The American Museum of Natural History announced this week the closing of its Hall of Gems on October 26. Designed by architect William F. Pederson in high 1970s style, these galleries are as close as you can get to lounging in a conversation pit in public in New York City. I am sad to see them go.
One of my first parenting memories of New York is being at the Museum of Natural History with my toddling son, and happening upon the soft darkness of the (as it’s officially named) Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and Morgan Memorial Gem Hall. Finally, a place to rest! With no hard corners and no other exits, I could park the stroller and let him wander on feet or knees at his will. Maybe he’d learn something from his explorations, maybe not. When you go to a museum with a 2-year-old, it’s as much for change of location as it is to foster a future scientist. He’d learn something from the geode just as he learned from the sandbox.
On repeat visits I figured out that this surrender to the visual and tactile was Pederson’s point: more engaging than the old-fashioned taxonomic case, less technological than today’s touchscreens, that era of exhibition design leaned in to the body as a teaching tool.
There are no Vogue covers at the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art’s first fashion exhibition since 1944. No mannequins, no ball gowns. “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” begins instead with a list and a slide show. The list calls out all hundred and eleven items in the show, chosen by the curators Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher for their archetypal qualities. When Antonelli travelled to India and Bangladesh, for example, she asked people, “What is the stereotypical sari? The one that you think of when you close your eyes?” The slide show is a compendium of photos and images the curatorial team drew from social media, showing tracksuits, power suits, Union suits, and bathing suits in their natural settings, out there in our world. “The moment you see a list, you want to make your own,” Antonelli told me. “We want you to say, ‘This exhibition is about me.’ ”
She’s right. My list centers not on the objects of fantasy—Jane Birkin’s Birkin bag, red-soled Louboutin stilettos, Issey Miyake’s D.I.Y. A-POC dress—but on the Items that I have owned, most of which cost less than a hundred dollars.
Picture it: a triangular wall of windows and a sleeping loft; sliding glass doors out to a terrace; deck chairs, a barbecue grill, a picnic table, a dinner bell to call you in from the forest, the lake, or the beach.
With a braided rug on the floor and heart-shaped cutouts on the balcony balustrade, the house is all ready for a Sunset magazine close-up—until your child folds that terrace up, trapping the Play Family inside, lifting his Fisher-Price A-frame up by its convenient carrying handle. Getting home from vacation was never so easy.
This A-frame dollhouse looms large in the imagination of children of the 1970s. Manufactured only from 1974 to 1976, the house, described in the catalog as a “ski-chalet,” was the company’s first set to include bunk beds and a picnic table, the furniture avatars of a leisurely lifestyle, as well as one of the first to be entirely made of plastic, lightweight and low maintenance.
From its accessories to its portability, the toy A-frame closely resembles its full-size inspiration, a house that continues to serve as a symbol of an era when leisure—and second homes—was available to a much larger swath of the American population.
“How much does your house weigh?”
That was the question Buckminster Fuller used to ask in the 1920s when marketing his Dymaxion House, a 3,000-pound, circular, mass-producible, affordable, and environmentally-responsible house way ahead of its time. The line, later adapted for the title of a documentary about Norman Foster, a Fuller enthusiast, has become shorthand for a different kind of thinking—technological, industrial, radical—around architecture. Fuller turned his back on 150 tons of brick and right angles in favor of an evaluation method copped from the world of transportation.
I was reminded of this Fuller quote as I toured the three new buildings on Roosevelt Island, officially opening today, that make up the 12-acre campus of Cornell Tech. Those structures include the Morphosis-designed Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center, an academic building named for the daughters of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose philanthropy gave the applied sciences graduate school $100 million in 2015. The Bridge, designed by Weiss/Manfredi, is a seven-story “co-location” building intended to bring entrepreneurs to academia, and vice versa; while The House, by Handel Architects, is a 26-story, 350-unit dormitory for students, staff, and faculty that also happens to be the world’s largest Passive House building. (The fact that all three buildings are opening at the same time and on schedule gives me nostalgia for Bloomberg-era competence.)
On my tour, with the architects stacked back-to-back, a half hour per building, Michael Manfredi remarked that it felt a bit like a school science fair. At every turn, they spouted numbers:
40, 60, 1,465, 0
Stand at the end of the walkway between Yale University’s two new residential colleges, and you will see what looks like an illustration for a bedtime story. Lines of lampposts and young trees soften the red brick and stone facades, punctuated by the occasional gable. At the far end, a Gothic bell tower, with four layers of round arches, reaches into the sky, while a street-level line of arched windows beckons you down the walk. The tower’s base is obscured by another building, making it look farther away than it really is, and creating an illusion that Yale might extend just as far in that direction.
It’s lively, it’s hierarchical, it’s picturesque. It could be the opening frame of any “college” movie. It could have been designed any time in the last 100 years. How you feel about that last statement will condition your reaction to Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges, fraternal twins housing almost 500 students each, on a 6.7-acre site just to the north of Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven.
But seriously, in 2017, will only neo-Gothic do? The walk, and the residential colleges flanking it, felt to me like a strenuous effort to sell Yale to an audience that was already in the bag.
Chicago, 2211. The towers are taller. The apartments are smaller. The El has become the tube. Pho is the breakfast of choice. Communication happens mainly through screens, albeit floating holographic screens. Five teen-agers have been assigned to the City Planning Council for a year of public service. Their first assignment is to decide on the future of the Uptown Theatre, a white terra-cotta movie palace that seats four thousand and, in 2211 as in 2017, needs to be adapted into something new. (Regina Spektor filmed her “Black and White” video there.) After a tense meeting, three of them decide to go to see the theatre, and the Uptown neighborhood, for themselves.
“We really want a space to facemeet, instead of screening all the time,” one teen says. “I was wrong to think I could make a planning council decision from up in my apartment,” another says. Will Uptown get the server farm/performance venue it wants, or just more condos? Such is the cliffhanger ending of “No Small Plans,” a just-published graphic novel from the Chicago Architecture Foundation.