12.6.17 — Be Careful What You Wish for

Even great architects have to get things built. If there is one lesson in the hundreds of unbuilt projects in the Frank Lloyd Wright archives at MoMA, it is this.

Then again, some things should never come to be. “Never Built New York” presents an imagined city and a torrent of ideas, at the Queens Museum through February 18. Buckminster Fuller's Dome over Manhattan (Stanford University Libraries/R. Buckminster Fuller estate, 1960)I felt its pleasures and its regrets, but also one huge sigh of relief. In fact, Wright preferred open space, too—and I have added this to an earlier report on the Wright archives as a longer review and my latest upload.

Almost any architect you can name had a shot at New York City and a share in its disappointments. And almost every urban landmark became the target for a makeover, even Central Park. Frank Gehry finally made it into town with his bulging IAC headquarter in Chelsea and twisting tower near the Brooklyn Bridge, but not with a Guggenheim Museum by the East River—and Diller Scofidio + Renfro with the High Line, but not Eyebeam, the arts nonprofit, in the shape of an ascending folded ribbon. Michael Graves had his postmodern moment in the sun, but not with an annex to the Whitney Museum (today the Met Breuer). Marcel Breuer himself proposed a sports center in Queens. Left to their devices, I. M. Pei would have plopped a “hyperboloid” down on Grand Central Station and Wright a party-colored fantasy on Ellis Island.

Real estate being what it is, Manhattan gets most of the attention, although Norman Bel Geddes had a plan to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. If the outer boroughs fare poorly, public transit fares worse—unless you count bridges to New Jersey, a gondola by Sergio Calatrava, and yet another soul-crushing highway or two from Robert Moses. Luxury is the word of the day, although Isamu Noguchi and Louis I. Kahn designed a playground, and Buckminster Fuller hoped for apartments in Harlem. Why would they have resembled nuclear power plants? Why, for that matter, would anyone want to cover Manhattan with a glass dome? I hesitate to say, but futurism for Fuller has a mind of its own.

The curators, Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, are not saying either. And the exhibition design by Christian Wassmann makes things more puzzling still. A room follows plans north from the foot of Manhattan, but with only a handout to determine which is which. I promise that you will fail. The same handout applies to forty models in white, inserted into the great scale model of New York left over (and occasionally updated) from the 1964 World’s Fair. They literally shine.

The largest section sticks to plans for Flushing Meadow, including a glass entrance for the Queens Museum itself. Wallace K. Harrison proposed to place the United Nations there, and SHoP architects thought up a sports complex as recently as 2013. Still, almost everything here amounts to pavilions for the fair, which would have vanished in a few months even had they come about. One unbuilt pavilion, by Eliot Noyes, becomes the show’s centerpiece, recreated as a “bouncy-castle”—or, in plain English, an inflatable gray balloon. Why? For all the unbuilt city, the museum wants to be the star of the show.

Maybe Queens gets the last word for good reason: modern architecture had mixed feelings about urban density. Moses wanted to recreate New York as automobile country, with his expressways and housing projects utterly apart from the grid. And Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to make it over as the image of America. Queens never once mentions Wright’s towers—or his Broadacre City. First presented in 1932, it would have spanned four square miles, with everything from farm units to a factory. Fortunately the new Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University tackles “Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem, and Modern Housing,” through December 17.

After a model of Broadacre City, it follows Wright out of the city, to prefabs that communities resisted and often lacked the skills to build. It weaves these together with Harlem housing, which it sees as an alternative to Wright’s failure to serve African Americans. Its fifty years of projects dispel all sorts of myths. If you think of Moses as the sole villain, they begin with “slum clearance” in the New Deal—and if you think of cookie-cutter projects for the poor, they eventually tried to learn from Jane Jacobs by adding shops and cultural centers, as well as integrating affordable and private housing. Yet the show’s parts hang only loosely together, and the projects end up dismaying alike. As in Queens, be careful what you wish for.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

8.18.17 — Marching on Harlem

Columbia University is marching on Harlem. It could be a display of raw power, a case study in gentrification, or a step toward a brighter future. One thing for sure, though: it has produced an impressive center for the arts and sciences—and a new home for the Wallach Art Gallery.

With “Uptown,” through August 20, it opens with an acknowledgment at last of its place in the community—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. The show’s twenty-five artists, all working north of 99th Street, can offer a warm welcome.

Nari Ward's Xquisite LiquorsouL (Lehmann Maupin, 2009)Morningside Heights has long felt like a privileged enclave, separated by Morningside Park and the physical chasm of 125th Street from the realities of Upper Manhattan. These days, though, the Upper West Side has reached up to it, all of the city is safer, and the Studio Museum in Harlem has brought sculpture to the parks. These days, too, Columbia is growing, much as New York University seems out to consume Greenwich Village and beyond. The Jerome L. Greene Science Center opened last fall on West 129th Street, on what Columbia calls its Manhattanville campus, while construction continues apace by Barnard College. Now the Lenfest Center for the Arts nestles behind the science center, west of Broadway. You may find yourself walking through one to locate the other.

Renzo Piano designed both. He has become a go-to architect for museums, and you can see why. For one thing, he is a team player. His buildings project less a signature style than the needs of an institution. They are big, bright, and anything but sleek, much as the new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District looks from the outside like a hospital or a prison. The Morgan Library wanted a decent café, an atrium, and a connection from its public areas to its conservation department and offices, with barely a nod to its galleries, and Piano delivered. Columbia, too, gets big lobbies and bulky exteriors.

For another thing, he cares about the movement of people and the display of art. His buildings are airy and well lit, outside and in. The new gallery has the sixth floor of the arts center, with big windows on three sides. They turn mostly away from the heavy traffic and near empty yards by the Hudson River—and toward their neighbors. Where MoMA’s 2004 expansion gave it a diminished emphasis on the collection, the Wallach Gallery has grown. (You will just have to wait and see how MoMA does with further enhancements by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.) And where MoMA or the New Museum architecture by SANAA has its closed boxes, the Wallach Gallery welcomes natural light.

“Uptown” takes its time and tests the space, and my longer review tells you more about its contributors. Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin use the outside corridor for works on paper between fluid squiggles and landscape photography, while most others have just a work or two apiece, not all of it recent. Nari Ward plops a big assemblage down in the main area, while Marta Chilindron suspends translucent acrylic from above. Reza Farkhondeh uses the front of the entrance partition for floral painting, while Shani Peters places a rug and cushions around the back for a place to meditate or simply to sit. Virginia Inés Vergara and Balleté Ross Smith have new media alcoves, while Renee Cox and Elizabeth Colomba share an alcove for photography. They add up to a healthy variety of scales, media, ethnic and gender identities, and often political art—but also a compromise between business as usual and reaching out, from a gallery dying to enter the big leagues.

“Uptown” is not just an opening exhibition, you see, but a triennial. Consider it less a promise than a threat. Yet this installment works—because it is as focused and open as the architecture. The curator, Deborah Cullen, cultivates encounters, in the hanging but also in collaborations like that between Mehretu and Ranking (a couple in real life as well). Encounters extend as well to the roughly equal numbers of established artists and newcomers. They serve as a useful reminder that not all the first have abandoned the city, and not all the second live in Brooklyn.

Ward makes the most of the central space—to return to what Columbia might have wanted to leave behind. Out in Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, he recreates the marquee of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, lights and all. Here he settles for the burned-out sign on a liquor store. Lying on its side, it becomes a giant window box, but for artificial flowers and nowhere near a window. It might have suffered from vandalism, gentrification, or a hard night’s drinking. Either way, the remaining lights spell out SOUL, and its comedy makes the Wallach’s presence in the neighborhood that much more real.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.