Superlative Places

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

While I may someday publish here thoughts on my recent visit to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – someday, maybe, when I finish all the texts past due that I am still writing – I want to at least share some snapshots. Here are a few pictures of Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, where I participated last Monday in the first panel of the Global Art Forum. The following day we proceeded to the UAE to attend the Art Dubai fair, one of the forum’s co-organizers and our host for the following days. An interesting group of galleries participated in the fair; most were spaces from that region, and most were showing artists whose work I had never seen. On Wednesday, buses from Dubai took us to the neighboring city of Sharjah, where the tenth edition of its biennial was taking place. Here are a handful of installation views of Plot for a Biennial, the title of such exhibition, including excerpts of the catalog texts. I hopped on another bus on Thursday evening, this time to quickly visit Abu Dhabi and catch the solo-exhibition of Hassan Sharif. Here are some exhibition views of Sharif’s show, presented in what seems to be the temporary venue of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. It’s worth noting, if briefly, that Doha’s Mathaf, Art Dubai, Sharjah Biennial, and Abu Dhabi’s ADACH are a handful of “locally grown” institutions in the Gulf region. (Besides the well-known Guggenheim Museum projected for Abu Dhabi, there are plenty more educational and cultural institutions brought to the region through a form of institutional franchising.)

Thursday was my last day in the UAE and, aside from visiting Sharif’s exhibition I spent the morning and afternoon wandering through town with a colleague. We first took an Art Dubai architectural tour of Burj Khalifa. This is the tallest building in the world, the tour leader said to us, 828 meters to be exact. To clear up any doubt about what that meant, he explained that the Burj Khalifa measured the sum heights of New York’s iconic Empire State and Chrysler Building. Here are city views from Dubai, taken from that building’s observation deck in the 124th floor, as well as images of the largest aquarium in the world, which is sited in the same building complex. The burj (tower) is part of a new and innovative Dubai, and as big as it is it wasn’t enough for our wandering. We decided to look for the historical side of town. A day before, we had seen in the biennial Kamran Shirdel’s Pearls of the Persian Gulf: Dubai 1975, and didn’t want to leave Dubai without exploring some of the locations in that documentary film. After a taxi ride of some 20 minutes in a billboard-less freeway, we were suddenly set in another Dubai. Our hotel, we realized, was probably a steroidal Las Vegas version of the old town, with all the older building’s original proportions, wind towers and alleys for souks (markets). Indeed, the architecture and urban plan of this part of the city changed from vertical to horizontal. It was a flatterer and simpler, yet seemingly busier and livelier city, at least publicly so. Locals walking everywhere, or gathered in spontaneous meetings in the street or spending time outside their shops, or gathering in corners. Finally, I felt foreign.

Not even twenty percent of Dubai’s population is Emirati.

After a walk along Reforma

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

This afternoon, my sister and I were given an architectural tour in Mexico City by Fabianita and J.P. Banks from Antidomingo. The tour focused on architect Teodoro González de León. His architecture is characterized for its monumentality. Most of his commissioned projects are public buildings, cultural centers and large business complexes. His staple architectural elements are wide angular murals, ample plazas, and ‘cemento martelinado’. The latter is a technique that involves repeated stomping on wall and floor surfaces made from a combination of cement, pebbled-gravel and sand. The Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, where I began working a couple of weeks ago, was designed in this style by Abraham Zabludovsky with González de León. These textured cement facades—which some come in gray, as in the museum; sandy pink as in their Auditorio Nacional, or white, as in the new Reforma 222—are without doubt a signature of these two mexican architects.

Zabludovsky and González de León collaborated in a number of public buildings during the 1970s and 80s, including designing the offices of Delegación Cuauhtémoc and INFONAVIT, a Banamex franchise in Mexico City’s historic center, and a large building complex including the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, Colegio de México, and the headquarters of the Fondo de Cultura Económica. (The last of these was designed and built in the 1990s, and by González de León alone.) Their most-known collaboration, however, is the 1992 refurbishing of the Auditorio Nacional, located in Paseo de la Reforma, a historic avenue commissioned by Maximilian I, emperor in Mexico from 1863 to 1867. Also along that avenue is Reforma 222, a new high-structure designed by González de León including a hotel tower, shopping mall and business center.

We didn’t make it today to González de León’s recently opened Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo at UNAM, since I had paid a visit last weekend, nor to the commercial center El Conjunto Arcos Bosque, known as “El Pantalon,” which he designed with J. Francisco Serrano. But we did visit the Centro Nacional de las Artes, consisting of a complex of ten buildings designed by different architects of renown including Ricardo Legorreta, Enrique Norten and Luis Vicente Flores. In this monumental building complex devoted to the study and practice of fine arts, theatre, cinema, dance and music is González de León’s Conservatorio Nacional de Musica.

The site-visits to Teodoro González de León’s buildings in Mexico City comprise one of several tours on modern and contemporary architects in Mexico that I’m doing this summer. Images of today’s tour can be found in Flickr.

Buying the Empire State Building and a brownstone in Brooklyn

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Today, The New York Times reported on what is likely one of the most creative fundraising efforts that the Queens Museum of Art has ever done—and a form of fundraising that will surely become more prevalent. The museum launched an “Adopt-a-Building” program using The Panorama of the City of New York. For those who’ve yet to visit the museum, its Panorama is an architectural model including every single building constructed before 1992 in Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. There are almost a million structures. How can this be possible? It’s simply huge. The area dimension of the model is 9,335 square foot; that’s 2,845 meters.

Now, to the gist of the program: the Adopt-a-Building initiative invites people to “invest” in the museum by playing real estate. Some pointers: loans don’t apply, so foreclosures need not be suffered; part of the funds raised go to the museum endowment and capital campaign, parts get re-invested in the model; and so on. This is sort of how The Panorama market looks like:

For $50, “purchase” your apartment. For $500, “name” your school, library or firehouse. Real Estate tycoons may donate up to $10,000, to “own” a landmark building or fund a significant update of the model.

(The quotes are theirs, to remind the speculator that this is just that, real money on hypothetical property; to remind that this is something like a gift economy in role play.)

The infamous Robert Moses—whose work on parks and recreations was in fact explored by the Queens Museum through a critical three-part exhibition they co-organized not too long ago—commissioned The Panorama in the early 1960s. It was rumored to be his working model of the city, but on paper it was made as a piece on display in the 1964 World’s Fair, which took place in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (again, at Moses baton). The Panorama is now part of the collection of the Queens Museum, which is located in a former fair pavilion at this park.

In the last couple of decades, the museum has commissioned several people to activate The Panorama. For example, the original model makers, Lester Associates, updated the model in the early 1990s. Around that time, architect Roberto Viñoli designed the gallery where it is displayed, to be specific, the model’s platform and surrounding multi-level ramp. A sound and light show was most recently added to the room, a piece scripted by The Panorama expert Blagovesta Momchedjikova. (I am not a fan of this multi-media component. It was incorporated only a couple of years ago, and already looks and feels dated, unlike the model itself.) Visual artists have also created temporary site-specific work in The Panorama. In 2002, visual artist Michael Rakowitz used the model to identify the film locations of popular New York City films—Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, etcetera. Miniature video cameras placed on the film locations (on the model) were connected to television monitors (on the ramp) transmitting live video-feed. These close-up static images of The Panorama street corners or buildings were dubbed with the original movie soundtracks.  These are only a handful of examples in which the museum has dealt with conservation, interpretation and public engagement of The Panorama. And this does not even consider the countless docent tours and regular civic-minded and aficionado programs.

While the Queens Museum Adopt-a-Building program is a fundraising initiative, it has the potential of becoming quite an experimental economic cultural project on its own. I imagine this as I contemplate some of the challenges that the initiative may encounter. From what I can project, it seems to raise only interesting questions, whether these are about technical issues (Can membership sustainability be modeled on property taxation?) or more philosophical ones (How do public museums develop the so-called American Dream of private property?). My fascination with the program also lies in its curatorial edge: it seems to be conceived by approaching a work, and imagining its public—what are we looking at, and how can we present it so the public can become part of its history and potential. In the case of the Adopt-a-Building, the museum proposes that one way this can happen is by literally (i.e. financially) investing in and within a piece of the model. I am curious to see what happens.

* * *

As a side, I wanted to note that today the Times also reported on a proposed legislature bill to prevent museums in the state from deaccessioning artworks to cover operating expenses—no doubt the most questionable form of fundraising. The economic recession has obviously put art and cultural institutions in a difficult position. And so, the shrinking art markets, endowments and sponsorships are of concern. While I think the Queens Museum has a unique fundraising program, I recognize it’s such because of the particularities of The Panorama. I do believe, however, that one can generally “model” a fundraising campaign upon anything. But for it to be creative and meaningful, it has to methodically, thematically or even structurally approach existing resources.

A couple of other interesting development programs in New York museums are the current ‘station domination’ of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the ‘chocolate bar’ of the New Museum. Even if these have less of head in creative fundraising than in strategic marketing, they are quite noteworthy. The MoMA has a temporary exhibition throughout the many platforms of the Atlantic Pacific subway and commuter train station. The project runs from February 10-March 15, 2009, and is made by the museum as “a gift” (their word) to busy New Yorkers and commuters. It includes seminal artworks in the collection reproduced in decals and prints for light-boxes; it also includes posters and signage promoting discounted membership fees. This concept of station domination –when a single buyer purchases all advertising space in a subway station—is pretty intense. It makes the site into their venue. And knowingly, the museum calls this project its MoMA Atlantic Pacific site; it has even stamped the station’s entrance and exit turnstiles.

The New Museum’s “New Chocolate Bar” is radically more downscale and intimate. As you may imagine, purchasing the chocolate comes with museum membership. The idea is drawn from the fiction film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, whereby the owner of the chocolate factory creates a playful scheme to identify his corporation’s inheritor. The scheme consists in secretly packing a select number of chocolate bars with a prize. In Willy Wonka, the prized holders get a tour of the factory, and then one of them is selected as the inheritor to the corporation, which is in good standing and desirable and all that of course. In case of the “New Chocolate Bar,” there is only one part to the award, a membership upgrade, and while it’s better than a museum tour it’s far from inheriting the institution!

Above, picture of The Panorama’s Midtown Manhattan, drawn from the Queens Museum website.

Ways in which the past conceives the future, or, how to stage time travel

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

Originally commissioned by Jean Dalsace, a gynecholosit, and his wife, Annie, to the French designer Pierre Chareau, the Maison de Verre (Glass House) was constructed between 1927-1932 in Paris, and represents a modernist live- and workspace par excellence. Pierre Chareau, who was not a liscensed architect at the time, created a design team including the Dutch architect Bernard Bijvoet and the metalworker Louis Dalbet. Home to the Dalsace’s family, the Maison de Verre also housed the doctor’s gynecology clinic. It is not only the playful architectural approach to the private areas and public spaces within a home that makes it interesting. It is also the introduction of industrial design and materials—from the factory, as well as airplanes and ships—into a domestic space.

Last week, some colleagues and I went on a private guided-visit to the Maison de Verre led by an architectural historian. What follows is a brief account on the visit, which helped me travel in time to a Paris of the 1920s, with Francis Picabia and Erik Satie taking me by the hand.


As we pass the street entrance of 31, rue Saint-Guillaume and enter the interior courtyard of this once hôtel particulier and now landmark home, the industrial theatre play of its creator, Pierre Chareau, begins. I say “industrial” because of the designer’s palpable fascination with engineering materials of the time; “theatre” because the home stages a Taylorist-specific relation to site and labor; and “play” because it is in experiencing the nuances where joy permeates. I use these terms because the Maison de Verre presents itself to be at times both severe and distant, and at other moments both intimate and playful.

I remember seeing many things there, and as if it were played back as a moving image in my mind, scenes begin revolving as the Maison de Verre’s glass and metal doors, trickling in, one after another, as the light does in that space. Then, a voix off prompts.

Outside, a rail of stage lights for washing the glass in light and blinding others from the intimacy of home. She points the new ones in the front courtyard, and the original ones in the backyard. I think the front ones are shy; the original just right. In the ground floor, a doorknob for bowing down in a gentle manner. She tells us it choreographs a dance between doctor and patient, a detail that reveals the closeness between Jean Dalsace and Pierre Chareau, a client relationship that is remarkable. Upstairs, a blue room for Annie Dalsace, with a hidden door for tea and a tucked-in stairwell to bed. She tells us it’s a boudoir, and gives a context of its architectural history and the hidden secrets of garden follies. There is a nautical reference in the boudoir’s stairwell, and some aviation materials in the circular biombo of the clinic downstairs.

Rarely can one experience so well how the past conceived of the future. We are accustomed to imagining through pictures. Walking inside the house, however, and feeling the proportion and light and being of things triggers other sensibilities. It situates one in the many narratives that embody the building—the Dalsace family, the doctor’s patients, the house maids and clinic’s staff, and of course Chareau, Bijvoet and Dalbet, their metalworkers and construction team.

I think of other things, too.

The Maison de Verre’s façade reminds me of Francis Picabia’s landmark stage set-design for Relâche (1924), an avant-garde ballet created by the painter and his composer friend, Erik Satie. Electricity. Machines. Mechanization. Even revolving doors. These are some of the things that influenced Picabia and Satie in their creation of Relâche, and they certainly appear to be also grounding thoughts for conceiving the Dalsace’s home. I wonder if anyone else has written about this possible relationship. I begin missing my library in New York, and suddenly wish to be browsing the one at the Maison de Verre.

The home’s main book shelve occupies one entire wall of the living room-like salon, which is flanked by the glass wall of the main façade. I recall reading in a book by Mark Valley that this room in the Maison de Verre was designed, at Annie Dalscae’s request, to be “big enough to house small orchestras.” These were peak years for art and culture in the city of Paris, and the interdisciplinary work of musicians, poets and painters of that era is still influential today. I’ve heard stories that Maison de Verre hosted gatherings of artist and intellectuals of the time. I never know if these are myths or historical facts. Maybe it is the imaginings of these that make that room be most inspiring.


Today, the Maison de Verre is owned by the collectors Stéphane Samuel and Robert Rubin, who live between New York and Paris. A slide show of the interior spaces of Maison de Verre, with photography by Mark Lyon, accompanied an article by Nicolai Oursoussoff (August 26, 2007), and is available online in The New York Times.

Image: Relâche, 1924, Paris; stage set-design by Francis Picabia, music by Erik Satie.

Camps—a nature-lover’s home, a temporary solution, a politically grounded space, an architectural structure of this century

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

I took the photograph above last month in Beijing’s popular art district, Dashanzi (a.k.a. 798 for its main street address), with the intent to share it with artists Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, whose art project Camp Campaign (2006) I had worked on some years back. The image shows three of dozens and dozens of camp tents lined in 798. These are the temporary shelters and homes for construction workers that are quickly working on beautifying the city for this summer Olympics in China. Construction apparently has to be completed and tents removed by June 1st; and workers sent back to their villages and homes soon after. With the devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province, it is unclear how reconstruction of that area will affect the building developments and urban renovations in Beijing. What seems clear is that shelter tents and temporary homes of this kind will take a whole different meaning right now in Sichuan than in Beijing.

In early 2005, when Ayreen and Rene initially discussed and sketched the ideas for Camp Campaign, they had drawn a travel route across the USA with stops in campsites primarily used by and for the military for detention and training. The travel itinerary also included stops at national parks with camping sites and visits to cultural institutions with summer camp programs. The artists were doing an expansive research on the variety of existing campsites in the country, and along the way campaigning against the most opaque and unpopular of them all, the one in Guantanamo. During their planning, Hurricane Katrina struck in New Orleans that summer, and the course of their future trip changed. Ayreen and Rene re-sketched their more than forty-day cross-country road trip, drawing a route that would also take them to this affected region, and to the different areas where relief camps had been installed and to buildings, like Houston’s Astrodome and Reliant Arena, that had provided temporary shelter for evacuees who had lost homes or were affected by the hurricane’s flooding consequences in New Orleans.

All this came to mind when I saw photographs of other, more temporary forms of camping—or, well, of an area at Sangatte in France’s Pas-de-Calais, where a refugee camp once used to exist. The photos were part of a series made by Bruno Serralongue’s Calais, which I accessed yesterday in the archives of his gallery Air de Paris. Closed in 2002 by France’s Minister of Interior of the time, the camp at Calais opened in 1999 in a building once storing machinery used to create the English Channel. (Calais borders the North Sea, and is the French port city closest to England.) The camp was managed by the Red Cross, and housed up to 1,200 illegal immigrants at once, mostly from the Middle East, on their way to England. At the camp’s closing and with no formal housing solution for the migrants that arrive to Calais, makeshift shelters have been appearing in the city’s surrounding area. Bruno Serralongue’s photographic series, which he began in 2006, has been shot in these so-called wastelands over the course of two years; you can see a selection of these photographs here.


To help support the relief efforts in China, or other regions in need, visit Global Giving or Doctors Without Borders.

Religions. Surrealisms. Always unfamiliar territories.

Monday, March 31st, 2008

As if weren’t enough, right after the travel adventure in Oaxaca, I headed on a road trip to central Mexico. The trip was to and through the Sierra Gorda in the state of Queretaro, the natural habitat of over 400 different butterflies, among many other species. The first Franciscan missions directed by Father Junipero Serra took place in this region. During a period of eight years during the late eighteenth century, Father Serra founded five missions, today considered by Unesco a World Heritage Site. From here he headed to Alta California (what is known today as the states of Baja California in Mexico and California in the USA). There he directed the creation of various missions, including those of San Diego, Carmel and San Francisco among others. Having grown in Baja California, Mexico and having traveled extensively throughout my life to its border state of California, USA, the visit and architectural tours in the Sierra Gorda became a cultural journey to far and somewhat unfamiliar territories.

For its cultural history, but certainly more for its flora and fauna, the Sierra Gorda is a magical place. There is meeting of culture and nature that is unique to the region. This meeting place is constructed even as a dream: just north of Queretaro, is the site of Xilitla in the state of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, where the artist, art collector and patron Edward James (1907-1984) built his home and the surrealist garden known as Las Pozas, a construction begun in the 1940s and today open to the public. Last year, Princeton Architectural Press published Surreal Eden, a beautiful and informative book about Edward James and Las Pozas, and, today, the New York Times’ T Magazine published Dream Works, an article about the acquisition and future of this garden. The video link, above, is a documentary by BBC about Las Pozas, and one in a series of videos about extraordinary gardens worldwide.