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.

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I CAN’T BREATHE

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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.

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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.

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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

HOUSE OF USHER: Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier and the Strangely Twisted Fate of E.1027

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Entering a house should be like the sensation of entering a mouth which will close behind you.    – Eileen Gray

Cap Martin, October 15, 2000. There are glass doors leading to a narrow balcony and after all the funky smells of the interior, it feels good to step into the fresh air with hints of piñones and mimosa wafting up from the garden. I’d passed through here in October, thirty years ago, hitchhiking with two friends, and when people asked us where we were going, we shrugged and said aucune idée, laughing out loud. And it was true. Other than some half-baked plan to meet Robert Graves in Deià, we’d set out without any particular destination, carrying $40 in traveler’s checks, only the clothes on our backs, the same clothes we’d worn to a Friday-night party on Quai Créqui, near the bridge in Grenoble, overlooking the Isère, but it didn’t matter. We were on the run, eighteen years old and fully empowered, hitching our way south through Digne, following the ancient Roman way, eating garlic soup in Entrevaux, napping on a haystack in Le Brusquet, wrapped together tumblr_l3019rP19U1qztgteo1_500in a blanket “liberated” from a pensione in Gréolieres. We reached Vence the next day and stood bathing in the blue-green reflections of Matisse’s chapel, and visited a house
where D.H. Lawrence once lived–the ancient widow, supposedly one of Lawrence’s lovers, served us watercress sandwiches and chamomile tea–then we hitched a ride to Nice and walked along the coast, stopping here, in Roquebrune, for dinner in a tiny bistro that no longer exists, and we used the same pathway that follows the railway today, less than fifty feet from E.1027, but knew nothing about Eileen Gray or her infamous house at the time, so passed into Italy without a second thought. 

Now the garden is overgrown with thistle, olive trees and umbrella pines with clumps of lavender sprouting here and there.The exterior staircase, once daringly cantilevered, is propped up by timbers and overgrown with bougainvillea. The original solarium is still in E-1027, AG - 35mm colortact, sunken in the earth, lined with iridescent tiles, and I try to imagine Eileen lying there naked in the sun, out of the wind, on a day much like this, limbs intertwined with her lovers’, Jean Badovici of the crooked Romanian nose, architect and magazine editor, leaning down beside her, sipping anise-flavored liqueur from a tiny glass.  I’m not a big believer in Feng Shui, but I have to admit that the place has odious lines of Chi–“poison arrows and killing breath”–flowing through its ruined chambers. Maybe it’s the railway cutting too close to the property line, or the tragedy of Eileen’s own disaffection and heartbreak. Maybe it’s Le Corbusier pissing like a dog all over this,  her chef d’oeuvre, painting his murals on every available surface, or maybe it’s the German storm-troopers who used the walls for target practice in 1943, or Peter Kägi, gynecologist and morphine addict, who was murdered in the master bedroom, or the homeless droguers who squatted for months and spray-painted the walls with cultish
**Solarium, E-1027 2
graffiti. It’s hard to say. 
I arrived on a late flight from Amsterdam and it was too dark to see anything so I just went to the hotel and fell asleep. My first real glimpse came early the next morning, looking across the bend of beach and it was everything I’d anticipated with sun breaking through the clouds, illuminating a horizontal slab of white, as if in a dream, distant, mysterious, crystalline, hovering above the rocks and sea. You can’t drive to the house because it’s situated in a kind of cul-de-sac, isolated and wedged between the rail line on one side and the coast on the other. There are ugly new villas and condominiums stacked in tiers, so you have to walk a narrow alley, Promenade Le Corbusier, that runs from Cabbé to Cap Martin. 

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An old woman was clearing away a tangle of branches and dead palm fronds that had washed down the hillside during last night’s storm. She called to her husband who was repairing tiles on the roof of a neighboring house but he couldn’t hear her. I tried the metal gate but it was locked with a sign that read Propriété de l’État in bold red letters warning that entry was strictly forbidden. I walked back to the tracks and hopped the local train to Mentone on the Italian border, bought the International Herald Tribune, a box of Oscillococcinum, and sipped a cappuccino while watching English and German pensioners strolling down Promenade du Soleil without any soleil in sight. The train from Ventimiglia streamed past and I could see the faces of Italian day workers peering out, on their way to the hotels of Monaco and Nice.***** Cap Martin, E-1027, by AG, . I then returned to my own hotel and waited for the local architect who was supposed to show me around the site. The room was shabby and there were suspicious smells wafting up from the foyer. I tried to take a nap but was still wired from jet lag and just lay there, staring up at the ceiling. I could have stayed at the Hotel Victoria, much fancier and further up the hill, but preferred this, the Diodato, with its sleepy, Graham-Greene languor and blossoming bougainvillea. The former villa of a Russian aristocrat, the hotel is situated on a rocky promontory called Pointe de Cabbé and there are cracked Eutruscan pots filled with daisies that lead down steps to the Plage du Buse. It felt as if I was the only person staying there. When he arrived an hour late, Renald Barrés was dressed in a tweed jacket, bow tie, round spectacles, looking like Professor Tryphun Tournesol in the Tin Tin series, which seemed oddly fitting as we were going to enter the lost and ruined world of E-1207 like two archeologists digging for a future that never happened. He was an architect based in Nice and had been put in charge of restoring the house. As we eileenGray-e1027-axoapproached,  he assured me that I was the first, or at least one of the first, allowed on the property since the French government took charge a few months ago.  He unlocked a padlock and waved me across the threshold to the overpowering smell of urine, old, sad, vagrant piss. At first I’m shocked by the dystopian ruin, nothing like the shimmering mirage I’d glimpsed across the bay that morning. There were rags, broken bottles, flies buzzing over shit. The milky glass was cracked, the roof sagged in places, and the mildewed stucco erupted here and there with fissures and swollen joints. “A house is not a machine to live in,” said Gray in response to Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted line about a house being a machine á habiter. “It is the shell of man,” she said, “his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation,” suggesting a softer, more enveloping style of modernism, and I was glad to be seeing her house in its ruined state before the restoration “experts” had stripped away its patina and soul. After all, this is how a modern masterpiece should be witnessed, with scars and bruises in tact. I want to catch some of the rhythms of her life, her sensitivity to light and shadow, her obsessive but playful attention to detail. I want to walk in her footsteps, see the same views, feel the same breezes, walk down the same 0323257aea0db32ef09f01bea6fe94c2narrow pathway to the beach where she swam every day. But how much could I learn from this ruined shell of a house, from a wall tinted blue or a broken staircase? Despite so many years of neglect, rot, vandalism and tabloid-style mayhem, Gray’s vision still flutters through here and there. It’s not at all a big house but feels expansive because of the transcendent views and the way that Eileen positioned the house on the bluff, so that each room spills outside. The scale is surprising, almost feline. The Mediterranean casts a sea-brewed luminosity that she captured, somehow, and sculpted so as to suffuse the interior with its subaqueous glow. The light itself becomes an architectural presence in the mottled white surfaces and translucent skylights. I try to imagine her here, eating fruit de mer, bathing in the sea, arranging her art and furniture with quiet purpose. Gray worked on the design and construction of the house from 1926 to 1929 with her erstwhile lover, the Romanian-born architect and magazine editor Jean Badovici, and everything about E.1027 was premised on her love of the sea and sun, like its floor-to-ceiling glass, terraces and sunken solarium lined with iridescent tiles. Gray designed many of her most famous pieces of furniture expressly for the house, including the low-slung Transat armchair, the iconic Satellite mirror, and a circular glass side table.  An ingenious skylight-staircase still rises from the center of the house like a spiraling nautilus made from glass and metal. In a sense it is the heart of the house, not only providing access to the roof but also drawing natural light down into deeper recesses.

Only three days earlier I’d passed through London and visited Peter Adam, Gray’s friend and official biographer. I sat on a low, overstuffed divan and watched as he sorted through a box of old photographs and letters from Gray. The windows at the front of the parlor looked out across Addison Road to Holland Park and I could see the nannies pushing their charges in prams, gliding up the walkways beneath a line of poplars. “She was an introvert,” said Adam, holding up the photograph of a young woman, quite beautiful with curly hair, downcast eyes, wearing a single strand of pearls.  He told me how she was born in Enniscorthy, Ireland in 1878 to a wealthy family and how she went to the Exposition Universelle  in Paris in 1900 and saw the work of Rennie Mackintosh which made a lasting impression on twenty-two-year-old Eileen. 

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%5Cimages%5Cpages_content_archive_NEW%5C2011%5Ceileen-gray-340She enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art and then moved  to Paris in 1902 to attend the Académie Colarossi. This was when she first saw the paintings of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gaughin. In another photo, Eileen is dressed like a man in a velvet coat with a high collar, looking like George Eliot. “She was reclusive, bisexual,” said Adam, who’d spent years trying to rescue Eileen from the fickle undercurrents of art history and was amazed at the recent popularity of her work.  “Her furniture has gone through the roof,” he said, pouring me a cup of tea. “One of the lacquer screens just  sold at auction for $1.5 million.” Something clouded over in his eyes–perhaps the cruel and arbitrary twists of fate or how Eileen had lived until she was ninety-seven but had slipped into total obscurity. Only three people, including Adam, attended the funeral at Père Lachaise Cemetery on a rainy afternoon in 1976. A few months later, the gravesite was mistakenly destroyed and Gray’s remains were tossed into a mass grave, adding insult to injury. “She never took
Eileen-Gray-screen herself too seriously,” said Adam, looking up. “I’m sure she’s up there laughing about the whole thing.”
  There were louder noises filtering in from the street, 
 
vans and mini-cabs honking, busses accelerating up Addison Road, and 
the light coming through the windows seemed to grow paler, more anemic as the afternoon unraveled. Adam disappeared for a
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few minutes and came back with an old photo album that was bound in dappled blue leather. “It was rape,” he said, incensed by the apparent vandalism of Le Corbusier and his murals. He shook his head and handed me a photograph that showed Le Corbusier standing naked, working on one of his murals at E.1027, a Cubistic composition with stylized guitar, eyes, and a cloud. In 
the photograph, Corb turns to look at the photographer with an arrogant, quizzical smirk on his face, le violeur caught in the act of desecration, and I could see the 
paleness of his plump Swiss bottom and the zigzag scars where a propeller had ripped into his thigh while he was swimming in the Mediterranean, not far from E.1027. I’d never seen the photograph before and found it unsettling, vaguely obscene, almost as if the famous architect were literally raping the house.

***CORB RAPE

“I’m warning you. It’s a dismal ruin,” said Adam as I walked onto the sidewalk and hailed a cab. “You might be shocked.” In Roquebrune, three days later, I am shocked but also fascinated and a little confused by the multiple layers of abuse that E.1027 had suffered since Eileen first lived here. The job of restoration would be challenging if not impossible. I could see that. What do you keep? What do you get rid of? It would take an archeologist–a brilliant archeologist of the modern–to make sense of the mess. We were upstairs in the main living area and Barrés pointed out a semicircular screen made of translucent *** Lv. Rm, 3,  E-1027, , Cap Martin, E-1027.celluloid. Eileen broke up the white walls with bands of vertical blue and a horizontal band of black that ran behind a cantilevered shelving system. Along the north wall she mounted a map and placed her low-slung Transat Chairs and one of her signature rugs. Despite the squalor, there was enough still in tact, for me to imagine what it might have been like when Eileen still lived here, bathing in the sea, eating fruit de mer, arranging art and furniture with quiet, mindful intent. Instead of a sentimental seaside name, Eileen chose a modern streamlined name: “E.1027,” as if it were something inventoried in an automotive catalogue. In fact, it was an enigmatic anagram for herself and erstwhile collaborator/lover, Jean Badovici, the Romanian architect and editor. (“E” stands for “Eileen.” The numeral “10” represents the tenth letter of the alphabet which is “J” for “Jean,” “2” for the second letter which is “B” for “Badovici,” and finally the numeral “7,” seventh letter of the alphabet, which is “G” for “Gray.”) Her initials, “E” and “G,” are literally embracing, making love to his initials, “J” and  “B.” 

E1027intBarrés turns and points at a composition that was painted in the late 1930s by Le Corbusier on a freestanding partition where Gray’s daybed used to stand. There are three  figures–something akin to Picasso’s “Three Musicians” of 1921, but painted in a mannered surrealism. The figure on the right resembles a wood cutout with a single eye, the middle one is a globular white figure, the third an amorphous red shadow with angry snout. They are three leering musketeers breaking into Gray’s subtle arrangement of space. Barres guides me down the narrow staircase that spirals to the lower level like an511937940_97eb0dfe03 umbilical chord. I can hardly fit at 6’4″ and have to tuck my head into my shoulders like a turtle. We emerge into a utility room that has tables laid out with rusty brackets, latches, grilles and escutcheon plates, all tagged and numbered like so many archeological artifacts. This is the beginning, the first step in a painfully slow process of restoration and reclamation, but who will benefit the most? Eileen or Corb? 

***E1027 parts, by AG

When betrayed by Badovici in 1934, Eileen left E.1027 behind like a snake shedding its own skin, and never looked back. I find this hard to comprehend. How could she abandon a place that she’d put so much of her soul into?  Eileen was born on August 9, 1878, a strong-minded Leo with “grit and ability to come back from difficult circumstances,” according to her astrological birth chart, and some of this seems to have been true as she picked herself up and started over without a second thought, leaving the house to Badovici without an argument or struggle: “extremely proud, can seem vain, high ideals in romance, high level of energy, boundless ambition and immeasurable integrity…” She simply designed another house, Tempe à Pailla, this one strictly for herself, and built it in Castellar, not far up the road from E.1027.

Between 1934 to 1956, Badovici had the house to himself and frequently invited Le Corbusier and his wife to visit. This is when the imposition, the so-called “rape” of the house began. There’s a group of grainy photographs, recently uncovered, that shows Le Corbusier lounging around the house in his underwear, or naked, or in pajamas. The snapshots must have been taken some time before World War II and there’s something vaguely pornographic and onanistic about the way he’s lying on the divan in the living room, touching himself, drawing something on a table while his foot is propped on a stool, or posing in front of one of the murals, further indicting himself.

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Le Corbusier sucks the oxygen from a room, at least that’s how I imagine him, sitting on the divan, late August evening, rambling on about one of his perceived enemies–and there were many–while Badovici plays host, accommodating to a fault, indulging the maître’s remarks about less talented architects while opening another bottle of Côtes du Rhône or running to the kitchen for a pot of moules marinières, Corb’s favorite dish. Not that much is known about Badovici but he comes off as an opportunist and could easily be dismissed as one of those characters who flit in and out of art history, sponging off the talents of
CORB WORKING ON MURAL 9
others and then slipping back into obscurity. While some of this may be true, it isn’t entirely fair for he seems to have genuinely loved Eileen, encouraged and championed her and helped to expand her reputation beyond a mere “designer” of furniture and decorative objects. Badovici had an accommodating personality. He was an editor and enabler of sorts and encouraged those he admired, bringing out the inner cave painter in friends like Fernand Léger who, in 1934, painted a mural on a garden wall at Badovici’s house in Vézelay and started something of a trend. Le Corbusier also did his first mural at Vézelay that summer, and then–again, encouraged by Badovici–turned his attention to the walls of E.1027. There’s dispute about how many murals he painted in all. Some say eight. Others say as many as nine, and in his shamelessly self-congratulatory book, My Work  (1960), Le Corbusier mentioned seven. During my own rather hasty investigation, I found evidence of only six, and could see that at least one had been painted over. Most were drawn in shallow depth with overlapping compositions of  standard Cubistic elements: heraldic figures, clouds, guitars, vases, trees, bodies in motion, hands clasped together, etc. with vague sexual allusions and, in some
900x720_2049_2332cases, hints of voyeurism and violation. At the time, Corb was obsessed with Edouard Schuré’s Les Grands Initiés, a book about secret initiatory cults,
and at least one of the murals seems to suggest some form of Orphic rite with a symbolic figure
 painted in yellow that represents a caduceus, the staff carried by Hermes, messenger of the gods and guide of the Dead, with twin serpents intertwined. Was he trying to exorcise Eileen’s  spirit? Counteract the feminine energy of the house? Claim it for himself? At the bottom of the mural,  beneath his own signature, Corb wrote the date “1939.” He returned to finish it after the war and added a looping green line and a vermillion bladder. He returned once again, after Badovici died,
******Corb, Mural detail, Cap Martin, by AG. 2
and a Madame Schelbert had taken up residence, and he continued to work on the same mural.  Ever methodical, even in his madness, Corb recorded the date of each revision at the bottom of the mural: “1939” / “1949” / “1962”, as if offering future art historians a key to this work of art that developed so slowly, over a twenty-two year period. Despite all that time, however, the composition never really gelled, or Corb simply lost interest, and it remains conspicuously incomplete.  Le Corbusier saw the murals as perpetual works in progress, gestures that helped take his mind off the polemics of architecture, allowed him to unwind, but less consciously were crude markers of territory, both spatial and psychic. 

*****AG - Mural - Eileen Gray House- AG 8***AG - Mural, Eileen Gray House - AG 5The most aggressive and conspicuously territorial mural of all was the one that Corb painted at the main entrance to E.1027. A path curves around from the north into a protected little alcove, and a red wall serves as a kind of invitation where Eileen stenciled the words: “Entrez Lentement,” just beside the door and the words “Défense de Rire,” a bit further to the left.  Are these riddles, puns, cryptic messages, Eileen’s poems to the genie of the place, or as I prefer to imagine, the walls of E.1027 itself speaking out? They can be read in several ways. Entrez Lentement, might be a traffic sign to all those who enter E.1027, advising them to come in slowly, leave the hectic world behind, relax. Eileen and Badovici would come here to escape the city and be romantically close so it might be a simple reminder, but Enter Slowly also has sexual overtones, while Defense de Rire seems to be a whimsical play on  the prohibitive signs that are posted all over the metros and streets of Paris: “Défense de Fumer,” “Défense de Cracher,”  “Défense d’Afficher,” but instead of forbidding smoking, spitting or the affixing of posters, Eileen’s message forbids laughter, a tongue-in-cheek admonition to take her work (or perhaps herself as a woman architect or lover) more seriously. For Gray, the act of entering was a mysterious exchange, a coy seduction, the opening act of a gradual unveiling. In her notebooks she wrote about the “desire to penetrate”,  “pleasure in suspense” and most enigmatically: “Entering a house should be like the sensation of entering a mouth which will close behind you,” combining the lure of sensual pleasure–a tongue searching a lover’s mouth–with the anticipation of entrapment and pain.

****CORB at E.1027cf48f1a630

For Corb, entry was more a frontal assault, a victory march: “Voila ce qui donne à nos rêves de la hardiesse: ils peuvent être réalisées.” (“Here is what gives our dreams their boldness: they can be realized.”) He appropriated Eileen’s words and surrounded them with a cartoon-like sequence of stylized forms that spelled out “Entry” in his own cubo-heiroglyphic alphabet: a flesh-toned torso followed by bands of yellow, red, a perforated screen, ghostly white pages turning, and a teal-blue escutcheon. Enter 4181367472_a24d6defc8_bSlowly? It not only defaced Eileen’s original treatment, but distorted her intention in a way that I find unimaginable for one artist to do to another artist’s work. What, I wonder, prevented Corb from painting over Gray’s composition altogether? Had Badovici intervened or did Corb experience a sudden flicker of guilt? There’s a photograph that shows the culprits at the scene of the crime:  Le Corbusier and his wife, Yvonne Gallis, sitting with Badovici and you can see Corb’s mural in the background. It’s a blustery day in the summer of 1939 and they’ve escaped to the leeward side of the house to avoid the wind. They’ve just finished lunch and there’s an air of conspiracy: Yvonne with eyeliner and leafy headband, looking bored, leaning into the shadows of the doorway, Corb sitting in a bathrobe, sucking his pipe with a complacent but petulant look on his face, turning away from Badovici who smiles as he points to the camera with a blurry paw: a piece of inculpatory evidence if ever I saw one.

e1027housecorbusierwifebadovici5

I went back to my hotel on the opposite shore of the bay. I showered, changed clothes and took a taxi to Restaurant Casarella on Rue Grimaldi where I ate dinner alone–endive salad, homemade pasta and moules marinières with lots of garlic–and then walked back through the darkened streets of Cap Martin, thinking about the peculiar feelings that E.1027 provoked in me. That night I dreamt about Eileen Gray. She walked right into my room, her ghostly hair brushed into long, silvery braids. She seemed warm and familiar like one of my Scottish aunts, and sounded genuinely pleased to have me visit her house, but she warned me not to stay too long and I woke up before I could ask her what she meant. The next morning I returned to E.1027 and met Barrés who guided me down to  a shady, underlying area where Corb had drawn another mural as a looping fresco in wet plaster, as if the intertwined figures had been made with a single gesture of the artist’s hand. It’s the only mural at E.1027 without any color, just black lines on white background.

**MURAL - E-1027 1Some have read it as two lovers intertwined in erotic ecstasy. Others see the love-hate relationship between Eileen and Badovici or two women with a child lying between them. I see an entanglement charged with ambiguity and conflict: thighs, vagina, nipples,
fig-7 buttocks, a woman leaning back, naked, contorted into a knot, her arms raised above her head as if in self-defense, and I have to wonder if it’s not really about Corb’s own sublimated desires and 
the troubled relationships he had with women throughout his life. In 
one letter to his mother, Corb drew 
a naked self-portrait with sagging penis–who sends his mother something like that? Then there was Yvonne, former dressmaker and fashion model, who married him in 1930. She seems little more than a shadow, flitting in the background, a moody, long-suffering
footnote to architectural history. In the photos that show them together, Yvonne appears withdrawn, sitting in a tumblr_inline_mfflqpAskN1rvvpzccorner, her face turned away from the light or concealed behind a scarf. She was emotionally unstable. She starved herself, 
fell down drunk and crashed into furniture, breaking her brittle bones in the process. By 1947, she’d shriveled down to an anorexic scarecrow of eighty pounds at about the same time that Corb was painting this same mural on E.1027’s foundation while also having an affair with Minette de Silva, a Sri Lankan architectural student in London.  Does any of this come through in the mural? Not directly, but there’s plenty of underlying ambiguity and a
Brassai Nude
sense of pending violence in the mural , a pushing and pulling, as if the male figure were shoving the woman away in anger or pulling her closer in lust. Le Corbusier always complained about Yvonne’s alcoholism and her “weak bones,” but he stayed with her until the end.
   

Badovici died in 1956, the house slipped into a downward spiral of neglect and ruination, like some kind of Gothic tale, but updated for the 20th century, a modernist House of Usher that absorbed the wounded pathologies of its former tenants and self destructed as with E.A. Poe’s “barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.”  Badovici’s sister inherited the property but she was a nun who lived in Communist Romania and the Romanian State asserted its rights, confiscated the property and put it up for sale in 1960. Le Corbusier encouraged Madame Schelbert to buy the house and preserve it, but this seems to have been a completely self-serving gesture on Corb’s part because he wanted to make sure that his own murals were protected. The plot thickens when a character named Dr. Kaegi enters the scene. 

eilee2Kaegi was Madame Schelbert’s gynecologist and somehow convinced her to sell him the house. He was a morphine addict and a compulsive gambler who lived in perpetual debt. Claiming to need the money to restore E.1027, he sold off the iconic Eileen Gray furniture at auction for a paltry three million francs, but never made any improvements. In 1994 he put the house on the market for $5 million, but was murdered before he could find  a buyer. The official police version states that Kaegi hired two young Frenchmen to work in the garden and they stabbed him to death in the living room of E.1027 when he refused to pay them for sexual services rendered.  The house remained unoccupied for the next five years and suffered leaking roofs, broken windows and vandalism from a group of indigent squatters. The City of Roquebrune assumed control IMG_0048in 1999, put up barbed wire, boarded over the windows, and placed the house under police surveillance. By that point it looked as if the structure would either collapse on its own or be demolished as a public hazard. This was when I first learned about E.1027’s precarious fate and became interested, but was unable to gain access until 2000 when the French Government stepped in and announced that they would help restore the house as a national monument.

                                                                       •

Now I hear the tide rising with a rushing sound through openings in the jagged shore, and a sleepy melancholy steals over my entire body. The afternoon light flickers through pine needles as I stand on the roof and look across the bay to Monaco, the city-state that appears to rise up tall in the strident light. During morning hours it blended into the haze of the Alpes Maritime so perfectly that I hadn’t even noticed. An adjacent garden descends in terraces, with cypress, quince, poplars and tiers of rotting trellis, clusters of honeysuckle and gorse, gesse, ficaire, like an ancient  Roman garden, ordered yet overgrown and chaotic with stunted cedars, Judas trees, marronnier and mimosa.  Le Corbusier acted as if this were his turf, his trees, his dappled southern light. That’s how he spoke about the place, and Gray’s “intrusion” infuriated him. She was a woman, an Anglo-Irish outsider, an “insignificant” designer of lacquered screens, and worst of all, a self-taught architect. On several occasions he attempted to purchase E.1027 and make it his own, but unable to buy the house, he settled for a small lot just to the east where, in 1950, he built himself a tiny cabin called La Baraque but now known as Le Petit Cabanon: “I have a château on the Riviera which measures 3.66m by 3.66m (12 feet by 12 feet),” said Le Corbusier. “It is wonderfully comfortable and pleasant.”   

steps to cabanon (1 of 1)

I walk up a steep path behind E.1027, through a green metal gate with a hand-made latch to Corb’s own perch with its darkly rustic, split-timber siding and a sloping roof of corrugated concrete. I have to wonder how this man who conjured up a sprawling Ville Radieuse for three million people could have squeezed himself (and wife) into such a tiny truffle of a shack where every inch had to be micro-planned like a submarine. The main room is tiny, only 108 square feet, but was designed to be as functional as a monk’s3796070478_beb77e71f1_o cell. Furnishings are rudimentary, childish, like kindergarten furniture and designed to serve multiple purposes. Windows were positioned to
take advantage of cross 
breezes and frame the most desirable views. The floors are stained yellow and the wood-veneer walls have a mellow, hand-rubbed patina. Thumb-tacked to a wall is the faded photograph of a woman sitting in a Thonet chair with a dog lapping at her face. There are shells and parts of a sheep’s skull, bleached white in the sun, resting on a clumsily built shelf. In an early sketch for the cabin, Le Corbusier drew a stick figure looking through a slit window with binoculars, and the figure–one presumes it to be Corb himself–gazes down at E.1027, as if keeping vigil over his strange obsession.

**** Cabanon Sketch. 8, Cap Martin, E-1027. 3Further to the east he built a tiny atelier, painted olive green, propped on rocks, with a single door at one end and two large shutters that swung open from overhead hinges, for light and air. This was where he came to draw and write in private and gaze out over his beloved Mediterranean.  Corb came frequently to his rustic little shack for vacances. He walked up and down the hill, swam in the Bay of Cabbé and on rainy days sat with Thomas Rebutato, proprietor of L’Etoile de Mer, a little bistro that is weirdly attached ****Corb, studio, Cap Martin, by AG, 1to the  cabanon through a vagina-shaped hatchway. There’s a photograph that George Brassaï took of Le Corbusier in 1952 and there’s something hideous about the way he’s staring out from the palm-frond doorway of the L’Etoile de Mer, his nose a ball of putty hanging from the  black-rimmed spectacles, and he’s wearing a bathing suit that looks like an oversized diaper. “Je me sens si bien dans mon cabanon que, sans doute, je terminerai ma vie ici!” (“I feel so good in my cabin that I will probably end my life here!”) And there was already a sense that his days are numbered after the death of Badovici, his mother and then Yvonne in 1957, all within a two-year period. His personal world receded and he spent more time on his own, painting, writing, swimming against his doctors’ orders, from the rocky outcropping below E.1027.

Le Corbusier at Cap Martin--007788

On my last day, I eat a salade de tomates and loup de mer at the Grand Inquisiteur in the precipitously steep village of Roquebrune. After lunch, I climb up to the cemetery perched high above the town and find Le Corbusier’s gravesite, a concrete cube painted with strokes of yellow, red and blue. It’s a beautiful spot, overlooking the sea. The hand-scribed dedication reads:

ici repose
Charles Edouard Jeanneret
dit
Le Corbusier

le 6 octobre 1887
mort
le 27 aôut 1965
á
Roquebrune Cap Martin

*CORB GRAVESTONE

After placing a little posy of lavender atop the grave, I walk past the church, down Escalier Chanoine Grana and Avenue Villaren all the way back to the beach where I take off my shirt and make myself go swimming in the spot where Le Corbuser drowned. He loved to
swim and I love to swim so it seems like an appropriate gesture to make on my last day here. Waves are breaking against the rocks, and I can see how the current sweeps around the point and tugs out to sea. Was Corb caught in this same current? Was that why he drowned? I hold my breath, take the plunge, and kick past the swells–it’s much colder than expected–and I find myself thinking, oddly, about Norman Jaffe, another architect who drowned while swimming, and how he once told me about Corb’s death, almost as if it were a final design challenge: planning an elegant demise, and I had to wonder if their deaths were linked, somehow. Were they both suicide? Had they suffered heart attacks or had they simply drowned?  “A current under sea picked his bones in whispers,” wrote T.S. Eliot in the “Death by Water” section of Wasteland, and that’s what I’m thinking as I swim
******E-1027 photos AG_0007
around the point, imagining Corb’s pale corpse lying at the bottom, amid a spectral kingdom of seaweed and coral, and I think about how we start life in the amniotic fluids of our mother’s womb and then struggle through life, only to come back to the sea again, to drift and die, in a symmetry that Le Corbusier must have appreciated.
 In the end, Eileen Gray outlived him by twenty years and she undoubtedly lived a happier life, never bothering with cities for three million, simply wanting to create a beautiful environment for herself and a handful of friends. On the very last morning of her life, at age 97, Eileen sent her maid out to buy cork panels and other materials so she could start working on a new piece of furniture.

I stayed in the water for another few minutes, bobbing and splashing, kicking against the current, dunking my head below the salt water, saturating myself in the vaporous folds of sea and sky and the aura of unfulfilled dreams that haunts this southern coastline. I frog-kicked back to the landing, pulled myself up by a rope railing, climbed the coral steps, dried off with a towel and hurried back to Hotel Diadato where I packed my bag and left for the airport. As I walked the beach for the last time, I could hear the tide receding and then swelling against the shore with the pull of the moon, oblivious, remembering nothing.

*Beach Cap Martin - AG 1

• • •

Addendum: October 24, 2012

FRAD006_01NUM_0044_02 copy

Twelve years later I’m on a press trip in the south of France, not far from E/1027,  and I’m curious to see how the restoration turned out, but I need permission from the local authorities so I call the Roquebrune-Cap Martin Tourism Office but they’re closed for the rest of the week. I then call Eric De Backer, Cultural Director at the Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes but only get his voice mail and he never returns my call. Then I try Christian Desplats at the Conservatoire du Littoral, a conservation agency that technically owns the property and I get an administrative assistant who’s irritated and tells me that work on E.1027 was never completed.  “Comment? Ce n’est pas possible!” I say in my shitty French.  “Yes, it is possible,” she says in her shitty English, and explains that her
office doesn’t have authority to grant access to the site. After some prodding she gives me a number for the Mayor of Roquebrune-Cap Martin and promptly hangs up before I can ask any more questions. The Mayor’s office is equally unhelpful and they make it clear that no one is allowed on the property, even journalists. “Je suis desollée.”It turns out that, in keeping with the villa’s sad legacy, the promised restoration has been just as compromised and conflicted as the house’s prior history. Pierre-Antoine Gatier, Architecte en Chef des Monuments Historiques, took charge in 2003, but as several experts have asserted, he was not properly qualified for the job and made some glaring mistakes. FRAD006_01NUM_0044_01 copy“Eileen Gray would be spinning in her grave at Pere Lachaise if she could see what’s going on,” said Michael Webb, an English architectural historian who’d managed to see  E.1027 a few months earlier and was shocked to find rusting metalwork and cracks in the foundation walls. Work on Gray’s own bedroom hadn’t even begun and the garden remained overgrown. “It’s a sad fate for such a wonderful work of art,” said Webb who filed a scathing report in the British journal, Architectural Review. After speaking with Webb, I called Sandra Gering, a New York gallerist and founder of the not-for-profit Friends of E.1027 foundation, and she was equally dismayed.  “We receive hundreds of inquiries from scholars, journalists and students from around the world and we have to tell them that the villa is closed until further notice,” she said. Michele Brown, Gering’s associate, went to inspect E.1027 and found filthy floors, backed-up gutters and newly replaced windows that leaked rainwater onto the living room floor. There was no apparent supervision or maintenance of any kind. “This is a real scandal, but no one dares to talk about it,” said Barrés, the French architect who’d originally shown me around the house in 2000 and supervised early restoration efforts. Barrés refers to the current program as a “massacre.” Work began in 2000 and is still incomplete through a bungled restoration plan, construction delays, bureaucratic in-fighting, scholarly disputes over historical correctness, lack of funds, and a seemingly indifferent local government. Original 1920s electric switches were discarded and thoughtlessly replaced with modern-day fixtures. The housing for E-1027’s spiraling glass-and-metal skylight was improperly replicated and new, mass-produced glass was used when the original mottled glass was still in tact and could have easily been preserved. Porch railings–a key element in Gray’s overall design–were not in scale with the originals and the canvas awnings badly fitted. To further complicate matters, there’s been a complete lack of management. “It’s worse than a hornet’s nest,”said Michael Likierman, a retired entrepreneur who lives in nearby Menton and has been raising funds for E-1027’s restoration and trying to find a way past the current deadlock. “All of these different agencies have their fingers in the pie and that’s why nothing gets FRAD006_01NUM_0045_13 copydone and so much money has been wasted.” He agrees that Gatier is not the right architect to be in charge of restoration. “Simply put, he’s not competent.” But Likierman sees an even bigger problem that has nothing to do with aesthetics. When he offered to buy a neighboring villa and turn it into a visitor’s center for E.1027, his efforts were blocked by local authorities. “The town sees no added value,” he said, citing the fact that Mayor Cesari is up for re-election in the Spring of 2014 and seems intent on keeping the place closed, at least until the elections have passed. Jean-Louis Cohen, Professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and an expert on European modernism, views the situation with philosophical detachment and cites the fact that Villa Savoie, Le Corbusier’s famous house in Poissy, France, underwent numerous phases of restoration before reaching a final, satisfactory form. “The current state of E.1027 bothers me but mistakes can be fixed,” said Cohen, who curated the recent Le Corbusier exhibition at MoMA: “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes.” He visited E.1027 last year and despite some reservations, supports the work that Gatier has done so far. “There’s nothing easier than replacing an electric fixture.” The irony is that after years of such relative obscurity, Gray is more famous today than she’s ever been. Her unique furniture—chairs, lacquered folding screens, expanding side tables, industrial lamps—has reached stratospheric heights at auction. Her Dragon’s Armchair went for a staggering $29 million in 2009 and set a record for 20th Century furniture. A much-celebrated retrospective of Gray’s work was recently on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and featured many examples of her furniture as well as architectural models and a full-scale reproduction of E.1027’s living room. There’s even a movie in the works, “The Price of Desire,” by Irish director MaryFRAD006_01NUM_0045_08 copy McGuckian with Winona Ryder cast to play Eileen and Alanis Morissette as her lesbian lover. Gray’s late-blooming success seems to have made little difference to E.1027’s fate, however. The house remains shut to the public in a state of disrepair. Now, hopelessly caught as it is in bureaucratic limbo, the fate of E.1027 remains uncertain. “The only solution is to take the property away from the town and give it to a non-profit association that can maintain it as a historic site,” says Likierman. Cohen agrees and believes that some kind of cultural park should be established that’s run by a single, not-for-profit entity. “The process is stuck, but the solution is very clear,” he says. Personally, I don’t see the situation being resolved any time in the near future but that may be in keeping with Eileen Gray and the “barely perceptible fissure” that runs through E.1027’s legacy.

• • •

  An updated, shorter version of the E.1027 saga was published in WSJ. Magazine on August 19, 2013:

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324354704578637901327433828?mod=WSJ_article_exploremore

WANDERING FORMS: A Visit to Wendell Castle’s Studio

“I like a piece bulging and sort of limp. It has to have some tension or else it will look like a big snake that’s swallowed a bunch of pigs.” – Wendell Castle

 From travel journal, December 12, 2011: Early flight to Rochester, upstate New York. Really? Yes. Rochester. Skyway’s ceramic blue, godless and serene. Ground’s barren and brown, no snow. Morning light’s as sharp as Ginsu knife cutting through empty concourse as I trudge to curb and find 79-year-old Wendell Castle sitting behind wheel of BMW, silver hair brushed back, wearing goggle spectacles like early aviator. We drive across Genesee River, as banal as any river I’ve ever crossed, highway skirting downtown area with nondescript high rises, mirrored cubes, multi-decked parking, the only landmark being Ralph Walker’s 14-story Genesee Valley Trust from 1930 with wings of a dark, demented angel rising into skyline. I’d heard about that four-pronged spire and seen it through the window of the plane banking over city on final approach. It gave me a chill: Goth wings reaching up, so-called “Wings of Progress,”in ribbed aluminum, oxidized and black, anchored to ornate grille-work, vaguely sinister like Batman’s Lair, looming over this city that once prospered on wheat and optical equipment.  We drive to the studio first, a former soybean mill on Maple Street, built in the 1890s, clad in cedar shingles. When he bought the building in 1968 there were a thousand mice in residence so he got a cat. He also added  a porte-cochère, an L-shaped addition and further improvements, as the spirit moved him, until it grew into the 15,000-square-foot hive it is today. Dust-flecked light filters through a window in the big studio. Walls are white and floors a pale concrete strewn with wood shavings. Ideas flow freely here. Large drawings are tacked to boards showing future projects, simple outlines drawn in Magic Marker. Benches are covered with chisels and mallets, spoke shaves, small-scale models made from clay or foam, and clamps in every size and shape, hundreds of clamps. There are drill presses,  long-bed jointers and a monstrous L. Powers band saw made for building ships.  Castle moves about easily, shifting an unfinished piece of furniture, touching one of the hydraulic chisels, and despite the silver hair, he seems like a much younger man, trim and fit from carving and lifting heavy slabs of lumber. He stops and stands for a moment as if about to say something, but then moves on silently. There’s no particular sense of urgency. He employs six full-time assistants but continues to carve many of the pieces himself, especially when it’s the first in a series. “It’s important that I stay involved,” he says. “I can make decisions along the way.” He leads me through a series of spaces that unfold like the chambers of a Nautilus shell, dusty and lit from flickering fluorescent tubes, connected by darker passageways, steps or ramps that go up and then down again. How many rooms in all? I make a mental count of twenty-something but suspect there are probably more and at one point feel as if I’m waking through the convoluted synapses of Castle’s own brain. I follow him upstairs through more workshops, a room with a fireplace and billiard table, into yet another studio where assistants are making tables from laminated plywood infused with red epoxy. “I’m always thinking as I draw,” says Castle who crouches to open a dusty cabinet. (We’ve entered a cramped little office on the upper level.) “My drawing table is like a retreat,” he says. “That’s where it all happens. I draw a little every day and my drawings are the starting point. I would never just start to carve a piece. I come into the studio on Saturday morning and I don’t answer the phone. I just draw. It’s always been that way. The moment of discovery.”
They come as a revelation, not full-scale outlines but early concept studies going back to his student sketchbooks of the 1950s. They are raw–some scribbled in ballpoint–and tell more about his inner landscape than the final three-dimensional works. Unruly impulses are still in gestation, undigested, erupting as bubbles and blobs across the page, highlighted here and there with written observations, “My aim is to elevate furniture into the category of sculpture,” in one notebook which might well serve as the leitmotif for his long and winding career:  Furniture becomes Art, Art becomes Furniture.  Loose sheets lie scattered across the floor and he pulls more out from a hidden nook in one of the walls. “There’s a certain vagueness here that’s open to interpretation,” he admits, arranging the notebooks into neat little stacks. We leaf through some of the spiral-bound books together and then he has to go to meet a group of students from the Institute of Technology.

His early work was skeletal and spindly, a kind of 3-D calligraphy in space, made from strokes of bevelled wood in place of ink. Two stools received attention for being more like sculpture than furniture and set the tenor for a career that would always waver between utilitarian and aesthetic. The stools were made from recycled gun stocks mitered and dowelled  like bones with forked appendages and crutch-like arms. Priscilla Chapman of the New York Herald Tribune described
one of these early experiments as a “mad, branchy piece of wood sculpture designed on the principle of a child’s high chair,” but questioned whether it could be used for actual sitting.  There was a coffee table with legs that Castle carved into smokey ligaments reaching around a vermillion slab that hovered on top like a surfboard. A chest of drawers from 1962 rested on six wavering, twig-like legs, two of which extended up to become pull handles  for the drawers.  By the mid-1960s the work began to bulk up with oak and walnut lamination that sprouted outward like hollow gourds.  A cherry-wood blanket chest from 1963 was plump and expectant but also mysterious and withholding, the very opposite of those lanky, anorexic stools he’d been making three years earlier. It might have been a ripened cherry or a “fantastic species of giant seedpod,” as one critic described it, perched on a bulbous base and could be opened by pushing a three-fingered handle sprouting, oddly, from the top.

Stack lamination is a slow, thoughtful process–cut, plane, glue, clamp–one layer at a time, imitating the growth or re-growth of the original tree from which the planks were milled in the first place. “I like the idea of sort of gluing wood back together into a tree trunk–reconstituting the thing you’ve torn apart–the way it expands at the bottom, the way roots spread out and support the furniture,” says Castle. “How does a tree do it? This is something that always appealed to me. So did the opposite idea where theoretically the thing wouldn’t stand at all because it didn’t have what it needed at the bottom. The idea of opposites is something I like a lot,” he says. “I made a piece that had twelve legs and shortly thereafter I made a piece with only one leg.” A lateral, drifting motion began to appear in the late sixties in leaf-shaped
tables and settees, doublewide benches with wishbone legs, tables that split and stretched or bloomed like broad-lipped petals. “In a sense, I was trying to disguise the fact that it was furniture but not to the point where it couldn’t be used,” says Castle whose dealer, Lee Nordness, compared the new work to wandering, attentuated organic forms. Table bases resembled tree trunks, expressing the flare or “buttressing” of an oak, as if rooted in the floor. Tops were elliptical or clover-shaped with indentations and other irregularities. Further breakthroughs came through improvisation, as with a petal-shaped coffee table (1966) in rosewood with a wrinkle and elliptical perforation in the middle, one of his more graceful forms, that opened to reveal itself with both horticultural and erotic subtleties: a base that flared like a peduncle unraveling into an expanding ovule, around which spread the lobe or petal, recumbent and accommodating, something like a lily pad on water, caught for a moment in the process of becoming something else. Library Sculpture sprouted a table and two cantilevered, tub-like chairs, while the central trunk had to be anchored to the floor with bolts. “Tree-Like Form Sprouts Chairs,” read a headline in the Detroit Free Press, as if Castle’s hybrid creation was a freak of nature, a Frankenstein of furniture. Was it art, or furniture, or an ecstatic happening in wood?

“Furniture would grow out of the ceiling and out of the walls,” said Castle after making Wall Table No. 16 in 1969 and would do just that with two operative “bases,” one anchored to the floor, the other to the wall, challenging all suppositions about what a table was supposed to be. His total-room concept came close to fruition in a suite designed for dealer Nordness where eight separate components flowed like parts of a single organism: crescent sofa suspended from the ceiling and curving in harmony with an elliptical coffee table, a bench, stools, standing lamp, drooping bookcase and combination table-chair. The period from 1968 to 1970 was a particularly fertile plunge into the unknown. Stand-alone pieces transformed themselves into multi-partite constellations and free-form human landscapes. A bed became a tree, became a giant beanstalk, became a shell-like desk with cantilevered couch, suggesting new ways to inhabit three-dimensional space. For one client, Castle carved a sleeping platform with elephant-stump legs and a tear-drop desk that looked like a harbor encircled by a ridge of hills. A lamp rose from the far shore of this dreaming machine like a lighthouse beckoning the sleeper back from the edge of unconsciousness. Enclosed Reclining Environment for One was a blob-shaped chamber carved from laminated oak that could be entered through a little Hobbit doorway. The snugly shaped interior was padded with foam rubber and upholstered with a natural-colored Flokati rug allowing just enough room to enfold a single person in soul-searching solitude. “When you get inside, it’s almost like being in your mother’s womb,” said one visitor. Another compared it to a “free-form coffin.”

Two hours later, Castle collects me for lunch and we drive up Maple, past the Connor Elementary  School, quaint two-story houses, neatly fenced yards, overhanging elms—Anytown, USA–to Oakwood, through hand-crafted gates into a rolling estate with orchards and gardens that slope down to a river valley. It’s a surprisingly grand 19th-century manor with a greenhouse at the back and inside, a compilation of rough textures, tufted handmade things, un-curated rooms with early wood pieces by Castle, ceramics by his wife Nancy Jurs, musical instruments and artworks by friends, all cluttered into a living collage. Just after dinner, Castle hauls out a battered old guitar and a handmade ukulele and starts strumming. At times he appears shy and reserved in a Midwestern way, but now falls eagerly into Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” then stops to pour us both a whiskey.  I pick up the guitar and sing “Helpless,” and am about to slide into something by Dylan when Castle storms into “Hobo’s Lullaby,” followed by Guthrie’s classic “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” singing with such passionate intensity that I lean back and just listen, feeling as if I’d drifted into some union gathering of the 1930s. A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder; It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under; Blocked out the traffic an’ blocked out the sun, Straight for home all the people did run…

There’s something in the work that’s restless and moving, like the sea, like the Great Plains, and I think of the dust-bowl ballads he sang that night and how he was born in the flatlands of Kansas where horizon frames sky and he grew up drifting from town to town, Emporia, Staffordville, Blue Rapids, Coffeeville, his father teaching vocational agriculture, before settling in Holton. “I was the leader of the neighborhood gangs for building tree-houses out of scrap wood,” recalls Castle, and while his work is decidedly modern, there’s something grass-fed and unvarnished, a vulnerability and laid-back slowness that’s very much in the American grain. Thoreau wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and Castle’s best pieces have a measure of that wildness in their methodically carved, hand-rubbed forms. One recent piece, called “Moby Dick,” has a backrest perforated with holes bored at different angles and I can’t help wondering if they represent harpoon wounds or blowholes of the title’s subject: the unattainable American Myth, the White Whale itself, Melville’s conundrum of hubris and predestination. “I’ve always been drawn to the Transcendentalists,” he says. “I like ambiguity and things that are mystical.”

We’re sitting in a local restaurant and he begins to sketch something on a paper napkin that looks like a kidney with lips and bandy legs. “Sometimes I just draw a shape, an egg or a blob, and see what I can make out of it. I enjoy going to work every day,” he says,  pausing to peer up through his blue goggle glasses. “I’m not even interested in vacations. I’m on vacation all the time.”

A few days later, heading back to the airport through stubbled fields and subdivisions on Scottsville Road (Rt. 383), I remember the sketch I’d seen in one of Castle’s notebooks: two wings, reaching up as if unfurling, drawn in 1973 as a newel post to be carved for the Gannett News offices on East Main Street. Castle’s wings are less forbidding with twisted fluting that culminates in a billowing, almost cartoon-like flourish, but there’s a similarity to Ralph Walker’s Wings of Progress and it makes me think how Rochester must have etched it’s way into Castle’s psyche over the years, just as Castle’s changed this city and become a landmark in his own right, certainly as much as Walker’s sullen skyscraper.  Even the bourbon-swilling banker sitting next to me on the return flight knew about him.

These are outtakes from Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms, a survey of W.C.’s work from 1959 to 1979. The book has been published by Gregory R. Miller & Co. in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It is now available for purchase in stores and at Amazon.com. The exhibition will run through February 24, 2013 and was curated by Evan Snyderman and Alyson Baker.