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FunHaus: A New Way to (Re)View the New Whitney

Whitney 6.30.15

This post is the first in our new series “FunHaus” where we explore the people, places, and things we love.  Enter the FunHaus! 

“A new standard for online journalism,” commented Bencharif on the The New York Timesreview of the new Whitney Museum.

We couldn’t agree more. The review, if that’s still the right word for it, was a collaboration between writer Michael Kimmelman, a team of graphic artists, and the architect Renzo Piano – produced entirely without photography of the new museum. The goal was to “create a seamless experience that would leave readers with a greater understanding of the building than could be achieved in a more traditional story form,” wrote Graham Roberts, one of the graphic artists. Mission accomplished.

Architecture lends itself marvelously to video. It’s a visual medium, obviously, but also a kinetic one. Time is one of its components: buildings are designed to be moved through (see our recent post on architecture as experience by guest blogger and architectural historian, John Kriskiewicz). Designers looking to get their work published, even without photography, should consider creating similar fly-throughs with their existing 3-D models.

Kimmelman’s words are punctuated by several kinetic experiences. The reader/viewer passes through walls, zips backwards along an interior corridor, zooms in and out. The videos move fast, but one of the lovelier moments is a lingering slideshow of historic images of the uptown building.

No buttons to press, no links to follow; the experience is automatic. This curated approach is not to everyone’s taste. M Hagood in Brooklyn said, “I am giving up, because the design keeps hijacking my page and sending me off on a visual roller coaster. Look, I like design. I teach design. This is just a pain in the behind.” Overall, however, the reception was enthusiastic. Richard in Denver gets the last word: “The best review overall in decades.”

The Heart and Soul of Buildings: Architecture as Experience

0d6d80f68c0b625a9730654d355e5863This month, we’re focusing on the experience of architecture. We welcome our special guest blogger, architectural historian John Kriskiewicz, Assoc. AIA, who takes us on a journey through two iconic New York buildings to illustrate his views on “architecture as experience.” 

A native New Yorker, John holds a professional degree in architecture from Pratt Institute and is a board member of DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State.  Over the past two decades, he has taught courses focused on architectural and planning history at Parsons School of Design, The Cooper Union, Fashion Institute of Technology, Stern College for Women, and Manhattan College, while designing tour programs and lectures for many of New York City’s institutions and corporations. His many exhibitions and articles have revealed history and preservation issues to a broad audience. John admits to a special affinity for New York’s extensive infrastructure, as well as its Mid-Century Modern heritage.

“When I enter a dwelling, I experience atmospheres one after the other – sequences of light and shade, of narrowness and space. There is a scenography, a dramatic structure for the space. Architecture is great cinema.We design buildings like films, whose power lies in leading us through worlds and catching hold of our emotions.”  – Architect Thomas Willemeit of the Berlin-LA-Beijing firm Graft , 2015

The importance of scenography and sequence was understood by architects trained according to Beaux-Arts philosophies at the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. They knew this carefully choreographed procession through space as “marche”, the French verb “to walk”.

“Marche” is the sequence we experience at Carrère and Hastings’s New York Public Library of 1911 on Fifth Avenue.

Ascending a set of broad stone stairs, from the level of the sidewalk, to a spacious terrace, we are encouraged to pause a moment to take in our surroundings, just above the heads of the crowds on the avenue behind us. In front of us, we survey a wide, white marble façade. The triple arched entry beckons us forward, up a higher set of white marble stairs, to the entrance portico. Here we are in transition, neither quite inside nor out. Through a low bronze door we are compressed for a moment, then we are released into an eruption of space. Surrounded by creamy white marble lit by both electric and natural light that pulls us ever upwards, towards the vast reading room. This most spacious, brightest, most elaborate public space, is the heart and soul of the building.

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Through this choreographed sequence of spaces, materials, and light, we’ve made a journey from the quotidian, into the realm of the intellect. An architectural metaphor for the process of enlightenment.

Often, the most dispiriting of architectural experiences is air travel. Eero Saarinen’s whimsical 1962 Trans World Airlines Flight Center, now part of Jet Blue’s Terminal 5 at Kennedy International Airport reminds us of a different era. In his words,

We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world.”

Saarinen’s concept, provided the passenger with a similar journey from the everyday into the glamorous world of air travel. A “jet-age” reinterpretation of “marche”.

For this example I must revert to the past tense. There are plans, however, that may allow us to experience what was, once more.

New York International Airport at Idlewild, planned by architect Wallace Harrison as “Terminal City”, placed TWA at a prominent bend along the circumferential roadway.

Designed to be experienced first through the windshield of a private automobile or taxi, this location was critical to the initial experience. Like the Beaux-Arts Public Library on its broad terrace, we are given the opportunity to comprehend the whole from the roadway before we enter. The building’s iconic silhouette was both a progressive corporate symbol and widely understood metaphor for flight.

If architecture is “frozen music”, TWA is Bossa Nova. Like that lyrical fusion of samba and jazz, TWA is smooth, sensual, expressive and Modern. Thin shell concrete, sinuously forms a porte coche, as we stepped from the car. Through glass automatic doors into a day lit, sculptural space, matte white circular tiles grew into fantastic forms; bridges, terraces, reception desks, arrival and departure boards. Up a half flight to a “TWA red” carpeted terrace. There, a sunken, red upholstered seating area where we could pause to survey a panorama of jet craft, through a broad, curved glass wall.

No need to descend to the tarmac to then climb up a rolling stair to the entry door of the plane, like all other terminals of the day. Instead, we walked from the daylight of the terminal terrace through white tubes awash with a luminescence whose source is hidden beneath the crimson carpeted paths. Gradually ascending, our destination was momentarily hidden by the arch of the tube, and then revealed: the “flight wing”. Here once again, daylight poured through glass walls and “jetways” connected directly to the aircraft.

From automobile drop off to aircraft, a seamless journey, made memorable by attention throughout to space, form, color, material.

From different eras, designed for different functions, yet The New York Public Library and The TWA Flight Center share that unmistakable, memorable quality of architecture as experience.

Raise Awareness of Landscape Architecture and Promote Your Work

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“Can you fix my backyard?“

If you’re a landscape architect, you’ve had to listen to this question a hundred times. Your friends think your job is to prune their roses and mow their lawn. You may also hear, “Oh, you live in New York? There can’t be much work for landscape architects there.” In reality, major urban centers attract landscape architects in droves. Or, “Frederick Law who? You mean Central Park did not spring fully formed into existence?”

What steps, then, can a modest landscape architect take to educate the world about the role she is playing in the community’s quality of life and physical well-being and promote her work, all at the same time? How can she shed light on her widely misunderstood profession, in the process positioning herself as a thought-leader (without coming across as an egomaniacal self-promoter)?

How would she explain that landscape architects design anything under the sky – or even, in the case of New York’s planned Lowline park — under the ground? That plants are not a requirement of a design? That landscape architects remove toxins from rainwater, sequester carbon dioxide, prevent floods, alleviate drought, create shade, produce food?

She could start by checking out the tips in our previous blog posts. If, like many gifted designers, she is more visual than verbal, she doesn’t have to reinvent the wheelbarrow. The ASLA’s Public Awareness page is chock-full of beautifully designed, clearly written materials prepared by journalists, marketers, PR professionals, and landscape architects. You’ll find fliers and buttons, posters and video, even certificates of appreciation. You’ll find “Designed by a Landscape Architect” signs to install in your local spaces, and guidance on how to organize a landscape rededication ceremony. Get involved with your local ASLA chapter.

In her own community, she can visit schools, and involve kids in designing playgrounds or urban agriculture. She can join her community board, or give talks at her church, garden club, or design week event. She can contribute op-eds on a topic in the news, such as her city’s flood prevention strategy; write letters to the editor. Participate in Parklet Day by creating a pop-up park in a vacant parking space. Donate her skills: organize an Earth Day tree planting or pruning, or a screening of Frederick Law Olmsted: Landscape Architect in April (Landscape Architecture Month). Sketch with a group of friends in a public place. Strangers will want to know what you’re up to.

The possibilities are endless, so use your imagination and grow some of your own. The better the profession is understood, the better it is for your business, the community, the planet.

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