Friday, June 24, 2011

Being and Breuer in the Bronx

My trip to see Marcel Breuer's buildings at the New York University Heights Campus in the Bronx  was a much deeper experience than I was expecting. Consciously, I thought that I had a beautiful sunny day to see another work by a modern master that was close enough (accessible enough by public transportation) that I wouldn't need to spend the money on renting a car again. Perhaps the reading I've been doing lately (at the moment: White Papers, Black Marks--Architecture, Race, Culture)--and my interest in the intersection of architecture and issues of race, gender, and so on--subconsciously made the name "Bronx" shine a little more brightly than usual on my Trips map. But for certain I didn't consciously expect University Heights to necessarily be a neighborhood inhabited predominantly by people of color. The Bronx is a big borough, after all, and I really don't know it all that well.

In some weird way, I appreciated being one of the only white faces on the street. I know this is an experience that many people of color have every day of their lives, so I wanted to pay attention to it. But the reason it made me uncomfortable (the emotion I was examining, and honestly, it was not strong) I found very interesting. It wasn't because of some stupid "these are not my people" sensation, and of course no one made me feel even slightly unwelcome. Rather the discomfort came from the fear that I was intruding, that my very presence would be seen as offensive in some way. What I mean is, I imagine many of the residents of this neighborhood, in their day-to-day lives, have to deal with entitled white people all day long who have no clue what "entitlement" even means. Their own neighborhood, therefore, I would think becomes an escape from that. For me to just waltz down the street, invading their retreat, their safe zone(?), felt intrusive on my part, like I was invading something sacred to the long-time residents and off-limits to me.

And that's where another conflict arises. No matter where I am, I always make the point to be comfortable in my own skin. While in Montreal, for instance, it worked; at least four or five people asked me for directions, assuming I lived there, that I belonged there. Certainly being in any urban area with the look of "I'm lost and confused! Where am I?" all over your face (or having a big-ass camera hanging around your neck) is a great invitation for a questionable character to try to scam you...or worse. And I don't think there was any question that I'm not a resident of University Heights, not just because I'm white, but a whole lot of other things, the simplest of which being that I'd never been there before, had never been seen before in a neighborhood of presumably familiar faces. 

Maybe I'm projecting my own issues, but a lot of the looks I got seemed to say not "what is he doing here?" but at the very least, "oh, there's a white guy here." But the reason that pun--"in my own skin"--is available to me in this discussion is precisely the problem. I have no doubt that what enables me to feel at ease in an unfamiliar urban environment are my privileges as a white man that, historically speaking, "entitle" me to go with impunity wherever I choose to go.

The question this uncovers is this: Where is the middle ground between a respectful acknowledgement of not belonging in an environment carved out, commanded, and valued as a retreat (merely my empathetic assumption) by people of color, and comfortably inhabiting one's own (white) body in that environment so as not to appear naïve and out-of-place? From the other direction, I almost feel like most any reasons I might have to feel uncomfortable in a neighborhood that's largely Black and Hispanic would have to have racist roots. So how much of my comfort level do I gain from my white privilege, and how much do I get from my devotion to anti-racism? Is it possible to determine what kind of "comfort" one is feeling? I was unable to get a grasp on the answer during this brief excursion.

I'd like to add the disclaimer that my ideas about the racialization of the urban, architectural environment are immaterial in a discussion that is best had by the people of color who shape and inhabit those environments. My hope is no more than that another voice in the mix might help to shed added and helpful light on a subject that should concern all of us in the twenty-first century, despite the fact that my voice is a white male one. I mean only to be an ally, not a colonialist. Take them or leave them, as is everyone's prerogative.

Across the board, my interactions with people on this trip were remarkably pleasant. Perhaps too pleasant, and I do hope my experience wasn't glossed over with an insincere veneer. I was diligently studying the map of the campus to try and figure out which buildings I was looking for when I suddenly realized there was a cute couple of Hispanic kids behind me looking at it also. I quickly stepped aside and apologized for blocking their view. They were trying to find their bearings, so I pointed out to them where on the map I suspected we were.

Finding the buildings by name was not at all easy because the names have changed. The original campus is by McKim, Mead & White, not surprisingly, and is beautiful, if staid. I looked fairly closely at the original buildings but won't include them here, which I'll explain below. Breuer's buildings started to appear in the 1960s and are otherworldly. Because of the financial crisis New York faced in the early-1970s, which also affected its many institutions, NYU was forced to sell their Bronx campus to the City University of New York in 1973. It then became Bronx Community College (BCC). Finding Breuer's work by sight was not difficult at all. I just needed to know where to walk. The first one I found was Technology I & II (1972), now called Meister Hall for Dr. Morris Meister, BCC's first president.

When you see it in person, it looks entirely 1972. But something about the two-dimensionality of the photographic image allows me to see something more. Meister is H-shaped in plan. The front wing (the left side of the H), which houses classrooms and seminar rooms, has proportions that are a bit too unusual, and its piers too Corbusian. The tower behind it housing laboratories and offices, on the other hand, reads like an updated version of a typical turn-of-the-century office building. In fact, I'm seeing shadows of Louis Sullivan in it.

A sign of Breuer's genius is what he does with the entrance here. And one might be tempted to say that no mid-twentieth-century master could do a building entrance as dramatic as Breuer. Wright's, Mies', and Johnson's were all pretty straightforward. Corbusier, Saarinen, Rudolph, Pei, and Gehry mostly allow(ed) their building's ideological conception and sculptural expressionism to all but swallow them whole. Kahn seemed more concerned with arrival than with entrance, and Meier more with circulation. One always knows exactly where and how to enter a Breuer building, but more than that, doing so is an event.

The front of Meister is mostly uniform, with the regular piers along the bottom with a four-window bay above each. The entrance is perfectly visible between those third and fourth piers, but is tucked away behind them. Instead of something stuck onto the front of the building and disrupting its horizontal mass, a sheer, asymmetrical brick tower rises up behind it to announce the entrance.

Seeing this image in a thumbnail size in order to load it, there's something about the forms that appear vaguely Italianate or perhaps even Collegiate Gothic to me. Okay, very vaguely. But squinting or unfocusing your eyes maybe you can tell me I'm not crazy?

At the eastern end, the horizontal front volume pronounces itself by standing on its piers with just parking underneath. At the western end, the glass-enclosed lobby space continues out to the edge. Because the land slopes downward, at eye level here the underside of the building opens up revealing the contrast between the solid concrete structure and the bright, seemingly weightless glass enclosure.

Back around to the east, a gradual progression begins, in between the two wings of the H, toward a more muscular, purely geometric Brutalism. Notice how the windows now are nothing more than tiny slits in their deep, inverted pyramidal recesses. The sun at this angle also happily helps to amplify the strength of the geometry.

Windows are permitted to interrupt the massive brick and concrete forms in only the most reluctant slivers, in between them and mostly recessed out of sight.

When I came around this corner and the southern façade came into full view, I could barely breathe enough to whisper to myself "Oh. My. God."

I honestly think this has to be one of the most brilliant moments in all of twentieth-century architecture (one of many, of course). This entire façade of the building is nothing more than one enormous entrance. The texture is pure architectural sculpture, a wall, a great dramatic play of light and shadow. I can't say what it would be like to work in a building with no windows on one whole side (although I suspect this side may be the laboratories).

The terrace at the back seems to be a mildly unfriendly place to gather, as many of the great works of landscaping were up to this time, for better or for worse. It may have only looked so barren because of the very fact that there were no students using it at the time. Visually speaking, I think it is one of the most stunning places I have ever been.

And to be fair, there is a group of shade pavilions in the center that I would be very surprised people didn't enjoy using to have their lunches.

After that experience, I was very excited for what I would find next. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a let-down.

In fact, when I first came upon the Gould Hall of Technology, now called Carl Polowczyk Hall, I thought to myself, "that can't really be one of the Breuer buildings, can it?" And as much as I have (hopefully successfully) defended a lot of buildings on this blog that people hate(d), I think I can safely say I find this building ugly. This and the rest of the Breuer work to follow was completed in 1964, except for the last building at the end.

Never one to condemn the work of someone with this much talent in such ultimate terms, I'd like to try to defend him. I have a very hard time believing that the corrugated metal nonsense on the top was ever Breuer's idea. In fact, I suspect that floor wasn't even in his original plans. Why anyone would put a prefabricated farm machinery storage shed on the top of this building is beyond me. Without question the college should employ a uniform type and color of window blind (I'm going to presume I understand what Breuer was doing here and suggest a light grayish-blue). That might require a maddeningly fascist co-op board in a residential building, but this isn't even a residence hall. It's classrooms for math, physics, and medical technology. There is really no excuse for it to look like they hung brown paper bags in the windows.

Buildings from this time period suffer from an unfortunate circumstance which I also discussed in regard to Harrison & Abramovitz' buildings at Rockefeller University. It's the continued Modernist use of relatively strict, regular horizontal bands of cladding materials on buildings built when central air conditioning was not yet seen as a basic necessity. Possibly Polowczyk employs electric radiators precluding the possibility of incorporating air conditioning into a centralized duct system. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that individual units could have been installed by a conscientious contractor that would have been far less visible on the outside. Assuming cost was the major controlling factor, at the very, very least, those visible units should have been all exactly the same brand and size (many are, too many others are clearly not) and installed at precise, uniform intervals. As it looks now, it's just a disaster that quite conspicuously helps to ruin what might be not an altogether awful building otherwise.

No one, not even a professor I was transferred to on the phone, could tell me anything at all about why there are cannons on the grounds. The best I could piece together from his cryptic explanation is that perhaps top-secret military research was being conducted here during World War I and there needed to be some kind of artillery protection. But he also said, "no, I don't think it was to protect the property," so who knows. Then he suggested I would need to ask someone in Washington, D.C., as if they'd ever tell me anything.

I was also a little bit disturbed by the yellow brick. But I quickly noticed that the original McKim, Mead & White buildings were built of similar brick. While his results might have been a bit questionable in this case, it was actually rather smart of Breuer to take this material and frame it in modern concrete construction as a way to relate contextually to the rest of the campus. One section of this eastern façade with a pattern of flower-pot-shaped openings in it was the first little hint that this was indeed a work by Breuer. That shape, the isosceles trapezoid, is also reflected in other forms, the plan of Begrisch Hall and the plaza around the Community Hall for two examples discussed below. It was clearly one of Breuer's favorite and signature shapes.

Cementing this (pun intended) as a work by Breuer was-- surprise--the entrance. The soaring, sculptural canopy screaming expressively up into the sky is so spectacular it almost makes up for the numbing banality of the building it adorns. As much as I would love to be able to just dismiss this building outright, the entrance canopy makes it entirely impossible.

On the western side of the building, it all starts to make sense. Here we find an incredible piece of architectural sculpture, the Begrisch Lecture Hall.

Although connected by a suspended walkway rather than being a sculptural adornment like the entrance canopy, it's not difficult to imagine how brilliantly this was conceived. Polowczyk Hall, tight, rigidly ordered, stacked horizontal bands of warm concrete, cold aluminum-framed glass, and traditional gold brick, punctuated by three intriguing and unique sculptural moments: entrance canopy, trapezoid orifice wall, and this lecture hall. I'm convinced that in a simple water-color rendering, this would have seemed the very highest form of the art of architecture on a 1964 par with contemporary Zaha Hadid.

Begrisch is a concrete sculpture that just happens to be large enough to contain an inhabitable interior space. The way it teeters so perfectly and precariously on only two legs is the most incredible feat of engineering prowess and speaks of incredible balance and precision.

Unfortunately some idiot decided it was necessary to dig a hole and put in some lame addition with a shingled roof and a metal fence around it? One would expect CUNY, as a whole, to have enough architectural historians on their payroll to throw a tantrum over something like that. Where were the professors of Architecture when this crime was being perpetrated?

In any case, thankfully, with some rustic stone walls, Begrisch still retains some of the qualities of, like, aliens landing on earth and creating Stonehenge. The contrast between the ancient form of the stone wall and the Space-Age concrete sculpture hovering above it is magical. This is what Architecture is all about, in my humble opinion. It's a tour de force.

Behind this is the Community Hall. On this lower level, it has the forms of a modest 1950s residence, which caused another small epiphany for me. The neglect and misguided uses of this part of the campus I found a bit disturbing, however. It's as if a collective agreement has been made to turn this wonderful, homey, almost domestic-looking enclave into something useless and unappealing.

Three lonely wood-plank boxes planted with random crops of indeterminate purpose that no one really cares to maintain. Weeds growing up around everything. An upside-down trash can. Some random potted plant as if forgotten sitting on the stone wall. A broken window replaced with what appears to be translucent Plexiglass? Walkway fieldstones completely surrounded by weeds, part of it replaced with asphalt, and then back to cement like some kind of sad patchwork quilt. A desk chair holding the door open, and why? The inner door is still closed. A garden hose someone couldn't be bothered to coil back up after using it. And last but certainly not least, that awful oversized plastic day-care-center picnic table.

I refuse to accept that no contract furniture company is making inexpensive versions of something along the lines of Harry Bertoia's patio furniture from the 1950s that would compliment the architecture here in the most delightful way.

The long, narrow terrace around to the left of this entrance, although accessed more directly from the far end, would be the loveliest cool, shady spot to sit around at little cafe tables on hot summer afternoons, but is riddled with weeds and pools of water too large to step over and no doubt festering with mosquitoes. I find the whole scene very unfortunate.

None of this was able to ruin my enjoyment of what Breuer accomplished to the west of this. My mouth just hung open when I came around that corner.

He swings back and forth between a familiar 1950s Modern aesthetic and these moments that were easily 1969. These raised walkways, as much as Begrisch, must have seemed incredibly futuristic and so groovy when the building was completed in 1961. This westernmost building was originally Silver Hall and is now called Colston Hall, named for Dr. James Colston, the college's second president. It's a residence hall, but the BCC website hints that it now also contains some classrooms and labs. This shallow U-shaped plan looks suspiciously similar to Breuer's UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, which also happens to have a sculptural entrance canopy very similar to Polowczyk.

Colston evidently towers up over Fort George to the west quite majestically, but for me to walk all the way around the campus to Segdwick Avenue on the other side probably would have taken me another hour and a half. Here's the beautifully modernist top level of the Community Hall with Colston behind it, what I first saw coming around the corner from Polowczyk.

My story unfortunately ends abruptly here. My camera chose exactly the wrong moment to run out of memory. I mean exactly wrong because if it had run out not much more than five to ten photos earlier, I almost certainly would have left the campus, bought a new memory card, and returned to finish taking pictures. But as it was, I only would have taken around five or so pictures after this. It really wasn't worth it for me to walk all the way back over here for so few additional images. Still, I left feeling a little bit frustrated that I wasn't able to capture my visit to full completion.

I walked around a bit more to check out the original buildings (which, as I mentioned above, I'm unable to include here) and left the campus. At one intersection I asked a woman if she'd ever spotted an electronics or camera store in the neighborhood. I quickly realized she was on some type of drug. To me it seemed like some kind of sedative, maybe drunk, but a little different than that. There was just something kind of unstable and hazy about her behavior. She said she thought there was such a store back down Burnside Avenue, where I'd come from the subway. She was headed in that direction and offered to show me herself. She was walking extremely slowly, though, so I asked her what side of the street she thought it was on, thanked her, and continued on my way.

It wasn't on that side of the street. What I found was a cellphone store that happened to carry the memory card I needed. Even though I was finished with BCC, I was going to need a new card anyway. But I also had a second Breuer stop to make before returning home. I also went to see his Shuster Hall and Fine Arts Building at Lehman College a few subway stops north. What I never could have known is that it was Lehman College's graduation ceremony that day. As incredibly irritating as it is to have to deal with graduations every day for weeks on end at Lincoln Center, I had to choose this day to visit Lehman. So the first issue was that the entire Lehman campus was absolutely lousy with graduates, professors, family members, events, picnics, bands, balloons, and festivities. It was a mess. Had I gone only a week later, I could have gotten pristine photos without so much as a single human in sight.

The other thing is that the one wing of the building has been altered beyond all recognition with a new black glass cladding, and the other wing that remains as Breuer designed it is not nearly as impressive as BCC, especially since it no longer has a matching wing to mirror it. On top of this, one of the best things about the buildings is how the interiors were constructed with sort of upside-down umbrella-shaped structures, not visible on the outside obviously, and badly lit and very difficult to photograph properly on the inside. So I snapped a couple photos I won't bother to include here and returned home.

Nevertheless, seeing BCC and the revelations about Marcel Breuer it caused in my brain made this trip anything at all but a bust. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I Can Can

After visiting IBM, I went to see Gordon Bunshaft's American Can Company Headquarters (1970) in Greenwich, Connecticut. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn't even have known about this building if it weren't for Ada Louise Huxtable, and I'm grateful to her for making it known to me. It was magical.

There are a couple of things I find very ironic about this building. The first is that the very things that the town of Greenwich demanded in allowing this to be built there--namely that it not be over forty feet tall and that parking be as concealed as possible--are the very things that made it cause such an enormous impact on the land. Basically, the conservative residents surrounding this building didn't want to see it, period. Bunshaft's (very smart) solution was to bury probably a third of it underground, meaning far more earth would have to be excavated and disturbed.

The second is that the reason Huxtable praises this building as being considerate to its rural site is the very same reason it would be condemned as such today: that the building is essentially a dam interrupting the flow of a stream through the ravine and creating a man-made lake on the property. With today's attitudes, it might have been forgiven, even praised, if hydroelectric turbines provided all the necessary power to the building, but no. It just got plopped down and completely altered the existing ecosystem.

In the building's defense, times have changed. In the context of the late-1960s and its rampant abuse of and disregard for Mother Nature, this was a highly sensitive and monumental improvement. In any case, it would always be unfair to judge a work of art by present standards--evaluate, of course, but not judge. And whatever its ironies, it is an incredible building that was every bit a rival for Saarinen's IBM for me, believe it or not.

With this building, Bunshaft--head of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the absolute masters of the curtain wall--has effectively turned the conventional building form completely inside-out. With the conventional curtain wall, the structure was on the inside of the building, with the steel and glass "curtain" hanging from it on the outside. It had a gradual evolutionary progression, which I started to discuss in terms of his bank at JFK, but at American Can it comes into full bloom. Not only has he separated the structure from the enclosure, but he's made the structure into an expressive element of the building. This is a sort of quirky Brutalism, it's also a form of structural expressionism as per Saarinen, but Bunshaft made it something quite unique to himself that defies categorization.

From what appears to be the main public entrance, one would have absolutely no concept of the scale or character of this building. Truth be told, although beautiful, the front entrance doesn't seem to differ terribly much from any other suburban office complex.

The astonishing side façades were actively, purposely concealed from view, making one's experience of the building a true journey of discovery. These three stories are all you can really see from the front, although there is a hint with a carefully controlled view of the luscious landscaping that there is much more to this building.

The front faces the southwest, so I got back in the car and first drove around to the east. My first shock was the dramatic entrance to the parking garage built into the building's base.

I probably gasped. Even I had no idea the building was this huge. A curving lane feeds each of two parking levels. The base of the building looks like a medieval fortress, strong and imposing.

At this point, I was kind of stuck. I'm thinking, "how am I going to get a look at the back of the building?" I got back into the car and continued in the same direction I was going. But I had to actually exit the entire office complex. My idea was to continue around the outside and keep making left turns until I got around to the other side of it. Before too long, I realized this wasn't going to work because I'd passed over a highway cutting off the building's grounds from where I was headed. I found myself in this really ritzy Connecticut neighborhood. The only way I would have been able to see American Can from there would have been to walk onto and through someone's property, which probably would have gotten me arrested. But the other thing is that the whole point of the siting of this building was that none of the neighboring residents would be able to see it. Very likely it's entirely concealed from view from any property nearby.

I retraced my route past the front of the building and instead went around to the west. This turned out to be another vehicular route to the back of the building which I should have tried first. I ended up not losing too much time. This was another astonishing discovery. A bridge crosses over the tip of the triangular pond formed by the building. This is what one sees from the bridge:

Unbelievable. And as monumental and majestic as that looks, the rear of the building, which I presumed to be the employees' entrance, is quite modestly scaled, especially the way it interacts with the landscaping.

Behind the main building is a much smaller one-story structure which evidently originally housed the executive offices. Here's where I got my first suspicious looks of the day for exploring the building. I got up close to the front doors, and was looking into the building at how a square courtyard was carved out of the middle of it, Bunshaft's signature. Eventually, I realized the receptionist was peering out at me with this snotty look on her face like, "and just what exactly do you think you're doing?" 

It continues to baffle me how people can work every day in a building as gorgeous as this one and really not be able to grasp the concept that someone might want to look at it. It's a testament to the shameful fact that architecture is not legible to the vast majority of people. I might even venture to propose that most good architecture has greater potential to disappear from public sight than bad. When a building works, its users don't need to think about why it works. When a building is ugly, it's called an "eyesore." For something to make your eyes sore, you have to be seeing it. If the architecture causes you inconvenience by being awkwardly planned, you're aware of your interaction with the architecture. Helping make (good) architecture visible to those not indoctrinated in its forms is why I do what I do, on this blog and at work. These looks and the other reaction I describe below are exactly why it's so sorely needed.

I ignored the suspicious receptionist. You can see that the beams on this building have rather conspicuous hardware at the ends. I found this very strange, and I can only think they must be merely ornamental or they most certainly would have been necessary on the beams of the much larger building, which no doubt have a heftier structural job to do. That may have been precisely the point, though. Since this building is so much more petite, the needless strength of the beams and posts was already going to be conspicuous. Rather smart of Bunshaft to emphasize that even more.

The smaller building also gave me a better chance to get a nice close look at the details shared by both structures. The contrast between the relatively rough, muscular concrete engineering and the sleek, shiny black glass is really delightful.

Another thing I liked a lot was how a few of the rock outcroppings were (apparently) left where they were, and used to kind of punctuate the building in interesting ways. The larger of them worked very well with the smaller executive building behind it, emphasizing its diminutive size, this time in relationship to a natural element rather than an architectural one.

Another one interrupted a row of hedges lining the northeastern façade of the main building.

I was pretty much finished, and it was getting very close to the time I needed to head back home so as not to return the Zipcar late. My last stop was the beautifully landscaped employees' entrance, down a grand staircase to a terrace, which I believe was cantilevered over the pond.

When I got to the terrace, some tool in a dumpy brown t-shirt and a baseball cap was coming out the door. He sort of asked if I was headed into the building so he could hold the door for me (polite enough, but wait). I said "no, no, I'm fine, thanks." And went around into this little corner behind the entrance to get my last photo. When I turn back around, Dork is standing there glaring at me and says, "excuse me, what are you taking pictures of?" I said, "the building." "For what?" "I write an architecture blog." "Well, I work here and I can't let you do that. Yeah, you can't be taking pictures here."

Oh, yeah? And why not, Baseball Cap? It's a freaking movie studio now. It's not the FBI headquarters. Hell, it's not even a major international airport. What I should have said is, "oh, really? On whose authority will you 'not allow it?'" But I'm not generally a trouble-maker and the last thing I needed at that point was a spontaneous trip to the office of the building's head of security. I needed to get the car back.

I am called upon to forbid photography at work, too, but that's inside the buildings, where there are many very good reasons it can't be permitted. No one would even pretend to try to forbid it outside; it would be laughable. The best thing about Photo Policeman's little performance of being so very, very important is that I might have snapped another picture or two, but basically I had been there for around an hour and was already entirely finished taking photos. It was an unfortunately sour ending to a wonderful trip out of the city, too wonderful to be ruined by one person's delusions of grandeur.

And there you have Gordon Bunshaft's American Can Company Headquarters.

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Deep Blue Watson

Our next story is about my trip to yet another Saarinen building, his IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center (TJW, 1960) in Yorktown, New York. When I looked out my window that morning, Tuesday, I said to myself, "that there's picture-takin' weather," and reserved a Zipcar. Can you ever really have too much Eero Saarinen? I think not.

All IBM photos ©2011, Ryan Witte, unless noted.

I got very lucky with this trip. Quite by accident, I stumbled onto a webpage that mentioned sort of in passing that the complex is not open to the general public. I called to check on that up front, and I'm glad I did. I was prepared to drive all the way up there and attempt to just waltz through the front gates when, in fact, one needs permission not only to enter, but also to take photographs.

I spoke to someone in communications who said she'd have to find someone to call me back and took my phone number. An hour or so later I got a call back from a person by the name of Darren McAuliffe. He said he'd be happy to help me, but that I would need to be chaperoned at all times while on the property. He later explained that since offices can be seen through the windows from the outside, this was an information security issue. There was definitely the risk that I could have come home with the ability to create the next computer capable of beating top-winning Jeopardy contestants.

Google Maps View
I bought a sandwich, picked up the car (a Mazda 3: accelerates energetically), and got on the road. I'll have to say, I really love Google Maps, but as far as driving directions go? It seriously sucks. It has all the wrong names for every highway and exit you're supposed to be taking. I did get a little lost at one point, but luckily I was able to find my way there eventually without too many U-turns. Getting onto the property was pretty breezy with permission up front.

I announced myself at the reception desk, asked for McAuliffe, and looked around a bit. From behind me, I heard, "Ryan?" When I turned around, there was this, like, sixteen-year-old kid standing there. It was McAuliffe. I'm kidding him. He's probably more like nineteen, and a summer intern there, but he was way younger than I was expecting. He was very nice and I enjoyed talking to him while we walked around. He said he's planning to study computer science and both his parents work at IBM, although his father at a different facility. He's interning with the communications department, he told me, because no matter how good your ideas are, if you can't communicate them to people, they won't go anywhere. I agree.

I asked him if he were from upstate New York. He said "no, I live about ten minutes from here." Rich kid. I'm thinking, "ummm, yeah, that's what I meant?" For me, if I can drive along a road for fifteen minutes and see nothing whatsoever besides trees, that's "upstate." Having lived in a suburb as densely packed as Nassau County, I just can't get my mind to think of someplace as rural as Yorktown as being a "suburb." But evidently "upstate New York" doesn't really exist, it's just anyplace north of where you are. Truthfully, he defined it as anything north of Albany.

As you can see, TJW is a huge arc curving from the east down around to the south. In the lobby, there was a really nice diagram of the offices that shows how the office floors are laid out, not in wheel spokes parallel to the outside edge of the curve, but arranged in sections with groups of interior walls parallel to one another separated by intermittent wedges.

I was happy to see a "building map" link on the TJW website, until I clicked it. There may as well be a hangman-game-style stick figure of me with a smiley face and an arrow saying "Ryan" pointing to it. Really not helpful.

I said since I'd come in from the north, we should head south. The northwestern façade, as you can see in the first photo above, is extremely monolithic and imposing. In fact, there are very few details to break up the monotony. One, of course, is the main entrance canopy, very sculptural and expressionistic in Saarinen's way, but hardly large enough to compete with the wide unforgiving glass expanse of the front façade. The stone piers supporting it are also quite sculptural, and a wonderfully rugged take on forms that recall the TWA Flight Center--appropriately so, considering this far more rural site.

Saarinen knew, of course, that the scale of the canopy would be dwarfed by the building mass, but there was no practical, weather-related reason for it to be larger than this. So to add to its formal impact, he extended the stone walls off to both sides, curved them back up again, and added sculptures like punctuation marks at each end. They're Seymour Lipton pieces, Argonaut I and II, from 1961.

I told McAuliffe we have a Seymour Lipton at Lincoln Center (Archangel), and he confessed that, if I wanted to know about the sculptures, I was talking to the wrong person. So I thought I'd share with him what I knew, although I feared I was boring him. Lipton trained as a dentist. He used a material called Monel as the backdrop for his sculptures. It's an alloy extremely resistant to corrosion, but it's very difficult to work with because it hardens instantly and can withstand extremely high temperatures. For this reason, it lent itself perfectly to Lipton's technique of spot-welding softer metals, usually bronze, onto the Monel to achieve his expressionistic textures. As I've said elsewhere, Lipton's work explores the contrast of positive and negative space, in the sense that he makes individual forms both positive and negative at the same time, by twisting them in, around, and through other forms. "Argonaut" was a great title for here. It's an ancient Greek group of explorers, a really bizarre octopus, a class of submarine from the late-1800s, and an obscure, high-luxury American automobile that supposedly attracted some press around the time these sculptures were being created.

He also told me he had considered going into architecture in college, but that the schools wanted to see actual drawings, and his skills with that are somewhat limited. I confessed that the reason I didn't go into it is because my math skills are similarly limited. With computer technology, I'm not sure either of those failings would be obstacles for us now. Oh, well.

The second thing I noticed interrupting the lines of the front is the cafeteria terrace. A beautiful place to eat lunch, it overlooks a valley of marshland that must remain untouched. [Bad IBM employees, leaving your trays and silverware out there on the tables.]

The only thing remaining to see on this end was a doorway and a little staircase which I can't really imagine anyone using all that often, aside from a computer scientist strolling around the grounds to mull over his or her next experiment in Artificial Intelligence.

At this end is just mechanical structures and a loading dock, no access to the back of the building (the inside of the arc), so we heading back in the other direction.

At the eastern end of the arc, I found one of the first truly exquisite details of this building. It's where the glass curtain wall wraps around the corner and then meets this strong, rugged stone.

The contrast of how powerfully monolithic the glass appears from the front, in comparison to how it seems to dematerialize in relationship to the stone is absolutely magical. There's also an amazing contrast between the obviously machined, prefabricated, industrial quality of the curtain wall and the obviously hand-masoned, natural look of the stone wall. I think this is the perfect analogy for what goes on inside the building, as well. The most sophisticated products of our rapidly-accelerating Information Age nonetheless produced by the thoughts and ideas of regular human beings. Does Modernist architecture get any better?

The inside of the arc is truly remarkable. I'm surprised that I'd never seen photos of it before (although, to be fair, I really need to get one of the monographs dedicated to Saarinen and read it cover to cover--I have a couple on my Amazon Wish List). It's a long, massive stone wall, wrapping around you like an embrace. It looks like a massive stone fortress, which McAuliffe remarked seems appropriate considering the secrecy of what happens inside it. It's lushly landscaped with a meandering path and picnic tables. I got the strange feeling that it's not really used all that much by employees sitting around having their lunches. I hope I'm wrong because it's a really pleasing space.

Window openings interrupt the length of it from the ground up to the full height of the wall. It's somehow more powerful than had Saarinen allowed the wall to frame the windows on four sides. It would have disturbed the apparent strength of the stone walls. Instead, the walls stand without perforations.

I didn't actually notice this until studying my photos at home, but there's one interesting moment where the stone masonry stops and starts again at a seam. I'm not sure if this was structural or not. If it was cosmetic, it's a very interesting way to call attention to the textures, and the stone also appears to change to a slightly darker color.

Bridges lead from the massive parking lot in the rear to the top floor of the building, with entrances also on the ground floor.

The second-to-southernmost bridge is entered by a vaguely Richard-Neutra-like pavilion at the parking lot and is enclosed in glass.

We took this bridge back into the building, which McAuliffe suggested would be better than walking all the way back around it.

I had seen the lobby from the ground floor, but I think I might actually have gasped when we entered it from above. It's breathtaking, and I told McAuliffe, such an incredible intersection of the 1950s and the 1960s. It's the combination of the rugged stone walls, rough-cut stone floors of the landing, and wood accents from the '50s with the graceful curves, stark black and white, but especially that super-glossy white from the '60s. Even had I not known when this was built, I probably could have guessed this was on the cusp of those two decades.

I love "THINK," and the suspended clocks are a great detail.


Opposite "THINK" is a bust of Thomas J. Watson, himself, by Jacques Lipchitz.
So there you have my visit to Saarinen's Watson Research Center. Much thanks to Darren McAuliffe for his time, his help, and his friendly conversation. I actually visited another incredible building on this same trip. But I'll let that be a surprise.

©2011, Ryan Witte