Culture: August 2010 Archives


The last time we were on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum we were partially rained out, even if it was not quite raining. It was the press preview of the completed first stage of Brothers Mike and Doug Starn's extraordinary installation, "Big Bambú" (the Museum closes the beautiful bamboo gates if the surfaces are too wet). We were only able to admire the "forest" from below and, staring up, we could only imagine the experience of actually walking along its ascending, curving, elevated trails.

We were back for another try last Monday, four months later, also to see how much more had been completed by the artists and their team of rock climbers in the interim. Since it had been raining earlier in the morning our chances for getting any higher than we had in April didn't look good, but we were eager to chance it (it was another press preview and we would be able to record the work with our cameras).

We did check roof conditions with the Communications Department before we left, and it sounded promising. By the time we arrived at two the rain had long stopped and a favorable zephyr had done much to dry the reeds. The rewards of our gentle climb were those of being able to see the beauties of the work's more functional forms close up, and the thrill of knowing we were walking where no one would have been able to before this spring, and would not be able to again after this fall.

Once up in the air, born by the squeaky bamboo and its nylon bindings, seduced by the rhythms and the patterns of the paths, and listening to the sound of birds on a misty afternoon, I found it very difficult to come back down. Only the sight of two hawks circling high above, visible through a clearing of the tapering verticals, could remind me of my customary attachment to the earth.

We slowly retraced our steps to the roof surface, and still we lingered.

Oh, by the way, "Big Bambú" is big, and getting still bigger: It's probably about the size of the Temple of Dendur downstairs. Maybe bigger.










Because I believe so strongly in preserving an interesting building's integrity, and an artist's vision, I find it hard to say this, but what's happening to the building that once housed Fr. Bruce Ritter's Covenant House shelter for homeless and runaway youth may just possibly be an improvement over the original concept - and execution.

I've now seen what looks to be the almost-finished "Dream Hotel Downtown" of hotelier Vikram Chatwal, located at 346 West 17th Street. It is a refitting of a building designed and constructed for the Maritime Union half a century ago to accommodate medical and recreational facilities for its members. The 11-story building is located behind the re-conceived Maritime Hotel, and both eccentric structures were designed by a young architect named Albert Ledner.

I remember the buildings when they were new, and the excitement they created, and I'm delighted that at least two of this architect's trio of Village commissions has survived at all.

I say that the new building may be an improvement because, while I've always loved its perfect round windows, along with their beautifully-crafted frames and hopper-like opening mechanisms, the new dancing pattern punched out by the current design team, Handel Architects LLP, in two different sizes of openings, really makes me smile. Also, the building's original tiny ceramic tiles were replaced by stucco years ago, probably because of problems inherent in the materials, and the way the horizontal lines of the (tile-like) rectangles composing the new shiny (hull-like) metal skin wrap around the tilted corners of the main facade, and dip down along the sides, showcases a very different effect, one at least equal to the 1960's original.

The overall building shape remains unchanged.

Now if only somebody would change that name: "Dream Hotel" scares me silly.

NOTE: Except for its romance-novel appellation, I think I could love this building, but now I'm wondering if it's already a doomed affair: While looking for additional information on the building's design and construction, and searching, sometimes fruitlessly, for links to incorporate in this blog, I got the impression that the project may be on hold. There are some indications that the "dream" may be trouble, because of problems related to money, the health of the principal, or (perhaps the least daunting challenge) engineering problems, and I notice that the hotel web site itself is still "under construction".


Augustus Saint-Gaudens Hiawatha in clay, 1871-1872; this marble carving, 1874, 7 feet 9 inches high, including pedestal [detail]

Barry and I were leaving the Metropolitan Museum cafe in the American Wing yesterday when we passed the Saint-Gaudens marble "Hiawatha". I must have passed it any number of times before, but now I found myself zeroing in on the beautifully-modeled torso of this noble young man, created by an artist who was only about 23 himself when he began the work in clay. Then, thinking about the date, 1870, I thought about the time and geography of the work's origins.

In the very midst of the beginnings of the last segment of our protracted Indian wars, a very young Augustus Saint-Gaudens, fled Paris, where he had studied for three years, on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. He settled in Rome in late 1870 where he began work on "Hiawatha", his first full-length statue. His inspiration was the legendary Chippewa chief and founder of the Iroquois confederacy who was the main protagonist in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's enormously popular 1955 poem, "The Song of Hiawatha"*.

In 1870 Saint-Gaudens' native country was still nursing the wounds of the Civil War; France and Germany were engaged in a duel which quickly realized the end of one empire and the birth of another, both with enormous consequences which continue today; the Italian army had crossed the papal frontier (finally completing the wars for unification), in the same month the artist arrived in Rome. Saint-Gaudens however was otherwise engaged.

The War Between the States may have ended (he had been too young to participate), but there was hardly going to be any peace on the other side of the Atlantic, where twenty more years of wars directly impacted - in fact completely devastated - the people represented in his early masterpiece.

Americans were eager to settle the lands which had been opened up in the west, and Civil War veterans, adventurers and misfits were volunteering to secure their right to be there, defending it from the legitimate claims of the peoples we were already making into legends and heroes. The United States was determined to fulfill its own peoples' "manifest destiny" and would not allow what remained of native American civilizations to stand in the way of its claim to the "Land of Many Uses". In spite of occasional sensational - and hugely popularized - news events like "Custer's Last Stand"**, the full horror of these last Indian Wars was largely removed from the consciousness of Americans back east, much as in the case of our own wars today.

It was all over by 1890: Providence had made the entire country safe for the American Empire, but the devil had taken the hindmost; the Indian was now almost gone, and almost forgotten, except where and how it served the victors to remember him.

But it is a beautiful statue.

The fame and legend attached to both the poem and its subject continued well into the 20th century: I remember my class being told in grade school to memorize the trochaic tetrameter of this Longfellow poem, and we barely questioned the assignment (I never got beyond a few stanzas).

When my own family drove west in the big Buick on a long vacation 55 years ago, the Little Big Horn ranked extremely high on our own list of "must sees", and in fact, I've never forgotten my impressions of that sad, and then still very desolate, little-visited place.


Barry and I headed for the Irish Hunger Memorial shortly after noon on Monday (after my visit to City Hall Park) to see an excerpt of "The Voyage of Garbhglas", choreographed by Christopher Williams and presented, courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, as a part of the River To River Festival.

It was a total delight, a magical allusion to ancient Irish faerie lore performed in a magical Irish place on a beautiful afternoon, and I recommend it to anyone who can make downtown for the two performances remaining, Wednesday and Thursday, at 12:30 each day. The Memorial is located inside Battery Park City, 290 Vesey Street at North End Avenue, an easy, almost straight walk west from the World Trade Center stop of the E train.

The performers were Ursula Eagly, Kira Blazek, Caitlin Scranton, Michael Ingle, Sydney Skybetter, Moses Kaplan, and Andrew Smith. I believe Michael Ingle was the celtic youth, and the three other male dancers were what I'll call "the tubers". Christopher Williams himself and Matthew Tutsky played troubadour harps of different sizes, and the music was by Gregory Spears, who can be seen in some of the images directing the singers.

Barry has posted a video, on Bloggy, of a short segment of the 30-minute performance and has a link to his Flickr set.

As someone who tries to take advantage of what New York has to offer culturally, I think a lot about how everyone who would like to see art in performance (in any medium) can find a way to do so without having to deal with discouraging lines, fifth-balcony-in-the-rear seats, or even sold-out notices. In my own case it helps that I'm usually interested in work that most people are unlikely to even be aware of, and I'm lucky to have the leisure to seek it out. But what happens when something really good becomes well known, and suddenly everyone wants to see or hear it?

I was considering this subject with Barry when we left the performance of "Garbhglas". His answer was that the ideal would be that there would be so much art out there, and really good art, that there would never have to be a line or a crowd. We'd all have so many options that we wouldn't have to keep bumping into each other, or fight for tickets. Of course that ideal assumes we all think and feel for ourselves and aren't seduced by the inevitable hype - including, I suppose, in this case, my own modest efforts at making a ballyhoo.

This time the subject had come up because in Monday's surprisingly intimate, georgic performance by Williams' dancers and musicians, while everything took place outdoors, it seemed that there was really room on the Memorial's platform for only about a hundred people to fully experience it, not including whatever the numbers were for those standing on the street below.

While I imagine there must be other things to do at lunch time Wendsday and Thursday, if you go, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to plan on getting to "Garbhglas" early for its final two performances.







This page is an archive of entries in the Culture category from August 2010.

previous archive: Culture: July 2010

next archiveCulture: December 2010