National Register of Historic Places Landmark (Criterion C: Design/Construction): 05/23/1980; New York City Landmark Register: 01/27/1976
The site of the Municipal Asphalt Plant originally hosted a plant, built in May 1914, which mixed asphalt to build roads in Manhattan. By the 1930s, this plant was outmoded and manufacturing stopped. Although the surrounding neighborhood had changed in character from semi-commercial to residential, the location was still felt to be the most appropriate for a new asphalt plant. Hence, in early 1940, the firm of Kahn & Jacobs was commissioned to design a new plant on the same site. This new plant consisted of a conveyor building, mixing plant, and storage buildings for raw material that connected to the processing area by an elevated passageway. Khan & Jacobs originally conceived both the storage and the mixing plant as conventional rectangular volumes. However, studies of the equipment layout and production process revealed that the parabolic curve would be the most cost-effective form, since a rectangular structure would leave unused space in the upper corners of the building. Thus, the arch structure was determined to be the most economical and practical solution for the building’s requirements. The material that best suited the parabolic shape of the mixing plant and the rectangular shapes of the adjacent buildings was determined to be reinforced concrete in a combination of poured in place and prefabricated pieces. Building construction started in 1940, after a joint process of engineering and architectural design. The plant was opened in 1944 and it operated for almost twenty-four years. In 1968, when operations at the plant ceased, all buildings were torn down and only the mixing plant survived. It was declared a New York Landmark in 1976. Its designation was based on its pioneering use of concrete and the unprecedented use of the parabolic form in the US. The mixing plant was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
This former asphalt mixing plant–now the Murphy Center-is adjacent to the East River, with its façade facing East 90th Street. It has always been a freestanding building, connected to the storage building by bridges and passageways. This allowed for the demolition of the adjacent buildings without affecting the curved walls of the mixing plant. The structure consists of four arched ribs of 84’-6” in height, spaced 22’ on center. The ribs span 90’ and they support a series of barrel vaults constructed of reinforced concrete paneling. These arches generate three barrel sections intended to accommodate three individual, identical manufacturing units that operated simultaneously. The light is brought inside through steel sash windows that perforate the side walls. There are three 3 /3 windows on each side, six in total.
The processing building was built with an unusual combination of conventional reinforcing bars and timber formwork. Originally, the architects planned to use poured in place reinforced concrete for the entire building, but the contractor suggested that structural steel ribs could serve as both form and reinforcement. This way, centering could be worked out as an integral part of the rib, eliminating the majority of reinforcing bars. Another interesting aspect of the construction was the combination of poured in place and prefabricated concrete. The ribs, reinforced by light angle trusses, were prefabricated in three sections and shipped to the site, while the concrete in between them was poured simultaneously from both sides, maintaining balanced pressure on the exposed steel framework. Plywood formwork was used for interior surfaces and arches. The end walls were stiffened by vertical members supported on horizontal girders, one of which is part of the projected canopy that covers the entrance. The parabolic arch used in the plant reduced bending stresses to a minimum, requiring less steel reinforcement. These construction considerations were some of the reasons why this particular form was chosen, since they made construction economical both in material and in assembly of formwork.
Despite the fact that a previous plant had functioned on site, the location of the new plant was re-examined and alternative sites were proposed. This site was selected because of the ease by which the raw materials and final products could be accessed and distributed. At the time of construction, this area already had a residential character. However, the site was located adjacent to the FDR Drive, which allowed for the building to be seen from a distance, highlighted by its own recognizable shape against New York’s skyline. The lot was cleared and prepared in order to create a recreational field, conferring as a positive, but secondary effect the necessary distance to appreciate the plant from its west façade.
Robert Allan Jacobs first became aware of the use of concrete working for Le Corbusier in Europe, where he was exposed to technical innovations. The dirigible hangars at Orly, France, designed by Eugene Frayssinet in 1926, inspired Jacobs, and became a formal precedent for this project, although the technique ultimately used for the plant varies from the one used in the French building. The Asphalt Plant brought the arch form to building construction in the United States, and initiated discourse on prefabrication, reinforcement, and construction techniques related to concrete.
The social significance of this building is tied to two historical moments: one, when it was built and another when it was adapted for a new use. When built, it represented technical and formal innovation through the use of concrete and the parabolic arch. It affected the way in which industrial architecture was conceived and understood, and affected the notions about reinforced concrete construction. It also affected the way in which the firm of Kahn and Jacobs was recognized. They were considered as pioneers in “imaginatively adapting modern European architectural precedents to American requirements.” They established themselves as a partnership noted for their commercial, industrial, and institutional structures. However, despite these achievements, the building was harshly criticized and rejected for its form and also for its function. It was only fully accepted when it became part of a bigger project, the Asphalt Green. The former processing plant acquired a new life and value when it was adapted for a use that involved the surrounding community, the same that once rejected it. The structure was flexible enough to be a part of two very different uses and therefore, of two very different meanings.
At the moment of its construction, the architectural treatment of the plant evoked an avalanche of interest, both positive and negative. The well-known Park Commissioner Robert Moses famously labeled it, “horrible modernistic stuff… a Cathedral of Asphalt with a nearby corrugated shoebox.” Some of the published articles point out that the shape of the parabola had, up until then, been used only for elongated structures such as hangars or auditoriums. The building introduced a new form that today remains distinct from its surroundings, standing as a recognizable and identifiable figure on the urban landscape.
An early example of expressive concrete in New York, the Municipal Asphalt Plant was, as Robert A.M Stern said, “undoubtedly one of the city’s most important modernist buildings.” While some, such as Robert Moses, feared the influence the Municipal Asphalt Plant would have on future “modernistic stuff," others recognized its form as a structure of pure efficiency that offered a different approach to industrial design not only in New York City, but also the country. Critics decades later stated that its architecture “[had] not been matched in New York for bald functional and esthetic logic." This building is a monument to American industrial architecture, and Paul Goldberger compared it to the massive grain elevators that define the landscape of the Midwest.
The Municipal Asphalt Plant introduced a new form to the United States: the reinforced concrete parabola. A shape found countless times in modern architecture thereafter, the design was so efficiently designed that it once successfully functioned as an asphalt plant, and over sixty years, now serves a community as a recreation center.
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