Yesterday, Curbed reported on the potential, and potentially imminent, demolition of the Ambassador Grill & Lounge and Hotel Lobby at the United Nations Plaza Hotel in New York City, mirrored postmodern masterpieces designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates in the late '70s and early '80s. These prismatic interiors, which, as Curbed critic Alexandra Lange noted, "draw the prismatic curtain walls of One and Two UN Plaza inside, creating a total work of architecture," have attracted quick and emphatic praise from the architectural community since news broke yesterday afternoon of a potential update to the interior. Lange spoke with Kevin Roche this morning about the design of the Ambassador Grill & Lounge and the lobby of the UN Plaza Hotel.
What were your design goals when you created the Ambassador Grill and the lobby of the UN Plaza Hotel?
"Let's just deal with the mirrors first of all. I'm fascinated with mirrors, which are this incredible invention which doubles reality. I started using them at home and other places. When I was working with Eero [Saarinen; Roche was principal design associate for Saarinen from 1954 until Saarinen's death in 1961] there was a project he wasn't particularly interested in, a very uninteresting building. I was in the basement of the office in Birmingham, Michigan, trying to come up with ideas. There was a copy of LIFE magazine there with someone wearing sunglasses on the cover and they were reflective. I thought, Why couldn't you do a building that was reflective? I showed this to Eero, and John Dinkeloo [Roche's longtime partner] got very interested. He went to a local glass company which produced a reflective glass, and then we went down to some big glass companies and the suggested idea of reflective glass. They thought it was ridiculous – they missed the opportunity to be first in line. It got used for Bell Labs [Eero Saarinen & Associates, 1962]. We changed it to golden for Deere and company [KRJDA, 1976]."
"I was fascinated with the idea that mirrors doubled reality. When we went to do the grill and the lobby, it was two spaces underground and a large lobby. We wanted to introduce the idea of a skylight even though we couldn't have a skylight to give the impression of more access to the outdoors in the restaurant itself."
"We were working on Central Park Zoo at the same time, and used a kind of mock classical column with beveled surfaces there, and used that in the lobby again. To bring a sense of the outdoors into these interior spaces, that was the driving reason for it. It is very difficult to design a restaurant in a space like that."
What do you put on the walls? How do you do the lighting to give a sense a privacy and also have the feeling of being part of a community?Did you get any pushback from the client?
"We had a great client, Tom Applebee, who was in charge of the project for the developer. We usually are successful in carrying our client along to some more difficult ideas. You do that by beginning at the beginning and explaining step by step and arriving at where think you ought to be so it seems like the logical progression.
We built some very large models of the spaces to illustrate them. I was interested in the idea of public dining. You go to Paris and it has one kind of character. There used to be so many street restaurants in Paris, which had a sense of community and at the same time sense of privacy -- that's what we tried to achieve here.
Are there other interior spaces of this period (1960s and 1970s) that influenced your work at the hotel?
"I couldn't afford to eat in them! But there were 21 and the Four Seasons. I never thought the Four Seasons was that successful. It's a large room and pretty much straightforward. I liked more the thought of little small private areas you might get on Second Avenue. Those give you a sense of intimacy and the relationship between the server, the owner, the person cooking the food and the client. If you do it properly it is a nice human experience, something we need more of.
Did you eat at the Grill yourself?
When I went to New York I used to stay at the hotel for the first couple of years. When we stayed there we would eat, there. It was a pleasant place to eat and the food was pretty good. It is a strange experience when you design something, you don't want to continue to be with it. If you had written a book, you don't want to read it.
Were you surprised to hear that these interiors were threatened?
"That's part of our life these days [Roche Dinkeloo's Ford Foundation is now undergoing a renovation, and their Lila Acheson Wallace Wing at the Met is to be reconstructed by David Chipperfield]. You design a building and 25, 30 years later it has different ownership and they want to redevelop it completely. I'd like to see this preserved. They were good spaces and it would be very nice to have them continue to be used."
Why are interiors particularly important?
"Interiors are where we live. That's what we should protect more than anything else."
The potential impending renovation of the space has galvanized the architectural community, and architects and critics have voiced support with statements we're including below. We'll be updating throughout the day as we receive more.
Felix Burrichter, Pin-Up magazine founder and curator
"The imminent refurbishment of the Ambassador Grill is a painfully shortsighted move. Instead, the hotel's owners should recognize the incredible architectural jewel they have on their hands and restore it to its original splendor. They don't seem to realize that—given current trends in restaurant design—by the time their 'update' will be complete, all new restaurants in New York will want to emulate the clever elegance of the old Ambassador Grill."
Robert Stern, Robert A.M. Stern Architects (in a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission
"I strongly urge the Commission to act quickly and schedule an expedited Interior Landmarks hearing in order to avoid the tragic loss of Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo's historically significant, landmark-quality UN Plaza Ambassador Grill and Bar and hotel lobby (1975).
Time is of the essences as these still intact spaces are imminently threatened with demolition.
Roche, in a departure from typical practice, was placed in charge of the hotel's interiors in addition to designing the building, One United Nations Plaza. These dazzling interior spaces are a masterwork of Modernism, produced by a master at his prime. Using black and white marble squares on the floor, Roche created a spectacular setting for the Ambassador Grill and Bar. Overhead, above the circulation paths, is a false skylight, the panels of which are reversed mirror glass with pentagonal mirrors and a myriad of small lights behind, producing extraordinary reflection.
I believe there can be no serious quarrel that, at the very least, these remarkable spaces deserve their day before the Commission. Waiting is not an option as any delay would in effect be delivering a death sentence to one of New York's best examples of Modernism."
César Pelli, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects
"I read with great concern about the plans to demolish the interiors of the Ambassador Grill and Lounge and the hotel Lobby that were designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates. This would be a major architectural loss. Those interior spaces are unique examples of Kevin Roche's artistic play of mirrors.
I hope that an Interiors Landmark review will soon take place to try to protect these interior architecture jewels."
More feedback from our preservation-attuned readers, commenting on the original story:
Last but certainly not least, Redditors on the #postmodernism watch have started to weigh in:
· Imminent Demolition Feared for United Nations Plaza Hotel's Iconic Postmodern Interior [Curbed NY]
· Kevin Roche archives [Curbed]
· Previous Critical Eye columns [Curbed]