Minimalist Times Square

September 18th, 2012

Robert Ryman?  Agnes Martin?  Kazimir Malevich?  (Photo by Karrie Jacobs.)

Last night I took my SVA DCrit students on our annual field trip to Times Square.  We started with a tour that featured the Marriott Marquis in all it’s bunkerish glory, and attempted to visit the Philippe Starck designed lobby of the Paramount Hotel, only to discover that the lobby was closed for renovation (strongly suggesting that, as with the Royalton, another 1980s Starck landmark has bit the dust).  And then we sat, as we always do, on the TKTS Booth bleachers, observing the multimedia extravaganza all around us and trying to decide what John Ruskin would say if he were here.  Fun.

At some point, I asked my students what Times Square would look like without all the signage.  What kind of place would be left if all the screens suddenly went dark?  I don’t think anyone had a great answer.  But then, as I was walking back to the subway, I looked up and saw the SOM-designed office tower on the south side of 42nd Street covered in blank billboards.  It’s probably just the prep work for a big ad campaign to come, but I chose to see it as a work of minimalist public art.  Maybe it was a Robert Ryman retrospective.

Also, while I was standing on 42nd St. waiting for my students to gather, I was watching the hustlers dressed in Micky and Minnie Mouse costumes who, like the notorious Elmo, are posing for pictures with tourists in exchange for tips.  I don’t think that anyone, back when we were all fuming about the Disneyfication of Times Square, could have envisioned this particular scenario.


Here’s a recent Metropolis column on my new neighborhood.

And here’s my current favorite video.

Oh, and if you happen to be in St. Louis on the 28th of this month, I’ll be speaking at the FORM Contemporary Design Show.

Williamsburg Snapshot #1

June 13th, 2012

Bodega, Havemeyer St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Everything is organic here.

Greetings from Williamsburg

June 8th, 2012

The view from inside the Wythe Hotel’s rooftop bar, and the scene on the street below.

I moved.  Again.  Crazy, right?

Early last year, I relocated from downtown Brooklyn to Soho, to live with my  boyfriend.  Then, two weeks ago, the BF, the dog, and I picked up and moved to Williamsburg.  So I’m back in Brooklyn.  But it’s a completely different part of the borough.  W’burg has none of that dreary workaday quality that dominates Downtown with its government offices and courts.  Williamsburg is built (or rebuilt) for pleasure.  Good food.  Good drink. Good hanging out.  It’s all candy here.   The place feels more like San Francisco than New York City.

Last night, after dinner in a Mexican restaurant down by the increasingly glamorous East River, the BF and I were strolling up Wythe and came upon the new Wythe Hotel.  We noticed people on a rooftop terrace, so we went up and checked it out.  It turns out that the Wythe, developed by Andrew Tarlow, the owner of Diner, one of W’burg’s original hipster destination restaurants, has a glorious rooftop bar with the most expansive north-to-south Manhattan skyline view I’ve ever seen.   Best sunset ever.  And, so far,  it doesn’t bother me at all that Manhattan is over there and I’m over here.

A couple of links to recent Metropolis columns:


MoMA’s Foreclosed exhibition

Atlantic City

The Javits Report

May 22nd, 2012

Pleated paper interior by Molo Design, Ltd.  (Photo by Karrie Jacobs.)

Yeah.  I know. It’s been a while.

I love to blog, but it’s something I generally do first thing in the morning and lately my mornings have been monopolized by Memphis, a very handsome, demanding, cattle-dog mix.  And this week we — the boyfriend, the dog, and I — are about to move from Soho to Williamsburg.

But I took a break from packing to check out ICFF at Javits, just to see whether anything was happening that required my attention.  Not a whole lot is.  It’s one of those transitional years.  The Modernist revival that began in the mid-1990s is winding down.  The explosion of green product that boomed  a few years ago has slowed to a trickle.  The recent fascination with computer-driven intricacy is still around, but not as dominant as it has been in past years.  What’s new, if new is indeed the proper word, is the influx of retro-looking artisinal-feeling product: rough hewn wooden tables, hand cast metal tchatchkes… Oh, and Kohler is manufacturing brightly colored sinks (designed by Jonathan Adler) displayed in a booth made from a shipping container (a signal that the shipping container fad has finally crested).

Here are the standouts:

1. Peter Stathis, who brought his breakthrough LED task lamp, Link, to the fair in 2008, has started his own lighting company, Light & Contrast.  His star product at this year’s fair, the Trapeze,  is a major improvement on Link (which I still really admire), both in terms of sculptural qualities and the amount of light it sheds.

2. Matthew Hilton, a British designer who has worked for pretty much everyone, including himself, is lately allied  with De La Espada.  While I have mixed emotions about the revival of wood as a  fashionable material, Hilton does it right.  He is, at heart, a minimalist, who never does anything that could be described as rough hewn.

3. My favorite large scale object at the fair was the pleated paper booth (see above) by Molo Design, Ltd., a Vancouver B.C. based architecture and design studio.  In furniture fairs past, I’ve noticed eye-catching temporary structures that turned out to be completely unrelated to the products on display within.  In this case, Molo’s booth is also its product.  Very cool.

4. Other good stuff:  LED lamps by QisDesign.  Claesson Koivisto Rune -designed Air purifiers by Blueair.  (Which don’t seem to be on the company’s US website.) Student design from the University of Lapland. A nice  Antonio Citterio comfy chair from Vitra.

After the move, I’m going to try to be a better blogger.  Even though blogging is over.  Especially because blogging is over.

Two in Texas

February 2nd, 2012

The Westin hotel  (top) at The Domain in Austin with the sign that inspired my current Metropolis column and (bottom) a view of SOL Austin from the development’s first two-story house.

I went to Austin in October to report a story for the New York Times “Home Section” that finally, finallyran in today’s paper.  And wound up staying in an Aloft hotel in the far northwest corner of the city, part of a development called the Domain.  So I got two things out of one trip, the Times story about SOL, an architecturally ambitious green subdivision, and a Metropolis column about The Domain and how the meaning of the word “urban” is changing.

Thinking about it now, I realize that both pieces tell roughly the same story, about how American cities and our ideas about what constitutes an urban place are changing as we move deeper into the 21st Century.  Developments are beginning to appear that are convincingly of this century, as opposed to being reheated 20th century concepts of what the future was supposed to look like.

Tyng in Trenton.

January 9th, 2012

Anne Tyng’s ideas about geometry helped shape Louis Kahn’s  iconic Trenton Bath House.

I was reading the obits for architect Anne Tyng, who just died at the age of 91.  She was a theorist who is best known for having worked closely with the architect Louis Kahn, the father of her daughter,  Alexandra.

I read this paragraph in the New York Times obit:

Kahn broke with Oscar Stonorov in 1947, but Ms. Tyng continued as a member of Kahn’s staff until 1964, exerting critical influence on his work, including designs for the Yale Art Gallery and the Trenton Bath House. Buckminster Fuller, the architect and futurist, once called her “Kahn’s geometrical strategist.”

It me think about my visit to the newly restored Trenton Bath House in the summer of 2010,  how moved I was by the elemental geometry of the place, and especially by the way the sunlight  poured through the square hole in the center of each simple structure’s wooden roof.  The design was clearly the work of a geometrical strategist, but I’d assumed that strategist was Kahn.

Maybe it was, but he had help.  Inga Saffron framed it this way in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

During a 15-year relationship that was both professional and romantic, she helped him produce his pathbreaking early buildings, including the Trenton Bathhouse and the Yale Art Gallery. Yet until recently, she received little credit for those iconic projects.

“She was a victim of her time, being female, being beautiful. That was a pretty hard legacy to carry,” said Carter Wiseman, author of the biography Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style. “She was constantly swimming upstream.”

Most architecture is collaborative in nature and it’s rare that underlings are properly credited for their contributions.  But the story of Anne Tyng, her relationship with Kahn, and her unacknowledged influence on his work is particularly poignant.  I’m sorry I had to wait until her death to read it.

Queens Goes Vegas?

January 5th, 2012

An Arquitectonica rendering of the proposed Aqueduct convention center and casino.

The proposal floated in Governor [Andrew] Cuomo’s state-of-the-state address yesterday to transplant NYC’s convention center to Queens strikes me, surprisingly, as the first good idea I’ve heard from my state government in a long, long time.  In short, the idea is to let a Malaysian company, the Genting Group, that built the “racino” at Aqueduct, bankroll a new convention center and exhibition hall on government-owned land nearby.  In short:  Queens goes Vegas.

The state could then sell or lease the Javits site to developers eager to participate in the westward expansion of midtown Manhattan. The Javits Center itself would be demolished and  the estimated $4 billion from the site could fund projects such as Moynihan Station.  And — wishful thinking– an upgrade of the A-train which will become the pivotal connector linking Manhattan, the new convention center, and JFK.

Now, I’m not convinced that I would willingly go all the way out to Aqueduct to attend, say, the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.  Although the subway ride out there wouldn’t be anymore arduous than the current cross-town haul to Javits.  And, yes,  it’s totally pathetic that Javits will be going away just as it gets its very own subway stop.   Certainly many observers don’t believe that it’s worth building a new convention center because the convention business is a “disaster.”  But, if that’s truly the case, why should a prime piece of Manhattan waterfront be monopolized by an awful building dedicated to a disastrous business?

Occupy Wall Street Has Accomplished At Least One Thing

October 18th, 2011

Hostile Woolworth Building sign in its customary location, guarding the building’s Broadway entrance.

Above is the sign that used to stand at the Broadway entrance to the landmark Woolworth Building. I noticed it back in September when I attended an office warming party for architect Jim Biber who now works out of a creamy white minimalist space on the building’s 20th floor.  The party was great, but I thought the sign was obnoxious.  I find it sad that the ornate lobbies of lower Manhattan’s historic office towers have been lost to the public, pretty much since 9-11.

A few days ago, I ran into Biber at another party and he told me a story about leaving his office with some friends.  As they strolled out of the elevators and sauntered through the lobby,  he was pointing out  his favorite gargoyles.  “There’s Cass Gilbert…” he was saying when a guard yelled, “No unauthorized tours!”

Yesterday, I was walking down Broadway toward the new white hot center of the universe, Zuccotti Park and I noticed, as I passed the Woolworth Building, that the sign was gone.  Wow, I thought, maybe they’ve loosened up a little.  Maybe they’ve realized how wrong it is to keep the public out.  Then, while zig-zagging through the cacophonous jumble of  occupied Zuccotti Park, I discovered that the sign had been, um, liberated.  See below:

Hostile Woolworth Building sign in its new location in Zuccotti Park, somewhat out of focus.

What I Didn’t Say About the Future

October 17th, 2011

Two streetscapes in IJBurg, the newly built section of Amsterdam.

My story about the city of the future, which wound up mostly being about Almere in the Netherlands, is  in the current issue of Travel + Leisure.  And while Almere,  founded in the 1970s,  is  an extraordinary open-air museum exhibiting successive decade’s visionary schemes, it leaves something to be desired as a city. In short, it lacks the easy sociability that is the hallmark of urbanity,  especially when compared to the newest bits of Amsterdam, just across the water.

In an early draft of the story, I wrote this:

It wasn’t until I took the train to Amsterdam and spent a day exploring that city’s newest neighborhoods,  that I began to understand some things about Almere.   From Amsterdam’s IJburg district, built on network of manmade islands,  you can actually see Almere’s wind turbines across the water (a bridge is in the long range plans).  IJburg’s streets and canals are lined with an amazing assortment of very up-to-date buildings including a large development, Waterbuurt, of houses that float; a response, both visionary and pragmatic,  to rising sea levels and a shortage of land. (Architect Jan Bentham recently abandoned his revolutionary glass house in Almere for a floating house of his own design in IJBurg and now enjoys swimming from his front dock.)

On IJburg’s streets, and in its friendly shops and cafes, I sense the emergence  of the kind of spirited urbanity that’s typical of historic Amsterdam, but that Almere lacks. At a popular local wine bar, the Design Café,  I meet urban planner Ton Schaap, a genial man who orchestrated the build-out of IJburg.  He  explains his effort to imbue an overtly new,  built-from-scratch place  with the essence of Amsterdam.  Some of it is about proportions: the close relationship between the front door and the street.  It’s also about creating  “conditions favorable to street life,” like making sure that buildings on side streets have ground floor spaces suitable for retail. But when Schaap delineates the difference between Almere and Amsterdam, he says this: “The main thing is that people like other people here.”

IJburg is probably the most credible 21st century slice of urbanity I’ve seen.  But there simply wasn’t room for it in the T+L piece.   I’ll likely write  about it. Maybe when I  take a look at New York City’s waterfront and the ways we’re thinking about rising sea water in a forthcoming Metropolis column.  Probably early next year.

Another thing that I’d hoped to shoehorn into the T+L story is the exhibition, Design with the Other 90%, that’s now on display free of charge at the United Nations.  During my research for the T+L story, the term “favela chic” came up a lot.  Shantytowns, unplanned, but often quite organized, are a favorite destination for globetrotting urbanists. And they are certainly home to many more people than planned cities.   This exhibition,  organized by Cynthia E. Smith, the Cooper Hewitt Museum’s curator of socially responsible design,  is a survey of solutions that have emerged from the worlds slums and shanty towns. This isn’t a survey of do-gooder proposals from US and European design student.   Instead, it’s a collection of much needed fixes, often collaborations between slum residents and local design professionals,   mostly implemented.   Impressive projects include the Community Cooker, a garbage-fueled communal stove where the women of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, can prepare their meals and the Medellin Metrocable, a tramway that connects the city’s worst slum to the center of town.

Rather than glorifying shantytowns,  this exhibition looks at the ways that informal urban settlements can be improved by and for the people who live in them. It’s about how unplanned places can take on some of the stability of planned places. It would have made a nice counterpoint to Almere…if I could have squeezed it into that article. Very smart. Very interesting. And the fact that it’s on display at the UN (because the Cooper Hewitt is closed for renovation)  is a bonus. Go see it.

Above, the Community Cooker, Kibera, Nairobi (photo from the Cooper Hewitt website) and the Medellin Metrocable (photo from the Medellin Travel Blog).

Somewhat Still, Definitely Not Silent

September 26th, 2011

The view of Lower Manhattan from Fort Jay on Governors Island and the view of Ground Zero from the 46th floor of 7WTC.

Initially my interest in stillspotting nyc, a project by the Guggenheim Museum, was motivated by the research I’ve done for my book on silence.  My sense is that finding reservoirs of silence within the city is more essential than going off to some remote, uninhabited place in search of peace.  (In the interest of urban tranquility, I’ve  tried wandering around Manhattan wearing noise-canceling headphones.)  But the Manhattan edition of stillspotting, staged over the past two weekends was not about silence at all.  Rather it was about using the meditative music of Estonian composer Arvo Part and the spatial sense of the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta to reframe the city and create a series of heart rate slowing urban moments.

Each location — the Labyrinth in Battery Park,   the Magazine and Overlook at Fort Jay on Governors Island, the lobby of the Woolworth Building, and the empty 46th floor of 7 WTC — had its own atmospheric Part composition.   For me, the most transformative experience was wandering around the empty floor of 7WTC with spare piano work “Hymn to a Great City” piped in.  I’ve been in that building many times before, but always for parties or crowded public events.  With only a handful of people up there, and the slow, insistent  music, I felt like I was seeing the view, not from a New York skyscraper, but from the top of some desert mesa.

In next stillspotting,  the architecture firm SO-IL will try to extract a little repose from   Jackson Heights, Queens early next year.

P.S.  I just finished writing about the 9-11 Memorial for the November issue of Metropolis. For the moment I’ll say this:  it’s a  peculiarly disorienting place.

P.P.S.  I’ll also have more to say about this  later, but my article about Almere in the Netherlands as a City of the Future is in the current issue of Travel + Leisure and up on the website.