Monday, March 29, 2010

Chance Encounters

A couple of Sundays back, I had one of my dreams fulfilled. I was taking a small group of the general public (as opposed to a school group, etc.) around Lincoln Center. One of my guests had specifically requested to see Alice Tully Hall, which was fine. Sunday afternoons really are often the best day to come, because we have almost everything available and wide open. I discovered later that he's an architect working on a new hall dedicated to chamber music for the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. I always love having architects on my tour and immediately switched over to include more of that information, although I fear I was boring the other guests to tears.

Anyhow, we walk into the front of Tully, I look up, and standing on the balcony right above my head is Liz Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and their colleague, whose name I can't remember (not Charles Renfro). I turned to this architect on my tour and said "that's her, isn't it?"

--Photo courtesy Egodesign.
But we both knew it was. I couldn't believe my good fortune.

I explained the transformation of Sixty-Fifth Street and the new openness of the front of the hall, showed the portrait of Alice Tully and went through her biography (and that of her little white dog, Sophie), and up to the Patron's Lounge.

Diller and Scofidio were still out on the balcony, and saw me, so I smiled. My heart was beating a mile a minute.

What I usually talk about there is how great a choice DS+R were for the renovation of a performing arts complex. Here's one great example of why: in Mies van der Rohe's landmark Seagram Building are two restaurants, the Four Seasons and the Brasserie, both with original interiors by Philip Johnson, who also designed the Koch Theater at LC, of course. By some weird coincidence, Patina Restaurant Group also runs the Brasserie 8 1/2 in the Solow Building by Gordon Bunshaft, who designed the Library for the Performing Arts at LC. Connections, connections. The Brasserie was destroyed by fire in 1995 and now has a new interior design by DS+R. It looks like a very groovy, space age airport lounge or something.

--Photos courtesy AEWorldmap.

You walk in the front door of this restaurant, and a camera automatically takes a picture of your face, putting your face on a television monitor above the bar in the dining room. For every person who comes in after you, it bumps you down one screen until there are no screens left. It's all about seeing and being seen as a diner in this restaurant, and a lot of their work does this. It blurs the distinctions between "who is the performer?" and "who is the spectator?"

The grandstand at the front of Tully is the perfect example.

It doesn't look out at New York City, but rather looks into the cafe, into Lincoln Center. For someone sitting on the grandstand, the people having sandwiches in the cafe become a kind of natural performance. A lot of their interventions around Lincoln Center have played with this idea, and I think it's perfect.

Halfway through my spiel, they came back in from the balcony. I said "hello, I was just telling them about the Brasserie," but I don't think I finished that thought. I introduced myself and told her that it's been a dream of mine to meet her for so long. She introduced Ricardo Scofidio, and I was like "oh, I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you" and shook his hand also. I probably made a bit of a fool of myself, but I was a little starstruck. It was almost as awesome as getting to meet Robert Venturi, but for somewhat different reasons.

I asked her if the hyperbolic paraboloid roof of the restaurant across the street had been a nod to Eduardo Catalano, who had assisted Pietro Belluschi on the Juilliard building (and was also mostly responsible for the Laguardia School building right across Amsterdam Avenue).

--Photo courtesy NC State University.
She confirmed that, indeed, one reason was the Catalano House in Raleigh, North Carolina, but a number of other reasons, also. The shape makes the green roof appear like a softly rolling hill, it will also make for a dramatic curving wooden ceiling in the restaurant underneath. I pointed out that they sometimes drain the water out of the reflecting pool and will have a classical guitarist or someone playing music there in the summertime. The downward slope on the southwest corner will make for a great place for audiences to sit for impromptu performances.

By the way, I also recently asked one of the construction workers how they're ever going to mow the grass up there. He said it will be a groundskeeper with a hand-pushed lawnmower, who will be tethered to the top edge of the roof because some parts of the slope are rather steep. That should be interesting to see.

Ms. Diller also talked a little bit about Dan Kiley's landscape architecture. She said they found the public space somewhat cold and sparse, but in talking to the preservation people, there was this idea that grand public spaces like that
should be desolate. I wasn't sure exactly why they'd say such a thing--maybe in the interests of a kind of aesthetic purity? But she said they agreed and disagreed with that concept for different reasons.

They had to leave after a few minutes, but it was so very gracious of them to stop and speak with my group like that, I was really grateful, and honestly my luck couldn't have been any better that day. Had the one gentleman not requested to see Tully, I might not have gone there at all.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

First Two Shows of Many

Well, it appears Trade Show Season has descended upon us again. As I say every year, once it starts, it can be overwhelming. Week after week, there's yet another gargantuan show with way too much to look at and absorb. The week of the Armory Show alone is daunting, with all of its orbiting concurrent events. And of course the Whitney Biennial just opened, as well. I found myself wholly inpired and yet consumed by Art Exhaustion when the weekend was over. You may look forward to another year full of great artist interviews here on Architextures.

The Biennial was far better than the last one. As I said to one of my coworkers (who, by the way, just started up a new blog with his wife, which is fantastic if you're into cooking, eating, and/or dining out), I'm just getting really bored with all this ugly, seemingly unfinished, construction material sculpture (which made up too large a proportion of the previous Biennial). Enough already. This year there were two of them. One by Thomas Houseago was somewhat interesting, but ugly. Another by Huma Bhabha was just ugly without the interesting part.

Now, I know I discuss the nature of beauty a lot on here, but I think it's one of the things that has very much been called into question in the past century in art. And I am conflicted, because works that merely look pretty over your couch have little place in a serious discussion. I do however consider even the silliest kitsch to be "art," we just don't need to call it "good art," whatever "good" means here.

I'm going to make the analogy with music. I absolutely adore the avant-garde, atonally experimental music that peaked in the 1950s. It challenges me, it's bold, sophisticated, and revolutionary. Modern composers who still need to do this, on the other hand, I can do without. I'm sure a lot of these pieces are doing complex mathematical things that someone with a doctorate in Music Theory would find brilliant. I can accept that. But it almost feels to me that these composers think if their work is beautiful to listen to, that somehow it will lose its integrity or respectability as a sophisticated piece of composition. That's a cop-out. My argument is this: if you are a truly talented composer, in my opinion you should be able to compose works that keep Music Theorists on the edge of their seats, but that are ALSO beautiful to listen to, at the same time.

I'll apply the same standard to fine art. There were a few examples at the Biennial. Aurel Schmidt's minotaur, for instance, is beautiful yet disturbing and a bit creepy at the same time. Nina Berman and Stephanie Sinclair's photographs, on the other hand, are terribly painful to look at, but are beautiful in their depictions of heart-wrenching sacrifice and in their acute poignancy. This, to me, is what art is all about. We're well past the point where art has to be ugly in order to be taken seriously.

As for the plaques, the one for the Bruce High Quality Foundation seems to suggest that the Cadillac hearse/ ambulance in the gallery was used in the movie Ghostbusters. But everyone knows the one the movie was a 1959, and the one at the Whitney is a 1971 or '72. I found that to be a strange error in wording. And one of the best pieces in the Biennial I suspect a lot of people might miss, because it's only a plaque that doesn't accompany any physical piece of artwork. It's by Michael Asher, whose entry into the Biennial was the suggestion that the museum stay open twenty-four hours a day for seven days. This has been shortened, but the Whitney will be doing it, from midnight May 26th to midnight May 28th. I kind of want to go show up at, like, 4AM one of those nights just to see what's going on there, what kind of people are there.

By far the best work at the Armory Show was somewhat hidden, and only a select few of you who went will know what I mean but will likely agree with me. You walk around behind this wall and find two awkwardly-shaped, dirty little rooms. The space to your right just has a refrigerator case with juices and sodas in it, and no room for much else. On the left side are two surly Armory security guards, one standing, the other sitting at a messy folding plywood table. They say "no," "this isn't an artwork," and "get out!" I couldn't find out who the artist was, but it was brilliant. [Doesn't it say something great about contemporary art that I'm honestly still not 100% convinced it wasn't a piece of artwork?]

©2010, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mired in Meier--Part Four

For this series of posts, I went down to see three of only five buildings Richard Meier has standing in New York that he built from the ground up, and the first he ever built in Manhattan. They're 173 and 176 Perry Street (2002):
Click images for larger views.

And immediately to the south, 165 Charles Street (2006):

--All 166, 173, & 176 Perry and 165 Charles exterior photos ©2010, Ryan Witte.
These buildings are actually quite interesting in terms of the Meier canon, because he really hasn't built all that many towers with these very New York proportions, with a small footprint and great deal of height. In fact, he seems to prefer to arrange spaces horizontally wherever possible, or at least make them wider than they are tall. On the one hand, if we're talking about pure aesthetics, a movie screen is the proportions it is for a reason. Human sight works horizontally, evolved to scan the horizon for predators, prey, and edible flora. In that sense, there is something inherently more pleasing about a structure that stretches out before us on the horizontal.

On the other hand--and you know what I'm going to say--even if a building isn't squeezed into the limited space of the island of Manhattan, building horizontally is as much irresponsible as the lack of (or bad) city planning that results in unchecked suburban sprawl. It uses and impacts far more land than is necessary. This is something we're trying to avoid these days. So I'm torn between the inescapable mechanics of human vision and the needs of the planet.

In any case, I approached from the south. The most recent of them, 165 Charles, is not unexpectedly different from the first two, but they still work beautifully as a trio. Meier's oeuvre is so well tailored it'd have been hard to imagine a building by him that would look wrong next to two of his others, but obviously this was intentional.

The buildings more or less tell the following story. First, narrow, solid concrete slabs--referred to as "bustles"--at the eastern end of the sites have had thin ribbon slots sliced out of them to form windows but very much maintain their solidity.

That's the service core or, in Meier parlance, the "private" zone. Then a larger glass box breaks through and surrounds the concrete slab on the north, south, and riverfront sides and becomes a new, open, transparent façade.

Keep in mind that it isn't a trick of the camera angle: the western façades remain parallel to the West Side Highway, and the various other volumes run either perpendicular to that or cant off to match the ENE angle of Perry Street. It becomes somewhat more obvious at the canted entrance to the Perry St Restaurant, incidentally run by one of the greatest living chefs, Jean-George Vongerichten.

But now there's two glass towers the same height, but of different widths, too flat and uniform to speak much to one another for any other reason but the same orientation to the highway. So to the riverfront façade of each is attached matching white steel frames with horizontal beams that draw the eye back and forth between the two towers.
At the very top of the trees there, you can see the triplex Joy Apartment in 176 Perry, designed by Meier himself. The strange looking object on the left is its impressive spiral staircase.
--Photo courtesy architect's website.

The river and its views, however, are pulling on the west façades, and therefore also on the steel frames. So the river pulls the frames out to the west, extruding part of the glass wall with them, with the rest of this exposed cavity filling in with exterior living space--i.e., balconies--which responds even more acutely to the natural and scenic qualities of the riverfront property.

Notice on the south façade of 176 Perry how a vertical white fin clearly partitions the main glass box from the section that's been extruded out from it:

Finally, the frames have only been forceful enough to extrude a central section of the glass box. But the junction of the two buildings, and also the negative space of Perry Street between them, needs to be emphasized more so that the buildings can read as a cohesive pair. So the steel frames have been shifted toward each other so they butt up against the adjacent corners of the two buildings.

This forms a screen of privacy and blocks the wind from the balconies on the northern tower and reveals more expansive views for the balconies on the south tower:

Above all, this sense of movement and contextual dynamism is, I believe, the sign of a true master.

The third and final building does many of the same things. Only here, it's the glass façade itself that has been pulled west by the river. In contrast to the horizontal beams in the frames of the other two, here the glass extrusion is contained by two thin vertical piers, emphasizing both the verticality of this façade, which would otherwise read as the widest, and at other moments, the ethereality of the glass wall.

This accomplishes a few different things. First of all, it necessarily has to read as a sheet of glass pulled off of the regular glass box. In one place where the curtain wall extends down below the rest of the building punctuates this further.

Secondly, it works wonderfully with the balconies, which now read much more as external rooms.

Furthermore, it blocks the winds off the river and the blazing sunlight on the balconies, but not the exceptional views.

But now this façade is too flat and uniform to initiate dialogue with the other two. So to draw a connection to the pair of buildings to the north, the glass façade is split into two perfectly symmetrical sections.

This isn't just a stylistic maneuver, though. The center line is actually the end of a spine that divides the building's interior in half for most of its floors, with one line of apartments on the north, and slightly larger ones on the south.

The symmetry becomes a bit too bland and orderly, however, so--in a truly exquisite detail--the slot aligning with the pier in the center is canted off to one side, made parallel with the south façade which matches the slight ENE angle of Charles Street.
Unlike the first two buildings, with their free open loft spaces, all the interiors of 165 Charles were designed by Meier.

I decided I may as well ask if there were anything inside the buildings that I could get in photographs, like a model apartment or something. I seriously doubted it, but it can't hurt to ask. The first guy, in 165 Charles, was downright rude. It wasn't at all that he couldn't allow photography, that's totally understandable. It was how he needed to be all authoritarian about it. I've discussed security guards before; I suspect doormen are cast from a similar mold. The hostess of the Perry St restaurant was very nice, but the interior was not by Meier, she informed me. The doorman at 173 Perry was very friendly and helpful, and while there was nothing of the interior that I could or necessarily would want to photograph, he told me about the square footages of the floors (1800 and 3750 square feet, 176 Perry being the larger of the two), and a little bit about the going prices.

I'd also like to quickly mention another building which is very close to being finished. It's 166 Perry Street by Asymptote, right next door.

While wholly distinctive unto itself, their building works so beautifully with Meier's, both in its interaction and its adjacency:

It also has what would appear to be gorgeous apartments, and what will be a very cool, space-age lobby.

--Renderings courtesy Asymptote.

On my way back to the subway, I managed to pass by Cooper Classics. I might not have gone in, as much as I love checking out old cars, except that they had a 1971 Ferrari Dino by Pininfarina, which I had only just mentioned in an email a few weeks earlier.

--Credit there in the photo.
It's one of the most beautiful cars ever designed, in my opinion, so I had to take a closer look. In their garage across the street, they also had an early prototype for the Porsche 356 that is the only one of its kind in existence.

©2010, Ryan Witte