The East Coast road trip every architecture buff should takeFrom classic to modern, here are 7 public spots to explore along a 600-mile loop
By Stephen K. Chung
Meet the Author
Stephen K. Chung
Stephen K. Chung, AIA is a Boston-based architect. In 2017 and 2018, Stephen won “Best of Houzz” Awards for his residential design work. Stephen is the creator, executive producer, and host of the acclaimed public television series “Cool Spaces: The Best New Architecture.” In addition to practice, Stephen has taught design at several institutions, including Syracuse, Cornell, UT-Austin, RISD, and Yale University. Stephen also hosts a new podcast show called “Design Your Dream Home” with architect Doug Patt.
This article is part of our Up For It series,
where experts in their field curate their ultimate road trips.
Stop 1: Harvard Art Museums
When I was a student, I used to go for a run every evening to cope with the stress of architecture school. My finish line was a curving public ramp that cuts through the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts and bisects it into two halves. The building exterior is rendered mostly in raw concrete, but the walls on either side of the ramp are glass.
Designed by the modern master Le Corbusier, the ramp was a way to let the public look into the building to see the artmaking process. I always found it inspiring to see students hard at work at their craft, be it painting, sculpture, or printmaking. A small bookstore and café are at the top of the ramp. With an idyllic outdoor eating area, it’s a perfect place to overlook the more traditional Harvard campus.
If you really enjoy art, just follow the ramp; it connects directly into a the building housing the Harvard Art Museums (the Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Arthur M. Sackler Museum). My favorite part is the recent expansion designed by one of the world’s top contemporary architects, Renzo Piano. The high-tech addition artfully integrates new and old structures together and is exemplary for its use of the most advanced green building practices.
Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York. | Photo: Paul Brady Photography / Shutterstock.com
Stop 2: Empire State Plaza
Having grown up in Albany, I spent a lot of time at the Plaza and in and around the various buildings that make up the government complex. In the 1960s, Governor Rockefeller began an ambitious project to create a new home for the New York state government.
The complex consists of an enormous plinth and a series of starkly abstract towers placed on top, along with one strange oblong object—affectionately called The Egg—which houses a theater. There is also a gigantic plaza marked with reflecting pools and manicured gardens that overlooks the Hudson Valley.
On the weekends, the space is mostly empty and makes for an uncanny feeling of splendid isolation. When I was in high school and an aspiring architect, I would come to this place on a Saturday to be alone with my thoughts and the bold Modernist architecture.
From Albany, I would often make the three hour trek south to visit museums in New York City. On one of those trips I discovered the most amazing place in a small upstate town called Saugerties.
Stop 3: Opus 40
In essence, Opus 40 is a large-scale art park, or earthwork. The artist, Harvey Fite, purchased an abandoned quarry in 1938. Over the course of the next 37 years, Fite single-handedly created a labyrinthine world, made entirely of dry-laid stone, covering 6 1/2 acres. Inspired by ancient Mayan architecture, Fite designed and built ramps, terraces, and bridges, interspersed with trees and pools.
It’s a joy to explore the variety of spaces in this natural setting. My favorite part was descending 16 feet into the ground through a narrow channel and winding along its undulating path. Be forewarned, however, because the stone is dry-laid. That means there is no mortar—just nooks and crannies in between each course of stone. As you might imagine, these tight crevices make for an ideal home for all types of creepy crawlers.
At one point, where the path becomes very narrow—so tight, in fact, that I had to turn sideways to make it through—I could hear snakes hissing in the recess of the stone wall just inches from my ears. They don’t tell you about this in the brochure.
The High Line, New York, New York. | Photo: Allard One / Shutterstock
Stop 4: The High Line
I worked as an intern architect on the Lower West Side years ago. I vividly recall the abandoned elevated railway. I loved how the line passed directly through warehouse buildings and tried to imagine what that looked like when it was operational. In 2006, the idea to repurpose the railway into an urban park began. Led by landscape architect James Corner and a dream team of architects, the derelict space was radically transformed into a 1 1/2 mile long promenade. The walkway contracts and expands along its length and is designed with a variety of plantings and hardscapes. At certain nodes there are seating areas, performance spaces, and lookouts that offer dynamic views of the city.
The impact of the High Line has been remarkable. Formerly known as a gritty part of the city, the High Line has spurred massive redevelopment along its length. There are chic new shops, restaurants, and hotels. Most notably, the Whitney Museum has relocated to the base of the High Line. The new eight-story building boasts the city’s largest column-free gallery spaces. A visit to this slick metal building to see some of the world’s best large-scale art is a must when visiting the High Line.
Leaving New York, I drive up Route 95 along the edge of the Long Island sound, and stop in New Haven for a quick visit to the museum bookstore at the Yale Center for British Art. Designed by modern master Louis Khan, the museum is a masterpiece in utilizing natural light to illuminate art. As part of the design, Khan created an outdoor sunken courtyard one level below the hustle and bustle of the busy street. Having taught at the Yale School of Architecture (which is kitty-corner from the museum) years ago, I would often have a coffee in this tranquil place before class.
The Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, Connecticut. | Photo: Richard Cavalleri / Shutterstock.com
Stop 5: Connecticut Science Center
Generally, architecture aficionados don’t spend a lot of time in Hartford, known as the “Insurance Capital of the World.” However, I would recommend a visit to the Connecticut Science Center, especially if you have kids.
Designed by renowned New Haven-based architect Cesar Pelli, the Science Center is part of a larger development plan to revitalize the city’s waterfront. The building is vertically oriented—taking the form of a tower—and has a wall of glass which faces a waterfront park. The glass wall tilts progressively closer to the river the higher up you go. So by the time you reach the top, you feel like you are hanging over the water. There are different activities on each level, including many interactive exhibits that are fun for all ages. I especially appreciate the exhibit that explains the geology of the surrounding area. There is something wonderful about looking out over the landscape while it is being explained to you in an exhibit at the same time.
From Hartford, it’s a relatively short drive to Providence and then a quick jaunt south to the coast and fabulous Newport, Rhode Island.
The Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island. | Photo: Shutterstock
Stop 6: Marble House
Newport is a New England summer resort town and home to the some of the most spectacular mansions in America. Most of these so-called Gilded Age mansions were built by ultra-rich Americans between 1870 and 1930. This group of nouveau riche travelled all of Europe with the intent of recreating much of what they saw in their own estates in America.
Fortunately, many of these great estates have been meticulously preserved and are open to the public along the three-mile Cliff Walk. You could easily spend a few days visiting them all in Newport, but my favorite is the Marble House designed by famed Beaux Arts-trained architect Richard Morris Hunt.
The Marble House was designed for the Vanderbilt family and conceived as a “temple to the arts.” At the time, the house cost $11 million to build—$7 million of which was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of imported marble. Calculating for inflation, that’s the equivalent of $168 million of today’s dollar—for marble alone. Each room in the Marble House is more opulent than the next, with glittery gold finishes, intricate metal, and plaster work lavished on what seems like every surface. I was astounded to see the level of craftsmanship here.
After checking out the mansions in Newport, it’s back to Boston to see the city’s most popular tourist attraction. Care to guess?
Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. | Photo: Richard Cavalleri / Shutterstock.com
Stop 7: Fenway Park
Fenway Park is home to the Boston Red Sox baseball team and is the oldest ballpark in America. The ballpark was built in the Fenway area in 1911. Because it was built in an existing neighborhood, it had to respect the existing road network and as such had to be shoehorned into its tight urban context. As a result, the ballpark footprint had a quirky configuration. For example, the left field dimension was much shorter than right field.
To compensate, the left field wall—nicknamed the “green monster”—was built 37 feet taller than the right field. Other quirky spaces abound throughout Fenway, including overly steep ramps, covered grandstands dotted with columns, and zig-zagging exterior walkways. These quirks all add to the charm of Fenway Park. I recommend they be experienced firsthand to truly appreciate them.
In 1999, the new owner of the Red Sox proposed to build a new ballpark with all of the modern amenities that he assumed that the fans would want. But fans bitterly opposed the new park. The backlash lead ownership to instead renovate and make minor improvements to Fenway.
Today, the Fenway experience is simply magical. The street in front of the ballpark is blocked off to vehicular traffic, open only to ticket holders. Food stands and souvenir shops line the street on either side with live music and television broadcasts at every corner. Every game day at Fenway Park is a street fair—and it’s a fitting final destination on this east coast architecture road trip.
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