FIRST CONTACT

“Well, as I say, the first contact the Japs made was Ernest Gordon and he got shot up.”

– Captain Bal Hendry

*EG Singapore copy

The bedroom is small with barely enough room for a queen-sized bed, a chest of drawers and a chair, but my father seems happy, looking over the luminous waters of Gardiner’s Bay. The name that got us started was Titikarangan. I was startled. While his short-term memory continued to disintegrate, his long-term memory seemed to be getting stronger, and now this odd-sounding name arose from the depths of his subconscious like a magic incantation: Titikarangan. I had never heard of it before, but he said it with absolute conviction. I Googled it and even though my spelling was wrong, the name popped up on a map of modern-day Malaysia, a real enough town in Kedah Province, just to the south of Merbau Pulas.

*EG, Port Dickson, Malaya copy*EG & ? , SIngapore? copy

The battle started early on the morning of December 17, 1941, only ten days after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were dressed in native turbans, wide-brimmed hats and sarongs and were moving out from the rubber trees and onto the road, as if they might be Malay workers taking flight from the Japanese advance. Everyone was fooled. Lt. Bremmer cried out: “hold fire,” in a loud enough voice for everyone, including the Japanese, to hear, revealing ‘A’ Company’s position and thereby losing the advantage of surprise. (It was the Argylls first encounter with the enemy).

Map of Titi-Karangan copy

There was a brief moment of hesitation when my father had to remind himself not to run or hide, but the moment passed and he felt a relative sense of calm, considering the fact that live rounds were now buzzing past his head, shredding leaves on the tulip trees. He was fine. The fear was only in his mouth, dry and metallic.

The first wave went down, wounded or dead, or playing dead. Then came another wave, ignoring the crossfire of the Bren guns. “They came crawling through the monsoon drains and crawled into the Lalang grass,” said my father who now realized that the Japanese weren’t the soft targets they’d been ridiculed as being in the Straits Colony press, with buckteeth and bad eyesight. They were fearless and fast, all too eager to run straight up the hill, bearing their chests to the fire, falling willy-nilly.

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My father got up and shuffled into the bathroom for a pee, but was now sitting in bed again, clear-eyed and remarkably lucid. (Could it have something to do with his Parkinson’s medication?) He told me about the battle with a breathless urgency that I’d never heard before, almost as if he needed to get it off his chest. He began to sketch a map on the back of an envelope with a wavering line for the Karangan River, a double line for the bridge and another, straighter line for the road that ran south through Serai and Terap. (He drew “X’s” to represent each squad, “O’s” for machine gun placements and “M’s” for mortar positions).

The enemy troops were bunched up together, confused and unsure of where to move next and they made easy targets in the cross fire. “We killed more than two hundred during the first assault,” said my father, leaning to one side, while I handed him a mug of tea. The official history puts it closer to a hundred, but it was surprising to me that after all these years of being a Servant of Christ, he was still proud of the number that had been slaughtered that morning.

EG Pass Book, Malaya copy Now my father could see them scattering, rolling down the escarpment toward the river. They didn’t mind getting killed and they continued to run quite recklessly into the barrage coming from the other flank. There was a brief lull and then another wave came up the hill, even faster this time, making a flanking move to the north. That was their strategy: the deep circling move. The Argylls killed another thirty but that didn’t stop them and my father worried that his men might be cut off and have to fight their way back to Serai or be forced to surrender.

The ones who’d been in the vanguard were already down but more kept coming, heads down, carrying Type-92 machine guns, trying to set them up with their clumsy tripod legs, but those men were also shot, and then another squad moved in to take their places and managed to maneuver themselves into a better position. My father was convinced that this was the vanguard of the encircling movement and he felt the urge to move up, laterally, towards the enemy and cut them off before they could gain further ground. One of the Japanese snipers climbed a tree and started firing at an angle across ‘A’ Company’s position. My father signaled L. Cpl Gray and two others to move back behind the sniper which they did but the sniper shot Gray and turned to shoot the others but somehow got his feet tangled in the branches of the tree and Pvt. McEwan was able to shoot him from the other side. (He promptly fell to the ground, dead).

That was about when my father stood up, all six-foot-three of him, and started running, waving two of the jocks–Pte. Logan and Pte. Gibson, he thinks–to follow him as he raced along a narrow footpath that traversed the ridge. (I imagine how he ran that day, with his loping gait, as if he were back on the rugby pitch at St. Andrews, slightly dazed and out of breath, not wanting to fuck up).

All he felt was a ping and numbness in his hand, then a damp red circle blooming on his shirt. “I seem to have been hit,” he said to Sgt. Skinner in the most nonchalant way. Then he couldn’t catch his breath because one of his lungs had been punctured by a 7.7 mm round from an Arisaka machine gun. (The bullet also penetrated the deltoid muscle and shattered part of the scapula and clavicle). His heart stopped, missed a number of beats and started again, rapidly this time and out of rhythm, and that was when he passed out, both knees buckling, his large frame tumbling through space. Was there a second explosion near his feet, or something inside his head unspooling, some neurological fail-safe that created the impression of extracorporeal suspension when, in fact, he was simply dying, going from brightly sparking networks of thought to nothing, apa-apa, as the native Malays called it? Two of the jocks dragged his body around the back of the Cengal tree and that was where he lay for what seemed like hours.

He could see how their legs were bowed out like cartoons and a part of him was still running towards the high point, as if his other body, his wounded body, were still in forward motion after he’d fallen, as if he could still engage and withdraw and recapture the ridge. Was he hallucinating or were there decisions still to be made? Could he fall back to the river, through the kampong and rendezvous with ‘C’ Company with their armored cars on the road to Serai at No. 14 milestone, or to Captain Bardwell of ‘B’ Company who was holding the narrow bridge with three-inch mortars?

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He was vaguely aware of black branches on the tree overhead, and he was aware of warring factions within his own nervous system, adjusting to the shock, sending out contrary signals–prepping for death?–and he imagined a network of bifurcating nerve ends, skipjacks and wireworms. He should have seen them coming, re-routing and bypassing the damaged tissue, but he faded in and out and there was an incandescent burst near his head and then another to the west. He could see cassia, stunted palms, ancient mossy angsana around the blurred periphery of his vision. Were those birds or were they bullets? He couldn’t be sure.

Something flies in and away… 

He’s dead and someone is coming towards him. There’s no golden stairway or white light, but there’s an oddly pleasant sense of release, of running up Whim Hill behind Aunt Jean’s house, and a ghostly figure standing by the oily tarn off Roxburgh Street where the boys broke bottles. He thinks he hears a woman singing somewhere near the slit trench, a woman’s voice coming from the very heart of the battle, while a slanting part of his consciousness is telling him to wake up and take command.

His soul, or whatever had been flapping its wings outside his body, was suddenly back inside his body and he could move his hands again. He tasted cordite in the air and the sweet nectar of ginger blossom, of being alive, and slipped back into his damaged corpus, suddenly aware of the fact that he was lying in a shallow depression behind the Cengal tree.

The advance was beaten back and the hill was retaken.

Cpl. Boyd of the medical corps sprinkled sulfa into my father’s wound and applied a field dressing. This being Boyd’s first combat casualty, he may have over-injected the morphine, and my father remembers vomiting, tripping on the morphine and experiencing an expanded sense of the infinite, while assuming, once again, that he was being left to die.

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The battle was over in less than two hours and the Japanese faded back into the swamps of Perak Province. The Argylls, after calling off their plan for a counter-attack, fell back to Kupang.

Padre Beattie, regimental chaplain saw blood pooling around my father’s neck and assumed he was gone. “Dear Lord, embrace this your servant…” They took him to a dressing station at Terap where he was revived and given a blood transfusion. Two days later he was transferred to Kuala Lumpur and then, during the endless train ride south to Singapore, he began to wonder about the voice that sang to him on the battlefield, just after being shot. There was something familiar about it. (His mother, Sarah, was an opera singer).

As a child, I’d always seen something numinous in the outline of my father’s war wound. It looked like a vaccination mark, but bigger, a circle of crinkled skin, about the size of a quarter. It was his badge of courage, and during the summer, when he went around the beach house shirtless, he would let me touch the damaged tissue with my finger and trace the trajectory of the bullet as it went in and came out the opposite side. The scar was the only tangible connection I had to his war, a one-inch-diameter portal to his past. By touching it, I felt a connection to his pain and suffering.

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But my father never spoke about the battle. He never wrote about it, not did he bring it up in his lectures or sermons. I never knew that he was one of the first to be wounded and knocked out of action. I wasn’t so much disappointed as I was surprised because I’d carried impressions since childhood of ongoing battle in jungle conditions with retreat and counter attack over a period of many weeks, even months. But that wasn’t the way it happened. As Bal Hendry, his best friend and succeeding commander of ‘A’ Company, said: “The first contact the Japs made was Ernest Gordon and he got shot up,” stating the facts as they occurred.

We were done for the day. My father turned over to take a nap and ended up sleeping for the rest of the afternoon. I picked up the lunch tray and carried it into the kitchen. It had been a good start. Some door had flipped opened and I wanted more. A few days later, he had a visitor, a woman in her seventies, sniffing around, now that my mother was gone. I didn’t disturb them and let her talk about the old days, but after she left I showed him the book I had bought on amazon.com.

“It says here that your commanding officer yelled at you for getting wounded,” I told him. It was a freshly published history of the Malayan Campaign and as soon as it arrived in the mail, I flipped to the index and found twenty-seven references to “Gordon, Capt. E.”, but it was the passage on page 53 that grabbed my attention: “The wounded Tiny Gordon, a very big man, was assisted back,” I read out loud while my father climbed back into bed, trying to suppress his irritation.

“‘Stewart approached him,'” I continued to read, “‘and according to some accounts Gordon, far from receiving any congratulations for ‘A’ Company’s efforts, was fiercely and very publicly reprimanded…'”

“Nonsense!” cried my father, interrupting, but I ignored him and kept going: “‘…reprimanded for allowing himself to be wounded so early in the battle. A year of jungle training wasted!'”

“Is that true? Were you reprimanded?”

“No! Stewart came around to see me,” he said. “He was concerned.”

“Why would anyone write that if it weren’t true?”

“How should I know? I never received a scolding from Ian Stewart. He only expressed sympathy for my wound.”

According to the author of the book, it was David Wilson, another captain in the Argylls, who’d been the source of the “well-known” story. But why was Wilson telling tales at such a late date? Colonel Stewart didn’t mention anything about it in the official account of the Malayan Campaign that he published in 1947: “About 10.45 hours Captain Gordon, Company Commander, was wounded and Captain Hendry took over.” That was all. He didn’t say anything about reprimanding my father, nor did he criticize any of the actions that he’d taken as commander of ‘A’ Company. Perhaps Stewart was frustrated that he’d lost one of his best officers so early in the campaign. I could understand that and perhaps he said something to my father in a scolding but friendly way: Och, did you really have to go and get yourself shot so early in the day? Something like that which might have been overheard and misinterpreted by one of the men?

Singapore_Volunteer_Force_training_November_1941 copy

After some research, I learned that Captain Wilson hadn’t been anywhere near the battlefield that day. He was 400 miles to the south, at Fort Canning, safely eating breakfast with General Haig’s staff, so why would the author cite him as a reliable witness when he wasn’t even on the scene and probably only heard about the incident second hand, if indeed there had been such an incident in the first place? (Was Wilson harboring resentment against a fellow officer? Had he been passed over in some way?) I wanted to believe my father’s version, but I also felt that there must have been some vestige of truth to the story. Had he screwed up somehow? Disobeyed orders? Shown hesitation or cowardice? I don’t know. I prefer not to think about it. If anything, it made him more existential and human, less of the heroic action figure. I felt ambivalence mixed with curiosity, torn between wanting to stand up for my father, while remaining detached. (Now I understood why he never spoke about the battle. It was complicated.) And anyway,  almost everyone involved was dead so I would probably never know the truth.

EG, Jan. 1942 copy 2

The photograph was taken early in 1942 against a darkly mottled backdrop at the Imperial Studios on Jervois Road, and it’s signed in the lower right corner: “Best Wishes, Ernest, 21/1/42”, January 21, 1942. On that same afternoon, five RAF Hurricanes were shot down over Queenstown, so there’s an understandable degree of urgency in the eyes, intense but distracted. Yamashita’s 25th Army had reached the Johor defensive line, and the city was under constant bombardment. The morning heat caught the smell of rotting flesh and spread it across the entire harbor area. There were three corpses and a dead horse lying in a ditch near Keppel Road. Mitsubishi bombers were coming in from the east, dropping anti-personnel grenades that exploded overhead and sent deadly shards of metal into the streets.

While everything outside the camera’s frame was chaos, inside the frame he’d conjured up the impression of calm, measured calm, looking straight into the lens, eyes wide open, very awake, alert. It’s amazing to me that he had the time and temerity to walk into a studio on Jervois Road and have his photo taken when, all around, the skies were crashing down. Only five weeks earlier, almost to the day, he’d been shot through the shoulder, but now he wanted to send proof home of his robust state of health. He looks shorn, his hair cropped on the sides but rising over his forehead in dark, glistening waves. He’s lost quite a bit of bulk after three weeks in hospital–the morphine made him sick–which only accentuates his square jaw-line and forehead, yet the lips lie gently across the face, soft and shapely, almost feminine. This would be the last photograph he sent to his parents before the fall of Singapore. They wouldn’t hear from him for another three and a half years.

 

 

This is the fifth in a series of ‘discoveries’ about my father’s life.  See also:

#1 Reconstructing My Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2 Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#3 Landscape and Trauma: Glen Coe, 1945

#4 Aloft: Pre-War Summer, 1939

 

REFLECTION MACHINE Jean Nouvel Does Miami

160229 - Monad Terrace - VUW - Lagoon Sunset - Low ResThe image is post-apocalyptical, foreshadowing an uncertain future yet, somehow, utopian and hopeful. It appears to be the end of the day, the end of a season, the end of an era, with the sun setting wildly over the skyline of downtown Miami. In fact, it’s a rendering for a new condominium project on Miami Beach. But the rendering goes beyond mere real estate promotion and verges on something more ambitious as renowned architect Jean Nouvel and his partners at the JDS Development Group offer up a more visionary and flood-resilient alternative to Miami’s standard pie-in-the-sky condo tower. But how does a single architect make an impact when it comes to pressing matters like climate change, failing infrastructure and income disparity? It’s impossible to make a real difference without the support of a responsible government body. Without it, the individual designer can only hope to set the moral tone on a smaller scale.

The enlightened architect can offer new visions and allegories, even if they are only small parts of an evolving narrative — what might be deemed “urban poetics.” But sometimes the urban geographer is obliged to dig deeper and reveal the prevailing threads of invention, no matter how arbitrary they may seem on first impression. Such is the case with Herzog De Meuron’s highly porous design for Pérez Art Museum Miami, which allows for a 10-foot hurricane surge to pass underneath the museum. Norman Foster’s Faena House condo, finished in late 2015, rests on a “plinth” of reflective water and black concrete walls, while Renzo Piano’s Eighty Seven Park in North Beach now under construction will be surrounded by a continuous ring of water when it opens in 2017. In each case, the future possibility of a sunken city, a New Atlantis, is inferred, however obliquely. Nouvel’s project takes the trope a step further and includes a man-made “lagoon” at its very core, almost as if a wedge of the Everglades had been lifted up and transplanted to the shores of Biscayne Bay. It is not a chlorinated pool but a naturally filtered environment that hosts an array of lush vegetation — imagine Henri Rousseau’s post-Impressionist jungles — with giant ferns, sea grape, spider plants, yaupon, mondo grass, palms and palmettos sprouting all about the lagoon.

“My ‘personal vision’ comes from the very needs of communities, the climate, the history and the culture of a city or of a neighborhood,” said Nouvel in an exclusive interview this week. “All theses elements belong to a specific context. This context guides all the decisions I took in Miami as it guides all the projects I build.”

%22The Andes of Ecuador%22 Frederic Edwin Church, 1855

Nouvel’s romantic renderings evoke a sense of the sublime and remind me of a painting by Frederic Edwin Church’s called The Andes of Ecuador (1855). A solar haze animates the outcroppings and craggy heights, the palm trees, a lake and waterfall with moody luminosity, as if all of nature were awaiting the moment of final awakening. Nouvel’s version has the same quality of diffused sunlight and heightened expectation. Buildings are placed peripherally on the site, as if only temporarily there, protected by veils of metal-mesh screening that create a shimmering, multi-layered effect.

While he has made earlier proposals here, this is Nouvel’s first project to be built in Miami. He now joins the pantheon of design gods — Zaha Hadid, Herzog & De Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry — who have bestowed their Pritzker-Prize genius on this subtropical paradise, a metropolis that suffers chronic Attention Deficit Disorder in its furtive search for new and operable identities.
Nouvel managed to change the face of Paris with paradigm-shifting projects like the Arab World Institute, the Foundation Cartier, the Musée du quai Branly and the recently completed Philharmonic Hall. While not as flamboyant or prolific as some of his peers, Nouvel brings to each new project a zealous imagination and passion for discovery. There may not be a single signature move or logo that instantly identifies his work, but each resonates with a meticulous attention to detail and sense of materiality that suggests patience and even — that rarest of virtues in today’s disposable skyline —craftsmanship. Nouvel prides himself on responding to the specifics of a site and, in a sense, starting from scratch every time. No two buildings are alike.

When the Arab World Institute opened in 1987, it signaled a new kind of modernism, one that was alive with kinetic energy, apertures that opened and closed, changing configurations that were intimately responsive to light and weather. Cutting-edge technology merged with ancient forms of poetry and pattern making, and the e4839d983ec329aa5299e38973aae77bproject made Nouvel famous. He won the prestigious Aga Kahn Award for Architecture soon in 1989 and continued to explore the margins of science and metaphor in projects like the Golden Angel (Zlatý Anděl) in Prague, the Doha Tower in Qatar, the Torre Agbar skyscraper in Barcelona, and One New Change in London. His recently completed 100 Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan features a glass-curtain facade of 1,650 panes set at different angles to create what Nouvel refers to as a “vision machine.”

Monad Terrace Site Plan 2
On South Beach, 13 small private lots off of West Avenue were pulled together to create a single elongated site that runs east to west. A prior developer proposed a fairly massive, 150-foot-high condo block on the site that was never approved. In Nouvel’s design, mass has been broken down into two narrow structures. One is 14 stories high, the other only seven stories — mere slivers compared to some of the neighboring towers — containing 54 condo units in all. The towers are slightly cranked and open to the bay, in contrast to the seemingly counter-intuitive trend of maxing out building lots with monolithic facades that block views and cast broad shadows across the beach. (Such is the case with the Surf Club Four Seasons at 90th & Collins, a project designed by Richard Meier and Kobi Karp that seems grossly out of scale with its Surfside neighborhood).

The outer walls of the Nouvel structures are staggered and overlapping like metallic shields but translucent and perforated — more like a sieve — giving their the double-skinned membranes a hovering, ephemeral quality. The two-story-high lobby will be transparent; for passersby on West Avenue, it will appear as an open garden landscape from curbside to bay with uninterrupted sight lines through lobby, past lagoon and narrow swimming pool, and across the bay.

Moand Terrace Reflection Machine, AJN
In the renderings produced in Nouvel’s Paris studio, plants such as jade vine, Spanish moss and tillandsia hang down from rooftop terraces, helping to minimize solar heat while adding all the more to a sense of future ruin and dystopian precognition (think WIlliam Gibson, think Philip K. Dick.) Outer facades will be buffered by vertical gardens supported by stainless steel mesh for shade and privacy. A public-access pathway will traverse the south side of the property and connect West Avenue to Baywalk, a public promenade that remains incomplete.

Monad Terrace Lagoon, Detail “The site proportions were very elongated in the east-west direction,” explained Nouvel. “We chose to arrange the project on the periphery of the property in order to free the center of the site and allow all to experience the best views.”

The neighborhood along West Avenue is Ground Zero for sea-level rise and the city’s costly attempts to mitigate future flooding with raised streets, pumping stations, bizarre hillocks and sunken sidewalks, in what appears to be an urban-scale version of Miami-style plastic surgery. “We are working to accommodate the water rise through the landscape and the lagoon itself,” said Nouvel. “We also are working with the new road elevations along West Avenue.” An underground parking area has been built in what developer Michael Stern calls a concrete bathtub with a flood-proof lid.

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Parts are broken down and tapered towards infinity. In fact, the entire complex acts as a kind of giant infinity pool — Nouvel calls it a “reflection machine” — with its softly feathered edges, vanishing points, wavering lines of sight and other mirage-like effects. The architecture is sponge-like, open and inviting to the waters of Biscayne Bay and the fleckless Miami sky. The architect appears to be seeking a unity of purpose and compromise between future and past, an imaginary realm of wild sunsets, mating manatees and tangled mangrove roots before the coming of Flagler, Fisher or the Kardashians: a 70,720- square-foot slice of Eden, rebooted.

The Monad Terrace proposal was enthusiastically approved by Miami Beach’s Design Review Board. The DRB cited it as a model for future waterfront development. One board member expressed interest in living there when it was completed. (A version of this story appeared in the Miami Herald on May 13, 2016).

 

A SPIDER IN THE SAND, Paul Rudolph’s Antidote to Cold War Paranoia

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I set out on my auspicious little outing to Sanibel Island, driving across the lower instep of Florida, marshy light deflecting off the windshield, sheet-flow expanding incrementally as the car moves westward along the pencil-straight line of Route 75, otherwise known as ‘Alligator Alley’ (although I never spot a single gator along the way), past fences and swales and empty parking lots, the sky turning milky and oddly rippled with altocumulus clouds, sucking up moisture from the shallows of the Everglades.

I’m going to visit the Walker Guest House, Paul Rudolph’s little beach-house gem, built in 1952, just after Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House opened in New York City and the nightmarish “Tumbler-Snapper” nuclear device was detonated in the Nevada desert. Richard Nixon gave his infamous Checkers speech that same month and the USS Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine, was launched in Groton, Connecticut. Indeed it was the heyday of the Nuclear Age, the age of the “Good Bomb” and MAD (“Mutually Assured Destruction”) with the perceived threat of Communist infiltration and back-yard bomb shelters. Into this Faustian landscape, Rudolph’s little pod dropped as an antidote to Cold-War paranoia, open to views on all sides and liberating to the human soul.
The 24-by-24-foot frame of the original rests wistfully on a bed of crushed oyster shells, high enough to catch breezes off the Gulf of Mexico and also withstand hurricane floods. An outrigger structure provides support for the ingenious, Rube Goldberg contraptions that Rudolph devised for raising and lowering the large wooden window flaps. These are hinged along the top and operated with rope and pulleys. There are eight flaps in all, two on every side, and they can be set in a variety of positions.

****IMG_2124The most memorable elements of Rudolph’s design, however, are the eight counterweight balls (weighing 77 pounds each) that hang from steel cables and help to raise and lower the wooden flaps. This accounts for the nickname: “cannonball house” favored by family and locals, while others prefer the more prosaic “house with balls.” The spherical counterweights are said to have been cast in beach sand by pouring wet concrete into the negative form of a beach ball, a most poetic touch, but one that may be apocryphal.

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Rudolph’s single-family vacation homes of this period were thoroughly urban constructs with flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling glass. (The Miller Guest House in Casey Key, built in 1949, and the Cocoon House on Siesta Key, built in 1950, were the earliest examples.) They signaled independence, self-sufficiency, and a celebration of the natural elements: sun, sea and a well-shaken martini. While providing little more than shade and a place to sleep, the Walker house expressed an open-ended lifestyle for a generation who’d survived World War II and were intent on building a brighter, more hopeful future for themselves and their families. Today, the house can be seen as a prototype for sustainable living with its small footprint and simplicity of plan. It was inexpensive, self-cooling, raised against floodwaters, and easily closed up for hurricanes. Just as importantly, it was light-hearted, even whimsical, with its dangling cannonballs and flip-top walls, fitting seamlessly into the natural setting, and barely disrupting the sandy contours of the Sanibel beachfront.

Cocoon House, Siesta Key, 1950

Cocoon House, Siesta Key, 1950

The Walker house was the first independent commission after Rudolph established his own firm., and Walter Walker proved to be an ideal client: son of a prominent Minneapolis family, culturally sophisticated and with a love for the outdoors. He was the grandson of T.B. Walker, the Minnesota lumber baron who’d given his renowned art collection and part of his fortune to create the Walker Art Center. He went to Harvard medical school but ended up working in the family lumber business. In his 30s, he contracted tuberculosis; the family physician prescribed a warm, quiet place to recover. This was originally why Walter bought the waterfront lot on Sanibel Island as a kind of one-man sanatorium, but he didn’t think about building a house there for another few years. In 1950, he contacted Sarasota-based architect Ralph Twitchell, who advised him to hire his young associate, Paul Rudolph. “He’s fresh out of Yale and full of ideas,” said Twitchell. Walker took his advice and commissioned Rudolph to design a small guesthouse on a back corner of the property. (Later, in the 1970s, a much bigger house would be built on the dune overlooking the Gulf.)

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Paul Rudolph’s design for the main Walker house, 1950 (unbuilt)

Rudolph worked with basic materials that could be found at any lumberyard. Standard lengths of two-by-four lumber were doubled up to create I-beam-style supports for the footings, and the hurricane flaps were made from plywood and peg-board sandwiched together. It was to be the simplest of pavilions. Its many openings were originally designed without screens, but Walker insisted on having them to keep out mosquitoes and sand flies. He spent the next 30 winters living there until finally building a larger house on the top of the dune.

Floor Plan, Walker GH

Up at the main house, the sun is bright, almost blinding, and Mrs. Elaine Walker, a spry 91 years old, sits on a shaded porch, looking out at the liquid light rising off the Gulf of Mexico. She is warm and welcoming with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “There was ****Mrs. Elaine Walker - photo by AG.2157 2nothing here. It was the absolute boonies!” she says, laughing. “There wasn’t even a telephone!” Wearing a blue-green dress and bone-white spectacles, she sits in a low-slung hammock chair and explains how she met her husband Walter in the 1960s. He’d recovered from tuberculosis by then but was going through a drawn-out divorce, as was she. “We kept going out to dinner and then we fell in love,” says Elaine. After dating for almost two years, they decided to get married, but when Walter brought her to his little escape pad on Sanibel Island, she was shocked. “He told me that he had this little house in Florida and when I came down from Minneapolis I thought ‘Why would anyone want to build in such a place?’ It was so isolated and I’m a city kid by nature.” The roof leaked when it rained and there were gopher tortoises living in the crawl space. When Elaine wanted to make a phone callshe had to walk half a mile up the dusty shell road. “You call this a house?” she said. “Not exactly what I’m accustomed to–only 24 by 24 feet–you must be kidding!” But Walt loved it small and simple, and he liked to lie in a hammock strung between two palm trees and watch pelicans skim across the water, counting them as they passed. By the end of the first winter season, Elaine was learning to adapt to the quirkiness of Rudolph’s little experiment. “It was just like camping and I learned to be a good girl scout,” she says. “I’d always wanted to be a Girl Scout.” She and her husband would go swimming in the morning, collect shells along the beach and read books. Elaine pinned up a few art posters and Walt made little scenes out of driftwood and shell. He even agreed to put in a telephone. “It was really quite charming, after all,” she admitted.

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Walker Guest House - drawing - archival 2

Even with only 580 square feet of internal living space, the house felt expansive with its all-around views and basic geometry. The interior was divided into equal quadrants for dining, cooking, living and sleeping, something like a well-ordered boat, with everything in its place. Rudolph had worked as a naval architect during World War II. He learned about thin-shell construction and how to make the most efficient use of space. “I was profoundly affected by ships,” he wrote. “I remember thinking that a destroyer was one of the most beautiful things in the world.” Rudolph would apply what he’d learned in the shipyards to the Walker Guest House and other projects. In early photographs you can see that he’d originally used a deep indigo blue in the living/dining area to create a cool, cave-like space and offset the sun-struck dunes that surround the house. He designed most of the furniture himself, including a steel-and-glass dining table, a low-lying bookcase as spatial divider in the living room, and several deck chairs. Floors were charcoal gray linoleum and the ceiling was covered in a pale grass-cloth to create texture. “It was just as cozy as could be,” said Elaine Walker, remembering the times she stayed in the house during inclement weather. The flaps could be lowered half way to keep the rain out but there was still enough light for indoor activities. “You know, Rudolph told my husband that sometimes it’s nice to be in a cave and sometimes it’s nice to be in a pavilion,” she said. “With the flaps down it was a cave. With the flaps up it was a pavilion.” With a few adjustments the flaps could also be made to funnel Gulf breezes through the house, as there was no air conditioning, but occasionally it was sweltering and Mrs. Walker remembers having to run down to the beach every half hour for another dip in the Gulf. “I never got out of my bathing suit,” she said.

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The skeletal structure fulfilled Rudolph’s desire to make the house “crouch like a spider in the sand,” with spindly legs reaching out on all sides, eroding all sense of mass. The house’s profile would change almost daily, depending on the weather, the season, the angle of light and the moods of the homeowners. The counterweights moved up and down so that when the flaps were shut, the balls hung high and when the flaps were open, the balls hung low. The wood bracing, pull ropes and tension cables also created narrow lines of shadow–a kind of drawing or delineation–that Rudolph used to further animate his three-dimensional composition.

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When construction was finished, Walter Walker climbed up on the roof and detected a slight lateral movement in the bones of the structure. He called Rudolph and the architect quickly devised a solution: crisscrossing tension cables were strung across the openings to strengthen the structural integrity of the framework.

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McCall’s Magazine

The guesthouse received an inordinate amount of attention for such a modest commission. McCall’s Magazine ran a feature in 1956 with color photos and a breezy text about the “house for carefree summer living.” (Plans could be purchased from the magazine for 25 cents.) It appeared in architecture journals and became an inspiration to a generation of young American architects. Peter Blake, architect and friend of Rudolph, designed his own house in Water Mill, New York, in the same configuration with a 24-foot-by-24-foot floor plan. Instead of hinged wooden flaps, however, Blake used horizontally sliding barn doors that could be moved back and forth on metal tracks, but it was essentially the same idea: a box that could be shut up for a hurricane or a season.

Pinwheel House, Water Mill, NY, 1954, Peter Blake architect

Pinwheel House, Water Mill, NY, 1954, Peter Blake architect

“I had no idea that our little guesthouse would become so famous,” says Mrs. Walker. “It’s really quite revered in the world of architecture so we try to maintain it as best as we can.” The counterweight balls were originally painted a bright pimento red, like an exotic fruit, and stood out in contrast to the white walls of the house. Now, they’re more of an aubergine or purplish red, while the woodwork has been painted a pale gray in place of the original white. “I like a little bit of change now and then,” says Mrs. Walker who has kept the house in pristine condition ever since her husband’s death in 2001. Windows are re-sealed; wood surfaces are sanded and painted fresh almost every year, while an assistant keeps the mold at bay with frequent doses of bleach.

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Apart from a few minor repairs, the house is made of the same materials it was built with in 1952. Even the fixtures in the tiny kitchen and bathroom are original. After years of exposure, the wooden flaps have become water logged and harder to lift. It usually takes two people to open them. “My husband would stand inside and pull the rope while I would go outside and push with my fanny,” explained Mrs. Walker.

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****IMG_2190 2Jack Priest, her son-in-law, stands in the doorway of the little guesthouse, wearing pink rubber clogs and a marlin-print shirt. He points to a metal escutcheon in the ceiling and explains how one of the pull ropes breaks every so often and has to be replaced and threaded through a hidden pulley, out through a hole in the fascia board. “It takes real concentration,” says Priest, who’s learned how to guide the rope through the openings with a stiff wire.

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Elaine Walker and her family — her children and grandchildren — continue to cherish the diminutive scale and close-packed ingenuity of a house that forces everyone to slow down and return to the simple pleasures of waterfront living — picnics, swimming, outdoor showers, beach combing, living in synch with nature — so that winter vacations on Sanibel have become a beloved family tradition. “I didn’t come to appreciate the architecture for a long time,” admits Mrs. Walker. “But it was wonderful to be in a place that made my family so happy.”

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Paul Rudolph’s name has been tossed about in the news lately because several of his buildings are under threat of demolition. While the early beach houses are generally cherished and well monitored, the concrete walls and bulky forms of his later “brutalist” buildings are harder to love. Many find them cold and alienating, such as the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY (1967) that is scheduled to be torn down in the next few months. As a kind of precautionary measure, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) recently announced that they are creating a full-scale replica of the Walker Guest House, one of Rudolph’s crowning achievements. Architect and contractor Joseph King is fabricating the facsimile in his workshop in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota. Sponsored by the SAF and Dr. Michael Kalman, the revision will be exact in every detail except for the fact that this 21st-century variation will be a demountable kit of parts, easily broken down and moved from venue to venue. King is milling all sections from micro-laminate lumber that will help to strengthen the structure. Parts will be attached with screws and bolts instead of nails, but as per the original, linoleum will cover the floors. (The Armstrong Flooring company happens to still make the same charcoal gray product.) When finished, it will be a walk-though artifact for the purpose of educating people about mid-century modernism and the architectural legacy of Paul Rudolph. Even the furniture that Rudolph designed for the interior is being replicated. The facsimile edition of the Walker Guest House will be unveiled in November 2015 and remain on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota for another 11 months. After that, it is scheduled to travel to Miami in time for Art Basel Miami 2016. For info: http://www.ringling.org/

BUOYANT CITY: Amsterdam

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Holland is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It is highly urbanized and ultra sensitive to environmental conditions. For generations the country suffered the threat of inundation from the North Sea and learned to survive in a precarious balance with nature, learning a respectful stewardship for the dry land that they did possess. Large areas have been reclaimed–as much as one-third of the country is below sea level–protected and micromanaged within a complex infrastructure of dikes, sluice gates, pumping stations, man-made polders and artificial islands. Holland also has a tradition of tolerance, in both its social and cultural realms and continues to support a degree of experimentation in its public projects.

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Amsterdam, the largest city, with about 800,000 inhabitants continues to suffer a housing shortage with long waiting lists for subsidized housing, a condition that has forced public agencies to come up with makeshift and sometimes idiosyncratic solutions. The city expands outwards and inward at the same time, rediscovering and reinterpreting older, often derelict industrial areas. Former warehouses and factories have been converted and entire new neighborhoods have been transformed from former industrial parks and shipping wharfs into high-density residential zones. One new area called IJburg, has been built from scratch on a series of artificial islands in the IJ estuary. But still, it’s never quite enough.

S038_N597_mediumOne of the most successful efforts that set the template for future schemes to come, was Borneo Sporenburg, built in Amsterdam’s Oostelijk Havengebied (eastern docklands) on two large piers that had once been used for unloading ships coming from Dutch colonies in the Far East. During the 1980s, many of the warehouses in this neighborhood were populated by squatters and artists in search of cheap housing. The city government designated the entire area for housing in the 1990s; squatters were thrown out and most of the old buildings were demolished.

S038_N512_mediumOn the cleared land, the city mandated a density of 40 units per acre, which is high, even by Dutch standards. A master plan was conceived by Adriaan Geuze, principal of West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture (a firm based in Rotterdam), and Geuze’s so-called “Swiss Cheese” concept called for a high percentage of open spaces, “voids”, to be dispersed throughout the solid blocks of 2,500 dwellings with open plazas, gardens and parks. In addition, a 30%-to-50% void was required within each house in the form of patios and courtyards so as to draw in as much natural light as possible, making the relatively small interior spaces seem larger and more expansive, while simultaneously directing the eye out towards water views whenever possible, to help foster what Geuze called “a contrast between intimacy and cosmic open space.”

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“Sublmine Continuity”, Pieter de Hooch

His initial inspiration came from the kind of small, traditional villages that used to line the shores of the Zuiderzee, as well a painterly influence from 17th century Dutch artists like Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer, a sense of what he calls “sublime continuity” between inside and outside, a saturation of sea-reflected light, and a clarity of vision in which every brick appears to possess an almost mystical certainty of its place in the universe. The houses at Borneo Sporenburg are high density but low rise so the impact on the city’s historic skyline has been minimal. Only three stories are allowed but the first floors are extra tall, measuring 3.5 meters (11.48 feet) in height versus the standard 2.4 meters. “Greater height not only increases daylight penetration in the homes, and the quality of living, but also gives an urban atmosphere,” explained Geuze. (The extra height also allows the possibility of future alternative functions such as shops, cafés, studios and offices.) More than a hundred international architects submitted designs for the individual residential units, including top firms like OMA, MRDV, UN Studio and Neutelings Riedijk, so that each unit has its own distinctive character and together create an animated patchwork of varied colors, textures and materials. Each architect worked with a slightly different combination of internal spaces, proportions, variations in height and setback, sometimes with small porches, projecting balconies and alternating window treatments. A brick facade with small, steel-framed windows might butt up against an all-glass facade, or a facade of grayish-blue slate with pulpit and clerestory windows, or a facade of pale orange with large, wood-framed windows, etc. This kind of rhythmic diversity helped to create instant character and a grounded sense of place in what might have otherwise been another blandly uniform environment. Tenants further personalized their respective units with potted plants, banners and benches as well as small docks and moorings for boats along the waterside of the community.

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About thirty per cent of the 2,500 dwellings at Borneo Sporenburg are subsidized social housing while the rest are priced according to the current real estate market. This makes for a stimulating economic mix of low, high and middle-class tenants. Two large apartment buildings, known as “Meteorites” (the “PacMan” and the “Sphinx”), are set on the diagonal to break up the linear monotony of the low-rise units. These super blocks are much higher than the houses. They have public gardens, interior courtyards and are surrounded by large, open plazas. (A third housing block, called the “Fountainhead”, was never built as local residents wanted to keep the site for a park and sports field.)

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The Python, Borneo Sporenburg, West 8

To further embellish and help people navigate their way around this new urban landscape, West 8 designed three flamboyantly sculptural pedestrian/bike bridges that link Borneo Sporenburg to the adjacent peninsular communities. (One of the bridges called “the Python” was made from bright red steel and undulates just like its name implies.) The particular kind of spatial diversity and customized design strategy that made Borneo Sporenburg such a success, seems to have been difficult to perpetuate in later phases of development. After the first 250 units were finished, the developer asked the city to limit the choices to six standard designs to help lower costs and speed up construction, but Borneo still served as a role model for other peninsular developments in the Eastern Docklands, including KNSM Island, Java Island and Rietland that followed similar patterns, but with larger-scaled blocks that lacked the intimate scale and architectural diversity of Borneo Sporenburg.

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From across the waters of the Westerdoksdijk, Silodam looks like a stack of multi-colored shipping containers or giant Lego pieces. It is, in fact, a massive housing block that hovers on tripod-style pylons. The old dock upon which the building rests was originally used for storing and shipping grain, hence the name, “Silodam”. Two of the old grain silos are still standing on the site and the new structure was designed by MVRDV, one of Holland’s most innovative and playful architecture firms, who took a very different approach than the low, village-like clusters of Borneo. (The same firm designed the iconic WOZOCO housing block for the elderly in the Osdorp neighborhood of Amsterdam in 1997.) At Silodam, they created vertical “neighborhoods” within the ten-story block of 157 residential units, offices and public spaces.

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Silodam, MVRDV

The animated treatment of the exterior is reflected on the interior with a variety of apartment sizes and spatial configurations. Each neighborhood includes between four to ten units of the same type clustered together, each one color coded for ease of internal navigation. Individual living spaces are interspersed with patios, balconies, a small marina for boats and a rooftop communal terrace, called the “crow’s nest” that’s perched on the top floor and offers views of the harbor.

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Floating House, Ijburg, Marlies Rohmer Architects

As the city expands outwards, every kind of alternative has been explored. IJburg, one of Amsterdam’s newest neighborhoods, is a mixed-use development that reaches into the waters of Lake IJmeer with an archipelago of seven artificial islands. Reclamation began in 1997 and continues today as a work in progress with two of the islands being designated for single-family housing, divided into small plots that individual owners are encouraged to develop with an architect of their choice. Like Geuze’s Borneo plan, IJburg has encouraged architectural innovation. Marlies Rohmer Architects designed an entire floating community, or Waterbuurt (“Water Quarter”), for more than 1,000 residents and it’s unlike any other community in the world. Once again, necessity served as mother of invention and the Waterbuurt responds to two of Amsterdam’s most pressing issues: the chronic housing shortage and the threat of rising sea levels. “The main thing is to make a social structure where people really like to live and can put their own ideas into the project,” said Rohmer, who works out of an office on Cruqiuseiland, just across the water from Bonreo Sporenburg.

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House Boats, Sausalito, California

She was inspired after a visit to the alternative houseboat community in Sausalito, California, where she was fascinated by the wildly eclectic houseboats and the “social platforms” that had grown up, organically, and how the homes were connected by different kinds of ramps, boardwalks and jetties. “There was even a floating town square,” she recalled. She borrowed ideas from Sausalito and combined them with basic elements of traditional Dutch canal life–such as the relationship between the street, the canal, and the houseboats that are moored along the wharfs–and these gave her the basis for a 757-Waterwoningen-412-PL1op500totaalvoorwebsite-550x484master plan. “We are 757-TVN-032-363x484used to building on water,” said Rohmer. “It’s our nature.”[*] Climatology experts have predicted that sea levels may rise more than three feet (9 meters) by 2100, and since more than two-thirds of the country’s population live below sea level this has become a major incentive in Dutch planning. Instead of building dikes and dams to keep the water out, the tidal waters of the IJmeer have been “invited in” with canals and inlets interlaced throughout the new development. 

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Most of the floating houses are three-story, single-family townhouses. “I see them as a kind of hybrid, somewhere between a boat and a house,” said Rohmer. They are white, grid-like boxes–imagine a Sol LeWitt installation adrift–resting on precast concrete shells or “hulls” that are completely watertight and were engineered to submerge no deeper than five feet. There’s a minimum of rocking, although heavy furniture can make the houses list to one side. “When you put a big couch or piano on one side of the living room, you have to balance it with something on the other side,” explained Rohmer. All components were prefabricated at a boat yard forty miles to the north of IJburg, then towed along canals and through a series of locks to reach the Waterbuurt site. In a sense, the delivery process gave Rohmer her modular dimensions since the houses had to be less than 21 feet (6.5 meters) in width. “They had to be designed with the exact same measurements as the locks to fit through,” said Rohmer.

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The 275-square-meter houses were laid out in an elegantly triangular configuration separated by narrow jetties and anchored to the Kadegebouw along the Waterbuurt’s southern flank. All of the buoyant units are held in place by two steel mooring poles that keep them positioned close to the jetties but allow the structures to move up or down with changing tides. The traditional Dutch wijk (“neighborhood”) has become a stationary flotilla, a kind of modern-day Venice with small boats moored in front of every unit, children swimming in summer and skating on the ice that sometimes surrounds the community in winter. Rohmer even designed a “drifting terrace”, a kind of public event space that can be moved from place to place and used for parties.

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Floating House, IJburg, Hollands Zicht & SOOH

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On the east side of IJburg there are another 38 floating houses, much more eclectic in design than Rohmer’s minimal white cubes, and each one has been designed by a different architect. A handsome wood-framed black box with trellis stairway was designed by Hollands Zicht & SOOH.  In addition, a set of floating apartment blocks were designed and developed by Eigen Haard, a public housing association, while Anne Holtrop, a young Dutch architect, has proposed a hydroponic “garden/spa wellness island” in collaboration with French landscape designer Patrick Blanc that will float on the waters of Lake IJ and serve the needs of the island’s water-bound residents, providing a pastoral landscape of rolling green hills, something rare for Holland, even if it is completely artificial.

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Garden Spa Wellness Island, IJburg, Anne Holtrop & Patrick Blanc

Large-scale housing developments like IJburg and Borneo Sporenburg were made possible because of a well-lubricated infrastructure of economic, political and cultural systems that fostered innovation. “The city worked closely with developers and social housing companies,” explained Wouter Onclin, an urban planner based in Amsterdam. “The cities made money from selling land, the developers were able to build because of high demand. Banks would finance 100% of our homes with no down payments and mortgage interest was deductible from one’s income so the tax benefits made it beneficial to carry as much mortgage debt as possible.” According to Onclin, all of this changed with the financial crisis of 2007/2008. Now developers have to rely on private capital and less on debt financing. “The tabula rasa method of clearing entire areas will not happen anymore,” he said. “It’s smaller and more organic now. The role of the individual and consumer is becoming much more important.”

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Repurposed Shipping Containers, Houthavens, HVDN Architects

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Floor Plan of Houthavens Housing, HVDN Architects

Houthavens, in the northwest, is one of the city’s newer neighborhoods, mainly inhabited by students and young artists, still very much in organic mutation, transforming itself from a derelict dockland/industrial zone into a thriving residential/business area through small and sometimes guerilla-type actions as a larger development plan awaits approval and financing. Several clusters of modular housing were built as was a floating block of artist studios. Temporary housing was also provided in a former cruise ship. An abandoned ferry and a deep-sea oil platform were transformed into restaurants, and a new theater was built on a former factory site. HVDN Architects, a young collaborative, created an “instant community” with recycled shipping containers stacked three stories high and placed around two courtyards to create 715 student units and 72 larger apartments. It took only twelve months to realize from conception to completion. Facades were made from pre-fabricated molded plastic panels with a variety of window treatments, setbacks, and brightly colored Plexiglas inserts (something like a hipster reinterpretation of De Stijl modernism), all of it helping to soften and disguise the industrial rawness of the corrugated steel containers. Indeed, HVDN’s design was so well implemented that what had originally been considered “temporary housing” turned into a semi-permanent status and gave the neighborhood a sense of center and destination that it previously lacked. But everything in Houthavens is in continual flux, and HVDN’s container village is scheduled to be removed by next summer. Students received notices that they will have to vacate their apartments to make way for a new master plan that will include a series of islands similar to IJburg with housing designed by different architectural firms. The economy is beginning to lift and Amsterdam continues to reinvent itself.

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Rem Eiland

A version of this article first appeared in Design Anthology, Issue #3 (Hong Kong)

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* As quoted in: “This Floating City May Be the Future of Coastal Living,” Noah Rayman, Time, June 26, 2014.

ALOFT: Pre-War Summer, 1939

There is still the sea, it shall not be dried up.

                                     – Aeschylus

Bdev 86_0016_NEWPhotographs from that summer look like stills from a silent movie. My father appears to be suspended in space, a happy marionette, in watery reflections and soft, billowing clouds, either dangling from a spar or balanced precariously on a bowsprit. There are no backgrounds, no recognizable features of landscape, just water and the hazy skies of western Scotland, the islands of Jura, Coll, Islay, Mull, and the blurred outlines of distant hills. He turned twenty-three on May 31, 1939, poor as a church mouse, but free to do whatever he liked, go wherever he liked. He rented rooms on Gare Loch and was as happy as he’d ever been, sailing the Clyde and swimming, reading Aeschylus in the original Greek with English annotations by Gilbert Murray, sitting up in his garret with an oil lamp flickering while unseen forces were already at work, plotting and reshaping his future.Through a small side window he could see the ships of the Royal Navy moored at the Tail O’ the Bank, making the words of Aeschylus seem all the more prescient: “Deep in that shingle strand, moored the sloops of war, and men thronged the beach of Ilium…” as if it were lifted from the front page of the Glasgow Herald but filtered through an ancient, amber lens.

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There’d been reports of a crisis in Danzig and Spanish refugees crossing into France, and Daladier mobilizing reserve troops. Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March about when he’d been studying for finals at St. Andrews. He came down in early June, bringing only a few clothes and books (second-hand volumes on moral philosophy for Malcom Knox’s seminar on Hegel) to the temporary digs in Clynder. That same week, the Japanese imposed a naval blockade on the port of Tianjin and began their assault on southern China. While Ernest was aware of these events, they seemed far removed from his daily life and what he remembered was a pleasant bubble of peace, a dream-like respite between St. Andrews and Munich, between Spring Term and mobilization. “Skies were blue; winds were fair and warm,” he wrote twenty years later. “The Firth was saturated with beauty… I had no money, but I lived like a millionaire on what small skill I had as a yachtsman.”

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Clynder was little more than a post office with a church and a few houses clustered along Rosneath Road but the hills gave it a kind of grandeur, gathering up to the north of the village as they did, veiled in mist. There was no proper kitchen but he could cook sausages and beans on a little propane stove and he toasted bread in the fireplace. Sometimes, on rainy afternoons, he would go to Bremer’s Tea Room near the ferry pier and buy a scotch egg and wash it down with a cup of strong tea. When heScreen Shot 2014-12-20 at 10.52.08 AM wasn’t sailing, he was swimming Rhu Narrows to Blairvadach and back to the shingle beach at Shandon, or walking from his tiny flat on Brookend Brae, past the Presbyterian manse,across fields of slate and heather, past a greenhouse, a mossy weir, up Garelochhead Wood and a high, rain-streaked trail to Knockderry House on Loch Long. From there he looked across to Greenock, but already felt a world removed from his childhood on that distant shore. (He only went to visit his parents twice that summer.) In June, he went to a movie in Helensburgh: Goodbye Mr. Chips starring Greer Garson and Robert Donat. He also read Aldous Huxley’s new novel, After Many a Summer, about a Hollywood millionaire who fears his own impending death.

EG sailingIf the photos from that summer had titles they would be something like “Becalmed Before the Storm”, or “Adrift”, but none of them have titles and there’s no further information so I can only guess their chronology from clues like the shape of his face or the length of his hair. In one, he’s standing at the helm of Janetta, a yawl from Lorimer’s, on a stormy day and he’s smoking a pipe, which I’d never seen him do before. This is probably early summer because his face is closer in shape to that final semester at St. Andrews when he was still boxing and playing rugby. In another, he’s smoking a cigar and posing in the stern of a boat. His chest is thrust out, his hips are cranked, and his hand is resting on the backstay, as if to steady himself. Was he making a joke? Was he drunk? (According to Aunt Grace, he arrived back at Toward Point one night that summer with a black eye and a bloody lip.) An attractive brunette sits in the cockpit with her arm draped over the tiller. She has a coyly bemused expression on her face, suppressing a laugh or possibly trying to ignore my father for behaving like such an ass. It must be late July or early August. The water is glassy smooth, almost obsidian and barely ruffled from the wake of the boat, ghosting along under sail, a mid-summer light washing everything in a luminous glow, my father’s sun-tanned face, his hands, the teak of the deck, block and tackle, transom and traveler, a life-ring with the name of the boat painted on its side. (I can make out an “o” and an “n,” but the brunette’s head blocks out the rest. Could it be Dionne, the mythical ketch of my parent’s first meeting?)

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In another photo he’s been hoisted aloft and is clinging to the mast of a gaff-rigged yawl, looking young and agile while he doffs his cap, mugging for the photographer below. His right foot rests on one of the mast rings while his left hand clings to the halyard. His body is soft and supple, slightly overweight, but well proportioned and you can see how women must have been attracted, but there’s also something uncouth and wooly about him. In another shot he’s wearing baggy black shorts and a velour shirt with a pattern of crowns and diamonds, Glasgow gangster style, and when I first came upon this photograph I thought it had to be someone else, certainly not my solemn Reverend Father. There was Rose in Colonsay and another–Maira?–when he crewed to the south of Ireland on Vagrant. The old Clyde Forty hit a nor’easter on the homeward leg and limped into Dublin for repairsDione? Below Decks. Later in July, he crewed on the 6-meter Circe, the Bermudan yawl Zigeneur and Dragon-class Primula. In early August, he earned ten pounds skippering a ketch up the west coast to Tobermory and out to the island of Muck, “seeking harbor by night in lochs protected by hills ancient with wisdom and offering a rare serenity to those ready to accept it,” he wrote, also mentioning a “beautiful redhead” who he’d met on the pier at Tobermory, but couldn’t remember her name–Ainsely? He wasn’t sure.

On August 20, Germany announced that they’d reached a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Two days after that, Prime Minister Chamberlain renewed Britain’s pledge of support for Poland, while appealing to Hitler for truce. But the worst was yet to come and on August 23, while Ernest was sailing Dionne to Cowes, seven hundred miles away,chamberlainmunichGermany and the Soviet Union signed their non-aggression pact, paving the way for the invasion of Poland, and as the summer drew to an end, he sensed that his days of lofty indolence were over, and marked a passage with red pencil in his copy of Aeschylus: “What is this insistent fear which in my prophetic heart set and steady beats with evil omen, chanting unbidden a brooding, oracular music? Why can I not cast it out like a dream of dark import?” But he could not cast out that brooding, oracular music from his heart, and he had no doubts that war was imminent and he would be killed.

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Alexander Robertson

My mother, Helen Macintosh Robertson, was on board Dionne for the first leg of the Cowes Race, from Hunter’s Quay to Arran. She was the daughter of Alec Robertson and granddaughter of Alexander, the barrel-chested patriarch of the Robertson family and founder of the self-named yacht business based on the Holy Loch. (Alexander reached prominence in 1902 when he made overnight repairs to Kaiser Whilhelm’s yacht, Meteor III, and was thereafter rewarded with a commission to build the Kaiser’s next boat.) According to my mother, she and Ernest barely exchanged a word the whole time, my father standing on the foredeck, raising another jib while glancing aft to the willowy figure in black oilskin. There were dozens of handsome young men that summer, and she pretended not to notice the tanned, shirtless man in the bow. He remembered the way she chain-smoked and chatted madly in the cockpit, flirting with Sandy Garvie whose father owned Dionne. Maybe he’d been trying too hard to impress her, showing off, she scoffed. Who did he think he was in those shabby shorts and rope belt? “Common” was the word she used forty years after the fact, but he was also darkly handsome and tall and her calculated method of gaining his attention was to ignore him all the way to Arran.

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Dionne placed third in her class and won a bronze plaque. The Garvies put on a festive luncheon for the crew (cold lamb, shepherd’s pie, pickled onions) at the Royal Marine Hotel, a granite pile in Hunter’s Quay with Neo-Tudor gables overlooking the Clyde. Toasts were made all around and my father stayed until the end when everyone stood up to sing God Save the King just before it was announced, almost as an afterthought, that Germany had invaded Poland. After that, everything seemed to unravel and the lofty, loving summer of 1939 came to a rather sudden and squalid end.

Earlier in the week I drove east across the narrow waist of Scotland, doubling back through industrial hinterlands, with black smoke rising over Royston and Wallacewell, through the flatlands of Castlecary to Queensferry, across the Firth of Forth Bridge and up the east coast to Fife. After his “mishap” in the RAF–the crumpled plane, the broken collar bone–my father returned to the comforts and relative safety of student life, this time at St. Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university where he studied from September 1937 to May ****College, St. Andrews 21939 at St. Salvador’s College on North Street with its high tower and courtyard shaded by the venerable thorn tree that Mary Queen of Scots is said to have planted. He took Introductory Hebrew with Sandy Honeyman, the youngest professor at St. Andrews. He sat in a drafty lecture hall and listened to T. Malcolm Knox, a prominent
Hegelian, who taught Moral Philosophy. “In nature everything which happens exemplifies a universal law,” wrote Ernest in his miniscule penmanship with a Burnham fountain pen–speckled orange Bakelite and gold nib–that his parents gave him for his 21st birthday. He drew diagrams of Kant’s Categorical Imperative with a list of sensations–taste, smell, touch–and traced three lines that converged near the middle of the page:

I: (Mechanism)—Thought or Consciousness

II: (Freedom)—Thought – Self-Consciousness

At one point he even considered making a career of moral philosophy. He wasn’t sure how that would work, but anything seemed possible during these idyllic pre-war days. He loved the Old Town, the students, the professors, the ancient golf course and the pristine strand of pale sand that stretched to the north. Again I don’t know much. He didn’t speak very often of these days, and if he did it was usually only a brief anecdote about rugby or drinking beer or saber fencing. He once mentioned his friend Bill McLean who had also signed up for Officer Training Corps (OTC) and how they trekked through the soggy glens of western Fife on weekends dressed in their OTC uniforms of gray kilt, green shirt, long woolen socks, and leather boots. There’s a photograph of them, bivouacked in a field somewhere, lying in the heather, their fresh faces pointed towards the sun.

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St. Andrews

I stroll down Largo Road to Nelson Street where Ernest leased student digs during that final semester before the war, and I follow the same path that he took every morning, past the lawn bowling club and up the well-trodden footpath that crosses Kinnes Burn and tunnels through Louden’s Close, a narrow wynd that passes between stone walls and beneath a low archway onto South Street, now bustling with students in medieval robes, laughing and going about their business. I try to imagine my father here in his crimson robes and thick curly hair, walking up Market Street to the eastern end of town, wandering through the 12th-Century ruins of the cathedral where the relics of Apostle Andrew–fisherman and brother of St. Peter–are said to be buried.  Some of the walls are sill standing but most have collapsed and there’s a mossy bed of grass in place of the floor. It’s a garden puzzle of granite and empty spaces where the sky pushes in and the cruciform plan is still evident in the stones that remain.

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EG at St. Andrews, 1938

 •

All of this was behind me, driving a rented car, passing the Ferguslie lawn-bowls club in Paisley, near the street where I was born, past gray housing and chimneys, and I’m thinking how I like to simplify everything, while my father liked to complicate and obfuscate, or so it seemed, and how my own son feels the same about me and sees excess in almost everything I do. I took M898 across Erskine Bridge and up Great Western Road (A82) toward Crianlarich, through a series of confusing roundabouts, around the far end of Gare Loch, via the old black-topped Haul Road to A814, south onto Rosneath, then all the way down the opposite side of the loch to Clynder. The village seems much the same today as it was during the summer of 1939. There are only a few streets, restaurants, Tam House, Straid-A-Cnoc, Kentroma House, and a more recent block of council flats off Braeside. The steamer ferry’s long gone, but I can see a row of rotting stumps where the old pier once stood. The rusted metal cutout of a kettle hangs in front of the GrDictance Swimmereen Kettle Inn, but it’s closed for business, so I walk the shingle shore, trying to imagine my father swimming the breadth of the loch, the opposite shore being quite distant, the water cold, but I always knew that swimming was like breathing for him. At ten, he’d been inspired by Gertrude Ederle, fabled “Queen of the Waves,” when she swam the English Channel to beat the previous man’s record by an astonishing two hours. My father learned the effortless Trudgen Method from Max Ferguson of the Gourock Lido, a seawater pool built on the rocks near the Caledonian ferry terminal. After months of training in the pool, he began to swim the wilder waters of the Clyde and won his first long-distance race in 1930. Two years later, at 16, he won the Royal Life Saving medal for a two-mile swim between Kilcreggan and Gourock, and by then he’d perfected his own version of the Australian Crawl. (I used to swim far out with him in Gardiner’s Bay, trying to keep apace, and even in his eighties he would push away from the beach and swim hard for a hundred yards before taking a rest.)

Bremer’s Tea Room is no longer there but the building where my father rented rooms is still in tact, a half-timbered boarding house called “Seasgair”, on Brookend Brae with white chickens out back, wire cages, straw and mud, a few plum trees, and a blackened stone wall with patches of moss and miniature ferns sprouting from its mortared seams. I park the car and try to follow the path that he used to take on his Sunday walks, past the manse, up through the woods and over the top of the hill to Loch Long. I go as far as a barbed-wire fence, and stop to look back across the village and the loch, trying to imagine him standing on this same hill, catching his breath, looking out on the same leaden light falling over the inlets of the Clyde that summer more than sixty years ago. His memories were fractured, disconnected, and I have to work with what I have, a few photographs, a few stories, something about the Loch Long Hotel and Sunday walks over Luss Ridge, the highest ridge. He would go for kedgeree with hard-boiled eggs and curried rice after church, on weekends, when there wasn’t a regatta.There used to be a small-gauge railway that stopped in Tarbert and sometimes, when tired from walking, he would ride it through Ardmay and Finnart, across the hills to Garelochhead, then get off in Rhu and take the ferry across Gare Loch to Rosneath and walk down Shore Road and back to his flat in Clynder.

***AG PIX, SCOTLAND, 0188 copy

The Loch Long Hotel is still there, catering to bus tours, a cluster of white buildings running down to the sandy flats of Loin Water. I leave my car by the restaurant, and stand on a stone parapet. I can smell low tide wafting up from the muddy flats and kelp beds. A man is walking a Collie along the water’s edge. I head up the path through an orchard and along the edge of a pine forest with a stream that I could hear but couldn’t see–water gurgling, muffled by pine needles–until I was up to the weir where the hidden stream spilled into a small lake. Further up there was a keeper’s cottage with the Duke of Argyll’s crest emblazoned on the front gable. Straw had been laid out in bails beside a fence. I walk through an iron gate, careful to secure the latch after I’m through, and cross a small stone bridge. There are more trees at this altitude and I continue up an even steeper path that switches back and forth to the very highest part of the ridge where there’s a small pavilion with a bench and a glorious view to the west. It feels much wilder and remote than I expected, and the mountains appear to lift themselves up from their own reflections in the placid waters of the loch. Am I looking for my father’s past or is it something else, my own imprint in all of this? I’m not sure. At times it feels as if I’m chasing the flimsiest shadows through these lochs and glens: mysteries of seaweed, hake and haddock, plaited ferns along the shore, water lapping over gray shale, while across the way the clouds press down against the lower foothills. I suppose it’s the afternoon light and the wetness in the air, but the mood of the moment changes and there’s a downpour followed by a breeze that spreads fan-shaped ripples across the loch. A saturation of light hangs over the glen, and for a moment it feel as if the entire world were pulling back to the horizon–a general ebbing–as happens before a tsunami, the clouds hanging low and ribbed in dull streaks of purple like the cartilaginous underside of a skate’s wing. I think of the way my father would say, “Ochh...” in a weary, drawn out voice when something broke in his hands. Was this the bitter cry of his father or was it his own sense of disappointment?

*** AG PIX - SCOTLAND, 0198 copy

He often seemed unapproachable, disconnected from his own body, even when standing in a crowd of people, yet he was hyper-aware of immediate surroundings, aware of who was approaching, who was coming through the door, as if on the alert for a surprise attack. He would scold me for slurring my words and in the way of instruction would enunciate his own words slowly and distinctly like an old-fashioned radio announcer. In the summer he walked around the house naked, without the least bit of modesty. After swimming, he stood in the sun and sucked in his stomach while flexing his abdominal muscles in an undulating motion. He had black spots all over his neck and shoulders–moles, odd pigmentations and blotchy discolorations–from over-exposure to the tropical sun. He was good at grabbing moths in mid-flight and crushing them between his fingers. He preferred not to use toilet paper. He suffered dizzy spells, palpitations of the heart, black outs, fainting spells, and other after effects of malnutrition. He almost never fell into a deep, restful sleep, but would nod off in the living room with a hand draped on his face–his index finger crooked over one eyelid in a guarded way. Sometimes he woke with a start and lashed out, disoriented and confused. He was surprisingly clumsy, well beyond the average, big-man clumsiness. Whenever my father fell on the sidewalk, stumbled down a staircase, slipped on the ice, tripped over a carpet or cut his hand on the lid of a tin can or broke his thumb or accidentally put his hand through a window, it was always extreme, with blood, stitches, curses and ugly bruises that took weeks to heal. Sometimes my father would eat his food like a rapacious dog, stuffing meat or bread into his mouth, swallowing without chewing, jamming it down as if he was still afraid of starving. His favorite sandwich was ripened banana on whole wheat. When he ate an apple, he always ate the whole apple, including the core and seeds. After moving to America in the 1950s, he became even more Scottish in his actions and reactions. His West Highland accent grew stronger. He had his tweed jackets custom-tailored in Duddington Park and he polished his hand-stitched brogues with a special brush. He marched smartly along Prospect Street, nodding and saying “good afternoon” to every student who passed as if he were their commanding officer and they were his subalterns.

The rain passes quickly but leaves a heaviness that lingers for the rest of the afternoon, made all the more poignant by the wind whispering through pine needles. I drive over the hills from Arrochar, along the old Military Road to Tarbet and south through Stuckgowan and Culay, along the tourist-crowded banks of Loch Lomond, through Rhu Wood and Strone Wood and into the village of Luss with its pretty parish church. By now, my head is aching so I stop for a cup of sweet tea at the little Glendarroch Tea Room, overlooking the spot where Luss Stream spills into the loch and leaves a swathe of pebbles in the spreading shallows. I sip my tea and watch the evening light sweep across the water, highlighting one of the little islands–Inchfad, or is it Inchmurrin?–to the opposite bank and the rising slopes of Rowardennan Forest, mythical place of fairies and changelings, the light turning the surface of the water into a spectral entity, skimming the upper reaches of Ballinjour Hill, dipping and cupping the heathery shadows, making the clouds appear wanton and unruly above the higher peaks.

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It’s late summer and I’ve been searching for missing threads to my father’s pre-war life, but all of those threads seem to unravel here and I find myself wondering why I bother. I’ve learned almost nothing that I didn’t already know, other than a feeling for the landscape and the fickle Highland light that shaped his moods during that pre-war summer. He kept everything compartmentalized and discrete. He hardly ever spoke about his mother or father. He hardly ever spoke about the years just before the war and that’s what makes it so hard to link up the disparate parts of his life and create a single, comprehensive portrait of the man. Sometimes I feel as if I’m on the right path, following his footsteps, reaching a clearing of some sort, and then the path peters out and I feel hopelessly lost.

How many stone-bound fingers of sea cut into this broken coast? How many lochs? It’s hard to say but there are at least as many as the ancient inlets of the Aegean: Loch Long, Loch Goil, Lock Eck, Loch Striven, Loch Ridden, Loch Craignish, Loch Etive, Loch Spelve, Loch Sunart, Loch Shiel, Loch Arkaig, Loch Quoich… all the way up the coast from here to Durness, the sound of their names clashing together like claymores… Loch Slapin, Loch Cluanie, Loch Duich, Loch Shieldaig, Loch Assynt… Germany invades Poland on Friday, September 1, 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declare war on Germany. On Monday, September 4, Ernest packs up his little flat in Clynder and goes to his parents’ house in Toward. He remembers the feeling of being placeless, as if he’d fallen into the “ebb and flow of fate” that Aeschylus described in the Aeneid. The next morning he takes the bus to Dunoon and walks into the enlistment offices of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on Moir Street.

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EG, at center: Argyll & Sultherland Highlander’s training exercise, near Stirling, Scotland, October 1939.

 • • •

This is the fourth in a series of “discoveries” about

my father: Rev. Ernest Gordon (1916-2002).

See also:

#1: Reconstructing my Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2: Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#3: Landscape and Trauma: Glen Coe, 1945

I CAN’T BREATHE

9Yodveh

Mystery Murmuration

 December 1, 2014, Art Basel Miami: It starts quietly enough with a murmuration of starlings, a blob-like cluster of birds flying in perfect formation while re-morphing, changing shape, moving up and down the horizon, but retaining their amorphous sense of unity throughout the aerial dance. I am on 79th Street, stuck in traffic, trying to reach the first of many events, when just as suddenly the birds vanish into the gold-anodized filigree of the once dreaded INS Building on Biscayne Boulevard, formerly the Gulf American Building, but now abandoned. The moment of unexpected natural beauty will resonate throughout the week as a revelatory message of sorts. I only have to figure out what it means.

The Art Basel week begins at 4PM with a tour of the newly refurbished and expanded Design District with developer Craig Robins and Mathieu Le Bozec of L Real Estate (an LVMH subsidiary). With all the $-millions flowing in from LVMH and its subsidiary L Real Estate, Robins has managed to skip several stages of gentrification and go directly from scrappy mixed-income neighborhood (in the shadow of the Interstate 195 overpass) to platinum luxury utopia, without many of the intermediary steps one normally expects in such urban transitions. More than a hundred luxury brands are either already open or will soon be open including Bulgari, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Pucci, Versace, Dior, Givenchy, Dolce & Gabbana, Hermes, Tom Ford, etc. One looks for the grand architectural gesture and finds instead a high-end shopping mall, a protected urban space fortified with luxury brand logos and a variety of surface treatments. Much of the effect is just that, special effects, well-placed claddings, wrappings and graftings, a kind of architectonic nipping and tucking that employs reflective glass, mottled surfaces and theatrical lighting to achieve the desired suspension of disbelief. The question remains, will it be an effective enough illusion to lure zillionaire shoppers from the lush comforts of Bal Harbour Shops and the other high-end venues of South Florida? Without them, the heady rise of the Design District may turn into an equally precipitous decline.

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The new Palm Court creates a conspicuously fortified enclosure to protect Manolo Blahnik-wearing shoppers from accidentally bumping into urine-scented street folk, but the plaza is semi-public, open on the north and west to pedestrian traffic, and soon there will be an outdoor cafe on the second level and a handsome cast-concrete public events space designed by Aranda/Lasch to help lure non-shoppers deeper into the complex.

Some of the unfinished buildings have been draped with translucent mesh veils that give them a mysterious, burka-like presence. There’s also an element of folding and pleating going on in some of the facades. The Aranda/Lasch building is clad in cast concrete slabs with patterned imprints that mimic a kind of embroidery. The two-story arcade of narrow glass fins by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto reads as a lattice of chilly blue icicles. It may help to break the ferocity of the Miami sun while framing the shops along the southern side of the Palm Court, but its engineering seems fussy and needlessly overwrought.

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Glass Arcade by Sou Fujimoto

The District is desperately in need of more parking, as is all of Miami, and the origami-like folds of Leong Leong’s multi-level garage on North Miami Avenue (still unfinished and a block to the west of the Palm Court,) are best seen from the elevated perspective of Interstate-195 as blue-and-white metallic membranes appear to crinkle from side to side as one drives by at 70 MPH. People have been talking more about the gridlock traffic than art or design this week, so it’s no surprise that parking takes on an elevated status in this auto-centric city that has such a long history of inadequate public transportation. Leong Leong’s structure joins a roster of high-design parking structures by the likes of Herzog & De Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Enrique Norten.

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The Design District’s star attraction, however, is Bucky Fuller Fly’s Eye dome that dropped like an alien intruder into the very heart of the complex. It’s a digitally re-engineered version of the original 24-foot-diameter Fly’s Eye that was fabricated in 1979 by John Warren and is now installed on the western deck of the Perez Art Museum, two miles to the south. The new version was built by Dan Reiser to meet local codes, and has already become the symbolic centerpiece of the entire Design District, upstaging all of the architecture that surrounds it and, like Superman’s magic crystal, pulling together the disparate parts of the neighborhood through some alembic kind of magnification and transmutation that only Bucky Fuller would have understood.

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Bird’s Eye View of Fly’s Eye Dome, Design District

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Edition Hotel

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Arrive late at opening reception for the EDITION (née Seville Hotel), pushing past tall thin models in black lycra mesh who stand guard like “the Hounds of Hell”, (as one rumpled writer suggests), transparent clipboards as their shields. The refurbished hybrid (at 2901 Collins Avenue) was concocted by Ian Schrager in tandem with Arne Sorenen of the Marriot. John Pawson is project architect and interiors are by Yabu Pushelberg with black walnut veneers and sandy shades of beige with creamy pale undertones. We, the rather docile and anemic-looking design press, sit in the “Matador Room” beneath a 20-foot-diamter chandelier, a giant daisy cutter, from the 1950s and listen to Shrager and Sorenen compliment one another and explain how they had created the highest-end luxury boutique hotel on Miami Beach, comparing their efforts most humbly to the corporate branding of ***EDITON - 1653Apple. The original Seville (1955) was designed by Melvin Grossman, protégé of Morris Lapidus and the new owners want to keep its rat-pack elegance in tact of the original while smoothing and slimming it down to suit a sleeker, more pampered clientele. (Basic room rates start at about $1,000 a night.) The Edition/Seville holds its own against the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc just up Collins and only lacks the kind of money-shot moment that Lapidus was so good at choreographing, but Grossman outdid his mentor when it came to the outdoor circular bar and multi-level diving platform, both of which have been lovingly restored along with the oversized chandeliers and gold mosaic columns in the lobby.

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“Untitled” pavilion on beach

Drink far too much on first evening: brandy concoction then vodka with pomegranate at Gucci preview (“Smell the Magic”); gin and tonics at “Untitled” Vernissage on beach at 12th Street; several beers and single malts at “Intimate Dinner” for more than 350 at Morimoto Restaurant to honor ubiquitous artist Marina Abromovic who can’t stop hugging and kissing everyone and posing for endless selfies with photographer Todd Eberle; a few nightcaps at another gala, my head pounding all night and wake up feeling like an Art Fair whore.

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Jonathan Muecke’s circular pavilion

 

Design Miami opens for previews on Tuesday and at last acknowledges the environment in three curated shows within the main exhibition pavilion. For Swarovski, Jeanne Gang, luminous Chicago architect, offers “Thinning Ice”, an ingenious interpretation of melting polar ice caps with white enameled icebergs rising from a reflective floor laced with rivers of melted ice (tiny Swarovski crystals) flowing through narrow fiber-optic streams. The tabletop masses are punctured by ravines and thaw holes that contain enchanting deposits of crystals which appear to glow with mysterious emanations while the walls support images of melting glaciers by James Balog.

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“Thinning Ice”, Jeanne Gang, Design Miami

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“Ephemera”

Perrier-Jouët’s “Ephemera” by Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler is a mechanical ornamental garden that rises and falls in response to human movements around a large oak table, a sweetly melancholic reminder of man’s love-hate codependency with Nature. Olson Kundig Architects deliver the finest gesture of the show with a lounge installation called “38 Beams”, bringing a muscular Northwestern vibe to Miami’s often ephemeral sub-tropical environment. It’s a kind of Lincoln Logs stacking of horizontal beams that allows for visual and atmospheric penetration from the main hall so that VIPs won’t feel so lonely and removed while sitting within, sipping glasses of Perrier-Jouët.

***38 Beams - Sketch

Study for “”38 Beams”, Kundig Olsen Architects

The massive beams, measuring about 15″ by 30″ and 30 feet long, were recycled from an old industrial building in Los Angeles, refurbished, flame-proofed and then lightly sanded by Spearhead, a specialty wood fabricators in Vancouver. The lighting and music were also created by Northwestern talents and even the hostesses wear white overalls designed by Seattle designer Totokaelo.

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“38 Beams” Kundig Olsen

On Thursday morning I’m obliged to moderate a fractious panel on the theme of “The Future of Design” at an industrial complex in the Little River area of North Miami with furniture diva Patrizia Moroso, Italian architect/designer Piero Lissoni, and Israeli-Brit enfant terrible Ron Arad who speaks about his remodel of the infamous Watergate building in Washington DC. As well as architectural changes, Arad has designed everything from furniture to napkins and stationary with a font based on shredded documents from the Watergate hearings of 1973. He also managed to sabotage the planned program by unveiling a new prototype inspired by a funky old mattress that he spotted on the street near his London studio. The mattress was bent against a wall, deformed, reeking of malodorous human indignities, but Arad became obsessed with its form, taking photographs, making sketches and somehow transforming the mattress from trash into an elegant low-impact couch that he named “Matrizia” in honor of Patrizia Moroso who laughed and, on the spot, agreed to put the thing into production at her family’s 62-year-old factory in Udine, Italy. A design critic from England pointed out that while most designers see a problem and attempt to come up with a solution, Arad sees a problem and creates more problems.

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Ron Arad, Problem Maker

Winds off the ocean are strong and the traffic gets even worse. After a long sleepy lunch on a balcony overlooking a railway line, I go swimming in the turbulent ocean and it feels good to get away from all the art and design events even though I get stung by a cluster of small blue jellyfish. A rash spreads up my neck in the shape of a radiating vector and the stinging only begins to subside as I arrive at an Indonesian dinner in honor of Theo Jansen, Dutch artist and star of the week who created the Strandbeests (“beach animals”), articulated, kinetic sculptures that walk along the strand like giant, multi-legged insects, powered only by wind power.

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Theo Jansen’s ‘Strandbeest’

Friday morning, the wind whips off Biscayne Bay, rattling through the portals of the Perez Art Museum and the concrete cavities of Nick Grimshaw’s Museum of Science, seeming to pick up velocity as it caroms off buildings and spills down onto the site of this morning’s official groundbreaking for One Thousand Museum, the bone-like, 62-story tower designed by Zaha Hadid. A temporary wall of trees tips over and spreads dirt over the carpeting. Tables collapse, champagne glasses shatter. Waiters with mimosas and tiny croissants try to contain the damage. Valet parking attendants and security personnel scatter and then regroup as Hadid herself arrives, an hour late, entering the throng like a rock star, a royal personage, a diva who now finds herself surrounded by crazed fans pushing their I-Phones into her face and inching closer to get a shot of the architect who is now trying to smile, now looking somewhat embarrassed, now growing concerned for her own safety as a Miami-Dade cop pushes into the mob and goes to her rescue, shielding her from further abuse.

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Zaha Hadid’s One Thousand Museum Tower

 

I’m supposed to get a 15-minute interview but abandon all hope and leave the scene before Hadid scatters the first ceremonial clump of dirt. There’s a Champagne Brunch on the beach, an immersive video event, a plastic pollution installation in Wynwood, the Peter Marino show at the Bass Museum, a Prouvé demountable house at the Delano that I still haven’t seen but I give up after sitting for an hour in cross-bay traffic and finally abandon my car by the side of the road and cross the Venetian Causeway on foot. It seems that protests have broken out in reaction to the Eric Garner grand jury on Staten Island. Roads are blocked and conditions escalate when news gets out about a similar case of police brutality in Miami itself: Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez, a 21-year-old street artist otherwise known as “Demz,” was run over by a squad car this morning when the cops spotted him “tagging” a private building near 24th Street and gave chase. Gutierrez is now in hospital in critical condition suffering from severe brain trauma. All week the entire Wynwood area has been filled with graffiti artists from around the world, but no one thought to arrest them because they were being “artists” working in tandem with Art Basel Week.

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The crowds are swelling, tempers flaring, momentum building as the mob moves outward and expands into a single body with a single mind: “I CAN’T BREATHE!” they chant, holding up their hands, “I CAN’T BREATHE!” echoing Garner’s dying words. Gaining confidence, the protesters march onto Interstate-195, shutting down the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a prime connector between mainland and beach, between art fairs and design shows, disrupting the to and fro, the art world gossip, the back-room deals and interviews and celebrity cluster fucks, VIP red carpets, vacuous panel discussions. Suddenly the entire Art Basel Bubble bursts with the loud refrain: “I CAN’T BREATHE!” and there is nothing left but an urge to file this report as quickly as I can, but feel pressed to relate the ending back to the beginning–as a proper story should–when the starlings rose up in their murmuration on Monday afternoon and appeared to be telling me something that I couldn’t understand, and am still at a loss for words.

***Gang, AG photo, detail

Postscript: Graffiti artist Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez died Tuesday night, December 9, 2014.

RIP ‘Demz’

ORONGO STATION NEW ZEALAND

“The motorcycle was my drawing tool”.   – Thomas Woltz

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How often does a single design firm get the opportunity to turn a 3,000-acre property into a sprawling work of integrated art, architecture, agriculture, ecological and cultural reclamation, wildlife preservation and landscape design? That’s what Thomas L. Woltz and his design team at Nelson Byrd Woltz has accomplished at Orongo Station in Poverty Bay, New Zealand. The project includes the restoration of an old homestead that was already on the site, new out buildings and utility buildings, domestic gardens, re-configured wetlands, sheep paddocks, a reforested coastline, a ceremonial bridge and citrus groves, as well as the expansion of a Maori burial ground. It’s almost too much for the imagination to take in. Rather, it grows on you slowly, as does the level of care and integration that went into the property’s evolution.

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The decade-long  project grew in incremental stages, as the client’s program expanded from a relatively small house-and-garden restoration and remodeling to a vast and self-sustaining kingdom by the sea. “The vision grew after a great deal of research we did on the ecology and historic cultures of New Zealand,” said Woltz who is handsomely dressed in vest and tie and speaks with a passion and intensity that seem uncharacteristic for his profession. He makes the work sound more like a mission than another design commission. “‘What is this place?’ we asked. There is no such thing as a blank slate.” Indeed, Orongo was conceived at such a vast scale–it is six times larger than the city-state of Monaco–and with such complexity and natural diversity that it verges on spawning its own Creation mythology.

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Environmental conservation and sustainability often remain abstract concepts in the human imagination and it becomes the job of a holistic thinker like Woltz to bring all of the parts together into a readable narrative. While his team’s research includes everything from water tables, flood cycles, native plants, wildlife habitat and migratory bird flight to cultural history–and more besides–he still sees himself as a “designer” who takes all the complexities of a site and works them together into a highly integrated expression. “We want to encourage a responsiveness to the environment through artful designs and ecological narratives that connect people to place,” says Woltz. In other words, design with a capital “D” can play an immensely important role in bringing ecological awareness to everyday life, and Woltz emphasizes that his firm’s landscapes are meant to be “composed”, not simply intended to look like natural extensions of the existing topography. Indeed, his comprehensive maps and site plans resemble abstract paintings with swirling forms and colors, and in this project he cites the lyrical work of Ricardo Burle Marx, the great Brazilian landscape designer who was also an accomplished painter. “Modernist design sensibilities and rigorous geometry form a frame for place-making and restoration ecology at small and large landscape scales,” says Woltz.
Invasive animals such as rats, stotes, weasels, and Australian possum, had gotten out of control and were eating the eggs of the migratory birds, and driving them away from the property. An 87-acre tract on the northern peninsula, called the Tuatara Preserve, was re-forested with 45,000 trees and turned into a predator-proof enclosure, protected with high fencing from cliff-face to cliff-face, stretching across the entire peninsula.

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Steve Sawyer, a locally-based conservation biologist, made recordings of the endangered birds and created a solar-powered CD player and speaker system that plays their songs twice a day and lures the birds onto the preserve. “The birds circle around, attracted by the familiar calls,” explained Woltz. “Now there’s a massive population of sooty petrels, fluttering shearwaters and gannets who fly in to lay their eggs without fear of being attacked.” Existing wetlands ran through a valley near the head of the Tuatara Peninsula. They had been drained by a previous owner and during the wet season, the property turned into a muddy mire that made it an unhealthy place for grazing. “Why not dam it up and excavate a complex wetlands composition,” suggested Woltz who consulted with local conservation biologist Sandy Bull and created a weaving pattern of pathways, polders, islands, ponds and waterways to control the problem of seasonal flooding. S-curving earthen dams separate fresh-water treatment ponds from salt-water inlets to create greater diversity of habitats for both plant and animal species, as well as creating a bucolic landscape for animal grazing and human pleasure.

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The shape and size of the islands and waterways, the slope of the banks, the width of the channels, were all determined by wildlife needs and other considerations. “One bird species, for instance, needed a minimum of 1.6 hectares, so we made one of the islands exactly that size,” said Woltz. In other cases, a shallow slope was needed for foraging, while a steeper slope provided a certain species with a lookout for predators. “These are all measurable factors,” explained Woltz. “Then we could start composing a 75-acre painting.”

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He began to compose this 75-acre “painting” by riding a motorcycle through the tall grasses, making long and winding curvatures, and leaving the desired track in the grass. “The motorcycle was my drawing tool”. An excavator followed behind and started to shape the paths, dams and islands that took more than a year to build up into their final forms. A system of weirs can be lowered or raised to control the level of water. Narrow polders create separation of salt from fresh water while providing pathways and places for bird watching and the launching of kayaks.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 11.00.46 AM“We were intentionally not designing a natural wetlands,” said Woltz who sees the intervention as a work of art in the service of wildlife, a way to expand the range and diversity of wildlife habitat. The wetlands area is now brimming with oyster catchers, piping plovers, blue penguins, and the nectar-eating Tui, a bird that is native to New Zealand.

As one moves south on the property from the outer point and wetlands area through grasslands and rolling hills, one becomes aware of an open but willful organizing principle: a sweeping, spiral-curve geometry has been applied throughout the 3,000-acre property, from the road that runs from the beach to the domestic gardens and the layout of citrus groves. Some of the depleted, overgrazed land has been retired and stabilized with native shrubs and trees such as Ngaio, Taupata, Karo while the working sheep station is efficiently divided into paddocks. The wilder, less-defined expanses of land appear in the periphery of the property, while the landscape becomes more structured and consciously “designed” as one nears the central area where the historic homestead stands.

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A sequence of different gardens encircle the 19th-century private homestead and are, according to Woltz, a “portrait of the entire property, a microcosm of the greater landscape.” The “Earthworks Garden” has a spiraling bed of low, rounded Hebe, a native New Zealand shrub, and gently sloping mounds that pay homage to the ceremonial earthworks of the Maori people. “We had contact with Maori elders about the layout of this garden,” said Woltz. For the “Endeavour Garden”, Breck Gastinger, a Woltz associate, visited the Royal Horticultural Society in London to learn what kinds of plants English botanist Joseph Banks sent back from New Zealand aboard Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour in 1769. “We got that plant list and made a perennial garden from it,” said Woltz.

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The “Timber Garden” is planted with key species from the New Zealand lumber industry including Rimu, Totara, Kahiicatia and Sequoia that settlers first brought from North America, and the “Homestead Garden” is made up of both native and English plants that early settlers wrote about in their letters back to Great Britain. Right next to the house itself, Woltz added a 100-foot-long pool surrounded by native New Zealand tree ferns that droop down over the water and provide shade.

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The 183-foot-long Maraetaha Bridge was designed by NBW and built to connect the original Orongo Station property to a neighboring farm that was subsequently purchased by the client. The free-span, steel-truss bridge crosses the curving Maraetaha River and creates a kind of ceremonial entry to the heart of a highly composed landscape of citrus groves that have been laid out in a series of geometric configurations. “We listened to the needs of the citrus farmers–the turning radius of their trucks, for instance–and gave the grove an artful form,” says Woltz.

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cemeteryaxon_master_med The citrus trees themselves are protected from ocean winds and salt spray by a “shelter belt” of sheared alder trees that have been clipped into 34-foot-high hedges. A long, central allée is lined with native Kowhai trees that bloom with bright yellow flowers in Spring.  As if that weren’t enough, Woltz also collaborated with Maori elders on an expansion of the 300-year-old Ngai Tamanuhiri (a Maori people) burial ground that lies to the south of the grove. “It was a tremendous honor for our design team to help shape their most hallowed ground,” says Woltz. The bridge, roadway and allée are all oriented in alignment with the burial mound.

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Woltz expresses humility and hesitates to claim full authorship of such an all-encompassing enterprise that includes formal gardens, wetland reclamation, ecological and cultural reclamation programs, as well as an integrated farming system that has become a model for sustainable land management in this part of New Zealand. NBW, led by Woltz, has recently been hired to design a 100-year master plan for Cornwall Park in Auckland. The park includes a large working sheep and cattle farm and stands adjacent to the sacred Maori site One Tree Hill, the largest of Aukland’s nine volcanic cones. “This has all been a colossal collaboration with so many different people–biologists, horticulturists, historians, farmers, wildlife experts, and indigenous peoples,” says Woltz. But he also acknowledges that it takes a single person’s eye, a single overarching vision, to pull all of the disparate parts together and turn them into such a seamless work of environmental art. “The designed landscape can become a powerful tool for telling stories of the land as it helps to promote stewardship long into the future,” he says.

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A version of this story appeared in Design Anthology (Hong Kong) , May 2014