Friday, February 26, 2010


A couple of news items before we continue.

First of all, there's yet another Paul Rudolph building at risk. This time it's the exceptionally cool John W. Chorley Elementary School in Middletown, NY. It seems like every time I turn around, somebody's trying to tear down another one of his buildings. Like I've said before, it's not as if any one of these structures is individually important. It's that I'd hate for the day to come when there's a renewed interest in late Modernism, only to discover there's none of it left.

For something a bit more pleasant, Zaha Hadid has designed this incredible project, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park in Korea.

--Image courtesy e-architect.
It will have a design museum, library, and education facilities, with a park on top of it. Like all of her work, it looks ridiculously hip.

Perhaps the most exciting of all, however is the upcoming collaboration between New York City Ballet and Santiago Calatrava for their program, "Architecture of Dance." This coming spring, NYC Ballet is premiering ballets by Melissa Barak, Mauro Bigonzetti, Wayne McGregor, Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, Benjamin Millepied (can you think of a better name for a choreographer than "millipede?"), and Peter Martins. I actually bumped into Martins on the street the other day and told him what a true inspiration his company has been to me. He seemed flattered and pleased to hear it. But what a freaking line-up! I mean, these are pretty much all the greatest choreographers working at the moment.

Point being, Calatrava is designing sets for the Barak, Bigonzetti, Wheeldon, Millepied, and the Martins ballets. I can't imagine anything more incredible: my favorite company in Lincoln Center (don't tell anyone), performing brand new work by the best living choreographers, in my favorite building in Lincoln Center, by one of my favorite deceased architects, with sets by one of the greatest living architects.

--Valencia Opera House photo courtesy Modern Arhitecture.
It just doesn't get any better. I can't possibly afford to see all seven of these performances, but I do hope to sneak in to see some dress rehearsals, luck permitting. I'll be sure to comment on the sets here as soon as I see them.

On top of it all, par for the course of their high quality of programming, the 92nd Street Y is hosting a talk with Calatrava (very likely as a result of this collaboration, as well as the controversy surrounding the World Trade Center transportation hub), on March 18th. It should be fantastic, and I really can't wait. [EDIT: It turns out that, unfortunately, this event has been postponed to some unknown later date, possibly in the fall. I'll update as soon as I have more information.]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mired in Meier--Part Three

I'm forced to say of almost every great architect that sadly, they have none, one, or only very few buildings built in New York City. With so much being built here on a daily basis, it really is inexcusable. But the same goes for Richard Meier. Two of his projects, the Reading Room at the Guggenheim and the 66 Restaurant (where I have eaten, actually, and it's a great restaurant), are both (quite lovely, but) mere interiors. The same is true of a number of private residences he's designed, although quite beautiful, they're just interiors, and furthermore can't be seen by anyone except in limited photographs. Here's 66:

--Photos courtesy the architect's website.

One of the more tragic losses was the destruction of his Bronx Development Center (1977), destroyed in 2003.

It is still standing, but I say "destroyed" because some idiot developer completely ruined the building. It really was one of my favorite buildings of Meier's. I only wish I'd thought to go up and see it before it was so callously built over. Such is the story with so many things, I don't feel rushed to go to see them, thinking they'll be there when I do, until it's already too late.

Then there's the Twin Parks Northeast Housing complex (1974), also in the Bronx. I do love that project in a very simplistic sort of way, but I don't think it's his best work. If nothing else, it's not purely Richard Meier; while he may have done a great job with it, he clearly did not have the kind of expressive freedom there to do something really remarkable. And to be quite honest, it would be a complete pain in the ass for me to get to it (it's, like, a mile's walk from the closest subway station), and it's not in the greatest neighborhood. It's around the back side of the Bronx Zoo.

One thing I'll have to confess I'm glad didn't happen was his entry for the competition to renovate Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. I have a lot of fondness in my heart for Fisher and personally, I don't think it should be renovated at all. If someone has to do it, I suppose you couldn't choose better than Sir Norman Foster, but I think they should just leave well enough alone. As I've said elsewhere, it's perfect for its use, and the acoustics are just fine. That they aren't is just a myth perpetrated by ignorant columnists who don't know what they're talking about. But without question no one should ever dare touch the exterior of it. Meier's scheme did and would have completely defaced the whole look of Lincoln Center. This is why I've been so terribly pleased with the interventions of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. They're giving the complex a bit of a needed facelift, but above all, they've been very respectful and sensitive toward the soul and spirit of the architecture.

There is also, of course, the exquisite Meier on Prospect Park, which has only just recently been completed.

--Image courtesy Chelsea Partners.
Perhaps at some point I'll go take a closer look at that one for a later post. The only other free-standing buildings by Meier still in New York in the next post.

There is an exciting, and excitingly gargantuan project on the books for just south of the United Nations that I really hope gets put up (perhaps when the economy gets a little better), the East River Master Plan.

In my humble opinion, it would be a glorious and magical addition to the skyline as seen from over the East River.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mired in Meier--Part Two

The next thing that happened was that the Cooper-Hewitt Museum put up a brief mini-exhibition to celebrate Richard Meier's seventy-fifth birthday and his fiftieth year in the field. I considered the timing of this to be an extraordinary coincidence, because it was announced not much more than a week after I found out about the model gallery and went to see it.

I relished the opportunity to discuss Meier with the visitors for the three weeks or so that this show was on display. While the drawings Meier had donated to the museum's collection were great, I mostly discussed the three models, because I felt that the trio of them really encompassed the full range of the architect's career. They were the Smith House (1967), the Getty Center (1997), and the Jubilee Church (2003).

Smith House displays so wonderfully how Meier separates his houses into two distinct zones: the public zone, which is a glass box, and the private zone, which is a solid box.

--This and Jubilee photo courtesy the architect's website.
That's obviously the public side, with the living and dining areas overlooking the water. You enter the Smith House from the opposite side and cut through the private areas in front containing the bedrooms, bathrooms, and so on. It's just so exquisitely rational.

The Getty project is the ideal example of how he organizes his sites using a number of overlapping grids, based on adjacent streets, neighboring structures, shorelines, and so on. The forms of the structure are then carved out of those overlapping grids.

At the Getty the grids are aligned according to a ridge that runs along the top of the hill, the adjacent San Diego Freeway, and the street grid of downtown Los Angeles off in the distance.

Lastly, the Jubilee Church shows how Meier has applied the diametric approach used so minimally and rationally in the Smith House in ways that become much more symbolic.

The church is divided in half on two axes, forming a cross. To the west, vehicular entrance; to the east, pedestrian entrance. To the south, the sacred (nave); to the north, the secular (classrooms). A pool surrounding the nave refers to the use of water in baptism, and the three concentric shells symbolize the holy trinity.

The curators really couldn't have chosen three more perfect examples of this man's work. They provided such a concise and precise illustration of his methods and expression. It's just a shame the exhibition was only there for such a short time.

The event that really broke the camel's back in my decision to discuss Richard Meier is that he's giving a talk at the 92nd Street Y on the evening of Monday, February 8th. I've been consistently impressed with the 92Y's programming and am very excited about this one. It should be a great finale to this series of posts.

©2010, Ryan Witte