New York

Mark Robbins

Clocktower Productions

In this first installment of a trilogy of traveling exhibitions, architect Mark Robbins surveyed historic and contemporary New York, to create artifacts and environments that explore this city and the phenomenology of cities more generally. Rather than constructing literal or mimetic architectural spaces, Robbins made large-scale objects that could be climbed on and moved through in order to explore the psychological effect of participation in the city.

Framing American Cities is a broad examination of three emblematic cities: New York, Columbus, Ohio, and San Francisco. Though based on the ubiquitous and egalitarian grid, the organization of these different urban centers has been inflected by particular pressures and conditions; they each have distinguishing architectures and topographies. These three documented locations evidence this evolving pattern of migration and development that moved from east to west across the North American continent. New York was settled in the 17th century by Europeans, and San Francisco, first a mission site, emerged as a city in the 19th century in the frenzy of a gold rush. Columbus was the stepping-stone between the developed East Coast and the unknown American frontier, and it remains a middle ground, both spatially and ideologically.

Like many architects who have shunned the building of buildings, Robbins has sought an alternative practice that exhumes the intellectual and ideological dimensions of the built environment, and his methodology is both academic and esthetic; it entails a partnership of extensive research and creative production.

The exhibition consisted of three major components accompanied by drawings and other background material. The featured assemblage consisted of a congregation of five six-foot towers placed on a raised, metal grill platform. Viewers stepped onto this floor to see wires, loudspeakers, and several video monitors set beneath the gridded surface. Placed on the edges of the platform, the towers’ dense, orderly arrangement suggested the buildings of a typical New York City block, but each tower could be manipulated like individual pieces of furniture. Translucent elevations slid up and down to reveal mysterious interior spaces—cabinets of curiosities containing surprising collections of elements and images.

Set in the southwest corner of the gallery, this penetrable environment served as a hinge to two other installations. To the east was a steep set of wooden bleachers; to the north, partially screened from sight, was a series of narrow, enclosed chambers. Like interrogation rooms or holding cells, the barren, grimly-lit slots of space made occupancy uncomfortable.

Robbin’s tripartite assemblage proposed challenging connections between situation, position of observation, and experience of the city. The grandstand provided a scenographic, abstracted, panoramic view of the constructed environment, suggesting a dazzling skyline far above the city’s nocturnal realities. The space of the platform and towers made scale and proximity tactile and immediate. Not just the eyes but the body and mind served as interpretive instruments here. And in the other, more disquieting arrangement of cramped chambers, the psychological pressures of the urban environment were observed through unsettling encounters and associations.

In a final moment of mediation between the installation and the actual city, Robbins placed a short flight of stairs against the north wall of the gallery. A small aperture framed the Chrysler Building and midtown skyline to the north, confirming the surveillance of the city as his subject. The architect uses poetic analysis of three urban sites to pursue the ideological ingredients of planning and design. He produces engaging and sensual environments where the imagined and actual city achieve a spirited exchange. In subsequent exhibitions in Columbus and San Francisco, new installations will further this accretive collage of regional urbanism.

Patricia C. Phillips