Wavefield: Maya Lin at Storm King

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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?

Sukkah City

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I will refrain from pimping it here too hard, being a member of the sponsoring organization, a friend of the triumvirate of visionaries who put it together, and a (limited) advisor on the proceedings (publishing division), but let me nonetheless urge you to visit SukkahCity, both on the Web and in its physical manifestation in Union Square Park, starting Monday. The sukkah, a (green!) temporary structure erected to celebrate the Jewish harvest festival, is an ideal form for an experimental architectural competition. What with this crap economy, it also happens to be a good time for a competition, as evidenced by the more than 1,400 entries to this one. At a preview out in Gowanus eariler this week, I was especially impressed with the pneumatic “Bio Puff” from Brooklyn’s own Bittertang—a throwback to what the late Marc Dessauce dubbed the Inflatable Moment. The rendering, above, is kind of somber, but the real thing is of clear plastic with a definite 60s/70s vibe. Check ’em all out.

The Old Ballpark in the Bronx

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The new Yankee Stadium is heading toward the close of its second season, and though I can’t say I love it, I think I’ve come to terms with its existence. The abandoned old ballpark next door is now gone, having given way to construction fencing, so there’s no longer a specter looming ominously over the new joint. But that Yankee Stadium, the rough-and-ugly, 1970s-era edition of the House that Ruth Built, will always be my Yankee Stadium. It was a great public space—to walk up one of its tunnels to see the emerald field revealed below (stirring every time) was a lesson in what Philip Johnson called “procession.” It was an electric place when packed for a big game.

Baseball, of course, lives on the memories it inspires, and that place has left more that its share. As a tribute to it, last year Alex Belth published a series of the reminiscences of the old park on his indispensable blog, Bronx Banter. My contribution, about life in the bleachers in the 1980s is here. Now, Alex has collected all the pieces he commissioned, and added many more for a new book, Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories, out next month. It’s got an intro by Yogi Berra (who else?), and pieces by Richard Ben Cramer, Jane Leavy, Kevin Baker, and countless others. A great project, and a worthy memorial to a great New York place.

[Photo: NY1]

Highboy Hullabaloo

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sony (nee AT&T) Building, as I research my Philip Johnson bio. It’s also been on the minds of the curators of the Victoria & Albert Museum, which recently purchased a presentation drawing of the project for a forthcoming show on Postmodernism. In an insightful post on the building and the controversy it engendered, the V&A’s Glenn Adamson quotes Michael Sorkin’s acid review of it: “The so-called ‘post-modern’ styling in which AT&T has been tarted up is simply a graceless attempt to disguise what is really just the same old building by cloaking it in this week’s drag, and by trying to hide behind the reputations of the blameless dead.” Alexandra Lange, on her blog, quotes this quote from Adamson. (Sorkin, as ever, makes great copy.) I’m going to save my bullets for later, but I just thought I’d point out that AT&T, love it or hate it, was hardly the “same old building”; that is, a generic office tower of stacked floor plates—what my friend Philip Nobel calls a “lasagna” building. (Or how about “Saltine“?) The AT&T was hardly standard. This is a thirty-eight story building, afterall, that rises to sixty stories (check out the grand staircase connecting the three executive levels, above), a building with a “sky lobby” and an attached museum (which, by the way, is now operational as the Sony Wonder Technology Lab—seriously—with free admission). Which is merely to say, this is no ordinary building.

At Home with Bob & Denise

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Over the weekend I had the very good fortune to spend an afternoon with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at their home in suburban Philadelphia. I thought they might live in a house of their own design—and in a sense they do—but when I pulled up at the given address I found myself looking at something unusual and of an older vintage—almost Prairie School. It turned out to be an authentic Art Nouveau mansion, built in 1907, one of very few in the United States. They’ve called it home since the early 1970s; they found it driving through the area after visiting Bob’s mother at the famous house he designed for her, which is just a few minutes away.

A tour would come later, but for the moment we headed out to lunch, the three of us, to an unprepossessing nearby cafe, where student types were drinking their coffee and brunching. Bob and Denise, though a good four decades older than anyone else in the joint, were clearly regulars, and greeted as such by the staff. (Their order: a crepe with spinach and chevre.) We chatted a bit, and then walked back to the house, Denise providing a running commentary on their Mt. Airy neighborhood—I believe she called it a “dilapidated utopia”—its residents, and its architecture of handsome local schist. Bob ambled along a few steps behind in a seersucker blazer, armed against the light drizzle with a folding Princeton umbrella. We looked like a cartoon from 1953, or maybe characters from a Kingsley Amis novel.

Back to the house. The interior is a happy agglomeration of books and images and furniture, all stacked and piled according to a system knowable only to the proprietors. Denise likes to call herself architecture’s “Grandmother”—she looks the part, certainly—by which she means guardian of the field’s “institutional memory,” in particular the legacy of the work she and Bob have done together—together!—over the years. I think aunt and uncle might be a better analogy. They’ve always existed at something of a remove from architecture’s inner-family circle.

Period forms and vernacular images pushed up against each other and amplified in a humane, generous, and optimistic manner—that’s a rather simplified description of the Venturi & Scott Brown design philosophy. I’m not sure it always works in practice. But their own home is a wonderful representation of their ideas and aesthetic. I’m pretty sure there’s no better place to spend a few hours talking architecture on a rainy Sunday.

A few images follow, and apologies for their blurry quality.

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The salon, or living room.

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The walls, painted with a familiar floral pattern.

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Work, in miniature.

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Bob travelled Europe to find this vase.

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Inspirational figures circle the dining room.

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Happened in Vegas. Stays in Philly.

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American Gothic.

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Probably the only place in America where a McD’s sign can be used without causing immediate intellectual repulsion.

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Mother’s House, just a few minutes away. It was not originally green, but shortly after its completion Bob was told “You can’t paint a house green.” So guess what.

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Lou Kahn’s Esherick House is about 200 feet (and an architectural revolution) away.

PS: Bob has this image hanging above his desk at the office.