Notes on Reality

September 9th, 2011

the transfinite by Ryoji Ikeda at the Park Avenue Armory (top) and Rainbow City by Friends With You near the High Line (bottom).

In part because Travel + Leisure asked me to figure out what the term “city of the future” might mean at this juncture (see the upcoming October issue) and in part because Metropolis asked me to review Talk to Me at MoMA (in the September issue, online now) , I’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about how the world we think of as “real” and the world we used to think of as “virtual” have merged.

Most interesting to me are the meeting places between old and new, and between real and unreal.  For example, at this spring’s monumental installation by Ryoji Ikeda, inside the cavernous Park Avenue Armory, viewers entered the space, removed their shoes and sprawled out in front of a hypnotic, changing wall of electronic signal.  People stayed for hours, spellbound, and it was an unexpectedly lovely, relaxed environment, like an electronic beach.  Or at the north end of the High Line, in July, a Miami art collective called Friends With You installed Rainbow City, a goofy collection of giant inflatables that made a forgotten corner of Manhattan look like the inside of a Nintendo game.

Both were temporary changes to the texture of the city but they illustrate the ways that old, familiar places can be altered and renewed.  And the ways that technologically generated environments now insinuate themselves into the so-called real world.

Or, as I wrote in Metropolis:

It’s not so much that we’re building new, high-tech physical environments, although sometimes we are. Or that we’re living more of our lives online, although we surely are. It’s that our lives in the physical world and our lives in the digital world have become increasingly interchangeable. The screen is still there, but it’s permeable. We’re already living in the city of the future, and it’s a retrofit of the city of the past.

Regarding Doug Garofalo

August 9th, 2011

The Korean New York Presbyterian Church of Queens.  (Photo by Archidose.)

Yesterday morning, I glanced at the weekly email newsletter from The Architect’s Newspaper and saw Doug Garofalo’s name.  Without really reading the headline, I clicked on the link and was stunned to find myself staring at his obituary.

Doug died young.  He was  about to turn 53.  It was a brain tumor that killed him.  He was diagnosed with it five years ago.  I had no idea.

I know a lot of architects.  During the years when I was editing Dwell it felt like I knew all of them.  But Doug was unusual, an original thinker, someone whose ideas inspired me, and who influenced the early development of  the magazine.

What I remembered is that we first met in 1998, when I was writing for New York Magazine about the blob-esque Korean church that he designed along with  collaborators Greg Lynn and Michael McInturf.  But my memory turns out to be wrong.   While I conducted a  interview with the architects over breakfast at the Paramount Hotel, Doug wasn’t there.  He was in Chicago. So we spoke on the phone.  He talked about the work he’d been doing, transforming dowdy suburban houses, “ranch burgers” he called them, into architectural statements.

He explained how lessons learned in his house transformations helped him realize that his outwardly conservative Korean clients might appreciate a wildly non-traditional building.

From New York Magazine, August 31, 1998:

“The church knew what kind of space it needed but had no mandate for how the building should look.  ‘They had ideas but not necessarily a vision,’ recalls Garofalo, who notes that many of the clients for his aggressive remodels of suburban homes are immigrants who don’t have an emotional stake in the American vernacular and are amenable to designs that undermine tradition.  ‘What was great about the client meetings,” Garofalo says about the Korean churchmen. ‘is the openness to ideas that we were throwing at them.’”

The idea that there were people living in suburbia, in the Midwest no less, that were willing to undermine tradition, stuck with me.  A year later, when I was chosen to edit Dwell, Doug’s observations  influenced the magazine’s drive to seek out unorthodox architecture in the vast swath of America that was routinely ignored by the established shelter magazines.

I  finally met Doug on a trip to Chicago in the early 2000s, and he generously spent an afternoon showing me around, not just his own projects, but his favorite neighborhoods and Mies’s IIT campus.

Doug  popped up in the magazine with some regularity.  The slow progress on a wild looking addition he’d designed for a house in Chicago’s Roscoe Village was documented in the magazine’s “Diary” section.  And we published the bathroom, a colorful crazy-quilt of mismatched tiles,  lovingly created by his wife Chris, a ceramicist, as a present for Doug’s 40th birthday.

While Dwell featured (and still features) an endless parade of architects, Doug was always more like part of the magazine’s extended family.  And, although I haven’t been in touch with him for years, that’s how his death makes me feel: like I’ve lost a member of the family.  My condolences to his real family, his colleagues, and his friends.

Emoticon Nation

July 29th, 2011

Happiness measured at West Broadway and Grand, NYC.

Just last week I attended the press preview of a new exhibition at MoMA called Talk To Me: Design and Communication between People and Objects. I’ve spent the past several days writing a column about it for the September issue of Metropolis.  Today, there’s a review of the show in the Times.

While  Talk to Me is a remarkably generous collection of pretty cool stuff, mostly electronic,  I kept thinking that the work on display that should be the most inventive — student work and designers’ prototypes — isn’t actually any more advanced than what you can see on the street.

As if to prove my point,  an advertising billboard just went up on Grand Street in Soho.  It’s not a very attractive object, certainly not by  MoMA’s aesthetic standards.   But it is, in its creepy way, very sophisticated.  Jello is monitoring the number of smiley face and frowny face emoticons used in Tweets.  And based on this tally, they are judging the mood of America.  The man on the billboard’s mouth turns up or down accordingly.    In the time it took for the light to change at West Broadway, America went from sad to happy.  Amazing.

The Perfect $150,000 House

July 21st, 2011

One very sweet house outside Charlottesville, Virginia.

Back in 2003, I began the 14,000 mile road trip for my book, The Perfect $100,000 House, at a two week intensive workshop on designing and building houses at a school in Vermont called Yestermorrow.   The formula was simple; in the morning we learned to design and in the afternoon we learned to build.  Our instructors were John Ringel, one of the trio of renegade architects known as Jersey Devil, a Vermont architect named Kathy Meyer, and Tom Virant, a young guy with a ponytail who I thought of as the team’s carpenter.  Indeed, when we students were out building our shed, Tom was the one who was best able to help a bunch of bumbling amateurs read, understand, and act on  construction drawings.

A few months ago, out of the blue, I got an email from Tom.  He and his wife Yumiko, both architects, had established a design/build practice in Asheville, North Carolina and had recently completed a house for an old friend near Charlottesville, Virginia.  I looked at the photos and was struck by the resemblance between this house and the one I was trying to design in Vermont.  It was a 1000 square foot, cube-shaped house, light-filled and efficient, for one solitary women.

More than any of the houses I’d seen on my epic road trip, or have seen since, this was the house I’d had in mind, more nuanced and better executed than I could have imagined.  So I went down to Virginia to take a look and wrote an article about it that’s in today’s New York Times.

It’s not a very long article, and there isn’t a lot of room for moody solipsism in the Home section, but down in Virginia I was struck by two things: how powerfully this little house satisfied all my requirements circa 2003, and the extent to which my life has changed since then.  I’m less solitary now, and might need a somewhat larger house.  But still, I’d want one as beautifully efficient as the one the Virants built for their friend Alison.

P.S. Also see Love and Money in Bridgeport in Metropolis.

P.P.S  I also wound up being quoted in this LA Times story about the sale of Frank Lloyd Wright’s eerily gorgeous Ennis house.

The Airport Critic

May 4th, 2011

Copenhagen’s lovely, minimalist budget airline terminal.

At long last, the debut of my airport critic column appeared in the May issue of Travel + Leisure. Sadly, it’s not going to run as often as I would like and the first one, about Copenhagen’s sweet new budget airline terminal, shrank markedly from its assigned length.  Arguably, nothing essential is missing, just gobs of detail.

Here are a couple of the missing paragraphs:

In fact, I am arriving on a flight from Paris Charles De Gaulle to Copenhagen,  disembarking at the newest terminal at an airport that prides itself on functionality.   Copenhagen’s airport is, generally speaking,  a terrific one.  The main building, Terminal 2, is as handsome and efficient an example of 1960s modernism as I’ve ever seen, a monumental box with sunlight streaming through a double-row of round skylights.  At regular intervals, illuminated signs inform passengers of the waiting time at the centralized security checkpoint.  It never seems to top five minutes. Much of the airport flooring is wood, lowering the overall noise level  and upping the overall Scandinavian-ness.   And even the airport seating – like the iconic   blue Ammundsen chair – is exceptionally nice.  But the reason I fell for the new terminal –it opened in late October – is because it elevates efficiency to an art form.  Just imagine if all airports did that; the world would be a far happier place.

CPH Go, designed, built and priced for low cost airlines,   is so far served by only one:  EasyJet.  Founded in 1995, EasyJet  flies  directly to a number of primary destinations, like Paris and Milan, and scores of secondary cities, some 500 routes in Europe and North Africa.   Unlike the legacy carriers, which have cut back in recent years, the budget airline business continues to grow.  EasyJet’s  2009 annual report boasts a 3.4 percent jump in passenger load.   The airline’s low fare formula  (midweek roundtrip fare CDG to CPH: $61) is predicated on aggressive (as opposed to artistic) efficiency: it permits passengers only one small carry-on bag (and no  additional “personal item”) which speeds up boarding. And they charge for absolutely everything,  including any checked bags ($29 if you pay online, double if you pay at the airport) and in flight coffee ($4).  The EasyJet answer to business class is called Speedy Boarding.  You pay about $20 extra and they let you into the plane ahead of the masses to grab exactly the seat you want.

Also, here’s a Metropolis column that I wrote while all my books were in boxes. (Now only about a third of them are still waiting to be unpacked.)

Barbara Kruger Hits the Road

April 28th, 2011

The America Now and Here truck awaiting its maiden voyage.

Last night on Greene Street, this truck covered with words by artist Barbara Kruger was parked for a few hours.  It was about to depart for Kansas City, the first stop on a long road trip  cooked up by painter Eric Fischl and his crew.  The project, America Now and Here, is an attempt to use art (including visual art, literature, and performance) to promote a thoughtful conversation about the meaning of America.  Fischl was motivated, I’m told, but the current state of discourse in this country which is, as you may have noticed, pointlessly acrimonious and sadly degraded.  (See: Donald Trump.)

The first exhibition/performance/conversation/whatever is scheduled to begin on May 6, in the Crossroads District of downtown Kansas City.  It will be part of the general First Friday hoopla there.  (I was happy to hear that my pals at the KC architecture firm El Dorado are somehow in cahoots.)

Anyway, I like the idea of the project and hope to catch up with the roadshow, maybe when it hits Detroit this summer.  But I also love the truck, designed to be a traveling art warehouse, because I see it as part of a Barbara Kruger resurgence (which began, as far as I can tell, with her exhibition last fall at the Whitney Museum construction site near the High Line).  I would love to see our nation’s highways filled with trucks bearing Krugerisms.  (And, for that matter, wouldn’t big semi-trucks make a great medium for a national Interstate Highway Biennial?)

“Belief + Doubt = Sanity,” according to Ms. Kruger.

Q. What Does Frank Gehry Have in Common with Robert Scarano?

April 8th, 2011

Top: Robert Scarano addition to a warehouse on Carroll St., Brooklyn (NY Times photo by Gabrielle Plucknette). Bottom: Frank Gehry’s museum for the Louis Vuitton Foundation.

A. The mezzanine trick.

From the very entertaining March 18 NY Times Magazine feature by Andrew Rice on Brooklyn’s least loved architect, Robert Scarano:

In early 2006, after a meticulous review, the city filed a series of civil charges against Scarano in an administrative court, among other things claiming that he “made false or misleading statements” in submissions for 25 self-certified projects. Most of the violations concerned mezzanines. The buildings department had just promulgated new guidelines, holding that if the mezzanines had more than five feet of headroom, they could not count as storage space.

From today’s New York Times article on a Parisian neighborhood’s  opposition to a museum Frank Gehry designed for Louis Vuitton’s Bernard Arnault:

In addition, they say, the 150-foot-high building violates height requirements by cleverly using an architectural subterfuge, creating split-level mezzanines inside that are not formally “floors,” to get around a legal restriction banning buildings higher than two floors.

Mais, non!  It is not a floor.  It is a mezzanine.   Paris or New York,  starchitect or a hack, the same trick fools the buildings department.  Incroyable!

Detroit, Part III

April 7th, 2011

Views from the front window of the Detroit People Mover: the RenCen (top), Cobo Center (middle) and a streetscape with the Rosa Parks Transit Center (aka bus station) in the distance.

Has Wim Wenders ever made a movie in Detroit?  I don’t think so.  But I started to see the city as a Wenders movie while riding the People Mover, a 2.9 mile theme park ride in search of a theme (and a park) that runs around downtown Detroit in a clockwise loop.  A product of the 1970s, the elevated train was supposed to be a feeder for a larger mass transit system.  Except that there isn’t one.

I have been on sillier mass transit systems, like the Las Vegas Monorail.  (It costs $5.00 for 3.9 miles, while Detroit’s PM is only 50 cents. Bargain.) I’ve been on less substantial ones; the Seattle Monorail is only a mile long.  I’ve even been on ones that seem more infuriatingly pointless; New York City’s AirTrain comes to mind.   But I’ve never been on one  more poignant. There was something about seeing the city come at me framed by the front window of the largely empty two-car train that was like watching The American Friend or Alice in the Cities.  All that was missing was the subtitles.  (And the actors.)

P.S. The city did get federal money last year to begin building a light rail system up Woodward Avenue, from downtown to a proposed commuter rail link in a part of town known as the New Center. Which would hook up to the People Mover and give it something to do besides going around in circles.

Detroit, Part II

April 5th, 2011

George Clooney, Griswold Street, Detroit.

Driving around downtown Detroit, we noticed a corner storefront done up as a campaign office, with camera crews buzzing around outside.  In the window were posters, reminiscent of Shepard Fairey’s Obama, except the face on them was clearly George Clooney’s.  As it turns out, Clooney was in town directing and starring in  a movie, The Ides of March, about — you guessed it — a political campaign.    It’s fiction.  But, given the opportunity, I’d vote for Clooney.  Wouldn’t you?

Detroit, Part I

April 4th, 2011

The Dormer House by Ben Wolf (top) and Renaissance Center by John Portman.  Both in Detroit.

Just back from Detroit.  My first visit.  I am astonished.   At first glance, Detroit looks like a memorial to the 20th century.  All the big ideas we Americans had about civilization in general, and cities in particular, are on display.  It’s not pretty.

But when you begin to dig in, to meet people who are investing their creative energy in the place, it seems possible that Detroit will someday re-emerge as a credible 21st century city.

Detroit is famous for its abandoned buildings, from burnt out houses to the iconic dead train station. But the single spookiest thing I saw was the Renaissance Center, the John Portman designed hotel and office complex initially developed by Ford in the late 1970s and now owned by GM.  Like all Portman projects, it was intended to shut out a decaying city and replace it with a sparkling new substitute city.  The place still largely functions that way although GM, to its credit, built  a “winter garden” in the 1990s that better connects the complex to the scenic (truly) Detroit River.   Outside the RenCen’s big atrium is a newly landscaped, but conspicuously underpopulated Riverfront.  (On a sunny morning run, we noticed just one other runner and maybe five strollers.) Inside the RenCen are all the gainfully employed people who are missing from the downtown streets, striding purposefully along the complex’s circular walkways, going round and round.

The rebirth of Detroit, to the extent that there is one, is small-scale, entrepreneurial and driven by people who, unlike Portman, are inspired by the existing city. For instance, we toured the neighborhood near the little municipality of Hamtramck, where Gina Reichert, Mitch Cope and many collaborators — The Power House Project — are buying up unwanted houses one by one and turning them into art installations, artist studios, and community facilities (like a hand-made ice rink).   The idea is to stabilize one small neighborhood by re-infusing unoccupied, disused buildings with activity and treating them as objects of value.

The burnt out house shown above,   reconfigured by sculptor Ben Wolf, is actually owned by the city, but it’s on one of the blocks where the Power House Project operates.  It strikes me as a metaphor for Detroit as a whole; a ruin recast as aesthetic object.

I don’t know that the creative homesteading movement will be enough to resuscitate Detroit, but I see it as a good sign that the city has begun to attract entrepreneurs and artists who understand the unique opportunity afforded  by a severely undervalued place.

More later.