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02 May, 2009

The lost glory of Chrysler

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

With the American motor giants in trouble, New York’s Chrysler Building seems, more than ever, a monument to a lost age

The crisis in the American car industry is not just about the current economy. It’s about the very identity of a nation. Nothing could epitomise the changing nature of the United States more clearly than the news that motor giant Chrysler is in perhaps terminal trouble, for the name Chrysler is not just known to car buffs or economists. It’s part of the fabric of American greatness in the 20th century. No image signifies that past greatness more perfectly than the skyscraper that may now become the tombstone of a vanished business empire.

If any work of art captures the excitement and power of American life in its long 20th-century golden age, it is New York’s most beautiful skyscraper, the Chrysler Building. This slender tower with its glittering chrome steel crown was built as a monument to itself by a corporation that seemed indestructible. The metallic summit of the Chrysler Building is clad in the very stuff that made Chrysler cars shiny and sleek; it is an arrogant yet deeply beautiful statement of the triumph of modern materials and industry. The Chrysler stands near Grand Central Station, and cocks a snook at that renowned terminus: emerging from the most romantic of railway stations, you look up to be reminded that America’s true vehicle is not the civilised train but the individualist automobile.

This triumph of imperial modernism was built for Walter P Chrysler, chairman of the Chrysler Automobile Corporation, by architect William Van Alen in the late 1920s – indeed, its construction overlapped with the Wall Street Crash. Its sumptuous decorative flourishes famously flaunt the glory of Chrysler: the soaring beasts that sprout from its spire like Manhattan gargoyles are massively enlarged hood ornaments.

Artists have not been able to ignore the Chrysler Building or its symbolic American beauty. In Matthew Barney’s ritualistic film Cremaster 3 it becomes a Masonic temple whose master architect is played by the sculptor Richard Serra. In one scene Barney stages a demolition derby in the skyscraper lobby: American cars drive straight at one another in a psychotic orgy of petrol-fuelled destruction. Now this image looks like a premonition of Chrysler’s fall and America’s hangover from its century of world dominance.

It still shines orange in the gorgeous New York evening sun. But the most sublime building in Manhattan is as much a relic of a lost empire as any marble fragment decaying in timeless sands.

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