exploring authenticity in the modern city

Month: December, 2011

A Cynical Look at the Authentic Hipster Style

Tim Barber took this photos for Freemans Sporting Club in New York.


Havana and the Crumbling Aesthetic

During my first week studying in Havana, Cuba last year, my friends and I stumbled upon La Sociedad Cultural Rosalia de Castro. Located in Old Havana, this musician’s guild and practice space is located in the worn-down atrium of an old colonial building. Tangled vines hang down from a net cast across the open ceiling. Shattered pottery and dirt line the edges of the walls. It is up to the imagination to decide what colonial temptress used to make her appearances in the dramatic space and what the butlers were wearing as they attended to her every need. But as in the rest of Havana, the bourgeois past is just a ghost that haunts the glorious buildings that are slowly crumbling all over the city.

In one, white-washed room off of the vast atrium, is the small practice space for Cuba’s best sonero musicians. I got to hear them play, and unlike the space they inhabited, their music was fresh and brilliant, cutting through the gloomy space to enliven it even for just a few measures.

This experience felt authentic to say the least. I finally saw the reality of the life of a Cuban musician and not the act the resort owners put on to disguise the real Havana. Every week, the remaining members of the Buena Vista Social Club, of which they are few, join together with a group of young musicians to put on a show at one of the city’s finest hotels, Hotel Nacional. I went to see the show later that semester, and it felt vapid and depressing. This wasn’t the true Social Club; this was a marketable act that the hotel used to hold up the disguise slipping down over Havana’s face. The current Havana is so much more; it is gritty, sad, and complex. And it is beautiful.

I have to take a step back after writing that last sentence. What does it mean for me, a visiting student from the US, the Cold War enemy, the privileged tourist, to say Havana is beautiful? It is true that I find romance in the city’s crumbling façade and delight in its dark and surprising corners. But what I’m really finding beauty in, if you strip it down to the basics, are people who can’t upkeep their buildings and a government that can’t afford to do it for them. Cubans make about twenty dollars every month if they earn their money legally, because they are subject to the implication’s of a charismatic leader’s lost dream. So why is this form of authenticity so nice to look at? Why do photographs of crowded balconies and structures full of rubble receive oohs and aahs from my friends and family when I go back home?

Is this all part of our need to feel part of something real? To witness the true life of real people in a real place that is the product of its inputs? I like to think that after spending several months in Havana, I now see beauty in the city, because I know what Cubans like the musicians practicing in the Rosalia Castro do on a daily basis to get by, and even to inspire delight, in spite of everything else. But I’ll never truly know. Maybe I myself have truly fallen victim to the crumbling aesthetic.

Either way, this is something we must be aware of in ourselves. As Havana continues to slowly renovate the tourist areas in the old town, it will inevitably seek to capture this aesthetic, this sense of authenticity, in its restaurants, bars, and cigar shops. It will essentially freeze a moment in Havana’s history in order to market the storied streets to the passers-by. We can compare this to the specialty shops in Lower Manhattan that evoke atmospheres of the early 20th century in order to sell cheddar grits for the monthly salary of a Cuban. We must step back to determine what is truly authentic in the spaces we inhabit, why that is valuable, and furthermore, whether or not we can truly call something authentic anymore!

What do we actually want in a city?

I find this sarcastically sums it all up:

“Isn’t that what we want: that each new bistro that opens should give us the feeling of a cozy neighborhood joint, right down to the expertly battered wooden tables and exquisitely selected faucet knobs? And that each new clothing boutique that opens in the space where the dry cleaner’s used to be–you know, the one driven out by rising rents–should retain that charming dry cleaner’s signage, so you can be reconnected to the city’s hardscrabble past even as you shop for a $300 blouse? And that each dazzling, glass-skinned condo tower, with the up-to-date amenities and Hudson views and en suite freaking parking, should be nestled in a charming, grit-chic neighborhood, full of old warehouses and reclaimed gallery spaces and retroactively trendy chunks of rusted urban blight? Isn’t that exactly what we ask New York to be right now?” Adam Sternbergh, New York Magazine

Polished Grit: What the New Museum and the High Line Share in Common

This all started with a paper, or rather a series of papers, I had to write for my senior architectural theory seminar. My peers and I were assigned to write three papers on the same building throughout the course of the semester. I almost instinctively chose the New Museum of Contemporary Art by SANAA, located on the Bowery in SoHo, New York City. Having never even been inside, I still felt like I could write essays that would delve into how the museum simultaneously stands out while paying homage to the historic neighborhood through the subtle manipulation of street forms. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My final paper resulted in a borderline Marxist explanation of the current tendency in American cities to appropriate the grunge and grit of formerly seedy and/or creative neighborhoods to provide a sense of authenticity despite the globalization of cities worldwide.

The Bowery is one of the few Manhattan neighborhoods that were still not classified as gentrified when the New Museum chose to locate their building on 235 Bowery. Dense rows of low-rise, brick and concrete, flat-roofed buildings of varying heights and setbacks create a dynamic urban fabric on the Bowery. Formerly known as the city’s “skid row,” the neighborhood is historically a seedy and industrial area, known as a haven for homeless people, druggies, and the fringes of urban society. Within two blocks of the New Museum are numerous single-room occupancy tenements (known as SROs or flophouses), a Salvation Army, and the Bowery Mission, a local soup kitchen founded in 1879, providing the homeless with valuable amenities.

The placement of the New Museum on the Bowery was a decision in keeping with the New Museum’s commitment to being progressive and edgy. The museum’s intentions were to transform the neighborhood with their new building, while maintaining a respect for the Bowery’s rough character and storied past. However, this assumption is inherently privileged, because it provides the New Museum with the self-given authority to “help,” while romanticizing the character of the historic skid row.  The very act of placing a highbrow institution amongst restaurant supply stores, flophouses, and soup kitchens exploits the museum’s surroundings in an attempt to defy the norms of museum culture. The museum’s context immediately calls upon visitors to compare it to the more affluent or mainstream surroundings of other museums in the city. The New Museum asserts itself as a counterculture institution in this way. The ability to make this statement comes at the cost of the neighborhood, because the New Museum has helped turn the Bowery into yet another area of yuppie culture in the city. This process is not so simple as to be called gentrification, however. The New Museum is part of a transition occurring in urban society described by Sharon Zukin as a shift from cities as authentic places of production to universalized arenas for consumption.

The New Museum was designed by way of appropriating the industrial. The building is wrapped in an anodized aluminum mesh, giving the façade a subtle depth and dynamism. SANAA architect Nishizawa recognized that the building would be very different from its neighbors, but their solution of using aluminum mesh to cover the façade was supposed to add “an element of softness that would allow it to be absorbed into the streetscape.” SANAA took advantage of the capacity of the wall to convey a message in a post-modern way. What SANAA fails to understand is that by literally turning the New Museum into a piece of mesh fabric, the building becomes one of Venturi’s “ducks,” crying out to be a flexible and cohesive presence when in reality standing out like a sore thumb. The director of the New Museum described the building’s materials as “scrappy and stylish,” but this intention to be “shabby chic” is inherently flawed when trying to fit into the Bowery. All of the Museum’s surrounding buildings are brick, so the allusion SANAA makes with the metal and concrete is not literal, but rather metaphorical in the sense that the neighborhood is historically industrial. Metal and concrete have associations with industrial facilities, yet these materials have lost their meaning through appropriation by gentrifying developers trying to maintain the character of neighborhoods. By establishing itself as a refined adaptation of its surroundings, the New Museum sets itself apart in an elitist manner.

The architecture of the New Museum self-consciously tries to be a part of the neighborhood, but its attempts at feeling “local” are trumped by its inevitable identity as an icon as well as its capacity to distill the diverse neighborhood in which it resides into a symbol. The building is composed of seven stacked boxes, a pure form that appears sculptural and simple. SANNA laterally shifted the boxes around a mechanical core in order to maximize the square footage of the tight envelope, allow light to enter, and create a catalogue of differing, column-free spaces in which to display art. The composition acknowledges the local typology of setbacks and small plots, yet the museum stands out from the surroundings through the axial rotation and changes in material and scale. The monochromatic, windowless monolith is remarkably taller than its surroundings and serves as a sculptural representation of its context rather than an active participant. The building’s formal arrangement also creates a marketable image for the neighborhood.

SANAA’s commitment to transparency in their design is also drawn from the industrial surroundings but is not pertinent to the actual functioning of the museum. The single pane of glass separating the ground floor lobby from the street was meant to stimulate an interchange between the interior and exterior. Yet the typology of a glass façade is synonymous with upscale commercial spaces and creates a voyeuristic, fishbowl environment. The steel support structure of the museum is exposed in various places in the mesh, and the mechanics of the museum are all accessible to the eye. This exposure isn’t necessary in a museum as it is in a factory, making the museum’s commitment to exposure feel inauthentic. Finally, the open terrace and “skyroom” on the top floor do not connect the museum’s patrons to the neighborhood as SANAA suggests, but rather allow them to look down at the neighborhood, establishing an elitist “us-them” attitude.

The New Museum has played a major role in changing the Bowery, however the transformation of the Bowery was inevitable with or without the museum. It is the negative reactions to the museum as an exploitative entity in the neighborhood that are of particular interest, because they reveal societal fears of becoming inauthentic. The New Museum raises concerns regarding the appropriation of the historic and industrial urban fabric of the production-based past in order to cater to culture-driven, commercialized future.

As iconic buildings continue to change their neighborhoods and cities, economic and cultural circuits become more closely aligned, commoditizing the arts into a brand sought after by the creative class. How ironic that a counterculture institution would design and proudly inhabit a building that is slowly but surely changing its neighborhood into a commercial experience! One may even go so far as to say the New Museum fits into what Anna Klingmann calls a “brandscape,” or commoditized architecture meant to evoke or spread notions of identity. Klingmann argues that brandscapes express the current transition in architecture from the “perfection of the object to the transformation of the subject.” In the case of the New Museum, the subject is not an individual person but rather the entire neighborhood. The new identity of the Bowery is crystallized in the New Museum. Buildings that fit perfectly into Klingmann’s concept of brandscapes, like Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, were commissioned with the intent of branding a new identity for the post-industrial city. The original residents of the Bowery never asked for such a thing in their own neighborhood.

Urbanists are generally afraid of what this type of environment creates for people residing in cities. The “real” is slowly being turned into commoditized representations of reality. Urban dwellers are at risk of feeling ontologically insecure in places that feel overly commercialized or untrue to their origins. Places like the New Museum are reactions to these insecurities. They are designed to convert atmospheres of grit, vintage, or eclecticism into commercially viable venues and safer, more accessible versions of their predecessors. They exude sentiments of authenticity without necessarily having the warrant to do so.

Zukin challenges these concerns by stating that this is our new reality; we are at the end of an era of connections that arise out of local identity and at the cusp of a rootless consumer economy. Zukin explains the current urban crisis of authenticity as a conflict between the local and the global. The New Museum is representative of this dramatic transition. By providing visitors with an atmosphere of polished grit, they get to have a taste of both worlds, “a postindustrial revolution with no human costs, both a corporate city and a new urban village.” But the combinations of a local connection with a global scope, or a heritage atmosphere with an upscale twist, are at risk of feeling empty, because they are not quite either.

New York’s new High Line Park is another example of an urban space that utilizes the concept of polished grit to its advantage. Widely celebrated, the High Line opened in 2009 as a public park on an elevated train rail on the West Side of Manhattan that had been in disrepair for decades. The rail was formerly used to transport freight and livestock into the industrial West Side. By transforming the downtrodden, industrial site into a highly designed park by Field Operations in conjunction with Diller Scofidio + Renfro Architects, the park helped Chelsea and the Meat Packing District complete their transformation into upscale neighborhoods that attract yuppies and hipsters in search of authentic experiences. Before the High Line was renovated, it was a hidden, overgrown refuge that few had access to. The initiative to save the High Line started as a means to preserve this unique and organically formed urban space, but when the site was found to contain industrial contamination, the architects had to strip the railway down to its metal structure. According to one frequent visitor of the “original” High Line Park, the new, designed space “will offer visitors a very different, essentially artificial experience. The park will ideally evoke the feel of the old, untouched High Line…It was beautiful. It was perfect. It was authentic. I wish everyone could have the experience that I had. But you can’t have 14 million people on a ruin.” Again, there is a need for people to feel like they inhabit a space that has some edge or quirk to make them feel more connected to the place. Yet with a growing world population of 7 billion and the largest urban migration in human history taking place, truly authentic experiences are harder to come by.

Like the Bowery, the High Line’s context has an industrial past. Historic preservation in the area has maintained some of the old businesses and buildings that used to define the neighborhood, but the area is now largely known for art galleries, quirky restaurants, and nightclubs. The High Line has quickly become a brand for the neighborhood, prompting new businesses to incorporate the name into their marketing campaigns. The project is viewed as a financial success, because the increases in property taxes in the area have more than paid for the construction costs. However, the massive new housing developments that sprouted up along the route of the High Line inevitably pushed out old residents and businesses.

One could argue that the High Line is not as guilty as the New Museum in falling into the polished grit trap that seems so appealing these days. The effort to convert the park emerged out of a grassroots movement called Friends of the High Line, and the park is public and open to everyone. Most people make the argument that the park can be appreciated on multiple levels, as an accessible green space or as a haven for aesthetes. However, the High Line had celebrity backing from the beginning, setting the project up to be a commercialized operation. Now that the park is in use, you do not see traditional vendors in the area, but businesses like People’s Pops, an artisanal popsicle company, that cater to a very specific demographic. A longtime, small restaurant owner near the High Line said it best when she commented on the types of people the High Line would attract. “I really don’t think these will be the kind of people who are going to walk out of their fancy buildings to come over here and have an omelet.”

Sternbergh’s article relates the High Line to the projects of mid-20th century urban renewal magnate Robert Moses by stating that both accomplishments were products of their time, right or wrong. Moses’ transformation of New York’s urban fabric was more blatant however, and more easily accusable of pushing out the underclass to make way for the cultured elite. The High Line and the New Museum are more subtle manifestations of the same effort to cater New York’s amenities to a particular class of people. In this case, it is a consumptive class in search of places of heritage as a means to affirm their identity within “real” places and not get erased in a wash of the generic.

Urbanists are wary of New York’s current transition into what has been deemed “the world’s greatest gated community” or another “Mall of America.” New York is suffering through an identity crisis. On one side is the global market and Rem Koolhaas pushing to construct the generic city, the pinnacle of the all-inclusive, universally accessible, placeless society. On the other side are the modern equivalents of Jane Jacobs trying to find connections to the places they inhabit through enriching and authentic experiences. The result is an odd combination of the two. The New Museum and the High Line offer more place-based, though inevitably commoditized, experiences through the refinement of the industrial aesthetic. In the end, the polished grit is merely a façade for a lost past and an uncertain future. The cynical Sternbergh says it best. “More and more, New York has become like a gorgeous antique that someone bought, refurbished, and restored, then offered back to you at a price you couldn’t possibly afford.”

Quotes and theories borrowed from:

Klingmann, Anna. Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Sejima, Kazuyo, and Ryue Nishizawa. Shift: SANAA and the New Museum. Eds. Joseph Grima and Karen Wong. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2008. Print.

Sternbergh, Adam. “The High Line: it brings good things to life; The abandoned railroad that made a park … that made a neighborhood … that made a brand.” New York Magazine. 7 May 2007. Web.

Zukin, Sharon. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. New York, NY: Oxford University Press 2010. Print.

Photo from polisnyc