Mirror, Mirror on the Skyline

November 14, 1990|By Bob Wiemer

NEW YORK — New York. THERE IS something depersonalizing about mirrored sunglasses because they prevent eye contact, so it's an interesting coincidence that bankers started to sheathe their buildings in mirrored glass at about the same time they were replacing live tellers with money machines.

Using a building's skin to reflect its surroundings goes back to Lever House, built in 1952, but why mirrored glass became so fashionable in recent years is anybody's guess. It's not a warm style. The buildings don't say anything. They just sit on their sites reflecting their parking lots at visitors.

In that respect, they are reminiscent of the bop musicians of the '50s, who detached themselves from their audiences by wearing dark glasses even in the dark.

On banking floors, where customers are routinely herded with cattle-style, crowd-control systems, remoteness is not an alien feeling. So architecture may say more about the times than we suspect. On the other hand, the mirrored-glass vogue may merely reflect a kind of monkey-see, monkey-do syndrome among architects.

Figuring out what's going on isn't easy. Architectural books are notoriously poor sources of information, because they tend to use language as filigree, something to fill the spaces between photos and elevations.

One writer, however, produced a compelling insight while discussing mirrored buildings. In his book ''Late Modern Architecture,'' architectural historian Charles Jencks starts out in the usual mode -- making the reader's eyes cross with phrases like ''the slick skin membrane allows . . . a greater scope for volumetric articulation than the previous curtain wall.'' Then, almost as an afterthought, he adds: ''But the mirror-building has other important meanings. . . . It works both literally and metaphorically as a sign of narcissism.''

Considering the greedy self-centeredness that characterized the last decade or so, Mr. Jencks is doing more than playing with jargon. He is actually saying something. What better symbol for an age of narcissism than a mirrored landscape? What better mirror for a narcissist than one that can actually serve as a shelter and a workspace? Like Alice, the fantasy travelers of the Reagan era could go behind the looking glass and take up residence there.

Even if their perceptions weren't as acute as Mr. Jencks', the bankers and speculators who built the first round of mirrored buildings had good intuitions. They obviously had a feel for the market, so they targeted it and exploited it. But as the boom ripened, the inevitable happened. There is always a temptation to add a little more to a winning design formula, despite the obvious perils of that strategy.

It was either Mies Van der Rohe or Coco Chanel who said ''less is more.'' Either way, it's a good rule of design. But it seldom prevails. Inevitably the idea that more is more triumphs.

If plain mirrors attract tenants, why not go to tinted mirrors? Two products of that line of thought can be seen on the Long Island Expressway, on land once occupied by a drive-in movie. The facade of one of those buildings, occupied by an insurance company, displays alternating bands of green and silver mirrors. The other, a massive structure that identifies itself as the home office of a bank, uses shades of blue contrasted with bands of silver. They both look like gargantuan extrapolations of the mirrored jewelry boxes that once adorned boudoir tables.

When these buildings were built, a succession of boom years fostered the notion that bankers could safely shuck the kind of staid precincts so long associated with the calling. There are few new bank buildings that boast columns Ionic, Doric or Corinthian. The industry, like the architecture it chose, was caught up in fantasy, fashion and vogue.

Considering the recent sudden reversals in the economy, it's probably safe to predict a revival of banks that look like Greek temples.

Mr. Wiemer is a Newsday editorial writer.

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