I wandered over to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village late yesterday. I was reminded again that the two best attractions in the city are its parks and its residents. Endlessly fascinating, especially when the two are combined.
In the park, I listened to a duet by a shirtless guitarist and a woman playing an accordion. Watched as a small group, despite the overcast sky and wet grass, filmed a woman sitting on a blanket. Looked on as a handsome young man in the company of two friends held forth, gesturing dramatically with his hands. Wondered about the people sitting nearby on benches, engrossed in their books: where were their imaginations at that moment?
I ended up at the Center for Architecture, just south of the park, where I surveyed two exhibitions and attended a roundtable discussion called “New Practices New York 2014,” moderated by the whimsically named Beatrice Galilee, recently appointed (at 31!) curator of architecture and design at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
So here’s the question I have after that experience: From where do good ideas come? (That there are good and bad ideas is not a fact that needs to be established, right?)
Here’s one example. Which of these two proposals for greening a 3.5-mile stretch of abandoned railway in central Queens did better in a design competition sponsored by AIA New York?
No, you’re wrong. The proposal to convert the railway’s abandoned Ozone Park Station into a kind of green incubator — a complex of small gardens, rentable units for craft manufacturing and art studios, and two markets — did slightly less well than the one for a vast steel grid (inspired by the Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, Queens, and the Domino Sugar sign from the old refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) that could serve as a cheap, easily constructed local “attraction,” variously useful as (I swear I’m not making this up) an aviary, community garden, “city lounge,” or even a place to barbecue!
What’s going on here, do you think? I’ll tell you what I think in a moment.
A second exhibition at the center is focused on Swiss landscape architects. So, same question, more or less. What about this installation at a government building in Ittigen, Switzerland, which features an “archaic and simple vegetal scenography,” where “huge, earth-coloured cubes” of tuff, peat or clay are “fragments of nature” exposed to air, rain, and light, in such a way as to promote the spontaneous growth of mosses, grasses, ferns and lichens. Good design? Good ideas?
Then there’s this, which occupies a place near and dear to my heart.
It’s a park on the site of a famous battle in Germany (9 CE, described by Tacitus) between a Roman army, led by P. Quinctilius Varus, and a native one led by Arminius. (Also the subject of an Anselm Kiefer painting I admire.) The topography of the area enabled the Germans to ambush the Roman legions, resulting in their catastrophic defeat. The architects laid out steel slabs to trace the route of the Romans and set up iron bars to show the height of a rampart, constructed of grass divots and fenced with a palisade of branches, which hid the Germans from the Romans. Do these now-rusting plates and bars represent sound, worthwhile ideas?
Then I listened to principals in four small firms (Michael Loverich, The Bittertang Farm; Susanna Drake, dlandstudio architecture + landscape architecture; Cristina Goberna + Urtzi Grau, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism; Jon Lott, PARA-Project) talk about and present examples of their work.
And? And my heart goes out to these five young adults, under such (partly self-imposed) pressure to be taken seriously in NEW YORK CITY. To be smart and with-it and up-to-snuff. To wear the right clothes and use the right words and affect the right attitudes. As a consequence of which I got to hear the phrase “fetishize the reboot.” And the assertion that architects should be public intellectuals, the kind who proudly proclaim, “F**k originality … Don’t ask us for new stuff, we copy.”
In any case, I came away with that previously stated, broad, vague, probably unanswerable, possibly insipid question. (You’ll have to forgive me. I can’t help myself. Mentally I’m always climbing in the elevator and pressing the button for the top floor.)
Anyway, here’s a simpleminded, half-formed thought. One explanation for how it is that we end up celebrating a proposal to build a humongous, Erector-Set “attraction” for beehives and barbecues in the middle of Queens is that we often manage to get lost in abstractions.
Go back to Rebecca West on Tolstoy. When an artist attempts to chisel out of stone some moral principle or political claim or ideological statement or (in the case of that Hollywood-Squares proposal for Queens, maybe) slightly-tongue-in-cheek attempt to be hip, so as to catch the eye of a prize jury, the likeliest though not inevitable outcome is something like this:
Two thousand years ago, the Roman architect Vitruvius proposed that we start with the human body in order to generate our ideas of strength, beauty, and functionality, the virtues to which all architecture should strive. I think there’s some wisdom in that. It’s a kind of empiricism, I suppose, one that should not demand a slavish devotion. The idea is simply that when we undertake to create, we endeavor to stand with our feet on the ground. We make an effort to stay grounded. We’re always asking ourselves, is this true to any actual human experience? To some person’s experience, at least, even if it’s not mine? Does it have any referent beyond something clever and pithy that I heard someone say at a cocktail reception for young architects?
If I’m right, maybe that explains why landscape architecture can often seem so much more pleasing and useful and sometimes provocative and even human than what building architects produce. LAs almost always have to start with certain givens: topography, existing plants, etc. They are definitionally grounded, you might say.
All that to say this, I guess. It’s okay, young artists and architects, to talk in simple terms about beauty and grace and harmony and functionality (or the opposites!) when you’re showing a slide of something wonderful like this, even if you also feel the need to dress up what you’re doing in artfully disheveled clothes and “intellectual” lingo.