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.

Faces on buildings

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There’s something special about faces on buildings. I don’t mean advertising billboards—even when painted on, billboards are too slick to have the same affect. Faces on buildings stare out at you like a totemic god, a tiny shrine writ large. I spotted this first face in the Greektown neighborhood of downtown Detroit. It’s wry and literary-looking.

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This face, a portrait of Ann Frank, is more commanding. It’s visually stark in large blocks of black and white. For me the image is a representation of the holocaust, causing no emotion that the face of a cheerful little girl would usually stir. Her name is not written there, just the words, “Believe in People” on the top right. It’s a compelling portrait, especially at this size. This is painted behind the Yale School of Art in on Crown Street. I hope it stays up for a while. Was it someone’s final project?

A block away are a series of blank buildings, large facades with no windows or doors, no human scale. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to paint faces here? The side of this Walgreens pharma-superstore dropped in a sea of parking (with a strangely short parking structure next door) would be a perfect candidate. Perhaps something similar to Jaume Plensa’s portrait fountain in Chicago’s Millenium Park, with the faces of local New Haven residents. It would be like Felice Varini’s Square with Four Circles on the garage downtown. Here’s my mock up for your review.

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Hidden Spaces

Architect Turner Brooks came to speak in our lecture series last week. He was surprised to find out his work had been discussed that morning in my theory class, as part of a section on critical regionalism. He told me that he’s decidedly un-theoretically focused (though his brilliant wife, the architect and historian Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, certainly is). In response to the—shock I think it was—of being included in a theory class, he mentioned in his lecture that his favorite piece of reflective writing on architecture is Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, along with Franz Kakfa’s The Burrow, the latter of which he read with his undergraduate students, delighting in the increasingly crazed story arc of the neurotic auto-entomber. He showed slides of Goodnight Moon, one of the most movingly illustrated children’s books of all time, to talk about the relationship between the safe, small, cozy space of the home and the untamed wild of the infinite outside the window. Being able to speak to both simultaneously seems to be one of his aims, and I believe he’s succeeded.

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One of the most pleasing aspects of Brooks’s architecture is his inclination towards intimacy. Intimacy in architecture, for me, is built space that’s radically personal. An archetypal example is the “ancestral reliquary” Brooks built into a house in Vermont. It’s a cabinet placed within the wall above the bed in the master bedroom filled with trinkets of little monetary value, Brooks says, but great personal significance. He showed a slide of three children enacting a play in which a ghost flies up to rest in the ancestral reliquary. Secret passageways fall into the same category, particularly if child-sized. Another example is this staircase built by Tom Luckey for his children, which becomes a slide.

Childhood is a particularly magical time for the creation of personal spatial archetypes. The “hidden space” is one of mine. In the drawing above, I try to depict the gap between our front door and the radiator in our hallway, a hidden, dariel-sized space I’d run to after getting out of the elevator where I’d wait for someone to unlock the door. The purpose was to be the first person inside after the door had barely cracked open, but looking back it was also nice to find a space that fit just me, and no other member of the family.

Sparrows

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1: Pennsylvania RR Station in Pittsburgh, designed by Daniel Burnham
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2: Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University
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3: American Folk Art Museum, New York City, designed by TWBTA (RIP!)

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “urban habitat” before. It refers to the phenomenon of wildlife inhabiting places designed for people—specifically places in cities. A famous case is the life and times of Pale Male, a falcon who decided to make news anchor Paula Zahn’s 5th Avenue apartment his home back in 1991 (and he’s still there). I collect images of such impromptu habitations wherever I find them. They are never designed, though rain water collection advocates, landscape architects, and various state fish and wildlife departments promote the idea. Mostly what I see are sparrows, sparrows everywhere! They’re small and compact and slip easily into gaps left by decaying mortar (image 1), or alcoves in sculptural niches (image 2), or intentional gaps in double facades (image 3, since torn down by MoMA). I think these intrepid little fellows deserve our attention and admiration. They claim unused space and within it, breed new life. Would that all architects could do the same! I suppose this behavior makes sparrows scavengers of a sort, like hermit crabs that live in the discarded shells of snails. Animal architecture is an infinitely fascinating topic. Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa wrote a book about it: Animal Architects: Ecological Functionalism of Animal Constructions. Of the two examples most often cited, beaver dams and weaver bird nests, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the latter in Southbroom, a town on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa. Beavers build their encampments with underwater entrances to protect themselves from predators, so one can’t easily see them at work. A weaver bird, however, weaves right in front of your eyes.

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