Dec 7, 2007

Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale in New York: Update

I have been fitfully researching Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, and now have enough new material to justify an update to my post of May 31, 2007. I have been encouraged by the recent interest of Dutch-based architects and academics who maintain the website ArchiAfrika, on which they recently republished my original post, Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale in New York. As this is an update, you’ll need to read the original post first for it to make sense. And speaking of republishing, the new online journal, Design Philosophy Politics has recently published an expanded version of my "Design for the Other 90%" review here.

Two Pères, Three Maisons

In May, I was unsure of who actually rescued the Maison from “deepest darkest” Africa: French dealer, Eric Touchaleaume, or American collector, Robert Rubin. Despite reading many more articles, I am still unsure, but this in itself may be interesting. In the official catalogue for the Christie’s sale of the Maison, Touchaleaume stated categorically that he made “arrangements in 2000 for a trip to Africa in pursuit of the prototype Maisons Tropicales, determined to salvage them from ruin and to bring them back to France. I was eventually able to buy them, dismantle them and ship them home.” (p.9) This cleared it up for me: Touchaleaume rescued all three Maisons from Africa, and then sold one to American collector, Robert Rubin. However, while at the hairdressers last week, I picked up a copy of Town and Country (October 2007) which contained an interview with Rubin in which he claimed to have rescued the three Maisons, then sold two of them to a French dealer. Now Town and Country is perhaps not the most reputable source of information but what is interesting is that, going back through the articles about the Maison, both Touchaleaume and Rubin both claim the glory for rescuing the Maisons from Africa – it depends on who the journalist interviews. Another possibly relevent aside I did find out is that Touchaleaume has been on the Prouvé trail for a lot longer than Rubin, as he co-published a catalogue in 1987, Jean Prouve Mobilier, 1924-1953, then in 1989 presented “Jean Prouve Meubles, 1924-1953” at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Bourdeaux.

However, I did clarify which Maison is which, and what has happened to each of them since the great African rescue. Of the original three Maison prototypes produced by Prouvé, the first was commissioned by Paul Herbé, architect-planner of Niger colony, to be used as his office in Niamey. His idea was to extend the industrial prefab architecture technique to later construct Niamey civic structures such as schools and other institutions (an idea which never came to fruitition). The second and third prototypes went to Brazzaville, and were similar to the first, though not exactly the same. The Brazzaville prototypes comprised a smaller one, 10 by 14 meters, and a larger one, 10 by 18 meters, originally joined together by a bridge. And here’s the interesting connection I’ll come back to below: the smaller one was originally an office for the Bureau Régional d’Information de l’Aluminum Français. The larger one was originally a residence for the commercial director of Aluminum Français, Jacques Piaget. While the smaller one was originally partitioned into Director’s office, a secretary’s office and a waiting room, the residence was originally partitioned into a master bedroom plus two smaller bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom.

More recently, Robert Rubin painstakingly restored his Maison, the smaller one from Brazzaville, exhibited it at Yale and Hammer Museum, UCLA, and then donated it to the Pompidou Center where it now rests on the roof. (Another neat connection worth mentioning here is this: Prouvé was president of the Pompidou Center selection committee which approved Rogers and Piano’s high-tech "industrial" design, a high-profile commission which continued Prouvé’s legacy). Meanwhile, Eric Touchaleaume is currently painstakingly restoring the Niamey Maison, which he intends to set up in the South of France as a study center and exhibition site dedicated to architecture and design. And the third, the larger Brazzaville Maison, after being painstakingly restored, was sold to hotelier/developer Andre Balazs in New York in June. And though I don’t usually indulge in gossip on this blog, the Maison is rumored to be destined for a life as a bar in a Balazs luxury hotel in the Bahamas, with interiors designed by Lenny Kravitz. After the Love Revolution, give it up for the Design Revolution?

Colonialism and modernism

The interesting but, in retrospect, unsurprising, connection here is between Prouvé and Aluminum Français, the state-owned company that controlled French aluminum production in the interwar period, including, of course, bauxite mining in various French colonies in Africa. The Christie’s sale catalogue contained a photo of a Prouvé Aluminum and Formica Table, c. 1950, in situ in the Bauxite Processing Plant of Aluminum Français in Edea, Cameroon. The close relationship between the interests of French industry, colonialism and modernist design that I pointed out in my previous post were further confirmed by these concrete (or should that be aluminum?) connections. In addition, in 1951, ORSTOM, the Office of Scientific and Technical Research in Overseas Territories, placed a large order with Prouvé’s workshop to equip both their colonial offices and their main office in Bondy, Paris.

So, Prouvé’s Maison clearly illustrates the postwar colonial triangle: the French colonial mining company, Aluminum Français, extracted raw materials from the African colonies which were then returned to France, refined into aluminum, designed into prefab Maisons and furniture by modernist designer Jean Prouvé, and finally returned to the colonies as finished designer commodities, proof of French technical and cultural superiority. However, the final, and somewhat touching part of the tale, is that in 1953, Prouvé’s beloved workshop near Nancy which produced these objects (including the Maisons), was taken over by none other than Aluminum Français, a fact Prouvé seemed to be most unhappy about. Prouvé’s Maxeville workshop, run under socialist principles and founded on the Arts and Crafts ideal of maintaining a close connection between the designer and craftsman, was gobbled up by the colonial system it was both dependent upon and also supporting in its promotion of all the marvellous things, from tables and chairs to complete houses, that could be designed using colonially-sourced aluminum.

Designer Treasure Hunters

An interesting point about the Christie’s New York sale in June that I overlooked was the sheer volume of modernist designer loot “rescued” from countries in the developing world. While the star of the sale was the Maison, the sale also contained a range of additional French modernist designer loot by not only Prouvé, but also Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. It included furniture produced by Prouvé from the 1930s and 40s, ranging from single armchairs to a steel dining table (ranging from $20 000 - $40 000). The sale also featured a range of other salvaged French modernist design and architectural details, including loot from Le Corbusier’s postwar government complex at Chandigarh, India. Here it seems, Touchaleaume (or Rubin?) rescued library tables, chairs from government offices, shelving, stools, lighting fixtures – anything portable and designed by French modernists, including a Cast-Iron Manhole Cover designed by Pierre Jeanneret (asking $20 000)! It seems the 21st century market for design is hot enough to justify just about anything connected to the hand of a certified modernist great – if design isn’t art, it sure sells like it!

A further valuable source of colonial loot for sale was an Air France Unité d’Habitation in Brazzaville, designed by French modernists Jean Hébrard, Louis Lefevre, Jean Létu and Pierre Bienvenue. In 1950, Air France commissioned Charlotte Perriand to outfit their Brazzaville Unité, comprising 60 apartments designed to house French airline personnel on stopovers. Completed in 1952, it was a showcase of Modernist French design and must have been considered successful, as Air France commissioned subsequent projects by Perriand, including a similar building in Dakar, Senegal. For the interiors, Perriand used both her own designs and those of Jean Prouvé, as well as some in collaboration, such as the “Brazza” storage units which combined local tropical woods with Prouvé’s steel parts. Unlike Prouvé, Perriand went to Brazzaville to oversee the project and produce work there. Again, the building was stripped of its goodies some time in the past few years by Touchaleaume (or Rubin?). Presumably it was impractical or uneconomical to ship the entire five story concrete building to New York for the auction. Finally, there was similar loot from the Perriand-designed Air France building in Dakar also auctioned in New York – tables, lamps, cabinets, a Brazza storage unit, drying racks, even molded concrete paving stones from the rooftop terrace garden.

Constructing a Design Master, Constructing a Design Market

Finally, a comment on the reissue and rediscovery of Prouvé. In a
previous post on Design Within Reach and Vitra, I discussed the phenomenon of “fully licensed classics”. These are not “original” Modernist classics like you might have picked up at the Christie’s auction for tens of thousands of dollars, but “authentic” design classics available for only two or three thousand dollars. Let’s look at a concrete (er, steel?) example: Jean Prouvé’s Citie armchair, steel and leather, c.1930. One of these chairs sold at Christies in June 2007 for $102 000 – this is the “original” version. In comparison, the “fully licensed classic” or “authentic” version is currently available in the US at Design Within Reach for $3265. While the original version may have been reconditioned or at least cleaned up a little, it was manufactured in 1930 at Prouvé’s workshop. In the contemporary reissues of Prouvé’s furniture, laser cutting, computer-driven machinery and new epoxy finishes have replaced Prouvé’s pioneering interwar methods and materials.

It is worth briefly unpackaging the various levels at work here, as they are inter-dependent: on on the one level, at the Christie’s auction of “originals”, we witness the fetishization of a design object as art – the original product of the certified master, rescued from Chandargarh or deepest darkest Africa, brought back to the safety of Western private collections and museums, stripped of its functionality and destined to a life on display on a pedestal. On the second level, that of the “authentic” version, we engage with the Prouvé chair as a 21st century simulacra, a virtual Prouvé, created with contemporary production processes and technologies. What is ultimately important is the chair’s modernist design, and design here is exclusively understood as aesthetic – it looks like the original, even if the production processes and technologies are quite different (and in fact, the new “authentic” chair may well be more perfect, more durable, and more "functional" than a well-worn “original”). I noted in the last post the vested interest that a company such as Vitra has in such a system – they not only reissue “authentic” Prouvé furniture, but also have a design museum containing “original” Prouvé furniture - so they operate on both levels. But the marketing doesn’t stop there. Vitra currently have a touring exhibition entitled “
Jean Prouvé: The Poetics of the Technical Object”, which began touring various museums in Japan in 2005, and since then has been touring around various European museums (due to end in 2008 at the Design Museum in London). Finally, all this is not necessarily just about Jean Prouvé, but ultimately about the gap between what modernist design was and how it is perceived in the 21st century. Beyond this, what really interests me about modernism and its contemporary reception are two things: how to extricate it from contemporary market-driven design, and, following this, what its future possibilities might be.

All photos of the Maison Tropicale in New York, May 2007, by D.J. Huppatz

This will be my last blog entry for this year, I'll be back in the new year with more. Thanks for your interest.

Nov 23, 2007

Drew Gardner: Petroleum Hat

With its inconsistent tone and self-conscious awkwardness, Drew Gardner’s second book of poetry, Petroleum Hat (2005), may already be an early Flarf classic. The flatness, the fakeness, and the constant disruption of “communication”, that is, information consumption, doesn’t make for an easy read. Gardner’s poems, many of which read like constellations of fragments culled from internet searches or strings of spam, have caused some anxiety recently in poetry circles – anxiety specifically related to his methodology – are these anti-humanist poems simply “generated by machines”? Following generations of collage from Dada to Burroughs, not to mention MTV, mashups mediated by various forms of technological tools are hardly revolutionary. But beyond the methodology lies the importance of Gardner’s intervention into the spectacle of contemporary American media culture. For Flarfists, the contemporary muse is not an ancient Greek nymph who whispers sincere odes in the poet’s ear but a drag king impersonating the tragi-comic (late) Elvis in Las Vegas, all bejeweled jumpsuits and awkward karate moves. She may well be the specter haunting contemporary American poetry. Or it is a he? And perhaps that should be “spectacle” rather than specter?

While Gardner’s poems in Petroleum Hat might be perceived as conventionally “awful”, they ultimately declare themselves as poems. Nada Gordon’s recent book, Folly, on the other hand, extended poetry beyond its conventional bounds with Gordon’s interjections, conversations and references to theater or performance texts, all of which served to disrupt the book as a collection of discrete poems (see my previous post). In contrast, Gardner’s poems certainly look like conventional ones – blocks of text with justified left margins and ragged right margins, arranged into stanzas over a page or two. However, like Gordon’s Folly, Gardner’s Hat is characterized by its multitude of conflicting voices, its deflation of sincerity and its juxtaposition of serious and profane content.

Like internet search engines, Gardner’s poems make no distinction between “serious” information (“news”), personal asides and pop gossip: it’s all potential material to add to the mix. In Petroleum Hat, political figures mix it with celebrities in a flattened virtual world, and this may in fact be less of a literary construct than simply a reflection of the “real” contemporary America (the Governator of California, for example, springs to mind). While there are no consistent narratives or tones in Gardner’s work, the language all seems to be culled from the virtual world – what K. Silem Mohammad calls a poetry with internet “flavors”. At times, it feels as if Gardner is “drowning in the porridge of upload” – and, rather than distilling the information overflow into clear, rational packages of consumable data, he leaves it messy and thick with absurdity, cynicism and ambiguity. In “The Key and the Carrot”, Gardner writes:

I walk my room
looking for a destination,
only finding poets who love form and content
I have nonetheless found myself
walking to the receiver
as arsonist
with the new situation in quantum furrow
let it suffice with this:
the ground beef is still nothing received

The absence of punctuation makes it difficult to make “sense” of this poem, its initial autobiographical mode is disrupted by random appearances from quantum furrows and ground beef, as if our arsonist is burning the conventional autobiographical tone in which he (?) begins. If poets “love form and content”, Flarfists have instead fallen for relations and surface. Thus it does seem a little futile to be digging into the depths of these poems (what is “quantum furrow”? why “ground beef” here?) as they are less metaphoric than metonymic, establishing relations across a surface rather than mining a tradition (again, no evidence of ancient Greeks here).

A major theme of the book is the Iraq War, or more specifically, the images and language of the war as it is being consumed in contemporary America (or least on its computer screens). Gardner plays with War on Terror doublespeak, exposing its absurdity and deflating its seriousness. In this sense, it is worth considering the fragmented language and imagery of Petroleum Hat as a corrosive disruption to the sanitized feeds of information presented by mainstream American news sources. Gardner’s now-infamous poem, “Chicks Dig War”, for example, begins “Story time: Trojan Oil War (part 2)”, a pithy summation of the war, but he goes further than just the war with his repeated phrase “chicks dig war”. While it has been described as an anti-war poem, Gardner is actually dismantling the warped logic and propaganda that justifies war, and ultimately satirizes contemporary American gender and power relations. Joyelle McSweeny, in her excellent review in The Constant Critic, described the poem thus: “Fear of feminism, female strength and male weakness are conflated with each other and with the antithetical heterosexism of militaristic propaganda to create frightening, porny ideations: "God Made Girls Who Like War."” The foundational American trinity of miltarism, religion and patriarchy are all wittily deflated by Gardner’s satire.

In Gardner’s “John Denver Wawa Shadow Puppet Government”, he again mashes up key contemporary themes – the war, politics, celebrity and religion:

the NBC/Wall Street Journal doesn’t understand
the God of Isaac and Ishmael
soon we’ll all be praying to John Denver
if we don’t allow right-wing poor people to feel happy
ALL the time,
teach their kids how to pray in the direction of pizza
yet see no problem
with having the Lord’s Prayer printed in ghostly pubic hair

the president has become newly stressed-out
with the profound equality of all human beings
knocking over stone walls onto Avril Lavigne
as Abraham Lincoln once did

Here, Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham (though with different mothers), underline the common ancestry of Christianity and Islam (the former religion traces a lineage through Isaac, the latter through Ishmael). Mainstream news “can’t understand” that both religions have the same father. In a contemporary America where more people vote for TV pop stars than politicians, John Denver, bland country/pop singer of the 1970s and 80s, may be both a worthy idol and a worthy political candidate. However, unlike contemporary bland pop stars, and despite the potential patriotism of hits such as “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High”, Denver was also known for his political outspoken-ness, and was particularly critical of various (particularly Republican) governments.

In the following stanza, Gardner flattens the space of the poem to conflate Avril Lavigne and Abraham Lincoln. Beyond simply a curious juxtaposition, Gardner is also skating across the surface of language, with ALL as a key refrain from the last stanza – both bland contemporary pop singer and former president contain those letters in their names, underlining the equality of all. However, more seriously, equality is stressful for the president, with the resonance of “stone walls” recalling 1969’s Stonewall Riots, and suggesting that equality here is not just referring to the rights of America’s Pizza-eating poor but also the president’s “knocking over” gay rights proposals.

There certainly appears to be something sinister going on behind the scenes of the “shadow puppet government”, though Gardner does not offer a clear ethical stance on any of these issues – the poems force combinations or conflate discourses that do not usually belong in the same space. Another poem, “in this otherworldly quiet”, for example, begins:

in this otherworldly quiet
i heard the piercing cry of agony rent the air
dear little bird, why this shipbuilding?
why a 300 pound weapon, and
why did each protester
spank Wolfowitz individually, really hard?

administration has been made between
clauses relating to internet surveillance
and radioactive toys made of lint

Here again, Gardner presents a mashup of contemporary news issues – the war, internet surveillance, weapons – in a creepy silent otherworld (the silent distance created by the mediating screen?). But the messiness only allows the reader brief moments of empathy. By creating a space where prayer meetings meet celebrity porn and the war’s principle architect, Paul Wolfowitz is spanked by protestors, Gardner’s warped visions are certainly infused with an absurd humor. As spam aims to escape filters and spread virally, so too Gardner’s language escapes rational communication in unfiltered streams of the American collective unconscious, and the results are both humorous and frightening. Petroleum Hat is a collection of odd fragments that takes on the glittering surfaces of mediated culture in a combination of chance-generated spontenaeity and constructedness, resulting in a poetics which tries to take on contemporary media culture on its own terms rather than from the position of “poetry” that expresses “sincere emotions”. If not sincere, then serious? With the constant stoppages, voice changes and erasures, the reader is never really sure. As Gardner writes in “Skylab Wolverine Bunny Cage Nub”:

That last paragraph has to go—
I think that’s the wolverine bunny cage of
our problem—not counting the last paragraph
made of paper maché nub replicas.


Drew Gardner reads "Chicks Dig War" at the 2006 Flarf Festival in NYC (YouTube video).

Drew Gardner reads from an earlier book, Sugar Pill, to the accompaniment of his own piano playing, in a duo with bass player Damon Smith (Ubuweb, sound only).

Drew Gardner's blog, Overlap.

The latest on Flarf, a National Poetry Foundation podcast. A good introduction and overview.

Nov 9, 2007

Starchitect Condos update

Following my last post, take a brief walk here through a new apartment at Herzog & de Meuron's 40 Bond St (really a promotional tour by a real estate agent, courtesy of New York magazine). Although the development is barely open, an owner is already trying to "flip" an apartment for $3.6 million. But before you pull out your checkbook, bear in mind that you may be the only resident of 40 Bond who doesn't "own their own plane". But you will have access to all the amenities, including "personal lifestyle management" (provided, that is, you have a lifestyle worth managing).

Oct 30, 2007

Designing Lifestyle in 21st Century New York: Starchitect Condos

The early years of the 21st century have witnessed a number of brand-name architects (henceforth starchitects) designing condominium buildings in downtown Manhattan. While the physical living spaces are not significantly different to, say, 1980s New York luxury loft-style apartments, what has changed is the imaging, or perhaps more correctly, the total design of luxury lifestyles. In this sense of design, the physical buildings comprise but a minor part of the package – indeed, even before a sod of earth has been turned to dig foundations, architects, designers, developers and branding consultants have already created a image-world that includes not just the physical building and its interiors, amenities and furnishings, but also available services (from a 24 hour concierge desk to dog walking services), as well as highlights from the surrounding neighborhood. In short, designing a luxury condo involves the creation of an entire virtual lifestyle long before the actual glass and steel have arrived.

The imaging process that creates contemporary starchitect condos begins with the website. Here, potential consumers can see not only projected images of the finished building and its interiors, but also an entire image-world of the designer lifestyle, including a soundtrack, video clips and plenty of both real and constructed images featuring people inhabiting (or perhaps simply posing within) the spaces. These Flash-heavy websites often take some serious bandwidth to download – and the general rule seems to be, the more Flash the better. Such websites are, after all, as much about entertainment as they are about communicating information. If you don’t have a good broadband connection, this can mean spending a lot of time staring at increasing percentage numbers – but then again, if you can’t afford a decent broadband connection and the accompanying high-tech hardware, you’re hardly in the market for a luxury condo. Presumably all of this sophisticated imaging is required so that the physical glass and steel structure will have already acquired sufficient magical qualities before people part with their money: the luxury condo enters the world of myth before it exists in reality.

21st century New York is characterized by its reliance on two industries, finance and real estate, complemented by a few secondary industries, most notably the media sector (TV, film and publishing) and the cultural industry (galleries, museums, music, dance, theater, etc). It is in recent starchitect-designed condos that these various sectors of the city’s economy clearly intersect – high design (culture) meets brand name architect (a media construct) meets developer (real estate) meets big price tag (finance). Culture, particularly culture that has been already mediated and confirmed by institutions and publications (“architect featured at MoMA”, “designer of iconic museum”, “as featured in glossy coffetable books”, etc), seems a particularly important selling point for a New York lifestyle.

Jean Nouvel, 40 Mercer Street

Value-added living via design

Richard Meier might be credited as the pioneer of the recent wave of Manhattan starchitect-designed condos, and his designs certainly set the scene for more recent variations. His 173/175
Perry Street buildings, started in 1999 and completed in 2002, are typical modernist high-rise buildings with concrete service cores and a steel structure covered with floor to ceiling glass panels. Nothing particularly innovative architecturally speaking, the apartments are essentially elegant modernist glass boxes. However, Meier created a design vocabulary based on a minimalist, or “pure” form of modernism for a newly wealthy and design-saavy New York audience. And it must be a successful formula, as Meier has designed others since, most recently his On Prospect Park in Brooklyn (due to be finished soon). Meier has reconfigured modernism to equate it with luxury – here, transparent glass boxes function as both sources of views and conspicuous images of “designer” lifestyles, complete with lobbies prominently featuring Mies’s Barcelona chairs (presumably “authentic” versions? – see also my previous post). Finally, it is important that Meier’s Manhattan projects were sold as “designed by Richard Meier”, with the architect’s name becoming an essential branding device that adds to the luxurious appeal.

More recently, the floodgates have opened on the luxury condo market, with globally-branded starchitects now in on the act. My survey here covers recently completed and under-construction projects, all located in downtown Manhattan (and this is not a comprehensive list, simply the biggest names). These include:
40 Mercer Street and 100 11th Street by Jean Nouvel; Blue by Bernard Tschumi; 40 Bond Street by Herzog and de Meuron; 80 South Street by Santiago Calatrava; 166 Perry St by Asymptote; Yoo Downtown by Philippe Starck; The Urban Glass House by Philip Johnson (?) and Annabelle Seldorf; 1 Kenmare Square by Richard Gluckman; and 1 York Street by Enrique Norton (TEN Arquitectos). One thing all of these developments have in common is the cost – most of the apartments on offer start at around $2 million (studios or one bedroom) and go up (and up) from there.

A survey of the websites reveals many additional common features. While the exteriors generally assert their difference from the surrounding context (especially Tschumi’s
Blue, for example), the interiors follow Meier’s lead and reproduce minimalist downtown “loft”-like open plan spaces with high ceilings. These are not, of course, recycled industrial buildings as one might find in SoHo, but mimic the same interior aesthetic as 1980s lofts. The interiors all feature quality brand-name bathroom and kitchen fixtures and appliances, usually imported (read “European”) and some offer designer furniture options. In addition to private apartments, all condo buildings include some kind of recreational spaces – a gym or an indoor pool, and most feature a private lounge or bar. These, combined with the 24 hour concierge service desk which can arrange everything from grocery shopping to housekeeping, ensure that the owners’ designer life is almost self-contained within the building. The image is of effortless living with no domestic work necessary – a postindustrial Manhattan lifestyle that solves the old “servant problem” by outsourcing services – from grocery shopping to dry cleaning to cooking to dog walking. While Martha Stewart seems to have convinced middle America that domestic chores are fun (or at least that’s the fantasy she’s sold them), the really wealthy evidently haven’t bought this idea. In a designer lifestyle, domesticity is equated with drudgery that others can do, leaving more time to see and be seen.

A couple of further distinctive aspects of the websites worth commenting on are the music and the press page. Many of these websites feature music – it seems to be essential to create an aural ambience for a designer condo building – this is usually some kind of electronic ambient music, although Tschumi’s Blue, for example, features a short section of an old soul classic, “At last, the skies are blue…” by Etta James (I think?). Finally, and no less important, most designer condo websites feature a “press” page. The media publicity machine is already at work long before building has even started, with success measured in column inches and the number of feature articles (here design meets the media industry). Santiago Calatrava’s 80 South Street is the best example of this, with 18 articles collected on the website, that is, 18 articles about a proposed luxury condo building that hasn’t been built yet (and may never be built).

Bernard Tschumi, Blue, conspicious distinction

Buying a part of history

The most important aspect of starchitect-designed condos is that they have been designed by a famous architect. Calatrava’s 80 South Street, a speculative tower designed in 2003, features the following quotes on its website: “As featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York” and “own a part of architectural history”. The building is thus promoted as already part of the narrative of architectural history and already certified by a major museum as a significant cultural object, even though it doesn’t yet exist. And given the development comprises only 10 apartments starting from $29 million, it may never be economically viable. However, if it is never built, will it still be included in architectural history?

Meanwhile, The Urban Glass House certainly relies on a particular history of modernism in its promotion, making direct references to Philip Johnson’s original Glass House in Connecticut and suggesting that this new tower is destined to become a modernist classic in the same vein. The large billboard advertising the development in 2005 featured a split image, with half of Annabelle Seldorf’s face matched with half of Johnson’s face (Johnson’s half in black and white of course, to signify “history”). The tagline underneath read, “Modernist luxury as evolved”. PJ’s actual role in the design of The Urban Glass House is unclear to me, but my sense is that he simply lent his name to the project and Seldorf did the designing (though why, at his age, he would bother is indeed a mystery). Following Meier’s lead, modernism has continuing luxury appeal in Manhattan with The Urban Glass House and, as with the Calatrava development, buyers are not just buying a place to live, but a significant piece of architectural history.

While the language of modernism continues to appeal, Yoo Downtown by Philippe Starck, offers a slight variation on the starchitect-designed condo. Here, Starck has created a kind of postmodern gestamkunstwerk, designing not only the lobby area but also the pool, gym, theater and open-air terrace (“Starck Park”), in addition to providing a catalogue of furnishing options for the apartments. Starck’s best known projects in New York are a series of hotels designed for Mr Lifestyle himself, Ian Schreger, including the Royalton (1988), the Paramount (1990) and the Hudson (2000). With Yoo Downtown, Starck is extending his postmodern hotel aesthetic into spaces you can actually own. He has not only designed the public spaces, but is also presented as your personal interior design consultant, with four Starck furnishing options to choose from: Nature, Culture, Minimal or Classic. Each features a series of mix and match furniture and lighting choices from various designers (including Starck himself) so you can own your very own Philippe Starck-designed stage upon which to live out your designer fantasies.

Bernard Tschumi, Blue, billboard marketing designer interiors

But who are these fantasies designed for? Who needs a designer lifestyle anyway? A short essay on lifestyle from the website of Herzog and de Meuron’s, 40 Bond Street (developer Ian Schreger), provides some clues:

“Lifestyle is an expression of the life well lived. Lifestyle is the sum of our individual choices. It is the way we make our lives our very own. As old institutions fade and social structures fall away, the world is a smaller place. We are more mobile, jetting from one side of the world to the other, moving from one role in society to another. Nationality and class have been replaced by lifestyle. People find their place in the world through intelligence and taste. There are tribes of taste today. They recognize each other by their style. Lifestyle is the way a person distinguishes himself or herself. It is the artistry of living.”

Designer lifestyles are here equated with exclusivity and membership of a particular cosmopolitan class with good taste. However, only for an extremely small and select group of people has nationality been replaced by lifestyle – extensive passport controls at international airports and the erection of walls along the US-Mexican border suggest otherwise (imagine at a border crossing someone saying to the guards, “Hey, I’ve got lifestyle, let me in!”). Class, meanwhile, remains a key defining feature amongst of life in New York, and “lifestyle” and “taste” continue to be key determinants of class. The artistry of living, meanwhile, has been reduced here to consumption, as wealthy consumers are convinced to buy a lifestyle ready-made from famous designers. The “artistry of living” can be achieved without effort, creative input or even individuality, simply purchased as a prepackaged fantasy that seems like simply an up-scale version of Disney’s fantasy lifestyles on offer in Celebration, USA.

Finally, designer lifestyles, as presented in the image-world of the luxury condo, are centered around individual pleasures and individual consumption rather than any concept of community (where are you Jane Jacobs?). The surrounding neighborhood exists solely as a site of consumption, with the publicity material highlighting spaces such as cafes, restaurants and designer boutiques (rather than, say, public libraries, parks, schools or swimming pools). There is never any mention of interacting with the neighbors or participating in any kind of community life – the designer condo building is a sealed, exclusive enclave for a select “tribe of taste”.

But wait, there’s more

Pandiscio company, a contemporary “brand creation and marketing” company create what they call “branded addresses”, and currently represent 40 Mercer, The Urban Glass House and Cipriani Club Residences. It seems that luxury living is now in the hands of brand consultants as much as developers or architects. Incidently, Pandiscio are located, appropriately enough, in the Meatpacking District. Their latest gimmick is a series of handmade soft toys called Cuddle Me Condos. These include characterizations of luxury condo buildings, including 40 Mercer (above left) and The Urban Glass House (above right) as well as Cipriani Club Residences and One Kenmare Square.

Finally, for his 40 Mercer St condos, developer/hotelier Andre Balasz (he who bought the Maison Tropicale), commissioned a children’s book as part of the marketing program. “Jacques et Jill” is a charming tale of two chihuahuas who fall in love in Soho and watch the sun set from the glass balcony of 40 Mercer St’s penthouse suite. Of course, the irony is that while chihuahuas (at least quiet ones) might be tolerated at 40 Mercer St, children certainly do not feature in luxury condo ads. Indeed, 40 Mercer St’s publicity does not feature childcare or babysitting listed under the amenities and features no playroom for children – it’s quite clear that children are not part of the “adventurous, sophisticated lifestyle” portrayed at 40 Mercer St. But everyone knows that adventurous, sophisticated people love reading a good children’s book and cuddling up with a soft toy of their designer condo, especially right after they’ve visited their therapist.

Designing Designer Designs

So how is it possible to address the role of design in this imaging process? Is it still possible to separate the physical building from the associated branding and marketing? Or, is the physical building really significant without the imaging process? Does the contemporary architect simply provide a distinctive veneer on a fantasy developed by branding experts? Beyond the hype, it is important to note in conclusion that the starchitects involved in these condo projects have not substantially redefined urban living. There is certainly never any mention of the condo’s connection to society as a whole – the complete absence of the issues of sustainability or environmental design principles confirm that the designer lifestyle is not only a self-centered fantasy, but one that may prove to be ultimately socially and environmentally unsustainable.

Photos of Nouvel's 40 Mercer St and Tschumi's Blue by D.J. Huppatz


Sondra Fein, “
Condo Cool: Starchitect Branding and the Cost of “Effortless Living, or, Another Episode in the Continuing Quest for Social Status Through Design”, Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 2007. An excellent article about starchitect condos in Manhattan that I only just discovered when I was finished this entry. A must read.

An extensive list of luxury condo developments in Manhattan by Corcoran Sunshine Group


Julie V. Iovine, “Jack and Jill went up the private elevator”, New York Times, November 6, 2005. Includes a page from the children’s book for 40 Mercer St.

Oct 7, 2007

21st century Design Zone: the Meatpacking District

At the far west of West 14th Street, between the West Village and Chelsea, lies the Meatpacking District. This area of low-rise brick and iron industrial buildings around Gansevoort and Hudson streets, once the distribution center for New York’s meat industry, has recently been transformed into a designer zone. A strip of West 14th Street between 9th and 10th Aves entered the 21st century as one of New York’s hot spots of fashion and design, with a growing congregation of fashion boutiques, designer furniture stores, restaurants, bars and the looming threat of luxury condo towers. With its cobbled streets and occassional passing meat truck from diehard remainders of the meatpacking industry, West 14th Street now houses a collection of flagship stores of late 90s and early 21st century fashion stars such as Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Diana von Furstenberg and Carlos Miele. Far from stuffy Madison Avenue or touristy Fifth Avenue, the Meatpacking District feels more exclusive because it is still somewhat isolated, although this seems to be changing fast. It is the new block for the new stars of global fashion, and who can resist the semantic slippage between meatpacking and fashion?

While the area became fashionable from the early 1990s, perhaps the first seeds of its designer future were sown with the opening of Restaurant
Florent in 1985. The restaurant opened in a transformed American diner on Ganesvoort Street when, apart from a few gay nightclubs, the Meatpacking District was still very much about packing meat. While Florent was famous for its opening hours (24/7), French bistro-style menu and celebrity clientele, it lives on in designer legend due to its innovative graphic identity and advertisements by Tibor Kalman’s M&Co. In retrospect, Florent’s graphic program looks like copybook mid-80s postmodernism. Menu designs, matchbooks and postcards (see below) featured images appropriated from Yellow Pages ads, line drawings culled from clip art catalogues or stock photography. The most memorable graphics, often reproduced in design anthologies, are a series of Florent advertisments in which Kalman appropriated a diner menu-board, complete with “amateur” improvised design which included “bad” spelling and grammar, letters dropping off the grid, and campy visual and verbal puns – in short, breaking all the rules of a stifling modernist aesthetic built on strict grids and the clear, rational communication of “information”.

The Meatpacking District has also made significant cameos on film. In Adrian Lyne’s anti-feminist classic of 1987, “Fatal Attraction”, the dangerous nature of the neighborhood provides a visual metaphor for Glenn Close’s psychotic character, Alex. In one memorable scene, she entered her pristine white loft via a dark, smoky alley with men hauling meat carcasses in the background. However, by the turn of the century, when “Sex in the City”’s Samantha moved to a loft in the Meatpacking District (Season 3, 2000), its cinematic allusions seemed to have shifted from evil to merely edgy – but Samantha still had to contend with the occasional burglar as well as the loud trannie prostitutes outside her window. When I was there recently, the cameras and film crews were all over West 14th Street, perhaps filming a fashion-friendly Olsen twins movie next?

Today, the Meatpacking District’s nouveau boutiques of designer consumption inhabit former working-class spaces of warehouses, meatworks and diners. New stores feature exteriors of aged raw bricks and iron columns, stripped to reveal various layers of paint – an aesthetic best characterized as retro-fitted industrial chic. In 2003, the area was designated the Ganesvoort Historic District, with Florent Morellet of Restaurant Florent involved in the campaign for its historic preservation. Beyond the historic veneer, there is little of the old working class sensibility left, as these former industrial spaces are redefined by brand names and images. Like a series of installations, each store is differentiated by unique interior design. No longer the 1990s of Madison Avenue minimalism, in the 21st century, the creation of a distinct identity via design and image is the key. In this sense, touring the Meatpacking District stores and bars is akin to touring the nearby congregation of Chelsea galleries, also in former industrial warehouses and factories – and the audience for both zones may well be the same. My focus here is to analyze the close conjunction of 21st century design and fashion in the Meatpacking District by looking at three examples – fashion designer Carlos Miele’s flagship store and the designer furniture stores Design Within Reach and Vitra – all conveniently situated only steps away from one another around West 14th Street.

Virtual fantasy-land: Carlos Miele

Brazilian designer Carlos Miele, based in Sao Paolo, made his global fashion breakthrough with a 2002 show in London, and in 2003, with the opening of his New York flagship store. The store was designed by rising New York-based starchitects, Aysmptote, whose principles are husband and wife Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture. Founded in 1989, the appropriately named Aysmptote built a reputation in their first decade via digital projects and temporary installations, but created little in the way of physical buildings. Installations focused on the application of digital technologies to architecture, and included a spot in the high-profile Venice Biennale in 2000. Their 1999
3D Virtual Trading Floor for the New York Stock Exchange raised the possibilities of architects working with virtual spaces (though I’ve read mixed reports about its practical success). More recently, high-profile commissions have begun to flow in from around the world – from Mexico to Korea, Malaysia to the Czech Republic – and even include another Carlos Miele store to open this year in Paris. As aspiring starchitects, Aysmptote are currently at work on a luxury condo building in downtown Manhattan, 166 Perry Street (apartments starting from $2 million).

With the Carlos Miele store, the crisp lines and sharp angles of 1990s minimalism seem to have melted into a fluid,
sculpted white cavern. The structural columns (originally iron columns, I presume) have been incorporated into the continuous sculptural surface that flows from ceiling to columns to floor (think: a Barbara Hepworth sculpture as an installation). Headless mannequins, clothed in Miele’s colorful dresses, seem to float in both the window display and within the space, hovering over embedded haloes of neon light in the floor. The restraint and blank walls of minimalist interiors are surpassed here, with a carefully constructed stage set for virtual fantasies – this is fashion framed and staged via architecture and image. The seamless space is at once suggestive of a pristine virtual world but also feels retro, in a 1960s sci-fi kind of way.

While fashion commentators often associate Miele’s clothes with stereotypical ideas about Latin sexiness, it’s hard to see anything sexy about the way his clothes have been framed here (unless Second Life avatars turn you on). Miele’s emphasis on colorful Brazilian fabrics and traditional production methods are also hard to envisage. But the sanitary, cavern-like space with sparsely hung with dresses certainly uses the language of contemporary fashion retail design, continuing minimalism’s equation between wasted space and luxury. It certainly feels like a self-consciously artificial space that creates the fantasy of an immersion into an uncontaminated virtual realm. The design certainly looks digital – as if it has been translated directly from AutoCad – but what’s interesting is that the surfaces are made from bent plywood, lacquered with high-gloss epoxy paint, hardly the latest technologically-advanced materials. In this sense, the interior is a digital skin made of conventional materials applied to an old-fashioned retail experience. Ultimately, the image of the digital world is the most important – a virtual fantasy-land – although ultimately it’s all created with wood and wires.

Finally, the mobile desk and chairs for staff towards the back of the store do ruin the effect somewhat, and return us abruptly from the digital realm to the retail realm (turning over a price tag can have the same effect). And despite my initial point about the importance of differentiation in 21st century retail design, a visit to former “bad boy” Alexander McQueen’s flagship store across the street reveals similar white organic molded forms and clothes displayed on similar floating mannequins. Perhaps the key to fashion retail design is different, but not too different.

Video of Carlos Miele store:

Store, Studio or Gallery: Design Within Reach and Vitra

The nearby furniture store Design Within Reach (
DWR) is part of a recent American design phenomenon. Founded in 1999, DWR began in San Francisco with the idea of a store that could sell difficult-to-find classic modernist furniture to American consumers. With 66 stores now open across the U.S., they must be onto something. Interestingly, the stores are not only located in major metropolises, but in wealthy resort towns such as East Hampton and Santa Barbara. Just as form follows function, modernism follows money. With a Barcelona Chair retailing at just under $4000, an Eames La Chaise for $8430 or a Le Corbusier L4 Chaise for just under $3000, the “Within Reach” part of Design Within Reach apparently refers to physical rather than economic reach. While classic modernist furniture stands as the ideal – Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Jean Prouvé (a certified classic now with tables going for $4000) – postwar moderns such as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Verner Panton feature prominently too. However, cheaper furniture by contemporary designers such as Jasper Morrison and a host of less-known designers are also available (within reach after all?).

Design Within Reach stores are not, in fact stores, but studios. As well as suggesting a creative space that cleanses the store from mere consumerism, DWR’s studios are also supposed to serve as sources of information about design (see also their website which includes designer and furniture biographies). Inside the studio, you are surrounded not only by furniture, but by design discourse – large black and white photographs of the modernist masters, scattered quotes about design on walls and pillars by Mies, Eames, and even some contemporaries like Jasper Morrison. You are not just buying a chair, but an icon you’ve seen in a book by a certified famous designer, in short, you are buying a piece of history. And part of the DWR mission, intentional or not, seems to be an educational one – raising American consumer awareness about “good design”. On this point, with 66 stores all around the country, they may now be doing a better job of educating the public about “good design” than MoMA ever did.

The chairs and tables in DWR are not antiques, however, such as you might buy at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. DWR sell “fully licensed classics” – contemporary furniture “manufactured by the company holding the license to the original design” (Herman Miller, Knoll, Cassina, Fritz Hansen, Vitra, etc). So while an “original” Mies or Corbu chair made the 1920s might sell at auction for tens of thousands of dollars, DWR’s “authentic” Mies or Corbu chair made in the 21st century chair retails for only three or four thousand dollars. Not an “original”, nor a “copy”, but “authentic” – get it? While only your Hedge Fund manager can afford to buy an original Mies chair, here is the chance to buy an authentic version instead. By buying the “copy” cheaply online, what you really miss out on is the discourse of authenticity surrounding the DWR chair – the photos of the masters, the quotations, the biography, the analysis of materials and choice of colors – and of course, the chat with the friendly and knowledgeable salesperson (“studio assistant”?) about all of this.

Meanwhile, around the corner at Vitra, retailing designer furniture shifts ever more into the realm of the museum. The Vitra store is neither a “store” nor a “studio” but a “store + gallery”. The sparsely furnished gallery/retail spaces are on three levels with old iron columns and raw concrete steps that adopt the local retro-fitted industrial chic aesthetic. As a combination retail space/museum, it is compulsory to include a section for museum-like design books for sale (mainly monographs and Vitra Design Museum catalogues). The emphasis in the Vitra store is less on modernist classics and more on postwar and contemporary designs, though again, these are designs with a capital “D” and a capital “$”. The focus in this particular store when I was last there was on Verner Panton’s plastic furniture, though the Eames’s plywood furniture and Frank Gehry’s cardboard furniture also featured prominently. Originally designed by Gehry in the 1970s, his cardboard furniture has been recently reissued, which presumably has less to do with a return to 1970s lifestyles and more to do with Gehry’s celebrity status.

Both of these designer furniture stores perpetuate an image of design as the fetishization of luxury objects – iconic furniture with designer pricetags. Modernism has been narrowed to a brand rather than a complex set of ideas and practices that happened at particular places at particular times. The attempted shift from a retail store to a studio/gallery tries to blur the boundary between retail and museum spaces in a similar way that contemporary museums do by including prominent giftstores. Vitra takes this to logical endpoint with a design museum in Germany that features regular touring exhibitions and a steady flow of glossy catalogues. Thus Vitra control the manufacturing and retail business of design as well as its supporting discourse and imaging. Which means they can canonize design classics in the Vitra Museum, touring exhibitions and attendent publications, then sell you “authentic” versions retail. Thus buying your “authentic” classic becomes less about buying a 21st century mass produced chair (which it is) and more about buying an icon of “design history”. Furthermore, it is important to note the irony of modernist classics being so expensive – modernism is confirmed by both DWR and Vitra as a movement about luxury and exclusivity rather than a movement about affordable mass produced design for everyone. The positioning of design stores within the context of a nouveau fashion strip further cements the close connection by association between designer fashion, designer furniture, designer interiors and wealth. A final irony is that these stores also reinforce the idea of modernism’s timelessness and universality – modernism never went “out of fashion” – but here in the Meatpacking District, modernism is intimately linked to high fashion.

The Future is the Aestheticized Past

In the past few weeks, new street furniture has appeared around West 14th and Hudson Streets – large potted plants and blocks of stone (a suggestion of public seating, in New York!). Which suggests that the Meatpacking District is well and truly established as a destination worth beautifying. Alongside the designer fashion and furniture stores are a host of attendant bars, cafes and restaurants (and in this company old Florent comes out as pretty reasonably priced). The designer experience here is distinctly postmodern. Rather than the modernist tabula rasa, recycling is the vogue in the Meatpacking District, with retro-fitted fashion stores, Florent’s retro graphics program and DWR and Vitra’s reframing modernist design classics. The “next big thing” for the area is the reuse of a section of long-abandoned elevated railway line known as the High Line. Designs for the
High Line project have been completed by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro – a further draw for the design-conscious flaneur and an elevated spot from which to survey the growing traffic.

Film crew on Hudson Street

All photos by D.J. Huppatz

Sep 20, 2007

Downtown music I: William Parker

I have finally finished the Downtown Music I: William Parker post, it's rather long now but I thought it worked better as a single post rather than chopped in two. Comments welcome here or below.

Sep 7, 2007

Downtown Music I: William Parker

Over the next few months, I will focus on a series of posts about 21st century New York culture, starting with some thoughts here on New York’s downtown music scene. To begin with, I’ll restrict myself to improvised music from downtown New York – a scene that, though vital and creative, may well be geographically disappearing or at least shifting with the closure of downtown clubs and steadily increasing Manhattan rents. I have begun my music research here by focusing on a mainstay of New York’s downtown improvised music scene, William Parker. Given he has such a long and distinguished career and appears on literally hundreds of recordings, I will restrict myself to a particular timeframe, the mid-1990s to the present, which marks roughly the time Parker began making albums as a leader. Downtown music, which I’m not going to attempt to define too closely here, is above all characterized by its eclecticism and DIY attitude, though Parker’s music comes more specifically out of an African-American tradition of largely improvised music that now seems broader in scope than the word “jazz” implies.

This, and following posts on New York downtown music, are written partially as a response to recent intense listening and concert-going on my part but also partially as a result of reading what appears at this time to be the only book covering this type of music in any serious detail, Phil Freeman’s, New York is Now: The New Wave of Free Jazz (Brooklyn, NY: The Telegraph Company, 2001). A combination of interview material, album and concert reviews, Freeman’s book is unfortunate for a number of reasons – while he writes with great passion and enthusiasm, Freeman’s range is very narrow in scope (“jazz” only) and the music is poorly contextualized and completely depoliticized. Indeed, the written material about this type of music is almost exclusively album reviews, liner notes, interviews (many listed below in the further links) and the John Zorn-edited Arcana books which comprise writings by musicians. So perhaps this series might represent the beginning of further positioning of New York improvised music beyond reviews and interviews. Before I start, I want to acknowledge up front the problem of utilizing the slow technology of words in response to contemporary improvised music – there’s an inherent futility in writing about such an ephemeral and spontaneous artform – so I won’t be translating particular albums or tracks into words (besides, there are plenty of reviews around) but instead attempting to contextualize the music and suggest some ways of thinking through it.

William Parker: Introduction

A New York native, William Parker began playing bass in the New York loft scene in the early 1970s, playing with older musicians including Don Cherry, Sunny Murray, Bill Dixon, Billy Bang and Frank Lowe. His first official recording released was an album with Frank Lowe (Black Beings, ESP, 1973). According to various interviews, Parker studied with bassists including Richard Davis, Wilbur Ware and Jimmy Garrison during the 1970s. He was a member of the Cecil Taylor Unit from 1980 until the mid-1990s, and during the mid-1980s also played with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and connected with the European free improvisation scene. From 1989 Parker played with the David S. Ware Quartet, recording a series of albums for independent labels and even a couple for the major label, Columbia Jazz. The David S. Ware Quartet, one of the most vital forces in 1990s improvised music, consisted of David S. Ware on tenor sax, Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass and a series of drummers including Marc Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra and Guilliermo E. Brown. Though this group seems to be disbanded with their celebrated last album released recently (Renunciation, a live recording from the 2006 Vision Festival), they may still play together for one-off events.

Parker finally emerged as a leader, with his own various projects from the 1990s to the present. During this time, he stepped out of a sideman role to become heir to Charles Mingus’ legacy of the bassist-composer-band leader. Parker’s most prominent and long-standing projects since 1990 are: Other Dimensions in Music (active since the early 1980s, though they didn’t officially record until 1988), featuring Roy Campbell Jr (trumpet), Daniel Carter (saxes), William Parker (bass), Rashid Bakr (drums); In Order to Survive quartet (1993-2000), featuring Rob Brown (alto sax), Cooper-Moore (piano), William Parker (bass) and Susie Ibarra (drums); the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra (active since 1995), a big band combo featuring a host of players varying from a dozen to over twenty; and the William Parker Quartet (active since 2000), featuring Rob Brown (alto sax), Lewis Barnes (trumpet), William Parker (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums). Although these are Parker’s major projects since 1990, Parker has also lead various other groups and appeared on numerous recordings as a sideman (for a full sessionography see links below). Most notable is the variety of music he has played, from free to straight-ahead jazz to a hip hop album (Anti-Pop Consortium vs. Matthew Shipp, 2003), albums with DJ Spooky and even his own Curtis Mayfield tribute band.

Both Parker and David S. Ware were part of the generation of New York musicians who came of age in the 1970s “loft scene” when clubs closed (or at least closed to avant-garde music), resulting in musicians starting their own clubs in lofts, private homes or hired venues such as churches. Like Parker, Ware was also a Cecil Taylor alumni briefly in the mid-1970s. They followed the “breakthrough” generation of New York’s free jazz of the 1960s, of whom Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp are the best known exponents. The 1970s “loft jazz” generation are often overlooked in jazz histories, where they are overshadowed by accolades showered upon the 60s free jazz “masters”. It is important to note too, the revolutionary fervor of 60s free jazz died down somewhat in the 1970s with, on the one hand, the ascendancy of rock music and the other, the closure of many of the New York clubs and spaces, either physically, or conceptually closing to avant-garde music. Though, as LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) wrote in Black Music, there was a downtown loft scene even in the 1960s (see the essay “New York Loft and Coffee Shop Jazz”, 1963, featuring Don Cherry, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, et al). So, rather than a completely new phenomenon, the 1970s loft jazz scene may also be seen as a continuation from the previous decade of musicians creating their own venues and developing their own audiences.

In a 2005 interview, Parker cited a series of late 1960s recordings as a key to understanding his aesthetics and musical philosophy: Albert Ayler’s Love Cry and Spirits Rejoice, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma, Charles Mingus’ Fables of Faubus and Archie Shepp’s Things Got to Change. Parker states that with these recordings, “you got basically four things—spirituality, politics, the special ideas of space and time, and the tradition of folk and world music.” (“
Everything is Valid”, interview with William Parker by Eyal Hareuveni, All About Jazz, March 2005) These four then, will provide a starting point for an understanding of William Parker’s music. Certainly these ideas are no means restricted to the music of Parker, and by extension might also apply to other musicians of his generation still working in improvised music out of a jazz tradition in New York. I will discuss, in turn, the four ideas Parker presents: the spiritual dimension of music, the political dimension that arose out of Black Nationalism, the reinvention of musical space and time, and finally, the influence of an increasingly eclectic range of folk music.


“The movement is through our souls, the subtle dance of flower petals opening. The muted trumpet blowing dust off a mountain.”
William Parker, Who Owns Music?, Köln: Buddy’s Knife Jazzedition, 2007, p.107.

The 1960s free jazz generation pushed the limits of previous generations of bebop and hard bop outside of conventional rhythmic, harmonic and melodic structures, with musicians also pushing their instruments to the limits in free-form collective improvisations. But importantly, beyond the much-reviewed formal revolution, 60s free jazz represented for many a (re)connection to spirituality. The overtly mystical quality of John Coltrane’s late albums (post-A Love Supreme) or Albert Ayler’s music (Spiritual Unity, etc) continued with Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and others through the 1970s. In Amiri Baraka’s first book, Blues People (1963), he traced a continuum from early African-American church music and slave music to modern jazz of the 1950s. In the 1960s, he updated this tradition in the essay “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music)” (1966). Here, Baraka he connected both the free jazz scene and the R&B scene (exemplified by James Brown) specifically with a spiritual quest: “It is expanding the consciousness of the given that they are interested in, not merely expressing what is already there, or alluded to. They are interested in the unknown. The mystical.” (LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Black Music, New York: Quill, 1967, p.188) Baraka also noted the bleaching process in which much cool “white” jazz of the 1950s and 60s was formalized and cleansed of said spirituality to become more like secular European classical music.

Parker’s musical journey from the 1970s to the present represents a continuation of many of the 60s free jazz ideals, including this spiritual or mystical element. Certainly the work of the David S. Ware Quartet in the 1990s can be seen as a direct descendent of 60s transcendent music. Ware’s raw, powerful tenor tone typically builds from simple melodic themes, which Shipp infuses with gospel-or blues-tinged harmonies, while Parker and drummer Brown provide rhythmic pulsations below as the music swirls in waves of expansive energy. The raw energy of their early albums gives way to a more circumspect or meditative spiritual quest in albums like Surrendered (2000), continuing the spirit of Pharaoh Sanders or Alice Coltrane’s music from the 1970s.

More recently, in interviews, liner notes and a book of his writings about music, Who Owns Music?, Parker stresses the importance of transcendence. He argues that improvisers/composers (he makes no distinction) develop their own entry point into what he terms the “sound stream”, “the eternal space where music lives. The muse-physicians tap into the sound stream to have music flow back through them.” (Parker, Who Owns Music?, Köln: Buddy’s Knife Jazzedition, 2007, p.78) Rather than a romantic creative genius model, Parker suggests that the musician is a conduit for sound – music flows through them (rather than originating “inside”) and the musician draws from the “sound stream” in the creation of cosmic music, creating a “porthole to the tone world” (Who Owns Music?, p.60). By returning to the idea of the musician as “muse-physician”, Parker reinstates an ancient role for the musician in society as a healer, shaman or priest, while at the same time (re)connecting recent New York downtown music to various living folk music (more on this below).

Free improvisation involves pushing music language (rhythm, melody, tempered scale, chords, etc) beyond its limits, into the realm of the unknowable, a realm that we might associate with the spiritual or with magic or the supernatural. Parker’s sound stream here represents the formless, boundless, fluid qualities that are the essence of this beyond which exceeds rational knowledge or systematization. To reach such a space involves an intense experience which corrodes the individual subject, a source of ecstasy which might manifest itself as extreme joy or cries of anguish. Free improvisation is a music of incessant metamorphosis, an interaction between individuals in a space belonging to none of them (nor to the audience). In a materialistic city in which values reside solely in dollars, Parker has worked to create a musical culture that is not based on solely on sales or, as so much New York “high” culture, on snobbery and pretence, but one based on this meeting place beyond the knowable. Finally, Parker’s version of free improvisation is not a “high” musical culture operating in an autonomous realm of pure aesthetics, nor a “pop” musical culture operating in the image-world exemplified by MTV, but, in its transcendent quest, it is music that connects to so many other things in the world.


“Music has always been ‘out of need things arise,’ means no one will give you a gig, so you’ll learn to rent a church or a space. You have no money to fix your bass so you’ll learn how to fix it yourself. You learn how to make things because you can’t afford to buy them. You learn how to do things because it’s survival.” (“Everything is Valid” interview with William Parker by Eyal Hareuveni, All About Jazz, March 2005)

New York’s loft jazz scene shared certain tactical approaches with other downtown artforms in the 1970s. On a basic level, in the absence of institutional, that is either commercial or government support for culture, a culture developed whereby artists produced, distributed and managed their own art. By creating alternative performance spaces in lofts, churches or storefronts, jazz musicians were doing what artists were also doing in New York at the time. The most famous loft space of the era was Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea, a space immortalized in the Wildflowers recordings (released in 1976 as 5 LPs, subsequently released as 3 CDs or as a single CD of highlights). In interviews, New York musicians tell the same story over and over again: the relative absence of government support for culture in the United States compared to Europe, which has two effects: a continual stream of musicians touring subsidized venues and festivals in Europe, and musicians at home having to be creative in the performance, promotion and distribution of their work.

On the positive side, the importance of the loft jazz scene lay not just as a means of taking control of the production and distribution of music, but the spaces also functioned as centers of community, bringing together musicians, artists, dancers, writers as well as an audience (in fact, the audience may have been mostly comprised of other artists). Again, the parallel development in downtown art of the 1970s resulted in site specific installations in alternative spaces such as lofts, storefronts and basements, which usually involved process-oriented, spontaneous and often collaborative artworks. For both artists and musicians, this downtown culture was an alternative to the uptown commercial culture of museums and commercial galleries for artists, and for musicians, midtown clubs and increasingly commercial jazz festivals. As well as subverting traditional musical and artistic forms, downtown culture was thus also politically engaged.

William Parker, in a 2001 interview, mentioned the impact of Elijah Muhammad’s ideals of black self-determination through economic power and self-motivation on his musical career: “You had to tell yourself that you were worth something because in the school systems you were not told you were worth anything. You really had to depend a lot on yourself and your historic figures to give you inspiration: your musicians, your writers, your poets, who at that time were heavy into Black Nationalism.” (interview with William Parker on 50 Miles of Elbowroom, by Adam Lore, 2001) No surprise then, when Parker named one of his key quartets, “In Order to Survive”. Survival as an artist in New York, particularly an African-American jazz musician, depended on self-motivation and self-determination.

A logical outcome of this tactic is the ongoing Vision Festival. Though started by Parker’s wife, Patricia Nicholson Parker, it is a forum for many of the musicians associated with William Parker. An annual festival that began in 1996, the Vision Festival grew out of earlier festivals such as the Sound Unity festivals of the late 1980s – and the same basic principles of self-motivation and self-determination still apply. Twelve years after its beginnings, the Vision Festival today remains fiercely independent of corporate interests or sponsorship (unlike, for example, the JVC Jazz Festival which also takes place in New York in June). Vision is unique for its inclusive aesthetic – dance, painting and photography work in tandem with music – perhaps an extension of the inclusive aesthetic of the 1970s loft scene. Unlike so many contemporary festivals, you get the distinct idea that Vision not all about making as much money as possible but that it really is about both the music and the community rather than about ticket sales, merchandise sales or overpriced food and drink. Finally, Parker and Parker’s recent “Blueprint for a Cultural Revolution” (Sept 1, 2007, see the Blog section), though vague on practical details, is certainly an overtly political call for government involvement in New York’s cultural life (though their line about New York as “the world’s center for culture” is unfortunate). But with a recently re-elected billionaire mayor whose interests extend only as far as Wall Street and real estate development, I applaud their efforts but don’t like their chances.

Musical Space and Time

“All improvisers are composers.”
William Parker, Who Owns Music?, p.67

From his beginnings in New York’s free jazz scene to working with European improvisers such as the late English guitarist Derek Bailey or regular gigs and recordings with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann (such as with his Die Like a Dog Quartet), Parker has experience in a wide range of improvised music that has led him to develop a particular musical theory based on what he terms the “sound stream”. In the sound stream, Parker argues, there is no distinction between composition and improvisation, nor between musical styles. Here, the common-sense distinction between classical music (based on composition) and jazz (based on improvisation) is lost. In his book, Improvisation (DaCapo Press, New York, 1993), Derek Bailey argued similarly that improvised music was widespread in various global musical traditions (Indian, Islamic, Flamenco), including European classical music – his portrait of Baroque music as inclusive of improvisation flies in the face of accepted ideals of what classical music is.

Parker has been mining the sound stream while jazz became increasingly institutionalized and conservative, exemplified by Winton Marsalis’ rise to popularity in the 1980s, replaying 1950s bop, only now it was codified and palatable to an uptown (read also white, conservative) audience. Thus the label “jazz” seems to be one that many improvising musicians are a little uncomfortable with today. Not that Parker (and many others) don’t compose as well as improvise. At its heart though, the concept of improvised music involves an interplay between control and flow rather than improvisation and composition – something like surfing a wave, or, in Parker’s terms, surfing the sound stream.

In a version of Heraclitus’ famous dictum, “you can’t step in the same river twice”, Parker proposes a musical theory whereby you can’t play the same note twice, precisely because the context has changed each time you play (see his recent book, Who Owns Music? for numerous elaborations of this idea). Finally, Parker argues for the importance of the audience as an essential element in any improvised performance: “Improvisation’s responsiveness to its environment puts the performance in a position to be directly influenced by the audience.” (Who Owns Music?, p.44) This idea, coupled with the impossibility of playing the same note twice, means that recordings must be a poor substitute for a live performance in which the musicians interact with the audience. The audience is thus not an anonymous homogenous mass (as suggested by a recording), but a changing quality that effects the equation of the live performance. Which takes us back to the points above about politics and community – at the heart of the musical experience is the live performance and interaction between musicians and audience.

Folk Music: Inventing Community

“…every music that I’ve heard has been an inspiration to me. Everything from Ellington to the Benanzuli Pygmies, call-and-response, the gospel church, rhythm and blues, blues itself, Tibetan music, music from China, music from Japan. And when I say influenced, I don’t mean ‘we’re going to strive for a Tibetan sound today’, but I mean influences inspire you to seek sound.” (“Mayor of the Lower East Side”: interview with William Parker by Brian Carpenter, Free Association, WZBC 90.3 FM, Boston College Radio, aired Jan 21, 2002)

The final aspect of Parker’s music I wanted to briefly address is “world or folk music”. Although best known as a bass player, Parker often plays a variety of unusual instruments (at least in a jazz or European classical tradition), exploring various folk music of the world. The best examples of this are the recent collaborations with drummer Hamid Drake (Piercing the Veil, 2001, and Spring Snow, 2007). On these albums, Parker plays a wide variety of musical instruments from around the world, including: the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), the balafon (West African marimba), the bombarde (French reed instrument) and the dumbek (Arabic drum). Drake, meanwhile, plays the tabla (an Indian drum) and the frame drum. At times they evoke the repetitions and drones of trance music – that on the one hand might be traced back in a local context to late Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane or Don Cherry, but on the other, a myriad of folk music traditions that also utilize improvisation. This is in contrast to the generally condescending and patronizing Eurocentric attitude to folk music, often defined as primitive or less sophisticated than the European classical tradition (though sometimes useful for appropriating in the case of say, Bartok’s music). While the characterization of New York as a global cultural “melting pot” is one I’m highly suspicious of (see my Elsewhere post), Parker does seem to draw upon a wide array of musical traditions with conviction and respect. His most recent Vision Festival premier in June 2007, “Double Sunrise Over Neptune”, featured an eclectic instrumentation – trumpet, saxes, violins, viola, cello, oud, bass, drums, the voice of Indian singer Sangeeta Banerjee and Parker himself on a variety of reed instruments.

Perhaps the more important issue of folk music is that of communication with the “folk” – above all, folk music suggests a relationship to a community different to the aloofness of the concert hall or the commodified abstraction of popular music. In the case of Parker’s audience in New York, who exactly are the folk? While it’s difficult to pin down a particular socio-economic audience for this type of music, Parker himself reflected in an interview on the loss of the African-American audience for improvised music in New York: “People question why there’s no black audience for this music – we lost the support of the community. We drained the music out of the community. We lost contact with them… you needed a club in the community, where every night there’s a concert, 52 weeks out of the year, for 10-20 years, establish it, then you have an audience. But we took the music out of the community and it drained down to the Lower East Side.” (Interview with William Parker on 50 Miles of Elbowroom, by Adam Lore, 2001) Thus the polarization of music in New York I’ve been referring too above is not just along an uptown-downtown white audience distinction, but needs to be extended geographically further uptown to Harlem and the Bronx. Jazz and improvised music from the 1970s to the present has largely lost African-American communities to hip hop and pop music. Despite this, the music has formed what seems to be a loyal and eclectic downtown audience.

In my characterization of the New York downtown music scene here, I’ve tried to tread a line that argues that this music is neither pop music (exemplified by the commodified image-world of MTV) nor “Art” with a capital A that you might find uptown at the Lincoln Center (a fossilized European classical music and opera tradition that now includes the static “classical” version of jazz). Instead, this is music linked to a community, and to a process of living. In his book, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali offers this perspective: “ ... the world is not for beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible ... Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise.” (University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p.3) Attali suggests that noise is a source of power equivalent to the written word or the articulation of space. Capitalism seeks to channel noise into saleable commodities, at the same time filtering out noise that is not the constant repetition of the same (the classical canon, be it of European music or jazz, or MTV). While downtown music is certainly integrated into a capitalist economy, it does offer a small pocket of resistance to the wholesale commodification of music, while also opening up both musical spaces for further creative exploration and the possibility of new communities.

Photos by DJ Huppatz. Top: Vision Festival XII, New York, June 2007; bottom: Howl! East Village Festival, September 2007.


No idea what any of this is about? Start with this concert clip from Vision Festival 2003 of the Matthew Shipp Quartet featuring Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass), Daniel Carter (tenor) and Gerard Cleaver (drums).

William Parker website

Impressively comprehensive William Parker sessionography by Rick Lopez

Impressively comprehensive David S. Ware sessionography by Rick Lopez

“Everything is Valid”: interview with William Parker by Eyal Hareuveni, All About Jazz, March 2005, online here

“Mayor of the Lower East Side”: interview with William Parker by Brian Carpenter, Free Association, WZBC 90.3 FM, Boston College Radio, aired Jan 21, 2002, online here

Interview with William Parker on 50 Miles of Elbowroom, by Adam Lore, 2001, online here

Further interviews with William Parker listed here (plus brief bio and discography) here

Kyle McGann, “Breaking the Chain Letter: An Essay on Downtown Music” (1998)

Downtown Music Gallery: the #1 source for buying downtown music

Indiejazz: an online retail source

Aug 12, 2007

Pilgrimage to Fallingwater

Our summer vacation this year included a trip across Pennsylvania to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. While much ink has been spilled on this particular house, what I thought was interesting is why it remains such a pilgrimage site in the 21st century, not only for anyone interested in modern architecture and design but also for regular tourists. I haven't read enough about Wright or even the house to add anything much to the volumes already written, but a recent book, Franklin Toker’s Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and American’s Most Extraordinary House (New York: Knopf, 2003), sparked some ideas towards a contemporary reading of Fallingwater. Buoyed by documents and letters recently come to light, Toker debunks many Fallingwater myths. But most interestingly, he considers the relationship between the architect and his client, or rather, patron, E.J. Kaufmann, as central to the house’s creation and subsequent fame. He also looks in detail at the role Kaufmann’s son, the imaginatively named E.J. Kaufmann Jr, curator at MoMA, played in ensuring the house’s lasting reputation and transfer into a tourist site.

the classic photo: "stand here and shoot"

The Patron

Wright’s patron Edgar Kaufmann owned a department store, specifically the department store in Pittsburg during the 1920s and 30s, and, while he was very wealthy, Toker argues Kaufmann was always an outsider in Pittsburg society. Jewish businessman were generally excluded from the elite society of Gilded Age America. In Pittsburg, elite society meant the steel and coke barons – the Mellons, Fricks and Carnegies. Furthermore, as a department store owner (a mere merchant), Kaufmann was positioned on a lower rung of both social and financial ladders.

However, Kaufmann was known for his innovative business practices and as a patron of the arts. He showed art and design regularly in the store and Toker argues that he was also particularly interested in modernist art and design – he knew the Viennese designers Paul Frankl and Joseph Urban and also some German modernists personally from time spent abroad. The famous 1913 New York Armory exhibition toured on to Pittsburg and was shown in Kaufmann’s store. There was a close connection between the promotion of modernism and consumer culture here – the modernist art blockbuster went not to a gallery or museum in Pittsburg, but to Kaufmann’s department store.

In his shift from modernist art, design and fashion to architecture, Kaufmann would make his mark through becoming one of American modernism’s greatest patrons. Ten years after Fallingwater, he commissioned Richard Neutra to design him a winter escape house in California, the Kaufmann Desert House. Kaufmann clearly understood design’s value as a means of advertising his store as well as elevating his social status. Fallingwater could function as symbolic capital to use against the society of Pittsburg from which Kaufmann was excluded. However, the continued public relations coup of Fallingwater would take Kaufmann beyond Pittsburg to national and international fame.

Franklin Toker raises a convincing argument that Kaufmann’s changing architectural styles was calculated for maximum effect. Frank Lloyd Wright referred to him as “the Shopper” and in a sense Kaufmann consumed architectural styles – first a suburban home by the Beaux Arts-trained Benno Janssenn in the 1920s, then Wright’s Fallingwater in 1937, and finally Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House in 1949. Toker argues: “The cost and care that Kaufmann lavished on his three houses … shows that, like his Medici predecessors, he knew that a merchant could rely on no more effective advertising than a glamorous lifestyle. In the 1930s the patrician John Nicholas Brown refused Life magazine’s request to publish his modern house, but Kaufmann accommodated everyone who wanted to write on Fallingwater. His homes were not merely opulent: each was a perfect definition of high style at the moment. Kaufmann’s suburban Pittsburgh estate perfectly expressed the lavishness of the nineteen-twenties, Fallingwater the search for American roots in the Depression thirties, and his California house the technological beguilement of the postwar forties and fifties.” (Toker, p.53).

MoMA held an exhibition on Fallingwater in 1937, not long after the house was finished, and soon after the Time-Life publication machine got onboard via its owner, Henry R. Luce, a promoter of modernism and MoMA board member. Ten years later, Luce promoted Neutra and the Kaufmann Neutra House through his magazines in much the same way as he had Wright and Fallingwater. With both houses, the circulation of photographs was crucial – neither were in accessible cultural centers so very few people saw them first hand (with the exception of well-known architects who made the pilgrimage – Gropius, Breuer and Aalto, for example, all made it to Fallingwater within a few years of its completion). Luce was also famous for his advocacy of “the American century”, an expression of mid-century manifest destiny whereby American culture should rightly be spread around the world with religious zeal. In this context, both Wright’s and Neutra’s homes could be seen as quintessentially American, expressive of indigenous modernism in the thirties and technological supremacy in the postwar era.

A 21st century pilgrimage

Whatever the house meant in the prewar era, today, it is a major tourist site and pilgrimage for architecture and design enthusiasts from all over the world. Our tour guide said the house sees upwards of 135 000 visitors every year (and it closes for a few months in winter) and has an annual budget of around $3 million. But I’m jumping ahead a little. Like all great pilgrimages, a long journey is an important part of the process and for most, a trip to Fallingwater is a major commitment. The house is not near any other notable cultural sites, and the closest city, Pittsburg, is not usually noted for its tourist appeal. Typically, I suppose, most tourists get there by sitting many hours in an automobile across Pennsylvania from East Coast cities such as Washington, Philadelphia or New York (we came across from the latter). While the trip to Fallingwater is unlike a traditional pilgrimage which involves some kind of physical effort, it does involve singular commitment and importantly, a sacrifice of time.

Upon arrival, the sacred site of American architecture is a well managed tourist experience. After parking the car, you begin at the Kaufmann Jr-designed visitor’s center (complete with café, bathrooms, kid’s playroom and the obligatory gift store). The amenities branch from a central ticket booth, all constructed from raw wood, open to the forests all around and raised above the ground. It all feels like a 1970s environmental center (which, in a sense, it is) and thankfully makes no attempt to copy Fallingwater. From here, pilgrims are shuffled through in small groups to the house in tightly organized 55 minute tours (no photography, no kids). I opted for the 2 hour in-depth tour, which, at $55, wasn’t cheap, but at least I got to take some photographs (enjoy them, please).

The house is situated in the Laurel Highlands, an area formerly used for trapping, logging and mining before becoming a vacation area for prosperous Pittsburg families after the turn of the century. Gilded Age steel barons built mansions in the area to escape the city’s pollution (ironic, given the industries they had made their money in were the major polluters). With the phenomenon of the automobile in the 1920s, the concept of the weekender arose amongst America’s wealthy and for the Pittsburg families, the completion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1930s made travel to the area quicker and importantly, more privatized (previously it was accessible by train). Interestingly, Fallingwater now it stands one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania whose main industry seems to be tourism (hiking, canoeing, skiing, etc).

While Modernism is generally associated with the city, many of its classic domestic dwellings were designed specifically as escapes from the urban environment – Fallingwater, Mies’ Farnsworth House, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Philip Johnson’s Glass House all fit the bill. Which seems somewhat ironic given modernism’s emphasis on new technologies, mass production and standardization (though this quartet were specifically not standardized but unique and lovingly hand-crafted). I wrote in a
previous post about Modernism’s relationship to the “back to nature” ideal of the 1920s and 30s, exemplified in this example by Kaufmann’s first forays into the area, a summer camp for Kaufmann Department Store employees to enjoy outdoor life – hiking, swimming, etc – again to escape from the pollution and crowds of industrial Pittsburg. Fresh air, exercise, healthy eating and natural light all were all also seen as a corrective to 19th century Victorian lifestyles. And these modern ideals are built into Fallingwater – the classic photos don’t give you the phenomenological experience – the waterfall’s constant sound provides a background noise over which you hear occasional bird calls, the heavy forest air is everywhere, flashes of birds appear through the trees. The house itself is surrounded by the forest, and once inside Wright is constantly pulling you outside with horizontal lines, low ceilings and the folds in the bedrooms (see photo below).

And this may well be the intriguing key to Fallingwater, that juxtaposition of the mechanical modern world with the sublime power of nature. At least that’s the appeal – though Wright did little landscaping, the site itself was hardly primeval forest, having been mined, timbered, farmed and hunted for over a century before Kaufmann began regenerating it. Wright’s modernism, in turn, is hardly the harsh geometry of European modernists – the molded concrete, the warm tones and natural materials speak of a humanist version of modernism, tempered to interact with the surrounding forest (unlike, say, the insulated glass boxes of Mies and PJ).

The specifically American references are also intriguing – the “Pueblo steps” (see above) and the concrete molded to look like adobe provide an indigenous reference for the house (and for American modernism) – here is concrete as symbolic as much as functional. However, Pueblos are specific to the Southwest Native Americans, not the indigenous peoples of the Laurel Highlands. Whatever happened to them or what type of dwellings they lived in I’m not sure (but they certainly weren’t made of adobe). My inquiries while in the area resulted in replies such as William Penn always had a good relationship with the Indians, or, there were no Indian Wars in Pennsylvania (I guess they all just packed up and left then?). So are we then left with a vague indigenous veneer of adobe concrete that suggests “native roots” while simultaneously obscuring the particularities of local history?

The other specifically American reference is Wright’s emphasis on the primal scene of American architecture, the New England hearth. The heart of the house, the hearth is at the center of Fallingwater’s social life, provider of warmth (though the house also had heating) and also where Wright’s unwieldy and impractical kettle stood unused for many years (see above photo). This main socializing space also functions as a commercial showcase for a modern department store king. Ample shelving displays a cornucopia of objects from around the world, decontextualized and stripped of their original meanings or religious significance to become collectable exotica – Christian icons illuminated by Tiffany lamps under Chinese gravestones. Finally, adding to its Depression appeal, Fallingwater was also a futuristic “house of tomorrow” with a modern efficient kitchen with table and counters made using (recently invented) Formica that certainly looks post-war rather than pre-war (see below). Cork-paneled bathrooms and use of fluorescent lighting were also innovative and modern.

Finally, what still appeals to the 21st century pilgrim? Certainly the link between nature and authenticity remain – after sixty years, the yearning to escape from urban life to a calm, undisturbed space for self-reflection and contemplation of “nature” remains strong. Despite Wright’s attempts at integration with the site, Nature remains separated from everyday (urban) life, mythologized as it becomes increasingly scarce. Though, even in the 1930s, this was hardly “wild” nature, driving up a former logging road in an automobile to the front door of a luxury modern home. And of course, there’s the ever-enduring American fantasy of wealth – Kaufmann’s Fallingwater is a lifestyle to aspire to. Note, lastly, the adjacent servants quarters (which, to be fair, were designed by Wright with equal care as the rest of the house). And don’t forget the giftshop on your way out.

All photos by D.J. Huppatz