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.

The value of hope

We had a conversation in Power Boothe‘s theory class about whether or not art has value. Someone asked, does a blank canvas have value? The art students though that it did not. It’s just wood, they said, scraps of cloth. Everyone agreed that there was work put in to cut the wood and weave the cloth and construct the canvas—it costs money to buy a prepared canvas—but it had no functional value, no use value, and so was worthless. (Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction defines use value versus cult value in passing, as does Adolph Loos’s tyrannical essay, Ornament and Crime.) I disagreed. The blank canvas has incredible value in its potential—to be art. What’s more, the blank canvas is the hope of art, a gesture towards the power and transcendence of human creativity. It’s the emotional bell weather of our society. Here is the potential for beauty, for greatness, it says, for novelty, for personal expression—despite all odds. Despite the crushing weight of the world and our own doubts, here is the chance to escape, into art. What could be more valuable?

Faces on buildings

greektown-face

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.

walgreens-face

Smoking? What’s that?

airplane

A sign of the times: smoking is no longer considered a menace on domestic flights, rather, the menace to air travel is… electronic devices. This small Delta jet took me from Hartford to Minneapolis on my way to Lincoln, Nebraska. I was so tickled with the sign commanding “turn off electronic devices,” particularly since the directive is placed right next to the icon for “fasten your seat belts,” that I violated the rule so as to snap this photo with my iphone. (It was on airplane mode.) Did signage designers just figure they should use the space for something?

Bittertang

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I have fallen in love with Bittertang. They are a duo of artist/architects who refer to their studio as “the farm.” Michael Loverich and Antonio Torres spoke last Tuesday night at Parsons, accepting The Architectural League Prize (one of six firms to win it this year), and introducing their bizarre work. They espouse a love for the hilarious and the pleasurable, and point to the Rococo as an underutilized source of inspiration. (They showed a photo very similar to the 1767 Fragonard painting above, “L’Essaim d’Amour,” or Swarm of Love, which they called a “baby omelet.”) Not only has poché returned in a big way, but folly and fancy breathe new life as well. “Architecture should be hilarious!” they declared, and I agree. After all, humor in the face of the chaos and horror of the world is a path to redemption. Like Tschumi’s follies in Parc de la Villette. The work of Bittertang is unsettling as well, for example all the “babies” they invented, but what disturbs me also intrigues me. Not unlike the work of Dinos and Jake Chapman. Take, for example, the succulent piñata pictured above, from The Architectural League Prize exhibition at Parsons, inspired by the story of Romulus and Remus. I wanted to steal it and take it home with me. Yum!

The uncanny of Wes Anderson

Last night I watched Fantastic Mr Fox, directed by Wes Anderson (Twentieth Century Fox, released 2009). It’s based on a story by Roald Dahl, heavily altered by Anderson. Fantastic is a puppet movie, which is fun in itself, and it’s voiced by some great Anderson regulars (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman), with a sprinkle of A-list actors, namely George Clooney and Meryl Streep who voice Mr and Mrs Fox. Most of the film’s characters, in fact, are woodland creatures, like Fox, Badger, and Weasel, who wear clothes and walk on their hind legs.

Anderson’s films are always quirky, and often dark, not unlike movies by the Cohen Brothers. After watching, I began to reflect on the uncanny moments in Fantastic. Take for instance the character of the Lone Wolf, who appears only briefly, and who doesn’t speak English like the other animals. Continue reading The uncanny of Wes Anderson