LOST WORLDS (In the American Jungle with Mark Dion)

“Gardens are philosophy made concrete”.
– Mark Dion

Karl Ove Knausgraard, chain-smoking, angst-ridden Norwegian author, recently announced that “the physical world is gone”, and he has a point. So much has been lost to Google and flat-screened placelessness that we can hardly estimate the damage to our personal geographies. Knausgraard himself fought oblivion by writing a 3,600-page novel that recreated his own physical world in Proustian, sometimes crushing detail.

 

Mark Dion, artist, has conjured up his own incantations for the physical through a lifetime of rummaging, collecting, cataloguing, exploring, traveling, and digging through dead people’s attics and archives. He assembles, arranges and exploits that same materiality to reach a kind of equilibrium in which of all periods of history (including the future) converge and press down on a self-conscious present.


“Gardens are philosophy made concrete,” said Dion, who was recently invited to create an installation at the Kampong, a botanical garden in Coconut Grove, Florida, that was the former home to botanist and plant explorer David Fairchild. Fairchild is an heroic American figure, co-creator of the Everglades National Park and founder of the Seed and Plant Introduction Section for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As such, he was responsible for bringing more than 58,000 species into the country. He also helped to define the city of Miami as much as any developer, architect or urban planner ever did, and it’s impossible to understand the genie of the place without understanding Fairchild’s vision, a vision that is fully manifest in the gardens and workshops of the Kampong.

In his books–Exploring for Plants (1930); The World was My Garden (1938); the World Grows Around my Door (1947); etc.–Fairchild comes across as a Zelig-type visionary and latter-day Johnny Apple Seed, who goes everywhere, meets everyone, travels the globe to gather rare specimens with Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy bachelor, imports mango trees from Trinidad, tung seeds from China, alfalfa from Peru, shaddock seeds from Iran, raisin grapes from Italy, sausage tree seeds from Egypt.
In 1905, he marries Marian, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. They hang out with Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers as they take their first manned flights in North Carolina. In 1916, he buys the Kampong and converts the seven-acre property into a family home and experimental laboratory, and plants many of the species that he gathered during his travels. His seven-acre garden flourishes and expands to nine acres as Fairchild claims this part of south Florida as the only true jungle in North America.


His refuge through all of this was an old building made from oolitic limestone that lies on the south side of the property. In 1923, he converted it into an office and laboratory and surrounded himself with plant samples, books, maps, horticultural charts, and this was where he documented, cross-fertilized, photographed, and wrote about his subject with increasing passion. Dion’s brief was to reconstruct the interior of the lab in a way that Fairchild might have left it if he’d walked out one day and never returned. The work is part historical reconstruction, part 18th-century Kunstkammer, part poetic exegesis. Working with scanty evidence, a small collection of original documents, and one or two grainy photographs, the artist assembled a roomful of artifacts, arranging books and objects on shelves and table tops with old botanical prints, maps and typewritten notes pinned to a cork board, specimen jars, tweezers, pencils, plant presses and drying racks, seed pods lying in enameled trays, rubber stamps, drafting and measuring tools, an encyclopedic litany of material culture culled from the first half of the 20th Century.


At times, one feels suspended between artifice and authenticity, but that seems to be the realm that Dion chooses to inhabit, the ultimate bespectacled amateur–archeologist, entomologist, ornithologist, paleontologist–armed with pith helmet, butterfly net and fine-arts degree, surfing a thin line between museology, botany and installation art. It’s a liminal realm he’s explored in both his personal life and art, whether in collaboration with other artists and scientists, in museum installations, or in his founding vision for Mildred’s Lane, the hundred-acre farm in rural Pennsylvania that continues to serve as experimental Petri dish for artists, dreamers and students, a place where the accidental and natural often converge.

While many of the prevailing assumptions about the natural world have, since Fairchild’s time, been dismissed as leading to environmental catastrophe, Dion’s Kampong installation is not a platform for critical analysis or condemnation. There are allegories and clues throughout, and intricately composed vignettes that might be read as fragmentary narratives within an art historical context, however arbitrary they might be in the positioning and overlapping of textures, colors, volumes. Rusting awls, hammers, snips and knives are hung from a custom-made tool rack, fetishized like a Beuys installation, as is a cluster of mason jars filled with organic specimens suspended in clear liquid. A still-life grouping of stoneware jugs summons forth Morandi, while below that, a collection of wooden boxes has been stacked and clustered like a Cubist relief with a red Savarin Coffee can as the only moment of pure color and reminder of Johns’ “Painted Bronze” (1960) that also featured a red Savarin can. This may be reading too recklessly, but the point is made that Dion’s practice is as much a selective exercise as any form of studio art.

The internal artifice leads inevitably out to the riotous tangle of the Kampong’s grounds–Fairchild’s true laboratory–nine acres under the “big-finned palm, the green vine angering for life”, the Royal and Talipot, Sagisi and Pejibaye, the bright orange fruit of the Arikury palm (from Brazil); jackfruit, heliconias, mango trees and cycads laced and interwoven with bell-shaped figs creeping up the walls of the main house, ant trees, rubber trees, succulents with frazzled white threads, Soursop, the flamboyante from Madagascar, a swelling baobab from Tanzania, the Ashok or so-called “sorrowless tree” from Southeast Asia, and carpets of tiny flowers leading down to the saltwater inlet now filling in with thickets of mangrove and stalked by a somnambulant iguana.


A giant banyan (Ficus benghalensis) hangs over the main entry with veils of shaggy air roots, threads, shoots, buds, and all of these plants and vibrant colors, these “green sides and gold sides of green sides” can be seen within the context of Fairchild’s greater legacy: a museum of living matter, indexed and catalogued despite the apparent wildness.
While Dion never lays hands on the exterior landscape, his reclamation and reconstruction of Fairchild’s second-floor laboratory serves as a kind of lens through which to view, re-frame and re-experience the living thing itself, the garden of forking paths and “slovenly wilderness” while shedding light on the very culture of exploration and selection that Fairchild helped to invent.

Quotations in italics are borrowed from Wallace Stevens’ “Nomad Exquisite”, 1923.

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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.

bren_132 copy

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?

Argylls-in-Malaya-1942 copy

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.

WW2Malaya1stManchesterIWM

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.

okinawaleafletJap copy

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

****©Ezra Stoller_ESTO_WalkerGuestHouse

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.

*****Canonball - IMG_2209 2

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.)

****Walker Main House - archival 4

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.

Walker Guest House - drawing - archival 3

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.

****IMG_2148 2

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.

****IMG_2130

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.

****IMG_2158 2

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.

****Walker Guest House - archival 7

****Walker Guest House, int. - archival 15

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.

****Jack Priest, son-in-law of Mrs. Walker, Photo by AG. 2152 2

****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.

*******IMG_2139

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.”

****IMG_2165

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/

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.

***DSC_0905

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.

***DSC_0869

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.

***Design District Dome, photo, AG copy

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.

DCIM109GOPRO

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

***EDITION HOTEL 56

Edition Hotel

***EDITION HOTEL - AG

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.

UNTITLED.- mosphere

“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.

***IMG_7175

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.

***SWA #1_0185

“Thinning Ice”, Jeanne Gang, Design Miami

1417794280_-gesischilling-0657_drink_responsibly

“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.

***%2238 Beams%22 Kundig Olson

“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.

*** RON ARAD bty AG

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.

Screen-Shot-2013-03-19-at-3.35.10-PM

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.

910 protest 120614 art basel ADD

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’

TO FRED SCHWARTZ: CITIZEN ARCHITECT, 1951-2014

*Fred Schwartz - sketch 1

I ride my bike down to the beach

after sunset

Easter Sunday

low-drifting clouds

over the ocean

in clusters

huddled

with oddly twisting appendages dangling

down,

almost miniature

tornados, with wisps of gray

and silver vapors

flecked by a wash of orange and pink

from the final rays of retired light.

 

I lock the bike to a signpost,

only a few people still

lingering on the beach.

Along the path there are

joggers, tourists, college girls,

an old Cuban lady who comes

every night to feed the stray cats

and I walk to the water’s

edge and smooth out my towel

on the sand

and kneel for a while

gazing at the supernatural sky

and think of you

and the mysteries of life and time,

how they circle back on themselves like a figure eight.

 

The waves are low,

breaking smoothly from left to right

along the outer bar

and that is something

that continues to astonish:

the simple elegance of a finely

turned wave.

 

I take a deep breath

and send it north

to you

and around you

like a protective cocoon.

I try not to think, just breathe easy as these are weighty,

wake-up times,

filled with thoughts of how we’re

supposed to act or speak.

One longs for the incantatory

moment, the loudness

of bells, the intoxicating

scent of flowers and incense,

the trancelike movements

of a long forgotten dance.

but we have this instead,

the sand and mottled darkness of the sea.

 

The day we met,

fourteen years ago,

was a kind of pas de deux,

two waves converging

in a downtown studio.

You seemed intense and smart,

in love with life and all

the messy contradictions.

I got that right away

and we became instant friends

in the post-9/11 smog.

 

You wore a ratty, ancient t-shirt and showed me the

drawings you’d done of bodies

falling from the Twin Towers

and in the general state of shock

yours seemed to the clearest voice

of all.

 

You showed me a hairy

Fillmore East photo

and I told you

how I’d been in

the same stoned crowd

for Hendrix and Quicksilver and

even Moby Grape,

waiting in line on 2nd Avenue.

That was another bond: how we

would have preferred to play

guitar in a rock band,

and understood that right away,

the generational reflex.

 

I wrote about you

in the Times and the piece

was called something like:

“Frederic Schwartz: The Man who Dared the City to Think Again”

with a photo of you peering

through thick spectacles

as if recognizing something

that the rest of us were missing.

The caption for that

photo read “CITIZEN ARCHITECT”

and that’s what you were and that’s what you are:

the Citizen Architect,

thinking beyond himself,

designing for the world.

 

We stayed in touch,

spinning in different orbits

but with an affinity

of spirit that revolved

and remained

constant so that

whenever we met–in

New York, East Hampton

Milford–there was a

flash of recognition,

as if resuming a single conversation,

picking up where we’d left off

a year or more before.

 

It’s darker now and

the bottom layer of clouds

assumes an almost regimental formation,

tightening at the edges,

burnished with bronze.

I walk into the salt water,

through the basin with its

cross currents,

diving under the waves,

colder and deeper than I expected,

dispelling warnings

in my head about swimming

in darkness,

sharks and tidal rips,

and reach the sandbar

another fifty yards out,

checking for shadows

in the water–

and think of you

and your voice

and your face

looking up in that inquisitive way,

right here, in front of me…

dear Fred,

beloved friend,

Citizen Architect.

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First sent this poem/note to Fred Schwartz on Monday, April 28, a few days before he passed away. Read it again last night–Monday, June 30–at a memorial tribute at the Architect’s Center in NYC that was organized by Fred’s wife, Tracey Hummer.  

THE NECESSITY OF RUINS: The Lost Dymaxion Deployment Units of Buckminster Fuller

Three U.S. pilots stand in front of a cluster of Dymaxion Deployment Unites, NOrth Africa, 1944

U.S. pilots stand in front of a cluster of Dymaxion Deployment Units, North Africa, 1944

I drive south on the parkway and turn off at Exit 98, into rolling fields and a shaded street that skirts a saltwater inlet known as Shark River. The clouds are low and flecked, folded back on themselves like paper sacks, ruffled with iridescent streaks of gray. This must be the place, Camp Evans, surrounded by earthen berms and high, chain-link fencing. A man with a sunburned face waves me inside the former military installation, pulls the gate shut and shows me where to park my car. It’s a ghost camp. Old brick administration blocks, Quonset huts, concrete out buildings are all boarded over and spookily quiet. We walk past rusting equipment and a series ***QUONSET HUT at Camp Evansof wood-framed structures with buttressed supports. As soon as we get around the far end of the biggest Quonset hut, I see them: three Dymaxion Deployment Units (DDUs) sitting in a row and a fourth across the way, looking like so many alien pods, with portholes and conical roofs, as if dropped from the sky. I’d driven down from New York on a hunch. There were a few intriguing notes, hand-scrawled in the Fuller archives at Stanford University; then a vague mention on the Internet–one of those “haunted landscape” sites, something about a “corrugated igloo”–but now they were here, standing in front of me, the missing artifacts that Fuller designed in response to wartime housing needs: mass-produced to be easily shipped and assembled and provide shelter in war-torn locations.  I‘d heard vague rumors about, but no one seemed sure if ***DSC_2862 copy 3they were still extant or had already been destroyed. Elizabeth Thompson, Director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, couldn’t confirm their existence, and Allegra Snyder, Fuller’s 86-year-old daughter, had never heard of any DDUs in New Jersey. “I don’t know how many were manufactured in the end, but the DDUs helped break down the notion that living structures had to be primarily rectangular,” she said over the phone from her apartment in Manhattan. “That was quite a revolution in and of itself.” Jay Baldwin, Fuller disciple and author of Bucky Works, not only worked with the master but rescued the only extant Dymaxion Dwelling Machine (AKA “Wichita House”) and direct descendant of the DDU. I met him a month ago in northern California where he and his wife live in a converted chicken coop and he explained how the Butler Company of Kansas City manufactured several hundred DDUs and shipped them to Italy in 1943 to serve as housing for pilots and radar personnel, “like in Catch 22,” he said, but he’d never heard about any being shipped to Jersey.

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Satellite view of Camp Evans showing location of 8 DDUs (Google Earth)

The first solid lead came from satellite images that showed circular blips in and around the grounds of Camp Evans, a former military base in Wall Township, New Jersey. The blips were consistent in shape and color–light brown, beige–and there were at least eight, maybe even nine of these ghostly impressions on the ground. It felt like a new kind of archeology, using Google technology to peer into the past and uncover forgotten artifacts. I wasn’t absolutely sure, however, as they might have been oil tanks or corn silos, but there was a kind of nozzle or cap rising from the center of each roof that resembled the air vents used in the DDU prototype, so I just had to figure out how to gain access to the site. As I peered closer at my computer screen, I thought of those blurry aerial photographs that John F. Kennedy revealed to the public in 1962 as proof of Soviet missile sites in Cuba.

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Fred Carl inside a Dymaxion Deployment Unit at Camp Evans, NJ (photo: Randy Harris)

Discovery begets discovery. After a few phone calls, I learned about “InfoAge”, a science museum that Fred Carl and others started in one of the old buildings at Camp Evans. He answers the phone and seems to know everything about the DDUs and has been working on their preservation for several years. He agrees to meet me at the gate and show me around a few days later.

****Porthole, DDU, ©Alastair Gordon, 2013DDUs_19

I am completely stunned when I first see them. I’d expected to find only one or two units at the most and now I learn that there are at least nine and maybe more in an another part of the camp that has been fenced off.  They are beaten up but beautiful in a funky industrial way. Some are rusting and dented like old garbage cans with ragweed, bull thistle and poison ivy growing out of every orifice. Here and there the original galvanized metal surface shows through. Others seem surprisingly well preserved, perched on circular concrete slabs, painted Army beige with portholes still in tact, eyebrow shades and original Plexiglas in-fills, now gone milky white and fissured like snowflakes. Squat and homely, the DDUs are certainly not as light and graceful as some of Fuller’s other inventions, such as his ubiquitous ****DDU 6, ©Alastair Gordon, 2013geodesic domes, but in many ways they were just as significant, the product of urgent necessity, and in this there was genius, an early manifestation of Fuller’s philosophy of
“ephemerization”, doing more with less. “The idea of re-purposing off-the-shelf technology was an important thread in Bucky’s pragmatic approach to design,” said Jaime Snyder, Fuller’s grandson and executor of his estate. “For Fuller, aesthetics were not that important,” said Thompson at the Buckminster Fuller Institute in Brooklyn. “He had a much larger vision and wanted to provide low-cost, mass-produced shelter for everyone. He really believed that a family of four could live comfortably in one of these units.”

DDU interior1 copyCarl, the man who’s showing me around the base used to be a science teacher at the local high school. He bought a property that bordered the western side of the Camp Evans, and grew more and more curious about his mysterious neighbor. Eventually, he learned that the 243-acre site had been a highly classified research center–Field Laboratory #3–where the U.S. Army Signal Corps developed early radar systems including the SCR-270, famous for having detected Japanese aircraft flying over Opana Point, Hawaii, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The camp continued to be used for top-secret research throughout the Cold War years as well. In fact, the highly classified status of the installation is probably the reason that the DDUs have survived all these years. No one even knew they were. When the camp closed for good in 1993, the Army planned to demolish everything and sell the property to the highest bidder, but Carl felt that the legacy of the camp needed to be preserved. He attended a public meeting in 1994 and spoke up. “I proposed a plan to preserve a portion of the site in
honor of its history and use it as a tool to inspire students to learn about science and history,” he said. “But it’s been a long, bureaucratic struggle.” Working with other concerned citizens, state officials, Congressman Chris Smith and preservation groups, Carl was able to stall the Army. “It was like a game of chicken,” said Elizabeth Merritt, Deputy General Counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “They left us twisting in the wind for several years.” In 1996, the Army conducted a historic resources study that acknowledged the historic importance of the DDUs as well as other structures on the Camp Evans site, yet they were still planning to level the site. “We started asking a lot of questions,” said Merritt. “We reminded the Army of their obligation to comply with federal historic preservation laws and the next thing we knew they backed off.” On April 1, 2004, the military agreed to pass the property– including sixteen buildings on 37 acres–over to the ownership of the local township and county. “It’s an extraordinary success story,” said Merritt.

****Dymaxion 4, Plans The DDUs were perhaps the most rudimentary of all Fuller’s prefab housing schemes. They were simple and inexpensive, with ideal specs for wartime production, made from galvanized metal, with Masonite floors and fiberglass insulation. The idea originally seeded itself in Fuller’s mind during a road trip he took through the Midwest with his friend, the novelist Christopher Morley. The primary intent of their odyssey had been to find letters from Edgar Allen Poe thought to be hidden in the attic of an old house on the Mississippi River. They never found Poe’s letters, but Fuller discovered something else while driving back to Chicago through the Illinois farmland. He became fascinated by the metal grain bins that stood at every farmstead along the way, and learned that they ****Butler Farm Equipment (BF Archives, SR) copywere made by the Butler Manufacturing Co. of Kansas City. It was November, 1940, and the papers were filled with news of the London Blitz along with photographs of bombed-out buildings and people sleeping on the street or huddled together in underground tube stations. Fuller began to envision how the Butler grain bins might be converted into emergency housing for the victims of war-torn Europe. Morley, his road companion, encouraged him to approach Butler with the concept and even agreed to fund the research with royalties from his latest novel, Kitty Foyle, which turned out to be a best seller. (An investor named Robert Colgate agreed to underwrite additional costs.) The idea was to retool the production of Butler’s “Long Life” steel bins–“Safe from Fire, Rats, Weather and Waste”–and turn them into bomb-proof shelters for the masses. Fuller went to Kansas City and met with Emanuel Norquist, Butler’s innovative president and drew up an agreement. He then returned to New York and worked out all the specs with his team of architectural associates who included Walter Sanders,  a friend and head of the architecture department at the University of Michigan, John Breck, and Ernest Weissman. Their design allowed Butler to use existing dies and required no factory retooling, so the transition into production was relatively seamless. By early 1941 Fuller was making presentations of his “grain-bin house” to the Division of Defense Housing Coordination and other potential clients.

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Prototype DDU, Haynes Point Park, Washington DC, April 1941

In April, 1941, the first full-scale prototype was unveiled to the public at Haynes Point Park, Washington DC, just across the Potomac from the Pentagon, so that it was easy for military officials to drop by and have a look. Architect Sanders agreed to play ***No. 6, Pamphlet cover - DDU's, 1808 copydomestic guinea pig and moved into the Haynes Point DDU with his wife and “test-dwelt” it for several days. The press was enthusiastic: “How to be Comfortable Though Bombed,” ran one headline. “A Shelter in War–A Beach House in Peacetime,” ran another. Architectural Forum called it a “dressed-up adaptation of the lowly grain bin” but went on to praise its reasonable cost and demountability, calling it a “three-room defense house, a six-man steel tent,” while hailing Fuller as “prefabrication’s liveliest intelligence.” (AF, June, 1941). The Point Hayes prototype was twelve feet high and twenty feet in diameter with ten porthole windows and fifteen small circular skylights penetrating the conical roof. The interior was lined with wallboard and insulated with fiberglass. Floors were made from 1/8-inch-thick Masonite, and fresh air circulated through an adjustable skylight and ventilator contraption in the center of the roof. As advertised, the DDU cost only $1,250 and came complete with utilities and lightweight furnishings from Montgomery Ward, including a kerosene-powered icebox No. 3john-philips-inside-dyand stove. Inside it was tricked out with quaint little drapes over the portholes, while a fireproof curtain hung from overhead tracks and could be drawn to divide the interior into four pie-shaped rooms. Openings could be made anywhere in the curving DDU walls to attach additional units as needed, or to install a self-contained “mechanical wing” that Fuller based, in part, on his Dymaxion Bathroom of 1937. He was intent on consolidating all the mechanical necessities of daily living into a single, compact and comprehensive system that would reduce time and cost during installation. Preliminary sketches show a 5-foot-diameter pod, the so-called “toilet wing”, that contained a water cistern, septic tank and gas tanks, partially buried below ground while the roof of the toilet wing was equipped with a windmill to provide enough energy to run a pump.****BF sketches for DDU, 1940 1 In October 1941, New York’s Museum of Modern Art installed the second DDU prototype in its sculpture garden at 11 West 53rd Street, among its collection of outdoor sculptures. The two-part DDU sat there as an experimental art object, a bombproof art object. “While not proof against a direct hit, its circular corrugated surfaces deflect bomb fragments or flying debris,” explained MoMA’s curator ****Int. Study. DDU (BF Archives - SR) copy 2of Architecture and Industrial Design. It was an auspicious time for such an installation. Europe was embroiled in violent conflict and although the U.S. was still at peace, most Americans assumed that war was imminent. “This is a house in which to brave bombs,” wrote art correspondent Margaret Kernodle, while Fuller himself pointed out that a round house was easier to camouflage from air attacks. “It coincides with nature-forms such as trees and hillocks,” he said. Not only were Americans prepared for war, but they would face it with a certain amount of artistic flair. Less then two months later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, making Fuller’s design seem all the more prescient.

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Bucky Fuller assembling DDU at the Museum of Modern Art, October 1941

Several hundred units were purchased by the US Army Signal Corps and shipped to bases in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Pacific where they were used as housing for pilots, radar crews and aviation mechanics. At least a hundred units were also shipped to Signal Corps bases within the United States, including Camp Evans. According to Carl, the DDUs at Camp Evans were probably never used for human shelter, but served as workshops for radar research and the handling of flammable/explosive materials. (A vintage photograph he found shows a Camp Evans worker pouring molten aluminum inside one of the units.)

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Award ceremony, Camp Evans, NJ, July 18, 1945, showing six DDUs in background

In the little science museum, near the entrance to the camp, there’s a framed photograph that was taken on a sunny afternoon on July 18, 1945, only a month before Japan’s surrender. There are flags and stars-and-stripes bunting around a little stage and ranks of military personnel stand at attention while local townsfolk gather round in a crowd, listening to Colonel Victor A. Conrad present the Legion of Merit Medal to Captain Charles H. Vollum for his work on radar research. Just to the right, you can see at least six DDU’s in a cluster, with one lying right beneath a radar tower. Using Google Earth as my search tool, I was able to count at least ten circular concrete slabs that once supported other DDUs around the grounds, and if you add them together with the existing units, there was at one point a total of 28 DDUs at Camp Evans. Besides these, there’s at least one on the roof of the Myer Center in Fort Monmouth (about 12 miles away from Camp Evans), and another two–possibly more–at the Naval Ammunition Depot Earle in Monmouth County. Access to the Earle depot is highly restricted and I haven’t figured out a way to get in, yet. Among other hazardous ordinance, there are said to be a hundred or more nuclear warheads stored at the site.

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DDUs at a U.S. Air Force base in North Africa, 1944 (Office of War Information Archives)

There were also three–and presumably more–at a US Air Force base in North Africa, as seen in photographs from the Office of War Information archives.  No specific information is given about location and date, other than “somewhere in North Africa (1942-43)”.  In the first photograph, three US pilots are standing in front of one of the units. The DDUs are perched on a freshly laid concrete base. They have conventional wooden doors and the porthole windows have been blackened out. (The foreground shows roughly turned-up earth, mud, shards of masonry. The sky is a matte gray.)  The other photo was taken at a different angle and shows two of the units in profile while Colonel Carl Andrew “Tooey” Spaatz inspects the newly erected DDUs with two other officers. Spaatz was Commander of the Twelfth Air Force when it was stationed in North Africa, so this might possibly Tunisia, but it’s hard to say. Apart from all of the above, there have also been several undocumented, unverified sightings of other DDUs elsewhere in the mysterious hinterlands of New Jersey.

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Soon after America’s entry into the war, Butler Manufacturing had to stop production of the DDUs. The U.S. government imposed limitations and all supplies of metal were consigned to weaponry–airplanes, tanks, bombs and guns–not housing. Fuller’s dream of an affordable, mass-produced dwelling unit was only temporarily delayed, however, as he soon started work on the Dymaxion Living Machine (better known as the “Wichita House,”) a circular, aluminum-clad house fabricated at the Beech Aircraft factory in Wichita, Kansas, hence the name.

Model - Wichita House, MoMA Collection

Carl, my guide, points to the south, to the far side of a field at Camp Evans, near a wooded area, where there appear to be two more DDUs overgrown by knotweed and I walk into the field, into the nettles, and stick my head through a veil of creeping vines. These two units are even more crusty and patinated with age, even more haunting and beautiful than the first group, untouched since the closing of the base, left exactly as they were with original paint blistered and peeling off their metal walls as if burned by a torch. Nature has taken over, almost swallowing them whole and this gives them a sense of inverted time, as if they were ruins from the future rather than the past.

*****RUSTY DDU, Camp EvansA shorter version of the DDU story was published in the New York Times on December 31, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/garden/war-shelters-short-lived-yet-living-on.html