Last week I spent a day in the capital of the Empire State – Albany, NY. I hadn’t really ever been to the capital (outside of a dazed campus tour of SUNY Albany in the late 90’s). I wasn’t expecting much, knowing that Albany is still recovering from the urban decline the city experienced in the 80’s. But there were a few pleasant surprises in downtown Albany.
I was most excited to see the impressive brutalist architecture at the Empire State Plaza, which was built under the direction of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller between 1966-1978. The lead architect on the complex of government and state buildings was Wallace Harrison whose work includes the United Nations, La Guardia Airport, and the Lincoln Center complex, including the Metropolitan Opera House.
The construction and planning of the Plaza was somewhat of an engineering and financial debacle, but the result is a cluster of structures that surely can’t be ignored. Preservationists and beaux-arts enthusiasts have dismissed the collection of imposing buildings as mediocre behemoths of modern architecture. Most people hate brutalist architecture. I really like it.
I spent most of the day exploring the [FREE!] New York State Museum and walking the Plaza. The museum kicks ass – I highly recommend it. I don’t use the words “museum” and “kicks ass” together very often. I’ve only learned to love museums in the last 8-10 years. Anyway – this one kicks ass!
I would also recommend taking yourself on a Modern Art Scavenger Hunt and try to find as many of the 92 works of Abstract Expressionism spread throughout the Plaza as you can. I only had time to see about 20 pieces. Nelson Rockefeller was an art enthusiast and assembled the Empire State Plaza Art Collection which is pretty amazing and includes works by Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, James Rosati and Isami Noguchi among others. It’s been called the greatest collection of modern art that isn’t housed in a museum. Did I mention it’s FREE?! Here’s a full list of the works in the collection.
I’ve lived in New York for over 11 years now, my family for decades, but I still don’t feel like a New Yorker. Maybe it’s because I still sport a strong Chicago accent. Maybe it’s because I still dream about moving back to the West Coast. Maybe it’s because there’s just so much to get to know about this huge state and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
New Yorkers: Go to Albany! It’s cooler than you think. And can be done in One Day Only.