Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Odyssey--Part 4

The way I'd originally planned it, I'd still have been traveling out to Long Island during rush hour--the wrong direction, but there'd still have been trains. By the time I got to Woodside, there was not another train on the line I needed for another forty minutes. When I got that news, a clock started ticking loudly in my head. I went to get a bagel and coffee from the Dunkin Donuts across the street. When I did board the train, you could almost hear the William Tell Overture in the background.

I jumped in the car, and risked the opportunity to use the powder room at my mother's house--I figured if I were going to miss the house arriving, that two minutes wasn't going to make any difference. I got on the road. I made an anxiety-producing wrong turn at a tiny little road that had no sign and looked like a driveway, had to double back, but otherwise I didn't have too much difficulty. Having memorized the route on Google Maps was extremely helpful because it wasn't too long before I just knew I was going the wrong way.

The property is on a small island on the North Shore that was once owned entirely by J. P. Morgan and was therefore named Morgan Island. The property is absolutely insane. It's its own shark-fin shaped peninsula jutting out into the Long Island Sound with 270° views. Check out the satellite image from Google:
Completely out of control.
When I drove up it was immediately clear that I hadn't missed it, and I heaved a sigh of relief. I introduced myself to Andrew Sarnoff and his friend, both of whom were very nice and welcoming. Here's the VSBA house that had always been on the site, simply called the House in Glen Cove (1985):

And the little matching pool house:

Andrew had told me that Robert Venturi was there, as well as a lot of other people, gathered in the tent off to the side which was, gratefully, heated. First, though, I recognized Fred Adelson (he doesn't look like a Magritte painting in person). He'd been introduced at the Storefront event as the historian who really took notice of Lieb House and wrote a good deal about it while it was still "under the radar," as well as a number of VSBA's other buildings around New Jersey, where he lives and teaches. Adelson was a particularly nice, interesting guy, and he and I chatted on and off for much of the day.

Then around came the man himself, Robert Venturi. I grabbed the opportunity to introduce myself, shake his hand, and tell him what a profound influence his work has had on me. He asked if I were an architect, and when I told him no, that I'm a writer, he seemed to immediately lose any and all interest in talking to me. Oddly enough, I've gotten that reaction from artists before, but not architects, who are often impressed that I actually know what I'm talking about. Anyway, it was not a big deal and I'm sure he had far more important things on his mind. I'm also sure at that point he was sick to death of all the reporters harassing him nonstop.

It was around this time that the barge first appeared on the horizon off to the west:
Click that.
This ended up taking a remarkably long time, because they had to bring it around to the eastern side of the peninsula where the house would end up on the site. 

Jim Venturi, I think I mentioned before, is making a documentary about his parents. His timing couldn't have been any better, and no doubt this whole event will be in the film. You can look for me when it comes out; I must have stumbled in front of his cameras at some point. The crew had these miniature remote-controlled electric helicopters specially designed to hold cameras and fly around for about twenty minutes on their battery power.
They're totally silent, so I didn't even hear them take off or land, but you can see one of them in the sky in one of the later photos. I was impressed by how rock steady it was in the air; it appeared to just hover without moving an inch. I was talking to the guy about them for a while, I think he said he's from one of the Carolinas. He makes the helicopters totally from scratch by hand and tunes them to have practically no vibrations or shimmy. He was telling me that HD video is relatively unforgiving of vibration making most miniatures unusable. I suspect he's one of the only people in the country building things like this, a good position to be in. They have their limits, and it complicated things that it was somewhat windy, but for a small documentary film, they're considerably less expensive than renting a full size helicopter. 
The new site:
The suspense built for a while, but the house's arrival almost took a little too long to sustain it. I'd like to go through some of the nuts and bolts of how they did this, because I found it really fascinating. It had to be done at high tide, which gave them maybe a four hour window, but the water level was still quite a bit lower than the land. You can see it's not beach, either, but a small rocky cliff maybe ten to twelve feet high. They had sort of a scout boat that came in first to set things up.
Here's Deborah Sarnoff (in the earmuffs) talking to Venturi as the house approached:
You can see the miniature helicopter in this one:

They had to secure the barge far better than any anchor could do, so they had steel cables attached to the two front corners of it. On land, the cables were hooked onto two of their front-end loaders, which backed up pulling the cables taught with the barge pulled up against the rocks.

It was around this time that I started to realize that, as I said before, this was one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed in my lifetime. It's really something to see a house being moved (which I have). It's another thing altogether to see a house being moved on a barge over large bodies of water. That would have been an experience, anyway, even if this hadn't been a terribly important structure designed by one of the most important American architects of the twentieth century. This was all three. I can't even tell you how grateful I was to have been there to see it.

It was also around this time that Fred Adelson pointed out Inga Saffron to me--I don't think I'd have recognized her otherwise. I went to say hello. It was very nice meeting her, since I'd emailed back and forth with her a few times about the Lieb House and other things. I told her how talented I think she is as a writer, and that's true: I highly recommend her column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. She just has a very smooth, eloquent way of putting sentences together and has a ton of intelligent things to say about the architecture of that city.

To get the house up onto land from the barge, they pulled these four steel girders out and lined them up with the wheels.

Then at the top, they dumped a bunch of dirt, patted it down, and laid these big sheets of what appeared to be industrial-strength plastic tread.

By "they" of course I mean Wolfe House & Building Movers (they've obviously gotten extremely popular: at the time of this post their website has exceeded its bandwidth). When I saw a couple of their wives and daughters on my way in, I thought maybe Hasidic Jews, but Adelson suggested they're Mennonites, which seemed more accurate. So you can see they all have wide-brimmed hats and/or big old ZZ Top beards. Someone, Adelson probably, I can't remember who, mused that since Jim Venturi was filming it all for the documentary, they chose house movers with a lot of character.

Then it rolled up the girders, apparently powered by a motor on the house platform, rather than being pulled by winch or something similar. 
It was completely steady, so I'm sure no one was all that nervous. But there was this one tense point where it was out over the water. 
One little wrong move and it would have fallen crashing onto the rocky shore, impossible to save. I also can't help but wonder how a house can withstand these changes of orientation without at least a window pane cracking or other minor damage. At long last the Lieb House rolled out onto solid ground, they gave the horn four or five long celebratory blasts, and the crowd cheered.
Here's Venturi watching as it rolled out, surrounded by TV reporters:
Robert Gotkin and Deborah Sarnoff being interviewed:
I went up to her later, after the furor had died down. I thanked her for saving this house, which she seemed to appreciate. I asked her how much it'd cost to do this. She said they bought the house for $1, no doubt just to have a dollar amount on paper, and the move had cost $100,000. It was actually a lot less than I was expecting after seeing everything they went through. Furthermore, building a new guest house on their property would probably have cost four times that much if it cost a dime.

Venturi had said something at the Storefront talk about how they don't like to invest too much of their own personality into their projects. I understood that to mean that it's the nature of the individual client that should be realized in the architecture, not their own. But along those lines I wondered how emotionally invested he got, and asked him if he was relieved that somebody had wanted to save this house. "And how, yes" he said. I walked around a little bit more, said my goodbyes, and left. I had just enough time for a quick bite of sushi before I had to return to Manhattan for an appointment. The day really couldn't have worked out any more perfectly, and I'll not soon forget it. 

If there ever is a Part 5, it won't be until late in the summer. If they're kind enough to let me stop by to take some photos, I'd like to go to see it on a nice summer day after it's sited and the landscaping has all grown back in. Until then, I hope you've enjoyed the tale.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Odyssey--Part 3

The morning of Friday the 13th, I woke up before the sun probably around 6AM. I knew the house was scheduled to pass by South Street Seaport sometime around 7:45. As soon as I heard that the house would be sailing up the East River, I knew exactly where I wanted to be to see it, and it wasn't there. I still don't know what kind of opportunity I missed by not going down there. I assume there were a number of architects gathered, including people I'd have loved to have met. It was a tough decision whether or not to go, but there were a number of reasons for me not to. 

Instead, I went over to Gantry State Park in Long Island City. One of the more pressing reasons was that, as soon as it had passed and was out of sight, I planned to immediately jump onto the Long Island Railroad and attempt to beat it out to Glen Cove, a race I wasn't sure I would win as it was. I arrived there around 7:30, not expecting the house to pass me until around 8:00 or 8:15, but there was no way I was going to risk missing it.

Though it wasn't the main Seaport event planned, with an appearance by Venturi himself, I still expected to find at least a small group of architecture buffs and curiosity seekers gathered at Gantry Park. There was no one. Every half hour or so, someone would circle behind me on their morning jog or walking their dog. 

On the pier just south of me was a pervert with an enormous telescope trained on the apartment buildings across the river. I was too far away to see if he had a camera attached to it. But if you live in one of those buildings with a view of Long Island City out your window and feel perfectly safe walking around naked in front of them, it's very possible you're now on some kind of High Society Candid Porn site. I'll give him this much, for a pervert, he certainly was dedicated. The telescope couldn't have been cheap, it was ridiculously cold, disturbingly early in the morning (he was there when I arrived), and he was there for at least an hour.

After all I went through, I was going to be extremely pissed off if some creepy peeping tom got photos of the Lieb House from there. He left some time before it passed, though. I was talking to a nice woman with her dog when it came by, but otherwise, the photos in this post are the only ones in existence from this particular location, the only ones that will ever exist.

I had on the warmest sweater I own and a thermal shirt underneath, another shirt over that, my leather pants, which allow through practically no cold air, and a bulky winter coat. I was still so freaking cold I had to keep dancing around to my iPod, running around the pier, and jogging in place to not go into hypothermia. It was awful. It was cold anyway, but also at that time of day--the coldest time of day--and the very last place you'd ever want to be on a bitter cold winter day? Right. On a pier sticking out into the East River.

On top of that, the house was late. I stood there waiting for it for nearly two hours freezing my buttocks off. I got there before the sun had officially come up over Queens from behind me, but at a certain point, I couldn't have been any happier about the location I'd chosen. Check this out:
Click images for larger views.
--All photos posted here ©2009, Ryan Witte.
Suddenly the whole skyline was bathed in the most heavenly, golden early-morning sunlight. If the house had appeared right at that moment, I'd have peed my pants. Instead I stood around for another hour waiting. Nonetheless, the light was still far better for me than it would have been from the Manhattan side where it'd have been glaring right into my face.

It got so late, in fact, that I had to call my mother--who had kindly consented to let me borrow her car--or she'd have gone to pick me up at the train station by her house only to find me nowhere in sight. I began to actually fear that the barge had been surprisingly early and had passed by before I even arrived at the park. There was really no one I could call to find out if that'd been the case, and I feared that while I waited there having already missed it, it was getting closer and closer to Glen Cove, and I'd miss it landing there, also. Big trouble.

At long last, the little house did appear making its way up the river. Here it is against Davis, Brody & Associates' wonderfully Brutalist Waterside Plaza (1974):

Davis and Brody's later partner, the immensely influential African-American architect Max Bond, just passed away only a couple of weeks ago. May he rest in peace.

But this is the real reason I chose this location, with the Empire State Building (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931) and the United Nations:

The Empire State, another incredibly Herculean task nonetheless completed during an economic disaster. These are immediately before and immediately after the photo I put into my introductory post:

But really, what could be a more beautifully poetic visual description of how important an event this was? Two absolutely epic architectural tales, one resulting in one of the grandest International Style Modernist monuments in the world by arguably the movement's biggest star, Le Corbusier (et al); the other, a tiny little house all but completely dwarfed on the river. But the reason this image is possible at all is that--despite its diminutive size--the Lieb House was on this journey so that a monument to the birth of Postmodern Architecture could be saved and was. David, meet Goliath.

And then it was gone, heading for the dangerous waters of Hell Gate. Here with Hugh Stubbins' Citicorp Center (1978):

It was 9:30 at the earliest, and I didn't know how quickly I could get to Glen Cove, or how quickly a house on a barge could get there, so I made a brisk pace to the train station. This chapter of the tale next time. Stay tuned for Part 4.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Odyssey--Part 2

The saga of Robert Venturi's Lieb House has very seriously been one of the single most important events I've had the pleasure to witness in my entire lifetime. As I said to Andrew Sarnoff, the brother of the new owner who was extremely nice and helpful to me throughout the process, I consider it to be like the opposite side of the same coin as the World Trade Center attacks.

I was standing outside a TGIFridays on Broadway with a TV in their front window when the first tower fell. My stranded coworker and I had settled into some too-early-in-the-morning but we-can't-believe-this-is-actually-happening consolatory cocktails at Ellen's Stardust Diner a few blocks south when we saw the second tower fall on their large screen TV. As for most New Yorkers, I will never forget that until the day I die.

The move of the Lieb House was about preservation rather than destruction. It's a terribly humble little shack rather than a towering colossus to world finance. But both events, to me, are representative of how our architecture symbolizes our American sensibilities and the incredible lengths to which people will go to acknowledge that.

As mentioned elsewhere, my approach to the Arts for many years has been linguistic, by way of Semiotics. I believe one of the last remaining things that can tie together such disparate cultural phenomena as, say, a John Deere tractor by Henry Dreyfuss and a Stravinsky violin sonata is that each, in their own distinct language, is a form of communication.

This is why I consider Robert Venturi to be such a profound legend. I consider his contribution every bit as significant as the alpha/omega of Minimalist painting I've discussed elsewhere, which, coincidentally, was going on around the same time. For countless thousands of years, architecture concerned itself first and foremost with providing shelter, making sure structures stood and stayed standing, and not long after, infusing those structures with some aesthetic philosophy. Simply put: post and beam, wall and roof, and the attempt to make the whole of it "beautiful" by some criteria or another.

Venturi, almost single-handedly, divorced the forms of architecture from their utilitarian use, and by so doing, transformed architecture from an applied art into a sophisticated formal language. One linguistic theory says that if a system is to be considered a "language," it must have the capacity to lie (one reason the communicative limitations of Music are so hotly debated). Venturi lied. The best example, and one which I've had heated arguments over its legitimacy, is in his Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London:
--Photo courtesy Public Lettering.
The arches may at first glance appear to perform a structural purpose, but then, one of them is positioned over an interior window, meaning it can't possibly serve any utilitarian function. With one simple maneuver, by using it to lie, Venturi has turned that arch into nothing more than a architectural symbol, what maybe I should dub an "architeme." He'd been doing things like this from the very beginning, as with the stairway to nowhere in his mother's house.

One may argue that Mannerist architecture had already accomplished this 400 years earlier. I submit, though, that the Mannerists were first of all subverting only the formal rules of Classicism--even poking some fun at them--and secondly, creating a sense of folly, mystery, fantasy, and wonderment with their architectural shenanigans. Essentially, it was still merely a matter of aesthetics. The revolutions in linguistic theory didn't really start to appear until the middle of the last century, anyway, and would have been unavailable to them. Furthermore, Venturi much more completely took on the idea of architecture as an entire structural/visual system.

I can only imagine how the folks directly involved must feel; for me, it was a long and completely exhausting experience. For that reason, I'd like to break up this story into a series of smaller posts.

I'd been watching the architectural press on the event from the beginning, but my first real entrance into it was the celebratory talk at the Storefront for Art & Architecture on Kenmare Street. Gathered there were Venturi and his wife and partner Denise Scott Brown; their son and documentary filmmaker Jim Venturi; the Ellmans, who lived in the house for the past thirty years; and the new owners, Robert Gotkin and Deborah Sarnoff.

Storefront isn't a huge gallery, anyway, and the place was absolutely packed full of people, not all that surprisingly. I unfortunately got stuck all the way in the back, creeping forward inch by inch as individual people intermittently left.

With the door opening and closing to street noise right next to me, it was difficult to hear everything being said at the front of the room, especially and distressingly what Robert Venturi himself was saying. Sheila Ellman told some amusing stories about having known of and admired Venturi but not that the house she'd bought was designed by him. She spoke about finding out that it was a Venturi house and being told no doubt incorrectly by "someone" at his offices that blueprints no longer existed (Venturi asked her who'd said that, but she refused to rat him out, saying that's not her style). Then about all the people who'd come to see the house over the years, including Philip Johnson, who'd remarked somewhat comically on the prominent location of the washer and dryer.

Deborah Sarnoff talked about how she'd had her eyes on the incredible Glen Cove property for years, had become obsessed by it and the Venturi-designed house on it, and missed the opportunity to purchase it not once but twice. She said that when she was phoned and asked about the prospect of purchasing the Lieb House and moving it to her property, she'd thought it was a joke.

In response to an audience question, Scott Brown discussed her contributions to the team, saying she's comfortable in the knowledge that she and her husband have differing skills and talents. She said she believed her great asset to the firm was foremost conceptual, giving birth to various projects. She also conceded that some of the firm's works were mostly Venturi's, without much of her input, while others were products of predominantly her own brain.

I'd have loved to have gone up front and spoken to some of the people involved, but as I said, it was ridiculously crowded, so I hoped the opportunities would come later and returned home. The Storefront event was merely an appetizer for what was to come. I left filled with a sense of excitement and a little anxiety about what I'd face the following morning.

Stay tuned for Part 3.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Odyssey--Part 1

Harrison, Abramovitz, Corbusier, Niemeyer...Venturi.

Click to enlarge.
--©2009, Ryan Witte

To be continued...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Biotechnological Architecture

The new book published by Rizzoli is an incredible collection of everything conceived by Greg Lynn since he started his solo career, both built and unbuilt. It is a thick one, and the high percentage of full-page, full-color photographs and renderings is misleading because the text is so tiny. It actually ends up being a fairly hefty read.

Each of the various projects is treated to fascinating description.  Fans of Lynn will no doubt be familiar with some of them from his previous writings, but there's now so much more to talk about. There's also some more in-depth architectural theory penned by Lynn himself. In addition to this, though, are short pieces of startling variety that have influenced the work shown, from the thoughts of BMW designer Chris Bangle to the science-fiction of J.G. Ballard. One of the more confusing inclusions, because its rhetoric would seem so very foreign to those in architecture or a related creative field, is a longer piece titled "Structuralist Research Program in Developmental Biology" by Brian C. Goodwin. This one has obvious connections to Lynn's work, dealing with how genetics dictate the creation of simplistic biological forms like cylinders (worms, snakes, intestines). But its length and terribly dry, mind-bendingly clinical biological phrasing--complete with more than a couple typos--makes its inclusion in a publication devoted to design seem a bit incongruous.

Going through each aspect of Lynn's aesthetic approach one by one, it's especially interesting that this collection covers more of the mechanical technologies, so integral to his work, than any text I'd found before. The ways that computer numerically controlled fabrication and knitting machines have informed his design process is given a very satisfying amount of explanation. The update as far as works that wouldn't have been underway in previous volumes on or by Lynn and the final section--a catalogue of everything he's done in a comprehensive, chronological list--make this wholly worth the price. The impeccable styling of the binding and graphics that I've mentioned before are merely an added bonus.

In honor of the publication of this valuable monograph, I'd like to talk about a project of his close to my heart and to my apartment. Many people who ride the Long Island Railroad will be familiar with the Knickerbocker Laundry by architect Irving M. Fenichel (1892-1970). It's a beautiful Art Moderne structure built in 1932, and had always been a favorite building of mine. Unfortunately, there seems to be not a single image publicly available online of what it looked like before its transformation. Before moving into an apartment just several blocks from it, as cool as I thought it was, I never would have made the journey to try to find it to photograph it myself.

Going over there the day I did was like going on an Arctic expedition. Snow had fallen, melted, and frozen again. Half of the surfaces I traversed hadn't been shoveled or salted to begin with. That day the ice was still thick but in the process of melting again, so the sheets of ice were about as slippery as buttered Teflon. I'm still grateful I didn't fall and crack my head open, which I was at risk of doing on numerous occasions.

Speaking of ice, according to historian Christopher Gray, Knickerbocker had been an ice dealer. When mechanical refrigeration became much more popular in private homes, they needed to diversify, and moved into air conditioning units and also a centralized laundry. They built this laundry facility next to their ice plant. It had what sounds like a very impressive domed (or vaulted) solid bronze vestibule and black and gold marble and black glass Art Deco interiors. The Naarden Perfume Company bought the building around 1970, Gray says, but it had sat vacant after 1986, when Unilever acquired Naarden and moved them to New Jersey.

It's now the New York Korean Presbyterian Church, having gotten a complete transformation by Greg Lynn FORM in 1999. Really, the best place to be to view the building is on the LIRR, and this was done on purpose for visibility for the laundry. Here's the view from the other (my) side of the tracks:
Click images for larger views.
--All images ©2009, Ryan Witte. As always, if you're interested in using any of them, please feel free to contact me.
Likely due to it having started as a working-class suburb populated by families who couldn't afford cars at first, Sunnyside is filled with these rows of one-story garages presumably built a bit later when the residents became more affluent. They're used by the homes behind or, in this case, across the street from them.

My mother, who knows the bible backwards and forwards, said that in context, this verse is an oddly unwelcoming choice for the front-façade motto of the church. It was no doubt chosen because of the proximity of the train, which flies by at high speed.

Despite its angled orientation parallel to the LIRR track, depriving the building of a rectangular footprint, the original front façade is strictly symmetrical. Lynn played with that, however, by moving his gridded metal entrance screen off to the right of center. I'm reminded of something he said during the talk with Peter Eisenman. Studies have shown that the faces of people we find the most attractive are not precisely symmetrical, he said, but faces that are a lower percentage--I can't remember the exact figure--around 89% symmetrical or something. In any case, after reading this, Lynn became fascinated by the idea of near-symmetry.

I really adore these Art Moderne end pavilions. To quickly summarize, this whole architectural period is now considered to fall under the umbrella of Modern Classicism. My own approach to explaining it is a gradual flattening of ornament from the Neo-Classicism of the early twentieth century to the completely flat and ornament-free Modernism of the 1940s (in the United States). So falling under this are Art Deco using flattened industrial and vaguely Egyptian relief ornamentation, Modernist Expressionism as in the Chrysler Building (and let us not forget the brilliant Erich Mendelssohn), and Art Moderne, which is sort of the last hurrah of this progression: an enthusiastic embrace of new ideas of Streamlining. I'll spare you all my theories on Streamlining as it relates culturally to the Great Depression. 

The administrative offices are housed in the original structure. The sanctuary is built onto the roof of the old factory floor. This soaring glass entryway near center leads to a slightly serpentine corridor that cuts through the renovated spaces to the opposite (eastern) side of the building. Off this corridor are many of the worship and auxiliary rooms, including the main sanctuary.

Look closely: there's a bird.
Under this incredibly sculptural canopy is a grand staircase leading to and from the sanctuary. This was off hours, so there was no light on inside for me to photograph it myself. I will say, though, that when I walked into this great room, I very literally could not breathe properly for nearly a minute. It is one of the most astonishing spaces I have ever seen. It inspires reverence without question.

This lower level parking lot was literally like an ice rink. The best way I could find to not kill myself was to walk along the tracks carved out by vehicles before it'd frozen solid. I'm not litigious in the slightest, but it really seemed like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Knickerbocker Laundry/ New York Korean Presbyterian Church
Irving M. Fenichel, 1932/ Greg Lynn FORM, 1999

©2009, Ryan Witte