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D e s i g n   A r c h i t e c t u r e   A r t   F a s h i o n






Apr 21
FACE TIME
This winter’s Polar Vortex turned our city into a festival of silly hats.  People ran around dressed conventionally from foot to forehead, and then topped themselves off with extravagant, irrational headware.  I saw fur-trimmed hunters’ hats, lacy cashmere skull caps, mink pillboxes, extravagantly twisted turbans, and even balaclavas.  There’s something essentially menacing about the balaclava.  This mask, that only leaves a person’s eyes and mouth open, always conjures for me the famous photograph of a rooftop terrorist at the Munich Olympics in 1972.  In the context of face-burning cold, the balaclava might be acceptable city headware.  But it’s a sinister fashion; it evokes violence and fear.
So Pussy Riot, the all-female Russian punk/art collective who disguise themselves in crayon-colored balaclavas, seized a ripe symbol.  They took the balaclava and charged it further, with justice politics and female rage.  Two former Pussy Riot members, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, appeared this winter at an Amnesty International concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.  They’d been imprisoned for performing, while masked, an anti-Putin rant in a Moscow church.  Here they were without their masks, in hipsterish street clothes, tasteful makeup, and long, loose hair.  Though they’d lost the assaultive impact of the balaclava, they gained a different kind of power by showing their faces.  They are stunning, radiant young women.  To see them plainly makes their politics personal, and drives home powerfully the price they paid for their actions.
Maria and Nadezhda addressed the audience that night in a feverish Russian that was translated sentence-by-sentence, moments afterward, into placid English by an American translator.  But their intentions shone through.  They shouted in barely-controlled bursts, held their microphones like knives, and paced the stage like wild cats.  I was sitting in the stadium’s highest tier, and even from there the spectacle of this — two attractive young women lit by pure fury — was transfixing.  As both performance artists and political activists they possess monstrous charisma.  They might not need the masks.
Photo by Igor Mukhin.

FACE TIME

This winter’s Polar Vortex turned our city into a festival of silly hats.  People ran around dressed conventionally from foot to forehead, and then topped themselves off with extravagant, irrational headware.  I saw fur-trimmed hunters’ hats, lacy cashmere skull caps, mink pillboxes, extravagantly twisted turbans, and even balaclavas.  There’s something essentially menacing about the balaclava.  This mask, that only leaves a person’s eyes and mouth open, always conjures for me the famous photograph of a rooftop terrorist at the Munich Olympics in 1972.  In the context of face-burning cold, the balaclava might be acceptable city headware.  But it’s a sinister fashion; it evokes violence and fear.

So Pussy Riot, the all-female Russian punk/art collective who disguise themselves in crayon-colored balaclavas, seized a ripe symbol.  They took the balaclava and charged it further, with justice politics and female rage.  Two former Pussy Riot members, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, appeared this winter at an Amnesty International concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.  They’d been imprisoned for performing, while masked, an anti-Putin rant in a Moscow church.  Here they were without their masks, in hipsterish street clothes, tasteful makeup, and long, loose hair.  Though they’d lost the assaultive impact of the balaclava, they gained a different kind of power by showing their faces.  They are stunning, radiant young women.  To see them plainly makes their politics personal, and drives home powerfully the price they paid for their actions.

Maria and Nadezhda addressed the audience that night in a feverish Russian that was translated sentence-by-sentence, moments afterward, into placid English by an American translator.  But their intentions shone through.  They shouted in barely-controlled bursts, held their microphones like knives, and paced the stage like wild cats.  I was sitting in the stadium’s highest tier, and even from there the spectacle of this — two attractive young women lit by pure fury — was transfixing.  As both performance artists and political activists they possess monstrous charisma.  They might not need the masks.

Photo by Igor Mukhin.


Apr 17
ASTRONOMIES
The first time I saw the Barclays Center, the controversial new stadium in Brooklyn by SHoP, it was peripherally, as I was rushing from the Atlantic Avenue subway station to meet friends for dinner.  At that moment it looked like an enormous spaceship.  It’s not an instantly likable structure.  Its low, swirling, swollen, turtle-like shell has no perceptible symmetries, front and back, or roofline.  Its entrance canopy — a gigantic, cantilevered loop — offers no protection from the elements.  And its most distinctive feature, its skin, a lattice of rusting steel tiles the size of pizza boxes, gives it the desolate aspect of an abandoned parking garage.  The stadium seemed unmoored: to Atlantic Avenue, to Brooklyn, and to earth.
Then, months later, on a lazy, sunny summer afternoon, as I walked through the plaza on my to the subway station, I got a different feeling altogether. When I reached the center of the canopy and looked up I stopped in my tracks.  The big loop caught the cloudless sky, so that it seemed right there around me.  It felt like the sun had fallen right through to my feet.  The web of LED lights that line the inside of the canopy flickered happily, as if they were vital signs  of the building’s inner life.  Standing there, I felt rooted in that place, under the skies and inside the city.  The building was like an astronomical instrument that called the sky down to the street.
Photograph by Magda Biernat, courtesy of SHoP.

ASTRONOMIES

The first time I saw the Barclays Center, the controversial new stadium in Brooklyn by SHoP, it was peripherally, as I was rushing from the Atlantic Avenue subway station to meet friends for dinner.  At that moment it looked like an enormous spaceship.  It’s not an instantly likable structure.  Its low, swirling, swollen, turtle-like shell has no perceptible symmetries, front and back, or roofline.  Its entrance canopy — a gigantic, cantilevered loop — offers no protection from the elements.  And its most distinctive feature, its skin, a lattice of rusting steel tiles the size of pizza boxes, gives it the desolate aspect of an abandoned parking garage.  The stadium seemed unmoored: to Atlantic Avenue, to Brooklyn, and to earth.

Then, months later, on a lazy, sunny summer afternoon, as I walked through the plaza on my to the subway station, I got a different feeling altogether. When I reached the center of the canopy and looked up I stopped in my tracks.  The big loop caught the cloudless sky, so that it seemed right there around me.  It felt like the sun had fallen right through to my feet.  The web of LED lights that line the inside of the canopy flickered happily, as if they were vital signs  of the building’s inner life.  Standing there, I felt rooted in that place, under the skies and inside the city.  The building was like an astronomical instrument that called the sky down to the street.

Photograph by Magda Biernat, courtesy of SHoP.


Apr 14
I recently interviewed nine well-known American architects to find out what house has made the biggest impact on them, and why, for a piece in AIArchitect.  I’d expected them to name family houses, fictional houses, or houses they’d built.  Instead they all named modern houses in the United States and Europe, most of them canonical.  But Brian Phillips, who leads Philadelphia office ISA, made a bold choice: the 1960 Prairie House in Norman, Oklahoma by Herb Greene.
This sloping, funnel-shaped, two-story, wood-frame house, clad with fans of cedar shingles and strips of aluminum, dominates its flat, grassy plot like a wild animal.  And this is exactly the idea.  Phillips says that the house “needed to show its aggressive plume to stand against the relentless minimalism of the prairie landscape.”  And Greene, on his website, writes, “The aim is to introduce a reference frame of feeling usually reserved for sentient creatures. Pathos, vulnerability and pain are juxtaposed with the more familiar house-meanings of sheltering, protection and comfort.”
What I love most about the house is its joyous, raucous formal freedom, and its contrarian, macho style.  This house was built at the height of the international style, when less was more, and prominent architects were building houses with glass walls, flat roofs, and marble floors.  Greene is one of a strain of energetic, unmannered, individualistic American architects — let’s call them Wild Men — who follow the visions in their heads rather than the demands of good taste, or their clients.  He trained with Bruce Goff, who had trained with Frank Lloyd Wright, whom the name of this house, deliberately I think, conjures.  If the heart of Wild Man Architecture is in the midwest, where these three men hail from, there is also another healthy strain of it today in Los Angeles, where architects like Eric Owen Moss and Thom Mayne are going at it, and Frank Gehry has become elder statesman.  I hope they never stop.
Photograph by Julius Shulman, courtesy of Herb Greene.

I recently interviewed nine well-known American architects to find out what house has made the biggest impact on them, and why, for a piece in AIArchitect.  I’d expected them to name family houses, fictional houses, or houses they’d built.  Instead they all named modern houses in the United States and Europe, most of them canonical.  But Brian Phillips, who leads Philadelphia office ISA, made a bold choice: the 1960 Prairie House in Norman, Oklahoma by Herb Greene.

This sloping, funnel-shaped, two-story, wood-frame house, clad with fans of cedar shingles and strips of aluminum, dominates its flat, grassy plot like a wild animal.  And this is exactly the idea.  Phillips says that the house “needed to show its aggressive plume to stand against the relentless minimalism of the prairie landscape.”  And Greene, on his website, writes, “The aim is to introduce a reference frame of feeling usually reserved for sentient creatures. Pathos, vulnerability and pain are juxtaposed with the more familiar house-meanings of sheltering, protection and comfort.”

What I love most about the house is its joyous, raucous formal freedom, and its contrarian, macho style.  This house was built at the height of the international style, when less was more, and prominent architects were building houses with glass walls, flat roofs, and marble floors.  Greene is one of a strain of energetic, unmannered, individualistic American architects — let’s call them Wild Men — who follow the visions in their heads rather than the demands of good taste, or their clients.  He trained with Bruce Goff, who had trained with Frank Lloyd Wright, whom the name of this house, deliberately I think, conjures.  If the heart of Wild Man Architecture is in the midwest, where these three men hail from, there is also another healthy strain of it today in Los Angeles, where architects like Eric Owen Moss and Thom Mayne are going at it, and Frank Gehry has become elder statesman.  I hope they never stop.

Photograph by Julius Shulman, courtesy of Herb Greene.


Mar 2
ASSORTED BEAUTIES
As a police procedural, following an ambitious female detective as she tries to protect a pregnant pre-teen girl, the miniseries Top of the Lake falls flat.  There are too many artfully placed red herrings, and the mystery is resolved unconvincingly and all-at-once during the final minutes of the final show.  But as an essay in different kinds of loveliness — in the natural landscape, in house interiors, and in types of people — the shows is richly satisfying.  The series was filmed in remote parts of New Zealand, and the views of the lake there, the surrounding mountains, and the disturbed luminous skies, are breathtaking.  The people at the lake live in cottages with blank white walls, drenched in natural light, and decorated sparingly, with roughly finished wood furniture and stuffed animal heads.  The insides of the rooms feel modern and also ominous, as if danger could erupt from within.  The whole setting of the story feels unearthly.  I doubt the country’s tourist board could have crafted a finer fantasy.
Most  memorably, Top of the Lake shows us people we don’t see very often in movies and television.  There is the detective’s cancer-stricken mother, and a cultish new age leader named CJ, and CJ’s band of followers, who are all women in their 50’s and 60’s.  The actresses portraying them aren’t starved and botoxed and waxed, but naturally sagging and sluggish and greying.  It’s shocking to see them, and so many of them, again and again, at the center of the narrative.  That’s not only because they don’t conform to the dominant ideal of what we think women should look like, but also because we don’t often see women this age in movies and television, at all.  The detective’s mother, who wears her white hair in an untamed mane, is shockingly graceful.  There’s also her lover, Tarangi, a maori with bronze skin, dark hair and a placid, unfathomable expression.  He wears traditional ink-black markings across his forehead, like the ones Mike Tyson has.  On Tarangi they’re less martial than romanticizing, emphasizing his outsider status in this rural white community.  Despite that he, like the middle-aged women in the cast, are fascinating to watch.  They possess a  physical beauty that’s all the more powerful because we don’t see it so often, at least not on TV.
Photograph courtesy of Sundance Channel.

ASSORTED BEAUTIES

As a police procedural, following an ambitious female detective as she tries to protect a pregnant pre-teen girl, the miniseries Top of the Lake falls flat.  There are too many artfully placed red herrings, and the mystery is resolved unconvincingly and all-at-once during the final minutes of the final show.  But as an essay in different kinds of loveliness — in the natural landscape, in house interiors, and in types of people — the shows is richly satisfying.  The series was filmed in remote parts of New Zealand, and the views of the lake there, the surrounding mountains, and the disturbed luminous skies, are breathtaking.  The people at the lake live in cottages with blank white walls, drenched in natural light, and decorated sparingly, with roughly finished wood furniture and stuffed animal heads.  The insides of the rooms feel modern and also ominous, as if danger could erupt from within.  The whole setting of the story feels unearthly.  I doubt the country’s tourist board could have crafted a finer fantasy.

Most  memorably, Top of the Lake shows us people we don’t see very often in movies and television.  There is the detective’s cancer-stricken mother, and a cultish new age leader named CJ, and CJ’s band of followers, who are all women in their 50’s and 60’s.  The actresses portraying them aren’t starved and botoxed and waxed, but naturally sagging and sluggish and greying.  It’s shocking to see them, and so many of them, again and again, at the center of the narrative.  That’s not only because they don’t conform to the dominant ideal of what we think women should look like, but also because we don’t often see women this age in movies and television, at all.  The detective’s mother, who wears her white hair in an untamed mane, is shockingly graceful.  There’s also her lover, Tarangi, a maori with bronze skin, dark hair and a placid, unfathomable expression.  He wears traditional ink-black markings across his forehead, like the ones Mike Tyson has.  On Tarangi they’re less martial than romanticizing, emphasizing his outsider status in this rural white community.  Despite that he, like the middle-aged women in the cast, are fascinating to watch.  They possess a  physical beauty that’s all the more powerful because we don’t see it so often, at least not on TV.

Photograph courtesy of Sundance Channel.


Feb 10
DRESS SENSE
As I walked through the sumptuous Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, I couldn’t help but remember the blockbuster 2011 Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met.  The Gaultier show suffers by comparison.  Though the clothes are exquisitely crafted (many are haute couture), and the installation is vivid (with the filmed facial expressions of live models projected on blank mannequin heads), the experience lacks the emotional intensity of the McQueen show.  That show was charged by the fantasy in McQueen’s work, which fused archetypical female characters (maiden, fairy, princess, witch) with archetypical cultural narratives (rape, drowning, mutation, revolution).  And the presentation, chronological, was seared by the tragic fact of his death.  What we saw at the Met was the complete ouevre of an artist; what we see at the Brooklyn Museum is a retrospective of an immensely skilled professional. 
Both designers are showmen, who pair technical mastery with visual flamboyance.  They flout conventional styles while executing their clothing with the highest traditional standards of fitting, draping and embellishment.  At the Brooklyn Museum it’s starry and also instructive to see the corsets that Gaultier designed for Madonna’s stage shows.  They’re kitschy, made of sparkling lurex, with cartoonishly cinched waists and pointed cups.  And they are as finely wrought as jewelry, with miles of angelic, millimeter-long stitches holding strips of ribbon, elastic and boning in place.  Even garments with simple profiles — a strapless gown with princess seams, flowing sailor paints with a button front — have an overwrought, byzantine quality.  They’re shaped with abundant piecing and puckering.
And yet they’re not innovative in form; they’re rich renditions of standard garments.  More than a dreamer, Gaultier is an intellectual, able to infuse a garment — dress, suit, jacket — with a single idea to devastating effect.  At the Brooklyn show there is a black cocktail dress constructed like a skeleton, a gauzy white wedding gown that takes the shape of a West African mask, and a slithering satin evening gown modelled after a Renaissance Madonna.  If McQueen’s works are fantasies erupting into form, Gaultier’s works are garments lit with ideas.  They aren’t artworks, they’re clothes.
Virgins dress, by Jean Paul Gaultier, Spring/Summer 2007.  Courtesy of Jean Paul Gaultier.

DRESS SENSE

As I walked through the sumptuous Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, I couldn’t help but remember the blockbuster 2011 Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met.  The Gaultier show suffers by comparison.  Though the clothes are exquisitely crafted (many are haute couture), and the installation is vivid (with the filmed facial expressions of live models projected on blank mannequin heads), the experience lacks the emotional intensity of the McQueen show.  That show was charged by the fantasy in McQueen’s work, which fused archetypical female characters (maiden, fairy, princess, witch) with archetypical cultural narratives (rape, drowning, mutation, revolution).  And the presentation, chronological, was seared by the tragic fact of his death.  What we saw at the Met was the complete ouevre of an artist; what we see at the Brooklyn Museum is a retrospective of an immensely skilled professional. 

Both designers are showmen, who pair technical mastery with visual flamboyance.  They flout conventional styles while executing their clothing with the highest traditional standards of fitting, draping and embellishment.  At the Brooklyn Museum it’s starry and also instructive to see the corsets that Gaultier designed for Madonna’s stage shows.  They’re kitschy, made of sparkling lurex, with cartoonishly cinched waists and pointed cups.  And they are as finely wrought as jewelry, with miles of angelic, millimeter-long stitches holding strips of ribbon, elastic and boning in place.  Even garments with simple profiles — a strapless gown with princess seams, flowing sailor paints with a button front — have an overwrought, byzantine quality.  They’re shaped with abundant piecing and puckering.

And yet they’re not innovative in form; they’re rich renditions of standard garments.  More than a dreamer, Gaultier is an intellectual, able to infuse a garment — dress, suit, jacket — with a single idea to devastating effect.  At the Brooklyn show there is a black cocktail dress constructed like a skeleton, a gauzy white wedding gown that takes the shape of a West African mask, and a slithering satin evening gown modelled after a Renaissance Madonna.  If McQueen’s works are fantasies erupting into form, Gaultier’s works are garments lit with ideas.  They aren’t artworks, they’re clothes.

Virgins dress, by Jean Paul Gaultier, Spring/Summer 2007.  Courtesy of Jean Paul Gaultier.


Jan 21
TEN TOWERS FOR THE TWIN TOWERS
I had to laugh when I got an email blast last week from a design magazine with the subject line “Koolhaas Comes Home, Completes Holland’s Largest Building.”  That kind of big, dumb pride in big, dumb buildings is antithetical to what Rem Koolhaas and his Amsterdam-based office OMA stood for.  If OMA have designed buildings recently, like the CCTV Tower in Shanghai, that seem big and dumb, it’s because their programs and sites (and clients) demanded it.
The email refers to De Rotterdam, the multi-use complex OMA just completed in that city.  It’s big, with over 1.7 million square feet of new commercial space.  (By comparison, each of the Twin Towers contained 3.8 million square foot of office space.)  But it’s not dumb.  Rather than a single super-high volume, the structure has been imagined as ten smaller volumes, bundled together, staggered in their heights above the ground and footprints on the ground.  These towers touch one another only cautiously, strategically, at certain corners, so that they’re tied together structurally, and so that inhabitants can move between them.  But each tower maintains its own volume, with windows along all of its open sides.  This arrangement makes for a building that is both massive and porous, with light, air and views rushing through it.  It’s a fine contemporary office building.
But when I look at photos of De Rotterdam what I see more than anything else is a tribute to the Twin Towers, though the project was not intended as such.  Each of its small towers is, like each of the Twin Towers, a square in plan.  Their full-height runs of window frame and window glass resemble the signature black-and-white striped skin of the Twin Towers.  And they have a similar starkness as the Twin Towers; their shapes are so restrained that they remain platonic.
The new building looks terribly handsome on the port in Rotterdam, but I think it would sit just as comfortably at the World Trade Center site in downtown Manhattan.  To include a structure like this in the new complex there — a big but not super-big building whose forms echo and reinvent those of the Twin Towers — would be a gorgeous response to their destruction.  De Rotterdam is like the Twin Towers but slighter, shattered, shifted, dancing.  It’s quietly heroic.
Photograph courtesy OMA © Michel van de Kar

TEN TOWERS FOR THE TWIN TOWERS

I had to laugh when I got an email blast last week from a design magazine with the subject line “Koolhaas Comes Home, Completes Holland’s Largest Building.”  That kind of big, dumb pride in big, dumb buildings is antithetical to what Rem Koolhaas and his Amsterdam-based office OMA stood for.  If OMA have designed buildings recently, like the CCTV Tower in Shanghai, that seem big and dumb, it’s because their programs and sites (and clients) demanded it.

The email refers to De Rotterdam, the multi-use complex OMA just completed in that city.  It’s big, with over 1.7 million square feet of new commercial space.  (By comparison, each of the Twin Towers contained 3.8 million square foot of office space.)  But it’s not dumb.  Rather than a single super-high volume, the structure has been imagined as ten smaller volumes, bundled together, staggered in their heights above the ground and footprints on the ground.  These towers touch one another only cautiously, strategically, at certain corners, so that they’re tied together structurally, and so that inhabitants can move between them.  But each tower maintains its own volume, with windows along all of its open sides.  This arrangement makes for a building that is both massive and porous, with light, air and views rushing through it.  It’s a fine contemporary office building.

But when I look at photos of De Rotterdam what I see more than anything else is a tribute to the Twin Towers, though the project was not intended as such.  Each of its small towers is, like each of the Twin Towers, a square in plan.  Their full-height runs of window frame and window glass resemble the signature black-and-white striped skin of the Twin Towers.  And they have a similar starkness as the Twin Towers; their shapes are so restrained that they remain platonic.

The new building looks terribly handsome on the port in Rotterdam, but I think it would sit just as comfortably at the World Trade Center site in downtown Manhattan.  To include a structure like this in the new complex there — a big but not super-big building whose forms echo and reinvent those of the Twin Towers — would be a gorgeous response to their destruction.  De Rotterdam is like the Twin Towers but slighter, shattered, shifted, dancing.  It’s quietly heroic.

Photograph courtesy OMA © Michel van de Kar


Jan 13
Frances Ha is kind of a prequel to Sex and the City.  The movie follows a twenty-seven year old dancer in New York City as she tries to straighten our her personal and professional lives.  It was instant nostalgia for me, conjuring a time when my friends and I lived in apartments with stacks of ratty paperbacks, postcards taped to the walls, and furniture rescued from the sidewalk.  We heated water for tea in sauce pots, tossed our clothes on the floor, and smoked inside.  In his review critic Armond White pointed out that the movie’s demographic of young urban creatives is a highly privileged one.  But the movie’s details are so exquisitely and honestly rendered that they’re touching.  Frances arrives late at a loft party and searches fearfully in the dark for her friends, Frances throws herself enthusiastically and awkwardly into a dinner party conversation, and Frances suffers gamely through a date knowing all the while that the handsome young man isn’t attracted to her.  The only false note is a bright, abrupt Hollywood ending that leaves her with a promising career, a beautiful apartment, and a supportive partner.  While I want her to have all these things I know they won’t fall into place so easily, or all at once.
The most satisfying element of the movie is the rich, unfussy black and white photography by Sam Levy.  The feeling is looser than that of Manhattan, which unfolds like a series of still photographs, and closer to the eccentric storytelling in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise.  Frances Ha, like that movie, is set in a cloistered hipster underworld (unnamed bars, walk-up apartments, black box theaters) where characters communicate in an argot of slow spare sentences.  The most expressive scenes in the movie are the ones that show us Frances running through the streets from one place to the next, which are used as transitions.  The frame is fixed tightly on her figure and the streetscape, barely legible, streams behind her.  There’s nothing pretty about the views; they’re raw and energetic.  Yet they get perfectly at what it felt like living in New York City when I was young, rushing around passionately and myopically, unaware of the worlds outside my own.  Life felt like an endless string of epiphanies, and it passed in a dazzling, exhilerating blur.
Photograph courtesy of IFC Films.

Frances Ha is kind of a prequel to Sex and the City.  The movie follows a twenty-seven year old dancer in New York City as she tries to straighten our her personal and professional lives.  It was instant nostalgia for me, conjuring a time when my friends and I lived in apartments with stacks of ratty paperbacks, postcards taped to the walls, and furniture rescued from the sidewalk.  We heated water for tea in sauce pots, tossed our clothes on the floor, and smoked inside.  In his review critic Armond White pointed out that the movie’s demographic of young urban creatives is a highly privileged one.  But the movie’s details are so exquisitely and honestly rendered that they’re touching.  Frances arrives late at a loft party and searches fearfully in the dark for her friends, Frances throws herself enthusiastically and awkwardly into a dinner party conversation, and Frances suffers gamely through a date knowing all the while that the handsome young man isn’t attracted to her.  The only false note is a bright, abrupt Hollywood ending that leaves her with a promising career, a beautiful apartment, and a supportive partner.  While I want her to have all these things I know they won’t fall into place so easily, or all at once.

The most satisfying element of the movie is the rich, unfussy black and white photography by Sam Levy.  The feeling is looser than that of Manhattan, which unfolds like a series of still photographs, and closer to the eccentric storytelling in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than ParadiseFrances Ha, like that movie, is set in a cloistered hipster underworld (unnamed bars, walk-up apartments, black box theaters) where characters communicate in an argot of slow spare sentences.  The most expressive scenes in the movie are the ones that show us Frances running through the streets from one place to the next, which are used as transitions.  The frame is fixed tightly on her figure and the streetscape, barely legible, streams behind her.  There’s nothing pretty about the views; they’re raw and energetic.  Yet they get perfectly at what it felt like living in New York City when I was young, rushing around passionately and myopically, unaware of the worlds outside my own.  Life felt like an endless string of epiphanies, and it passed in a dazzling, exhilerating blur.

Photograph courtesy of IFC Films.


Jan 8
STAGING STRANGENESS
I’ve probably seen a hundred plays in New York City — Broadway, off-Broadway, and amateur.  But I’ve never seen a level of stagecraft as high as at that in Robert Wilson’s opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramowic at the Armory.  This piece is essentially a vanity production that stars the artist as herself.  It’s more biographical than philosophical, and locates the roots of her complex body-centric art in predictable traumas including a wicked mother, a feeling of not being pretty enough, and a lover’s abandonment.  The show mixes forms: music, film, fashion, poetry and dance.  But it’s most remarkable for its stage sets and lighting, which plunge us into a series of worlds that are, as my friend described, “painfully gorgeous.”  The narrative recreates episodes from the artist’s life, and each unfolds onstage in a tableau as cunningly crafted as a fashion editorial.  Actors are positioned on the broad, high black stage with geometric clarity, and brushed with cool white neon light that accentuates their acrid-colored costumes and stark kabuki-like make-up.
I’ve never seen scenes as archly beautiful as these.  There is a man in yellow pajamas in bed under a sky full of pie-sized foil stars.  There is a lady in a red feather-tipped gown on a chaise lounge who floats, carelessly, to sea.  And there is, most thrillingly, a kind of surrealist playground, with four isolated, mime-type figures on stage at once: a man perched a swing, a lady spinning from a rope clenched in her mouth, a naked girl rolling down a staircase, and a clown anxiously dancing in place.  Each scene in the play is brilliantly composed and, ultimately, empty, because it conveys no narrative or emotion.  A whole lot of strange things happen on stage (figures run back and forth at back, drop down on harnesses, and join up in a parade to march away) and we don’t ask ourselves why.  This strangeness isn’t like that in a David Lynch movie, which, similarly ravishing visually, erupts from puckers in ordinary life.  And this strangeness isn’t like that in a Pina Bausch dance, which emerges from fevered concentration on a single action.  Wilson here seems to be to producing strangeness for its own sake.  Nothing in this production really gets at life and death of Marina Abramowic, or at the deep themes in her art.  It’s all very pretty decoration.
Photograph © Lucie Jansch, courtesy of The Armory.

STAGING STRANGENESS

I’ve probably seen a hundred plays in New York City — Broadway, off-Broadway, and amateur.  But I’ve never seen a level of stagecraft as high as at that in Robert Wilson’s opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramowic at the Armory.  This piece is essentially a vanity production that stars the artist as herself.  It’s more biographical than philosophical, and locates the roots of her complex body-centric art in predictable traumas including a wicked mother, a feeling of not being pretty enough, and a lover’s abandonment.  The show mixes forms: music, film, fashion, poetry and dance.  But it’s most remarkable for its stage sets and lighting, which plunge us into a series of worlds that are, as my friend described, “painfully gorgeous.”  The narrative recreates episodes from the artist’s life, and each unfolds onstage in a tableau as cunningly crafted as a fashion editorial.  Actors are positioned on the broad, high black stage with geometric clarity, and brushed with cool white neon light that accentuates their acrid-colored costumes and stark kabuki-like make-up.

I’ve never seen scenes as archly beautiful as these.  There is a man in yellow pajamas in bed under a sky full of pie-sized foil stars.  There is a lady in a red feather-tipped gown on a chaise lounge who floats, carelessly, to sea.  And there is, most thrillingly, a kind of surrealist playground, with four isolated, mime-type figures on stage at once: a man perched a swing, a lady spinning from a rope clenched in her mouth, a naked girl rolling down a staircase, and a clown anxiously dancing in place.  Each scene in the play is brilliantly composed and, ultimately, empty, because it conveys no narrative or emotion.  A whole lot of strange things happen on stage (figures run back and forth at back, drop down on harnesses, and join up in a parade to march away) and we don’t ask ourselves why.  This strangeness isn’t like that in a David Lynch movie, which, similarly ravishing visually, erupts from puckers in ordinary life.  And this strangeness isn’t like that in a Pina Bausch dance, which emerges from fevered concentration on a single action.  Wilson here seems to be to producing strangeness for its own sake.  Nothing in this production really gets at life and death of Marina Abramowic, or at the deep themes in her art.  It’s all very pretty decoration.

Photograph © Lucie Jansch, courtesy of The Armory.


Dec 11
A story in last month’s Metropolis, Modernists at Play, featured designs for children by noted twentieth century architects.  These playrooms and pieces of furniture are sweet because they’re so small and because they’re mostly personal, intended for the designer’s own children.  But Aldo Van Eyck’s drawing for an array of playground equipment made my heart leap.  Van Eyck pictures each plaything — sandbox, jungle gym, swingset — as a platonic figure, built from geometries of circle, square, and line.  Spread evenly across the blank page, these figures have a bright, musical energy.  It’s as if Van Eyck intends to set children within a field of cartesian space, one filled with adventure and pleasure.
Working for the city of Amsterdam as a young architect in the 1950’s, Van Eyck designed about 700 playgrounds in the city.  Most are gone.  The ones that we have photographs of seem both elegant and audacious because they are so simply composed, with a handful of play pieces set strategically within a flat, open plot.  These toys, because they’re idealized in form, are ripe with possibility.  They aren’t proscriptive; they’re generic objects for children to climb on and jump from and run in between.  Are children happy in this sort of playground?  It’s hard to know.  But it must take an imaginative leap for a child to enter and make the landscape their own.  Maybe they invent nicknames for the elements, and games for each one too.  Today we give children entertainments that are, whether educational (Reading Rainbow) or escapist (Mulan), structured and predictable.  Van Eyck gives children a lot of credit.  He doesn’t set them in a scaled-down version of the city, or on courts for games with readymade rules.  He lets them play.

A story in last month’s Metropolis, Modernists at Play, featured designs for children by noted twentieth century architects.  These playrooms and pieces of furniture are sweet because they’re so small and because they’re mostly personal, intended for the designer’s own children.  But Aldo Van Eyck’s drawing for an array of playground equipment made my heart leap.  Van Eyck pictures each plaything — sandbox, jungle gym, swingset — as a platonic figure, built from geometries of circle, square, and line.  Spread evenly across the blank page, these figures have a bright, musical energy.  It’s as if Van Eyck intends to set children within a field of cartesian space, one filled with adventure and pleasure.

Working for the city of Amsterdam as a young architect in the 1950’s, Van Eyck designed about 700 playgrounds in the city.  Most are gone.  The ones that we have photographs of seem both elegant and audacious because they are so simply composed, with a handful of play pieces set strategically within a flat, open plot.  These toys, because they’re idealized in form, are ripe with possibility.  They aren’t proscriptive; they’re generic objects for children to climb on and jump from and run in between.  Are children happy in this sort of playground?  It’s hard to know.  But it must take an imaginative leap for a child to enter and make the landscape their own.  Maybe they invent nicknames for the elements, and games for each one too.  Today we give children entertainments that are, whether educational (Reading Rainbow) or escapist (Mulan), structured and predictable.  Van Eyck gives children a lot of credit.  He doesn’t set them in a scaled-down version of the city, or on courts for games with readymade rules.  He lets them play.


Dec 10
Most media commemorations of the fifty year anniversary of the Kennedy assassination were ripe with sentimentality.  Cathy Horyn’s essay in the Times about the skirt suit Jacqueline Kennedy was wearing that day stood out because it was both dispassionate and poignant.  Why is the suit such a brilliant icon?  Photos of the striped button-down JPress shirt the president was wearing when he died have been published repeatedly.  It’s a gruesome artifact, caked with blood and clipped neatly where the bullet entered and exited his chest.  But this garment lacks the mythological charge, both the glamor and the horror, of the First Lady’s pink wool boucle suit.  In the iconic black and white AP photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One, we see see her only from the side and only from the waist up.  But we know that she’s wearing bubble gum pink, and that the front of her skirt is stained with blood.
Much is made about Jackie’s White House fashions, but what she wore was conventional, not so different from what other women of her station were wearing.  The pink suit isn’t even a real Chanel, but an authorized knock-off from a Park Avenue dress shop called Chez Ninon.  Perhaps Mrs. Kennedy’s conservatism is what’s most remarkable about her presence in photographs of the assassination; she dresses and behaves absolutely appropriately right through the tragedy.  It’s as if her style is guided by a deep unchanging sense of order, and that this is what holds her together. Mrs. Kennedy never cleaned the suit.  Eight months after the assassination she had it sent, along with her shirt, stockings and handbag, to the National Archives in Potomac.  The items are still there today, sealed in an airtight container, available only to researchers.  At the request of her daughter Caroline Kennedy the suit won’t be displayed publicly until 2103.  Besides being tasteless, a bit of assassination porn, showing it isn’t necessary.  We all already know it.

Most media commemorations of the fifty year anniversary of the Kennedy assassination were ripe with sentimentality.  Cathy Horyn’s essay in the Times about the skirt suit Jacqueline Kennedy was wearing that day stood out because it was both dispassionate and poignant.  Why is the suit such a brilliant icon?  Photos of the striped button-down JPress shirt the president was wearing when he died have been published repeatedly.  It’s a gruesome artifact, caked with blood and clipped neatly where the bullet entered and exited his chest.  But this garment lacks the mythological charge, both the glamor and the horror, of the First Lady’s pink wool boucle suit.  In the iconic black and white AP photograph of Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One, we see see her only from the side and only from the waist up.  But we know that she’s wearing bubble gum pink, and that the front of her skirt is stained with blood.

Much is made about Jackie’s White House fashions, but what she wore was conventional, not so different from what other women of her station were wearing.  The pink suit isn’t even a real Chanel, but an authorized knock-off from a Park Avenue dress shop called Chez Ninon.  Perhaps Mrs. Kennedy’s conservatism is what’s most remarkable about her presence in photographs of the assassination; she dresses and behaves absolutely appropriately right through the tragedy.  It’s as if her style is guided by a deep unchanging sense of order, and that this is what holds her together. Mrs. Kennedy never cleaned the suit.  Eight months after the assassination she had it sent, along with her shirt, stockings and handbag, to the National Archives in Potomac.  The items are still there today, sealed in an airtight container, available only to researchers.  At the request of her daughter Caroline Kennedy the suit won’t be displayed publicly until 2103.  Besides being tasteless, a bit of assassination porn, showing it isn’t necessary.  We all already know it.


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