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Modernism in Disguise: Unsung High-Rises, Hotels, and Offices

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Symbolic, streamlined towers and buildings that offered idiosyncratic additions to the skyline

As midcentury architectural styles evolved during the ‘60s and ‘70s, new ideas on representation and re-appropriation led to new visions for high-rises, hotels, and office complexes. The New Modernism series, a partnership between Curbed and Docomomo, is reexamining the lesser known structures designed during this era, built with their own idiosyncrasies and unique takes on progressive architecture. In many ways, the towers from this period offer even more unique profiles than other structures. Colorful and sometimes controversial, they pit forth different visions for development on a large scale, at a time when riffs on classic designs and high-tech facades began to take hold. Here's a cross-section of designs with unique stories, some of which face preservation threats.

Atlantis on Brickell (Arquitectonica: 1982)

In addition to pastels and synth jams, this sleek, reflective condo building in the Brickell neighborhood stands as a potent symbol of ‘80s Miami style, a reputation cemented when it made an appearance in the opening credits for Miami Vice. The 20-story rectangle features a signature cutout in the center, a 37-foot tall Palm Court that contains a jacuzzi and red spiral staircase. Created by local firm Arquitectonica, whose approach was once described as "beach-blanket-Bauhaus," the building, first sketched on the back of a napkin in a Cuban restaurant, offers a synthesis of Miami’s mish-mash of building styles, and a visually arresting addition to the skyline. It’s since become an icon—no less a stylist than Frank Gehry praised its "surrealistic quality"—and its triangle-accented profile is even recreated in Legoland.

Pacific Design Center (Pelli Clarke Pelli: 2013)

This trio of striking, colorful glass towers, set alongside Santa Monica Boulevard, have been a dream of the Argentinian-born architect Cesar Pelli, who spent decades pushing to see his initial vision realized. The trio of abstract structures, designed to look like oversized fragments fallen to Earth and now home to a slate of interior design businesses, started to take shape in 1975 with the Blue Whale, a 750,000-square-foot building on the 14-acre site that looks a bit like a piece of extruded metal. The Green Building arrived in 1988, and the Red Building, consisting of two curved towers, completed the site in 2013. Part of the reason the Red Building took so long to finish was that glass technology needed to advance and find a safe method of recreating that striking color (previously, a toxic dye would have been required to create such a rich shade of red).

Pan Am/Met Life Building (Emery Roth & Sons, Pietro Belluschi and Walter Gropius: 1963)

This 59-story behemoth that looms above Grand Central in Manhattan has had a controversial history, to say the least. Designed by Emery Roth & Sons, Pietro Belluschi and Walter Gropius, and based on a concept from Le Corbusier, the building became the subject of scorn in 1963 when its glass face blocked the Park Avenue view of the sculptures above Grand Central Station. While its location certainly didn’t help improve its public reception, the octagonal tower, since renamed, does offer a sleek, streamlined example of the International Style, and its initial reception has been revisited over the years.

Swan and Dolphin Hotel at Disney (Michael Graves: 1987)

A true example of Disney "entertainment architecture," Graves’s design for the 2,265-room resort, crowned with dolphin and swan statues and decorated in coral and aqua swirls, isn’t subtle. Filled with fountains and slathered in pastels, the playful building offers resort-goers an over-the-top fantasy, perhaps perfectly nailing the client brief from the Magic Kingdom. Graves supposedly based the dolphins in part on the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, but had to reverse the frowns typically found on the work of the Italian sculptor to fit in with image and message Disney wanted to portray to its guests.

Crown Center Hotel (Harry Weese: 1973)

Located within the Crown Center, a massive and successful redevelopment in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, this hotel by the noted modernist Harry Weese rightfully gets attention for the stunning waterfall in its atrium. While the decor in the past hasn’t always been stunning, the structure itself is a stunning concrete design, with striking grids and columns filling up the airy interior.

Bronx Development Center (Richard Meier: 1976)

Richard Meier’s design for this treatment center for physically and mentally disabled kids was meant to create a total environment for the patients. With a rippling aluminum facade and Cubist curves spread among the multiple arms of the facility, the building creates its own context in what was a formerly an underdeveloped city plot, and stands as a Meier masterpiece, and one of the foremost complexes of its time (critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it ''the cynosure of the architectural world"). The structure was previously partially demolished and expanded by a developer to become an office park.

Thompson Center (Helmut Jahn: 1985)

A curved outlier in Chicago’s skyscraper tradition, this massive government center has been a lightning rod in the city for decades, both due to cost overruns during construction, its spaceship-like appearance in the Loop, and its unique interior. The huge, glass-sheathed 17-story atrium, meant to symbolize openness and allow citizens to see their government at work, has been criticized for its expensive upkeep, and the current Illinois Governor has spoke of selling the building amid the state’s financial crisis. But Jahn’s vision, sort of a Pompidou center on the prairie, offers a unique outlier in the city’s storied architectural tradition.

Comsat Building (Ceser Pelli: 1969)

An early example of a high-tech architecture, this suburban office campus, built for a government-created satellite communications company, gleams with glass and aluminum. Pelli completed the low-slung set of buildings, connected by a catwalk in places, early in his career, designing a machine-like structure that foreshadowed his later work. Sadly, the building, which has been sold and resold over the decades, is currently facing redevelopment plans and the potential to be torn down.

Modernism in Disguise: Taking a Second Look at Underrated Buildings Around the U.S. [Curbed]