Sunday, October 31, 2010

Placing the Blaine

It's an interesting accident that for Halloween today, I have something related to the holiday to discuss. It concerns PS1 Contemporary Art Center. For those readers living in other parts of the world, it's a sort of branch of the Museum of Modern Art that's been set up in a converted school building out in Queens. "PS" is how New York City designates its Public Schools, and the ones that aren't named for a dead president or someone are all numbered. PS1 concentrates on more contemporary work than its mothership, for the most part.

The MoMA is probably the greatest modern art museum on the whole planet. I mean no disrespect to the great museums in any other part of the world, but I say that because MoMA came into existence at the very moment that New York was about to explode as the world leader in Modern Art. It was the love child of some of the wealthiest people in the world who could provide it with a collection of artworks from this era unparalleled by any other institution. The tides may be turning away from New York now, granted. To where, I don't know. Berlin? Tokyo? The Netherlands? I suppose it remains to be seen.

Despite all that, it is, ironically, an old school institution. It has a long tradition in the Modern Movement, but it's big. It's corporate. It has responsibilities to Monet, Van Gogh, and Mondrian, so to speak. The stakes are too high. It's what made PS1 such a fantastic complement to the monolithic MoMA. PS1 could be edgier, more hip, more futuristic, more thought-provoking a destination. I haven't been to one for a few years, but their outdoor afternoon parties on summer Sundays drew one of the coolest crowds I'd ever seen: mature but energetic, international but drawn together by an elusive sense of belonging, ridiculously hip but without trying too hard. They'd get superb DJs and the installations in their courtyard were interactive, innovative, and fun.

All this has made recent events all the more disappointing. The first thing that happened was, in my humble opinion, completely unforgivable. In one of their galleries they were hosting a performance by Ann Liv Young. Young's act was offensive, obscene, angry, insulting, disgusting, loud, and perverse. So halfway through, the director of the museum, Klaus Biesenbach, shut off the power in the room to put an end to her performance. At one point there was a video of the performance that included the censoring moment, but it appears to have been taken down. If you do manage to find it, it is obviously NSFW.

SO WHAT. In this day and age, art is not about making people happy. It's not about being pretty. It's about challenging and questioning and altering people's perception of the world and themselves. That's not always a pleasant undertaking. I'm not suggesting her work accomplished any of that. I'm not even saying that I found it all that interesting or good. And Young's antics are a romp through a field of daisies compared to some of the hijinks Karen Finley was pulling over twenty years ago. That's hardly the point.

If Biesenbach shouldn't be fired, and I believe he should be, then he most certainly should be shunned by anyone who cares at all about contemporary art. At the very least, he should hide his face in shame. How someone who would even dare to think about censoring an artist is allowed to direct an art institution in New York City is completely beyond me. What have we come to in New York? He almost makes me ashamed to live here with this deplorable behavior. Small mention should be made, as at least one article pointed out, if there were concerns that her performance was actually putting audience members in danger, shutting off all the lights was about the most dangerous solution he could have come up with.

I've just not been able to get past it. When I get email blasts from PS1 now, all I can think is, "eh. What of truly forward, mind-altering interest could they possibly have to offer me when they'd have the nerve to censor artworks?" It was the same reason that I permanently boycotted Blockbuster many years ago, after hearing that they'd taken it upon themselves to re-edit certain films to make them more family-friendly. "Who in the hell do they think they are," I thought to myself, to alter the work of an artist, a filmmaker, because there was something they didn't think people should see? But there is much more at stake for a contemporary art institution than a couple of questionable video tapes.

Then I got the most recent notice from PS1. David Blaine is performing there. David Blaine. I know, I get it, Halloween: magician. I absolutely love his work. His Harry Houdinian feats of endurance are maybe even more impressive than his mystifying illusionism. He brought something back into the art form that I'd truly never seen before. Despite the vaguely sinister twinkle in his eye, he has a surprisingly classy air about him, stoic and determined.

Oddly enough, I think he was a great match for Lincoln Center. The s(c)h(l)ock-value weirdness of his act there didn't rob LC of anything. In fact, it only really served to emphasize this as a performing arts acropolis across all standards. Practically speaking, it drew crowds of people who otherwise might never have walked up the stairs into that complex. Most poignantly, the endurance required by his spectacle was just an amplified distillation of what every performer goes through, especially the ones on the stages in the buildings that surrounded his fishbowl. From the other direction, the location gave his performance a boost of legitimacy that he'd been slowly earning all along on his own merits. Everybody wins.

This is something quite different at PS1. I just could not resist my urge to respond to that email: "Will you be shutting the lights off halfway through Blaine's performance, also, or is he 'safe' enough for you?" Although it is a game of Rock/ Paper/ Scissors, hopefully you'll understand how I mean this: Theater is Illusion. Theater is Art. But Art is not Illusion. "Of course it is!" you exclaim, and refer me to a thousand different paintings throughout art history. But I disagree. I maintain that Art is always about Truth, in its purest, deepest sense. In the sense that when Jackson Pollock first started dripping paint to express some inner state, he had discovered something radically more "True" than anyone before him. Even in Theater, the audience imagination required to reconcile the sometimes barest of scenery with the reality of being inside an auditorium is only the mechanics of the situation. The very best plays in history capture the most intimate Truth of human experience. It's why Romeo & Juliet endures.

Unlike at Lincoln Center, David Blaine at PS1 feels like a clown making balloon dogs at a five year old's birthday party. His presence makes PS1 look insipid and utterly irrelevant. The PS1 location isn't really helping him, either. It's not elevating what he does to the level of high art--and I do think that, to some degree, what he does is most certainly "art." For those who might encounter him who are aware of all the brilliant things that have been perpetrated by mainstream performance art over the past few decades, what he's doing will look not much better than superficial trickery without substance. I find this state of affairs personally and professionally disappointing.

I can only hope that this was a Halloween fluke. I can only hope that in the days to come, PS1 will both realize that its reputation has taken an unflattering blow and will endeavor to repair it. They owe it not just to themselves but to all of New York and to the art world in general.

©2010, Ryan Witte

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Having a Pepsi Day--Part 3 (Architecture)

To wrap up, here is the building, itself, which I think is remarkable. I honestly have no idea why Ada Louise Huxtable hates Stone so much. Clearly, she found the majority of Postmodernism to be frivolous hackery. She makes great arguments in support of that. I find it very strange, also, that she seemed to like the General Motors Building (1968) so much.

It is a beautiful building, to be sure, but I think it was one of the less interesting things that Stone did. And that was at the beginning. She evidently changed her mind after it was finished.

In my estimation, Edward Durell Stone really was one of the first to bring ornament back into architecture after the Modernists rejected it so completely. But he reinterpreted the concept of ornamenting architecture in a truly post-Modernist way (and I mean that to read "with Modernism behind us" not in the sense of the Postmodern movement, although he was doing that, also). It wasn't as if he hadn't fully obeyed Loos' Law and embraced the International Style, either, quite the contrary. Had his use of ornament been consistent from the '20s through the '40s, it would just feel cheap.

His ornament was in a very Modernist idiom, if there can be such a thing, rather than being a new embrace of historical forms. And his very contemporary use of ornament was also fully incorporated into the architecture. It was, in other words, a very architectural kind of ornamentation. It wasn't just some bit of sculptural decoration slapped onto the side of an otherwise conventionally Modernist structure.

I don't mean to imply any derision toward Robert Venturi. True, Venturi was slapping (often two-dimensional) ornament onto numbingly bland structures (what was so genius about it). But that was the whole point. Venturi was after something else entirely. His use of ornament was much more Pop. It was advertising, and in a very broad sense; the number nine on the Lieb House "advertises" its street address. It turned architecture into a consumer product just like any on a supermarket shelf. In a non-commercial sense, his ornamentation was similarly about "announcement," in the way that a pediment can "announce" the main entrance to a building and distinguish it from other doorways. Venturi's approach was therefore more of a linguistic one, while Stone was using ornament to emphasize and accent his overall geometric vision.

Coincidentally, Stone also designed a nice little Gulf gas station at JFK Airport, but it's no longer there and was impossible for me to find in a photograph. He also designed what was once a Bloomingdale's and is now a Sears not much more than about 500 yards from my mother's house on Long Island. If I'm out there on a nice day, I may walk around and get some pictures of it. I have a vague recollection of knowing it was by Stone, but it's so similar to PepsiCo that the last time I was out there, I was immediately reminded that it was his work.

Google Maps view.
I've seen the PepsiCo building described as a seven-building complex. This does explain the structure, but it's inaccurate. It's clearly all one building.
I've already talked about the rigorous, orderly entrance court, but its formal impact really cannot be overstated.

Obviously, the office floors increase in size from the ground floor to the top. This accomplishes two things. First of all, because the building is so large, the added floorspace really adds up. They therefore got a great deal more square footage for a relatively small footprint. Secondly, it gives the building a decidedly imposing stance. It always seems to be looming over you. On a building even a couple of stories taller, the device might be incredibly oppressive. It works so wonderfully because the building is rather short.
Here's what I mean about the ornament accentuating the overall architectural vision. At the junctions of each wing, as seen in some of the previous photos, there's a pattern of stepped recesses. This is exceptionally brilliant. It's actually the antithesis of conventional ornament because it's subtractive rather than additive. More than that, it echos the design of the entire structure. He didn't attach stepped pyramids to the wall face, but reversed it, exactly what he did with the building.

The pattern on the friezes similarly employs a motif of overlapping stacked blocks twisting in and around one another. This especially calls to mind his treatment of the southeastern end.










It's impressive how adeptly Stone is able to change the tone on the southeastern end. Here he staggers the extensions of the building so it feels almost casual, far less imposing.




He also projects the back end of the building out to greet the phenomenal landscape, as if to say "yes, my building is monumental, but the natural setting is glorious, as well." But it would seem important to create a more open, welcoming mood where employees would gather on the terrace to have lunch.

 












As you walk around, the stacked balconies shift in and out creating different textures and relationships, as if in motion.
 










And then, most shockingly there is this one single vantage that congeals back into rigid formality again.
In a sense, it achieves the exact same thing as the landscaping does when it takes you from a wild, natural chaos and plunges you into strict, sharp geometry. It was here that a groundskeeper passed behind me, so I asked him if I was correct in assuming that those balconies are for the presidents and CEOs. He confirmed that they are. I said "they must be really fancy, huh?" He said he's been in those offices a couple of times and a few of them even have fireplaces. "I thought you'd like that," he said. He was right.

The other thing that changes briefly here is the quality of the glass. Around the entire structure, the overhangs bathe the tinted glass windows in shadow, creating stark stripes of black and white. The windows are entirely visually impervious. Since the glass of the cafeteria is allowed to drop lower, and the cafeteria interior was kept bright white, the windows become a bit more transparent and open up a bit, amplifying the welcoming vibe.






He drops the rigor in only three places, really. Here at the back is one. Another is right underneath the Mirรณ sculpture. It's purposely concealed from view by the landscaping, so I couldn't see much, but it appears to be mechanical functions, likely HVAC, and/or a service entrance. The third is at the northeast corner, underneath the Kenneth Snelson sculpture, where there's an entrance to the employees' gymnasium from a remarkably intimate sunken court.


So there's PepsiCo. If this series didn't make it perfectly clear, I'll say one last time, everyone should go and see it in person. It was one of the most amazing places I've ever been. Hope you enjoyed the trip.

All text and images ©2010, Ryan Witte, except where noted.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting Stoned--Mesozoically

We went back out to the bus to go down around to the other side of the quarry where the magic really happens. The bus pulled up to the lower entrance, and I think most everyone expected we'd be getting out to walk in like we had at the top. Instead the bus backed up and drove into the quarry. It's completely pitch black, and we're descending a remarkably steep incline around a bend. The nice woman sitting behind me was kind of freaking out saying, "I'd rather walk! No, really, I'd rather walk!" I said it was sort of like being on a ride at Disneyland. Once we were in she explained she wasn't having a panic attack or anything but was just being dramatic.


I thought it was kind of fun. Later it occurred to me that this place has to be accessible to those gigantic trucks for bringing machinery in and taking huge blocks of marble out. So of course it should be able to accommodate a bus.
Here we were introduced to Quarry Manager Mike Blair, who could answer a lot of our questions about the finishing process. It's a shame that, in photographs, you really can't get an impression of how huge it is. Blair said that in the direction behind where he was standing, the quarry extends back over a half a mile into Dorset Mountain. The other thing you might not assume is that it's cold in there. I asked him about this as well, and he said that whether it's a hundred degrees outside or zero, it's always somewhere around forty-two to forty-five degrees inside the quarry. He said that when he leaves work and stops at a store in really hot or cold weather, the employees think he's crazy because of how he's dressed so inappropriately for the temperature.

The blocks with noticeable imperfections are cut into tiles. The tiles that intersect with the imperfection can then be discarded. The ones without imperfections are used for slabs.

First they load the blocks into this thing. It's difficult to capture in photographs just how incredibly awesome this thing is. It's an enormous diamond gang saw that cuts the blocks into slabs. If you look closely, you can see they're cutting two blocks at once. Basically it's a "gang" of rigid saws all in a row like the back threads on a loom.

Water pours down on the whole mechanism from those spouts on top, so as it saws back and forth, it sprays water alternately out the front and back.

It dawned on me around this time how lucky we were to be able to get so very close to everything. Not once did I ever hear anyone being reprimanded for exploring or getting a closer look at these things. I mean, certainly we were all mostly mature adults unlikely to stick our hand into a saw. But I'm used to trying to show people around Lincoln Center--a far, far less potentially dangerous location--where every last place I go has at least 500 regulations and restrictions that I have to enforce. Don't go up there. Don't go down there. Don't do this. You can't do that. We were entrusted with such freedom at the quarry, and I'll have to say it made it an infinitely more rewarding experience to be able to explore it like that and really take it all in.

There's an enormous flywheel at the back of the saw controlling the flow of its movements. It made me wish I'd been able to get a video of it. It also would have been perfect back when I was working with extremely time-lapsed photography.

When I turned back around, Robertson had loaded a whole bunch of people onto this motorized wagon platform so they could ride over to the other side. I jumped on board.

On the other side of the "factory" is the finishing line. First this array of vacuum heads sticks itself onto one of the marble slabs.

It picks up the slab from the stack.

And off it goes on the conveyor.

What its being pulled into there is the polisher. It has a whole bunch of spinning buffers that slide back and forth over the surface of the slab. It was very difficult to get a shot of it through the windows, but it was a very cool machine.

The slab comes out the other side, gets drizzled with water, and a rubber squeegee and blowers dry it off.

The polished slab is now ready to be cut.

They pick it up with this big rubber claw on a winch and it heads over to the cutting table.

That's about all there was to see there. We milled around for a little while longer and asked a few remaining questions, and then got back on the bus. The trip back up the Disneyland ride was even more interesting than the way down, because at one point the bus kind of stalled or something and rolled backwards down the hill before carrying us on up and out of the quarry. I think it was at this point that the Apple Barn apples the woman behind me had purchased spilled out of their bag and began rolling around on the floor of the bus. Someone suggested that she'd likely be peeling them, anyway, so no harm done.


Part 4.

All text and images ©2010, Ryan Witte.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Man on Campus--Part 1

This series will definitely be more of a story than I might normally tell. But I just had to discuss the infuriating comedy of errors that has been seeing Philip Johnson's construction drawings for the New York State Theater. [As more and more horrifying press surfaces about David Koch, we're becoming less enthusiastic about honoring him as namesake of the theater he helped renovate. If you're reading this, Mr. Koch, you're always welcome to improve my opinion with a couple-million-dollar donation to Architextures.]

I knew that Columbia's Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library had a good amount of materials on the subject, and would be a great place to start. I read through the provisions on their website about gaining access, and also called around for a bit of clarification, to make sure I arrived with all the necessary credentials.

My first stop was the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Since I work there, it seemed the easiest choice, and I could just wait until a day when I was there and had a free half hour. Not so easy, after all.

I stopped at the information desk. For the first of many, many times, I recited my explanation of what I wanted to do: "I'm doing research on the Lincoln Center campus. I thought the Avery Library at Columbia might have construction drawings and so on of the Koch Theater. So I need a slip or something to get access." I eventually found out it's called a Metrocard, which is a bit confusing since it has nothing to do with the subway. The woman at the information desk didn't know and sent me to the check out counter.

I explained again. The woman at the check out counter didn't know and said I should ask her supervisor. I told my story to the supervisor. The supervisor wasn't sure but suggested I try the information desk on the third floor. To get into the reading room on the third floor, where I would only need to be for about thirty seconds, you have to check your bag. So I checked my bag. There were three people at the information desk up there. It was almost like I had a cowbell around my neck: the three of them just stared and watched me walk all the way across the room and around to the front of their desk. So weird. I explained again.

The guy there knew exactly what I was talking about but told me I had to go down to the Dance & Drama desk on the second floor. I got my bag back from coat check and headed downstairs. I explained my situation yet again there. The guy at Dance & Drama was very nice and helpful and gave me the yellow Metrocard thing that I would need to get into Avery. I asked him if there were a time limit on it, and he said not really, but that I wouldn't want to wait too long to use it.

A week or two later, I had a free afternoon and the weather was gorgeous, so I decided to make my way up to Columbia. Even when I lived in Manhattan, the Columbia neighborhood seemed like a different planet. From Queens, it's really quite a trek. It probably took me about an hour door-to-door.

My first stop, while the sun was still at a nice angle, was Harrison & Abramovitz' (H&A) Law School Building, now called Jerome L. Greene Hall, built in 1961. Greene was a lawyer who gave Columbia's law school $40 million over the years and gave the university a single gift of $200 million, the largest they've ever received.


I'd like to see as many of the New York area buildings by Lincoln Center's architects as I can in person, to just intuitively understand their work better. But in addition to that, Greene Hall is strikingly similar in style to the Metropolitan Opera House. Even if you didn't know it was by the same architect(s), you could probably tell just by looking at the two buildings.

This building has a reputation for being ugly. The fondness some students grow to have for it has been referred to as "architectural Stockholm syndrome." I think that's somewhat unfair. I don't know what it's like to use the building as a student or faculty member, but architecturally speaking I think it's quite beautiful.

For one thing, I think the main volume has exquisite proportions. Its proportions somehow manage to make this look monumental despite the fact that it's not a particularly large building.

The renovation at the southern end is clearly newer. It was added in 1996 by Polshek Partnership, who have just recently changed their name to Ennead Architects.




I never got to know what this looked like before that addition. Of course I'd been up to the campus many times over the years, but I'm not convinced that I was ever this far east, and if I was, I never had reason to really study this building in depth.

In any case, although it's a shame whenever an older building needs to be altered from its original architect's vision, I think Polshek did a marvelous job of complementing the original structure.

That balcony that sticks out the front has earned the building the nickname "The Toaster." There are certainly worse things you could call a building. I think those boxes are amazing, and I'll explain why below.

Greene has a raised plaza that crosses over Amsterdam Avenue. These plaza bridges I guess seemed like a good idea, in theory, in the 1960s. H&A were the ones to originally design the Milstein Plaza which did the same thing at Lincoln Center, and it's now been torn out, thankfully. Abramovitz also did something similar over the FDR Drive for Rockefeller University. It's one of the things Le Corbusier prescribed: vehicular traffic on ground level, pedestrian traffic raised above it on a separate level.

It's a bit strange that the concept doesn't work. I think the main problem is that, especially in a city like New York, too many people will invariably use the vehicular level, anyway. So in addition to the ever-present noise, smell, exhaust, and danger of interacting with moving vehicles, you've also removed all the sunlight and half of the pedestrians. The sunlight is one of the few remaining things that make strolling along New York's sidewalks pleasurable, and backward as it may sound, the more pedestrians there are, the safer it is. Similarly, on the plaza above, half the pedestrians will remain on ground level and never even see it, removing exactly the thing that can make such a plaza an interesting, vibrant place to be: people.

It was named the Charles H. Revson Plaza and installed in 1964. It is quite nicely landscaped, so it's an added shame that more of the general public will never bother to go up there.

I know all about Revson because he paid for Lincoln Center's fountain which is named for him, also. He founded Revlon Cosmetics in 1932. The "S" in the name was changed to an "L" for his partner and chemist, Charles Lachman. They offered far more colors of nail polish than any other manufacturer at the time, and later they added matching lipsticks.

Luckily, Columbia itself is extremely populous, it serves nearly 30,000 people altogether, students and faculty. So the plaza to the north of Greene, also bordered by a residence hall and I think another academic building, was being used more extensively, perhaps because it was in the shade.

That sort of old-timey lamppost needs to go. It's doing nothing at all for this building.

In this photo and the previous one, you can see one of the things I love about this building. It's the same for the Metropolitan Opera: the deep fin window mullions. The Met's are travertine, to match the rest of the buildings there. Here they're limestone, which matches the much older building that can be seen reflected in the windows.

First of all, the fins give the building a strong sense of verticality in contrast to its relatively squat proportions. Second is the way it plays with the quality of light hitting it and your vantage on the building. From one direction, it reads as a wide open glass structure, transparent and/or reflective. From others, it forms a solid textured block of stone. Even the balcony on this side, being closer to ground (eye) level, while still very much a distinct protuberance, seems to dematerialize somewhat.

I asked one of the students about them, and he said they're cafes and student lounges. It would appear you can't really go out onto the balconies, which I think is very unfortunate. Almost as appealing would be a row of sliding glass doors, but it's still a great touch that there are plantings. I think they're a wonderfully subtle, angular Brutalist detail on an otherwise strictly upright, regular structure. I love how the bottom couple inches of the mullions are allowed to show underneath it, despite the fact that they're obviously cut through on the interior.

I also really liked this detail on the side of it. A recessed glass panel separates the balcony from the main volume. This might have been more successful I think if the glass had been more silvery, more reflective. But I also think if the glass were perfectly clean, and seen in sharp sunlight or lit from the inside at night, it would be more effective. In any case, H&A make the point very clearly that this projecting box is to be read as an individual entity, divorced from the main structure.

This could have been executed in so many different ways. It could have been merely an open balcony with a practically invisible balustrade. The balusters could have been prominent and linear like the bars of a jail cell (thematically appropriate, sure, but a bit like wagging one's finger in your face, and "incarcerating" whom? The students?). It could have been a clear glass box punching through the facade opening up the interior to the outside. Instead, H&A enclose their projections in solid limestone--the same material that gives the overall structure its apparent strength--and adorn them with a strip of soft, friendly greenery. It's almost as if the building is saying to the passerby, "what goes on inside this building is being offered to you, the general public, for your protection by the law. Please avail yourselves of it."

I also really loved the wonderfully late-'50s entryway with its cascading stairs. The three people sitting with their backs to the camera were the law students I asked a few questions. This entrance is not a primary one and is locked (I think students can open it with a key). I actually find it much cooler than the main entrance in the 1996 addition. That sad, empty plastic flower pot and the trash cans should not have been put there. It still has a great style to it, though.






Next up: the artworks.

All text and images ©2010, Ryan Witte

Sunday, October 17, 2010

News

Photo courtesy New York Times.
Just a couple of things I wanted to mention before returning to the big stories. First of all, the New York Times did a really fantastic piece to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of Mies van der Rohe's Lafayette Park townhouses. They interviewed a bunch of residents on what the architecture meant (or didn't mean) to them. I don't happen to share Noam Chomsky's extreme distaste for the paper, likely because I don't grasp world politics nearly as vividly as he. Whatever your opinion of the Times, I thought it was a wonderful story.

Also, my Art & Architecture tour of Lincoln Center recently got a small mention in the San Francisco Examiner. The author unfortunately didn't go into very much detail about it, or even if she liked it, for that matter. But it was nice to see that.

Photo courtesy Interior Design Magazine.
Much more exciting is that I've now had the honor of meeting all three of the principals of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. This past week I had a VIP group of ridiculously wealthy people from the Museum of Modern Art. At the end of it, Charles Renfro was there to tell them about what the firm has done to Alice Tully Hall.

He and I sort of did a combo tour, but I figured I should keep my mouth shut and let him talk. He was very cool and it was interesting to hear the story from the horse's mouth.

One thing he said that I hadn't heard in any of the hundreds of interviews or anything was that they were inspired for the inside of the hall by phosphorescent sea creatures. I always thought that the twisting wooden slats in the lobby looked a little bit like fish gills, but I just figured that I was imagining things. I wish I'd had an opportunity to speak with him at greater length, but there were twenty-five other people there, and he said he had to go to the gym.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting Stoned--Paleozoically

I knew getting photographs in a place like this, so large and so dark, would be problematic. I couldn't have predicted, having never been somewhere like this, that the air would be so littered with either mist or what I suspect was marble dust, or both. In fact, when we went back to the bus, I was convinced I could taste marble dust in my mouth, but that was probably just my overactive imagination. With the flash, I could immediately see I was getting all these ghostly orbs. I don't have a terribly big or expensive camera. I didn't want one; I was going for utmost portability. But I had to be very careful with the flash so I could get the pictures I wanted.

Anyway, you can sort of see there what they're doing, pulling on the huge block of marble with the bucket of the bucket loader until it tips over.

Here's Robertson (in the hard hat, obviously) explaining what was going on behind him, which was unfortunately too dark for me to get a good shot of it. They were marking a line on a block of marble where it would be cut in half. We were then asked to proceed into the main cavern.

If I weren't a classy type of guy, I might mention that some of the ladies were batting their eyelashes an awful lot while talking to the ruggedly handsome Mr. Robertson. But I am very classy, of course, so I won't. I wouldn't want to embarrass them.
We hiked down into that gorge and then back up again into the main part of this section, which was visually unreal but I'll have to say not as large as I expected.
One woman remarked to me how amazing it was to be completely encased in a marble "room"--walls, ceiling, and floor. I said it was a bit like being in a mausoleum, she said it was much brighter, which it was.


Those grooves in the wall are obviously where they cut the marble blocks to dislodge them. Each block weighs around 60,000 pounds.
Here's one of the diamond saws at work. I'm sure it's mostly automated, but basically they just turn it on and let it run until the cut is completed.
I was kind of surprised at how slowly the blade revolves. I'd estimate no faster than about fifty or sixty revolutions per minute. Evidently cutting more slowly is easier on the saw blade, especially if it encounters a vein of harder stone like quartz.
I was also struck while walking around here at how goopy everything was. The ground is entirely covered in what I called "marble soup." It's sort of like a highly pureed vichyssoise. I asked Robertson if it's always like that, or if it was because of the rain outside. He said it always is, because everything they do requires water, and a lot of it. As with most harder materials like this, all the cutting of the marble needs to be wet for lubrication and to relieve the heat. My boots and the bottom of my pants were coated in marble soup. I did notice one of my fellow visitors had tucked his pants into his socks, which I thought was very smart. By the time I saw that, it was already too late for my unfortunate pants. I'd worn an old pair anyway, so it didn't matter much.

Next we got to see them removing one of the cut blocks of marble from the wall face. They also have a massive front-end loader with a forklift rig, but first they sort of lift it up from the bottom and pull it out further to the edge.
Then they pull it out further so it drops into the bucket.
And off it goes. I overheard someone ask how often they drop one onto the floor and the answer was "never."

Here's the corner with the block carted off. That's Jeff examining the results. I got to speak with Jeff later in the day. He's an architect working for a small interiors firm in New York, but was first in Chicago for many years. He said he worked for a gigantic firm there, and I suspected he might be referring to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, so I asked him. Turns out I was right. I was very impressed by that, I'll have to say. He was like "you know them?" Uh, YEAH. I almost started gushing about Gordon Bunshaft, but decided to restrain myself.
Then they brought in the forklift loader to take out the next block. It was sort of funny when this giant machine approached. Robertson was waving his arms and yelling "get out of the way!" But everyone kind of stood there and stared at it like deer caught in headlights. It really was mesmerizing to watch, though.
Here's Luca Mannolini measuring the block and writing "Artistic Tile" on it. That was probably just a photo op gesture, because Artistic Tile offers the Imperial Danby that's harvested from the other side of the quarry. Still, it was amusing. I asked Levinson if he was going to take it back with us on the bus. I was struck by how smooth the cut was; I would have expected it to be much more rough before it's taken to be finished.

I grabbed a little chunk of marble off the floor as a souvenir. I asked Mr. Mannolini if that was alright. He said the rule is that anything you can carry away with your hands is free. That probably isn't an official rule. I suppose they probably don't want sculptors knowing that, but then, I assume they don't let just anyone come in and wander around the quarry looking for scraps, either. Later I discovered other guests had taken much larger pieces than I had, but my apartment doesn't really need any more stuff in it, so this one will do just fine as a memento.

Part 3.


All text and images ©2010, Ryan Witte.