Vardø 4

The Norwegian government has established eighteen national tourist routes that traverse some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth. Each of them host place-specific architecture and art interventions that reveal aspects of nature and culture which might otherwise remain unnoticed. In Vardø, at the end of the northernmost of the routes, is the Steilneset Memorial designed by Swiss architect and Pritzer Prize winner Peter Zumthor, who worked with the late French-American artist Louis Bourgeouis on her last sculpture. The site memorializes the seventeenth century burning at the stake of91 men and women suspected of being witches in the state of Finnmark.

One enters the first part of the memorial by walking up a long ramp and entering a treated canvas bladder suspended from an enlarged version of a traditional wooden fish drying rack. Inside, you proceed down a dimly lit corridor with an oak floor, the entire 410-foot-long structure responding both to the wind gusts outside and your own passage. Asymmetrically placed windows, light bulbs, and individual plaques commemorate each of the victims.

Passing back outside through another door at the far end, you descend another ramp that deposits you by the open entrance of a smoked-glass and metal frame cube whose sides stop short of reaching the ground, allowing wind and snow and cold to penetrate during winter, but also to cool the interior during summer. Inside is the installation by Bourgeois, The Damned, The Possessed, The Beloved—a steel chair inside a concrete cone, the seat of which is penetrated by four large gas jet flame.

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As the Future North researchers and I completed our transect of Vardø, measuring the changes wrought by depopulation of the fishing village during the last few decades, the memorial provided a powerful and eerie reminder of how art and architecture can use history to shape our sense of place. It was astonishing to find a memorial with this level of sophistication funded as a tourist amenity in a town of roughly 2,100 people that sits north of Murmansk across the border in neighboring Russia.

Two of the three leading partners in the Future North endeavor will be working at the Center for Art + Environment this October after attending our third Art + Environment Conference. I’m looking forward to hearing from Janike Larsen and Peter Hammersam about how they perceive the changing landscapes of Nevada. If you’re interested in learning more about the Future North project, the website is here: http://www.oculs.no/projects/future-north/news/.

Frederic Church’s Olana: Home as Performance Space

I’ve always wanted to visit Olana, the home of 19th century painter Frederic Church, since Joe Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, flew me over it in his Cessna several years ago. Church, the great Hudson River School landscape painter who worked everywhere from Labrador to Ecuador, is one of my heroes, and Olana one of the greatest artist homes in the world. It’s an early example of a space meant as much to display a life as to be lived in.

This week I’m in New York, both mid-state and in the city, and it’s the first time I’ve been near Olana when it’s not been closed for renovation, repair, restoration, reclamation or some other rehabilitation. Although it was pouring this morning, and the Taconic Parkway closed here and there due to cars hydroplaning into one another, it turned out to be a sublime day. As we arrived at Olana, just outside of the town of Hudson and on a hill high above the river, the rain backed off, the clouds retreated, and there was the Hudson far below, a gray and silver inlay among the deep green hills. Above the front door in gold Arabic script was the symbol for Al’ana, “our home on high,” which was transliterated into Olana.

The house, by deliberate contrast with the 250 wooded acres sculpted by Church with more than 5,000 trees, is a towering Moorish folly done up in red, orange and tan hues of brick, slate, and polychromed tiles. Designed by Church himself and covered with elaborate Persian-inspired patterns, it’s as if the spirt of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain had been translated into a pan-exotic domicile. If the arched windows and interior walls evoke the Middle East, the artifacts inside from Japan, China, Mexico, Central America serve to broaden the fantasy.

Church was renowned worldwide for travel to exotic locales and combining what was seen from various vantage points into a compelling, unified, and encyclopedic vision that wasn’t exactly real, but nonetheless created a unified and accurate picture of an exotic landscape. His home accomplishes something similar with the built environment. Hanging in a small room just off the entryway is a small oil-on-paper study for his famous painting hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Heart of the Andes. It’s a painting about which I’ve written many times, a fictional scene that serves to catalog a South American environment, and is a nice allusion of Church’s penchant for the mashup in art, as well as in architecture.

Throughout the house hang dozens of paintings by Church, his mentor Thomas Cole, and others. They are joined this summer by a small and revealing show of paintings created from his vacations in Maine, where he also owned property on Desert Island. Perusing his pencil sketches and oil studies, it is obvious what an acute eye Church possessed, and how firmly his vision was linked to his hand. He could start and finish a small study of a sunset before the light was completely gone from the sky, a painting you might think it took days to create.

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Frederick Church’s studio at Olana, as much a live-in performance space as a work room. Image courtesy of bergenhealthandlife.com.

 

Showing in the coach house nearby was a tidy collection of works by various contemporary artists made in response to, or inspired by, Olana and Church’s paintings. One of Annie Liebowitz’s large color photos of Niagara Falls done in 2009, seemingly made from a vantage point almost impossible to believe at the lip of the falls, is a terrific soul-mate to Church’s painting at the same location in 1857. A map piece by our friend Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, letters out the latitude and longitude of Olana, a fitting homage to an artist who traveled the world in quest of paintings that not only glorified the sublime, but also acknowledged the mathematical tiling of cartography across the planet in the very design of his house.

Book Review — From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: A History of Ecological Design

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After Nazi pressures led to the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, leading members reestablished their lives and work outside of Germany, first in London and ultimately in the United States. During this pivotal moment of displacement, Bauhaus thinking also made a turn toward ecological design. By incorporating biological thinking about form and connectedness into their design philosophies, theories, and practices, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Herbert Bayer sought a unity between art and science that would place the biological needs and conditions of the human at the center of design’s purpose and effects. Peder Anker’s latest book immerses readers in the social history of the Bauhaus outside of Germany and thus green architecture’s war-time precursors and origins.

In the first half of the book, Anker encourages readers to reconsider how the humanist projects of this period—often criticized for placing human needs above environmental considerations—have done much to expand and develop the way we debate environmental issues. The book follows the Bauhaus to the United States as its leading members widely dispersed these ideas. They did this through institutions such as the Harvard School of Design, The Chicago Institute of Design, and the Aspen Institute; through images, such as Bayer’s war-time recycling posters and his World Geo-Graphic Atlas: A Composite of Man’s Environment; and through the influential writing of Moholy-Nagy regarding “bio-technique,” an idea which intended to transform mass production by mimicking the forms and processes of nature.

The second half of the book tracks the Bauhaus visionaries’ design legacy through the cold war, analyzing what Anker calls the “second generation of Bauhaus thinking” as it now responded to ecological crisis. In these later chapters, Anker examines the life and work of Richard Buckminster Fuller, the history of planned ecological space colonization, and finally its earthly trial runs in enclosed “space cabins,” most notably Biosphere 2, completed in Arizona in 1991. Anker’s argument in this section is more critical as he suggests that the biocentric concerns of such designs came at the cost of a humanist tradition: “Human social, political, moral, and historical space,” writes Anker, “was invaded by ecological science aimed at reordering ill-treated human environments according to the managerial ideals of the astronaut’s life in the space colony” (6). Essentially, from minding the laws of ecology to envisioning humans living like astronauts, the ideal unification of art and science that environmental designers strove for radically changed in this cold war period to embrace technological idealism at the loss of historical, cultural, and perhaps ethical functions of design.

From Bauhaus to Ecohouse’s intended audience is historians of design, architecture, science, and environmentalism, but Anker’s narrative approach provides a highly readable text that will likely appeal to a much wider audience, including anyone in the field of green building. From my point of view as a student of environmental art and literature, I found the most provocative ideas in Anker’s attention to human-made closed ecosystems, their imperialist connections, and their influence on today’s environmental architecture. Imbedded in this history is a perceived rift, it would seem, between working with ecology and engineering ecosystems. Negotiating this debate no doubt will continue to affect how we decide to dwell in the future. And Anker’s history keenly reminds us: we are more human than we’d like to admit; we are more biologically animal than we’d like to admit—and our new designs will need to attend to this conundrum.

Dr.Byron Vreeland Shows Off His Lamp

Dr. Byron Vreeland shows one of his lamps to Museum staff. Photo by Bill Fox.

Dr. Byron Vreeland shows one of his lamps to Museum staff. Photo by Bill Fox.

On a rainy morning in early October several of us drove up a narrow Los Angeles street so steep it was practically a waterfall. We were venturing deep into one of the storied canyons of the Hollywood Hills to meet Byron Vreeland, a notable collector of Tiffany-era glass work who is lending us several lamps for an exhibition in early 2012. At the end of the street was his house, one of the most sculpted works of architecture I’ve ever seen. As a young man Vreeland worked in the shops of a major movie studio for twelve years, then went on to become a dentist. How all that comes together in his house is the result of a decades-long fascination with the flowing lines of Art Noveau.

Forty years ago Vreeland began converting what was originally a rather plain 800-square-foot house into an architectural fantasy that he admits “even Gaudi would find overdone.” Combining his carpentry skills with plastering techniques learned as a dentist, he transformed a wooden post in the house into a slender and intricate white tree trunk. Stretching out from its base and running on the floor into the kitchen was a tile mosaic of the same tree blooming in full color. It was a witty reversal of shape and shadow, nature and culture, the outside brought in, and typical of a house where every wall and ceiling has been reshaped into spirals, curling branches, shells, and other curvilinear forms.

A few window frames, door jambs, and bookshelves have straight lines, but Vreeland has moulded almost everything other structural element of the house into curves, which he finds not simply more pleasing to the eye, but more conducive to a healthy life. The more than two dozen richly colored stained glass shades of the antique lamps cast a warm ambience, even on a stormy morning. A bulldozer parked below the house attested to the frequency of mudslides there, but the house has weathered earthquakes and being buried to the rooftop in mud without so much as a crack, a testament to his construction skills.

Working with collectors to prepare for an exhibition is often tedious–selecting, photographing, and measuring the objects to be included, writing down their history and provenance, then designing shipping containers and methods. It’s painstaking work for the curatorial staff–but the house was so full of surprises that the morning’s work was done before we knew it. Our only regret was that we couldn’t bring the house into the museum, as well as the lamps.

The Duffner & Kimberly Company, Lamp with Wisteria Motif, Early 20th century. Collection of Dr. Byron Vreeland. Photo courtesy Christopher Martin.

The Duffner & Kimberly Company, Lamp with Wisteria Motif, Early 20th century. Collection of Dr. Byron Vreeland. Photo courtesy Christopher Martin.