Future Present

June 14, 2018

Wet Planet or Disk Outside PA 42nd St
Both of these images are from NYNJ Port Authority bus stations: the first one outside the main terminal at 42nd Street; and the other at 178th Street. The latter building has a roof platform by the innovative master of reinforced concrete, Pier Luigi Nervi. I think the towers and the terminal look like something from the notebooks of the futurist Antonio Saint’Elia. For some pinhole images of Port Authority “monuments,” including the Calatrava extravaganza, visit this post.
felling futuristic IIa 1050

Massimo Vignelli – Design Gone Rogue?

May 28, 2014

vignelliobit2-superJumbo Massimo Vignelli, the designer of this “iconic” NYC subway map died today, and was written up in the NYTimes.  Paul Goldberger, former architecture critic for the Times, rhapsodized about it as  more than beautiful.”  I’ll say.  Goldberger goes on:

Vignelli’s 1972 map wasn’t just lovely to look at. Its obsessive clarity turns out to be the perfect basis for digital information. It’s more modern looking than any of the maps that followed it. 

More modern looking than its successors, yes.  Is that a clear-cut virtue?  Obsessive clarity?  Not sure what that means.  Or is it obsession with the appearance of clarity?  Basis for digital information?  Pleeez…

As a frequent visitor to the city in the 1970s, I found the map confusing and practically illegible.  It’s resemblance to a circuit design made it worse for me, a colorblind male.  Many riders felt the same way, and the map was replaced with a more cartographically realistic, and less geometrical design.

The map may be a wonder, an icon, a fetish, an object of worship for modernist designers, but if so many people found it hard to use, what good is it?  Doesn’t that sort of defeat the whole purpose of graphic design?  Nothing against his work as a whole, mind you, as I love the brochures he did for the National Park Service that are still in print. 2014-0527-Vignelli-SS-1401209851899-superJumbo

I admire his spirit.  The article reports:

 Mr. Vignelli said he would have liked the job of developing a corporate identity for the Vatican. “I would go to the pope and say, ‘Your holiness, the logo is O.K.,’ ” he said, referring to the cross, “but everything else has to go.”

Piazza d’Italia – New Orleans

November 28, 2013

IMG_5628 IMG_5627

I remember when this …er..ensemble was created, and the incredible press it got.  “The End of Modernism!!” shouted the critics, and the bravos of the Post-Modern wave.  Eh, what..?

Created to commemorate the contribution of Italian immigrants to New Orleans, not the most prominent group in NOLA consciousness, it’s true, it was declared a masterpiece by some.  What I did not know was that barely a few years later, it was decrepit and unused, a lonely architectural joke in a location where the expected development did not occur.  Some quipped it was the world’s first post-modern ruin.

This self-conscious pastiche has learned a bit too much from Las Vegas and Robert Venturi’s take on it, for my taste.  Fine for the backyard of a trendy summer house or an architect’s getaway, but as a node in a downtown urban redevelopment scheme?  As this interesting recap of the birth, death, and rebirth of the plaza quoted:

 Lake Douglas, a New Orleans resident and a long-standing contributor to this magazine, may have said it best 25 years ago in a piece for Architectural Review. “[The piazza] is a wonderful, capricious architectural joke that one cannot appreciate unless one has a sense of humor to match the architects’, one understands the elements of classical architecture and the confused state of contemporary architecture, and one is privy to the customs of New Orleans,”

Douglas wrote. “Perhaps with the Italian Piazza, pop architecture has advanced into elite architecture, and that may be the ultimate architectural joke.”

It’s all been refurbished now, to the tune of one million dollars, and it looks pretty much as when it was unveiled.  It sits in a lot  between a giant hotel and, I think a parking lot.  Not exactly an eye-catching spot.  Maybe in better weather there is more life to it, but for me, happening on it by chance and instantly recalling the picture of it on a magazine cover years ago, it was as if Disneyland had just landed in front of my car in New Orleans.

John Singer Sargent

January 2, 2010

A remarkable painter!  He was the favorite of Edwardian society, but at the height of his success as a portraitist in the “grand manner,” he gave it up.  A very private man, sophisticated, yet also naive, dedicated to his art, his friends, and his family, but little else.  So what?

He knew what he was.  He moved in those circles, but he was not quite of them.  Who knows what he really thought?  He certainly was never ironic or satirical in his depiction of the rich and great.  He never shared their anti-semitism either, doing  some of his best work in portraits of the Anglo-Jewish financial and merchant kings, much to the chagrin of the Establishment.

With the advent of Modernism, and the self-conscious avant garde, his reputation went into eclipse, to be resuscitated later.  Sample this from the great puritan – I do love him, though – Lewis Mumford (from wiki):

“Sargent remained to the end an illustrator…the most adroit appearance of workmanship, the most dashing eye for effect, cannot conceal the essential emptiness of Sargent’s mind, or the contemptuous and cynical superficiality of a certain part of his execution.”

Appearance of workmanship..? Alas, Lewis, I couldn’t disagree with you more.

Being Concrete

April 12, 2008

Auguste PerretI was familiar with the architectural master, Auguste Perret, through my studies in the history of architecture, but I did not have anything like a proper appreciation of him until I read this new book about him. I recalled him as being praised as a pre-cursor of modernism, and the first to exploit reinforced concrete fully as an aesthetic and structural material. Looking through two histories I have on hand, Pioneers of Modern Design by Hitchcock, and A History of Architecture by Kostoff, I see that he is allotted a few paragraphs, there are pictures of his most famous building (church at Raincy) and then on to the triumphs of the modern movement, particularly Le Corbusier, who studied under Perret, revered him, but also criticized him. It seems that there are few books about him in English, which is why this new Phaidon text is so welcome.

In fact, the criticism went both ways because Perret was not a “modernist,” he was a classicist, and a builder in a very traditional sense. He was a craftsman in concrete, and his buildings are exquisite – I would love to live in one of them. (Perhaps being an engineer, I am closer to his mentality?) He was not at all entranced by Corbu and Mies, and those people – that wasn’t architecture in his eyes. Phillip Johnson relates an annecdote about taking Perret to see his very famous Glass House in Connecticut (…just a chimney over which I draped a thin skin of glass and steel frame…) Shheeesh! Not architecture for Perret! PJ asked if Perret would like to go inside and look around. He replied, “What for? I can see everything from out here?” He was similarly abrupt and caustic about other “modernist masterpieces.” Here was a man who knew what he was about!

Looking through the book I was floored by the sheer beauty of his interiors and facades. I had expected to see intriguing and pleasing designs that were “rational” and “modern,” but his are ravishing, i.e., they are detailed, and lovingly designed – ornament is carefully used to great effect, and the entire impression is one of austere, disciplined, voluptuousness – emphasis on the austere. The tension between the sensual beauty and the intellectual purity of the designs – the spiral stairway shown below is a good example – is a marvel. It reminds me of my favorite authors, Flaubert and Calvino, and their Olympian mastery of tone.

Raincy Rue Franklin Apartments Public Works Museum Theatre Champs Elysees Public Works Museum

Mal de this, Mal de that…

November 17, 2007


Here’s Charles Baudelaire in his younger, dandy days. This other, more famous, portrait of him was taken when he was much older, ill with syphilis, in pain, and really sick of life. Instead of just writing about being sick of it, that is. Just kidding…

Mal du siecle, mal de vie, fleur de mal, the city, Paris, ennui, alienation, disgust, such a positive guy this Charles. He and his symbolist, decadent, bohemian flaneur crew. Walking around a part of NYC the other night, a part that I was not familiar with and that retains the look of a much older city, I felt transported for a moment back into that time/mindset of Parisian spleen.

It was dark, damp, a bit foggy. The streets were cobblestoned.  People rushed along now and then to their homes, their families, their dates. A woman’s heels clicked and echoed down the way.  A man’s shoes made that pleasant gravelly grinding sound on the wet pavement that I have always loved so much.  Fleeting laughter, blasts of music and light from a few cafes. I was alone, on my way to someplace, and late, and I felt the loneliness that I associate with being on my own in a foreign city.  You can be alone in a very intense way when you are surrounded by thousands of people in a city who all have something to do and somewhere to go where they are expected, and you’re just wandering.

Is this how Baudelaire felt as he tramped about Paris? He was so sensitive to everything he saw and heard and smelled. He was alive to the fascinating texture of urban life, but you can’t say he celebrated it! Not that he could have lived anywhere else, no. He just complained, and wrote poems in which he begs to be released to “anywhere out of this world!”

Sad men, these brilliant poets I like so much. They would have scorned normal, middle-class (i.e. bourgeois) happiness. Were they capable of it?  I wonder if they were capable of love at all. Was Charles’ problem that he couldn’t love a woman? Like Flaubert couldn’t.  The Goncourts.  Huysmans…so many others.  Misogyny runs like a river at flood through the culture of the fin de siecle.  Men, brought up at a time when the old structures of life, sex roles, expectations were crumbling away, but not yet replaced by something totally new.  Their minds seem to have been about fifty years behind the times when it came to women, and the women were enough like their mothers to really confuse things.  The fresh, independent Gibson Girls were still a generation and an ocean away. They were caught in the middle, and they couldn’t deal with it.