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Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

Goodnight House?

July 29, 2014 | by

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121 Charles Street, in Greenwich Village.

The optimists among us may think we’re okay: the world will sort itself out, the climate will stabilize, young people will always read and dream and give us hope for the future. And yet, sometimes you see something so objectively depressing that it’s hard not to feel we’re doomed. Case in point: 121 Charles Street, in Manhattan, also known as Cobble Court.

The property, an eighteenth-century farmhouse, is noteworthy for its charm—it’s surrounded by a pretty yard on a picturesque Greenwich Village street. Peep through the fence and you can see the little white birdhouse made in the larger house’s image. Not original to the neighborhood, in 1967, it was moved from York Ave. and 71st Street to avoid demolition.

Horribly enough, it is imperiled again: a broker recently listed it as a “development site” for $20 million. Quoth they,

ERG Property Advisors is pleased to exclusively offer for sale a West Village development site located at 121 Charles Street on the corner of Charles and Greenwich. The property is directly situated in arguably the most desirable enclave in all of Manhattan, the West Village. The property’s corner location benefits from significant frontage along both Charles and Greenwich Street … creating tremendous street presence. The property consists of a 4,868 square foot corner lot in the Greenwich Village Historic District. The offering would allow a developer or user to execute a wide variety of potential visions, from boutique condominiums, apartments or a one-of-a-kind townhouse.

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Razed in Cincinnati

June 19, 2014 | by

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Photo: Cincinnati Public Library, via Flickr

A few days back, MessyNessyChic—let’s not dwell on the name—posted a series of photographs of Cincinnati’s old public library, erected in 1874 and demolished in 1955. Even if you’re disinclined to fetishize the past, it’s hard not to greet these images with awe and a certain degree of wistfulness. This was one hell of a library, with a checkerboard marble floor, soaring shelves, cast-iron alcoves, and several stories of spiral staircases. In the grandeur of its design, it’s something on the order of McKim, Mead, and White’s original Penn Station—a work of architecture so self-evidently valuable to the contemporary eye that its demolition can be met only with bewilderment and righteous despair: What clown authorized the wrecking ball here?

But aesthetics were not then, and aren’t now, a high municipal priority—as evidenced by the criticism of the time. Harper’s Weekly once wrote about the library, “The first impression made upon the mind on entering this hall is the immense capacity for storing books in its five tiers of alcoves, and then the eye is attracted and gratified by its graceful and carefully studied architecture …”

It seems backward, and dismayingly utilitarian, to note the “immense capacity” first and the “graceful” design second—by that logic, the world’s warehouses and hangars rate among our architectural marvels. But maybe they do; we won’t know for sure until we start tearing them down.

The Cincinnati Library’s Flickr collection hosts even more photographs of the building—they’re much easier to digest if you pretend it’s still standing. Read More »

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Underground

May 21, 2014 | by

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A sketch of Pope’s grotto.

Today marks the day of Alexander Pope’s birth, in 1688. We remember Pope as a poet, essayist, satirist, translator, and one of the most quotable men in English. He’s responsible for, among many other aphoristic gems: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” “What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.” “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” And, yes, the phrase “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.”

In his time, he was also known for his amazing home, a Palladian villa at Twickenham surrounded by elaborate gardens and grottoes. Pope’s wealthy family was ostracized for its Catholicism, and his numerous health problems—he suffered from Pott’s disease, which stunted his growth to only four foot six—somewhat limited his social life. His home seems to have been a refuge, as well as a definitive indicator of his success.

The house, a Classical mansion surrounded by vast grounds, was grand enough, but it was the Homeric grotto that really got Pope’s heart racing. As he wrote at the time of its construction,

I have put the last hand to my works … happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru’ the Cavern day and night …When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture … And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.

Later, he added, “Were it to have nymphs as well—it would be complete in everything.” Read More »

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Catch the Bus

May 20, 2014 | by

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BUS:STOP, Sou Fujimoto; Image © Adolf Bereuter; via DesignBoom

Krumbach is an Austrian market town with a population of about one thousand—it has a handsome eleventh-century castle and, as of this year, seven of the most arresting bus stops in the world. As part of a new project, BUS:STOP, seven international architects have designed Buswartehüsle—small shelters—“in a dialogue with the people, landscape, and local culture, building upon the traditions of skilled trade in the area.”

Sou Fujimoto calls his stop, pictured above, “a transparent forest of columns,” and emphasizes its variousness as a public space: “Both bus passengers and non–bus users can use this bus stop as a meeting point,” he writes, and though maybe no human alive has ever actively identified as a “non–bus user,” his larger point rings true: “Everyone may climb the tower-like bus stop to enjoy panoramic views of Krumbach.”

The other contributing architects hail from Belgium, Chile, Russia, Norway, Spain, and China, and given the impressive designs they’ve brought, it’s hard to fault Krumbach’s official culture site for a bit of characteristically Teutonic rhetoric: “People from the Bregenzerwald are generally seen as proud of their roots and open to new ideas. This has shaped our region down to the present day: the collaboration between humankind and nature, tradition and modernism, handcraft and the culture of building.”

DesignBoom has a gallery of photographs worth viewing in full. One might object to the primacy of form over function here. It’s hard to picture someone comfortably waiting at Fujiomoto’s shelter, for instance, especially if it’s raining. But none of these stops are entirely without utility: they are all, however tenuously, places where you go to catch a bus. I’ve tried in vain to find statistics on public transit in Krumbach—how many of its thousand citizens use the bus system, anyway?—but even if these shelters are seldom used, it’s still a pleasure to imagine them out there, flecking the Austrian countryside. Greyhound: take notes.

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BUS:STOP, Ensamble Studio; Image © Adolf Bereuter; via DesignBoom.

 

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Literary Architecture

August 16, 2013 | by

One Friday evening in March, I took the train to Columbia University and walked into one of the strangest and most interesting classes I’d ever seen. It was the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, part of the Mellon Visiting Artists and Thinkers Program at Columbia University School of the Arts, and a multimedia workshop in which writing students, quite literally, create architectural models of literary texts. For the past four years, Matteo Pericoli has led the workshop at the Turin-based Scuola Holden creative writing school, and this year, he brought the concept to New York. While the idea seems intuitive enough—each student chooses a text he or she knows inside out, and then builds it—the challenges arise in interpretation. “A text you love is not, necessarily, the best for this project,” said Pericoli. He adds that it is crucial that students work from another author’s text, rather than their own, to facilitate the true objectivity necessary.

And then of course there is the question of getting away from the literal. “One student chose ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again’ and thought she would just make a ship,” he explains, referring to David Foster Wallace’s cruise-ship odyssey. But then they learned the class’s mantra: “Literary, not literal.” The structure that ultimately resulted (because the writing students team up with architects to build models that must function as well as engage) was very different. Writes Elizabeth Greenwood of her final model,

I designed a rectangular structure with many floors. Bolstered by concrete brackets, the end pieces represent the hard, inescapable fact of heavy things in the essay: the Harper’s assignment, the ship itself. But the floors inside these brackets are made of glass to represent the clarity and truth Wallace sees during his time at sea. On the outer edges are two parentheses turned away from one another (which might one day be openings for stairs) representing the thoughts and connections between seemingly unrelated things. These cuts into the plexi allow light to filter through between the floors, illuminating their invisible links and also tracing seemingly disparate themes and digressions. As the floors ascend, these parentheses edge closer to the upper right corner, where an elevator shaft penetrates through the structure. This burst of continuity between floors represents the author’s presence, and the author himself, who cannot be contained even within the clearest of glass, and who stubbornly refuses to be subdued even in the most ostensibly light of occasions, like a vacation on the high seas.

As Pericoli explained to me, the process of examining structure, flow, interconnections, the author’s intentions, all managed to both mirror and illuminate the process of writing: rendering explicit that which had been intuitive, forcing students to deal in both interpretation and a little mental detective work. What is an author’s intention for how a piece is read, or experienced? What is a reader’s? As much as anything, the variety of interpretations—and, yes, over the years, Pericoli has seen multiple students take on the same work, with wildly differing results—is startling. J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace becomes a rectangular structure with a meandering path that evokes the protagonist’s unwilling shifts in perspective. To the Lighthouse bears no resemblance to an English country house by the sea, but rather becomes a structure that centers around a vacancy: that of the mother. The exercise demands both serious imagination and intense discipline—qualities essential to the disciplines of both writing and architecture but presented as dauntingly unfamiliar challenges that both force participants out of their comfort zones, and ultimately create new ones: different, yes, from the initial familiar comfort of a beloved text, but functional and fascinating all the same.

Carver

“The way out can only be seen from a specific perspective—the staircase back up to ground level is hidden behind a false wall—and once seen it cannot be unseen. Eventually, the staircase becomes too much of a curiosity. The participants will climb the stairs and exit the structure, and find themselves completely removed from it. To leave, first they have to go completely into the structure.” —Joseph Ponce, writing on Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

Coetzee

“Ultimately, I wanted this model to be interpretable from two perspectives: one, the perspective of the walker going through the path who cannot know what to expect next, and two, the perspective from above that is able to see the model in its entirety: to see the knife cuts, the single-minded yet zig-zagging path, and the reflection in the water at the end of it.” —Joanna Yao, J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace

Keats

“My idea was to have an entrance that you stumble upon, peep in, and find yourself within, without actively seeking it. It’s welcoming because it does not have a door, but rather an entry. You cannot see what is inside it without going in, similar to not perceiving the nightingale’s song unless you let the other thoughts fade away and listen. The building could also have an actual door on the ground level for the part below the elevated path that could be used as a café or restaurant. The elevated path is above and apparent for those who choose to see it and are curious about it.” —Zeynep Lokmanoglu, John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”

Sebald

“The structure is a tall and narrow space, reflecting both the vast scope of the book as well as the intimacy of the reading experience. An uneven path is suspended along metal supports, and gradually rises and falls across the entire length of the structure. The path’s shape is dictated by the fragmented and surprising nature of the narrative, in which the novel leaps from subject to subject through unconventional avenues, such as the documentary playing in the narrator’s hotel room. The path is covered in a translucent material so that these supports are visible, which alludes to the meta-fictional nature of the novel.” —Joss Lake, W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn

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“The two structures are alienated by a space, a gap, but connected by a passageway, which, situated on the far left, spills from one building into the next. To get from one structure to the other, one must endure the trip through this dark, windowless space. To embody the cyclical nature of Woolf’s writing style, there is also a circular gesture created by the space between the two buildings, rounded on each side by the ramp and the passageway, respectively. This reveals itself only in a bird’s eye view of the design.” —Catherine Pond, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

The Falls

“When you are inside this structure, traveling back and forth, up and down, there is an imperious desire to discover the space as you become overwhelmed by its magnitude. I wanted to mimic the strong sense of spatial awareness that you experience reading the piece, thus I looked for a similar feeling while you navigate the structure. The sense that you have an active role in reading the space and that when you are traveling through it, you are ultimately ‘writing’ the space with your body.” —Javier Fuentes, George Saunders’s “The Falls”

Read more about the Laboratory here. You can read more about Matteo Pericoli on his website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Lucky Thirteen

January 2, 2013 | by

My apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is of the standard prewar varietal, with the faint chicken-soup-in-the-stairwell smell familiar to any New Yorker and an elevator that goes up to fourteen. And by fourteen, I mean, of course, thirteen. In this respect it is standard too; the elevator, made by Otis (I paused to double-check as I was writing this), indulges our collective superstition and forces those on the top floor to live a peculiar quotidian fiction.

In taller buildings, of course, everyone above twelve is technically living a lie, albeit of the white sort. This is a bit of magical thinking that never fails to delight me on even the darkest day. Read More »

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