Pier Over Troubled Waters

The piers on the West Side of Manhattan were killed by containers. An often overlooked revolution of the 1960s, containerization allowed shippers to move freight by sea and land with unparalleled ease, but it burdened them with ever larger ships and the steel boxes themselves, the handling and storage of which required the long bulkheads, vast lots, and rail and highway access that, along the Hudson and its estuary, could only be found in New Jersey. There has never been, nor could there ever be, a container port on the slim fingers that edge out from Manhattan Island every few blocks for miles, from the Battery to 59th Street—a rhythm interrupted today only where, robbed of cargo and purpose, the piers have given themselves up to the river.

So as it took shape in February, the simple act of stacking 148 containers in two 4-story-high, 672-foot-long walls along Pier 54 did—as the press releases would later claim—“stop people in their tracks.” What was rising there? Certainly not some product of commerce. As the structure achieved its final form—the two walls spanned by a steel-and-white-plastic-membrane roof, the interior transformed into a perfect basilica by two lines of mammoth paper-tube columns—it was clear, even as all eyes were on The Gates uptown, that some major episode of public art was about to take place.

Still you could be forgiven for not immediately connecting this ironic postindustrial apparition with the giant uncaptioned photograph of a child reading to a seated elephant that was beginning to show up on billboards around town. If a label had later appeared on them for Benetton or the Body Shop, no one would have blinked. The images somehow make the uncanny pat, while the thing that was rising on the river opposite West 13th Street was, despite itself, perfectly bittersweet and strange. Alas, they go together: the container-wall building is the first incarnation of the Nomadic Museum—a quixotic project sponsored by Rolex via an entity called the Bianimale Foundation. The sole purpose of the foundation seems to be to subsidize and promote the work of Gregory Colbert, the Canadian-born artist whose painstakingly staged, sepia-saccharine photographs of Third Worlders (mostly children, of course) interacting with elephants, whales, manatees, tortoises, and various birds of prey are the only art the museum will ever hold.

You could be forgiven too for thinking that the building was the work of the New York firm LOT-EK, a partnership that has for more than a decade promoted the creative reuse of shipping containers, truck bodies, miscellaneous tanks, and other terrible, wonderful, poetic fixtures of the industrial world. LOT-EK’s office is just across West Street from the Nomadic Museum—it’s right up in their face—but the museum is, in case the presence of cardboard columns didn’t give it away, the work of Shigeru Ban, the Cooper Union-trained Japanese architect who has distinguished himself in recent years by the quality of his work and his stubborn insistence on being utterly original.

The quality is high here—thanks in large part to the dedicated construction team that worked out the many kinks in the original design between Ban’s visits from Tokyo—but his usual epic originality is tested. LOT-EK, of course, was not the first to see the standardized steel boxes as a new route for architecture—experiments have been going on since the system went mainstream more than 40 years ago—but the firm did seem to prepare the way for containerization to go glamorous. The issue of Wallpaper on the newsstands as the Nomadic Museum was assembled included a feature on the interior design of domesticated containers, something that would have been inconceivable without well-known LOT-EK projects that imagined a second life for containers as a museum of slavery in Senegal or a traveling American diner. Similarly Ban’s project would be impossible without that underlying pop bass note, but his approach is somewhat different. He does not fetishize the containers qua containers. Indeed, outside they are purely functional, inside they all but disappear.

The containers are arranged in a checkerboard pattern, with every other spot left void and covered with an angled white plastic tarp. It’s a nice way to stretch the wall with fewer “bricks”—the containers easily span the distance, locked in at their corners as they are designed to be on the deck of a ship or waiting for the next one piled in some port’s back lot. (In Elizabeth, New Jersey, as at ports across the country, they are piled high and everywhere—a visual index of America’s trade deficit.) The effect in the interior—where all light is blocked, save the little that seeps through the membrane roof—is to reduce the physical presence and rhetorical weight of all those battered steel boxes. Kitsch is thus banished as the walls become mere windscreens and a means to take the load of the roof. The cardboard columns—fat, just too wide to wrap two arms around—take over in earnest to shape the space. That is their only function; they bear no weight, something that will get the hackles up of anyone such as myself, polluted by the modern architectural dogma of “honesty” in construction. It was truly horrible to see the triangular cardboard trusses, a few weeks before the building was completed, hanging idly from the working steel structure of the roof as they waited for the columns to be lifted from an adjacent barge (the whole elaborate job was staged from a storage yard opposite in New Jersey), rolled into place with a purpose-built cart (those crafty construction workers again), and tilted one by one into place.

But, catching myself, I can see that the columns’ effect is function enough. The museum—which will stand in New York into June before being packed up, shipped out, and re-erected in similar form indefinitely at sites in Santa Monica, Rome, and elsewhere—is a simply transcendent wonder. The space conjured by the pier-long march of the cardboard columns alone would be worth a visit—but with the sun blocked, the project manager, William Goins (a filmmaker by training, he was on-site to do a documentary on the project before it sucked him in)—has devised an eerily affecting lighting scheme that puts a bright spot on each of Colbert’s 200 images where they hang between the columns. A slow film, starring the same natives and obliging wildlife, loops at the far end of the space, providing just enough pull to give the quarter-mile walk there and back some narrative logic. You make that transit on a wide wooden boardwalk, which at the opening was still giving off the delightfully intoxicating fumes of a lumberyard. The side aisles are off-limits, paved in 300 tons of cream-colored gravel, but they put the container walls out of reach and out of mind, and they catch the rectangular shadows cast by images of the photographer swimming with sperm whales or a woman dancing with a hawk. It is easily the best public space in New York City right now—perhaps even good enough to make the insipid art it houses work.

Advantage, Ban.

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