New York City in Spring

As its residents are well aware, spring time comes and goes very quickly in Manhattan. First it rains, then everything blooms at once, then it gets scorching hot. Early May is a sweet spot for temperate weather. I was lucky to spend a week in the city this May, and it did not disappoint. The townhouses in my mother’s neighborhood were covered in lilac blossoms, and the brave were out riding bicycles up First Avenue.

Lilacs on Stuyvesant Street near St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery

The neighborhood in which I came of age, the East Village, has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Retail establishments, especially restaurants, have a very brief life span—barring a few holdouts that have managed to stay relevant. I tried to visit a shoe store that’s been in business almost forever, for example, and found a construction site instead (below at top left). More significant changes have occurred closer to Astor Place and Cooper Square, where luxury towers were erected in the 2000s and the street grid was altered. There is now no road in front of my old building, just an expansive, and not very attractive, plaza. (There’s no service access in the rear either… it’s a stranded building.)

The remains of a tree as uncanny valley

Typically when I go to New York I fill up my time with necessary tasks. Over the past few months I’ve tried a new tactic: incorporating one fun thing to serve as an outlet. Art museums used to be that thing, but these days they feel more like work. I’ve become a fan of a particular podcast over the past couple of years—Mission to Zyxx—a science fiction-rooted improvisational comedy with great sound design. When I’m in town I try to see the cast members’ live shows or the occasional live performance of the podcast. This May I saw Alden Ford and Justin Tyler host UCB at Subculture, which is essentially a stand-up variety hour. Alden plays main character Pleck Decksetter on Mission to Zyxx, and Justin has collaborated several times as Pleck’s mentor, Derf. It was really great to laugh and relax and hang out with these two very talented performers and very nice people. They’re hilarious too.

Iron column
Footing of steel structural column

The venue, Subculture, on Bleecker Street just west of the Bowery, dates from the turn of the twentieth century. In this era in this neighborhood (called “Noho” for “north of Houston”1), and in much of Soho as well,2 there was a flurry of cast iron architecture, wherein iron substituted for stone as ornament on the façade. These buildings have steel frames, which allowed for greater floor-to-floor heights and larger windows then in previous commercial buildings; the raw materials for today’s opulent lofts. This steel was heavy—lots of iron. Subculture is located in the basement, where the footings of these structural columns are exposed (see the image above). I’ve never actually observed these footings before, even though the building where I grew up has the same structural system.

The image at the top of this post shows the Manhattan skyline set against that of Long Island City, in Queens, taken from the Amtrak train. I hope to be back in the city soon.

Art is the Only Escape

Life presents itself as a series of stressful events, good and bad, and the task of becoming is often stymied by the overwhelming nature of reality. In those moments remember: Art! presents the ridiculous beauty and joy of the world. I saw this message written in the forgotten space of a bare, utilitarian façade above an old movie theater in New York’s East Village. It was a crisp, clear day. My heart was lifted, buoyed by the shared spirit of appreciation. When the news is bad, solace is at hand, if you look for it in the arts.

SAH 2019

This year, the Society of Architectural Historians held their annual conference in Providence, Rhode Island. As Providence is only a commuter train ride away from Boston, I decided to finally attend. It was one of the more interesting conferences I’ve attended in terms of presentation content. A stand out moment among many was a “round table” presentation that took place during the Friday lunch hour titled, Pluralizing Histories of the Built Environment. It was convened by Itohan Osayimwese, who teaches at Brown, and Charles Davis II, from SUNY Buffalo. In the SAH conference brochure description, the session promises to ask:

Where are the archives for minorities and people of color to be found today? And what practical techniques and strategies have historians employed to pluralize histories of the built environment?

This was essentially a panel session, with each of four presenters discussing their work and their methodological approaches to understudied or traditionally undervalued material. I found Anooradha Siddiqi’s comments regarding the study of refugee camps particularly fascinating — “subjects structurally marginalized within the context of their emergence.” (That is, the moment one becomes a refugee, one is simultaneously marginalized.) Siddiqi, who teaches at Columbia, does not have an architecture history background, and this allows her I think to move through her archive in a more nimble way than an art history training generally permits. I’m thankful that MIT does not adhere to the period or place boundaries that traditional programs follow, and encourages similar methodological dexterity.

My only complaint about the session was it’s “round table” nature. Because it was not a series of discussions curated by each individual table, but rather a presentation taking place at the front of the room, the forced round table seating was extremely awkward. I suppose someone took the term “round table” too seriously?

Session notes

The image at the top of this post is a regular panel presentation room, with chairs set up in regressive rows. Sadly, this was the aesthetic nature of the Rhode Island Conference Center (RICC), a massive, hulking, pomo shed. It’s enormous; several city blocks long.

Aisle as narthex: the pomo logic of the RICC

One panel, Agora to WaterFire: Landscape Histories of the Public Realm, decided to pull all its chairs into a circle. The room, however, was rather narrow, so the circle became an oval, and then a mandorla, pinched at one end. I walked into this room during a presentation and realized, to my horror—as several colleagues from years’ past were sitting facing the door and thus facing me—that I was in the wrong room. I meant to attend a panel on African architecture across the hall titled, Transatlantic Encounters: Africa and the Americas (really about the Black Atlantic world more broadly). The doors to each conference room are heavy, metal, fire-rated doors with noisy push bars, and it was the bane of the entire conference to hear them open and slam closed over and over again as attendees flitted from room to room. (Each paper presentation takes places at an exact time, so it’s possible to see your friend’s work on under-recognized designers in American Beaux-Arts practices, as I did, and then scoot out to catch another panel.) I tried to wait for the current speaker to finish, but I kept thinking of what I might be missing, and then just ducked out as rudely as I had entered.

I was really curious as to why no one—in an architecture history conference—commented on the incredible monument to late capitalism that is the RICC. 1 I can’t properly describe how incredibly large it is, except to say that during the SAH conference, several other events were taking place simultaneously, including a dance expo complete with changing rooms and full stage, and a sports paraphernalia marketing meeting. Even with these participants, there were still plenty of extra rooms unoccupied.

It was pretty great to walk down this long hall and discover a teenager in a full spangly, sparkly, ice dancer-like outfit practicing her tumbles and emotive gestures in the gathering space carved out for SAH guests. (I think she was trying to keep her routine hidden from the other dancers.)

The best thing about conferences, of course, is meeting new people and connecting with colleagues and friends. Dinners and happy hours are the best time for this. I was delighted to spend some quality time with some of my favorite people.

Clockwise from top right: Alek, Phoebe, Chantal, Caroline

When the mood to make something strikes

Sometimes I need to clear my mind of all verbal thought. In those moments I unpack my various art- and craft-making tools and get to work. Weaving tiny glass beads together seems to quiet my mind rather effectively—the beads are so delicate that I can only focus on the minute movements of my own two hands.

Typography in Portugal

Art Deco typography is ubiquitous in Portuguese cities. In many ways, it seems that the commercial areas of Porto and Lisbon ceased to evolve aesthetically at the moment António de Oliveira Salazar became President in 1932. His corporatist authoritarian government ruled until 1968. I’m very interested in the “lusotropical” Portuguese colonial project as part of my southern African research.  This semester I’m writing about Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass and her Humanae project, matching the skin tones of her numerous subjects with pantone chart colors. More on that text soon… in the meantime, enjoy this font of fonts.