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


cashmoan said...

Thanks Ryan. I really have loved this building for years. All those years on the LIRR wondering why it sat like that. Always thought it needed to be something special. I guess it really is now. Thansk for writing about it.

Ryan Witte said...


No problem. It deserved to be treated to historical status. So glad you enjoyed it.