At this year’s SXSW Festival, engineering took center stage in the documentary DamNation (directors Travis Rummel & Ben Knight), which won the Documentary Spotlight Audience Award. It begins with America’s rash of dam-building under FDR when these mammoth structures were considered man-made wonders. Hoover and Grand Coulee are the large-scale examples, but there were about 80,000 smaller dams built across the country. That level of admiration has collapsed as we have come to understand that dam construction went overboard and the consequences were detrimental to wildlife and the environment—and may not have provided the energy, shipping, irrigation, drinking water, and flood control that was expected (who knew that high levels of methane gas are released from reservoir surfaces?). About a quarter of existing dams are considered highly hazardous, and only 2,540 actually produce hydropower, accounting for approximately nine percent of U.S. energy supply. Further, dams block salmon and other fish migration (if it stops the water, it stops the fish…and the entire ecosystem) and degrades water quality by blocking flow. The politics of “reclamation” is questioned. The argument for dam removal is eloquently and humorously made. Think of the definition of dam: “To obstruct or restrain the flow.” Also scaling an engineering feat, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, is the film Impossible Light (director Jeremy Ambers) which chronicles Leo Villeareal’s 25,000 LED lights Bay Lights project, the world’s largest light sculpture at 1.8 miles long and 500 feet high. The nightly dust-to-dawn light show is streamed online at thebaylights.org. Considered the ugly stepsister of the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge is actually complex of two bridges (one double-suspension, the other cantilever) comprising one of the longest spans of any in the States. The bridge has been enlivened by this installation which was a political and technical accomplishment as much as an artistic one, not unlike the erection of the bridge itself. Another determined artist who scales buildings is dancer Elizabeth Streb. Not just a choreographer, she has been called an “extreme action architect” for the gravity-defying movement she calls “Popaction.” In Born to Fly (director Catherine Gund), we not only follow her dancers in their Williamsburg studio but go to the London Olympics where they are suspended from Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge, climb the spokes of the London Eye Ferris Wheel, leap in Trafalgar Square, and walk down the curved glass facade of Foster’s City Hall. Eleanor Ambos Interiors (director Andrew Michael Ellis) shows the eccentric 86-year old interior designer who has collected buildings as well as furnishings. She now rents out these spaces for events and photo shoots. The buildings were acquired to warehouse her ever-growing collection that she originally used to furnish her clients’ homes, but she just couldn’t stop. The Metropolitan Building in Long Island City is one, and others are in Hudson, NY. Losing her sight to macular degeneration has slowed but not stopped Eleanor. Print the Legend (directors Luis Lopez & Clay Tweel) on 3D printing, Font Men (director Dress Code) about typeface designers, and Pioneer Palace (director Andrew McAllister) about a town that was originally an Old West motion picture set built in the 1940s and the revived honky-tonk Pappy and Harriet’s, are among the other selections. Profiles of artists included Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace (director Jeff Dupre), David Hockney IN THE NOW (in six minutes) (director Lucy Walker), Obey the Artist (director Ondi Timoner) about Shepard Fairey, best known for the Obama "Hope" poster, and The Case of the Three Sided Dream (director Adam Kahan) about jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk which will be playing at the IFC Center on June 11 as part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival.
All posts in Review
If/Then Richard Rogers Theater 226 West 46th Street, New York Scheduled to play through October 12, 2014 THINK OF EACH PLAZA, PIER, AND PUBLIC PARK— HOW MANY SIT THERE EMPTY, LONELY, DARK— The Broadway musical If/Then starts in Madison Square Park with its unmistakable folding seats, tables, and umbrellas, a signature of Janette Sadik-Khan’s overhauling of public spaces during the Bloomberg administration. In this musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (the team behind Next to Normal) city planner Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) returns to New York from Arizona where she’s just gotten out of a failed marriage—and urban sprawl. YOU AND I, WE CAN DRAW A BRAND-NEW GRID. EVERYTHING THAT YOU DREAMED OF AS A KID. If New York is a place of infinite possibilities, then Elizabeth has choices, here pared down to two. Should she be called Beth or Liz; should she meet up with her daring new lesbian neighbor or her old college community organizer former boyfriend (who is now also gay); should she take a job in the city’s department of planning or teach the subject? ENDING THE NIGHT AT TWENTY-THIRD AND THIRD... LIZ AND HER DATE, WHO’S HANGING ON EACH WORD... Color coding helps us keep her two-track story choices straight (as well as eyeglasses for Liz, none for Beth). The metaphor of planning a city and planning a life are clear, but the frisson for New Yorkers who care about the built environment are the specific references. ON A GODFORSAKEN STREET OUT WHERE BUSHWICK TURNS TO QUEENS IS A HOME FOR A MAN OF EXTREMELY MEAGER MEANS There are songs called "A Map of New York" and "Ain’t No Man Manhattan," and references to current issues and locations in the five boroughs. WITH THE ARTIST DOWN IN RED HOOK WHO LOST THE PLACE HE WORKS IN SO YOU COULD BUILD SOME CONDOS ON THE WATER? There’s talk about the Harlem riverfront, Long Island City, Roosevelt Island, as well as design competitions, eliminating luxury towers in favor of (affordable) housing units, and reconfiguring plazas. In her Amanda Burden incarnation, Beth wins the American Planning Association’s Burnham Prize. WE NEVER WALK A STRAIGHT LINE. WE NEVER CHECK A STREET SIGN. The set features a mirrored overhang that reflect the action, a nice touch that emphasizes the theme, but also allows us to view the staged machinations like choreography and reflect on the double-sided nature of things. The rest of the set is trusses, scaffolds, frames, stairs and catwalks. If only New York City wondered about its Sliding Doors options the way that Elizabeth does hers. What if we didn’t have that zoning change that allowed air rights? Or we had saved Penn Station? Or if Robert Moses had built the Lower Manhattan Expressway across Soho? What might the city be like today? ON THE WEST SIDE A RAILYARD IS RECLAIMED... WAITING TO BE REBUILT AND THEN RENAMED... Menzel made her reputation in the original Rent 18 years ago, which explored the gentrification of the Lower East Side in the 1980s in the age of AIDS. Nearly 20 years later, the play ends with the rebuilding of the new Penn Station. LET’S MAKE A MAP OF NEW YORK, YOU AND ME. [ALL CAPS are lyrics by Brian Yorkey.]
With the plethora of contemporary art on view in New York during Armory Arts week, it has been instructive to note the contribution by architects to the design of these temporary exhibition spaces, and the use of interesting architectural spaces. The fairs are often held in structures originally used for other purposes — piers, parking facilities, drill halls — so the task has been to not only carve out space for display, but to move viewers (and buyers) with flexibility and ease and to provide an enticing environment. Fair organizers have turned to young architects for these interior layouts, or have chosen compelling venues. Piers 92 and 94, the site of the Armory Show, was designed by Bade Stageberg Cox (BSC), as they have since 2012. The theme this year is “Thresholds,” and the intention is to slow down the sprint through the seemingly endless rows of displays. The large ticket desk is a transitional space to cushion entry. On the floor is dark grey carpeting punctuated by light grey rectangles to demarcate lounges and areas of respite. Cut-throughs permit easier navigation, rather than having to hit the end of a long corridor before round the corner to the next row. Thankfully, a staircase has been reintroduced between the two piers (last year one was forced into the cold outside) which has been cloaked in translucent fabric. BSC also designed seating used throughout the lounge areas. The Independent, held in the old Dia Building on West 22nd Street, engaged architects Andrew Feuerstein and Bret Quagliara, who created a layout inspired by the tangram, a Chinese “dissection” puzzle that uses many triangles and is said to help develop spatial reasoning skills. Diagonal walls demarcate the 40 galleries on three floors, but there are no “booths” so the artwork bleeds together in flowing sight lines. The result is that the components feel part of a wider whole. The architects worked with gallerists to tailor the spaces based on the work they planned to exhibit. Each floor has large windows on the north and south sides which bathe the space with natural light. The site of Scope art is the Skylight at Moynihan Station. This would seem to indicate an upper aerie, but it is actually the working back-end of the McKim, Mead and White James A. Farley Post Office entered on West 33rd Street. The skylit postal dock and mail sorting rooms are now an open industrial shed subdivided into gallery booths and lounges. Natural light from above is perfect for showing art. The Moving Image Art Fair is at the Tunnel, 220 Twelfth Avenue, a former warehouse turned nightclub, where Grimshaw’s offices are located. And the Art Dealers Association’s The Art Show is held at the majestic Park Avenue Armory, which was just renovated by Herzog & de Meuron. Not a temporary art fair, but another contemporary art extravaganza opened this week—the Whitney Biennial (closes may May 25). It will be the last one to be held in the Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue. One of the three curators, Anthony Elms, kept returning to a question he found in the notes that Breuer made when designing the building: “What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan?” For Elms, “just as Breuer’s Whitney with its heavy walls and retreating facade — unapologetically sets its own material and temporal identity against the city’s quotidian business rhythms,” his installation features works central to this thinking, in particular Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura called 945 Madison Avenue, 2014, that uses the large, trapezoidal window on the 4th floor to bring the inverted image of the city inside. The museum itself become a frame for creative investigation. Artist Sergei Tcherepnin, chosen by another curator, Stuart Comer, attached transducers (devices that convert signals into vibrations) onto eight Breuer light fixtures in the lobby, which make the overhead lighting into synthesizer “speaker-instruments” channeling sounds from the building itself in Ambient Marcel (Waiting, Working, Erupting), 2014. Biennial artworks with architectural references of note include John Mason’s Vertical Torque, White, 1997; Joel Otterson’s 187 Bottoms Up, 2013, Sheila Hick’s Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, 2013-14; Ken Lum’s Midway Shopping Plaza, 2014; Martin Wong’s Closed, 1984-85; Lisa Anne Auerbach’s American Magazine #2, 2014; and Etel Adnan’s New York From the Triborough Bridge to South of Manhattan New York, May 21, 1990. At the fairs, architectural works included Yutaka Sone’s Little Manhattan, 2007-2009 (Armory, David Zwirner); Kim Jones’s Doll House, 1974-2013 (Armory, Pierogi), Ahmed Mater’s Metropolis, 2013 and Ground Zero I (Armory, Athr Gallery), Do Ho Suh’s Specimen Series: Berlin Apartment, 2011 (Armory, Lehmann Maupin); Paul Ramirez Jonas’s Admit one: Tishman Auditorium, 2012 (Armory, Nara Roesler); Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Space Drawing No. 7, 2010 (Moving Image, Osage); Nicole Cohen’s Champagne Room, 2013 (Moving Image, Morgan Lehman); Charles LeDray’s Picnic, 2005-2013 (ADAA, Sperone Westwater); Gavin Turk’s Small Door (Yellow & Green), 2013 (ADAA, David Nolan); Roxy Paine’s Emulsion, 2012 (ADAA, Marianne Boesky); James Castle’s booth (ADAA, Peter Freeman); Vera Lutter’s Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn, May 21, 1996 (ADAA, Weinstein); Kelly Reemtsen’s Eames Rust Side Chair Right View, 2007 (Scope, De Buck); and David Kramer’s Night Moves, 2014 (Scope, Long-Sharp) features the headline “I Should Have Bought Real Estate” over a nighttime skyline.
“The future never existed, only the present.”—Paolo Soleri in Doug Aitken’s The Source At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival last month, visitors were constantly reminded of architecture. The introductory bumper played before every single screened film featured a digitally-mapped projection on the facade of the Egyptian Theater, an art deco cinema on Park City, Utah's Main Street. Created by Klip Collective and filmed in July 2013, images of signature Sundance movie posters from the last 30 years flash by on vitrines, film titles cycle on the marquee, characters like Jay and Silent Bob step out from the walls, and much of the facade is divided into mini-screens. Architectural elements such as the columns, capitals, and entablature are outlined and patterned in colored lights. Klip Collective also produced a live projection screened onto the Egyptian facade each night of the 10-day festival to those willing to brave the cold for a narrative called What’s He Projecting In There (The Projectionist) where principal Ricardo Rivera overcame the obstacles of pesky lampposts, equipment shadows, color corrections of projected hues onto the facade’s terra cotta glazes, and his filmed characters walking past real-world pilasters. These projects were part of the festival’s New Frontier (NF) section, billed as an experiment in “social and creative space that showcases media installations, multimedia performances, and transmedia experiences.” Another NF project was Doug Aitken’s The Source, interviews with creative artists including architects David Adjaye (who also designed The Source’s round building with corrugated glass facade where the films could be glimpsed from outside), Liz Diller, Jacques Herzog, and Paolo Soleri, as well as architecturally inclined artists Theaster Gates, Liz Glynn, Mike Kelley, and Richard Phillips. (These interviews can be seen online.) Also in NF were Miwa Matreyek’s This World Made Itself; Myth and Infrastructure; Dreams of Lucid Living a live performance where she walks between a front- and rear-screen projected cityscape, and James Nares’s The Street projection of a high-speed footage that captured slow-motion movement of people in New York City. The roster of films was rich with architectural references and allusions. The purpose of higher education in today’s economy and society was eloquently encapsulated by Cooper Union architecture student Bob Estrin during the sit-in protesting the introduction of tuition in Ivory Tower: "What we need to do, quite simply, is realize... with all the models of higher education as a business—is failing. This is a moment for this school to be the vision of what education can be in this country, just as it was the vision 150 years ago." The documentary Return to Homs explores the 3rd largest city in Syria, after Damascus and Aleppo, called "Capital of the revolution" where youth rebellion against the Assad regime was centered. Homs is the site of the most deaths in the country, and the violence and destruction is captured and narrated by the filmmaker Talal Derki over time. The film travels through the man-made tunnels created by sledgehammering down the adjoining walls of row houses as the insurgents slowly progress to hoped-for supplies and possible escape. A short film set in nearby Yemen, The Big House, follows a poor child who finds the key to the one mansion in his small town, which he then explores with glee—the expansive rooms, the shower with running hot water, beds he can jump on, and photos of the owner who we understand was taken away in a political scandal. Another sort of architectural destruction is in Pablo’s Villa seen at the Slamdance Film Festival that takes place alongside Sundance. A lost Atlantis that was flooded under 30 feet of water and has now resurfaced 28 years later, the ruins of this resort spa town on a saltwater lake stick up: crumbled buildings, staircases to nowhere, arches framing nothing, and its sole occupant, 83-year old Pablo Novak, who never left. It’s part of his identity, a notion given a different spin in the Sundance short Butter Lamp which shows a photographer in China who has elaborate theater-like backdrops for the photos he shoots of nomadic family gatherings and weddings. They start predictably with images of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and a temple , but quickly shifts to Disneyland, a pristine beach, and other unlikely, un-Chinese settings. It’s like a 19th century photo studio where you choose your iconographic surroundings. We also visit different locations in Lock Charmer. Sebastian, a locksmith in Buenos Aires, is called to rescue people out of padlocked apartments and fix stubborn locks. As he works, Sebastian has visions about their lives. It’s a metaphor, much like the very powerful Locke, the surname of the title character, who is the manager of a construction site on the eve of the largest concrete pour in Europe. He abandons the site for honorable, highly personal reasons, and although he is fired by his Chicago-based bosses because of his defection, he is determined to see the pour through to completion. This is accomplished entirely by phone as he drives from Birmingham to London. He coaches his now tipsy underling (drinking to steel his nerves) to ensure the right C6-grade concrete will be delivered, faulty rebars are replaced, and road closures are in place to ensure mixer trucks smooth access. Thank goodness for hands-free Bluetooth dialing! The metaphor extends to Locke constructing a new life. On a fanciful note, in The One I Love a troubled couple goes to a beautiful retreat in Ojai, California where they are the only guests. There is a main house with muted colors, and a more fantastical guest house with brighter hues, where they encounter their identical doubles, their better selves. Footage shot in the guest house used anamorphic lenses, while spherical lenses were employed the main house to establish entirely different tones for each venue. Another young couple is renovating a secluded estate in The Sleepwalker. The setting (and a main character) is the 1932 landmarked modernist Wells House in Massachusetts, built for the scion of the American Optical Company and grandson of Daniel Burnham who went on to develop Sturbridge Village. Designed by Boston architect Paul Wood of Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott, it is the oldest surviving modernist house in the state, and was inspired by Mies’s Wolf and Lange & Esters houses in Gubin and Krefeld, Germany, which were seen by Wells. (Although commissioned in 1929, the house was completed the same year as the MoMA International Style exhibition, well before the 1938 Gropius house in Lincoln, MA). Built of whitewashed brick with flat roofs and steel-framed floor-to-ceiling window walls, the 9,000 square foot 9-bedroom house on 56 acres is “a modern house which causes the lay person first to gasp at the audacity of its conception and then to revel in the simplicity of line, perfection of detail, and charm of color which characterize it” according to Christine Ferry in the November 1933 issue of House Beautiful. The house is currently on the market and although was built as a single dwelling, could easily be used for a school, artists’ colony, performing arts space, or yoga retreat. What a lovely thought that art and life, film and architecture, could come together here. Films & Media/Directors The Big House, Musa Syeed Butter Lamp, Hu Wei Ivory Tower, Andrew Rossi Lock Charmer, Natalia Smirnoff Locke, Steven Knight The One I Love, Charlie McDowell Pablo’s Villa, Matthew Salleh Return to Homs, Talal Derki The Sleepwalker, Mona Fastvold The Source, Doug Aitken The Street, James Nares Sundance bumper, Klip Collective This World Made Itself; Myth and Infrastructure; Dreams of Lucid Living, Miwa Matreyek What’s He Projecting In There (The Projectionist), Klip Collective
PBS's four-part TV series, Super Skyscrapers, deals with uber-high buildings around the world. It is rare to follow the process of constructing a building, let alone a monster-sized one. Yet here, a special characteristic of each of the four skyscrapers is highlighted within the context of maximum height: One World Trade Center's safety measures, Leadenhall's prefabrication, One57's high luxury, and Shanghai Tower's vertical city aspirations. Interestingly, the architects’ roles in the buildings is downplayed. We do meet SOM's David Childs, who tells us about the shape of One World Trade; glimpse Graham Stirk of Rogers Stirk Harbour who tells us Leadenhall's triangular form solved a mandate of not blocking the view of St. Paul’s Cathedral; and we see some of the Gensler team behind the Shanghai Tower. However, the name Christian de Portzamparc is not once uttered in the One57 episode. One World Trade Center, New York The series begins with One World Trade Center during the final year of construction as it climbs to its 1,776 foot height. There are breathtaking shots from the very top of the structure looking down the building to the streets below, the water’s edge, and New York City traffic. Another view catapults up a very long elevator shaft. The history of the design process is bypassed except for mention of a global competition that produced some “wild ideas” (over a shot of Daniel Libeskind)—“but then a real plan evolved.” The program emphasized that after 9/11, the new World Trade Center had to be “the safest and strongest in the world,” protected from explosions, storms, earthquakes, and any other catastrophe, natural or man-made. The building’s concrete core is much tougher than pre-9/11 buildings, with the life support systems embedded in “the world’s tallest bunker.” Safety features include wider stairs so people could rush both up and down simultaneously, filters to purify air in stairwells to protect against biological or chemical attack, pressurized stairwells to keep smoke from entering when doors open, and luminous tape in stairwells (like in an airplane) to show the way without lights. A highlight of this episode is seeing the “spire” erected (it’s called a spire instead of an antenna so that the top counts towards the building’s measured height). Made in Quebec, the spire's 18 pieces—weighing 40 tons—are first seen on a barge sailing in New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty. Once ashore, they travel by night through city streets in a slow processional before being hoisting by a 1,400-foot-tall vertical crane-lift, the tallest in the United States. Footage from the top of the tower is thrilling. The lighting will be like an old-fashioned lighthouse with 288 LEDs for a horizontal beam of light visible for 15 miles. Hundreds more LEDs on the exterior of the spire can change colors and create vivid patterns. The construction is also a contradiction of advanced technology and the archaic—some of the fastest elevators in the world running up to 2,000 feet per minute, alongside metalworkers welding, hammering, and screwing bolts like in a Lewis Hine photograph from the 1930s. Leadenhall Building, London Like a giant Lego set, the Leadenhall Building in the heart of the City of London is a pre-fabricated skyscraper with a perimeter-braced diagrid exoskeleton put up by 1/3 the standard-sized crew. This 48-story structure nicknamed the “Cheese Grater” is appetizingly close to Foster’s Gherkin. A two-year construction period is lightening speed for a building in the heart of a major capital. The tower's tapering triangular shape together with the placement of all core functions—elevator, bathrooms, mechanical, and electrical systems—in a separate but connected, stand-alone tower on the north side permit unobstructed views of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The majority of construction took place in the north of England and northern Ireland, including the 90-foot-long, steel mega-columns—all 11,000 of them—which are simply bolted into place on arrival. On each floor are three modular structures called “tables” (four columns joined by the floor structure) which are fully loaded with guts inside (plumbing, electrical, HVAC) and will be visible since they are sprayed a bright yellow. Only 24 bolts are used to secure the modules—no welding, no concrete required. Pre-cast concrete floors are fixed to the “tables” and installed by six workers and one crane driver (pouring on site would have taken three times as long and used double the manpower). The pre-fab installation process was enabled by 3D computer models made by “digital engineers” who plotted out the sequences in 15-minute intervals in advance. One57 This episode is all about money and time. One57 will be the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere with a 30-story hotel and 94 residential condos including two 10,000-square-foot penthouses. The Central Park views are its calling card, and there is much time spent on the interiors—the just-right Carrara marble for the bathrooms, custom wood kitchens made in Wiltshire, England, and advertising photographs of the aerial views taken from miniature drone helicopters. We meet former diamond dealer, Gary Barnett, President of Extell Development, but not the tower's architect, Christian de Portzamparc. The Skyscraper Museum’s Carol Willis quoted Cass Gilbert: “A skyscraper is a machine that makes the land pay.” Shanghai Tower Set in Pudong, Shanghai, where the near-future was depicted in the movie Her, the newest addition to cluster of the nearby super-towers, Shanghai World Financial Center and Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai Tower will be the second tallest building in the world at 2,073 feet (second only to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). In fact, Pudong now has double the number of skyscrapers as New York. Understanding that there has been overdevelopment with resulting pollution and congestion, Gensler counters by saying Shanghai Tower will be an island, a vertical city. The skyscraper will house 30,000 people on 121 floors split into 9 “districts.” To demonstrate the city concept, a model of the tower is shown on its side, making an analogy with city blocks (although one city block in Pudong is the equivalent of six in lower Manhattan). There are actually two curtain walls with an “atrium” or “sky garden” in between, much like a thermos. These perimeter gardens have internal air currents which will actually power wind turbines at the very top. These two curtain walls are hung around the same core, like a skyscraper wrapped around another skyscraper. The building was constructed from the top down using a ring-beam structure nicknamed the "Flying Saucer," rather than the bottom up, so it’s like a hanging garden. To minimize effects of severe winds, the corners were rounded, and torqued to shift to 120 degrees as the building rises -- the more it twists, the more the reduction of wind. Super Skyscrapers “One World Trade Center” “Building the Future” Leadenhall “The Vertical City” Shanghai Tower, airdate 2/19/14 “The Billionaire Building” One57, airdate 2/26/14 Super Skyscrapers is broadcast on Wednesdays on PBS. The series is half-way through the broadcast run on PBS, however all episodes can be viewed in their entirety online.
The Oculus book talk on the new book, How to Study Public Life, at the Center for Architecture with Jan Gehl and his co-author Birgitte Svarre was like seeing the documentary The Human Scale come to life—only with a sense of humor. Gehl’s urban theories have gained a lot of traction, not least in New York City. Jeanette Sadik-Khan went to Gehl's native Copenhagen two weeks into her job as commissioner of NYC's Department of Transportation (along with fellow commissioner of City Planning, Amanda Burden) and experienced the city's pedestrian-over-cars public plazas, rode bicycles on protected bike lanes, and absorbed the lessons of the city that is repeatedly named the most livable in the world. The 77-year-old Gehl traces his crusade back to a New York antecedent, Jane Jacobs' 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities, published one year after he graduated from architecture school. He was trained to make free-standing buildings that “look nice from an airplane,” but married a psychologist who challenged him: why aren’t you interested in people? Gehl began to observe the behavior of people in cities (people like to cluster near the edges, not stand in the open, for example) and came up with measurable statistics in a series of studies that began to influence policy. In 1962, Copenhagen pedestrianized its first street, Stroeget Street, which began its transformation from a car to a biking and walking city. Today, Copenhagen has seven times more people space than in the 1960s, and all taxis and public transportation are legislated to have bike racks to widen the reach of this preferred mode of transport. I was reminded of the new film, Copenhagen, winner at the Slamdance Film Festival, where the human-scaled city traversed by bike is a main character. Gehl noted that the “Brasilia Syndrome” of cities that look good from the air but not from the ground, is still rampant in China, Dubai, and even in Brooklyn. He calls this birds-eye-view building “birdshit architecture.” His twin devils are the two M’s: modernism and motorists, and he’d prefer to have a Department of Pedestrians to a Department of Transportation (no city yet has taken on the challenge). Perhaps the proof that Gehl’s theories work is that in 2012, New York City was awarded the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize recognizing the transformation of the city during the Bloomberg administration. Books by Jan Gehl available from Island Press: How to Study Public Life, 2013 Cities for People, 2010 Life Between Buildings, 2008
Fernand Léger is famous for his colorful paintings, many of which feature machine-like forms. He was also at the center of Paris’ avant-garde in the 1920s, not only in painting, but also in graphics, set and costume design, film-making, and architecture. That is the thesis of Anna Vallye, curator of this fall’s major exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis, inspired by the museum’s Léger masterpiece, the monumental 1919 painting, “The City.” Léger was born in 1881 to a cattle farmer in Normandy, France. He trained as an architect and moved to Paris in 1900 to become an architectural draftsman, later transitioning to painting seriously in his mid-20s. He also served in the French army during World War I. When he returned from the front, he painted “The City,” an almost eight-foot-by-ten-foot “mural” painting that Vallye compares to Picasso’s pivotal 1907 work, “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon.” She wrote in the exhibition catalogue, “If the ‘Desmoiselles’ is a world of fragments that converge in the ‘startled consciousness of (its) viewer’…’The City’ is a throbbing surface with no point of convergence, a bristling aggregate of equivalent signs (disk, pedestrian, letters, smoke) and formal effects.” In the 1920’s, Léger socialized and sometimes collaborated with a wide-ranging group of artists and architects, whose works are on lavish display in this exhibition—of its approximately 180 works, only one-third are by Léger. Thus, in the section focusing on what Vallye calls “publicity,” there are striking posters by Jean Carlu, Francis Bernard, and Cassandre for everything from a record company to a railway. Also here is a snippet of Abel Gance’s film, The Wheel, depicting close-up views of the wheels of a train in motion. Léger's design for a poster for it is nearby. There is also Léger's own experimental film, Mechanical Ballet, made in 1923 with Dudley Murphy and Man Ray. The film had no story line or script, but an array of often abstract images and a score by George Antheil for sixteen player pianos, three airplane propellers, a siren, and seven electric bells. And there are Léger's ballet set and costume designs, such as his multi-colored, abstract, early 1920’s backdrop and accompanying costumes for the Ballets Suedois’ Paris production of “The Skating Rink,” themselves inspired, according to Vallye, by Charlie Chaplin’s 1916 film, The Rink. The final section of the exhibition explores the influence of Léger's architectural training on his later designs, as well as the interaction during the 1920s between architects like Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens and furniture designer Eileen Gray with painters like Léger and Theo van Doesburg. Highlights here include a 1982 reconstruction, after the 1923 original, of van Doesburg’s and Cornelius van Eesteren’s model of the utopian de Stijl private house, an explosion into space of planes and primary colors, and similar designs for l’Architecture Vivante, an avant-garde architectural magazine by Gray, Jean Badovici, van Doesburg, van Eesteren, Vilmos Huszar, Le Corbusier, and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. The dialogue between Léger's abstract 1924-25 “Mural painting” and more figurative 1926 “Accordian” and “Still Life (The Cameos)” paintings, with earlier still life paintings by Le Corbusier and his colleague, Amedee Ozenfant, is fascinating. For Léger, said Vallye, mural paintings were meant to be a “presence in space. They affect the way you experience the space around them, they are meant to dominate space. If you put a red couch in a room, it changes the temperature of the whole room. Léger wanted painting to do the same thing.” Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis, through January 5, 2014, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, . It will be on display at the Correr Museum in Venice from February 8 to June 2, 2014.
[Editor's Note: The following review was authored by Gideon Fink Shapiro and Phillip M. Crosby.] A generation’s worth of experimentation with generative digital design techniques has seemingly created a “new normal” for architecture. But what exactly are the parameters of this “normal” condition? On November 14th and 15th Winka Dubbeldam, principal of Archi-Tectonics and the new Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, called together some of contemporary architecture’s most prominent proponents of generative digital design techniques for a symposium, The New Normal, examining how these techniques have transformed the field over the past twenty years. According to Ms. Dubbeldam and her colleagues in Penn’s post-professional program who organized the symposium, digital tools have “fundamentally altered the way in which we conceptualize, design, and fabricate architecture.” Participants were asked not only to reflect upon the recent past, but also to speculate on future possibilities. Even among this select group of practitioners, the shared enthusiasm for digital techniques does not imply an affinity of beliefs or approaches. While Patrik Schumacher (who, notably, lectured at Penn one week later) would have us believe that parametric techniques will triumphantly lead to a New International Style, what the New Normal symposium revealed was not a singular orthodoxy, but rather a rich multiplicity of approaches. On the one hand, one perceives a renewed sense of craftsmanship in which computation and robot-assisted fabrication can "extend the potential of what the hand can do," in the words of Gaston Nogues of Ball-Nogues Studio. On the other hand, ever-increasing computational and 3D-modeling power have nourished a whole field of virtual "screen architecture" that follows in the tradition of conceptual and utopian proposals. In his opening keynote address, Neil Denari discussed several contemporary artists—from Gerhard Richter to Tauba Auerbach—who use or misuse tools to elicit unexpected results. Similarly for architects, the computer should be seen as a filter or intermediary tool between author and work, rather than a seamless executor of authorial will. More pointedly, Roland Snooks of Kokkugia asked, "What are the behavioral biases of digital design tools?" He then suggested that contemporary architects might need to invent and design their own tools (software plug-ins and algorithms) in parallel with the architecture. Simon Kim of IK Studio went so far as to attribute to machines an agency once reserved for humans. And Francois Roche of New-Territories Architects said, "We have to torture the machine" to stretch its conventional functions, teasing out new "erotic bodies" and "ways to tell a story" through playful cunning. Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix were all invoked, but not by the speaker who wore sunglasses during his talk—Jason Payne of Hirsuta. Citing previously published remarks by Jeffrey Kipnis and Greg Lynn, Payne urged architects to test the assumed limits of their digital instruments, just as Hendrix pushed the limits of his guitar by playing it upside-down and incorporating electronic feedback in his radical performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969. However, Payne cautioned, as he cued a slide of Eddie van Halen, the pursuit of technical virtuosity alone can lead to manneristic excess. Indeed, what made Hendrix's Woodstock performance great was not only his innovative guitar work but also his subversive and liberating rendition of the national anthem at a time of social upheaval, sharpened by his insider-outsider status as an African-American rock star. The point is, instrumentation cannot necessarily be isolated from the substance of a work and the social conditions in which it is produced. Tobias Klein gave voice to the digital zeitgeist in declaring, "We [human beings] are soft, malleable data sets." Yet if everything is now data, including bodies and buildings, how and to whose advantage is that data analyzed and applied? Selection criteria are inevitably human constructs that may take the form of artistic judgment, energy metrics, economic models, or political values. Ben van Berkel of UNStudio hinted at the conundrum of data analysis in his concluding keynote, in which he listed "different scales at which information comes together"—namely the diagram, the design model, and the prototype. But alas the Dutch architect, an acknowledged master of the diagram, did not elaborate on how, exactly, his office wrangles messy information into a clear design mandate. One notable absence from the slate of participants in the symposium was a critic or historian to situate the New Normal within both the history of architectural practice and the wider milieu of contemporary culture. While one of the most prominent theorists of generative design, Manuel De Landa, made important contributions to the discussions, his comments focused not on situating the discourse, but instead on the artistic repurposing of non-linear, morphogenetic tools developed by scientists to create more personalized digital form-finding devices. Also lacking were the voices of women, who numbered only three out of twenty speakers and moderators, including Ms. Dubbeldam. What the relentless experimentation among the symposium’s participants suggests is that, while there may be a new normal for the practice of architecture, it has yet to become normative—and that is a sign of its vitality.