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

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