Mar 2, 2014

Thinking about Culture as Capital: Obscenity and the Case of MoMA, Diller Scofidio and Tod Williams Billie Tsien

Recently, Diller Scofidio's commission by the Museum of Modern Art to design an expansion that would take over the adjacent lot previously occupied by the American Folk Art Museum caused an enormous controversy in New York among the architectural community. An enviable problem for most communities, where the American Folk Art Museum would have remained for decades an essential institution, and where an expansion on the scale of MoMA's would have been unthinkable but impossible to deny. The speed of Manhattanism has reached a new level, obeying its own laws; we residents are not the rulers of the culture. Rants against "gentrification" are irrelevant; they are publicity for the churning of the cultural economy.

As a historical note, both Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Diller Scofidio were young architects in the late 1970s and early 1980s working in New York still in a condition of strange half-abandonment, where they had early opportunities to collaborate on experiments with construction of new temporary structures on the landfill of the World Trade Center for Art on the Beach, the series of events and installations organized by Creative Time starting in 1978. Even then New York was churning, Dutch Lower Manhattan demoed to build a land of 50 to 110 story modern office towers, turning Soho into an artists community that rapidly expanded throughout downtown Manhattan, and two years was the normal lifespan of a cultural movement before it generated an outlandish inflation of capital around itself.

Back then, Richard Weinstein, the architect who guided David Rockefeller's redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, had moved to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and developed a plan to eliminate MoMA's deficit, which was growing by a million dollars a year, subsidized by the Rockefellers. Weinstein proposed using the expedient of air rights transfers, pioneered to save the South Street Seaport district, along with tax increment financing to generate revenues to fund an expansion, so that MoMA could expand, build 50-story condominiums on adjacent property using the air rights, bring more ticket sales, increase bookstore sales, and thereby cover its deficit.

Now, along with the latest MoMA expansion, replacing an expansion only a few years old, alongside a $1 billion 1,050-foot Tower Verre luxury apartment skyscraper by Jean Nouvel, Diller Scofidio are rebuilding the new Lincoln Center--another Rockefeller family venture--and are building the Broad Museum, in downtown Los Angeles, across from the MoCA and Gehry's Disney Concert Hall, for Eli Broad, the real estate mogul, to house a part of his expansive art collection. Los Angeles is going through the throes of its own strange cultural and real-estate expansion in a largely low-rise city where any part could theoretically be ballooned into the sky, its endless sprawl-within-city seemingly looking for some center. The center, however, is big and hollow. Probably every block in L.A. should instead be quartered and given four more weird corner stores.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien built a new facility for the Barnes Foundation that is unfairly compared to the MoMA's inhalation of American Folk Art Museum. The goal of these institutions in their expansion is to make their collections more accessible to a wider public, while preserving their history, and to leave themselves on a more secure financial footing. There is, of course, a common disregard for a part of that history, in the case of the Barnes, the disregard for its founders wish for the collection to remain on display as an intimate house museum. Yet the Barnes is an extraordinary experience that merges the idiosyncratic world of the original Barnes Foundation, with its inclusion of historical crafts and household objects, and comparisons of deep art historical references with contemporary works, and its display of Philadelphia artists like William Glackens, who overturn the stagnant modern canon that MoMA is bound to recite. The creation of a social space within MoMA's tourist art-gawking factory would certainly be a welcome change.

Both husband-and-wife architecture teams are enormously respected professionals giving shape to a type of architecture that was barely imagined in the late 1970s, when dull International Style corporate boxes and even blander Postmodern historical pastiche buildings predominated. The new architecture that they helped bring into practice was part of a cultural movement that engendered a new public excitement in cities, creating compelling attractions in places that had the resources or foresight to see culture as one of the tools of urban transformation. 

The difference, whether by choice, by the nature of their work, or by circumstance, TWBT have tended to produce work that pays attention, in its fine-grained materials and embedded relation to its environment, to specific places, and exudes a sense of reverence for them. (See its forthcoming library at MacDowell Colony as another example.) It's somewhat shocking to witness the speed of Manhattanism's destruction of specificity. It would be hopelessly naive to not see it as just the norm, however. There's nothing unexpected about MoMA's erasure of the American Folk Art Museum. One day it will be a superblock, extending from 5th to 6th Avenue.

It always seemed like this movement of capital back to cities was a righteous cause, a reaction against the fleeing of whites from cities after passage of the Civil Rights Act, Black riots, subsidized suburbanization of the late 1960s and 70s, and the stripping of resources from them by state and Federal institutions. Since that time, our assumptions have remained the same: any resources would have to come through tax revenues generated by property taxes and income taxes. Culture became an integral form of capital that generated that churning of real estate.

Back then, government funding for the arts was radically cut by charges of obscenity against the new performance and visual art rooted in a new autonomy for women and sexual freedom that grew out of the freedom of the city. Obscenity is the use of culture to fund luxurious lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the expectation that culture will inevitably be used to serve that inflation of value, without real resources ever being devoted to the support of artists and their work in communities. Unless big-name contemporary artists demand a change from government, start redirecting their cultural capital in useful ways, and refuse to participate in the obscenities of art-as-unfunded-lifestyle-real-estate-urban-development-accessory, culture will have to keep churning, in ever more obscene ways.

May 28, 2012

Community Formation and Design on the Gowanus

A few weeks ago, Hans Hesselein of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy organized a community design charrette for a green corridor on Degraw Street that would hold stormwater and nourish plantings between the Douglass/ Green Park and the Gowanus Canal. Karine Duteil and Nadej Hocini of KaN Landscape Designs led the process as part of DesigNYC’s 2012 Recharging Communities program.

Part of a larger 2009 conceptual master plan by Dland Studio for a Sponge Park waterfront esplanade that would absorb stormwater runoff from streets within the watershed area and prevent it from carrying pollutants into the Gowanus Canal, the Degraw Street Green Corridor has received funding from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“The Sponge Park was really the open-space vision for the Gowanus Canal and the spaces that could be incorporated around it,” Hesselein says. “It’s not a construction document—it’s all about concept and ideas. That has really been a powerful force in helping the community to see a feasible future for the canal, and it’s generated a lot of support, a lot of ideas, and a lot of initiative towards re-envisioning and rebuilding edges along the canal.”

The meeting, held at the Proteus Gowanus gallery space tucked in an alleyway next to Cabinet magazine, was attended by members of Friends of Douglass/ Green Park, several landscape architects and planners living in the area, members of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, and many young residents. It adopted the form of a charrette, a method of gathering ideas for public projects focused on getting users to openly share local knowledge, express desires for places, think about possibilities, and sketch out ideas. After initial presentations, the attendees are organized into small groups at tables where they can all contribute to the discussion, then brought back together to report to the larger group.

The small groups presented ideas for cobblestones, public art installations, pedestrianizing the street,  and benches facing the canal. They proposed flower beds, green walls on industrial buildings, tree pits, infiltration planting, a boathouse for canoes, signage about plantings. They imagined murals, art exhibitions, games painted on the street, a block party, undulating wall planters. They suggested recycling materials from industries in the neighborhood, vine trellises, a chalkboard, a dog water fountain. There were ideas for compost collection, aromatic plants, coal water filtering beds, crushed car cubes, ramped corners for skateboarders. One participant wanted to get work donated by area artisans such as a metalworking shop, a ceramics studio, and textile manufacturers.

Like the Newtown Creek, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently declared the Gowanus Canal a Federal Superfund site, a severely contaminated area eligible for billions of dollars in cleanup funds. The canal is polluted with coal tar, also known as “black mayonnaise,” a byproduct of coal gas manufacturing. Almost anytime it rains, wastewater is released into it from the combined storm and sewer system.

Clustered around the canal are warehouses and manufacturing buildings that once served gas manufacturing and industrial production, and many light-manufacturers remain in the area. Eastern Effects, a film and television equipment company, is converting a warehouse across the street into a production studio, and is expected to be a major user of the space, along with residents of adjacent blocks.

The neighborhood surrounding Gowanus has been undergoing substantial demographic change for several decades as a result of migration of postsuburban college-educated professionals and younger residents into the area. These residents are reappropriating the landscape and imagining a cleaner future for the district. Once this cleanup occurs, it is expected that the process of capital investment will ramp up along the canal, with large new residential buildings and waterside promenades overtaking these short-term solutions.

“The reality is this neighborhood is repopulated big time,” says Eymund Diegel, an environmental and regional planner, and community leader. “There’s some backlash to that, but on the other hand, a lot of the other old-timers, you’ll get a longshoreman, they bought their old house for $150,000, the kids now are coming in and willing to pay $2,500 for the hot top floor. One of the key divisions is whether you’re an owner or a renter. If you’re an owner, you’re a blue collar worker, you can buy yourself a condo in Florida and ‘F’ off for half the year.”

In this sense, meetings like these represent nascent communities in the process of formation, with the temporary designs and sketches of possibilities serving as models for reimagined communities that may determine the canal’s use for the next century. The attendees—stakeholders in bureaucratic planning jargon—become the leaders of this transformation, feeding information and ideas to the architects, who draw from them and their toolkit of design solutions to picture this future. In the coming weeks, this preliminary design will be presented to the group for comments, disseminated in newspapers and online, and soon afterwards carved into the landscape.

A clear shortcoming of this model is that the in-kind work of architecture and design here is producing a new condition that others are inevitably capitalizing on. But why is the creative work of design professionals not getting equally supported as an integral part of the process? There are also legitimate questions about the character of this community, as college-educated middle-class residents begin to reoccupy vacant industrial spaces and reshape them according to their interests. - STEPHEN ZACKS