Monday, January 19, 2009

A Fable for Our Times: Gehry and the Spirit of the Land

The headlines are flying back and forth faster than you can keep track of them: Gehry is out and isn’t working on Atlantic Yards, - NO- Gehry is in- or NO- Maybe it is something else. . .

. . . Well, this article is about how supremely peculiar it would be if Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards ever happens and if Frank Gehry is involved. It would be extremely peculiar if Gehry is involved even in the slightest residual way. These days it looks as if his role going forward may be just to shill for Forest City Ratner one more time, hoping to collect a small paycheck just to deny that he truly isn’t going to be not involved with the dying project.

This article is about spirit and about the spirit of the land. Why would it be supremely peculiar if this megaproject was built with a Gehry connection? Because perhaps its construction would come with one more spiritual curse than we presently imagine falling on the head of Mr. Ratner and Mr. Gehry.

Bear with us and we will describe a very strange coincidence.

Spirit of the Land?

Does land come with a spirit? We were reading Tom Angotti’s new book, New York for Sale. In the first chapter this subject comes up. Mr. Angotti reminds us that different cultural traditions believe that land has a life of its own to the extent that life may manifest itself through land. He brings up the notion that the holding of land may be viewed as imbued with responsibilities and a “sacred trust.” In other words we may need to view ourselves as servants to what is right for the land rather than vice versa. He points out the idea operative in the case of rebuilding at Ground Zero that land “can have a spiritual value.” To quote a passage from Mr. Angotti’s book:

According to Lakota elder Vine Deloria Jr., there are many different kinds of sacred places, and they all come “out of a lot of experience. The idea is not to pretent to own it, not to exploit it, but to respect it.”* The kind of sacred place that is most difficult for non-Indians to understand teaches and gives to humans, who are in turn obligated to preserve it as a healthy place. “The creed of the Lakotas,” says one observer, “requires not a general reverence for land (though that is a near-certain outgrowth of it) but a particular attentiveness to place”** In such a framework, the very modern term land use seems jolting. If there is an organic tie between land and people, how can it be “used”?
* (Stephen Hendricks, “Promised Land,” Orion (July-August 2005): 65)
** (Ibid.)

When we first read these New York for Sale passages we never thought we would be quoting them here in Noticing New York, but here we are and we are glad for the chance to work in this mention of Mr. Angotti’s book before we, in a future post, get to a discussion of some of the book’s other more major themes. As the book title indicates, much of it is about the selling off of New York’s public realm at the expense of our communities.

Origins of the Story and a Lot of New York Place Names

Why are we writing about the spirit that travels with land? Because of this coincidence that came to our attention: once upon a time a branch of our family married into the Cruger Family. The Crugers are connected in many ways with the history of New York. One Cruger, Nicholas Cruger, raised Alexander Hamilton and is sometimes referred to as his political mentor. (We can thank Alexander Hamilton both for the fact that New York is not the capital of the U.S. government but is its financial capital.) Nicholas had an uncle who was a member of Parliament. Two other Crugers, a father and son both named John, were mayors of the city. One of them was a member of the Stamp Act Congress before the Revolution.

Unfortunately, another Cruger ancestor, John Barker Church, bought the set dueling pistols that killed both Hamilton and Hamilton’s son Phillip (in 1801). Church, himself, used them previously in a 1799 duel with Burr in which neither Church nor Burr were injured.

The Crugers are the family for whom Crugers Avenue in the Bronx is named, the family for whom Crugers, New York is named; their family tree and relations included the Van Cortlands for whom Van Cortland Park is named and the Van Rensselaer family for whom Rensselaer, New York was named. (Rensselaer is where you get off the train when you go to Albany.) The Crugers were also descended from Governor Paterson (not New York’s) but William Paterson, the second Governor of New Jersey, signer of the Constitution, and Supreme Court Justice for whom Paterson, New Jersey is named. Lastly, and important to this story, the Crugers are the family for whom Crugers Island in the Hudson is named. The Crugers were an interesting family, but not everything about them was good. There was some slave trading at one point.

Here’s the First Re-Ward

Why is all of this important? Because of what happened to Crugers Island. The Crugers who lived on Crugers Island fell on hard times. In the end the house on the island was inhabited in a run down state by two old beggered spinster sisters, Catherine Church Cruger and Cornelia Cruger. They died respectively in 1914 and 1922. After that, Crugers Island became the property of the Ward family; in 1926 the property was bought by Robert Boyd Ward.

Ward and Atlantic Yards

Who was Robert Boyd Ward? Does the name seem familiar? He was a bread manufacturer. Yes, this is where we come around to Frank Gehry. The Wards were the same bread manufacturing family who were responsible for the beautiful Ward Bakery Building on the site that Forest City Ratner wants to include within the footprint for its proposed Atlantic Yards megadevelopment. It is the same building that should have been preserved as a landmark and was instead destroyed. It was destroyed for venal reasons, because Forest City Ratner wants a peculiarly shaped footprint for its Atlantic Yards megaproject for eminent domain windfall purposes and because Forest City Ratner wants to destroy the neighborhood’s assets so as to deprive the public of alternatives to proceeding with its project. (See: December 3, 2008
Lessons from the Ward Bakery demo and Tuesday, December 9, 2008, Times Coverage of Landmarks Preservation Commission: The Pieces Needing to Fall Into Place) Now with buildings in the neighborhood leveled Ratner is trying to bait and switch and foist cheaply constructed alternatives upon the public. (See: January 15, 2009, Editorial: Bait and switch, The Brooklyn Paper).

And Gehry? As we know, Gehry has been the architect providing cover and shilling for all this destruction.

Ward’s Divestiture of Land: The Philanthropic Spirit

There is more to tell you. Here is where the irony and the coincidence deepen. The Ward family did not own the island long. It became part of a thousand-acre parcel of land that Mr. Ward conveyed for philanthropic purposes to the New York Society for Improving the Condition of the Poor. For years the land was used for all sorts of good things, the Ward mansion became a home for the aged, there were boys and girls camps, there were bungalows that were rented at exceedingly low rent so that poor families could vacation in the summer. It was a large tract of land. Some things that night have happened didn’t. At one point it was proposed to build a nuclear power plant on a portion of the land. That didn’t happen; a reminder that not everything that an irresponsible government proposes should be built, gets built.

A Conveyance to Bard

Here is what happened to a 90-acre portion of the land, including Crugers Island. It was conveyed to Bard College in the early 1960's. In one way that may bring us back full circle to the Crugers because the Crugers and the Bard family intermarried and one of the Bard family members, an in-law, (Judge Nathaniel Pendleton), was Alexander Hamilton’s second in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr which occurred July 11, 1804. (James ("Jim") Pendleton Cruger, born in 1860, is the member or the Cruger family our relative married.- Here is a picture of our grandmother attending his daughter Amy’s October 26, 1912 wedding. Also in the picture is the Manhattan District Attorney, brother of a U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of State.

Full Circle Back to Gehry

What fascinates us more is that this circle back connects the Ward family and Frank Gehry yet again because on those particular 90 acres (of all the acres the Ward family donated for philanthropic purposes), Bard Collage built a Frank Gehry-designed performance arts center. In 2003 the college built the $62 million Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. The center received acclaim when it was built. Architectural critic Paul Goldberger, commenting that it was “Gehry’s first major public building on the East Coast,” wrote in the New Yorker, “Gehry’s Fisher Center is the first great concert hall of our time” and Bard “has ended up with what may be the best small concert hall in the United States.” (See: Two great new cultural centers open out of town, by Paul Goldberger, June 2, 2003.)

Not Fond of Gehry: Does Huxtable Have a Blind Spot?

We ourselves are not fond of Frank Gehry. For instance, we have written previously that though we think that Ada Louise Huxtable has a blind spot for Gehry (she has said “Frank Gehry is a great architect” and “Gehry is legit; what he did at Bilbao is superb”) we disagree with her and noted:

We would rather apply other of Huxtable’s general statements and thinking to Gehry’s work. She says (immediately below speaking about a lot of the modern condominiums):

There’s been all of the “wow” in Architecture that is for effect, and for show, and for status and I have very mixed feeling about it. I frankly don’t care if some of it disappears. (20:30)

* * * *

(Architecture) is the art we must live with. If you want to experience painting or sculpture it’s an option. But there is absolutely nothing optional about your experience of architecture. . . . We see an awful lot of bad buildings and I guess my life has been devoted, or a good part of it, to trying to say, `We have entitlements; we deserve better than this’ (17:10)
But when it comes to explaining her criticisms of architecture as “wow” factor “eye candy” Ms. Huxtable specifically deflects blame leveled at Gehry saying: “The “wow” buildings. Don’t blame it all on Frank Gehry.” (See: Tuesday, December 9, 2008, Times Coverage of Landmarks Preservation Commission: The Pieces Needing to Fall Into Place.)

Ouroussoff Gehry Blindspot? Architecture as Journey of Psychological Revelation

We think that Gehry is appreciated for the wrong things. Another architectural critic whom we think has a blind spot for Gehry is the current New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. We think his recent review of Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario demonstrates how critics can go off track. Ouroussoff writes as if architecture is to be reviewed, like a novel or other art form, as a journey of psychological assessment of the architect’s interior soul. His review opens (emphasis supplied):

Frank Gehry has often said that he likes to forge deep emotional bonds with his architecture projects.

But the commission to renovate the Art Gallery of Ontario here must have been especially fraught for him. Mr. Gehry grew up on a windy, tree-lined street in a working-class neighborhood not far from the museum. His grandmother lived around the corner, where she kept live carp handy in the bathtub for making her gefilte fish.

Given that this is Mr. Gehry’s first commission in his native city, you might expect the building to be a surreal kind of self-reckoning, a voyage through the architect’s subconscious.
Most of the rest of the review is more conventional, but this thread continues:

. . . this may be one of Mr. Gehry’s most gentle and self-possessed designs. . .an ability to balance exuberance with delicious moments of restraint . . Mr. Gehry doesn’t put art on a pedestal . . . The rest of the design unfolds in a meandering, almost childlike narrative. . . . Mr. Gehry shows the most restraint in . . Mr. Gehry seems to have had more fun with . . .
And concludes . .

And suddenly you grasp what’s so moving about this place, despite its flaws. The exuberance is here, of course. But something else tugs at you: the architect’s humility in addressing the past.
(See: Gehry Puts a Very Different Signature on His Old Hometown’s Museum, by Nicolai Ouroussoff, November 14, 2008.)

We can’t help but be reminded that the documentary about Mr. Gehry, (Sketches of Gehry, charitably made by his friend, the late director Sidney Pollack) chose to include scenes of Mr. Gehry's psychotherapist talking about the architect's relationship with his family and how that relates to his creativity. (Friday Movies: 'Sketches of Frank Gehry' by Bob Mondello.)

Architecture as Obligation to the Public

We think that the art of architecture should be about creating something that takes into account how the rest of us will “live with” it as Ms. Huxtable said, and which should be much less about an exploration or working through of the individual artist’s personal psychology and emotions. Architecture is an art that needs to focus on the relationship to the greater public and their lives.
It is not as if Mr. Ouroussoff is entirely clueless on this score; it is just that, like Ms. Huxtable, he seems to have a blind spot for Mr. Gehry. In It Was Fun Till the Money Ran Out, December 19, 2008, Mr. Ouroussoff writes about the end of the era of starchitecture:

But somewhere along the way that fantasy took a wrong turn. As commissions multiplied for luxury residential high-rises, high-end boutiques and corporate offices . . . . more socially conscious projects rarely materialized. . . . Serious architecture was beginning to look like a service for the rich, like private jets and spa treatments.

Nowhere was that poisonous cocktail of vanity and self-delusion more visible than in Manhattan. Although some important cultural projects were commissioned, this era will probably be remembered as much for its vulgarity as its ambition.

Every major architect in the world, it seemed, was designing an exclusive residential building here. . . .

* *

Together these projects threatened to transform the city’s skyline into a tapestry of individual greed.

Now that high-end bubble has popped, and it is unlikely to return anytime soon. . . . . . Even if the economy turns around, the public’s tolerance for outsize architectural statements that serve the rich and self-absorbed has already been pretty much exhausted.
Architecture, When a Turn-around of Values is Engineered

While we believe Mr. Ouroussoff has a blind spot for Frank Gehry, he recognizes, as expressed in this article, the way in which Mr. Gehry signed on to a developer sales pitch when he took the commission for the destructive Atlantic Yards megadevelopment:

Firms like Forest City Ratner and the Related Companies, which once worked exclusively with corporations that were more adept at handling big budgets than at architectural innovation, seized on these innovators as part of a shrewd business strategy. The architect’s prestige would not only win over discerning consumers but also persuade planning boards to accede to large-scale urban projects like, say, Mr. Gehry’s Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.
Of course, now we know that Gehry’s work may never be used at Atlantic Yards since the kind of “value-engineering” firms referred to by Mr. Ouroussoff as “corporations that were more adept at handling big budgets than at architectural innovation” are now likely, in the end, to replace Mr. Gehry on the project. (See: Saturday, January 10, 2009, Funny story: in "Design by Deception," analysis of megaproject cost overruns, the hero is... Frank Gehry.)

Gehry Reassessment?

We think that Gehry’s overall work is now receiving reassessment. Much of that reassessment has likely come about because of Atlantic Yards and its destructiveness to the community. Many, like ourselves, are inclined to consider that Mr. Gehry has been behaving irresponsibly in connection with Atlantic Yards and the cover he gave to such things as the destruction of the Ward Bakery Building. Therefore, we are probably less inclined to share the charitable opinions Mr. Gehry gets from old friends who knew him on his way up.

Bard Visit and a Question

We visited Bard and when we did so we asked our guide whether she was aware of Gehry’s association with the controversial Atlantic Yards. Our young guide had not heard about Atlantic Yards’ story unfolding a hundred and twenty miles down the Hudson. We gave her the briefest thumbnail of the long saga. Our guide told us that she thought the outside of the performance center was interesting looking but that she found nothing special about it on the inside. However, Mr. Goldberger in his New Yorker review did note that “The sound, crafted by the acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, has an exceptionally crisp brilliance.”

There and Back Again, Bungee Acrobatics Dance

One story of the performance center’s enjoyment that created quite an image in our mind’s eye especially after seeing the performance center. We had described to us a dance that had been performed on the roof by students using bungee cords. We are great fans of site-specific dance works and commented that we would have liked to see this. It must have been spectacular to behold. It intrigues us that the building inspired the work.

We have written before about the odd urge of humans to conquer through climbing and acrobatics some of our odder new architecture: Philippe Petit's famous 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, the climbing of buildings including the three climbers (in five weeks) who climbed New York’s new third-tallest building, the New York Times Tower, and George Willig’s climbing of the Twin Towers and (with my brother) his climbing of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadow Park. (See: Tuesday, August 5, 2008, TWO, AND FRO?) We have observed that perhaps in their very oddness many of these buildings pose special problems in our relationships with them such that we now seek to conquer and tame then with performances such as these.

Taxi Cab Conversations

Our taxi driver told us about the bungee-cord dance on the performance center’s roof. He told us another story about the performance center’s roof. He told us that he had been making many trips ferrying building contractors out to the performance center to address the fact that the $62 million performance center’s rook leaks. He said that the engineers explained that there was a problem with the five-year-old roof because Gehry’s design specifications did not take into account the variability of the climate. He said he was told that the building was designed for a more temperate climate where, unlike our own northern climate, wide fluctuations in temperature don’t cause expansion and contraction that needs to be addressed and provided for.

Another Institution of Higher Learning, More Leaks

This, of course, would not be the first time a college has had problems with Gehry-designed buildings leaking. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Design sued Gehry for leaks, citing flaws in design and construction of the institute’s 2004 $300 million Stata Center of which Mr. Gehry once said it “looks like a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate.” (See: M.I.T. Sues Frank Gehry, Citing Flaws in Center He Designed, by Robin Pogrebin and Katie Zezima, November 7, 2007) According to the Times, the law suit said that within months of the center’s opening, it essentially started coming apart, with “considerable masonry cracking” in the amphitheater’s seating areas. The builder said that the construction was not an issue. Said Mr. Gehry:

“value engineering” — the process by which elements of a project are eliminated to cut costs — was largely responsible for the problems.

In Conclusion: Is it Superstitious to Put These Coincidences Together in the Form of Fable?

What are we to make this? Are we superstitious about coincidences? Do we think that spirits that may travel with the land? There seems a fabulous tale here.

Once upon a time, a philanthropic Mr. Ward gave away land. It was an act of generosity from which Mr. Gehry ultimately benefitted because, through the good graces of fate, Bard College was eventually able to offer, with that land, an opportunity to Mr. Gehry to prove himself. Almost as in a fairy tale, Gehry was acclaimed for his work there. It was almost as if his life was charmed. Wherever he might have earned it, in this or a previous life, he seemed to be followed by good karma. His work was charitably viewed and well received. It seemed as if this good fortune might continue forever.

Then one day there was the opportunity for another legacy to flow through land the Wards had once owned. The spirit of the land could again flow through benefit to the community The magnificent white terra cotta Ward Bakery Building with its fairy tale repeating arches could have been adaptively reused to astonishingly benefit the community of Brooklyn. The building could have stood sturdy and worthwhile as a reminder that we love our history (can you tell we love our history?), and it could have been a vision rising up as one side of a Ward public park that could have a prime feature in the development of the Vanderbilt Railyards. (This rather than the Atlantic Yards plan).

Instead, along comes the villain of the story, an evil Mr. Ratner. He wants to attack and destroy the community out of personal greed. To do so he wants to destroy Mr. Ward’s beautiful bakery. He is unable to do so without an ally to disguise the face of evilness. That is when he approaches Mr. Gehry with a deal: Will Mr. Gehry help disguise his scheme? In exchange he will give Mr. Gehry more money than he ever dreamed.

The Money

We were having a celebratory holiday drink with one of our more amusing friends, who is familiar with Mr. Gehry’s famous method of creation: Crumpling up paper and tossing it on a table for inspiration. It is now easily possible to build things that resemble this haphazard product because of new computer technology and materials. Caveat: It is expensive and sometimes leaks. (See: Saturday, February 09, 2008, Knowing the landscape: how Miralles outpaced Gehry or Sketches of Gehry.)

“I'm tired of Mr. Gehry,” said our friend. “I don’t need to know anything more about him or the way he works. I know how he works. It’s like this. . “ he reached into his pocket “. . . Inspiration!” He held up a twenty dollar bill and waved it in front our face. Then he took the bill, passed his hand over it rather like a magician doing a trick would and, a second later, the bill, crumpled over, was tossed out onto the bar. “Inspiration” he declared triumphantly. The now crumpled bill sat on the bar at Freddy’s (within the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint) looking rather like one of the Gehry buildings Ratner wanted to slam down on that very site.

The End of The Fable

The end of the fable is that Gehry took the money from the evil Mr. Ratner and betrayed the community. He did not listen to the whispering spirit of the land from which he had once received benefit. He did not remember that, as an architect, he had a special charge: He should be thinking about the community for whom he should build. He was under the spell of self-absorption, thinking erroneously that he himself was the source of all his powers. He took the money. And it may be that in so doing he cut off the spirit of land from which generous benefit, good will and luck were flowing to him. It may be that something started on the day of his betrayal. It may be that, as a result of the choice he made that day, Mr. Gehry will be viewed differently, . . . And so it will be forever after.

More than Gehry?

Perhaps the spirit of the land is so strong it goes beyond just Gehry. Politicians considering Atlantic Yards may need to consider tokens of what is imbued in the land as well.

How strong is the magic that is mixed in and now flows with the land? It may be strong indeed: Crugers Island floats in the same Hudson river that Hamilton crossed for his fateful duel and which he thereupon crossed again afterwards mortally wounded. The south of Crugers Island was once inexplicably the site of Mayan sculptures (ultimately passed into the hands of the Natural History Museum) bought from Yucatan Indians in 1688 by Cruger ancestor Peter Schuyler and arranged for rites on the island in the form of ruined church. Politicians beware: If your destination is “Albany,” you arrive there on the other side of the river in Rensselear, land named for Cruger ancestors. The ancestral blood of two New York mayors is connected to the spirit of this land: Should not present-day mayors (and all those who aspire to that office) take heed and make sure to do the right thing when it comes to Atlantic Yards? Should not all politicians take sober heed to honor the legacy of the Wards?

1 comment:

Penelope Milford said...

This story of the spirit of the land affecting the fortunes of public figures should serve as a warning to Maurice Hinchey. He is currently partners with Thomas Struzzieri (HITS) in the Partition St Project, a hotel/restaurant being developed on an ecologically sensitive site overlooking the Esopus Creek in the Village of Saugerties.

Although the ad-hoc group Saugerties Citizens for Smart Development have diligently sought to have certain important issues addressed (public access, lead abatement, appropriate architectural design/scale), their input has been ignored and the developers have successfully avoided a SEQRA Review process. The plans are currently being rubber-stamped by the Village Planning Board.

Of course the money is on the side of the developers, but unlike his partner Struzieri (who a few years back was pro-Saugerties Casino), Hinchey has built his public career on promoting progressive land use policies. It seems ironic that he should be less sensitive to these issues in his own hometown. Or perhaps he thinks that here he has less need for pretense.

But as the back door dealings of this project come to public attention he may suffer some personal embarrassment for his reverse NMBY attitude.