Category Archives: DESIGN

IN ONE STROKE

For its opening on Thursday the Friedman Benda Gallery has been turned into a place of worship. Or so it seems.

Korean artist Byung Hoon Choi shows his most monumental work till date. His basalt sculptures look like signs or symbols, rather than…benches. The already thin line between practical design and pure art of his earlier work (art furniture) seems to have been erased completely, in one stroke.

Choi achieves a delicate balance between opposites. The rough and the polished melt together. The sculptures’ sinuous forms could definitely refer to the basalt’s liquid form as lava thousands and thousands of years ago.

The benches are graphical, as if written by hand, in one brushstroke. It is not clear if the accompanying brush paintings are preliminary studies for the sculptures, but they clearly show the (calli)graphic intention of the sculptor.

Some sculptures are dark and primitive, while others are light and modern. The way the exhibition is lit up only enhances this duality: one room is a white box with overall bright light, two other rooms are kept darker and focus more on the sculptures with spotlights.

Throughout the rooms there’s a feeling of tension between minimal lightness and a more dramatic sense of boldness.

Already because of their unconventional shape, it must be fun to sit on these benches. But I think I’d rather sit on the grass and watch how these sculptures write their presence against the landscape.

 

IN ONE STROKE / Byung Hoon Choi – Friedman Benda Gallery, Chelsea New York City

OPENING Thursday February 27 – through March 29, 2014

 

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UNITED NATIONS LOUNGE : LET’S MAKE A DEAL

 

Many a deal is made over a good glass of wine. So every office should have a bar. Or a lounge, like at the United Nations in New York. And the North Delegates’ Lounge has been renovated to make it an even more pleasant place to hang out. And to close that important deal!

The renovation was commissioned to a Dutch team of ringing names: Hella jongerius, Rem Koolhaas and Irma Boom.

The simple rectangular space has been divided in three sections. The first is a group of low sofas and lounge chairs. The second section is situated at the far end of the hall and is composed of a bar and vivid green tables and white chairs. The last section is a row of work stations against a metal wall.

Hella Jongerius has introduced her already iconic Polder sofas, inspired by the topography of her home country Holland. She has especially designed the UN Chair for the occasion. She also signs for the window covering made of hundreds of clay beads and the “bubble desk” work stations. But Jongerius has also, much to her credit, included design pieces that bear other names, like a chair by Rietveld and the Wegner Peacock Chair.

Irma Boom created the shade on the inclined north window. It’s a grid-like curtain that refers to the window lines on New York’s modern skyscrapers.

Rem Koolhaas’ intervention is limited to the elimination of a mezzanine and the introduction of a white resin information desk at the entrance.

For any client, this team of stellar designers is a dream combination. Then why does this new Delegates’ Lounge not provoke a reaction of delighted surprise?

There’s a slightly uncomfortable imbalance between cosiness and emptiness. On entering the hall, that’s exactly what you see: a big hall. There’s nothing wrong with a big hall. But the confusion starts when you don’t know if it’s empty or cluttered.

It’s clear that Hella Jongerius has tried to overcome the sensation of cold emptiness. After all, a lounge should offer some welcoming cosiness. Therefore the designer has used her very laid-back Polder sofas. Therefore she has broken up the space in different areas. Therefore she has used different types of seating. A variety of furniture and furnishings are to break the feel of an overly rectangular and empty room.

But still the room looks as flat as Holland. And even Jongerius must have felt this too. In her original design she also planned on having the Jurgen Bey Ear Chair. It’s a chair that has a high head rest and wide “ears”, enveloping the person that uses it. It offers some acoustic and visual seclusion from the environment, ideal for some welcome cocooning in an otherwise open hall. But for security reasons – this is the UN, remember – the chair was scratched from the design scheme: it was too high and blocked the overall view of the lounge…

Even Rem Koolhaas must have detected the same problem with the openness of this huge room. At the far end of the lounge, he tore down a mezzanine in order to open up the view towards the East River. A great move. At the same time he wanted to add a mezzanine at the entrance of the lounge, in this way lowering the entrance way and separating the lounge a little bit more from the hallways. It surely would have defined and confined the lounge a lot more. But the budget has decided otherwise.

Koolhaas also wanted to hang the oversized artwork (UN gifts) from protruding slabs. This would have broken up the box-like room a little bit more. His plan did not see the light, for the same reason mentioned above.

At one point, even the most striking feature of the whole design was threatened. The clay beads of the knotted curtain were described as possible hazardous projectiles in case of a (bomb) explosion. Fortunately the beads slipped through the restrictive net and could stay.

It’s obvious that an institution like the United Nations has to impose strict regulations and safety considerations on itself. But it’s also sad that good design has to suffer from it. As the evening was unfurling, the Lounge got packed with people enjoying an after-work drink. At least they don’t seem to be bothered by the restrictions. Nor the plastic wine cups.

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AND CALATRAVA SAID : LET THERE BE WHITE

 

Since 2001 Ground Zero has been one huge construction site. Slowly, new constructions are coming to completion. The 9/11 Memorial Site has been open to the public quite some time. One World Trade Center has recently become the highest building in the US.

And everyone is curious to see the new transit hub that is to be inaugurated in 2015.

As a teaser, the new underground passageway to the PATH terminal has already been opened. It shows the signature construction elements of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

It boasts walls and floors of shiny white marble. The tubular fishbone beams, unmistakably Calatrava, are the only “organic” elements in the otherwise stark minimalistic design.

Santiago Calatrava is famous, certainly, for his public spaces and bridges all over the world. But also infamous for the structural problems that his existing buildings are starting to show already.

On top of all the controversy, questions are rising about the price tag of this whole new endeavor. Already this tunnel, with a cost of 100 million USD, can call itself the most expensive “passage” of the world.

 

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THE SEAGRAM : A LIST OF FIRSTS

LUDWIG MIES VAN DER ROHE AND PHILIP JOHNSON IN THE HEART OF MANHATTAN

 

When I say : ‘New York City’, probably one of the first things that come to mind is its unmistakable skyline.

The grid of Manhattan is dominated by its highest and, subsequently, most iconic high rise buildings. True, the Empire State and the Chrysler stand tall like king and queen on a giant chess board. The problem with these skyscrapers is that the closer you get, the more difficult it becomes to see them. You can be standing at the front door and not even realize that they are towering above your head. Mies van der Rohe must have fully discerned this tricky problem of urban planning.

His Seagram Building is not the most famous building in Manhattan. Neither does it have a drastic impact on the skyline. But Mies surely didn’t want it to just evaporate in the Midtown concrete jungle. To make sure that his building would not go unnoticed when you pass by it, he insisted on leaving an empty plaza in front of it. This allows a perfect view. It also means that the building itself recedes  way behind the street’s front line. In a city where the price per square foot is rocketing, this way of constructing was unheard of and engendered numerous envious comments. A huge open place, clad in Roman travertine? Pure luxury.

The Seagram Building, commissioned by a Canadian liquor company, was finished in 1958.

The only high rise office building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, it’s one of the finest examples of the International Style. It has put its mark on American architecture ever since.

Mies thought that a building’s structural elements should be visible. It’s one of the principles he’s most renowned for and which he rigorously applied in his constructions. The most beautiful examples are the Farnsworth House near Chicago and the German Pavilion in Barcelona.

This Seagram Building, too, is a construction of steel beams from which non-structural glass walls are hanging. But to avoid the risk of melting in case of fire, New York regulations required that the inside beams be covered with a fire and heatproof material, in this case concrete. To Mies it must have been sacrilege. To give at least the impression that the structural elements could be seen, he installed his famous vertical I-beams on the outside of the building. But they have a purely esthetic function, not structural at all!

Mies van der Rohe lived, or at least tried to live, by his credo of strict balance and proportions. He did anything in his reach and power to achieve his goals. To prevent people opening the blinds at different heights, thus giving the building a disorderly aspect from the outside, he implanted a system that only allowed three different positions: open, closed or 50/50.

The outside beams are bronze and are regularly treated with oil to prevent oxidation. It’s also Mies’s explicit wish that the front plaza stays completely empty, except for the reflecting pools and fountains. With the exception for maybe some temporary installation, no art work or trees are ever to be admitted to divert any attention from the building itself.

Where Mies van der Rohe controlled the building’s structural and outside design, it was Philip Johnson who signed for the interior. The two architects had a very successful cooperation and even had their offices in the building. But they will also forever be referred to as these good friends and competitive rivals. Van der Rohe designed the Farnsworth House. Johnson designed the Glass House. Some will gladly go into lengthy discussions to prove who got the idea for the house first.

The Seagram Building is also home to the famous Four Seasons Restaurant, which also has a list of firsts. It was the first restaurant in America to offer a menu according to the seasonal markets. It was the first place on the east coast to have a wine list of American wines, and not only French ones.

Another first were its menus in English, and not French. And The Four Seasons was also the first to reintroduce fresh wild mushrooms instead of the commonly used dried ones in those days. The restaurant is also called the Pool Room because it repeats one of the outside pools in the middle of the restaurant.

Since its opening in 1959 the interior of The Four Seasons has stood unchanged. Plates, cutlery, glasses and furniture are still the same and also figure in the MOMA’s permanent design collection.

Last but not least, The Four Seasons can boast a small but impressive art collection. “La pièce de résistance” would be the huge curtain that Picasso designed for Les Ballets Russes.

To say that The Seagram story is one of total success and unfaltering perfection would be an overstatement. Because of the use of expensive material like bronze, travertine and marble, the Seagram was the priciest skyscraper ever built. And when it comes to energy efficiency, it has the lowest rating of any building in New York.

The landmarked Four Seasons restaurant may be in danger. It is one of the priciest places to eat in New York. But the generous income of the restaurant is unlikely to be enough to compensate an imminent raise in rent. The restaurant is currently paying a ridiculously low lease that is 80% below the average market rate. Some sources say that, when in three years the Four Seasons restaurant’s lease expires, an “adjustment’ to the normal market value is probably looming over its existence. Others say that the Seagram Building without its Four Seasons Restaurant is just unthinkable.

Whatever way the story goes, for the time being, just looking at the building or having lunch at the restaurant is a treat.

 

 

The Seagram Building, 375 Park Avenue, between 52nd Street and 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan

The Four Seasons, entrance on 52nd street

Also see my posts:

July 23, 2013 : FARNSWORTH HOUSE : a river runs through it…sometimes

November 13, 2012 : THE GLASS HOUSE

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TWA : WHERE IMAGINATION TAKES FLIGHT

 

When arriving at the airport, the only thing you want to do is grab your luggage and get out of there. True, there have been some quite honorable efforts in recent years. But still, a lot of airports around the world look the same and are boring places. JFK is no exception.

But in your hurry to get home or to your hotel, you might have noticed this singular building next to Terminal 5.

The Trans World Airline Flight Center, TWA, was designed by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1962, one year after his death. It was used until 2001. New terminals were built around it to accommodate the ever growing number of passengers.

Saarinen wanted to emphasize the “excitement of travel”. Those were indeed the times where going to the airport was already part of the adventurous travel experience. Nowadays, maybe all too often, airport terminals stand for long cues, lost luggage, over-bookings and cancellations. The sixties were the times where airports still had “human” proportions.

Organic forms are commonplace in 21st century architecture. Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry are only two examples of this. But at its inauguration, Saarinen’s project was revolutionary.

With its slender and aerodynamical shape it looks like a vessel from outer space, a vision of the future, a time and place where no man had ever gone before. The 21st century?

It surely stirs the imagination. TWA rises from the depths of the ocean, like a giant sting ray. It’s a bird spreading its wings, ready to take flight,…

The terminal is symmetrical in and outside. Compared to Hadid’s or Gehry’s amorphous structures, this symmetry in Saarinen’s building even strengthens the feeling of an organic force,  just as the familiar symmetry in other living creatures and organisms.

The TWA Terminal is being restored to its original splendor. In the near future it will open its doors to the public.  The main hall will function as the lobby for a new adjacent hotel. It will be a place to dine before or after your flight. Or just a place to linger, relax, look around and take it all in, the genius of Saarinen.

 

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farnsworth house : a river runs through it…sometimes

 

You might have seen tons of pictures, but walking up to Farnsworth House surpasses every photographer’s best work.

Buy a plot of land on a river bank and ask Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to build a house for you. You wish! It’s what Dr Edith Farnsworth wished for in 1945. And it’s what she got in 1951.

No old Victorian mansion, not haunted nor the scene of a violent crime, but it does come with a story.

Unlike other Chicago citizens who could afford it, Ms Farnsworth did not want a retreat on Michigan Lake. She preferred the seclusion of the woods at a considerable driving distance on, back then, unpaved roads.

The story goes that she met architect van der Rohe at a dinner party. She told him about the land she had recently purchased along the Fox River near the little town of Plano, 60 miles west of Chicago. Was she too shy to directly ask him if he was interested in designing a house? It’s not very clear what her precise intentions were on that first encounter. And like every good story, this one is also drenched in some juicy speculations. But in spite of the transparency of the house itself, these speculations have never been met with hard proof. What we do know is that at the end of the dinner van der Rohe told her that he would build her a house.

And he did.

But when Ms Farnsworth moved in, she felt exposed in a house that had indeed only windows on all sides. And who wouldn’t feel exposed when in the morning you wake up to find a bunch of curious people peeking through your bedroom window? Nor did the remoteness of the house deter photographers from trespassing to see that strange and soon to be iconic house designed by Mies van der Rohe.

Ms Farnsworth was complaining about the livability of the house, hot in summer, cold in winter. It was not the kind of cosy country retreat that she had imagined.

The relationship between her and the architect ended in a lawsuit. It must have been unimaginable to Ms Farnsworth that the house she loathed so much was to become one of the most important residential constructions of modern architecture. Nor must she have dreamed that it would forever be linked to her name, even after it had changed owners.

But the biggest enemy of Farnsworth House has not been the lady who gave it her name, but the creeping monster next to it: the Fox River.

To avoid the risk of flooding, Mies van der Rohe built the house on eight pillars. But how was he to know that overdevelopment in the neighborhood was to have almost disastrous consequences? On a few occasions water levels rose to unprecedented heights, washing away even the furniture. It’s an ongoing threat for the house, still today.

Against all odds, Farnsworth House seems to resist, withstand and survive both its inhabitants and the inclement weather conditions. It has even been saved from being dismantled and shipped to another country altogether.

Tucked away in lush greenery, the house can only be approached by walking up a winding path. Expectations are stirred up where trees and shrubs allow only partial glimpses of the white structure.

Then, finally, you get a complete view of the house. The first thing that strikes is its bare simplicity. To some it might be an anticlimax. To others it’s proof that ‘overwhelming simplicity’ is not necessarily a contradictio in terminis. It’s pure, it’s light, devoid of all things superfluous. It’s an abstraction of a house. More an idea than a structure of steel and concrete. Because of the pillars, it’s almost literally floating on air.

The sunlight, bouncing back on the terrace, then reflected on the ceiling, invades the whole space. It turns the house into a light box where transparency and translucency play in unison.

On entering the house, it feels like the surrounding nature is walking in with you. The 360 degrees views make the boundaries between in and outside almost nonexistent.

The openness of the structure may raise questions about its practicality. Ms Farnsworth surely had problems with it. But that was back in the fifties. The way we live today, the mere idea of living, has shifted. The visionary concept of van der Rohe’s open floor plan was undoubtedly groundbreaking and perhaps not always met with great enthusiasm. But half a century later, his pioneering take on ‘living space’ is still standing. As is his house.

 

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FOLLIES AT BERGDORF GOODMAN

 

 

Every year, when this season is approaching, New York is anxiously awaiting the reveal of Bergdorf Goodman’s holiday theme.

Described as the most luxurious department store in New York, Bergdorf Goodman spares means nor effort to magically transform its windows into the most exuberant festive display.

A far cry from the traditional end of year decorations, Bergdorf Goodman brings dreams in a completely different way.

Like Christmas itself, the shop windows of BG have become a tradition in their own right. And they know how to tease, and please.

Expectation starts building up when all of a sudden somewhere in November white sheets are covering the windows. Nobody is allowed a sneak preview, but it’s clear that behind the scenes frenetic activity is taking place.

The morning the “curtain” is raised, crowds are already flocking on the corner of 5th Avenue and 58th Street.

This year Bergdorf Goodman ‘s theme is FOLLIES OF 2012, a tribute to the multiple Award winning Broadway show. No place for carols or silent nights here. The windows burst with glamour and abundance. The sidewalk on Fifth is always packed with people blocking thoroughfare. Everybody wants to see the show. Everybody wants to dream.

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