Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Next I'd like to discuss the work of Micheal Schunke of Nine Iron Studios in Pennsylvania. He does some brilliant work with glass in many areas of design, but it was his goblets that really drew me into his booth.

Click for larger.
--All Nine Iron photos courtesy Vogel Imaging.

I love these for one of the same reasons I love Denis Collura's work so much: they're a combination of so many different stylistic elements. Schunke, it would seem, is pulling from the mid- to late-nineteenth century, as well as the early-teens of the twentieth, and something of the 1960s, amongst other things. All these references are then combined together to produce something quite familiar, but very new and vibrant at the same time.

But I'd like to explain my admiration in a different way. This glassware is not cheap. It's all completely hand-blown. Even if you were to order a set of eight identical pieces, it'd be perfectly clear they were created by hand, much to their benefit, in my opinion.

I think this is a great demonstration of the shift in my tastes in the past ten years. I often hear the grumblings about some of the new, more modern productions at the Metropolitan Opera. The elderly, mostly conservative audience there is no-no-notorious for adamantly booing anything even remotely innovative. This is not to say I don't fully bow down to the genius of Franco Zeffirelli, quite the contrary. But the more recent one that most particularly comes to mind is Bartlett Sher's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

You know I love minimalism. As I've said elsewhere, three of my favorite artists of all time are Barnett Newman, Robert Ryman, and Donald Judd. But this isn't the mid-twentieth century anymore. If you're going to spend $500 on a ticket to see an opera, you deserve to expect more than a white scrim and some flower petals spread around on the stage. My argument is this: YES, by all means do new, inventive, modern productions (as long as they don't contradict the sensibility of the show, of course), push the boundaries of our perception of production design.

But this is the Met, the greatest opera house on the planet: give us something spectacular. Give us something that we could never see anywhere else. Give us something no avant-garde theater group would ever be able to manage. Give us a production of Wagner's Ring Cycle so incredible that it requires the installation of steel beams under the stage's wing so it won't collapse.

This is what I appreciate about Schunke's work. Sure, it isn't priced for Pottery Barn, but it's worth it and it shows. You don't have to be a glass artisan to look at these pieces and see the intense craftsmanship required to make them.

Don't get me wrong, for years I've had exquisitely minimalist wine glasses. Not cheap: one flick of your fingernail and the beautiful song that would result made it immediately apparent this was high-quality glassware. But what about showmanship? Must respectable quality always depend upon sober restraint? Should we really allow strict asceticism to control our embrace of artistic expression and sense of style? And while the Lobmeyr exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt made me gush with enthusiasm, why does technical, material sophistication need to be invisible?

Schunke's work is refreshingly not mute. It has character by the truckload.

Now certainly one could choose a style one prefers and get a matching dozen. But I think this misses the point, and in fact, Schunke recommends his clients against it. Instead, the myriad textures of a varied set in one color combination would make for a truly intriguing table.

This was the way they were displayed at the booth, all the different shapes and sizes and textures jumbled together. And yet, the cohesiveness of the group was as plain as day. As an added bonus, it'd be impossible for any guest to mistake his or her glass for anyone else's.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mired in Meier--Part Five

I never did wrap up my series of posts on Richard Meier. The last chapter of that story was a talk he gave at the 92nd Street Y, which was fantastic. I often find it interesting just how charming these people can be. Not that I don't think architects should be charming. In fact, it should come as little surprise that those of them who make such a huge name for themselves should have something more than just raw talent: charm, charisma, great personal style, or some other elusive and attractive quality. But he really was charming.

One interesting observation came out about the Perry Street buildings in the talk. It was that they sort of marked something very new in the world of real estate. The fact that these
were Meier-designed buildings was what made them a commodity. In fact, they pointed out that a good number of people purchased apartments in these buildings, never lived in them, and had no intention of ever living in them. Instead, they wanted them merely as one might invest in a painting by an important Modernist painter but never hang it on the wall.

He was also asked by an audience member (via index card) why his buildings were always white. The way the question was posed included the implication that the whiteness is somehow cold and inhospitable. His response was quite interesting. Essentially, white is the most architectural of any color choice. It responds to its context by not competing with it for dominance. In a natural setting, for instance, because his buildings are white, one is even more acutely aware of the greenery that surrounds them. It also means that one isn't distracted by the materials out of which the building is built but can better appreciate the more purely architectural expressions of volume, contour, and circulation.

The front page of Meier's website, as a matter of fact, alternately quotes him as saying in his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech, "White is the most wonderful color because within it you can see all the colors of the rainbow. The whiteness of white is never just white; it is almost always transformed by light and that which is changing: the sky, the clouds, the sun and the moon."

As he went on, I had to pat myself on the back just a little, because as I often do, I
got it. In response to the idea that his buildings are less hospitable than they might be in different materials, he explained that the scale of his buildings is extremely carefully considered. The very consciously humane scaling of his buildings, as he sees it, will interact with people on a much deeper and more meaningful level than something as superficial as wooden paneling or an ergonomic doorknob. I'm tempted to say that, from my personal experience of his work, he's absolutely correct.

There was also one memorably amusing anecdote about his Neugeberger House (1998). It was to be built in a prestigious (possibly gated?) community in Naples, Florida, that had somewhat strict zoning requirements. When faced with the prospect of a Meier-designed building, they consented to giving him some amount of freedom but demanded that the house have a pitched roof. Meier said he just really didn't think he could bring himself to design a house with a pitched roof, so he gave them this:

Click for larger.
--Photo courtesy the architect's website.
I love that so very much: delightfully sneaky and completely hilarious. By the time they realized what he'd done, it was no doubt too late to change their minds, but he said he had a feeling the neighborhood community board were going to rewrite their ordinances to be much more specific after that.

By the way, 92Y have rescheduled the talk with Santiago Calatrava for October 4th. Mostly unrelated here, despite my recent letter to a suicide bomber, the following night will be Christopher Hitchens debating whether Islam is a religion of peace, which should be fascinating and heated, and very funny if Hitch has his way with it. Then a week later, on October 13th, Frank Gehry will be there. I honestly don't know how 92Y manages to get such incredible speakers, but my gratitude that they do manage it is overflowing.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Monday, July 12, 2010

New Directions

I've discussed Palo Samko before, and as always, I continue to be fascinated with the evolution of his work. He displayed at two of the trade shows this year.

What immediately caught my eye was his "Compass Table." Unfortunately, this is a one-of-a-kind piece and it's already been sold. But I really liked it, and it shows Samko's cleverness:

On the table there you can see his "Dali's Clock." The arms drip down over the bulbous cylinder inside the glass case.

These were the only photos they took of it. You can click those, but what may not be obvious is that there's a working compass embedded in the center of the table, and at the outside edge, at the four compass points, are letters inlaid into the wood: N, E, S, W, each one about two-inches or so tall. I do happen to own a compass. I'm not sure exactly why, to be honest. Probably I was working on some architectural project. But I'm going to assume most people don't own one, unless they're avid hikers. So how would you orient this table, unless it had a compass built into it? Problem solved.

Once you've got it positioned exactly right by the compass points--and no one at dinner even needs to ask if it is, all they have to do is look at the compass needle--the table begins its dialogue with the dining room. I imagine all but very few rooms in very, very few houses are oriented on a perfect north-south axis. One's attention is then drawn to how the presumably right-angled room is canted off that axis in a way I'd imagine would seem mostly arbitrary in most cases.

Then it calls attention to the house or building as a whole, considering that most structures are designed with their various rooms all aligned to the same axis. Next, its dialogue extends at least to the street the building faces, and if in a city like mine, where there's a street grid, to the surrounding neighborhood, as well, if not the whole city. Beyond that, the table refers to the magnetic field of our entire planet, and to the angle of the sun as it streams in through our windows. From a simple dining room table to...the solar system.

Over the years, Samko's booths have been a lot of fun because there are surprises in the booths as well as in the furniture. You open a drawer, and there's a bunch of tiny cows inside. Open another, and there's a tiny man riding a bicycle. Or the man riding the bicycle on the table is pulling a blimp floating above the table like a chandelier. It's all so delightful. Well, I was happy to discover that he's been pursuing his whimsical sculptures with even more enthusiasm. In fact, he's begun selling them, as well.

This is called "Ark/ Whatever I Could Steal from My Kids," and "what he could steal" obviously included the blimp:

Click that.
I think the sculptures are very fun, but the Ark is also quite beautiful in its own way. When you see the sculptures displayed along with his furniture, they make so much sense, visually. I'm going to assume that he waits until his kids are done with those things before he takes them.

This is "Time Machine":

Looking at it more closely now, I think it may be missing a flux capacitor.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Friday, July 9, 2010

Letter to a Suicide Bomber

Dear Radical Muslim Suicide Bomber,

I realize your faith is the most important thing in your life. There's no reason to even discuss that. I also realize you may feel frustrated, ignored, helpless, poverty stricken, and any number of different things. But I'd like to ask you to look at this:

As you probably know, that's the Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan. Please click on that picture, and look at it. I mean really look at it. Look at it like you've never seen it before. Look at it like you've never seen anything like it before. Look at what your people accomplished. It is absolutely breathtaking. This building was built in 1634. Sixteen Thirty-Four.

Just so you can understand where I'm going with this, I propose a little game. Go to Google Maps and look at my home, New York City. Choose any point at random on the island of Manhattan and start looking up and down streets. I'll give you an entire hour to find any building built more than 250 years ago.

I could probably do it, because I know the history of the city, so I'd know where to start searching. But I'm assuming you live in another country. If you can find one by searching at random that way, I'll give you a million dollars. One of the things I love about New York is that we do have more gorgeous historical buildings than many other parts of this republic, in addition to our futuristic structures, but they are few and far between, and you have to know where they are. They probably pale in comparison to someplace like Boston or even Philadelphia.

And don't get me wrong, I love the Modernity of my city. The gravity-defying domes and soaring minarets of your mosques, the sun-bathed reach for the heavens of Europe's medieval cathedrals, as much as the sky-scraping steel and glass monoliths of America's newer cities, these all attest to the wondrous glory of the human spirit. They show what beauty and majesty is possible in the world when mere mortal human beings care to dream and push the boundaries of engineering and construction and artistry.

We all have our differences. There are parts of my country I could go where my political ideology, social attitudes, or spiritual philosophies would meet hostile, even violent opposition. But maybe there's something more important than all of that. It's this:

That's the Shrine of Hazrat Ali (the Blue Mosque) in Mazari Sharif, Afghanistan. This one was built in 1521.

Fifteen-hundred and twenty-one.

I'm only using these as mere examples: I mean whatever mosque you might see down your street. Your part of the world is filled with architecture of this age and caliber from one corner to the next.

I realize you may look at this and feel that it represents ideas in Islam that you find particularly offensive, even disgusting. It may make you terribly angry. This may seem so important that you MUST do something to stop it, even at the expense of your own life. You may feel that people practicing their faith in such a way MUST realize the errors of their ways, and you are the person to show them, with a bomb strapped to your chest. My interest is in aesthetics and culture and history, but the loss of human life will always be the greatest tragedy. I personally feel that killing is always wrong, period, regardless of what my government and its military are doing, but that's not a discussion for here.

But what I'd like to ask is that for just one moment, you stop...and look. Look at it. Look at how beautiful and majestic and important that structure is. How truly valuable is the age and longevity of its majesty in this fleeting, ever-challenging, alienating twenty-first century. Look at the exquisite, elaborate patterns of its ornament and consider how one of your ancestors had to be a genius in geometry to even conceive such grace. Consider the millennia of ceramacists perfecting the art of tile-making to produce glazing of an intricacy and vibrance the world had never seen. Notice a sense of proportion, elegance, and symmetry clearly inspired by Allah, Himself, and in glory to Him, every bit as much as Beethoven was inspired by God.

Instead of anger and fear and hate, there's a much more positive emotion you might feel: Pride (don't ask the Catholics). I implore you to just stop and think to yourself, "this is what
my people contributed to the world. This is what the culture of which I have the honor to be a part was capable of producing." Maybe for just one moment, think not of the differences in cultures and beliefs, but what fantastic and impressive beauty your great ancient culture has been able to give all of the world, and don't destroy it. Please, don't destroy it. If I were to be able to look at, for instance, the Blue Mosque, and think "my people did this," I might weep with joy and pride.

Your ancestors gave you the greatest gift. Please don't take that for granted.

Yours Sincerely,
Ryan Witte

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Holy Family, Batman

A coworker of mine was recently visiting Barcelona with her husband, who plays in the New York Philharmonic. She knows how much I love architecture and was nice enough to take some photos for me of Antonio Gaudí's Sagrada Familia. So I thought I'd show them to you. She made the disclaimer that she's not a photographer and didn't know if they were any good. So please don't be too critical, but I think they're quite nice.

It was actually Gaudí who started me off on my life-long love affair with Art Nouveau way back when I was a small lad. So when I was in Barcelona, I did explore a lot of Parc Guell, which I photographed a great deal and got some fantastic pictures of it (they're all stuck on 35mm film for the moment). I think we passed by a couple of other buildings, as well. But on that trip I never did get over to see the Sagrada Familia.

Click for larger.

The one I think is perfect from the bottom to top is his Casa Batlló.

--Photo courtesy Pajaro Salvador.
The first time I saw it in photographs, it completely blew my mind.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rock & Roll

I'd like to show you the GMC Granite concept. This is sort of a landmark, in a way, because being a truck manufacturer, this will actually be GMC's first "car." Clearly, it's more of a "crossover" than a "car," but still something very new for them:

Click for larger view.
In charge of this project was Frank Saucedo, head of Advanced Design at GMC. That his name is easy to find is interesting in itself, considering that automobile design would seem to be a branch of the field particularly elusive to fame or glory, especially compared to something like Fashion, which is lousy with house-hold names.

They're calling this "Industrial Chic":

I suppose that's accurate enough, although it's actually an extremely vague description in the universe of vehicle design. I'm tempted to wonder if that doesn't pretty well describe every inspired design of a truck or sports car. Still, that's the way I would describe this: inspired. I'm especially into the Z-shaped line carved in and out of the profile. It gives the Granite a great stance and seems to allude to movement and speed, but with a sharpness and power. The front end is terribly bold but has such distinct character.

I really love the lines of the back end, too:

There's something about the junctions of truncated curving volumes that's decidedly pleasing and hip.

While the trickling down of design elements from concept vehicles to regular production is fairly easy to track, interiors seem strangely disconnected from the process. They always seem to look like this at the beginning:

Bold color combinations, usually including white or some shockingly obscure pale color, overly sculptural spaceship seats. The instrument panels seem to vacillate between big, chunky knobs and wheels and smoothed-over, almost imperceptible swaths of pads and screens.

In the end, our car interiors never really look like this. Certainly if someone in 1948 were shown a typical car interior from today, they'd be dumbfounded. But from about the mid-'70s onward, there hasn't really been any significant difference, stylistically speaking, at least not the way concept cars would have us expect. What we get, instead, are bland, monotone, most often neutral (if not ugly) colors. Having not looked too closely, I couldn't tell you one seat from another, if taken from their respective vehicles. Dashboards tend to be cluttered, sloppy, and lacking in any kind of stylistic cohesion. I understand that controls must be intuitive and easy to find while the driver concentrates on the road, but is it really that difficult to reconcile ergonomics, usability, beauty, and style?

What exactly are the designers of car interiors doing? Their ideas aren't making it into any usable product, for the most part. What happens to all these design elements? Do they specifically result from the predominantly temporary, showcase contingencies of creating a one-off concept model? Does the production machine send them into limbo like a random sock lost to the dryer? Or do they become modified out of recognizable existence by safety concerns or cost-effectiveness? Would such an interior scare off all but the urban 20-something-year-old demographic?

If that's the case, then why has the design of vehicle exteriors seen a progressive evolution? One might be tempted to wonder if the design of the outside and inside of our vehicles are two completely different animals. The exterior, the public face one projects to the world at large, while the interior we require to be more personal, comfortable, intimate. In other words, I might shave, get dressed up in a suit and tie, and go to a party, but at home I just want to put on my sweatpants and sit on the couch watching a DVD. It's possible, I suppose, that car consumers want a futuristic party on the outside, the impression they want to give others on the road. But on the inside, they don't really want to be in a space ship. They just want their living room.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Friday, July 2, 2010

Lost Architecture

In reading up a little on the fateful trip of Amelia Earhart, I starting looking around the minuscule little island where she'd hoped to make a refueling stop, Howland Island:

Quite a bit south and slightly east, in the middle of the Phoenix Islands, I discovered these:

Click that.
I'm sorry, but I find it extremely unlikely that two "structures," one seemingly a perfect square, the other a perfect rectangle, oriented in exactly the same direction, could be formed by natural causes. I Googled and Googled and Googled, and I could find absolutely nothing about these things at all, not even half-baked Lost-City-of-Atlantis-style mythological theories. Finally I just got so frustrated that I gave up. What are those things? If you ask me, they look very much like temples.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Rockets' Red Glare

I'd like to talk about something a little unusual, but something with which I've been fascinated and curious for a while now. It's the language used by commercial catalogues to describe large grade fireworks. Aside from the Fourth of July displays sponsored by huge companies, it seems to be a singularly redneck pastime, and driving through states like Oklahoma, it was pretty remarkable how very many fireworks outlets there are as compared to anywhere else in the country. They're enormous warehouses with every imaginable combustible that if lit on fire could probably blow out a crater a mile wide.

Fireworks, the big ones anyway, are also fairly expensive. A somewhat impressive "cake," as they're called, can be as much as $200, for an event that lasts no more than about a minute and a half at the most.

Personally, the idea of setting off a dangerous explosive scares me to death, but I suppose that's part of the appeal: the adrenaline rush. What's interesting about the terminology used is that it's the exact language that might be used by someone who was enraptured by the art of warfare (such as it is). The Italian Futurists thought warfare was the ultimate art form, presumably because it was doing exactly what so many artists (like the Dadaists) were at the time, destroying the idea of a visual, art historical culture. Modernist architecture was doing the same thing.

Here's what F. T. Marinetti wrote in their manifesto in 1909:
We want to glorify war--the only cure for the world--militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman...We want to demolish museums and libraries...It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism.

Now, of course I find the misogyny utterly disgusting, and the implications this has of foretelling fascist states is a bit disturbing at best. But they were in their twenties, the most insufferably arrogant age group in any generation, and obviously inexperienced and naive, if not uneducated. Plus, Italy has long been a bastion of anti-feminism. It also makes some sense with the redneck connection.

It's also interesting to note our national anthem:
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

Every time it's heard, the beauty of warfare is being celebrated. It was a noble fight, to be sure, against an oppressive monarchy. But truly, it's no wonder so many young people think signing up to go off and murder innocent people in foreign lands is the best way to prove their patriotism.

As far as I'm concerned, Nature puts on the best shows, and she has in great abundance in recent years: thunderstorms. Spectacular, unpredictable, beautiful, exciting, scary (the thought always occurs to me when I'm sitting watching a storm blow in on my fire escape, which is metal of course, is this ladder up there to the roof the highest thing in the sky around here trying to attract a lightning bolt and fry me alive?). Thunder so loud it sets off car alarms. One of the things I love about Queens is the great expanse of the skyline. I can see storms in their totality here. I can watch storm systems approach over Manhattan and engulf my neighborhood with their fury. It's completely majestic.

I've decided to look at the language used to describe fireworks in terms of the metaphoric categories employed, I think it's somewhat telling. Most of these are pooled from the site for Phantom, a major distributor to be sure, and a few others.

Culture, Symbolic
Cross, Latin Cross
Crossette (technically an architectural term, but used predominantly to refer to fireworks)
Culture, Technology
Strobe, Strobelight
Culture, Textiles/ Adornments
Kamuro (a boy's style of haircut)
Culture, Warfare, Artillery
Machine Gun
Culture, Warfare, Tactical
Nature, Astronomical
Comet, Comet Tail
Nature, Biology, Fauna
Dragon, Dragon Egg
Bee, Swarm
Fish, Flying Fish, Liquid Fish
Frog, Tadpole
Horse, Horse Tail
Oyster, Pearl
Tiger, Tiger Tail
Nature, Biology, Flora
Leaf, Falling Leaf
Flowers, Bouquet
Palm Tree, Palm, Ti, Coconut
Pine, Snow Pine
Nature, Meteorology
Rain, Time(d) Rain
Storm, Thunderstorm
Nature, Optics, Colors
White, Silver, Platinum (Titanium, Aluminum)
Red (Strontium, Lithium), Pink
Orange, Neon Orange (Calcium)
Yellow, Primrose, Lemon (Sodium), Gold, Golden (Charcoal, Iron)
Green (Barium)
Blue, Sea-Blue (Copper)
Purple (Potassium), Violet (Rubidium)
Nature, Optics, Qualities
Nature, Physics/ Dynamics

Here are a few of the luscious descriptions of the "repeaters" and "fountains." The names of these products are also interesting in their own right.

"Da Bomb"
The nine mega-bursts, including: gold willow to red; gold willow to green; silver twinkling willow to green; brocade to crackle; green to crackle; gold willow--green glitter; primrose-silver glitter; red dahlia--silver chrysanthemums; and silver peony to red.

(Click links for video) Plenty of gold comets, mixed in with some silver and blue peonies with beautiful bursts of red, green, and silver heads, as well as blue stars and flying fish.

"Orbiters Launch Sequence"
The first twenty shots alternate between high-breaking red and green palm trees, crackle breaks, and multi-color chrysanthemums. The final two shots are spinning shots that fly screaming with a high pitch whistle out of the center of the cake, with big breaks of red and green.

"Supercell Storm"
...the Supercell Storm has a spectacular whirling-firing pattern that has falling leaves, color comets, and an awesome willow finale. Several shots of crackle to multi-color breaks with fast-paced crackling willow finale that fills the sky.

And last but not least:
"Pyro Pulverizer"
...professionally designed effects featuring brocade, crackles, fish, and red chrysanthemums. The first five shots are fired in sequence, ending in large gold willow breaks sparkling along their branches as they spread out. The next five shots end in green breaks with crackle. The next five are all-crackle breaks. The next group of five ends in a mixture of green stars, silver flying fish, and crackle. Finally, three large shots are fired all at once with bright silver comets that end in a nice large dahlia breaks of red stars with silver trails.

One thing I find quite interesting is that these fireworks displays can be subject to copyright. But it's almost baffling to consider the chemistry that goes into one of these. The designer has to pack all the right explosives and in the right measure into one box. He or she controls how high into the air it will go, in what direction, whether it will rise with a streak or invisibly, whether or not it will make noise and if so, how loud. Then when it gets to the right point in the sky, what it will do, how it will explode and how big the explosion will be, what color(s) it will be, whether it will crackle at the end or be "fishy." And that's just one shot, these "repeaters" can have forty of them in one box which, ideally, are timed out in just such a way that they combine in pleasing patterns in the night sky.

When you put all this together, especially if we want to talk about a big city Fourth of July display, I don't think an analogy to composing symphonic music is that difficult to pick out. Without question there is choreography to this. I'd like to suggest that for Independence Day coming up this weekend, we each pause for a moment, in between our "oohhs," "aahhs," and "wooows" to consider the fireworks displays for their aesthetic qualities. At the very least, the no doubt huge teams of people risking their lives lighting fires on a barge full of, essentially, bombs deserve that much.

©2010, Ryan Witte