On June 20, 1966, Jane Jacobs was speaking out against the destruction of Washington Square Park. “SOS, Park Association of New York City Opposes N.Y.U. Library!” reads the sign taped to the table. And another: “N.Y.U. Don’t block off the … ” The signs overlap. The light? The street? The park? All of the above.
Jacobs was protesting New York University’s plans to build a library on the south side of Washington Square, a great red hulk that she and fellow-protesters feared would turn the public park into an academic green and loom over low-rise row houses. “All the glamour of Philip Johnson [the project’s architect] won’t save that corner of the park from gloom,” she said. “The two elements most destructive of urban parks are highways and educational institutions.” She’d already stopped Robert Moses’s proposed throughway a decade before; now she was trying to take care of the second element.
Peering at a blotchy black-and-white image of this historic event, I noticed something distinctive about the hem of Jacobs’s dress: a lighter-colored scallop wending its way around the bottom, like the brick border on a garden plot. The Jane Jacobs look was simple to the point of caricature: blunt bob with bangs, thick black eyeglass frames, beads. A skirt fit for cycling around Manhattan. Where had I seen that border before? Then it came to me: at the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” a deeper-than-you-might-think look at the painter’s curation of her wardrobe, home, and image. Against one wall, the curator Wanda M. Corn lines up a series of O’Keeffe’s long-sleeved, full-skirted cotton dresses from a Finnish company that epitomized modern fashion: Marimekko. O’Keeffe and Jacobs had (almost) the same dress.
MoMA tries to wrest the spotlight from the “world famous architect,” but the player always wins
In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright appeared on the television show What’s My Line? On the show, a panel of once-upon-a-time celebrities ask a mystery guest yes-or-no questions in order to figure out who he is and what he does. We know who Wright is, of course, and there’s anticipatory pleasure even in the decisive way he chalks his name on the show’s blackboard to start: It is less script than graphic, less name than geometry. If Wright was going to be on a game show, he was going to do it properly, though he only admits to having “watched one of the shows with interest.”
Problem was, Wright had already done his job too thoroughly. Under questioning, he reveals that he is self-employed, that he uses his hands, that clients frequently come to him two at a time. “Is this service for both men and women?” one panelist asks. “I like to think so,” says Wright dryly. One lady finally catches on, wondering if he could be in a profession “such as design, or architecture, such as Frank Lloyd Wright?”
“Wright and architecture had, for many Americans, become synonymous,” writes Barry Bergdoll in the catalog for the Museum of Modern Art’s latest Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” which he co-curated with Jennifer Gray. Problem is, for many Americans, Frank Lloyd Wright and architecture still are synonymous. Even the Museum of Modern Art— with whom Wright famously feuded after the 1932 International Style exhibition dared to put his work alongside that of younger, less famous, European architects—has gone back to the Wright well more than a dozen times, giving him solo shows in 1940, 1962 and 1994, as well as spotlighting the acrobatic Fallingwater (1938), both earth-hugging Taliesins (1947), and his radical workplace for Johnson Wax (1952).
AUGUST is a new journal on design and travel, started by Dung Ngo, with each issue dedicated to a specific city. When I had coffee with Dung in November, he told me the first issue, just released, would be about Milan. My family lived in Milan for seven months when I was 13 (my parents were on sabbatical), and I’ve always felt that that time in a historic city, with a duomo and public transportation and stylish shops, turned me into an urban person.
For the first issue, I wrote a short memoir of my time there, and what I learned at Fiorucci, Benetton and Naj-Oleari. It’s not online yet, but I will update when it is.
Architect Harry Weese’s first Metro design presentation to the Washington, D.C., Commission of Fine Arts in April 1967 did not go well. Commission member Eero Saarinen called the exposed granite sidewalls of Weese’s design for the system’s deepest stations—rumpled and craggy, inspired by several in Stockholm—“Hansel and Gretel.” Commission member Gordon Bunshaft described them as “folk art” and the overall look as “a refined coal mine shaft.”
At subsequent meetings, the commission pushed back on Weese’s desire to express the different station configurations (exposed, tunnel, cut-and-cover) through varied interior design. Rather than fairy tales, they wanted something in the “spirit of the classical style,” as Saarinen put it. According to historian Kathleen Murphy Skolnik:
Halfway through the two-hour meeting, Bunshaft, attempting to illustrate what the commission wanted, turned over one of Weese’s presentation boards and sketched a vaulted design similar to one initially submitted by Weese… Weese refrained from pointing out the similarity between the two and instead praised Bunshaft’s concept as “a pretty exciting thing.” Former Weese employees involved in the project credit Bunshaft with saving Weese’s vision for the grand vaulted spaces that are the dominant feature of the Washington Metro system.
I had cause to reflect on the D.C. Metro—and look up its origin story—after two visits to the first four stations of the Second Avenue Subway, which opened January 1, 2017. The extension of the Q line is already popular, the stations are spacious and clean, and the MTA is justifiably proud of public art installations by Jean Shin, Vik Muniz, Chuck Close, and Sarah Sze in each of the new stations. But I could tell, just by looking at it, that the process had been very different from that of the Metro, just as the photos one takes in the Metro are very different from the snippets of Second Avenue showing up on Instagram.
Alexandra Lange, architecture critic for Curbed, joins us to discuss her story, The forgotten history of Japanese-American designers’ World War II internment: Revisiting the link between detention and design history, 75 years after FDR’s executive order. The story investigates the connection between how Japanese-American designers and architects, who were huge influences on mid-century modern American architecture, were influenced by their time in American detention camps during World War II.
Lange will be joined by Dakin Hart, senior curator at the Noguchi Museum and the curator of the recent exhibit Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center.
Forget Woody Allen (if you haven’t already), illustrator Christoph Niemann is here to represent the urban neurotic creative. With pictures! Niemann is one of eight subjects of the new Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design, which premieres February 10.
Niemann’s episode gives him the screen as his sketchbook to talk about his process, to play with Legos, to explain the very concept of abstraction via an animated “Abstract-O-Meter.” He feels less like a documentary subject than director Morgan Neville’s collaborator (or maybe hijacker), willing himself into and out of situations as a grown-up Harold with a purple crayon.
Abstract brings newfangled technology to the age-old task of explaining what designers do. It’s delightful to see so much money thrown at people who, almost unanimously, think best with a pen and a pad of paper.