Tuesday, September 4, 2007

"At last the skies above are blue"

Nicolai Ouroussoff reviews Bernard Tschumi's BLUE (yes, it's spelled in all capital letters) Condominium and has only positive things to say of the nearly-completed building sitting down on the Lower East Side. He writes:

"Encased in a matrix of blue panels, [BLUE's] contorted form has a hypnotic appeal that is firmly rooted in the gritty disorder of its surroundings. ... [I]t nonetheless captures an aspect of the city that is slowly fading from view: its role as a sanctuary for misfits and outcasts, a place full of dark corners and unexpected encounters. If only such people could afford the price tag.

It's difficult to know where to begin with this. BLUE, as far as I can tell, runs directly opposite to the "gritty disorder of its surroundings." Ouroussoff parallels its color with that color "still found on some old East Village storefronts" as evidence. Other than that, it's hard to construct even the most remote analogies.

While the official BLUE web site (visit to listen to Ella Fitzgerland sing "At Last" to you, just another reason to consider moving in: pure taste and class) states that Tschumi was working to "... capture the energy of the diverse population and eclectic buildings of the Lower East Side", I'm at a loss to find the connection. In fact, I think you would be hard-pressed to find any local resident - even among the hippest - that could or would want to make that case. Rather, it stands out in sharp contrast to everything around it (even the Hotel on Rivington, which Ouroussoff derides), a hulking, awkward, colorful block of steel placed down in a neighborhood quite unaccustomed to such ostentation. (I will admit that from the street, post-construction, it's humble and understated, making it possible to walk by without even realizing you're underneath the seventeen story behemoth.)

Clearly New York is changing, and - like so many things - it would be silly to sit around and bemoan that too seriously. Gentrification won't stop. We can demand a kinder, more tasteful, and humane process, however. BLUE is the opposite of that. Ouroussoff elides the potential "sanctuary" role of the city with an elite, expensive apartment building in his praise, which is a terrifying thought. Interestingly, there's a subtext in his review that he may not intend. "Big canted columns are set just inside the facade, as if bracing the rooms against some invisible force," he writes. It sounds more like a fortress than a sanctuary, shunted off from the realities of the city and its surroundings in all of his imposing, blue glory: paradise surrounded by poverty.

What's sad is that it didn't have to be this way. Tschumi designed the Lerner Hall student center at my alma mater, Columbia. Though it's hated by many (especially students: admittedly, the giant walkways that he designed leave little room for any real activity - it is fun to see Tschumi working here to maximize every square inch for the developers that hired him), its simple modernism is elegant, fitting beautifully into Columbia's planned campus. Transparent, open, and inviting, it seems likely to endure. An apartment building is obviously a very different project, but it still feels like a missed opportunity to produce something more magical and fitting with its surroundings. Maybe he's just planning ahead. As the tenement buildings (and housing projects?) come down over the next twenty it might look charming next to the steel and glass that replaces it.

Really, I think we're just arguing for different things. To repeat myself:
"[The] aesthetic experience seems to require the surrounding poverty, which lends authenticity... the more dramatic the contrast between inside and outside, the greater the fun. They recall that Situationist slogan allegedly seen on an alley wall in Paris after the 1968 riots: 'Club Med—A cheap vacation in other people's misery.'"
Of course, the experience hardly comes cheap these days.