A New Address: The Observers Room


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



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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.



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.



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

[Images: the talbotblog]

Modern Views, Home and Abroad


What would Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson have thought of sharing the billing in Modern Views, the new book celebrating the Farnsworth House and the Glass House? Mies, on visiting Johnson’s New Canaan pavilion, was so offended by the place that he refused to spend the night. Johnson, Oedipal son that he was, could be cutting about the “Old Man.” Still, at this point one can hardly imagine either man without the other. Fitting, then, that the two properties in question are administered by the National Trust, to which proceeds of the book, a collection of artists’ responses to them, will be devoted. Both face serious preservation challenges, and could use the help.

While I’m at it, let me note that David Diao, one of the artists represented in Modern Views, has a show opening next week at Office Baroque, in Antwerp. Johnson and the Glass House are frequent subjects of Diao’s work, which seems inspired by, among others, Warhol and Ruscha—both Johnson favorites. Johnson was less enamored with Antwerp. On a visit in 1930, he found it “dull and overcrowded with Flemish idiots.” Belgians, generally, he characterized as “dirty and disagreeable.” Favell Lee Mortimer had nothing on him, but at least give him credit for admiring the great Rubens Descent at the Antwerp cathedral. Frankly, I thought the Elevation would be more his speed.

Wavefield: Maya Lin at Storm King


I went out with the family to see Maya Lin’s Wavefield up at Storm King Art Center over the weekend. I hadn’t read much about it, on purpose, looking forward to taking my own unfiltered impressions. It was a beautiful day to visit: one of those crisp fall afternoons, the foliage in hues from green to red, the light raking in dramatically. Even under these perfect conditions, I will admit I was a bit underwhelmed, though it is not unimpressive. The piece seems designed entirely to be viewed from an elevated perspective adjacent to the dune-like landforms. From there it is undeniably graphic. When we were there, a steady stream of visitors made their way up to the position, cameras ready. What I found disappointing was the piece when viewed from anywhere else, in particular within the undulating forms themselves. These are not manicured, but left rather wild and scrabbly. This is fine, except that docents yell at anyone who attempts to mount the crests of the waveforms, even though they hardly seem pristine or fragile. I was hoping that the piece would offer a series of shifting experiences and views, but instead one simply walks through a trench between the waves and then up to the privileged perspective. It all seems like kind of a lost opportunity. however impressive it might be. Still, a trip to Storm King is always worthwhile.

James Stirling at Yale


Highly recommended: a pair of exhibitions celebrating the career of James Stirling at Yale’s Center for British Art and School of Architecture. The show at the British Art gallery is the main event, a career retrospective that will be an eye-opener for Americans familiar with Stirling primarily through his three most reproduced projects (Cambridge, Leicester, Stuttgart). The drawings on view are extraordinary—it’s a shame that this skill, which was obviously so central to the design process, has become all but obsolete. The A&A show looks at his work as a teacher (he taught at Yale from the 1959-1983), with projects from his many gifted students. I plan to write about the shows elsewhere, but just thought I’d advertise them here, now. Game changers.

[Above: Stirling’s student thesis project of 1949-50, a community center for Newton Aycliffe]

Center of Controversy


By now you’ve surely seen the new renderings by SOMA architects for Park51, the Muslim cultural center in Lower Manhattan. (I refuse to call it the M—– at G—– Z—.) The design seems to me a half-baked attempt at trendy architecture—starchitecture—produced in the hope of demonstrating the progressive ideals of the project’s sponsors. I wish the architecture were better, but they nevertheless have every right to build it. My piece on the controversy, written before the release of these images, appears in the latest issue of Architectural Review. Click through to learn what a stripper, a mayor, and yours truly have in common.

Upside Dome


Over on BldgBlog, Geoff Manaugh has a post up about Gijs Van Vaerenbergh’s “Upside Dome” installation at St. Michiel’s in Leuven. It’s so beautiful I can’t help but post a picture of it here—I’m a sucker for the Belgian Baroque, and modern interventions to it. The piece, I suppose from the title, is a physical inversion of the church’s actual dome. But it looks just as much as if it might be some grid from William Gibson-land that is dripping into the elaborate old space, and that it will soon spread out and cover the entire nave in its matrix. It’s amazing how solid the volume contained by the drooping net appears, when it’s really just air. An ethereal effect, and in the right space for it.

Dishing on Design Research


As a kid in 70s-era New York, I wasn’t especially attuned to home decor. But there was one thing I did notice: virtually all of my friends’ parents had the same tableware. The dishes were a heavy, gray stonewear, rimmed by a pair of concentric navy bands. Cups and serving bowls had an abstracted floral pattern in the same navy shade. A handsome modern design, and utilitarian—my parents used them for everything: a formal dinner party, a quick meal. They were essentially indestructible, which is why, to this day, my parents still use those same plates. As do my best friend’s parents. Etc.

This wonderful tableware was made by the Finish firm Arabia and designed by Ulla Procopé. I discovered this only recently, which shows just how blind even a design writer can be to design, but is also a testament to the new book on D/R by Jane Thompson and Alexandra Lange, which inspired me to look. I knew Design Research primarily through the brilliant concrete and glass building Ben Thompson designed as its Cambridge flagship, and hadn’t quite understood its critical position in the dissemination of modern design in the American home. Certainly I had no idea about the close connection between D/R and Julia Child. That section alone is worth the price of admission, but really the whole thing is terrific, and looks great too, thanks to design by Michael Bierut.

As it is, my parents did not purchase their Arabiaware at D/R. They bought it at Pottery Barn, back when Pottery Barn was still a discount shack, and the means of display was simply to leave the goods out in boxes overflowing with shaved-wood packing. More serious kitchen items were purchased at Bridge, and there was Zabar’s to fill the pantry. D/R was not in their repertoire, but we spent many hours at Conran’s in CitiCorp Center.

It’s sad that today we have nothing analogous to D/R (or Conran’s in its original, low-price incarnation), retailers that offered modern design at modest prices. We have Ikea on one pole and DWR (or Moss?) on the other. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were something in between?