Friday, July 31, 2009

Bodies at Rest

I don't normally discuss the performing arts here. I suppose I have too many interests; I just love all the arts. The diversity of topics is what keeps this blog interesting for me, keeps me posting to it, but I guess I figure I have to limit it at least somewhat or...what wouldn't I be discussing on it?

Still, I feel the need to pay my respects to Merce Cunningham. The best connection I can make is I believe dance to be sculpture in motion.
--Photo courtesy New York Times.
Truly he was one of the greatest figures in the entire history of dance. But most pertinently, he was a terribly important thread in a grand web of people, many of whom I would never hesitate to discuss here. Mostly through association with Black Mountain College--an institution that fascinates me every bit as much as the Bauhaus--his circle included some of the greatest luminaries of creative thought of the entire century. John Cage, first of all, whose 4'33" is arguably the most important piece of music ever composed; Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Johnson onto Mies van der Rohe and presumably countless other great minds who met for afternoon tea at the Glass House; by Cage through Richard Lippold to Walter Gropius; Buckminster Fuller, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, the Immortal Brian Eno. And all of them on top of Graham, Tharp, Robbins, Balanchine, Baryshnikov, and all the other obvious cast members.

I'm tempted to wonder if the New York scene will ever be like that again. In his own way he was a crucial hub in that vast network.

It almost seems a little spooky to me that Cunningham had only so recently settled his estate. Loved ones had in his last few days had the chance to visit and bid him farewell. Clearly he knew the end was near. He was still choreographing, at least in his mind.

For me, from a linguistic vantage point, I've often been fascinated by the way dance is notated, particularly where it might concern Rudolf Laban, who I'd love to read if his out-of-print writings weren't $400 a used copy--I'll just have to suck it up and visit the library. It's probably the most fleeting and ethereal of all the art forms. So I was quite fascinated by a trial version of DanceForms, the choreography software Cunningham helped to develop. I played around with it for a short while to get a handle on how it works, but I've got way too many other things to worry about to create a revolution in dance at this point. I've got a lot of it in my head, though. Like I said: too many interests.

The creative world has lost one of its brightest stars. I do hope there will be Cunningham retrospectives from all the great dance companies in the coming year.

Merce Cunningham

©2009, Ryan Witte

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Responsibly Hip


Another amazing--and award-winning--vehicle was in the booth for a company I'd not heard of before, a new American company, Fisker. This is Fisker's Karma:
--Click to enlarge.
I honestly think this is one of the most beautiful cars I've seen in a very long time. Its look is the work of Henrik Fisker, himself. In profile, there is this sort of strange dip in the hood that I'd think would cause drag; it almost appears to be sagging under its own weight, but I guess it's not bothering me that much. Evidently it's the result of a breakthrough chassis design.
When I saw it being described as a four-door, I actually had to look again, as in "it is? Oh, is!" This looks about as little like a sedan as any sedan I've ever seen.

The most amazing thing about the Karma, considering how incredibly suave its design, is that it's electric for the first 50 miles, and past that limit, runs like a hybrid. Their description says that if you commute under 50 miles a day and recharge it at night, it can have fuel economy of 100 mpg. That's in "Stealth Mode," and for performance, "Sport Mode" gives you 0-60 in 5.8 seconds and a top speed of 125 mph. The brakes are regenerative, they offer it with a full-length solar roof to help charge the battery while out and about, and also offer additional panels that can be installed on the roof of your garage. The price is almost $88,000, which is definitely high, especially the way things are now, but it's not as if you have to be a billionaire, either. I mean, for crying out loud, a Mercedes-Benz CL, even not fully outfitted, will run you well over $100,000.

There won't be all that many of them, at least not at first; they expect to build around 15,000 of them. Still pretty good for such a young company, but with some measure of exclusivity that I think suits this car well. But I'm just extremely impressed. There's so much going on here. It's an electric/ hybrid vehicle, but it has amazing style and grace, in no way compromised and frumpy like the Volt. Its lines feel like a sports car, and yet it's roomy and would easily accommodate car-pooling or carting the family and groceries around. The interior is all eco-friendly: the wood is from fallen or diseased trees, the textiles are either a sustainable Bamboo Viscose or leather from a provider with "happy cow" policies (I guess they let them watch TV and stuff), if you really do need leather.

Most importantly, though, the Karma makes the idea of an electric vehicle extremely sexy, which is exactly what we need right now. Seriously, this is the kind of car people gather around saying "wow, what IS that???"

That finishes up my discussion of this year's auto show. So this is a good place to mention a very interesting article in the NYTimes, all about a town in Germany that has banned automobiles altogether. I'm not convinced it's viable for everyone or everywhere, particularly many parts of the USA until drastic infrastructural intervention takes place, but it's a great portrait of how life might be centuries from now, if we humans ever wise up.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Violently Happy

Kikkerland is another one of those companies the booth for which I look forward to seeing every year. "This booth always puts a smile on my face," I told their rep. She asked me if she could quote me, I said said "of course." But it's really true. They always have the funniest, cleverest things on display.

I wouldn't normally show a purse, but this is great:
The closure is a magnet, and it's fairly strong, so the metal beads stick to it, which I thought was interesting for some reason. It is the kind of thing that could definitely get you stopped by police, which is a bit Punk Rock, but a lot of people might find that a nuisance. At worst, you might cause rioting, although I don't think it's technically unlawful to carry something like this. It would most definitely be perfect accessorized along with Citizen: Citizen's bulletproof corsage.

I also really want one of these test pattern mouse pads:

For all your fine dining needs, there's a tray called "Sing Sing":
It's modeled off the ones used by the inmates at the famous prison.
--Image courtesy USGen Web Archives.
Sing Sing, by the way, was built by inmates and completed in 1828 with architecture by John Carpenter--though not the same one who works for Morphosis. It gave rise to the expression "going up the river," since it was up the Hudson from New York City. It was home to George Parker, the man who would try to sell people the Brooklyn Bridge. It also held William Van Schaick, captain of the General Slocum, which I have quite coincidentally talked about before. And Albert Fish, one of the most abominable serial killers in history--and with a life story so disturbing you can't help but just laugh in horror at how messed up it was--was incarcerated there. You'd be in great company eating off that tray.

But if you want to feel fancier than that, here's some of the nicest plastic silverware I've ever seen:

But I think my favorite pieces they showed this year were these umbrellas with sword handles, designed by Materious, a.k.a. Bruce & Stephanie Tharp:

The Samurai is the only one in production, the other two are just prototypes. They said they want to see how this is going to work, how people feel about walking around town with something in their hand that looks so much like a weapon, before they start producing them. I was so fascinated with them that it hadn't even occurred to me that it could be a problem, but I suppose it's true. I hope they do the Marine sword, though, that's the one I want. The sort of knightly one is fun, too (or is it for a pirate?), but I kind of picture some bearded overweight guy who wears long robes and is WAY too into the Renaissance Fair carrying that one.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Who's Schoolin' Who?

I try to at least skim through the New York Times every morning. As I follow the things going on in the world, particularly the disputed election in Iran and how bad things have gotten in Afghanistan, I can't help but feel a bit insecure talking about things just because they're pretty. When the economy is a disaster and people are dying for their uncounted votes, is design a worthwhile topic of discussion? Is architecture?

Not that it matters, certainly; this is what I do, who I am; it's what I love and will always love. On some level, I will always believe making the world a more beautiful place will be the noblest of efforts--maybe even especially when other parts of life start to look so grim. But I'm still tempted to consider whether or not architecture can be politically relevant. I do believe that, while architecture responds to its historical context, it also has the ability to shape and reshape behaviors and attitudes. It can manifest regional identities, can be propagandistic, and can produce pride and patriotism. But can it speak in terms of ethereal concepts like political freedom, equality and diversity?

On a larger, more urban scale, it may be interesting to ask in what types of places do people demonstrate? In what types of places do riots break out? In what types of places do contentious demonstrations not turn ugly and violent? What is it about these environments that makes them resistant to violence? In what types of environments do people of differing opinions come together constructively and peacefully?

Whatever the answers to these questions might be, I still had to go down and see the new architecture building for The Cooper Union. It's the first work in New York by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, possibly one of the most brilliant architecture firms in the world at this moment.
Click images to enlarge.
--All images ©2009, Ryan Witte, except where noted.
As you can see, the weather was beautiful, which was why I chose to go last Tuesday. It was partly cloudy, however, so I had to time my shots in between clouds. Still, I had to grab the opportunity when I had it, since there was no guarantee that it wasn't going to be raining the next 174 days in a row.

It's an interesting coincidence that this building by an architect I admire so much should go up now. The school was the first home of the design collection now housed at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum where I've so recently begun working. It's also the alma mater of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio (perhaps where they met and fell in love?), who are redesigning Lincoln Center, where I also work. It must be an omen, huh?

I walked around at a distance to get some long shots first.

On the way, I decided to take a little closer look at the Cooper Square Hotel (2008), by Venezuelan architect, Carlos Zapata.

Up the stairs that slice through the middle of the building is the coolest outdoor bar where I'd definitely like to hang out soon, especially considering how wonderfully cool our summer nights have been. I asked about drink prices and they're not too bad for a fancy New York City boutique hotel: about $6 for beers and $10 for cocktails. At this point, the windows of adjacent apartment buildings are basically right in your face, which seemed a bit awkward and exhibitionistic. The bartender told me they're planting somewhat high bamboo trees as a visual barrier, so I think I'll wait until they do that. Rooms are $195 for weekend nights, which also sounds remarkably reasonable to me for an apparently very nice hotel. There's another outdoor restaurant on a terrace below the bar, at ground level, which looked extremely charming.

Here's the Cooper Union building as seen from the hotel's terrace bar:
The bell...person was telling me that Zapata has done a few chic hotels in Miami, but probably his largest work to date is Soldier Field (2003) in Chicago, which is magnificent. He also said Zapata was there at the hotel restaurant at that very moment. I had visions of taking advantage of the opportunity to go in and speak to him, but I quickly realized what a horrible idea that was, and they'd probably have called security to escort me out. I did want to show you this photo of the Quito House from his website, because I think it's funny that there's a little doggie on the stairs:

Anyway, one of the more striking things about Cooper Union is the enormous crystalline window that dominates the front façade:

I have had some experience interpreting objects and designs as they might relate to an educational institution, from studying the artworks in and around Pietro Bulluschi's Juilliard building. I'm not certain I would accuse Mayne of being quite this bluntly literal, but I see a lot of his maneuvers here expressing something about ideals of the college experience. The front window, cracking open the skin of the front façade, seems to reveal the inner creative spirit the way studying at such an illustrious institution one would hope draws out the creative spirit in its students.

Then, intersecting the large window in the most breathtaking geometric ways is the horizontal gash separating the lower stories from the uppermost one:
So as you reach the top of the building, it splits open, revealing more of the windows and underlying structure. I think the metaphoric relationship this could be said to have with a student reaching the graduate year of his or her studies in architecture is fairly obvious.

The skin is extremely interesting, as well, and Mayne has been selective and frugal in his use of unobstructed glass. This is the southern façade:
And southeast corner:
I'm fairly certain I'd seen images of the interior, which led me to believe the building was open, but it's possible they were computer renderings. It's becoming more and more difficult to tell the difference lately, and I didn't try to determine at the time. Morphosis has images on their website, though, and it looks completely insane.

Evidently it is finished, but according to one of the security guards, the official opening won't be until August, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the school. I'll definitely be going back then to make an addendum to this post, but in the meantime, I've not seen inside. Ostensibly the mesh-like quality of the skin would appear to allow daylight through, yet not harsh enough light to stymie the use of computers for CADD or sketching by hand, and should also mask visual distractions from inside the classrooms. The large spans of open window demarcate student lounges and spaces of that kind where distractions aren't problematic.
--Image courtesy Morphosis.

This little street, only one block long, is Taras Shevchenko Place. I wasn't even aware there was such a street, and I did a double-take when I saw the name, so different from the other Irish- and British-sounding street names around these parts. Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was a poet, artist, and humanist whose writings many believe gave rise to the modern Ukrainian language. The residents of this neighborhood, once called "Little Ukraine," petitioned for the street to be named for their revered countryman in 1978. On the northern end of the street is the St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church (1977) by architect Apollinaire Osadca. I was able to find practically no information about Osadca at all, but about two thirds of the way up the street is this quite beautiful wooden doorway, the only one on this side of the church (forgive the low-quality Google Maps street view capture):
Now, if you stand right in the dead center of that doorway facing out, as if you were exiting the church, this is the view you see:
The dome of the church, so perfectly, exquisitely framed inside that diamond that I can't possibly imagine it wasn't intentional. Cooper Union tore down a two story building and replaced it with one much taller, thereby all but completely concealing the landmark church from view and causing a whole lot of neighborhood controversy. I don't doubt that this was a purposeful nod of reverence and respect by Mayne to the house of worship across the street. With a computer, I suppose not so tricky, but to calculate the exact vector and size of that reflection had to have taken some time and effort.

You can see the concrete beams there. They wrap all the way around the first story of the building.
They end up acting like a sort of classical colonnade, giving the giant mass above solidity, strength, and physical integrity. But instead of an ancient order, they're in a more structural expressionist manner. This is particularly wonderful on the north façade, where the beam leans outward at the top and butts out the entrance canopy:
This and everything happening on the front give this corner an extremely animated quality, in sharp contrast to the muted sobriety of the southeast.
It's as if the building is very consciously engaging in a vibrant dialogue with its older Cooper Union neighbor to the northwest.
The older building, there on the right, was designed by Frederick A. Peterson. It's been there since 1859, and is the oldest steel framed building still standing in America.

This image didn't come out quite so well, but I wanted to show it because it reminded me of something:
How long exactly does it take shoe laces to disintegrate? This is the strangest custom, ever. To me, the most plausible explanation for shoe-tossing is the young man losing his virginity theory, personally. The nearby crack house theory doesn't float for me, because I feel like people have been doing this for generations. But since shoes would be fairly easy to date for a shoe expert, I think somebody should go around the country and find the Oldest Pair of Shoes Still Hanging from a Telephone Wire.

It's also fairly cool how the front sign looks like its been cut out of the awning and then bent upwards:

While I was walking around the building, I noticed there was a guy sketching the southern end of it from across the street, so I decided to go over and talk to him. I asked if he was an architect, but I didn't quite understand his answer. The impression I got was that he and his coworker were brought in from out of town to do some work for an architecture firm, I guess in the East Village (he motioned in that direction), maybe summer interns? I assumed he was a college student, but I didn't want to insult him by asking it that way. He seemed a little insecure about what he was drawing--I couldn't help glancing down during the conversation--he sort of covered it with his hand. From what I could tell, his drawing skills were impeccable, extremely sharp and precise. I got to be pretty good with a pencil and paper where, say, live models were concerned, but I'm not sure I ever acquired skills like that.

I said "it's really amazing, isn't it?" He said "yeah, it's a lot to take in," presumably referring to the unbelievable geometries and just...the whole thing. I asked if I was correct that it was Thom Mayne's first work in New York, he said he thought it was. I told him about the window reflecting the church around the other side, and he thanked me for pointing it out. Then his coworker or whatever came back over from wherever he'd been. We all introduced ourselves, but I totally can't remember Drawing Guy's name, unfortunately. The other one was Ian, which I suppose is easier to remember because it's kind of like my name with the R missing? Very nice guys. I said I hoped they enjoyed New York and bid them adieu (in English).

It's interesting how whenever I go to see one of these outrageous new works of architecture, there's almost always at least one other person walking around doing the exact same thing. It feels almost like "oh, hey, another one of us."

©2009, Ryan Witte

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Runway Model


One of the more startling things on display this year was from a very young manufacturer, Spyker. It's the C8 Aileron:
Click images to enlarge.

It has a top speed of 187 mph and goes from 0-60 in a little over 4.3 seconds. At around $266,000, it probably should do no worse, and I don't think that's including the cost of shipping from the Netherlands. I guess when I'm able to spend that kind of money on a car, an extra $10,000 in shipping costs won't likely bother me all that much.

The best thing about the Aileron is that I think it's the first car I've seen since probably the 1970s that has a theme to its design. All its details are inspired by the early days of jet airplane flight.
The airscoops look like jet engines, the wheels look like turbines, the rear view mirror arms look like turbine blades. Everything leads in the same stylistic direction. It's really brilliant and the work of Victor Muller, who co-founded the company in 2000.

I think the interior is where this car becomes truly magical:

I want mine in gun-metal gray with a gold interior...or maybe dark navy and beige...oh, who cares, just get me any color you like. But this combination is awesome, something about the top view looks very futuristic to me. Anyway, all the details look exactly like the cockpit of some fancy private jet from 1960.
...or earlier. There's something about the instrument panel and especially their trademark exposed gear-shift that looks totally Steampunk, as if jet-propulsion had become a reality in the early part of the 20th century.

Whether you like its styling or not--I happen to be drooling, personally--there's no question that it's distinctive. There is nothing else like this out there, to my knowledge. In my opinion, if you're going to spend this much money on a vehicle, you deserve more than a badge on the hood that some car lover may or may not recognize. You deserve something that no one else has ever seen or will ever own. It's not that I have any fondness for exclusivity or the snobbery that can so easily accompany it, quite the contrary. But with all the cars out there, even including the concept cars, trying to squeeze every last drop of life out of futuristic hypermodernism, it's refreshing to see a design explore a timeless and obviously handcrafted luxuriousness. I also believe that the sports car purist enjoys connecting with his or her vehicle in a very simplistically mechanical way, to completely feel the car, engine on road. The pure pleasure of driving is what this is about, not transportation to a destination, and the Aileron captures that with the utmost majesty.

©2009, Ryan Witte