Could it be that the sour economy is the best friend of the good old library? According to a report in the Times, the NYPL may be forced to (temporarily?) table its plans to move the stacks out of the Humanity and Social Sciences Library (the main branch) because of a real estate deal now in grave jeopardy. The library had agreed to sell the fine modernist building housing the now shuttered Donnell Library on 53rd Street to Orient-Express Hotels, who would demolish it in favor of a larger hotel building, with a new library installed as tenant. (Instead, now, we have no library there.) The NYPL also planned to help finance its alterations to the main branch by selling the Mid-Manhattan Library building, on the southeast corner of 40th and Fifth. The MM’s collection and programming would then be shifted to the reconfigured main branch, across the street. This is an incredibly ambitious plan; it’s nice to see the NYPL taking a leadership position as libraries reinvent themselves for a new century, when even the future of the book is unclear. That said, the plan has some very serious implications for those who rely on the library, for one of New York’s most prized works of architecture, and for the city itself. It’s disappointing (if understandable) that library officials have been relatively reticent to comment in the press about this project (a “no comment” in the article above, for example), and that it has for the most part flown under the radar of the press.
In other library building news today, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and American Library Association (ALA) announced their annual awards. You’ll excuse me for noting that there was not a single writer on the jury. Nevertheless, there appear to be some fine works, especially the Starr Library at Berkeley by Williams/Tsien and Marlon Blackwell’s work in Gantry, Arkansas. Also winning were mega-buildings for Chongquing and Minneapolis, and a small branch library in the Bronx for the NYPL, by 1100 Architects, which seems at once serene and antiseptic. Check out our pals over at Unbeige for some links.
Perusing the Christie’s website a few days ago, I noticed the print above, attributed to William Pether “after Peter Paul Rubens.” According to the listing, there is a note on the print, presumably by Pether himself, that indicates the subject is “Helena Forman,” Rubens’s second wife. Pether, however, seems to have been operating from several faulty assumptions. First, Rubens’s wife was actually named Helena Fourment; the strange Anglicization is one I have never seen before. Also, that’s not her. Rubens adored his wife and painted her endlessly, as did other artists of the period, so the mixup is understandable. Certainly, it’s more selling to suggest a print is after Rubens than the admittedly obscure Paulus Moreelse, as is the case. (Thanks to Elizabeth Honig for the tip.) This only confirms my inherent skepticism of auction listings, and connoisseurship in general. The buyer of the picture may not have been fooled, however. The print sold for £250, about half its estimated value. In all, I’d say a very good deal.
These are tough times for those of us who care about books. The publishing industry is in a tailspin; electronic readers (ie, the Kindle) and the Internet are challenging the primacy of the printed page; libraries—those physical bastions of the word—are rethinking their place in our cities, and seem to be spending as much time worrying over real estate values as literary ones. Here in New York, the NYPL is literally taking the research out of its central research library, the beaux-arts landmark on Fifth Avenue at Forty-second Street. A new plan by Norman Foster will move the main stacks out of the building to offsite storage beneath Bryant Park and in New Jersey. (Gone also will be one of the city’s last pneumatic tube systems, used to page books.) This represents a fundamental change in mission for the library, from an emphasis on scholarly research to a far broader spectrum of services and functions (education, entertainment, technology). The situation is altogether worse in Atlanta, where a plan is afoot to demolish Marcel Breuer’s spectacular Central Library building—a concrete fugue of blocky forms and complex spaces—and replace it with a multi-use skyscraper. This would be a terrible loss for both architecture and books. Please sign the petition to save it.
My friend Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s beautifully written Harper’s piece on the last Frankfurt Book Fair is the talk of the publishing world. It’s been years since I last attended, but his story struck home nevertheless, and reminded me of a piece I wrote years ago for Metropolis, when times were a bit brighter for the book business. In his story, Gideon writes about attending a large, indulgent party hosted by Bertelsmann, the parent company of Random House. Bertelsmann’s tentacles, at the time I wrote, extended to Princeton Architectural Press, where I was an editor, but we were so low down on the corporate ladder (a partially owned subsidiary of one of countless divisions) that they didn’t even know we existed. We were never invited to their parties. But after the fair in 2000, I traveled with our publisher, Kevin Lippert, to Expo 2000, the world’s fair then being held in Hanover. One of the largest and most popular pavilions was Bertelsmann’s Planet M, a giant metallic mushroom with an enormous open-air elevator platform. The building was kind of interesting (but not very), a peaen to the corporate synergy that was then the rage among the international business set. (The m stood for media.) The exhibit itself, music videos projected on large screens, if memory serves (Bertelsmann owned a big record label), was underwhelming. But it surely cost a fortune. The idea that Bertelmann and PAPress were somehow connected never seemed more disconnected from reality. Now, it’s clear that the whole enterprise was based more on faith than reason. But, frankly, I think we knew that then. Not long after, the conglomerate, desperate for cash, divested itself of several divisions, and with them PAPress.
The new Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center opens on Sunday—it looks great—and the reviews are starting to flow in. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and fairly dismissive of the original hall, by Pietro Belluschi and Eduardo Catalano. Yes, that building had its flaws, but I will admit that I always liked it, and not just for its rather overt references to Le Corbusier’s monastery at La Tourette. The place was all concert hall, and no BS. There was no waiting hall to speak of. Just a box office. You went there, got your tickets, and before the show you stood outside gabbing on its little wedge of a plaza. Alice Tully was for serious concert-goers of the corduroy and glasses set—people who knew their classical music. The program was always heavy on chamber music best appreciated by the initiated. There was something nice about that, something pure. But in this narcissistic age, going to the theater has become an act of theater in itself. We’re the show. Tickets are pricey. You get dressed up. You need a place to parade around and have a drink at intermission. Of course theater has always been like this—just look at the Paris Opera—but Tully isn’t really that kind of “major” venue. Though maybe it’s becoming one. Anyhow, this Old New Yorker welcomes the fine renovation, but I’m not prepared to spit on the grave of the old place.
I know, Michael Jackson has done some terrible things. Tax evasion. Absconding with the Beatles catalog. Child molestation. We Are the World. But this—is design even the word for it?—this interior renovation of a stretch Rolls Royce (what kind of nitwit stretches a Rolls Royce?) may be his worst crime. Note how the floor mats don’t even fit. Egads. A Russian mobster from Brighton Beach wouldn’t even get in the thing. “Ees beet tyoo much, nyet?” You can have it, however, for somewhere in the vicinity of $140K. Also, I’m pretty sure Jacques-Louis David would not be happy about this.
The design elves over at Pepsico have been very busy of late, as noted here last week regarding the (awful) new logo for the corporate flagship and the (much hated) new packaging for Tropicana. Pepsi has also renovated its Gatorade brand. Apparently, the word Gatorade is simply too long for the soft drink’s target demographic, so the name has been shortened to a rather gnomic “G,” a change signaled by a similarly opaque advertising campaign. (Looking for a bottle in the local bodega the other day, I almost couldn’t find it.) Presumably, the change is a response to the growing popularity of competitors Vitamin Water and Powerade, though how losing 7 letters is an effective response is kind of beyond me. Marketing!
I remember the first time I had Gatorade. It came in a stiff metal can with a thick seam running along the side and a pull-tab top. I was a kid at summer camp—it must have been around 1980. We were given the drink during inter-camp competitions, days when we’d play sports for hour after hour in the hot sun. Of course, we loved the sweet stuff, which had a metallic taste from its container, and gulped it down. No surprise, I still like it, nevermind the signature nuclear-green color. The TV spots of 2007 banking on the drink’s own history and narrated by Keith Jackson were very smart, and capitalized on that nostalgia (the Lovin’ Spoonful soundtrack didn’t hurt). I guess those days are gone. With a capital G.
The baseball world is up-in-arms over the revelations that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroid use a few years ago. My suggestion: move along, folks. For what it’s worth, I’ve always been amused by those outraged over the crimes perpetrated against baseball’s record book. This was the subject of a piece I wrote for the LA Times last summer on the history of the Baseball Encyclopedia. The move to strike or otherwise qualify certain marks from that book is, as far as I’m concerned, ridiculous. David Neft, the guiding genius behind the Encyclopedia, agrees. The record book indicates what happened, not what we would have liked to happen. Adding annotations to records is a bad idea. But if you insist, let me suggest my own system:
* = Steroids
! = Amphetamines
$ = Gambling
|| = Cocaine
~ = Alcohol
≤ = Before integration
# = Before expansion
. = Dead ball era
∞ = Wore glasses
† = Religious fanatic
¢ = Lousy tipper
ƒ = Womanizer
¥ = Asian fetish
œ = Funny accent
√ = Ass kisser
∆ = Trianglophobic
X = Total jerk
Tropicana has been getting a lot of flack over its redesigned juice cartons. Steve Heller called the rebranding “a mistake.” Jason Kottke simply dubbed it “sucky.” Let me respectfully disagree. I was never a great fan of Tropicana’s previous packaging system, with its now familiar orange punctured by a straw. Clever, yes, but the trompe l’oeil dewdrops were a bit much—pointlessly deceptive as the cartons so often ended up with actual condensation. I’ve seen the new packaging repeatedly derided as “generic,” which sells it short. It’s a clean, modernist design that looks like it would fit right in on the shelf of a high-end grocer in London or Amsterdam. I suspect consumers will quickly adjust to its color-coded system for differentiating between juice types (some pulp, no pulp, etc.) And it’s not without a degree of wit either; the half-sphere cap—it’s an orange half!—is a nice touch.
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