement of its excellences.

The observation roof closed in 1986 was reopened in 2005 under the name of the Top of the Rock. In 2006, the firm Gabellini and Sheppard Associates won two AIA awards for its renovation of the whole promenade from the top to the bottom of the Rockefeller Center: The Honor Awards for Interior Architecture and the Honor Award for Historic Preservation. The initial architect was Raymond Hood, under the umbrella of the Associates Architects. In order to understand why this building won those two heritage awards, from preservation to renovation, a retrospective look on its peculiar history is necessary.

Built between 1930 and 1939, the Rockefeller Center made a big change during the Depression, thanks to the initiative of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It is not a simple building but “a city under one roof.” In order to understand the strategies and tactics that shaped its image, one has to go from the top to bottom, follow the statement of Harvey Wiley Corbett, according to whom towers should be built from the top down. The timeline also starts from the end toward the beginning, sketching out a set of related events that have produced what is today called the “Top of the Rock experience.”

At the beginning of 2000, Tishman Speyer has launched a competition between two firms for the renovation of the top of the Center. Gabellini and Sheppard won against Disney World. The reason to choose the former was their expertise in a landmark, while the latter were renowned for their touristic attractions. On the day of presentation, Shepard decided to show their panels on the 67th floor of the site itself, which was surrounded by mechanical and ductwork. Also, a boxing promoter had made his penthouse on what is now a weather room on the top.

Surprisingly, despite the well-designed panels presented by Gabellini and Sheppard, Tishman Speyer at first has chosen Disney, but after six months, Rob Speyer, the senior managing director of the firm which co-owns Rockefeller Center together with the Crown family of Chicago, announced to Shepard that they had been selected. The Rockefeller Center is not just an attraction but conveys the grandeur of a family. It could be engaged as an attraction in New-York city, but it is definitely not a theme park in the manner of Disney.

The panels presented by Gabellini and Shepard defined three major zones: the concourse, the mezzanine and the top. “Make the Concourse a destination” (2): the lower decks of the 1930s concourse were like a luxury liner. In arranging the entries to the Plaza and into the building, Hood had created a pin-wheeling motion, which generated a certain rhythmic action. In 2005, Gabellini and Shephard created a new entrance on Fifth Avenue. They carved the offices out to make a lobby, combined with a triple-height atrium. The rhythmic action of the past was translated to an elliptical staircase entrance by the top down crystal chandeliers, as if the building itself were inverted.

“The greatest price of height lies in the requirements of efficient vertical circulation” (3): In 1930, Hood had proposed his “Number 27” theory. As each elevator shaft ended, he wrote: “we cut the building back to 27 feet from the core of the building for eliminating every dark corner” (4). He added: “by doing this, we found the instinctive sculptural shape of the building.” In the design of Gabellini and Sheppard is, at the end of each elevator shaft marked by a blue light. It is conceived as a time capsule shot across 65 floors through the original elevator shaft. (5)

“The roof was unquestionably a business enterprise” (6): Hood recognized it as one of the main elements in the design of the ideal city. Another important aspect of Hood’s design was the creation of views. The roofs of the RCA building, completed in 1933, resembled an ocean liner. The notion of “promenade” was suggested. In 2005, the design the summit turned to different optical devices. The frames were fragmented between exterior and interior sections, shaping, in other words, “Grand Viewing Terraces.” Clear optical glass panels now preserve the building’s original façade.

A “Hedonistic urbanism of congestion” (7): There are two revolutions induced by his skyscraper: first the shape which, according to Carol Willis, has broken the mold of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. The experience of leisure gave place to education. The Top of the Rock doesn’t just provide a lookout enclosed by a fence, like the top of the Empire State Building or enclosed like the World Trade Center. It is an enhanced lighthouse, adorned by crystal to reflect the sky. Its location allows a discovery of Central Park, and a unique view of the surrounding pinnacles of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. In 1939, more than 1.3 million visitors came to the observation roof. In 2019, two million visited the Top of the Rock.

In conclusion, the multiple variable of the economic equation can affect design decisions and tailor the shape of buildings, according to a business logic, but excellence is not a matter of budget and appealing tourist, as the Disney proposal argued, but rather a matter of culture and visual pleasure, as shown by the deck brought to an end. Heritage and landmark preservation are necessary, even when changes are minimal, mentioned Kimberly Sheppard (8) As one sees, sometimes a slight change is worth an award.

In 1939, Hugh Ferriss could stand on the Rock’s parapet at dawn, he saw his “Metropolis of the future” of 1929 rising. (9)

Mandana Bafghinia

  • (1) Raymond Hood, personal writings, quoted by Alan Balfour in Rockefeller Center: Architecture as Theater. New York; Montréal: McGraw-Hill, 1978. p. 49.
  • (2) Daniel Okrent. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. Penguin Books, 2004, p. 354.
  • (3) Carol Willis. Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995, p. 102.
  • (4) Daniel Okrent. Great Fortune, 357.
  • (5) Gabellini and Sheppard Associates. AIA New York State Convention. Grand Hyatt, New York, October 6, 2007.
  • (6) Daniel Okrent. Great Fortune, p. 354
  • (7) Rem Koolhaas. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • (8) Interview with Kimberly Sheppard. 19/02/2019
  • (9) Hugh Ferris. The Metropolis of Tomorrow. New York: Ives Washburn, 1929.

Jury of the Beaubourg Plateau competition, 1971. From left to right: Oscar Niemeyer, Frank Francis, Jean Prouvé, Emile Aillaud, Philip Johnson, and Willem Sandberg

A favourite argument of the fiercest opponents of architectural competitions rests on the importance of the listening relationship, even connivance, between the architects and their clients. The competitions would have the adverse effect of interfering, preventing a balance between the expectations of one and the propositions of the other. In this representation of the approach – yet denied in the long history of these contests – the client would be ultimately largely absent.

This representation, recurrent but biased, tends to forget that the interventions of the clients marks the process: before, during and after the competition. Before, because it is up to the customer to formulate the terms of an order in the form of a program and quality criteria. During, since there are most likely representatives of the client in the jury; we will get back to this. After, because it can also be considered that it is legally up to the client to accept or to refuse the result: this rule being clearly written in most competition rules.

The enumeration of the client’s representatives in a competition is however expressive: the professional advisor, the quality of the competition documents, the members of the jury, the diverse committees, the public presentation devices, etc. Beginning with the professional advisor, who can carry out all the actions necessary on behalf of the client but can also limit his performance to a professional service to the one who pays, in detriment of the public’s interest. For example, can the chief librarian be considered the only client of a contest for a new public library? In all civil and democratic logic, the lambda user of the library, much like the Minister of Culture, would both be legitimate representatives of the client of the public library.

In this coil of responsibilities, typical of spaces and public spaces, the client cannot be confined to one end or the other of the decision-making chain and, paradoxically, all the members of the competing teams could also be considered as potential clients for the public building under study. It is an ability to anticipate the needs – to understand the expectations and the needs of the users – that emerges among all form of architectural empathy.

But in fact, like in theory, the entity that finds itself at the nodal point of the principle of the competition, the one who not only has the right but the obligation to behave as a potential client is simply the “jury of the competition “.

It is shocking to have to remind certain organizers, public and private, that the jury is the representative of the public and must be assembled to embody all the representations of the client. The jury is that “temporary client” to which the design teams submits their projects, in hopes that the process of collective qualitative judgement will be as fair and as representative as possible of all the interests at stake. In other words, the jury is the closest embodiment of an ideal model of the complex “client” entity of a competition for a public building.

That being understood, forming a jury with elected officials is as delicate as introducing an architect whose fame risks mobilizing or inhibiting debates. Even the elected representatives who are legitimate spokespersons of the public, should not impose themselves in a jury to avoid impeding all discussion and therefore all collective judgement by their apparently indisputable representativeness(1). As a general rule, the jury is composed of representatives speaking for the public interest, but some competition rules consider that neither elected officials nor the civil servants should act as members, since they can be subordinated to political or administrative interests all the while forgetting the needs of the general public. The history of competitions is a slow and continuous movement towards the democratic recognition of the public interest: the same way the history of the Internet reflects the tensions between transparent communication and manipulating propaganda.

In a competition database such as the Canadian Competitions Catalogue, the ontological structure of the computer program distinguishes many entities underlying the concept of “individual”. We distinguish for example the project manager, the representative, the professional advisor, the members of the jury, the designers, etc., but in this list the entity “client” is absent, because the logic of a computer system does not suit heterogenous entities.

This reflection, which may seem theoretical, does not signify that clients that choose the process of the competition to realize their projects would easily recognize that they are participating in a collective enterprise: even less in the production of architectural knowledge. But they sometimes happen to consider competitions as a way of communicating with the general public and nowadays it is not rare to encounter situations in which a new representative of the client, the “communication advisor”, will enter the decision-making chain to control the message, sometimes blocking the dissemination of the submitted projects, except, of course, for the winner. This intervention is problematic, since a process designed to preserve the representativeness of the public, as well as transparency, is transformed once more into a black box (2). Access to public understanding of a competition becomes impossible once communication officers – of clients as well as designers – focus on retaining information.

At a time where news – both real and fake – reaches us in real time, it is these exact characteristics of transparency, collective debate and fairness of the competition that determine its capacity to welcome all the interests and the representatives of the client.

It remains to be seen whether these interests are better represented in a call for tenders, where the customer hides somewhere behind spreadsheets and where, in the end, the “lowest bidder” could very well be the true name of the client.


  • (1) To make this even clearer, and to use an extreme case, it is not uncommon to see a private client wishing to launch a contest surprised to about not being the only member capable of judging projects, as it is not uncommon to meet certain elected representatives that see themselves as the only legitimate representative of the public. The weight of the French President François Mitterand, in the debatable judgement of some major competitions of the 1980s in Paris, is now well documented and analyzed since the famous critics of François Chaslin (Les Paris de François Mitterand : Histoire des grands projets architecturaux, Gallimard, Paris, 1985) to Laurence Cossé’s work on La Grande Arche (Gallimard, Paris, 2016) twice awarded the price of the Book of Architecture and the François-Mauriac Prize in 2016, not to mention some doctoral theses remarkably documented such as that of Loïse Lenne: “Le temps de l’évènement architectural. Fabrication et mise en scène de tours de bureau et leurs quartiers : la City, la Défense, Francfort”. Thesis directed by Antoine Picon and Pierre Chabard, defended in July 2015, University Paris-Est.
  • (2) As Emmanuel Caille, editor-in-chief of the French newspaper D’A (D’Architectures) explains, in a special issue devoted to the competitions we conducted with him in April 2013, the contests are sometimes seen as essential elements of cities’ communication strategies. ( consulté le 26 octobre 2019.)

Jean-Pierre Chupin

Translated by Jade Swail

“Sisyphus” by Tiziano Vecellio 1548-1549 Madrid. Museo del Prado.

In a series of scientific posts inaugurating the Canada Research Chair in Architecture, Competitions and Mediations of Excellence (CRC-ACME) program, we will briefly present — whether in a thousand words or a simple image and its legend — the main terms of our research activities for the upcoming years. Since we have previously devoted many texts to the question of competition (1), it seems appropriate, for this very first post, to contribute to the definition of mediations of excellence: an expression designating the phenomenon of awards, consisting of all award-winning buildings and their related actors. What are the agencies of mediation?

The Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales (CNRTL) defines excellence as the character of a thing or person that corresponds, almost perfectly, to the ideal representation of its nature, of its function or which manifests a very clear superiority in a particular field (2). Suffice to say that excellence — in architecture as in all fields — is an ideal, an objective, a horizon and not an endpoint.

The term mediation is broadly defined by CNRTL as that which is an intermediary between two or more things (3). To this account, everything would potentially be a mediation. Too short of a definition, since we need to distinguish, for example, mediations in architecture from mediations in art.

In “L’art à l’épreuve de ses médiations,” sociologist Nathalie Heinich (5) reminds us that between the artist and the observer, or between the text and the reader, the game never solely operates between two but rather three parties. Intermediaries can be as diverse as they are many: curators, critics, teachers, philosophers, gallery owners, dealers, insurers, etc. Not to mention cultural mediations such as journals, exhibitions, documentaries, monographs, etc. The definition of mediation clearly remains subjected to the vagaries of history as exemplified by a French study on architectural mediations in the 1980s. Published in 2000, it underlined the role of the critique as “the first instance of judgment” (4) when today, such a role would be unclearly confirmed in many contexts, including the Canadian context.

If award-winning buildings constitute mediations of excellence (by excellence), one imagines that the phenomenon starts well before the design of a project. It can be followed by the reception of awards but cannot end with the ceremony. Award-winning buildings, year after year, can be considered as elements of response to a constant redefinition of excellence, but the building that would receive the highest number of awards in 2019 could not claim to be the definition of excellence in 2020. Architecture is a historical discipline and if all award-winning buildings point towards excellence, they represent one step in an endless quest (think of the Myth of Sisyphus).

In a doctoral thesis presented in Brussels in 2019, Typhaine Moogin studied awards in depth by immersing herself “Into the Mediations of Awards” (5). While referring to Antoine Hennion’s book on “La passion musicale (une sociologie de la mediation)” (7), Moogin opens a “reflection on the conditions of production of an architectural world” (8). Adopting the sociological pragmatism of Antoine Hennion, she proposes to redefine architectural mediation less as a device than as a space: “To the extent that a distinction is not so much a work embodying architectural ideas, an instrument of domination of an institution or a mark of the consecration of architects, but the association—complex and delicate—of all these elements and other things : a particular space of an even wider network which — from objects and knowledge to people and their social space—constitutes architecture” (9).

Our own research program, consisting in documenting, revisiting and analyzing award-winning buildings in Canada—not only from the past three decades, but for the next one — is as much about better understanding as it is about raising awareness of the best practices in architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture or in design. Only a vast network of researchers will be able to carry out such a knowledge enterprise.

The CNRTL mentions an unusual use of the term mediation that a research program should undoubtedly hesitate to convene. In astrology, “noon” or “mediation” would be the “culminating moment of a star.” Instead, we prefer a term used in medicine, psychology or philosophy: acme. A synonym of apogee or culminating point, it can designate the critical point of an illness, or the highest degree of influence of a theory. Rather interesting, as it forms the acronym ACME or “Architecture, Competitions and Mediations of Excellence.” Which is not to say that the search for excellence would be a pathology, but certainly a habit to encourage very early in the training of architects.

Jean-Pierre Chupin, October 8, 2019.


  • (1) Chupin, Jean-Pierre, Cucuzzella, Carmela and Bechara Helal (Edited by), Architecture Competitions and the Production of Culture, Quality and Knowledge (An International Inquiry), Montréal, Potential Architecture Books, 2015. (ISBN 978-0-9921317-0-8).
  • (2) See  (consulted October 6, 2019).
  • (3) Seeédiations (consulted October 6, 2019).
  • (4) Devillard, Valérie, Architecture et communication : les médiations architecturales dans les années 80, L.G.D.J. Éditions Panthéon-Assas, Paris, 2000. p. 279.
  • (5) Moogin, Typhaine, Dans la médiation des prix. Réflexion sur les conditions de production d’un monde architectural, thesis defended at l’Université Libre de Bruxelles (Faculté d’architecture La Cambre-Horta) friday september 13 2019.
  • (6) Heinich, Nathalie, Faire voir. L’art à l’épreuve de ses médiations, Les impressions nouvelles, Bruxelles, 2009.
  • (7) Hennion, Antoine, La passion musicale. Une sociologie de la médiation, Métailié, Paris (1993).
  • (8) Moogin, Ibid.
  • (9) Moogin, Ibid. p. 74.