It’s rush hour in Fulton Center and thousands of black-coated commuters stream into the glass building through entrances on Broadway and Fulton Street and funnel down to the hovering circular concourse before branching off to further descend to the many tunnels that transverse New York’s five boroughs. A steady hum of voices backgrounds the incessant chirp-crank, chirp-crank of the subway turnstiles and the occasional click of digital shutters Instagramming the conical metal dome that dominates New York City’s shiny new transit nexus, which is already being called downtown’s Grand Central Terminal. Building anything so complex — especially infrastructure, especially in lower Manhattan — is an impressive feat, but it takes more than efficient planning and techno-artistry to make a space grand…
Once upon a morning dreary, I left Brooklyn with eyes bleary, Wearily I took the subway to a poet’s old forgotten home.
In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe and his young wife Virginia moved to New York City. It was Poe’s second time living in the city and just one of many homes for the peripatetic author. Unfortunately, after two years and several Manhattan addresses, Virginia fell ill with tuberculosis. With the hope that country air might improve her condition, or at least make her final days more peaceful, Poe moved the family out to a small, shingled cottage in the picturesque woods and green pastures of Fordham Village – better known today as the Bronx.
The six-room cottage was built in 1812 as worker’s housing for farm hands. Poe rented it from landowner John Valentine for $100 per year – no small sum for the constantly struggling writer who sold “The Raven,” his most famous work, for a flat fee of $8. During his time at the cottage, Poe cared for his ailing wife, who died three years after they moved in, and wrote some of his most celebrated poems, including the darkly romantic “Annabel Lee”
This modest building also served as the inspiration for the final Poe story published during the author’s life, “Landor’s Cottage,” which appeared in the June 9, 1849, issue of Flag of Our Union, four months before his death. A far cry from the tales of woe and horror Poe is widely known for, the story of “Landor’s Cottage” is quite simple: a man hiking through the bucolic setting of rural New York comes across a small house and marvels at its picturesque perfection, finding that it “struck me with the keenest sense of combined novelty and propriety — in a word, of poetry”. What follows is the narrator’s depiction of the cottage. Warning: in the following excerpt, there’s no secret rooms, no woe-begotten protagonists or menacing visions. Just pure, straightforward, even banal description:
The main building was about twenty-four feet long and sixteen broad- certainly not more. Its total height, from the ground to the apex of the roof, could not have exceeded eighteen feet. To the west end of this structure was attached one about a third smaller in all its proportions:-the line of its front standing back about two yards from that of the larger house, and the line of its roof, of course, being considerably depressed below that of the roof adjoining. At right angles to these buildings, and from the rear of the main one-not exactly in the middle-extended a third compartment, very small- being, in general, one-third less than the western wing. The roofs of the two larger were very steep-sweeping down from the ridge-beam with a long concave curve, and extending at least four feet beyond the walls in front, so as to form the roofs of two piazzas. These latter roofs, of course, needed no support; but as they had the air of needing it, slight and perfectly plain pillars were inserted at the corners alone. The roof of the northern wing was merely an extension of a portion of the main roof. Between the chief building and western wing arose a very tall and rather slender square chimney of hard Dutch bricks, alternately black and red:-a slight cornice of projecting bricks at the top. Over the gables the roofs also projected very much:-in the main building about four feet to the east and two to the west. The principal door was not exactly in the main division, being a little to the east-while the two windows were to the west. These latter did not extend to the floor, but were much longer and narrower than usual-they had single shutters like doors- the panes were of lozenge form, but quite large. The door itself had its upper half of glass, also in lozenge panes-a movable shutter secured it at night. The door to the west wing was in its gable, and quite simple-a single window looked out to the south. There was no external door to the north wing, and it also had only one window to the east.
The blank wall of the eastern gable was relieved by stairs (with a balustrade) running diagonally across it-the ascent being from the south. Under cover of the widely projecting eave these steps gave access to a door leading to the garret, or rather loft-for it was lighted only by a single window to the north, and seemed to have been intended as a store-room….
The pillars of the piazza were enwreathed in jasmine and sweet honeysuckle; while from the angle formed by the main structure and its west wing, in front, sprang a grape-vine of unexampled luxuriance. Scorning all restraint, it had clambered first to the lower roof-then to the higher; and along the ridge of this latter it continued to writhe on, throwing out tendrils to the right and left, until at length it fairly attained the east gable, and fell trailing over the stairs.
The whole house, with its wings, was constructed of the old-fashioned Dutch shingles-broad, and with unrounded corners. It is a peculiarity of this material to give houses built of it the appearance of being wider at bottom than at top-after the manner of Egyptian architecture; and in the present instance, this exceedingly picturesque effect was aided by numerous pots of gorgeous flowers that almost encompassed the base of the buildings.
Despite the patoral setting, it seems clear that Landor’s cottage is an idealized vision of Poe’s own Fordham residence. Beyond the formal resemblance, the interior layout of Landor’s cottage, described briefly by the narrator, is very similar to Poe’s cottage, with a kitchen, main room and bedroom on the first floor. Poe ends his architectural fiction by noting that another article may elaborate on the events that transpired at Landor’s cottage. Had he not died, perhaps we might have discovered more about the kind but enigmatic residence and his picturesque cottage.
The September issue of Smithsonian Magazine features an insightful profile of Rem Koolhaas written by former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. As a companion to that article, I wrote a piece on Design Decoded, Smithsonian’s blog on design and everyday life, looking at some of the unbuilt high-rise towers designed by Koolhaas and OMA. I absolutely love these buildings. I find them witty and subversive yet still incredibly respectful and contextual. As a sort of B-Side to the Design Decoded piece, I wanted to elaborate a little more on one building in particular, Koolhaas’s planned Manhattan tower at 23 East 22nd Street, and its connection to some of the architect’s more provocative writings.
According to OMA, 23 East 22nd Street is a “luxury residential tower in a culture of congestion.” This description succinctly expresses Koolhaas’s approach towards both the design and marketing of what would have been his first building in New York City; he appeals to a high-end clientele while simultaneously referencing his own book with a description of Manhattan as a “Culture of Congestion” – a phrase first coined in his 1978 “retroactive manifesto” Delirious New York.
Like the nearby Flatiron Building, whose triangular shape is a result of Broadway slashing diagonally across the Manhattan grid, 23E22 is also shaped by the local context Midtown Manhattan. However, Koolhaas’s building isn’t primarily a response to the physical context of the city, but to the building and zoning codes that have regulated New York’s streetscape and its iconic skyline. The building setbacks mandated by the city are interpreted quite literally as large portions of the structure are set back to create a series of stacked cantilevers, shifting the building’s mass to the side. By appropriating of the standard language of the high-rise –a gridded facade of glass and stone– then subverting it with single, deceptively simple move, Koolhaas wryly satirizes city planning policy.
The subversive nature of the structure is downplayed when it comes time to market the building. On OMA’s website, 23E22 is described in market-friendly terms:
“This asymmetrical form simultaneously provides views of Madison Square Park whilst maximizing light penetration to the neighbors below. Mirroring the traditional New York setback, the building’s form is at once familiar and unique.”
That relatively generic pitch uses terms taken directly from Koolhaas’s 2001 essay “Junkspace”.
“Junkspace thrives on design, but design dies in junkspace. There is no form, only proliferation…an authorless world beyond anyone’s claim, always unique, utterly unpredictable, yet intensely familiar.”
Blurring the boundaries between artful critique and real estate strategy, Koolhaas lampoons the authorless high-rises of the city while simultaneously marketing the building with a language first developed in an essay that laments –or, depending on your reading, celebrates– the labyrinthian, generic architecture of a globalized society. Does marketing the building as junkspace undermine his own work? Is Koolhaas just fulfilling a prophecy he wrote himself?
Hyperbolic writings such as “junkspace” are as important to Koolhaas’s career as hyperbolic buildings such as 23E22. His polemics are those of a professional provocateur and often cause people to think his architecture is cynical, or at the very least to question the sincerity of declarations and designs. But hyperbole, whether in writing or in a skyline, is rooted in the context of a basic truth; it’s not a pure fabrication. Independent of any context whatsoever, 23E22 would probably seem ridiculous. In the context of Midtown however, it’s contextual to the point of absurdity, illustrating that Koolhaas is most reverent of context when he is trying to subvert a dominant cultural paradigm. It’s architectural satire. Deadpan humor in built form.
– – –
Storefront for Art and Architecture was founded in 1982 as a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of architecture and the built environment. Ten years after its opening, artist Vito Acconci and architect Steven Holl were commissioned to rethink and redesign the façade of Storefront’s narrow, wedge-shaped exhibition space. Their solution, a façade with 12 puzzle-like rotating panels, gave the organization a striking new identity and the Kenmare St. gallery quickly became a New York City architectural landmark. It has now been twenty years since Holl and Acconci’s porous façade first dissolved the boundary between street and gallery, and Storefront has once again commissioned artists and architects to rethink their space. Aesthetics/Anesthetics is an exhibition of 30 architectural drawings depicting Storefront’s gallery created by an international coterie of emerging and established professionals, including Teddy Cruz, Sam Jacob, Jimenez Lai, Luis Callejas, MOS, Interboro Partners, Perry Kulper, Jorge Otero-Pailos, LTL, and many others.
Though the gallery itself is the subject of the exhibition, the content of the drawings address a larger question about architectural representation: “What is it that an architectural drawing does and how does it do it?” This question was prompted by what Storefront identified as a concerning preponderance of new representational clichés that serve only to obfuscate architecture with a variety of utopian — or, at the very least, idyllic — embellishments. These crutches can be found on every blog and in every magazine; they include images of birds soaring through impossibly beautiful skies, children running with balloons, and mysterious patches of “green” that presumably represent the anticipated development of an architecturally-perfect plant. Storefront plastered their interior with these carefully manicured renderings in a chaotic interpretation of the “Post No Bills” wheatpaste aesthetic prevalent in New York City — an appropriate gesture considering that, like the posters adorning the city’s scaffolding, these trope-filled images are little more than advertisements. With drawings covering even the gallery floor, visitors literally walk all over them.
The following post was originally written as an entry to McSweeney’s 2011 Column Contest. It didn’t win. But I had a lot of fun writing it so I thought I’d post it here. As proposed, it was an architectural criticism column written from the perspective of a somewhat emotionally dysfunctional critic who sees his own failures in the monumental structures that obsess him. In the resulting reviews, personal narratives converge with professional critique. Descriptions and opinions of the buildings emerge through seemingly inadvertent revelations of his personal crises and social conflicts. Over the course of the columns, a larger narrative is revealed in which the reader learns more about the critic – his failures, fears, aspirations, and his romantic and professional pursuits. In this introductory column, your critic experiences the five stages of grief –denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance– in his critique of the Lower Manhattan skyscraper New York by Gehry.
Continue reading “New York by Gehry: A Review In Which Your Architecture Critic’s Personal Issues May Be Interfering With His Job”