Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Lincoln Center, Lawn Furniture, Planning, and Venturi

•I’ve written about modernist architecture being bland (geometric, plain), but sometimes it works well. It’s worth noting that the recently-refurbished northernmost building of the Lincoln Center complex works very nicely, managing to be jutting and angular without looking unnatural or inelegant. Not everything is awful. And one of these days, they really need to stage a performance of Antigone on those stand-alone steps at the southeast corner of that block.

•Meanwhile, my friend Marah Fellicce is helping to maintain and recruit volunteers for art projects involving living lawn furniture made of grass on Governor’s Island, if you’re interested. I think the best art project for Governor’s Island would simply be the governor sitting on the island, alone, saying hi to whoever dropped by. He wouldn’t do much harm sitting alone on an island. (Perhaps he could declare the island a sovereign nation, the sort of thing that will be discussed tomorrow night at a dinner for “seasteading” advocates.)

•On a related note, I’m not planning to attend, but there’s a panel discussion tonight at the Center for Architecture called “The Physical City,” featuring officials from the administration of New York City’s Mayor John Lindsay talking about their urban planning escapades.

This is a subject of great interest to Helen, who has an article coming out about Robert Moses and who suggested we go to DUMBO’s powerHouse arts space (itself not a bad place for an Antigone performance, with all those stairs) to hear a recent reading from the book The Fires (by a man named Flood), about the thing that went most visibly wrong in the Lindsay years, which is huge swaths of the City burning down while egghead planners affiliated with the RAND Corporation tried to decide which fire stations weren’t really necessary, always-malevolent zoning boards banished businesses from the City, and the whole culture pretty much gave up on fighting crimes such as arson.

•Speaking of fire departments, New Haven dwellers, and architecture, the remainder of this blog entry is a previously-unpublished excerpt from my old architecture articles, derived from my visit to a creation of arch-postmodernist Robert Venturi:

Some of the firemen working at the Dixwell Fire Station that Venturi designed in New Haven don’t like the place he designed for them.

“We’re rebuilding the whole thing and we’re not telling any architects about it, so we can get it right,” Chief Martin O’Connor told me.

Lt. John King also had some thoughts on Venturi. “I think the gentleman’s smart never to show up here in person,” he said. King listed various design flaws with the structure, from poor acoustics and slippery floor material to an oddly curved front that makes driving the trucks out difficult. King also pointed out the tiny kitchen, with one ordinary four-burner stove intended for sixteen men, thirty-two on a shift change. “When they bring the architecture students in here for classes,” King noted vengefully, “we’ll put the entire class in here, which would represent about our normal work load, and say ‘go ahead, make something’.”

New Haven architecture students, it should be noted, are used to suffering for their art: Yale’s modernist Arts and Architecture Building is notoriously ugly, and its oddly narrow passageways force students to remove paintings from the painting studios by sliding them out the window. Unfortunately, the windows were not designed to be opened, so popping them out of place is an ordeal in itself. The architecture building is a poignant reminder of the problems in the profession, much as an English department building full of misspelled signs would be.

Venturi and the postmodernists were supposed to be our last, best hope for overcoming such absurdities, but sometimes they create new ones. Sometimes, they even repeat the modernists’ mistakes, as with the Dixwell Station’s flat roof with minimal water-shedding ability. (“Flat roofs in New England?” asked King, incredulous.) Despite Venturi’s apt criticisms of the modernists, is he, like them, more interested in philosophy than real-world practicality? “I’ve done construction for years,” said Lt. King. “I’m a great believer that the janitor needs to be consulted. That’s the person who has to deal with it on a day to day basis.”


Tim Watson said...

Here’s an interesting comment from someone

claiming to be a RAND consultant, to the effect

that Flood misunderstood their responsibilities,

and the computerized response system that they

were tasked to develop was put in place only at

the end of the period in question.


Todd Seavey said...

Interesting, and I don’t doubt the government was to blame.

Tim Watson said...

The interview does not leave one with much trust in

Flood’s knowledge. RAND consultants pointing to values

in R, the data covariance matrix, is obviously so they could

show Flood that *measurements* supported their modeling.

It makes one wonder whether his interpretation of traffic

speed versus response times in some model he criticizes is

accurate. A delta (Ta – Tb) or derivative in the response

time might actually be independent.