Sunday, April 14, 2013

56. Monumental New York, part 2

          When you think of New York, you think of Manhattan and tall buildings: the clean beauty of thrust, grandeur without warmth.  The spirit behind Stanford White's majestic Beaux-Arts buildings,  the skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s, and the World Trade Center that followed, reflects these words drawn from my fiction:

This country can do anything

Dream dare do


The eyes of the world are upon you

Inherent in this spirit is the need to surpass, to dazzle.  Yes, grandeur without warmth.  For warmth, go to French Renaissance or Gothic: City Hall or Grace Church (see post #53).  Or can one discern here a different kind of warmth, a kind of cold fire, a ruthless aspiration?  And was the World Trade Center perhaps an expression of hubris, and therefore doomed from the start?  I for one am quite content to let other nations build the tallest buildings in the world.  I don't think that a smaller-scale grandeur, something less overwhelming, is a sign of surrender or decadence.  New York will always be overwhelming enough, bigger than life, inspiring.  

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         No visitor ever waxed more lyrical than Salvador Dali, when he first came to the city in the 1930s.  In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, he expressed his wonder and excitement in vivid Surrealist imagery:

"The poetry of New York is an organ, Gothic neurosis, nostalgia of the Orient and the Occident, parchment lampshade in the form of a musical partition, smoked façade, artificial vampire, artificial armchair….  New York is not prismatic; New York is not white.  New York is all round; New York is vivid red.  New York is a round pyramid.  New York is a ball of flesh a little pointed toward the top, a ball of millennial and crystallized entrails; a monumental ruby in the rough – with the organ-point of its flashes directed toward heaven, somewhat like the form of an inverted heart – before being polished!"

                                                          Daniel Case

          On now to some monuments.  What is this, and where?  I'll answer the first question: an oyster bar.  But where?

                                Jorge Royan

A currency exchange, of course.  But where?  The same site as the oyster bar.


Does this help?  It's big and monumental.  You've probably been there more than once.


         Grand Central Station, of course.  Opened in 1913, it is now celebrating its centennial.  

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         Illuminated at night, the exterior is likewise impressive.  But let's also look at some elements easily ignored by scurrying travelers.  As for instance the ceiling of the Main Concourse, whose restoration, completed in 1998, removed a thick coat of tar and nicotine that had accumulated over many years.   (See what smoking does to our monuments?  But then, in those days we didn't know better.)  The ceiling shows the constellations of the Zodiac in gold against a green background, based on a medieval manuscript that presents them in reverse order.  How the photographer managed to take this photo without being flattened by hordes of rushing commuters or vacationers I'll never know.

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          And now for a look at something outside that travelers never bother to notice: a trio of gods presiding over the station, with an almost naked but triumphant Mercury at the top, flanked by Hercules and Minerva.  But why them?  Mercury, being fleet of foot, might relate to the speed of trains, but what have Hercules' muscular torso or Athena's wisdom to do with a railroad terminal?  I confess that it escapes me, but I suspect that few travelers share my concern.

         Having visited a monument created in another time, let’s look now at a structure that is resolutely and quintessentially modern: MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art.  Today’s MOMA reopened in 2004 after a massive renovation designed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, a minimalist who likes to make architecture disappear, and whose buildings in Japan are noted for a “lightness of being.”  The renovation produced a monument of glass and steel, with the glass most in evidence.  I’m not a fan of the glass boxes that now characterize much of Manhattan, but the interior impresses me.

          Mounting from the ground floor to the second by either of two monumental staircases (the elevators are nowhere in evidence), one finds the vastly expanded exhibition space that the museum so needed.  But to get to those exhibition rooms one passes between glass walls that intentionally seem to float free from the floor, like autonomous planes.  They unsettle me, and the view through them of a plunging perspective -- down, down, down -- strikes me as just plain scary.  I never linger here, always hurry on to the exhibition rooms, which have four solid and very reassuring walls.  Grand Central and the old Penn Station never threatened me.  I could look into their immensities without fear; they were always firm and solid.  I don’t have an unusual fear of heights; in Mexico I have climbed up the steep sides of ancient pyramids and then back down again without hesitation.  But MOMA, thanks to the brilliant Mr. Taniguchi, at times makes me downright nervous.

        But one feature of the renovated MOMA is truly inspired and inspiring: the Sculpture Garden, a green oasis in the concrete desert that is Manhattan, and an oasis enhanced by sculpture.  Of it I heartily approve.

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                                             Jacques Hnizdovsky
 And it does bring art to the hoi polloi.      

      Finally, I shall extend my concept of monuments to bridges, and specifically to this one.

The George Washington Bridge, looking east from New Jersey toward Manhattan.

The George Washington Bridge spans the Hudson at West 178th Street.  Opened in 1931, it is my favorite local bridge, though no photograph I have seen quite captures the graceful arc of the cables, the perfect proportions, the soaring energy, not to mention the views from it up and down the river.  Compared to it, the storied Brooklyn Bridge seems flat, though I rank the Verrazano Bridge, connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, a close second.  I have crossed the George Washington many a time on foot, braving the incoming traffic and its steady roar, most of the cars with a single occupant (so much for share-the-ride), feeling dizzy and my knees unsteady when I glance down at the (on sunny days) scintillating waters of the Hudson.  But pedestrians aren't allowed to linger; there have been suicides, more easily effected here than from the dizzying heights of the Empire State Building, where they are anticipated and guarded against -- 43 attempts on the bridge in 2012, 18 of them successful.  It was from this bridge that Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi leaped to his death in September 2010, after his roommate filmed him having sex with another man and posted it on the Internet.

       This is too depressing a note to end on, so I'll toss in one of those glass boxes that I don't really like: the Manufacturers Trust building at Fifth Avenue and West 43rd Street.  For those who want more transparency in banking, this is the answer: a triumph of Modernism built in 1954, concocted of aluminum, steel, and a plethora of glass, and now a landmark.  I've never set foot in it, but if I did, judging by my reaction to MOMA, I'd probably be uncomfortable.  It has its fans, to be sure, but personally I think there must be better uses for all that glass.

       Next week, a post on Gardens: how I raided Mrs. Pierce's tulips; the Bower of Bliss; golden apples; how snakes are beautiful (unless you've got a cobra in your garden); how the Garden of Eden may have been located in Missouri or upstate New York; an apple you can crawl through; Bo Peep and Casanova in Brooklyn; and the wonders of the BBG.  After that, though not necessarily in this order: Steamboat Wars on the Hudson (with a glance at today's robber barons); Farewells (with a look at green coffins, and a high school girlfriend who dumped me recently); and Earth Goddesses: Big Mama (ancient and contemporary -- they're all over the place!).  Meanwhile, best wishes to all!

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder

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