I’m in North Carolina this week, mostly on Emerald Isle (where the water really is clear and green and 80 degrees), and finally got a chance to see the new North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, by Thomas Phifer & Partners, which opened this spring.
My first impression was wow, I can’t believe they built this in the Triangle. I know that sounds snobby, but despite the area’s long modernist history, you can count the number of successful local contemporary architects on two hands. It just isn’t that sophisticated an architectural audience, and the new NCMA, which falls squarely into the inconspicuous consumption, or deluxe warehouse, school of current museum-making, is startling in its rigor. My dad is going to kill me for saying this, but it blows Duke’s Nasher Museum, a lazy, bombastic atrium-as-architecture by Rafael Vinoly, out of the water. And it makes me a little sad that the major critics will journey to Europe, but not to North Carolina, to review the latest.
From the museum entrance, where a hot pink sign with the spiffy new identity has been mounted on top of the old carved granite monolith, the extension looks like it might be a set of construction trailers, light and blockish. The drive takes you around the block, and as you glide by, the block opens up. Courtyards of various sizes are cut in on each side, organized around water, plants, and monochrome sculpture (by Rodin, von Rydingsvard, Paine, and others). The building’s exterior carapace is a series of matte aluminum fins, that initially look flat, but register as a zigzag roofline. As you circle round, the fins’ brightly mirrored return appears, reflecting your car, the grass, the sky.
It’s that combination of minimalism and flash that syncs perfectly with my personal aesthetic. Phifer hasn’t forgotten to have a little fun with it. Mirrored metal reappears in the long, Miesian entrance canopy, which solves the problem of entering a modular modernist building by essentially building another one as welcome. Flash reappears in the choice of sculpted oval skylights to fill the rectangular ceiling grid. The oval brings with it the late 1960s sensuality of some Bunshaft. It avoids the fussy technicality of late Piano. In the few galleries where you see four or five ovals in a row, stretching toward the outer wall, they give the building the sense of ceremony of Kahn.
The collection, motley but quite good, looks infinitely refreshed. In the old brick Edward Larrabee Barnes barn, the period stuff was in period rooms of burgundy and blue. Here, Greek and Dutch still life and Judaica and Yoruban headdresses are installed in separate bays, but all on white walls, and all lit by the same lovely, sparkling combination of artificial and filtered light. The only pieces that look a bit squished are things like my favorite Frank Stella, a big one begging for a corporate lobby from the Protractor Series.
What the building doesn’t do is establish Tom Phifer, long of Richard Meier’s office, as a major talent. While the building is not Meierian, it is derivative of the holy trinity Kahn-Ando-Piano (of the Menil Collection era). But without a certain modernist rigor. It bothered me that the exterior fins, with their mirrored returns, were not reflected on the interior. The returns seemed designed to create thin stripes of light on a polished concrete floor, but were really just fancy clapboards. Likewise the glass interior walls, facing the many clever cut-in courtyards (why should California and Texas have all the inside-outside museums?). The glass is fritted in the same seersucker stripes as that at the new MoMA, and then there are the de rigeur motorized sunshades, and then there are diaphanous curtains, and then there are solid walls on which art is hung. If having glass walls in an art museum requires four layers of protection for the art, maybe another material would be a better choice, no?
I have other quibbles—the fountains aren’t quite up to the level of the Ando pool at the Pulitzer Foundation; a little more concrete or wood, in the manner of Kahn, might have improved the materials palette; shouldn’t there be a cafe, or even a LocoPops cart outside, so that we could dwell in the courts? In the nicely curated gift shop I saw what may be my favorite piece of identity merch: throw pillows with abstract patterns based on the ovoid letterforms, based on the ovoid skylights. No designer credited, an oversight, and I’m still searching for a picture.
One of the pleasures of teaching is when your students actually surprise you. I assigned my current class of NYU undergraduates a review of the Museum of Arts & Design (not one of my favorites, tho Slash was great) and several managed to come up with bold new metaphors for the building in context. Their take on it was more interesting than that of most of the professional critics, largely because they were coming to it cold. No nostalgia for what it was, just a ground-up assessment of what it looks like now. The generation gap is working for them.
MAD as shipwreck:
When a building fails to perform is resembles a sunken ship. Both are empty shells waiting to be filled. At some of these hollow hulls, rusting away at the bottom of the ocean floor, colorful flashes of life can be found… Shipwrecks on land are similar. Unappealing and inefficient buildings offer a challenge, and an opportunity, to make something great from something bad.
MAD as possibility:
Its geometric forms evoke computer chip circuitry, making one thing that perhaps this is the funky headquarters of a software giant… Perhaps this decision will extend the lifespan of the building well beyond the existence of the Museum of Arts & Design. This is a quirky, contemporary building that could house almost anything, from retail shops, to a progressive school, to an independent movie theater.
MAD as anomaly:
The harsh reconciliation of grid to looping boulevard at 59th Street creates that funny little block upon which 2 Columbus Circle sits, and as far as I can see, we would be better off without. Don’t get me wrong, I like urban incongruities, but not so much that I am willing to ignore an urban failure. The island that is 2 Columbus Circle simply feels like an unintended leftover, the pesky remainder of a third grade long-division problem.
I grew up in Durham, NC and my whole immediate family lives there today. I often recommend it to friends desperate to escape the high cost of ownership in the tri-state area. And yet, everything cool that has happened in Durham and environs has happened since I left.
There was no foodie culture, no downtown farmers market, just one renovated tobacco factory, no art house movie theater, no documentary film festival and so on. I took my best babysitting charge to Northgate Mall in my Sentra, let her ride the carousel and eat McDonald’s French fries, and everyone thought that was fine. (Except the horrified woman who once stopped to check that Ariel was not my child. We were both blonde and blue-eyed, but I was 16.)
The latest episode in the rise of the Triangle is the reopening of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh on Saturday, with what looks like a gorgeous addition by Thomas Phifer & Partners and new identity by my friend Yve Ludwig at Pentagram. We went often in my childhood, and always thought the original Edward Durell Stone building was dreary (brown on brown) but the collection could be inspiring. I remember a set of refrigerator magnets that now make me cringe: “Say Hey to Monet,” etc. I am sad I can’t find anyone to fly me home to write about it, but looking forward to it the next time I am there.
UPDATE: And the New York Times recognizes Durham as foodie heaven, with the farmer’s market given a starring role. Amy Tornquist, chef and owner at Watts Grocery, catered my wedding in 2003. It is great to see her talents recognized.
My favorite scene in all of Disney is in Cinderella, when the mice and birds and other beasties dress Cinderella for the ball. It is the loveliest makeover scene, all the better for being almost wordless. A suggestion of the origin of the idea for this scene appears in the third gallery at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco: a pagan spring goddess with long blonde hair, two birds bearing a floral wreath to her head. The museum, designed by Rockwell Group and invisibly inserted into one of a row of five identical brick barracks at the Presidio, opened last fall to a fair amount of press but, as far as I can tell, little buzz.
Which is a real shame, because the place is amazing, both for the history of Disney’s career, and for the design of the exhibitions. I can’t write a proper review of the WDFM, since one of my oldest friends works there, and I toured with a cranky toddler, but I think I saw enough to recommend it. The best rooms manage to showcase the latest in digital interactive technology alongside old-fashioned virtuoso illustration, and make both look wonderful. It is something to make over 1000 screens not dominate a fabulous miscellany of antique toys, hand-drawn character sketches, and vintage photos.
The first gallery should be the most boring: Walt Disney before cartoons. It is dressed in period crimson, beginning with a wallpapered panel of sepia photos (all the Disney family photos to come will be on wallpaper, the patterns changing to subtly signal the decade) and a real WWI ambulance. But the history of Walt’s early working life is told in a series of animated films that look like they were made with paper dolls, the kind roughly articulated with grommets. These play on small screens, above real model trains that come and go, animating the display. A paste-up of Walt’s early political cartoons is on a third wall, in all their impenetrable timeliness. (The Rockwell site has few, but good images of the rooms: click Projects, Culture, WDFM.)
Upstairs, there’s an old tyme movie poster display of the Alice films, cute shorts with cute girls playing “Alice” that sometimes combined live action and animation. Then a whole gridded wall of early Mickey sketches, some of which are actually moving pictures, early shorts showing the mouse wrangling with cars, trains, plows and other mechanical impediments (all on YouTube). This is where the museum becomes something you could easily show your kids, while not being directed at them. More screens await: the Skeleton Dance, the “color girls” painting the cels, a whole room devoted to the breakthrough that was Snow White. I particularly loved the memo about the names of the original dwarfs, describing their characteristics and real-world models (W.C. Fields). Dopey (I think) is pencilled in as a last-minute inspiration. And on and on, through strikes, South America, and some great three-way projections showing scenes from films like Peter Pan, the original theme art, and the real people filmed to provide models for the animators. Collaborators are not slighted.
My big question about the design is when they museum chose architecture instead of just installation, infilling the court of the U-shape barracks with a clear glass cube. That seems fine as an way to get extra square-footage, but within the cube Rockwell chose to break from the small gallery format and make a spiraling ramp, leading the visitor toward the inevitable flashy Florida moment. The WDFM suddenly turns into a spectacle, which may be appropriate to the history, but is jarring to the mood. Suddenly the screens dominate, as Mary Poppins and Polyanna dart at you from the corners of the room. I could also have done without the memorial off-ramp, a white curved wall with Walt Disney’s dates and a quote that ushers you out the door to the shop.
The WDFM apparently realizes they have a bit of a marketing problem. The Presidio’s landmark statutes allow it only a modest, black on white sign directly in front of their building, one of a row of four identical brick barracks. Their mark (on a couple of washed-out orange banners) is banal, and features irregular letterspacing of the kind that makes graphic designers scream in pain. None of my Bay Area friends had heard of the WDFM, and as I tried to describe it they all sneered/rolled their eyes/made cryogenics jokes. No, no, I explained, this is the Disney family, not the Disney Corporation. So they don’t mention his anti-Semitism? I kind of gave up. This is why it is nice to have a blog.
I sincerely hope the museum can find a way to target the lovers of technology, animation, American history, American futurism (the scale model of Disneyland, BTW, is amazing), children’s literature, illustration—I could go on—that will love the permanent exhibitions. Among the best artwork on the walls is that of Mary Blair, a Disney artist already big enough in Japan to have a solo show and catalog. Her work on It’s A Small World in the mid-sixties is deeply enmeshed with the aesthetics of California mid-century design and Alexander Girard and even the Nut Tree. There is a polished terrazzo floor on the lower level of the museum poured with a checkerboard of her sun, flower, shield designs that is one of the most gorgeous pieces of interior design I have recently seen… and I couldn’t find an image online.
There will soon be rotating, topical exhibits in the galleries as well, including an upcoming one on Peter Pan to coincide with a new production in the round in San Francisco. Sounds amazing. Peter Pan was my first Broadway show. My Omi got us tickets at the front of the balcony, so when Peter flew out into the audience s/he was about five feet away. But what they will have to do to Ugg-A-Wugg to make it singable in 2010?
It made the Approval Matrix this week, so I suppose it is not too late to pile on and highly recommend the Museum of Arts & Design’s Slash: Paper Under the Knife, as the must-see of the winter season. I have many problems with MAD (the new name, the new building, the new mark, I could go on) but this show includes some truly spectacular work. Everyone seems to be nattering on about the Gabriel Orozco show at MoMA, which I thought revealed him as a bit of a one-trick pony, with lots of weak conceptual and two-dimensional work. I only like the car and the ‘shroom.
Given the many exploding, foliated and frilly works in Slash, few of the reviews focused on the more subdued architectural works, largely stashed in a single gallery. There’s an extremely weak Thomas Demand photograph. There’s the utterly charming Olafur Eliasson Your House, a flip-book cutout that works much better as a film than as a volume (who could ever flip fast enough to make it interesting?); everyone who paused in front of the monitor let out a little laugh of delight. There are Beatrice Coron’s Heavens and Hells (2009), site-specific Tyvek works that make use of the building’s pointless slot windows to create detailed worlds that seem like a combination of Breugel, Chris Ware and Kara Walker. And most importantly, there is Rob Carter’s Stone on Stone (2009), a film which shows Le Corbusier’s La Tourette turning into St. John the Divine. And vice versa. I am not even sure what the message is, but you can make up almost anything. Is it a commentary on the fact that the two projects are essentially contemporaries? Is it a suggestion that they would each look better on each other’s site? Whatever the answer, I loved it.
What I did not love was the work, one floor below, by Sangeeta Sandrasegar, overlaying images of torture and destruction on iconic modern chairs. The wall text suggested that this was a commentary on consumer society, that designers are fiddling while Rome burns. If this were an original point, which I don’t think it is, Sandrasegar could better have made it had she not chosen chairs designed by people who fled war (Breuer), or contributed to the U.S. war effort (Eames). They were by no means disengaged from reality, making her chair selections seem themselves without history.
My somewhat racy, somewhat serious take on one of the first architecture power couples, Aline and Eero Saarinen went up on Design Observer today. A taste:
When Aline met Eero in January 1953, she was the associate art editor and critic for the New York Times, recently divorced, and on a trip to Detroit to meet the young architect whose General Motors Technical Center had proved to be such a smashing success. She was to write a profile of Saarinen for the New York Times Magazine, eventually published on April 23 as “Now Saarinen the Son” with the byline Aline B. Louchheim. A little over a year later she would become Aline B. Saarinen.
Cathleen McGuigan had a different spin on the same topic in Newsweek. All because Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future opens at the Museum of the City of New York today. The doorstop of a catalog, to which I contributed essays on Saarinen’s corporate campuses and houses, is available here.
If you stand in a certain spot in the second room of the MoMA’s gorgeous and serious new exhibition Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity (opening November 8) you can see Marcel Breuer becoming modern. On axis with the entrance is his “Romantic” or “African” chair (1921) whose arcing back was woven with silk and hemp and wool by Gunta Stotzl (that’s one of her sketches above), eventual head of the weaving workshop. It seems to have more to do with folk art than modernity, but around the corner you see him transforming the crudeness of the first attempt into something more suave: the TI 1a armchair (1922), with a more refined woven wool seat, and slim legs and bent arms that slide past each other in unusual ways. Across the room, his children’s chairs and table (1923), the first with a flat board back similar to Gerrit Rietveld’s 1917 Red Blue chair, the second the original of the cubic Parsons tables made ordinary by repetition and knock-offs. All this is before 1926. His real breakthrough, the cantilever chair of bicycle tubing, is still hidden beyond another wall, sequestered with other well-known works of architecture and furniture by Breuer and Walter Gropius and Josef Albers.
That putting off of the stars, denying us the best-known objects and sticking to chronology, is a strength for this exhibit. Its underlying intent is to remind us that the Bauhaus was a school. Student work and masterpieces of modern textile art, painting, craft and industrial design are presented as part of the total package. Mies van der Rohe barely shows up until the last room, and we see his students imitating his style, but none of his own drawings. Curator Barry Bergdoll says this was an obvious choice: Mies kept his architectural commissions separate from his teaching, and the show is about the school. This has the lovely effect of reducing the well-known names to beloved profs, allowing us to better observe the hidden talents of the wider Bauhaus pool. One of my favorite cases is at the back of the last room, stocked with samples of Bauhaus upholstery fabrics by Anni Albers and Gunta Stotzl, Bauhaus wallpapers (abstract as can be) by Heinrich-Siegfried Bormann. Thewallpapers were apparently the most successful Bauhaus products. One of the cleverest textiles is practically digital, a 1932 fabric by Hajo Rose whose original sketch was typed on a typewriter, letterforms turning into repetitive and almost floral scallops.
You should go. And you should especially go on one of the days when MoMA is offering hands-on workshops. Pretend to be a first-year in Johannes Itten’s class. Learn color the Albers way. Something different is happening at MoMA when they embrace a little of the Etsy spirit.