Left: Cover of Michael Sorkin’s Twenty Minutes in Manhattan (2009). Right: A view of Broadway in Times Square, New York. (Photo: Lisa Davidson)
Michael Sorkin is a New York–based architect, urban planner, educator, and the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Variations on a Theme Park (1991), Exquisite Corpse (1994), and After the World Trade Center (2002). His latest book, which examines the history and changing face of New York through the lens of his morning commute, is Twenty Minutes in Manhattan.
THE IDEA FOR THE BOOK CAME ABOUT FIFTEEN YEARS AGO. Walks are contemplative times and spaces, and going over the same territory day after day gave me the opportunity to see things over the relatively longue durée: construction projects, seasonal activities, changes in commercial life, in culture, in the population. After dilating internally on the happy accidents produced by the city and on the quality of my immediate environment, I thought I’d begin to write about it. Not only did I want to do something a little bit popular, but also to bring together discourses that are normally segregated: formal, economic, sociological, political, quotidian. I wanted to show, for example, how the ratio of a stair riser has ramifications up to the organization of property and beyond. Twenty Minutes turned out to be frequently delayed; I probably completed half a dozen other books while writing this one. I was also gentrified out of my old studio midway, which changed my route. But the walks were comparable and in the same neighborhood. The only historical event that doesn’t fully register in the pages of the book is 9/11, in part because I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.
In bringing together these various discourses, I hope in some small way to counteract architecture’s continuing obsession with narrow formal issues. The social side of architecture has been disastrously slighted for many years. Things are now beginning to change for the better, as social issues slip into architecture under the cover of environmentalism. If the moniker we use to recuperate ideas of equity and fairness is “environmental justice,” so be it. The risk is that many urban problems are more deep-seated and widespread than a narrowly constructed environmental idea, in which things are broken down into categories and considered solved. Aspiring to LEED certification is not enough. Architects—as well as critics and educators who contribute to our profession’s current myopia—need to see not simply constituent parts but how those parts interact as part of a larger and far more complex system. The book is predicated on the understanding that nothing in the urban environment exists autonomously, that the city is a web of fascinating contingencies.
Here in New York, we’re beginning to see glimmers of more enlightened thinking. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, though vague, points in the right direction; Janette Sadik-Khan, our transportation commissioner, is bringing to the streets the first fruits of her fascination with Copenhagen, the poster-town for pedestrian planning. (That our plutocrat mayor believes deeply in the leadership of private initiative doesn’t help; public amenities shouldn’t have to sneak in a profit-making arrangement for private partners.) These positive developments have a lot to counteract: for over a century, cities have tried to redesign themselves in order to accommodate first trains and then cars, two modes of transportation that can be lethal for urbanity. We now need to start with the image of a desirable city and then imagine the transportation technologies that might produce it. Only neighborhoods and communities structured to eliminate the need to move long distances at high speeds will wean us from our automobile addiction. My book, like Jane Jacobs’s great The Death and Life of Great American Cities, imagines a city based on bodies and basic principles of affinity.
Jacobs was a tireless activist, and small-scale initiatives and community solidarity are both important. Neighborhoods and localities must be empowered; we need to leverage cooperation in tractable and inventive ways. This is something I try to do with Terreform, my nonprofit organization—to raise expectations, to show what the possibilities are, and to help give expression to dreams and desires that find difficulty reaching the mainstream. As I say in the book, the future of the city lies not in the superposition of the next great idea but in the careful articulation and expression of many fresh and familiar differences.
Twenty Minutes in Manhattan was published this month by Reaktion and is available from the University of Chicago Press.
Left and right: MOS, Afterparty (work in progress), 2009. Installation view. (Photos: Aaron Orenstein)
MOS is a self-described “collective of designers, architects, thinkers, and state-of-the-art weirdos.” As the 2009 winners of MoMA/P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center’s Young Architects’ Program, they were invited to construct a landscape to adorn P.S. 1’s outdoor courtyard, which will also serve as the environment for the museum’s Warm Up summer music series. Here, Michael Meredith, cofounder of MOS with Hilary Sample, speaks about their winning proposal, Afterparty.
ABJECTION RUNS THROUGHOUT AFTERPARTY, especially in its use of materials. There are two nearly monolithic materials at play: the thatch––a literally rough medium—on the outside, and on the inside, raw aluminum that makes up the netting and a radial scaffolding of arches and domes. The structures are all the same shape, but are distorted and repeated into different heights. Sometimes they’re more like a dome, and sometimes more like a cone. Others will look like chimneys. So, one aspect of the work is the materials, and the other is this formal idea of serial things that change and shift. And then there’s a performance element, of the structure literally producing a cooling effect. The funnels (functional chimneys) will heat up at their highest points and—through induction, and a difference in air pressure—will suck the air up and produce a breeze underneath the space.
Our desire was to produce an enclosed interior and exterior urban presence, which I don’t think has happened much in previous Warm Up projects. Usually, everything is very ephemeral. Afterparty is pretty heavy. The thatch is really weird looking; actually, it has serious bed head right now. It doesn’t look like tiki huts at all—it looks animal. Like Where the Wild Things Are or Chewbacca. The inside is a Bauhaus metal party, and the outside is a crazy, fantastic, furry animal. The other thing we tried to do is to create an impact deriving from its inherent urbanism, so these furry smokestacks and chimneys definitely work toward that. We’re calling it hollowed-out infrastructure.
The title, Afterparty, means many things to us: One is the economic situation. Another has to do with architecture itself, which is in a crisis of dealing with the post-developer-driven world. We’re looking at some other operating mode, searching for new ways to deal with composition, perhaps. We are also thinking about modernism and its relationship—its strong tie—to the primitive. The plan recalls how houses in Africa are developed; the rooms are very cellular, like organisms growing.
It’s easy for the P.S. 1 outdoor projects to involve a level of kitsch, perhaps inevitably because of the programming and the budget. You need to have little suburban swimming pools or some such water event. We won’t have any of that stuff because we didn’t have the budget. Typically, in the past you could go and find sponsors to help you, but this year we begged a couple people to help us out. The economic situation seems very real in terms of how to actually get something built.
The other work we’ve done shows our interest in vernacular and—in architectural terms—low-grade aesthetics. I think we’re skeptical of the idea of design; sometimes I say I’m a self-hating formalist, trying to think of ways not to design too much. Much of our work is based on systems that help us deal with the problems of composition. But compared with our previous projects, Afterparty is nearly grotesque. When I look at it, it makes me somewhat sick. I don’t know what people are going to think.
This June, in addition to participating in the second Athens Biennale, video and performance artist Kalup Linzy released his second album, Sampled and LeftOva. He teamed up with fashion duo Proenza Schouler to create two music videos from the album, in conjunction with the designers’ pre-Spring presentation in Florence on June 18. In July, Linzy will embark on a upcoming project at P.S. 1 in Long Island City, New York. Here, he talks about his hot summer of collaboration.
I SHOT TWO MUSIC VIDEOS FOR PROENZA SCHOULER, basically responding to the clothes, and we’re doing a photo shoot. This is my first time working with high fashion. I’ve been researching photographs and looking at models; it’s all pretty edgy, so I don’t think the relationship between my work and Proenza Schouler is as distant as I originally thought. I’ve seen some pretty wild, risqué stuff in fashion photography. Now the question is: How can my work flow and meld into that?
I wasn’t planning to shoot as many videos as I shot for my first album, SweetBerry Sonnet. I was more interested in developing a live performance, but when Proenza Schouler came to me and asked me if I wanted to collaborate, the idea for the videos just came to me.
At first, the video for the album’s title track was going to be in color, but then I looked around and the clothes were mostly black-and-white, or high contrast. I’ve always responded to old black-and-white movies. I watch them all the time. I also love The Twilight Zone. I wrote an episode for my series “Conversations wit de Churen” titled Guiding Twilight, which is a cross between The Twilight Zone and Guiding Light. I haven’t produced it yet, but I think about those ideas and the way that made-for-TV science fiction looks. There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone in which the mannequins come to life. I think of Liya Kebede, the supermodel who appears in the video, as a talking doll or as one of those mannequins, leaving her pose and coming to life.
Kalup Linzy, All My Churen, 2003 (excerpt)
I was also thinking of how the videos would play in Italy. The title Sampled and LeftOva is about a relationship gone wrong, but also about playing around with clothes and history. With many of the shots, I’m thinking about paintings––the Mona Lisa or the Birth of Venus—and trying to get some of those poses from the Italian Renaissance. I’ve done it before, like in my 2008 music video, Ignorant Oil, which references Gauguin, but the references have been subtler. Since the new video was going to be shown in Italy, I wanted to bring out the historical elements more this time.
The second video, for a song called “Fuck You,” is in color and is kind of a sequel to Ignorant Oil. It stars me as my recurring character named Taiwan, and the same male lead, plus the actress Chloë Sevigny. Proenza Schouler made all these custom outfits. They made a new leotard and a dress for Taiwan. He’s singing, and it’s as if he’s finally become the star of the soap opera. He’s moved up in the world. The audience doesn’t yet know how he got to that place, but there’s room to develop that backstory.
I’m also really excited about another project later this summer. P.S. 1 is giving me a studio––three rooms that I’m going to turn into sets. I like the idea of the studio being my set; it feels like I’m doing The Bold and the Beautiful. People will come in and tape their scenes, and there won’t be all this lugging of equipment from apartment to apartment so there’s more freedom. I’m making Melody Set Me Free, 2007, into an episodic series that will follow the character Patience. She’s a singer, and after the talent show in the first Melody Set Me Free video, she joins the record company started by K. K. Queen. K. K. Queen is a character who’s been heard offstage but never seen, so I’m going to get to develop a new look, for her. She’ll be the matriarch, like they have on soap operas, and a little like Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. She’s going to be more fashionable than my other characters. She’s fabulous, but she’s kitsch, too, and a little grotesque.
And K. K. is my nickname, so it will be hoot for my family and close friends.
Dan Nadel, owner of the Brooklyn-based publishing house PictureBox Inc., organized “Sounds and Pauses: The Comics of David Mazzucchelli,” the first US retrospective of Mazzucchelli’s twenty-five year career. The exhibition is on view at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York through August 23. Pantheon Graphic Novels will publish Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli’s anticipated new graphic novel, on July 7.
I GREW UP WITH DAVID’S WORK. I first saw his original and groundbreaking drawings in the seminal Batman comic Batman: Year One in 1987. He made those drawings when he was in his mid-twenties. His handling of space and form impressed me, but I was even more inspired by the way he drew, which was more expressive and moody than other cartoonists who were working at the time. After Year One, he made one more superhero comic, but then left the genre to pursue his own project, a self-published anthology called Rubber Blanket. With his wife, Richmond Lewis, David released three beautifully designed and printed issues of Rubber Blanket from 1990 to 1993. Each issue contains thematically rich stories and experiments with color and form that remain influential to the development of alternative comics. It makes sense that David has a big following. Many of the artists I work with seem to have been influenced by his work over the years, particularly C.F. and Frank Santoro. It’s unusual that David’s been successful in both the mainstream and underground worlds and that he’s been able to maintain an aesthetic that is completely his own. I met him a few years ago through mutual friends, and earlier this year he asked me to curate this show for him. I happily agreed.
The exhibition is a full retrospective of his practice, and we selected the work together. It’s primarily based on the story David wanted to tell about his work, and ultimately he designed the look of the installation (in consultation with me). The show is centered around Asterios Polyp, with his original sketches and notes, and also contains pages from projects including Rubber Blanket, his adaptation of the novel City of Glass, a handful of short stories, and a selection of his Batman and Daredevil stories.
He’s a rare cartoonist in that he thinks of the finished, printed piece ahead of time, which adds another layer of meaning to the work. He always leaves elements out while he’s drawing and adds color and texture later, during the printing process. To show this process, we installed printed pages from his various publications, which offer new ideas about the work because they bring to mind the role of printmaking in his practice.
David is an artist who has made incredible cross-genre work for over two decades now, and this is the first time an American audience can see the startling breadth of it. Obviously, comics people will come to this exhibition, but it’s an opportunity for a much wider audience to see his works. David represents a contemporary artmaking practice that is rarely seen outside an artist’s studio, and that alone should make this show worth visiting. But more important, his drawings are rich, beautiful things and should be viewed as masterful examples of image- and mark-making.
For the 53rd Venice Biennale, the artistic duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset will represent the Nordic and Danish pavilions. The duo have chosen to conceive of the pavilions as separate “homes,” in which they have installed works by twenty-four different artists. Here, Elmgreen & Dragset talk about the project, titled “The Collectors.”
WE WERE APPROACHED to do the pavilions about a year and a half ago. As an art space, we knew that the Nordic pavilion was problematic, but we also knew we would love to live there. We thought, “Well, let’s make it a home.” The Danish pavilion’s architecture features a mix of late classicism and typical Northern European functionalism; with its weird extension and its clash of styles, it looks like a home that has been in the same family for generations. The Nordic pavilion has a more playful design and could easily be turned into a California Case Study House look-alike. It also has this open structure, in which it would be awkward to make partition walls. It’s so much like a bachelor pad—in this case, the home of a lively gentleman who has been living his hedonistic lifestyle in this gorgeous setting with embedded seating and built-in beds and a transparent bathroom. It is a very exhibitionistic interior, very LA, very Austin Powers, very David Hockney—and very gay.
If the Nordic pavilion is more Hockney, then the Danish pavilion is more Hitchcock. It’s a middle-class family home divided into several rooms, including a library accessible only via a broken staircase. Downstairs, you can sit on couches designed by the Norwegian design company Norway Says. There are also books on art, on collecting, and on architecture—since our fictional family-father was an architect. He likes order. The family doesn’t collect only artworks; they also have a collection of flies—hundreds of ordinary flies pinned up with names under them—and a collection of Weimar porcelain, which we actually borrowed from the Milan dealer Massimo De Carlo. There’s evidence of a lot of small accidents in the house. Rumor has it that the parents got divorced and the teenage daughter left home at a very young age. Outside the pavilion there is a FOR SALE sign, and visitors will get tours by a real estate agent. Hopefully, the sale will add to the cultural budget in Denmark.
Once the tour is finished, the public will be shown the neighboring house, because if you want to buy a house, you need to know your neighbors. That house is inhabited by the Mysterious Mr. B, the naughty bachelor, who not only collected contemporary artworks that promoted his sexual identity, but also swimwear from his ex-lovers. Unfortunately, Mr. B. is now floating facedown in the swimming pool outside the pavilion. Meanwhile, inside there are young men drinking vodka tonics and hanging out in white T-shirts and faded jeans.
Mr. B. has a lot of works by artists whose sexual identity would correspond to his own: There’s Wolfgang Tillmans, Hernan Bas, Henrik Olesen, Elmgreen & Dragset, Terence Koh, Pepe Espaliú, and of course Tom of Finland. Tom of Finland was one of the artists who came to our mind first, because the deal is that when you get the Nordic pavilion you have to include artists from the other Nordic countries. It’s so obvious to use Tom of Finland—he’s a national representative already. One of the things we wanted to do in the Nordic pavilion was to show how different “queer” works can look. At the same time, we didn’t really want to make an exhibition about sexuality—we just wanted to make a sexy show. In that vein, there will be naked black-and-white photos by Tillmans and two of Koh’s re-creations of David (with enlarged penises).
In the Danish pavilion, there’s a bit of Bergmanesque family drama; we suppose there’s a bit of Michael Elmgreen’s family in it as well, unfortunately; he left home fairly early, too. In the pavilion, there are two Stella replicas by Sturtevant. We ourselves are very fond of remakes; we often make copies of other artists’ works and place them in new contexts, so we are big fans of Sturtevant. Klara Liden has made the teenager’s room; with a dog flap out to the free and punky interior, this room indicates the absolute last hope for this family.
One of the things we wanted to stress with our exhibition is that collecting is not only about markets and auctions and investment and who is hot and who is not. Lots of people collect for other reasons—their own beliefs, political views, sexual identity, or because they have a passion for a certain artistic approach. Some people collect because it’s a tradition in their family or because they have a neurotic need for order in their life or out of vanity or to give back something to society. We find it interesting, this belief that objects brought together can constitute an identity.
We ourselves collect some works. We like to support artists who make ephemeral art. We own a rain puddle by the German artist Kirsten Pieroth. We have another project by Tomas Saraceno that we bought years ago at an art fair. It’s a little balloon with a spider living on it, spinning a web against the wall. We have several of these kinds of works, and someday we might make a show with them. The show would only be there for one day—the opening and the exhibition all at once—and then it would disappear. A show that one would have to re-collect.