Will Alsop’s “Lifting the Spirit” Legacy

Image result for cardiff bay alsop

A painter, first and last, the architect Will Alsop provided a much-needed injection of humor and vitality to the somewhat staid pre-millennial architectural scene in London.  Manhattan Modernist recalls this larger than life figure, lecturing at Cambridge University’s School of Architecture, with a glass of scotch in one hand and a cigar in the other. An appropriate stance for this colorful figure whose flamboyancy extended to his cigar-shaped and geometric buildings on legs. Memorable structures include Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre, UK, 1990 (above), Marseille’s regional government headquarters, France, 1994 (below), Hamburg Ferry Terminal, Germany, 1993, and his refreshingly blue North Greenwich Tube Station, UK, 1998.

With strong modernist roots,  and a penchant for Pop Art and Archigram, Alsop’s architectural career was as dramatic and almost as chequered as his Sharp Centre for Design, at Ontario College of Art & Design, 2004, (below) his practice entering receivership, followed by rebrands  and relaunches.

Nevertheless his painterly buildings, vibrant personality and his Stirling Prize winning seminal Peckham Library, 2000, challenged conventionality, emitting optimism and confidence in an uncertain context. Will and his claim that  “lifting the spirit (..) is the job of the architect” will be missed.

(Photo Credit: Roderick Coyne. Other images are courtesy of All Design for Dezeen.)



Shaken, But Not Stirred


Image result for twa hotel martini bar

Hot on the heels of the news that Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK, defunct for the past 16 years, is successfully embracing its jet-set past and being transformed into a hotel complete with martini bar and that 1960s vibe, above, reports that Marcel Breuer’s Pirelli building, below, in New Haven, Connecticut, may be  similarly developed, is good news indeed. In a throw-away society, when buildings are often considered as disposable as the products by the IKEA store that owns the Breuer building, it is refreshing to see that there is a growing movement towards adaptable re-use of our modernist heritage.

Marcel Breuer’s legacy is still evident in this part of Connecticut with  surviving homes such as Donald N. Clarke House in Orange and  628 West Rd in New Canaan, that was actually Marcel Breuer’s own home. His non-residential, less-local buildings include UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris and Atlanta Central Library (1980) GeorgiaWhilst Breuer’s most well-know building is probably the granite-clad striking Manhattan’s Met Breuer, below, (originally the Whitney Museum, completed in 1966), the fact that he was teaching at Harvard and one of the members of the Harvard Five, asserts his rightful place in architectural history.

A muscular concrete stack amidst the stately homes of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the Whitney imposes itself on the neighborhood, an architectural statement as challenging as the work housed inside. The granite exterior, ascending edges and upside-down windows, initially seen as pushy and gauche, are now recognized as inspired and grandiose.  Photo 10 of 12 in Design Icon: 10 Buildings by Marcel Breuer



Ironically, Breuer may be better remembered as the teacher of Philip Johnson, whose Glass House, below, brought European modernism to the US , heralding the introduction of the International Style architecture to the Connecticut residential vernacular.


Despite the  inspiration for the Glass House, above, being credited to Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Johnson’s iconic home is rapidly approaching its 70 year anniversary and is still considered one of the finest examples of  modern architecture, with its innovative use of glass and steel and its integration into the landscape. Though it has the privileged distinction of being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997 and is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, many of Breuer’s buildings lack that protection. Let us hope that his Pirelli building will avoid demolition by joining the ranks of these other modernist masterpieces, recognised for their architectural integrity, ingenuity and for some, adaptability.

(Photo credits From top: David Mitchell, via Quartzy, Max Touhey, Mackenzie Goldberg, Patrick Sisson, Sarah Balcombe, Sarah Balcombe,  Blaine Brownell)

A New Look for an Old Soul

Visitors to New York’s Museum Mile may like to take a wander through the newly designed third floor of the Jewish Museum at 1109 Fifth Avenue. Following its recent Modigliani exhibit and its Pierre Chareau exhibition, last year, that was orchestrated by Diller + Scofidio, the choice of starchitect was key to decoding the presentation of their somewhat weighty permanent collection.

Enter Calvin Tsao, of Tsao & McKown, who opened up the space establishing a visual link to Central Park and Stagmeister & Walsh who did the rebranding. Entitled “Scenes From the Collection” there is no attempt to overwhelm. Instead the collection has been curated minimally, with a “less is more” rotating philosophy, so as to remain fresh, fanciful, interactive, and critically, more Instagrammable.

Stylistic tribute has been made to international galleries abroad. As in the Tate Modern and Musee d’Orsay, the beauty of the original building, in this case the 1908 built home of Felix M. Warburg, is celebrated with its period charm restored. The mix of old and new is paramount not just in the architecture but in the collection itself, which  has been divided into seven galleries.

The first, “Accumulations”  provides a welcome interactive element with stereoscopes enabling 3D type views of last century Israel depicted in hand-drawn postcard sized twin images. Mostly traditional ceremonial objects are displayed in “Taxonomies”, while images and objects referencing the Holocaust are shown in  “Masterpieces and Curiosities”. A more modern take on  “Personas” shows the work of Man Ray and Cindy Sherman, with exploration of the Star of David and its symbolism explored through the art of contemporary artists in “Signs and Symbols”.  With a viewing station “Television and Beyond” attempts to catch visitors up to the present whilst examining the portrayal and impact of Jews in the media.

Image result for mel bochner joys of yiddish

Yet it is in the “Constellations” gallery that the real dialogue between modern art and heritage takes it rightful place.  Tradition and loss, have so far been presented. Continuity and the precarious balance of living with heritage is what is examined here. Mel Bochner’s The Joys of Yiddish, (above) is a true gem, contrasting bizarrely with Camille Pissarro’s Portail L’Eglise Saint-Jacques à Dieppe.




Arlene Shechet’s emotionally packed Travel Light, (seen above with Eva Hesse’s Untitled) is a restrained gypsum and resin reference to the generational value of familial objects interlinked with identity, escape and continuity.

Image result for joan snyder jewish museum

Framing this travel bag are displays of 60s feminism with painting by Joan Snyder (Hard Sweetness, above) and Eva Hesse as well as the more recent “Seder” by Nicole Eisenman.

Image result for venus pareve

Hannah Wilke’s series Venus Pareve (above), is presented alongside the subtle relief of the Star of David in the rainbow colors of  Ross Bleckner’s expressed duality in his “Double Portrait (Gay Flag)” (below).

Ross Bleckner, Double Portrait (Gay Flag), Oil on canvas, 1993

wileyStanding proudly in its vivid lure, the ornate quality and frame of Alios Itzhak (above) by Kehinde Wiley from his World Stage:Israel exhibition at the Jewish Museum, 2012, mimics the intricate dark woodwork of the adjacent 19th century ark from Sioux City, Iowa. Both share the iconography of carved ten commandments, centrally placed at their top and both challenge ideas of memory and continuity. Wiley’s work goes further in portraying a proud, deliberate, noble element, typical to his work, yet it is the deliberate homoerotic element that is glossed over here, as is the subject of the integration and acceptance of Ethiopian Jews in modern Israeli society. The Jewish Museum could do well applying the same level of admirable critique to its curated content as it has done to its newly renovated galleries.

Still slightly disparate with unusual but exciting juxtapositions “Scenes From a Collection”  has promised a 6 month cycle which will undoubtedly keep the galleries and our appetite fresh as well as allowing for further curatorial experimentation. That is to be applauded.

Celebrating Rosa Parks

Yesterday was not just the last day of the Modigliani exhibition at the Jewish Museum, it was also the 105th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks (1913-2005). Additionally, it is Black History Month 2018 and artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, have received a lot of welcome attention lately. I’d like to post an image by a lesser known Nigerian-Canadian neo-pop artist, painter, sculptor, and product designer, Lanre Adefioye as a tribute to Rosa Parks and the initiation of the civil rights movement in the United States. Enjoy and celebrate.

(Rosa Parks by Lanre Adefioye)

An Englishman in New York

By Sarah Balcombe

A visitor to the David Hockney at New York City’s Met in Central Park, would be forgiven for breezing past Hockney’s early works and making a bee-line for the seductive pinks, aquas and yellows of his more familiar California pool paintings, as in A Bigger Splash, 1967 (below).

Image result

When presented with these images of sun-drenched California it is easy to forget Hockney’s British roots. Yet his early paintings (below) tell a narrative of homophobic Britain before the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 ironically alluding to taboo practices deemed imprisonable offences at that time.

IMG_0098  866-13147

Referencing  Andy Warhol’s celebration of everyday objects, in Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11, 1962  (above right) these experiments in Abstract Expressionism are important references of a not-so disguised pre-Stonewall era.  Hockney’s Shame, 1960 (above left) depicts his post Royal College of Arts period, displaying Francis Bacon- influenced contorted raw angst.

Not so in his more confident Domestic Scene, Los Angeles, 1963 (below left)

hockney14  Man in Shower in Beverly Hills 1964 by David Hockney born 1937  and Man In Shower In Beverly Hills, 1964 (above right).

Gone is the angst, replaced by a perceived nirvana of tolerance and thriving, located in his anticipated homeland of Los Angeles, where scenes of male domesticity and casual intimacy were more acceptable. These paintings also depict the technical development of Hockney’s portrayal of water and splashes, a theme to which he later returns and refines.

However it is the unbridled optimism that triumphs and floods the remainder of this exhibition.  Even though the subjects of these initial paintings were conjured up from magazines prior to Hockney’s move to the US,  the paintings begin to be informed by the seductive pinks, aquas and yellows of his subsequent Los Angeles relocation.

And what a celebration he conveyed upon his arrival in LA in 1964. With explosions of color augmenting the modernist Neutra-like villas of art collectors and acquaintances, we have a glimpse of 1960s and 70s LA through Hockney’s exuberant lens.

Image result for american collectors (fred and marcia weisman) American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), 1968, above.

California Art Collector, 1964, below left.

Image result for california art collector hockney 

As we peered through The Graduate‘s distorted pool in 1967, so we gaze as voyeurs into Hockney’s exquisite pools and seductive villas. Impeccably dressed characters suggest prescribed roles, some as art collectors (see above) others as fashion designers and friends in Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1971 (below left) and the remainder as more-than friends, as in  Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968 (above right).

Related image   Image result for ossie clark hockney

Repetitive iconography of objets, such as the telephone, strategically placed flowers, fruit, hands, crossed knees, books, and distance between couples, portray domestic relationships, whilst inviting us into Hockney’s social circle and his world beyond the frame. His working studies of his subject are even more poignant in their intimacy. With the abandonment of every formal compositional element, as in his crayon sketch of Ossie Wearing a Fairisle Sweater, 1970 (above, right) a familiarity is suggested.

It is in this phase of portraiture that Hockney’s work revels in freedom and the anticipation of possibility whilst geometry and modernism provide a welcome element of composition and technical exactitude, see below, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972.

Related image

Modernism as an influence is seen in linear delights such as Medical Building, 1966 (below left) and Savings and Loan Building, 1967 (below right) whilst surrealism is suggested in Hockney’s Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool, 1971 (beneath left).

Related image   

Image result for rubber ring floating in a swimming pool 1971  Image result for outpost drive hollywood

All this changes in the latter part of the exhibition when the 80s decade heralds color  infused with a more psychedelic Fauvism as in Outpost Drive, Hollywood, 1980 (above right). As a visitor stated “This is where Hockney turns into Matisse.” Whilst Matisse was undoubtedly an influence there is no doubt that these rooms are still Hockney. Continuing with his beautifully composed domestic scenes, adding a cubist reference, Hockney also explores landscape with ferocity, possibly as a reaction to his gradual deafness, and his claims that his perception of colors intensified in their vividness.

Image result for large interior la                                          Large Interior, Los Angeles 1988

Whilst terraces and pergolas interact with the landscapes, enticing the viewer with a differing perspective, the landscapes have become his refuge. Flitting between Hollywood Hills and Yorkshire visits, they excite and inspire. Yet it is his Breakfast at Malibu, Sunday, 1989 (below) that offers perhaps the most compelling combination of heritage. Informed by his humble Bradford beginnings, the traditional teapot and cups assume a Zen-like transcendental quality against the backdrop of the all-encompassing blue Malibu waves, a perfect cross-Atlantic blend of meditative anticipation.

Breakfast at Malibu  (1989 )

The visitor continues to be guided through freer, more abstract treats of the 1990s and 2000s, culminating in a dazzling I-pad display of Hockney’s embrace of technology.

Go, enjoy and be comforted by the fleeting angst, rigor, beauty and thoroughness of his art that is gradually reducing, like a good sauce, to a Picasso-esque squiggle of a solitary line of color.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winter Wonderland

By Sarah Balcombe

As a “bomb cyclone” barrages New York and New England with some of the coldest temperatures on record, Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of an Arizona winter retreat seems not just sensible but positively prophetic. And so it is. Reinforcing Wright’s architectural ingenuity and his continued relevance, nothing screams “shelter” more than his iconic Taliesin West.


Still functioning as an architecture school, with daily tours for visitors, this remarkable mid-century collection of modern structures sits lightly in the landscape. Wright bought this 600 acre plot in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1937, for $2000, with the profit from his Falling Water project, under his doctor’s recuperation advice to avoid Wisconsin winters, following a bout of pneumonia.


Unique in its concept of desert building, Taliesin West is essentially home-brewed-by-Wright. It is an an organic series of experimental structures that he and his apprentices designed and built in the hostile Arizona desert.


Surrounded by snakes, cacti and a distinct lack of water, the complex was deliberately situated in a region of petrogylyphs, ancient writing symbols by Southwest Native Americans. This petroglyph (above) has been positioned by the entrance to Taliesin West. Wright used its orthogonal spiral symbol as his motif for the estate.

Wright was fascinated by the land’s spiritual origins, as well as its water possibilities and eventually succeeded in  locating an underground river 500ft below the site. This allows for the welcoming triangular pools and alledgedly helped to appease Wright’s fear of fire, following  fire tragedies, at his original Talisein home in Wisconsin.


Evolving over a twenty year period with simple modern shelters subsequently added by students, Taliesin West demonstrates an innovative use of space and materials within the desert landscape, exuding a therapeutic and tranquil serenity.


Wright’s office and studio (above), modest sleeping quarters and a long, low living room (below), with built-in-sofas and custom-made chairs, all have controlled views out with carefully designed slotted openings, that were only reluctantly glazed five years after completion. With low overhangs and canvas roofs, the intention had been to keep these sheltered slots open, contributing to the tent-like relaxed feel of the place and its sense of genius loci.



Using local and natural materials, Wright invented a compound cement slurry to set the flat-edged natural boulders into the walls and floors (see above), making them easier to manoeuvre into position before setting. His environmentally responsive, green architecture also uses reflective aluminium surfaces in the bathrooms to reduce lighting requirements (below).


It also employs simple acoustic principles of plywood under the stage of the cabaret/ lecture theatre, complete with piano niche (see below)  and utilizes pre-stressing, strengthening techniques for the store-room ceiling.



Frank Lloyd Wright had a separate sleeping and napping area (above) adjacent to his wife, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright. Her sleeping quarters, with writing bureau, are shown below.


These experiments in controlled views through level changes (below), is a technique later employed by modernist architects such as Sir Leslie Martin in his Royal Festival Hall, London and his Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.


Similar aspects of Taliesin West’s design and construction were used by Wright in his subsequent projects. The same low stair configuration, prairie style overhangs, vast ceilings and angled openings (glazed in this case) can be seen in the Olfelt home in Minnesota. Currently on sale for $1.3m, it is being sold by the original owners, the couple who originally commissioned Wright to design their home (images below).

(Olfelt home, Minnesota images by Coldwell Banker)

Whilst brick was used instead of desert boulders, the angled roof and canopies, Wright’s characteristic Cherokee Red floors and stone fireplaces echo those at Taliesin West. They also give this midwest property its mid-century flair. As one of Wright’s final works, it is interesting to see how some of his desert experiments are adapted and applied here, once again demonstrating his design genius.

All original furniture is included. For the full effect, just add snow.

Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait (MOMA)

If MOMA realized that its latest exhibition on Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) would be running through Halloween, it certainly selected an appropriate artist. Her towering bronze spiders with their spindly legs and incarcerating abilities, continue to evoke fear and dread in even the most seasoned MOMA visitor.

IMG_8201Spider (1997)

Yet it was these arachnids that helped to turn Bourgeois into a legendary phenomenon. That the price of her work has more than quadrupled since 2000, when I first saw her 30ft Spider, at the Tate Modern in London and that Bourgeois’ work currently commands the second highest price achieved by a female artist, is not insignificant. Her work remains compelling and intriguing, especially upon closer inspection. With the fragments of her memories on display, depicting themes of feminism, entrapment, and abandonment,  a past is explored through composition, medium and material.

In Spider (1997), part of her Cells series (1991-2000), and the initial piece in MOMA’s second floor gallery, the visitor is introduced to a scene of disturbing domesticity, masquerading as an internal labyrinth of the mind. Here a vertical tapestry, hung like a bell-pull on the cage-like enclosure, references Bourgeois’ childhood spent assisting her family’s business in the tapestry restoration trade. An old covered chair and anthropomorphic draped fragments, fabricated from steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold and bone, suggest a confidence in her use of a wide range of material.

Nevertheless it is the 15ft spider itself, that steals the show. MOMA knows that it cannot compete in terms of setting, scale and impact with the Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall in London. Yet by situating Spider (1997) above the entrance, it tries. Uncomfortable in the gallery’s mezzanine, yet visible from the entrance, a sense of unease and claustrophobia is established.  Faced with apparently the rawest of constructions,  Bourgeois’ work deceives, in that it is fabricated, choreographed and very well considered, leaving nothing to chance. Yet the caged, domestic, territorial scenes depicted in her Cells series, remain current and topical, with feminist issues of neglect and abuse, prevalent.


The Smell of Eucalyptus (# 2) (2006) Soft-ground etching  (above)                                                Turning Inwards (2008) Soft-ground etching, with selective wiping (below)


The exploration of these introspective themes are displayed on the surrounding walls, where images of tangled forms are shown (above). Alluding to abstracted female parts, Bourgeois’ technique of soft-ground etchings, often with selective wiping, adds a certain vulnerability. It also appears to reference the fine pencil work of botanical drawings, providing an almost academic geometry, rigor and validation.

Organised by theme, rather than chronologically, what follows on MOMA’s third floor is unexpected. It also presents another side to Bourgeois, to those who know her only for her large-scale spiders and elaborate scenes.


Living in Paris, Bourgeois had met and married her American husband, Robert Goldwater, in 1938 and then moved to New York with him.  Goldwater was an art historian specializing in what was known then as primitive art, and Bourgeois’ sculptures of the late 1940s, shown here, reflect this discipline. With a verticality emerging in the forms of totem poles, and  towers, these works predate her Cells series (1991-2010) by approximately half-a-century.

Untitled (The Wedges) (1950) Painted wood (above)                                                              Pillar (1949-50) Painted wood (below)


Aesthetically they are more in keeping with her geometrical prints and fabric books, to which she returned towards the end of her life (below).IMG_8246IMG_8245

MOMA has juxtaposed the simpler Cell VI (1991 ) below to demonstrate that the Cells themselves varied. Whilst mostly complex and theatrical, dark and psychological, this atypical one also references primitive art and is more architectural. It presents a calm almost monastic sheltering quality, enhanced  by the dominant turquoise color.


Displayed alongside gentle watercolors on more formal engravings, the gender balance, and initial social and professional isolation, are all expressed in a more tentative manner.

The influence of her Surrealist peers is seen in Portrait of Jean-Louis (1947-49) below. IMG_8219

Famille  (1947-9)  draws strongly from the visual imagery of Georgio de Chirico’s work, particularly his The Painter’s Family (1926). The influence of Fernand Léger, another well-known Surrealist and Bourgeois’ teacher, during the mid 1930s in Paris, can also be seen in these early engravings, particularly in the industrial isolation of Pont Transbordeur (1946-7).



Famille (1947-9) topPont Transbordeur  (1946-7) above.  © 2017 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA. From MOMA collection.

Yet the impact of the Surrealist movement on Bourgeois is incidental. A self-proclaimed Existentialist, familiar with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, it is likely that Gaston Bachelard’s the Poetics of Space, had a more profound effect on her work. Bachelard stated, “To inhabit oneirically the house we were born in means, more than to inhabit it in memory; it means living in this house that is gone, the way we used to dream in it.”

With Bourgeois’ art addressing this notion of memory and childhood, her structures suggesting both security and entrapment, and her family members abstracted within  her art, she repeatedly addressed her sense of abandonment over her father’s infidelity and her mother’s illness. Bourgeois suffered severe depression following the death of each parent and undertook extensive psychoanalysis.

As she plundered her memories and emotions for her art, so Bourgeois utilized her stored fabrics and remnants that she had accumulated for decades. Employing a seamstress, she formed geometries, repetitive patterns and architectural hierarchies, seeking order amidst the chaos of her formative years, and seeking solace in the memory of her early studies of mathematics at the Sorbonne, Paris.

With over 300 pieces of her work, this exhibition is successful in conveying the magnitude and variety of Bourgeois’ artwork, which displays an astounding variety of techniques explored during her lengthy career. Her collaborations with much younger artists in her later years, led to the development of new printing techniques. These allowed for the adding of handwork. Technically complex, they hint at a certain sense of respite in the craft itself. These prints displayed a remarkable mind, capable of innovation, even during the final four years of her life until her death, age 98, in 2010.


The exhibition’s grand finale, the polished bronze flaying Arch of Hysteria, 1993, above, suspended dramatically, is a reminder of her core unresolved issues and regrets. A female Pietà, hovering precariously, simultaneously victim and victor, cared for and abandoned, corpse and free spirit, it commands the attention of the room.

A seductive exhibition, one leaves spellbound in Bourgeois’ web of artistry, her memories become ours, her narrative intertwines with our own. MOMA’s choice to use Bourgeois’ work to launch their new interior project is unsurprising, as she was also the first artist used by the new Tate Modern, London to launch their original building in 2000 and their new ARTIST ROOMS gallery last year. In a recent article, Frances Morris, curator of the vastly expanded Tate Modern explains why, “Her art remains relevant, her themes intoxicatingly interchangeable with our own and the execution of her work , a delight to behold.”


The Ten Dia Commandments

By Sarah Balcombe                                                                                                                         

In homage to Ten Dual Commandments (Hamilton) by Anthony Ramos, with lyrics by Lin Manuel.

One, two, three, four
Five, six, seven, eight, nine…

It’s the Ten Dia Commandments

Number one!

The challenge: leave the city for satisfaction

When completed, return to Manhattan

Number two!

If inclined, grab a friend, head north to Dia:Beacon

Via Tappan Zee  Bridge, it’s a sight albeit fleetin’

Number three!

Approach the parking and  meet face-to-face

With landscape and reception to negotiate

This is commonplace, a stunning masterpiece

Arrive the quickest or on Metro-North at least


Number four!

If you don’t reach all galleries, that’s alright

Chill and relax, there’s a cafe on site


You walk around the gallery, you treat it with civility

You have a vast space, with great accessibility

John Chamberlain, Coup d’Soup, 1980
John Chamberlain, Three-Cornered Desire, 1979
John Chamberlain, Daddy in the Dark, 1988

Chamberlain! Five!

Dia til the sun is leavin’ the sky

Lay out your rods on the red, military style

Walter De Maria, 360˚ I Ching/64 Sculptures,                                                                                    1981, Copyright, The Estate of Walter de Maria.                                                                            Photo@ Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

Number six!

Leave a note for your next of kin

Then enter eerie basement of Dan Flavin


Dan Flavin,                                                                                                                                            Untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection)1973 


Confess your phobias. Ready for the moment

Of daylight, when you resurface for the home-run

Number eight!

Richard Serra’s, vast ellipses to negotiate

Send in your seconds, see if they can enter straight…

Richard Serra, 2000, 2000
Richard Serra, Double Torqued Ellipse, 1997
Richard Serra, Union of the Torus and the Sphere, 2001

Can we agree that the city is intense? Sure

But it has Dia:Chelsea, the essential cure

Yet Dia:Beacon has Michael Heizer’s voids

Now that’s a lure.


Michael Heizer, North, East, South, West, 1967/2002

Hang on, is leavin’ the city fortuitous?

Okay, so we’re doin’ this

Number nine!

And then there’s Bruce Nauman, aim no higher

With his neon and solitary chair ’tis all you require


Bruce Nauman, South America Circle, 1981 (above)


Bruce Nauman, Hanged Man, 1985 

Then count

One two three four

Five six seven eight nine

Number ten!

10 Dia Commandments!

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright at MOMA…

….But you can still catch him in Harlem.

By Sarah Balcombe

Despite the epic Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive exhibition closing, last weekend, at MOMA, a glimpse of his social housing plans is still available at the Miriam and Ira D Wallach Gallery at the Lenfest Center for the Arts, 615 West 129th St until December 17th.full_front_Lenfest_building_800px

Not only is this is a chance to glimpse Renzo Piano’s latest landmark addition to Harlem (above), but it is also a chance to explore what could be considered the most interesting aspect of Wright’s career. Less familiar than the already well-documented private homes of Illinois and Pennsylvania, where Kauffman’s “Falling Water” (1937) embraced nature with aplomb, this “Living in America” exhibition focuses on Wright’s lesser known models for a new kind of living, applying a similar formula to rural, suburban and urban areas. It compares and contrasts Wright’s proposals with the Harlem River Houses, the first social housing built in Manhattan, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Wright would have been aware of Le Corbusier’s radical 1925 Plan Voisin, which projected a block pattern of living, with a central park and dominated by the motor car. At a time when Europe was clambering out of World War I and infatuation with the car was seen as a positive factor of change, Wright developed his American response. His preliminary work, The Disappearing City, first published in 1932, introduced the concept of “organic spirituality”. This manifested itself into his theoretical Broadacre City where he envisioned every citizen owning one acre of land in a path towards “self-improvement”.Image result for broadacre city

Wright’s Broadacre City 12ft x 12ft model of 1935, developed with his fellowship students at Taliesen West, in Arizona, (above) was shown in Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, ironically a bastion of capitalism. A timely scheme, the model proposed a decentralization of the city, with a pattern that Wright sought to replicate across US cities, including industry, farming, six lane highways, school and housing. Radical in scale and ferocity, some of the Utopian aspects of these projects, with areas designated to growing food gardens are still implemented today.

In his biography “Many Masks: A life of Frank Lloyd Wright” Broadacre City, Brendan Gill describes Wright’s vision of “spacious landscaped highways, safe in width and grade. ..Giant roads, themselves great architecture….each citizen of the future will have all forms of production, distribution, self-improvement, enjoyment, within a radius of one hundred and fifty miles of his home now easily and speedily available by means of his car or his plane.”

An important part of the American dream, this was a concept that had begun to resonate and which would increase in momentum in the 1950s. And yet the fervour with which this was proclaimed and the rather shocking scale of the model, led Gill to comment  ” As is the case with most utopians, Wright preached a freedom for the individual that could be achieved only by mass regimentation.”

He continues “At first glance, Broadacre City seems to offer its inhabitants the best of several worlds: the fresh air and sunlight” were seductive images. Ideal proximities to retail and entertainment in a pre-internet and streaming world were also applauded. Yet “At second glance, one perceives that.. Broadacre City threatens to turn the entire country, from coast to coast …..into a single immaculate and homogenous non-city: an incarnation on a monstrous scale of the…suburb..”

east harlem

Courtesy Horace Ginsbern Papers, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York   Perspective drawing of the Harlem River Houses, 1935

The  manifestation of these ideals and the scale, is similarly controversial.The Harlem River Houses, built in 1936 for working class African Americans was designed by a consortium of Archibald Manning Brown as chief architect for the project with architects Will Rice Amon, Richard W. Buckley, Frank J. Forster, Charles F. Fuller, Horace Ginsbern, and John Louis Wilson, Jr. one of the first African American architects to be registered in New York State.

Complete with playgrounds, electricity, light, hot water and heating, “the complex stood out as one of the best constructed examples of public housing” and considering that this was in an era of significant racial inequality, the River Houses stood out as “a highly desirable place to live for the African-American community,”  writes Meghan White for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The 9-acre Harlem River Housing (below) was deemed to be the most successful public housing in New York City.


Wikimedia Commons/Beyond My Ken (Megan White)

Lewis Mumford, architectural critic  who is best known for his opposing views on urban planning with Jane Jacobs, praised the Harlem River Houses. He admired, “the equipment for decent living that every modern neighborhood needs: sunlight, air, safety, play space, meeting space, and living space. The families in the Harlem Houses have higher standards of housing, measured in tangible benefits, than most of those on Park Avenue.”

However,  plagued more recently by surrounding high-rise tower blocks, unemployment, lower income residents and maintenance issues, one is reminded of Jane Jacobs’ lament, documented in, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, Robert Kanigel‘s 2016 biography. With the destruction of a vast number of businesses and smaller homes, albeit mostly slums, Jacobs claimed that the essence of communities were destroyed, rendering them barren problematic zones. Kanigel writes (p.143), “All told, across East Harlem, the projects had eliminated more than fifteen hundred retail stores, with virtually none built in their place. Pity the poor capitalists? Maybe. But if you took your eyes off their troubles and looked instead at the neighbourhood they served, you’d see not only entrepreneurial livelihoods lost, but social glue weakened- a community, as Jane would put it, replaced by a dormitory.”

Interestingly, Mumford had initially encouraged Jane Jacobs, early in her career, to keep writing about urban issues that were of importance to her. “Keep hammering,” he told her. “Your worst opponents are the old fogies who imagine that Le Corbusier is the last word in urbanism.” Whether Mumford was, in fact, referring to Wright, and his followers, Wright’s essential question remains,  how can utopian ideals be applied successfully to housing?

A trip to the Lenfest exhibition, or to the Harlem River Houses, may well provide the answer and if that triggers an interest in this subject, be sure to check out The Citizen Jane Film Festival next weekend in Bridgeport, CT.