Out of Place
April, 2005

UBS Art Gallery
exhibition

exhibition catalogue (pdf)

Situated in the lobby of a Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (S0M) skyscraper along Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, the location of the UBS gallery presents an unusual opportunity to examine contemporary issues of the urban environment. Echoing the midtown grid in its plan, the gallery, partitioned into ten bays, (five on the north side of the building and five on the south) is bracketed by the lobby concourse on the interior and a wood screen in front of a glass curtain wall on the exterior. Functioning as semi-discrete spaces from which one’s awareness of the urban fabric is not far removed, and existing between the interior “promenade” of the lobby concourse and the exterior plaza, the exhibitions are experienced both as display in the lobby and as objects of contemplation by the art viewer within the gallery space proper.

"Every aspect of human life pullulates through their (the streets) length... a sea of lusts and faces. It is better than the theatre, better than what we read in novels.… The street wears us out. And when all is said and done, we have to admit it disgusts us." (1)
Le Corbusier

The “triumph” of rationalism

The skyscrapers that march up along Sixth Avenue represent the “triumph” of rationalist thought and its influence on architecture. Beginning in Europe between the wars, the cool aesthetic of the International Style that eventually became synonymous with American corporate influence in the 1950s and 1960s has its origins in the utopian ideas of Le Corbusier, in particular his 1925 plan for Radiant City, a sparkling vertical metropolis that joined the wonders of new technology (automobiles, steel and glass buildings) with leisure spaces made up of parks and gar•dens. Corbusier’s plan envisioned a series of highrise buildings on a “green” or natural grid connected by “motorways” to other parts of the city. Although the architect’s later work investigated more organic solutions to urban planning, the strict functionalism combined with an almost cultlike investment in technology proved irresistible to post•war city planners who saw in the modern era the possibility of making a “clean break” with the past. Le Corbusier’s Radiant City would have required the razing of central Paris, and though in fact never built, the genie was out of the bottle as “urban renewal” became a euphemism for cataclysmic transformations in postwar cities where neighborhoods were deemed “blighted” by modern urbanists, wishing to obliterate the chaos of urban experience in favor of a formal harmony promised by futuristic utopias.

Sixth Avenue’s outward transformation to an urban canyon, at the height of confidence in modernism’s powers of organization and control, was accompanied by an internal logic of corporate ideology that manifested itself in new theories of worker efficiency, illustrated by the office’s overall grid plan that left nothing to chance. According to the architect Robert Stern’s New York 1960, the offices of the Eero Saarinen—designed CBS building, built in 1965 and located diagonally across the street from the UBS building at 51 West Fiftysecond Street, were a formally controlled environment: “Employees were not permitted to decorate their desks with personal items or even to display personal photographs, ‘unless’ as Dorsfman [the CBS director of design] joked ‘it was an Avedon portrait’. CBS was a company known to be finicky about details….” (2)

Privately owned public space

Mimicking sidewalks along the streets outside, the UBS lobby concourse is one of many thoroughfares throughout midtown that pedestrians may use to navigate in, around or below the skyscrapers that dominate this area of the city. These interior “streets,” some of which, like those under Rockefeller Center, offer amenities such as food and gift shopping for local employees and tourists, have their origins in the Parisian arcades, which first appeared in the 1820’s, when the industrial revolution made possible the opulent iron and glass buildings that housed the seemingly limitless commodities available through new technologies of production. Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk project, an intensive examination of the arcades phenomenon, likened their highly stimulating environments to “dream worlds,” destabilized settings where pedestrians lose themselves in the seductive display of an endless variety of consumer goods. Appearing at a time in Paris when technological changes took place that intensified the power of advertising through the development of electronic signs and film, these iron and glass predecessors to urban shopping malls could be seen as a more hermetic version of the ways in which the city itself would be transformed.

Public atrium on 5th Avenue: pedestrian “clear path” mandated by zoning laws obstructed by commercial goods and retail kiosks appropriating the space. As more and more urban space was adopted for retail activity in the modern city, the question of what constitutes public space developed an ambiguity that remains unresolved in the contemporary urban environment. The 2000 book Privately Owned Public Space, the New York City Experience (3), studied 503 arcades, plazas, pocket parks, etc..., which were largely created by the 1961 New York City zoning laws that offered developers the right to increase the square footage of their buildings in exchange for creating open space for public use. Inspired by the manner in which both Mies van de Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Seagram’s building and SOM’s Lever House created more open space by setting their buildings back from the street, city planners hoped that the new zoning combined with advances of building technologies allowing maximum use of the footprint by going “straight up” would encourage building types that would ensure the Corbusian ideals of “light and air” within the city center. While in principle these laws represented an effort to safeguard the public realm by preventing urban congestion through overbuilding, with no stipulation as to the type of open space offered for public use or any realistic means of monitoring how spaces functioned, in practice the longterm interests of the public were placed in private hands. The new laws allowed for massive skyscrapers rising in some cases indiscriminately out of barren plazas that, although intended for public use, are often quietly enlisted for commercial purposes.

Describing the “through block galleria” directly behind the UBS building in Privately Owned Public Space, the authors write: “The vaulted skylight covering much of the three-story-high narrow corridor brings to mind aspects of light and airy nineteenth century shopping arcades” which, although primarily a stylistic point, alludes to “privately owned, publicly traversed passages” (4) of Benjamin’s era. The remainder of the commentary reveals an ambiguity concerning distinctions of public and private or what the authors refer to as “café creep”: “As a ‘through the block galleria,’ the space is designed to serve both circulation and destination goals. Thus 14 tables and 56 movable chairs are required to be dedicated to unfettered use by the public. At a recent site visit, however, private restaurants had taken possession of some, if not all, of the tables and chairs. No record of city approval for this use has been found.” (5)

Sidewalks

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (6), published the year of the new zoning laws that ushered in profound changes to the urban landscape of New York, Jane Jacobs offered an aggressively anti-“professional” and decidedly populist response to the sweeping technocratic approaches that threatened to undermine the extremely intricate and subtle exchanges that make up the social fabric on a typical city block. In an effort to emphasize the significance of the street as a place where a limitless array of social interactions takes place, Jacobs cites her own Greenwich Village block as an example, articulating in great detail the complex interactions and support mechanisms among neighborhood residents, businesses and visitors which evolve outside of any over-arching governmental or commercial influence.

For Jacobs, what was clearly missing from the Radiant City plan were sidewalks where pedestrians, interacting in combinations of predictability and surprise, who play a significant role in the life of the city, a role that is lost somewhere between the monolithic towers and the green plots they were situated on. Unfortunately, the significance of this intricate “street culture” has often been an anathema to urban planners who wish to make their mark with grand visions for the city’s future, particularly because its almost unquantifiable nature eludes (or interrupts) the profit-oriented paradigm that influences development.

With the present means of long-distance mass communication, sprawling isolation has proved an even more effective method of keeping a population under control. (7)
Lewis Mumford, The City in History

The “Drift”

Like the 19th century streamlining of the Parisian city plan by Baron Haussmann, which created wide boulevards connected by central hubs intended, in part, for ease of police and militamovement to respond to social unrest in workers’ districts, post•war technological advances put to use by an increasingly sophisticated centralized bureaucracy represented an unprecedented consolidation of power within a democratic state, threatening to severely curtail the average citizen’s freedom of movement and influence on the democratic process. Reacting to attempts by modern urbanists to eliminate the pedestrian street, felt to be at the core of Paris’s liveliness, a group of intellectuals known as the Situationist International confronted the rationalist agenda with a set of strategies that were both politically radical and obscure, eventually proving widely influential among those skeptical of the “advances” promised by modernism’s utopian vision.

The Situationists understood that the built environment, and in particular the street, were the most concrete indicators of the state of a society’s democracy. Turning to a ubiquitous illustration of the organization of urban space, they appropriated city maps of Paris, altering them according to the principles of what they referred to as “psycho•geography.” Basing these maps on their articulated wanderings through the city streets in an activity known as “drift” (derives), they cut and pasted the city plan into new configurations, freely altering its functional logic to metaphorically challenge the principles of the dutiful movement of its residents to and from their habitual destinations. The drift entailed a process that was antifunctional but not without purpose, which was to sensitize the city dweller to aspects of urban space that were often overlooked or ignored as a result of what they saw as unimaginative responses to one’s environment due to an excessive emphasis on pure rationality. Uncovering the psychologically charged memories and histories that exist in layered form on urban streets, the drift formed a kind of archeology of the city’s psyche, which was threatened by new traumas associated with the obliteration of its past by the aggressive removal and rebuilding of urban areas, as well as the rapid expansion of mass media’s influence on the “optical space” of the public realm.

Images, the cinema and television divert the everyday at times offering up to it its own spectacle, or sometimes the spectacle of the distinctly non everyday; violence, death, catastrophe, the lives of kings and stars—those who we are led to believe defy everydayness. (8)
Henri LeFevbre, The Everyday and Everydayness

Spectacle and the Everyday

The Situationist’s significance to urban issues was in the connections they drew between the consolidation and reordering of space through the removal of large parts of existing city neighborhoods, and the “spectacle”9 realized by new film and television mediums of commodity culture. Like Benjamin’s “dream world” arcades, the spectacle could access the unconscious “terrain” of the urban dweller, but with far more insidiousness than might ever have been imagined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Addressing the potential conflict between the complex hierarchies of behavioral codes that exist in a “functional” modern metropolis, and the contradictory, pleasure-seeking impulses of human instinct that seek the improvisational over the planned, Henri LeFevbre, a member of the Situationist group, emphasized the quotidian or “everyday” experience of contemporary life as a means to escape the alienation produced by a controlled and “rationalist” urban environment. Concerned about the effect that an increasingly sophisticated technological society was having on city dwellers that experienced the gradual displacement of the “historical city,” the concept of the everyday, rooted to some extent on rural time cycles around which one could orient oneself, was a deliberate response to the destabilizing nature of the spectacle. This defense of the ordinary or common experiences in daily life represents an effort of resistance that, because of its emphasis on “nothing special,” is in less danger of being returned to the spectacle itself. LeFevbre also stressed the everyday’s contradictory nature, encompassing both the monotony of the “daily grind” and the potential for a momentary break from habitual behavior, which might interrupt the stream of constant stimulus offered by mass commercial culture.

Its contemporary relevance is in some ways subtle and in others obvious. The combination of the increased consolidation in ownership of both urban space and media companies means that more and more “messages” are coming from fewer and fewer sources. Mass media, invested for the most part in serving as a distraction from the workaday world, depend a great deal on the continued stimulation of their audience. By contrast, the notion of the everyday represents a pause to refocus attention on the “here and now,” which is lost in the rush of commodity culture. The ordinary or common aspects of daily life often elude commercial expropriation because they’re available to everyone and therefore not easily sold. When attempts are made to market the everyday, like the “voluntary simplicity” of Real Simple magazine, they generally are geared only to the affluent, a thinly veiled ambition to sell “less” as “more” to those who have plenty. For the rest there’s the nonstop Baroque of violent fantasies, reality shows featuring “regular” people (another attempt to market the ordinary, but as humiliation and farce), S.U.V.’s charging valiantly through untouched nature, and the routine horror of distant conflicts.

Though the alienating qualities of modernism have been thoroughly critiqued and analyzed in architectural circles, the postmodern alternatives of historical pastiche intended to dress up its austerity (Philip Johnson’s AT&T building) and more recently the neoexpressionist “sculptural” buildings of Frank Gehry, have failed to confront the antagonism towards the city’s sidewalks revealed by Jane Jacobs, or the investment in heroic gestures, which comprises part of its legacy. Other attempts, like those by the New Urbanist movement to recover a “lost humanism,” are reactionary in nature, relying on Disneyesque clichés10 of what cities and towns “once were.” New developments like those planned for Brooklyn’s waterfront11 continue to incorporate the Radiant City model, while new museum buildings indulge in sensational forms for spectacular results.

Faced with the possibility of a population-turned-audience bearing passive witness to its own seduction, the post-industrial cityscape shows few signs of potential breaks in the seamless flow towards public disengagement. With no end in sight to the commercial appropriation of both public and psychic space in our “global economy,” the notion of a tangible relationship to environments and objects, a preference for context over sensation, and for meanings to emerge from places rather than be imposed on them, provide a potential space for a healthy skepticism towards the endless and often empty seductions of consumer culture that dominate the contemporary city.





Footnotes:

1. Le Corbusier “La rue”, L’Intransigeant (May 1929), republished in Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre complete 1910–1929 (Zurich, Girsberger 1937), p.118 and Anthony Vidler, Warped Space, Art Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture, 2000, MIT Press, p.61

2. Robert A.M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, David Fishman. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial, Monacelli Press, c1995, p.409

3. Jerold S Kayden, New York City Dept. of City Planning, Municipal Art Society of New York, Privately Owned Public Space: the New York City Experience, John Wiley, 2000

4. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, MIT Press, 1989 p.83

5. Jerold S Kayden, New York City Dept. of City Planning, Municipal Art Society of New York. Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, John Wiley, 2000 p.162–163

6. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Modern Library, 1961

7. Lewis Mumford, The City in History: its Origins, its Tranformations, and its Prospects. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961

8. Henri Lefevbre, Everyday and Everydayness reprinted in Architecture of the Everyday, edited by Steven Harris and Deborah Burke, Princeton Architectural Press, 1997, p.32–37. This book provides an in depth examination of the possibilities of the everyday within the context of recent architectural practice.

9.For more on the “spectacle” see Guy Debord, “The Society of the Spectacle,” 1967, available online— http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm

10. The “flagship” town of New Urbanism is Celebration, Florida, conceived and created by the Disney Corporation, of which a number of studies are available.

11. The city’s plan: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/greenpointwill/green overview.html. The local reactions: http://www.gwapp.org/ “The current rezoning would allow 22 towers up to 40 stories tall on our waterfront.”