Reference Page: November 2008
A Pointed Response
Mention Hiroshima, and fun, playful architecture isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind. The atomic bomb, in addition to killing 80,000 people instantly, destroyed 70 percent of the city’s buildings. Since the tragedy, Hiroshima has been rebuilt, and much of the architecture recalls the past: there’s Kenzo Tange’s celebrated Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp), an adjoining park with scores of monuments, and many structures completed or planned as part of a 50-year scheme to redevelop the city’s fractured landscape (www.city.hiroshima/jp/e/overview.html; click “Hiroshima 2045: City of Peace and Creativity”). Suppose Design Office, a young firm based in Hiroshima, has its eye on the future. With spare lines and clever concepts (one house looks like a geode teetering over a hill), the architects appear less concerned with retelling history than making it. See projects at www.suppose.jp.
Thinking About Shrinkage
“Shrinking cities” often conjures images of crime-ridden blocks where wheat fields grow between crumbly projects, but population drawdowns can also create the impetus for radical experimentation. In Detroit, artists painted boarded-up houses bright orange to call attention to urban blight (see “Orange Alert,” by Stephen Zacks, in our June 2006 issue). The activists of the Heidelberg Project (www.heidelberg.org) decorate abandoned buildings with everything from polka dots to toys. In Buffalo, the nonprofit PUSH (www.pushbuffalo.org) redevelops empty homes for low-income residents. The ghost towns of former East Germany also attract their share of weird projects: a collective-burial site shaped like a pyramid is planned for Dessau (www.thegreatpyramid.org), and organizers say Rem Koolhaas is involved.
At www.confluenceproject.org/videos, Maya Lin discusses her monument-but-don’t-call-it-a-monument to the Corps of Discovery. What she doesn’t mention is how she plans to address the thorny issue of Sacagawea, the vaunted Shoshone girl who trekked her way into the history books as Lewis and Clark’s fearless, free-spirited Indian guide. In fact, as described in a 2002 Harper’s essay by Ben Metcalf, she spent much of the voyage feigning illness, raiding the opium stash, and leading the party astray, perhaps as revenge for her enslavement to the French-Canadian fur trader Lewis and Clark had hired (go to www.harpers.org and search for “Sacajawea”; subscription required). Was the U.S. Mint being cheeky when it printed the word liberty on her gold coin? Modern scholarship, of course, has all but debunked the myth of Lewis and Clark as the Great Adventurers Who Discovered the American West. As David Plotz’s 2002 article in Slate tells it, they were not the first to traverse the Rockies (that would be Native Americans, then a Scotsman named Alexander MacKenzie), nor did they accomplish their original mission of finding a transcontinental water passage. Worse, both their journals and their route proved useless to later explorers (www.slate.com/id/2069382). So they got what most questionable historical figures get: their very own coin. (Google “Lewis and Clark” and “coin.”)
Completing the Circle
After a scathing review by Ada Louise Huxtable, Edward Durell Stone’s
2 Columbus Circle was forever branded the “lollipop building.” Its replacement, the new Museum of Arts and Design, might very well become known as “the HE building.” Last April, a reader of the New York Times’ City Room blog posed this question: “Any info on why they made the front of the building into a giant sign saying ‘HE’?” (To see what he means, go to cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com and search for “A New Face on Columbus Circle.”) A late revision to the design added a horizontal strip of windows across the museum’s ninth-floor restaurant. This created a crossbar between the facade’s two vertical bands: ergo, the “H.” Brad Cloepfil is not thrilled: he “recoils at the notion that he’s turned the ‘lollipop building’ into the ‘HE building,’” writes Blair Kamin (www.chicagotribune.com; search for “sweetly retooled”).
Greensburg, Kansas, is the home of the world’s biggest hand-dug well (www.bigwell.org
), and for a long time that was its only claim to fame. That all changed on May 4, 2007, when a tornado reduced the town to piles of rubble. Greensburg residents are now the main characters in a documentary series produced by Leonardo DiCaprio (planetgreen.discovery.com/tv/greensburg). The reality is practically made for television: Greensburg was 95 percent destroyed, but instead of despairing, residents decided to rebuild a greener city. A year and a half later, the Kiowa County seat boasts the state’s first LEED Platinum–certified building, an arts center with movie screenings and ceramics classes (www.547artscenter.org).
They drank. They joked. They rated women on paper napkins. At times, Eero Saarinen and his minions sounded more like the debonair lads of Mad Men than an architecture firm. Richard Knight has the details in Saarinen’s Quest: A Memoir (William Stout Publishers, 2008), a compelling if uncritical backstage peek at the architect’s most celebrated works, including Dulles Airport, the TWA terminal at JFK, and the St. Louis Arch. Kevin Kline narrated a 2006 documentary on the latter, which early critics believed took more than a leaf from an unbuilt Italian arch designed for Mussolini some ten years earlier—accusations Saarinen vehemently denied (see The Gateway Arch: A Reflection of America). Copycat or no, the Finnish-born architect has been granted a major touring exhibit that spans his prolific career, clipped short though it was (Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, www.eerosaarinen.net). Saarinen died of a brain tumor at the age of 51, leaving the cognoscenti to lament all the magnificent architecture that might have been. As Martin Filler wrote earlier this year in the New York Review of Books: “Unlike poètes maudits and Hollywood sex symbols, it’s generally a bad career move for architects to die young.” (Google “Flying High with Eero Saarinen”; subscription required.)
Leaves of Glass
For his new book, The Transparent City (Aperture/Museum of Contemporary Photography), Michael Wolf spent many solitary hours on Chicago rooftops photographing the insides of nearby office towers. Wolf is no stranger to unusual assignments: his portfolio includes Chinese cricket fights and animals who star in advertising (www.photomichaelwolf.com). In Sitting in China (Steidl, 2002), Wolf trained his lens on chairs and the people who sit in them. But spying on Chicago office workers wasn’t half as provocative as photographing stools and benches in China. As Wolf was shooting a broken chair in Beijing, a woman accused him “of trying to show how backward the Chinese are.” The police were called to the scene and destroyed the offending chair. Sadly, this type of intervention is still common. Hundreds of foreign reporters and photographers have been harassed in China in the past two years; for more, see www.fccchina.org/harras.htm.
The Long View
The High Line remains one of the West Side of Manhattan’s most curious developments. Elevated train tracks smack clear into buildings, gangly weeds poke through abandoned rails, and faded 1920s ads stenciled on nearby warehouses recall the city’s once prosperous industrial past. Remember, this is where the Jets and the Sharks fight-danced to a draw. See photos of the still-gritty-though-not-for-much-longer expanse at www.forgotten-ny.com (click “Subways & Trains” then “High Falutin’”) or in Joel Sternfeld’s monograph, Walking the High Line (Steidl/Pace/MacGill Gallery, 2002), with essays by John Stilgoe and Adam Gopnik. (Five bucks says Gopnik manages to mention Paris or his children.) The new High Line, as conceptualized by the landscape architect James Corner (www.fieldoperations.net), is a radical transformation with sleek, glass-enclosed lookouts and lush foliage spilling out onto thin strips of concrete walkway (www.thehighline.org; click on “High Line Design”). But is it daring enough? If Sean Wilsey, author of sad-rich-boy memoir Oh the Glory of It All, is to be believed, the answer is a resounding no. Writing in the New York Times, he calls for “snow-making machinery,” “farm animals,” and “a roller coaster!” Oh, the whimsy of it all! (Google “High Line, Low Aims.”)