What if your living room were six stories high with views of Central Park, midtown north, and Broadway slicing the Upper West Side towards Lincoln Center? How would you decorate the space? If you’re the Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi, you would put a thirteen-foot tall marble figure in the center and surround it with a sectional sofa, book-lined shelves, and a flat-screen TV.
Actually the sequence was the other way around: Nishi has wrapped a domestic architectural space around the existing statue that crowns Gaetano Russo’s 1892 Christopher Columbus monument on 59th Street. In Discovering Columbus, commissioned by the Pubic Art Fund, visitors climb six flights of stairs above madding crowds and circling traffic to step into a strangely intimate room perched high above Central Park like an urban tree house.
Discovering Columbus instantly toys with our sense of scale. We’re now confronted, up close, with a familiar object we’ve scurried past, 70 feet below, and not paid much heed. With his swaggering hand-on-hip stance, defiant but aloof gaze, horned cap and flowing garments, Columbus is a giant we’re meeting in person for the first time. He seems to want to join the parade of pop-cultural icons—Elvis, the Empire State Building, Mickey Mouse, McDonalds—stamped on the surrounding pink wallpaper.
Furnishings selected by the artist with the help of Bloomingdale’s and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams evoke a comfy, colorful sitting room with burgundy velvet curtains, purple sofas, framed pictures, vases, lamps, side tables, with Columbus himself perched on a black coffee table.
We’re privileged to share a vantage Columbus has enjoyed for over a century. To the north, the Trump International Hotel & Tower and the silver Unisphere splits Broadway from Central Park West, to the east, 59th Street abuts Central Park South, to the west is the Time Warner Center, while to the south, Brad Cloepfil’s Museum of Art & Design places the restaurant Robert at eye level. As a bonus, climbing the six flights of stairs provides a rare close-up of bronze ships’ prows and anchors that make their way up the granite column.
The scaffolding supporting the stairwell is currently doing double duty, as it also contains platforms used for restoration work on the column. When Nishi’s room at the top closes, conservators will use the enclosed space as a studio to complete work on the Columbus statue. This will complete the renovation of Columbus Circle begun in 2005, which has produced a granite plaza with new benches, plantings, perimeter fountains, and reconfigured walkways and crosswalks.
Discovering Columbus is Nishi’s latest architectural intervention that involves taking historical monuments and surrounding them with domestic spaces. Previous works include Villa Victoria (2002), a temporarily functioning hotel constructed around a statue of Queen Victoria in Liverpool; Engel (2002), a one-room apartment built around a bronze angel weathervane atop a 14th century cathedral in Basel; Tatzu Nishi: War and peace and in between (2009–10), featuring two living spaces surrounding equestrian sculptures at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; and The Merlion Hotel (2011), a temporary hotel suite built around Singapore’s Merlion fountain.