The Seagram Story

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My favorite postwar building in New York? There are only two options: the Whitney, Marcel Breuer’s inverted ziggurat on Madison Avenue, and the Seagram Building, the Mies-Johnson masterwork on Park. Both possess a rare combination of modern austerity and generous, almost playful humanity. I write about Phyllis Lambert and the making of the Seagram Building in this Sunday’s New York Times:

Though it now seems an implacable and timeless monument, a bronzed monolith standing resolutely behind its well-proportioned plaza, the tower’s existence was by no means ordained. In June 1953 Ms. Lambert was a 26-year-old recently divorced sculptor living in Paris, a self-imposed exile from her native Montreal and from her domineering father.

It was then that she reeled off a missive to her father, a response to his own letter outlining plans for a New York skyscraper. She was not impressed with the undistinguished modern box his architects proposed and let him know: “This letter starts with one word repeated very emphatically,” she wrote, “NO NO NO NO NO.”

Seven more pages followed, in which Ms. Lambert alternately scolded, cajoled and lectured her father on architectural history and civic responsibility. There was “nothing whatsoever commendable” in the proposed design, she wrote. “You must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live, and at the same time your hopes for the betterment of this society.”

Check it out, along with a follow up on Design Observer.

Big D

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I am pleased to announce that next month I will become the new architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, and also a professor in the architecture school at the University of Texas at Arlington. This is an extraordinary personal opportunity, to say the least, and one that will place me in a city of Ewing-sized ambition and energy. In getting to know it, I’ve come to see Dallas as a city engaged in a tremendous effort to progressively reinvent itself for the new century, but one that remains burdened by a built legacy that has left it physically and metaphorically divided. In many ways it is the archetypical American city, and in every way it is a fascinating subject.

It is especially heartening, and I suspect not just for me, to see a major metropolitan newspaper finding a way to add an architecture critic to its payroll in 2013. That speaks to the level of interest in architecture and urban planning in Dallas generally, but also to the leadership at the paper and at the university, who together have found a way to make this position possible. Though there has been a welcome proliferation of architectural and urban criticism online, it is a sad fact that the professional rank in daily print journalism is an endangered species. These positions, in my opinion, have the greatest power to shape discourse and policy in the service of the broadest possible public. I am honored and humbled to be joining this select group of practioners.

For the record, I will not be abandoning my home on Design Observer, and I will remain on the masthead at the Architectural Review. Most importantly, work on my biography of Philip Johnson, who had his own critical connections to Texas in general, and Dallas in particular.

The Floating Worlds of Stephen Talasnik

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A few months ago, I had the good fortune to become acquainted with Stephen Talasnik, an artist of considerable energy and charm who creates dense, mesmerizing works in two and three dimensions. New Yorkers may be familar with his idiosyncratic portfolio from one of his many exhibitions here or from his recently installed work at Storm King. Our initial introduction led to my contribution of an essay to Talasnik’s new book, Floating World, a documentation of his installation of extraordinary bamboo islands at the Denver Botanic Gardens. These pieces, all meticulously assembled by hand, are held together by repurposed military restraining ties. An excerpt of my piece from that book is up on Design Observer; I hope it conveys the intelligence, generosity, and visual pleasure of both Talasnik and his work. He has some very exciting major new projects on the horizon, works on a grand land-art scale that I expect will become great American landmarks. But that is for the future.

New York at Night

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What better way to close the year than with a celebration of those beloved establishments, some gone and some still here, that give the city its character? I close the door on 2012 in the Metropolitan section of the Times with “Elegy in Neon,” a short piece on the latest tombstone from James and Karla Murray. (Don’t miss the accompanying slideshow.) As I write: “You can trace your personal geography in these pages. Here’s the reformed speakeasy where you first spied that dark-eyed beauty, the old standby where they still know your order, the dim-sum parlor that served your grandparents and is still there for your children.”

A few other favorites from the year gone by:
-Still Here: The Once and Future Library (Metropolis)
-A Brief History of the Microwave (Icon)
-Letter to a Critic Departed (Design Observer)
-The New Barnes (Architectural Review)
-Memories of Architecture’s Lost Visionaries (Design Observer)

The Library: Still Here

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What is the future of the library in a digital age? This is the subject of my cover story for the July issue of Metropolis. As I write, “We’re at a moment of profound change in the way we consume information, and that change is shaping the kinds of information we value. It is also shaping the spaces in which we consume information. How does one even begin to think about designing libraries in a time of rapidly developing technologies and shifting programs?” The story highlights how a few libraries are adapting to a world of change and uncertainty. It also suggests that, while many are proclaiming the death of the book (and subsequently the building designed to house it), libraries are in fact more popular than ever, and they’re playing ever more vital roles in a society where public space is all too rare.

Hall of Fame

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What kid doesn’t dream of making it to baseball’s Hall of Fame? Being fairly incompetent on the field, I had few illusions about making it to Cooperstown the conventional way, but I am very proud to go in through the side door of the library. It may not count as official enshrinement, but the research archive I put together in writing Spalding’s World Tour has been acquired by the Hall, and will henceforth be available to scholars as the Mark Lamster Papers, alongside the collections of Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, Robert Creamer, and others. It is a tremendous honor.

I’m also pleased that my work will continue to have a life, and perhaps be a source for writers of the future. The Spalding tour, with its intertwined themes of American diplomatic and commercial adventurism, not to mention its wonderful characters, is a subject that remains relevant and worthy of exploration, and I expect it will be so for years to come. It also seems appropriate to keep this material in Cooperstown, as that city’s claim as baseball’s place of invention is a product of Spalding’s fabricated history of the game. I am not the first to debunk the Doubleday myth, which has a disturbing staying power, but I am glad to have contributed, in some way, to the continuing efforts to bring enlightenment to the national game.

Where New York’s Medicis Keep their Junk

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A couple of weeks ago, while waiting for my daughter at the Manhattan terminus of the Roosevelt Island Tram, I was attracted to a largely windowless tower a few blocks to the north. It seemed a remnant from a time long past, which indeed it was. Some investigation revealed it to be the warehouse of Day & Meter, Murray & Young company, which has been the storage venue of choice for New York society since it opened its doors in 1928. This building became more and more interesting the more I learned about it, revealing itself to be more than just a warehouse of physical objects, but a mainframe of urban memory. Its history is the subject of my feature in the Metropolitan section of this Sunday’s Times. Check it out.

Another New Address: The Architectural Review

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I am pleased to announce that I have joined the masthead of The Architectural Review, the venerable English magazine, as Associate American Editor. It’s an honor to join a magazine with such a distinguished history, and it continues my tradition of associating myself with only the organizations for which I have tremendous respect. This new appointment will not keep me from my work at Design Observer, so if you don’t have my page there bookmarked, please do so.

For what it’s worth, here are a few of the pieces I’ve written for the Review:

James Stirling: Notes from the Archive
Small Scale, Big Change
Center of Controversy

A New Address: The Observers Room

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Today marks the official launch of Observers Room, a new channel on the Design Observer network that will henceforth be hosting the running commentary on art, architecture, design, books, and other matters typically found here. I’ll be joined by a distinguished crew of authors: Rick Poynor, John Thackera, and my lunchmate Alexandra Lange. Within the Observers Room channel, we’ll each have our own individual blog, and our posts will also be gathered together in a single thread. I think this promises to be one of the most lively places on the web for ideas and conversation about design, broadly defined. Naturally I’m excited about it, and I hope you will be as well.

This news means there will be some changes around these parts. Substantive posting that has heretofore appeared in this space will now run under my Cherokee Red banner at Design Observer. This site will remain active as my personal newsfeed and archive.

With that, I invite you to join me at my new home.

LOMEX: Paul Rudolph’s Plan for Lower Manhattan

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Does anything not look great as a model? For an exhibition at Cooper Union, architectural students have knocked up an enormous one of Paul Rudolph’s proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (aka LOMAX or LME), and it’s a glorious nightmare. The model was created from Rudolph’s drawings for the project, unearthed by co-curators Jim Walrod and Ed Rawlings, which convey the same sense of shock and awe. (They are also on view.) Rudolph took up the project, originally proposed by Robert Moses and blessedly halted by near universal opposition, at the behest of the Ford Foundation, in 1967. Where Moses proposed an elevated highway, Rudolph envisioned a trench straddled by a series of prefab, plug-in megastructures. The idea was to link the Holland Tunnel on the west side with the Manhattan and WIlliamsburg bridge crossings on the east. In plan it has the shape of an enormous Y, with Broome as the stem, and Canal and Delancey the branches. While it is architecturally more interesting than anything Moses had in mind, the effect would have been similar: wholesale demolition along the construction corridors and a walling off of entire areas of the city. As Yael Friedman writes over on Urban Ominbus, “if you have lived in New York for any significant amount of time, the moment you fully comprehend what it is you are looking at in the exhibit, the drawings become utterly jarring.” The extraordinary model, I’d say, is even more jarring, and as much for what it does not present: the Lower East Side, which would have been cantonized between the project’s two eastern branches. One of the shortfalls of this small exhibition—and I hate to nitpick, because it is truly remarkable—is that there is no attempt to supplement Rudolph’s vision with contextual maps, drawings, or images of what it would replace. It is, in any case, something to see—an extraordinary vision, if not a practical one, and an interesting counterpoint to the Small Scale, Big Change exhibition now at MoMA, that seems almost a rejoinder to the grand ambitions of modernisms past. LOMAX certainly was that.

Continue reading ‘LOMEX: Paul Rudolph’s Plan for Lower Manhattan’

Trabantimino

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A couple of years ago, when I first heard about Liz Cohen’s Trabantimino project, I knew it was genius. The idea: fuse a Trabant, that iconic East German junkmobile, with an El Camino, the classic American musclecar. There’s no way it should work, but it somehow makes sense when you see it, a wonderful hybrid, both butch and charming at once. Cohen, who is not your typical autoworker, did all the work herself, and beautifully: it’s as pristine as a Porsche, a creamy chunk of automotive candy, and god only knows how she got the thing into the basement gallery of Salon 94, on the Bowery. Don’t miss it.

Chased

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I know, as a New Yorker, one is expected to embrace change, but there are times when I just can’t do it. Case in point: Chase has shuttered its iconic bank branch at 43rd and Fifth, and I’m pissed and sad about it at once. The crisp glass box, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM, is [was?] one of the city’s great masterworks of modern architecture. It opened in 1954 as a Manufacturer’s Hanover, with its signature vault daringly visible from the street. A ride up its escalator deposited you in a limpid open hall, with a Harry Bertoia screen in the back.

I knew the branch well, as I’ve written a couple of books out of the NYPL, which is just a block away, and I do my banking at Chase. I made it a point to deposit important checks there. It was an edifying space. It made you feel good to be in it, but not in a nostalgic, Mad Men kind of way, because it was still operational, not a museum piece. I liked to stand on the upper level, and just look out the window and watch the traffic on the avenue below: the Lubavitchers across the street, hustling office drones, street dancers, tourists walking along oblivious. How different it was from the traditional bank branch of an earlier time—think imposing classical facade of rusticated stone—and also the contemporary vulgarization of its own modern aesthetic.

Now the Bertoia screen is down, and I know there’s a lot of concern as to its fate. I’m concerned as well, but to me that’s secondary to the hard blow that the bank might no longer be a bank. I suspect its fate will be similar to the wonderful old Scribner’s bookstore designed by Ernest Flagg just 5 blocks north on Fifth. It’s now a discount cosmetics retailer. That stinks.

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The charming illustrations above are from a promotional brochure distributed when the bank opened.

[Images: the talbotblog]