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James S. Russell on architecture

Tuesday, June 22, 2004
    Noguchi's Secret Fortress

    The Noguchi Museum is a small brick fortress north of the Queensborough bridge in Queens thatís a bit out of the way and easy to miss. But this single-artist museum is one of New Yorkís gems, You cross a threshold into a covered outdoor space, a bare-bones little warehouse. The very ordinariness of this space adds to the sense of discovery. There are several examples of Isamu Noguchiís pylons, columns of stone displaying rich variegations of texture, shape, and color that have been delicately refined by the artist. Thereís a lovely garden, unspectacular yet easy to appreciate because it does not advertise its artistry. Even though Noguchi was very much a public artist, with playgrounds as well as sculptures and fountains to his credit, this small shrine, with its private unfolding of experiences, is much in the spirit of the work. There is architecture here, but it is the kind of provisional slightly untidy architecture that artists tend to make for themselves. The museum has had a discreet renovation (it now has climate control, for example) and reopened Saturday June 12, with an exhibition in a renovated upper-level space theatrically curated by Robert Wilson. With its shifts of light (total darkness to a green-lit room paved in reflective metal panels) and texture (thatch to pebbles), it surveys the artists entire output but foregrounds Noguchiís stage work with the choreographer Martha Graham, which will resonate with viewers whoíve newly discovered mid-century modern. The exhibitionís drama is quite in contrast to the unassuming, unself-conscious nature of the rest of the place, but it enriches our view of this classic modernist.
    posted by mclennan @ 3:19 pm | Permanent link
Sunday, June 20, 2004

    Since I cannot resist being pedantic, I must confess that there is a common lesson to be drawn from the three tales of travel posted below. It is that the way America builds its transportation infrastructure has all but collapsed. Infrastructure is simply too expensive and too critical to the nationís economy to be planned, funded, and built willy-nilly but thatís exactly what we now do. Seattle proceeds witlessly because there arenít actually good American models for doing road alternatives in a city thatís built at semi-suburban density. Penn station founders because we donít know how to integrate rail with other forms of transportation and we wonít assemble commuter rail and high-speed intercity rail into an integrated, economically workable, sanely funded entity. LaGuardiaís congestion is simply an emblem of whatís developing nationwide as passengers return to flying and the nation refuses to either throw billions to accommodate the traffic or to commit transportation funding to relieving air traffic by intercity rail. Weíre throwing billions at unproven airport security measures, though. We know that we canít get along by building perpetual new highway lanes, but that is, essentially what we do. We need to integrate the planning of roads, rails and air to derive the maximum efficiencies from all, but we donít. (Iíve ranted about this in more detail here (scroll down to April 1) and on my website.ólook under infrastructure) There is a gigantic transportation bill languishing, a victim of Congressional stalemate, that addresses NONE of these issues. There is a vast energy bill, also victimized by political gridlock, that fails to recognize the role sanely planned transportation can play in energy conservation. Transportation may be essential but it is, sadly, a political issue that lacks political sex appeal. We need a transportation Monicagate. Possibilities welcome.
    posted by mclennan @ 3:08 pm | Permanent link
Friday, June 18, 2004
    Journey 3

    I flew to Boston and back yesterday, and here was my dilemma. Do I take the train, one of Amtrakís best services, which is a bit cheaper than flying and vastly more pleasurable though (on paper) a bit more inconvenient? But then Amtrak is often late. Or do I hustle out to LaGuardia, where I supposedly arrive an hour quicker on the USAirways shuttle but must wonder whether Iíll get stuck in traffic, and whether weather or LaGuardiaís perpetual congestion delays will ruin my too-tightly scheduled day? I opt for the plane and am, indeed foiled by a weather delay, congestion at LaGuardia and congestion at Boston induced by a runway resurfacing project. (USAirways neglected to inform passengers of this very predictable delay until they were stuck in the cabin. Thereís a reason theyíre flirting with bankruptcy.) New York is one of the few American cities that have such transportation choices, but too often each option represents a gamble rather than a reasonable certainty. Arriving in Boston I cab it to Cambridge through parts of the vast Central Artery Project, the Herculean undergrounding of a freeway distribution complex that once ran overhead in the heart of Boston. After a decade and more than $14 billion (most of it federal $), this vast undertakingóprobably the most complex and expensive capital projects ever attempted in America, everónears completion. And what do I find in this non-rush period? Traffic backed up at several of the onramps. The reason, of course, has to do with increasing the capacity of the trunk highways without increasing the capacity of anything leading to it. So we have a project that has sucked a mind-boggling amount of money out of the treasury and is failing even before itís completed.
    posted by mclennan @ 3:07 pm | Permanent link
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
    Journey 2

    While I was in Seattle recently, a kerfuffle broke out over an ambitious local project to create a monorail mass-transit network. The idea of pinning local mass transit hopes on a monorail is one of those peculiarly only-in-Seattle stories that does not bear recounting hereóat least yet. In short, though, the effort was spearheaded by buffs (there is a short monorail segment in the city that dates from the Jetsonís-era worlds fair). The buffs got local voters to approve the system, after a light-rail initiative got bogged down in the endless public review proces that is one of Seattleís chief local entertainments. The transportation-planning establishment finds the idea almost completely cockeyed (and the local engineer that started the latest battle was questioning some of the technical and engineering assumptions) but the buffs defend the concept with near-cultlike commitment, even as the project threatens to sink under exactly the same interest-group infighting that made a mess of the light rail. They all but ran the engineer out of town on a monorail. I canít speak to the technical issues, but this is the most bizarre transportation spectacle I have seen played out in living memory. The monorial authority operates separately fromt the authority that runs the light rail, which by the way, is separate from the entity that runs most of the bus system. Words cannot convey how stupidly inefficient and wasteful such a setup is. There is no demonstrable place that such a cobbled-together system works well. Cities get stuck with them by historical accident. Only Seattle has actually saddled itself with such a contraption. By the way, few people in Seattle actually seem to be paying attention to the unfolding mess, even though they will bend your ear unrelentingly about the traffic, which is frustrating, but not monumentally so. Instead, playing all over the television was gas-price hysteria, even though gas remains cheap and I saw no evidence of people driving more slowly or otherwise making even the most casual effort to save money. You have to go back to New York City in the 1920s, where three rapid-transit entities laid down three separate subway systems that operated with separate rail and railcar standards and which failed to make even the most obvious and rational of cross-connections. The city has enternally regretted this insane system ever since.I could only conclude that the city was suffering from a form of mass hysteria.
    posted by mclennan @ 3:03 pm | Permanent link
Saturday, June 12, 2004
    Journey 1

    Iím belatedly drawing attention to a fine report in the Times that details a stalemate in the long-promised renovation of Penn Station in New York. A handsome design by the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was unveiled along with a very complex deal brokered among many government agencies at the city, state, and federal levelóin 1998.

    Since then nothing has happened. The Times story indicated that cash-starved Amtrak is balking at the modest rent it must pay, even though the $800-million of work (now presumably more expensive) was for its benefit primarily.

    A great deal is at stake here. The city wants to build tens of millions of square feet of office space in the surrounding blocks. The state wants to put a billion dollar stadium here. The state and city want to add a huge chunk of space to the Javits Convention Center. Thereís no place in the vicinity for more cars and trucks, so these vast plans all depend on increasing the capacity of Penn Station. Penn (the disastrous replacement for the great McKim, Meade & White palace), is a misery for passengers and an architectural disaster (abetted recently by renovations carried out by NJTransit within its Penn fiefdom that, for a cool $155 million, make the place look like a pink-granite strip mall for tarts).Perhaps 25 percent of the nationís rail commuters pass through and a high percentage of Amtrakís total trips nationwide end or originate here. The Amtrak project could be done by now if it had been pushed hard enough by local officials, who will do anything but work together on such a project. (The funds, theoretically anyway, have long been available.) The uncertainty is also emblematic of the mess that has been made of transportation-infrastructure investment by Congress, which leaves such enormous capital projects perpetually subject to legislative whim (unlike highways) and has failed to give Amtrak a sure financial footing .

    Amtrak wants out now because Congress and the president are starving it, even though the only place the railroad ever made money has been in the Northeast corridor. The upcoming Republican convention, atop Penn Station in the embarrassing wreck that is Madison Square Garden, would be an excellent moment to press the projectís urgency.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 2:53 pm | Permanent link


STICKS & STONES archives

About James S. Russell
The subject of my 15-year-plus career in journalism has been architecture, but it is certainly not a confining one. Iím fascinated by the sociology of the workplace, the design potential of ordinary infrastructure, the politics of housing, the meaning of suburbia, the expressive conundrum of memory. More

Architecture is hot these daysóas well as curvy and glassy, frolicsome and intimidating.This frequently misunderstood and most public of arts is being talked about. That in itself is new. For better and worse, architecture entangles itself in the key issues of culture and urban life. S&S will dig into them. More

My Books
I'm working on a book, called "After Suburbia," on emerging patterns of urban growth and their consequences. Then there's .... More

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New Museums
Do dramatically architectural containers serve the art they display? Recently completed museums offer their own distinct take on this long-debated question.

Cincinnati: The blocky forms of Zaha Hadidís Contemporary Arts Center appear ready to burst out of the confines of its tight downtown site. Inside, spectacular ramps criss-cross to access the unusually shaped galleries. Does this architectural bravura overwhelm the art or stimulate the visitor to appreciate it?

Beacon, New York: If only architecture could vanish, Dia:Beacon seems to argue (some images here). It speads over a vast space, converted from a package plant. The extraordinary collection, much of it Minimalist, frequently uses architectural means to artistic ends, and Dia didnít want design to get in the way.

St. Louis: The architect, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works, speaks of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as a "vessel." You know itís there, but its purpose is to "prepare the visitor for the experience of art." Can an environment that is assertively unassertive succeed?

Fort Worth: Paired to Louis Kahnís great masterpiece, the Kimball Art Museum, is the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum, by the Japanese master, Tadao Ando. He built three pavilions as hushed reliquaries for art. Ando takes you on a journey, and you see what he wants you to see.

Dallas: Many think Renzo Piano strikes just the right balance between art and architecture. Though elegantly proportioned and authoritatively crafted, the exhibition pavilions at the Nasher Sculpture Center neither upstage the art nor the gorgeous garden setting theyíre placed in (by landscape architect Peter Walker).


Conserving Everyoneís Energy But his Own
An oval that appears to droop woozily to the south like a melting ice cream cone may not be the average person's idea of what a city hall should look like, But this is approximately the shape the architect Norman Foster gave the home of London's new local government, the Greater London Authority. More

The Mouse That Soars
Frank Gehry anticipated that the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles would be thought just another variation on the Bilbao Guggenheim theme. When one of the countless cost-reducing sessions in this structureís tortured 16-year path to fruition resulted in the substitution of stainless steel for the limestone cladding Gehry had long desired, he correctly predicted that the building would be seen as "son of Bilbao." More



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