Thinking about Koolhaas’ Delirious New York again. This 1978 book, billed as a “retroactive manifesto,” tells the story of Simeon deWitt, Governeur Morris and John Rutherford, who boldly mapped out the Manhattan Grid in 1811. “…Each block is now alone like an island, fundamentally on its own. Manhattan turns into a dry archipelago of blocks.” The grid set the terms for Manhattan’s future and foreordained–according to Koolhaas–NYC’s vertical development (ie., the skyscraper). Apex Art had an interesting exhibit in 2000, “Block,” which featured Austrian architecture students’ responses to what Koolhaas called “Manhattanism.”
My street was barely a twinkle in deWitt & Co’s eyes then. In fact, the two buildings above both date from the 1920’s, when Park Avenue got its first real upgrade (from putting the NY Central railroad below grade. It’s the train to New Haven, you know). But like the rest of Manhattan, it’s character is inexorably derived to the grid. But not in the way Koolhaas thought. It’s the street, not the block, that’s really wonderful. On approach my street’s most interesting feature is the forest-dense trees that fill the space between the blocks.
John Cage was interested in the spaces between, whether between sounds or between notes or text on a page. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to use Cage’s music in Souvenir (November 2001). And Gustavo Bonevardi, a creator of Towers of Light (a project which played a role in my writing Souvenir and which has an indirect reference in the movie) said of it: “…in effect, we’re not rebuilding the towers themselves, but the void between them.”
Took a whirlwind trip to the Yale School of Architecture to see an exhibition (mostly) of the theoretical works of the Rotterdam architecture firm, MVRDV. Ivory tower academics? Nope. They actually build. A lot. And Yale dean Robert Stern rightly praises “their belief that invention grows out of knowledge is refreshing in a profession too often mired in fashion.”
Through projects like Metacity/Datatown to Pig City to the 3D City Ballet, the firm’s just-the-facts analytical approach to the problems of urban density have yield results that are inventive, increasingly sophisticated, and, yes, beautiful. It’s fitting that the exhibit’s in New Haven; after all, what is Connecticut, but a classically American “approach to the problems of urban density”? MVRDV’s never met a sprawl it didn’t want to render obsolete. Their “more-in-less-space-is-more” love of the city can be attributed in part to their early tenure with Rem Delirious New York Koolhaas (they were over him before he was ever kool). But it’s also the hardearned appreciation of space that comes from living in a country which, according to Nature’s logic, should be entirely underwater.
MVRDV’s most-discussed theoretical project is Pig City, their turns-out-to-be-explosively-controversial proposal to concentrate Holland’s massive (and land-intensive) pork industry into self-contained skyscrapers. The Dutch architecture site Archined has many heated comments about Pig City’s moral/ethical implications.
Although Winy Maas (the M in MVRDV) told me about it in May, I didn’t write about it here, but Pig City (and the firm) got caught up in the political upheaval and violence that shocked the Dutch last Spring. Pim Fortuyn had appropriated Pig City into his right-ist party’s platform. The dam on the lagoon broke when Fortuyn was assassinated by an leftist (and animal rights activist), and Winy & Co. were faced with unexpected censorship and death threats.
America’s probably a vapid, welcome respite for these guys. While a suburbanite couple in the gallery with me today sniffed, the guestbook was full of celebratory comments. Winy’s gonna have groupies, too; he’s taking the Eli’s through the (s)paces next Spring, studying the urban mechanisms of New York.
All nice, but they also enjoy America’s greatest reward for the contemporary architect, the adulation of Hollywood celebrities. Architecture writer David Sokol, reports in Metropolis (three times!) that “MVRDV, in case you haven’t heard, is actor Brad Pitt’s favorite architecture firm.” Actually, no, I hadn’t heard, so I looked it up. According to The Pitt Center, MVRDV are only Pitt’s third favorite architects (after Gehry and that damn Koolhaas, FYI). Brad say’s they’re #3, I say they’re #1. Write that down.
Usually, when you get googled for “I went to high school with Ben Affleck” or “red vines and hidden meaning,” you’re left to wonder who the hell that was, and what’s going on in those folks’ heads? So imagine my thrill when the guy searching for “Rem Koolhaas architecture and Matt Damon” sends a confessional email and includes a link to his weblog, Laughing Boy. Check it out [Mom, this doesn’t include you.] Of course, I still have no idea what’s going on in Laughing Boy’s head, but it’s pretty funny nonetheless.
While on that search query, there’s a great quote in Deborah Solomon’s logically warped and implausibly generousNYTimes Magazine article about the Guggenheim and its wack director Tom Krens. Smarmy casino developer and recovering binge art collector Steve Wynn said of Rem Koolhaas, ”If his name were Sid Schwartz, no one would want him.”
It’s obvious to see how entertainment product has been superseded by reality since September 11; movies the country may have once flocked to are now recognized as fatuous and (potentially) consigned to oblivion (or straight-to-video, whichever’s worse). Today, I was made to wonder if the same thing should or would happen to so called “fine art.” Work of artists I both like and prefer to ignore has been pushed to the fore by recent events, and it’s a challenge to see how it holds up in the order-of-magnitude harsher glare. So many things aren’t abstracts or concepts any more; what happens to art that “addresses issues” and “explores limits” once these limits have been surpassed?
This afternoon I walked to Christie’s to preview the upcoming contemporary art auction. En route, I found Fifth Avenue to be completely closed for several blocks. I figured it’s UN week, Vicente Fox is at Trump Tower, that kind of thing. It turned out to be the funeral service of Donald Burns, the Assistant Chief of the NY Fire Department, held at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Nearly a thousand men and women in dress uniforms were standing at attention in the middle of the street, forming a line two blocks long and three to ten officers deep. [note: here is an image from a service one day earlier.] No one made a sound, including the spectators. Stores silenced their music. Burns’ casket and procession had just passed into the cathedral. After several minutes, the officers snapped to attention and began to file into the church. Two months did not diminish the overwhelming sadness and sense of grief the scene evoked.
Vanessa Beecroft, The Silent Service, 2001, image via publicartfund.org
It also made me think of the work of Vanessa Beecroft, including a performance she staged in April 2001 on the Intrepid. Here is a photograph derived from the event. Especially when considered in concert with her earlier work, this seems almost as empty and wrong as a Schwarzenegger film. The emperor has no clothes, indeed.
At Christie’s I saw several monumental photographs by Andreas Gursky, whose work “presents a stunning and inventive image of our contemporary world,” according to MoMA’s curator, Peter Galassi. From the first week after the bombings, when I was in full CNN burnout, I wanted writers’ and artists’ perspectives, not Paula Zahn’s. The scale of the debris, the nature of the target, even in wire service photographs, it called for Gursky’s perspective to make some sense of it, perhaps. As it turns out, he was grounded in Los Angeles, where he’d been traveling with (and shooting) Madonna’s concert tour. The other end of the spectrum, it seems, now.
Irony and knowingness doesn’t work; sheer aesthetic, devoid of context or emotion doesn’t work; stunning monumentalism rings a little hollow. On the other hand, sentimentality, baring-all emotionality, sympathetic manipulation is even worse. What does it take to make meaningful art now? If it weren’t nearly 2 AM (and if I had any answers), I’d keep writing…
[added 18 Feb 02: Here is Gursky’s photo from the 13 Sept. LA Madonna concert, which was unveiled at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris on 13 Feb. This has become one of the top five searches for my site.]