Saturday, August 30, 2008

Change of a Dress

It is the Saturday after the 2008 Democratic National Convention, five days after Michelle Obama addressed the DNCC and the country, impressing us all with her eloquence, grace, family stories, and reverence for the United States of America.  I am still reeling from the excitement from the well-orchestrated week of orators, signage, and unified mantras.  And I must admit that style is still on my mind.  I know fashion is not even an issue on the table, but Michelle (I feel I am on a first name basis with her now) rocked the fashion world while her husband rocked the vote.

During and after Michelle's speech on Monday, I studied her turquoise Maria Pinto dress, examining the lines and the color, noting that it appeared asymmetrical at the back, relaxed at the shoulders, carefully adorned with a turquoise starburst brooch, and very different from the typical look of a presidential wife.  This was not a business suit, but the dress of a mother, wife, and lawyer with style.  This look told me that Michelle can manage household duties, run a meeting at Public Allies, join Barack at a rally, attend a dinner meeting with campaign staffers to strategize for the next day, and get home in time to make sure Malia and Sasha brushed their teeth and said their prayers before bed.

Whether a deliberate tactic or not, this shift from business suit to tailored dress makes a statement.  It brings Michelle home to everyone.  Her look, like the campaign message, is the look of everywoman, not solely a high-powered attorney.  And it shows she is comfortable in this role.

I continued my fashion watch during the rest of the week, noting Michelle's choices on each night while assessing the oration.  Michelle continued to surprise with olive and dreamy white concoctions, all with appropriate and matching jewelry.  The night of Barack's acceptance speech, her patterned and again brooched Thakoon Panichgul kimono dress was powerful in its uniqueness, telling of culture and fashion awareness while being extremely approachable.  Bravo.

Today I was standing in my neighborhood bodega, perusing the magazines, and I noticed all of the press photos on the covers of local and national papers of John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, austere in her black skirt suit, and I felt a longing for more color, more stylistic variety.  The suit no longer holds the same power it once did thanks to Michelle Obama.  Mrs. Obama brought about this change by displaying the work of new and fresh dress designers on the most important stage of all.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hot Wheels

Photos: New York City Department of Transportation

Not too long ago, pretty much the only people to be seen on bicycles in Manhattan were messengers. And with good reason: the New York City environment is hostile to bikers. The mean streets in many parts of town are too narrow for today's huge SUVs and trucks trying to squeeze through, midtown traffic is intimidating, double-parking is rampant, and the unpredictability of peds X-ing is a constant hazard for a bike rider. But recently lots of folks riding bicycles can be found tooling along the streets and avenues, on their way to office jobs or lunch meetings or school, sometimes with kids and pets in tow. What gives?

The growing national awareness of the value of green lifestyles has led to wider acceptance and visibility of transportation alternatives. But the city has also made it easier to get around safely, by increasing and improving the number of separate bike paths and greenways, and by conducting an experimental program for the month of August. Called Summer Streets, selected north-south routes are closed to traffic but open to bike riders and pedestrians for 6 hours on Saturdays. These have been well-attended by the public; after all, who doesn't like to play in the street?

Increasing the hipness quotient of the trend, David Byrne has designed a series of bike racks appearing around town, each keyed to its location. The Olde Times Square, based on the female silhouette best known as mudflap Tammy, is genius. The visual of a hot babe with bikes chained to her in bondage works nicely with the memory of the once-seedy triple-X personality of the neighborhood. Almost as good is the irony of a bike locked up to the car-shaped Jersey. Byrne hopes to eventually sell the collection as works of art upon their retirement next summer.

During their year on the street the racks are bound to acquire an accumulation of dents, stickers, graffiti, abandoned locks, and bike frame carcasses. No word on whether they will be sold as-is, but I’m all for it. The reminders of their former public service will reinforce the message that there is art in the useful act of riding around on a bike.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Prefab Architecture: Prefabricated or Pretty Fabulous?

“I didn't like what happened to the humans in Wall-E. It wasn't bleak enough. The children need to know that there isn't going to be a spaceship to rescue you from earth,” my friend Zaira said as we were waiting in line for the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit on prefabricated architecture, “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.” After that disturbing comment, I thought, hmmm, I need to get more upbeat friends. Wall-E is a Pixar computer-animated movie (already referred to in the previous post, “Wall-E & Our Humorous Future” by Chappell), which, despite dark undertones, I found rather charming. And seeing this new exhibit—an elaborate exploration of pre-fabricated architecture in the past and present—renewed my optimism about our future. In these supposedly dark times, even when friends have such a bleak view of the future, I can't help but be giddy about new designs that try to solve environmental and societal problems by introducing a much needed “cool factor” to older concepts—like prefabricated homes.

Why prefab? Prefabrication is a process by which the building components are ready-made in a factory —as opposed to on site—thereby greatly reducing construction time, energy and labor needed to build a house. In addition, there is less waste of materials when the process can be controlled in a factory. While many larger buildings have elements of prefabrication in them, the process seems to have a certain social stigma when applied to homes. This exhibition, however, showcases many intriguing constructions from a selected group of architects and designers that manage to create interesting modern design via prefab methods.

The MoMA building, renovated in 2004 by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi in his first U.S. work, is is a combination of the modernist International Style (orthogonal, steel structure, extensive use of glass, minimal in style and ornamentation) but filtered through a unique Japanese perspective (framed views, interior-exterior dynamic, material and joint fetishes). Its fenestration is organized around the central courtyard while the building structure is draped in strong, flat, metal-clad planes that seemingly float above the building. It is Taniguchi’s control of materials that make the building a success. While prefab employs different construction methods, it should maintain similar values and be judged with the same criteria if it is to inspire.

MoMA offers an accommodating setting for this exhibit, situated both inside and outside the museum in a neighboring, empty lot. The first half of the show on the sixth floor showcases a history of the prefabricated house. On display is an array of U.S. Patents for building types, like Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic dome. This part of the exhibit was like being in Doc Brown laboratory, the room full of mockups and building types. Still, I was itching to go down and play in the prefab houses outside.

As we approached the outside lot, I was shivering with glee and excitement. This is not an exaggeration—though I did just down a cafÈ mocha to quench my caffeine addiction. The first house we visited, “Burst*008” by Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier, was the most expressionistic by far, rife with crazy angles and complex geometry. Unlike simplistic prefab houses of yore (which favored the boxy trailer-home look), this house had planes extending in every direction, which made for fun architecture. Its steel frame and plywood walls were painted a light, off-white color that (unfortunately) turned slightly green in the LED light. Inside, a video projecting in the “entertainment” room explained how a basic structural slotting technique can be used to construct various forms. It was almost a contradiction of my entire preconceived notion of prefab houses, and it was only the first house I saw! I give the designers credit for smashing my brain.

Next door, I visited a laser-cut New Orleans style house by architect Lawrence Sass, appropriately titled “Housing for New Orleans,” whose pieces could be slotted together to resemble a traditional local dwelling. Another neighboring laser cut house, “System3” by Leo Kaufmann and Albert Ruf might have brought to mind the infamous rectangular-box kind of prefab architecture that screams: trailer! trailer! trailer! But done well, this one reminded me of more interesting prefab architecture I had seen in the past, by architects such as Rocio Romero ( “System3” was designed with the user in mind, complete with interesting interior spaces, great lighting, and sleek materials. While one of these suckers runs a cool $130K, they can be stacked and arranged in multiple shapes.

The most frustrating house was the “Micro Compact Home” designed by Horden Cherry Lee Ltd of London and Haack + Hopfer. I was a bit put off by its accompanying description, which implied that the architect was enlightening the resident by encouraging him to limit their possessions. But really, he’s just forcing him to live in a a friggin' small metal box! This embodies what would happen if we allowed Apple to design our homes: looks cool, but crushes your soul. However, this house does win the ease of construction medal: it takes two hours to “install.” Basically, they can fly the teensy metal house around on a cable connected to a helicopter and just drop it on people.

Now I come to the masterpiece of the show: “The Cellophane House.” Designed by KieranTimberlake, this house can rise off the ground—five stories to be exact. Like “Burst*008” this one doesn't feel prefab. Its designers are going for modern values of light, materials and spaces. This one would be closest in style to the MoMA itself: the tower with a twist. The metal frame of the Cellophane house has no welded joints, only bolted connections, and many of the windows are—you guessed it—cellophane, with energy-retaining panels attached. My only complaint is that, as Zaira and I were getting kicked out of the house at closing time, I touched the metal wall and felt the built up static electricity of the entire building being transported into my body. I'm okay now.

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling at MoMA runs through Oct 20.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Hole in None

Hot beverages these days invariably come topped with a sippy lid, the kind with a little hole so you can walk and drink at the same time. But is this a benefit? There is a Zen Buddhist saying: When walking, just walk. I heartily agree. An adult is not a baby nursing a bottle, and should be able to wait 5 minutes to arrive at her desk, THEN drink the coffee.

The hole in the sippy lid is a spill hazard. It forces people to create hole-covering blotter pads out of folded-up napkins or risk arriving at work covered with coffee dribbles. Recently an official solution has been thoughtfully provided by Starbucks: they now produce little green plastic stirrers/plugs to fit the hole, topped with a jaunty trademark mermaid. Mightn't it be better to just go back to offering old-style flat lids?

A heavily-promoted aspect of Starbuck's corporate identity and branding is their social responsibility, what they are doing for the environment, etc. So why come up with a solution in the form of an additional plastic item the world doesn’t really need, one that will end up in landfills or washed up on beaches, when it would be cleaner to just solve the original design problem? Lids should not have holes in the first place.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Crane Street: Always on Display

If you appreciate graffiti as art - made by artists working from dusk until dawn, balanced precariously on ledges to fashion their names and political statements - the Crane Street Studios are worth a visit.  The elevated tracks of the 7 train in Long Island City, Queens surround the studio buildings which are unmistakable even from a distance: the walls are covered from top to bottom in bright inscriptions.

But if you prefer art on canvas to art on edifice, a jaunt to Crane Street Studios might be even more dazzling.  Inside the painted building you'll find a thriving colony of artist workspaces: on the second floor is Marshall Harmon of Brooklyn.  His paintings combine topography and cartography with nature, geometry, and building form.  Name at the Gate: Moment, for example, is vivid and saturated with color, its content - leaf-like textures and tree-trunk patterns - arranged in a modernist structure.

A bit down the hall is Robert Lucy with his collection of extraordinary paintings of antique-mall-findings he calls "American Dolls."  When asked about these vivid portraits, Lucy states, "These paintings reference religious icons and political propaganda posters, yet [as a whole] they seem to be empty, unavailable, and hollow."  My gaze shifted to a an impressive portrait of a green-eyed doll with a huge, silky, blonde beehive hairdo.  Upon close examination, every inch of this painting is provocative and inundated with bold color, and as I peered into her eyes, her magic pulled me into her doll world.

The last artist I visited was Tommy Mintz, who, with his "Strip of Buildings/Window Project," has created a voyeur's dream-view of the city.  Mintz selected snapshots of people in their apartments found on Flicker and inserted them into the windows of buildings he photographed in his neighborhood, Astoria, Queens.  In addition, Mintz has also created a New York City Public Toilet Map.  You can order your own for $2.00 (plus $0.50 for shipping) - click here for link.

The saturated exterior of Crane Street Studios reflects the energy of the spaces inside.  Artworks being produced there feel all the more vivid and imposing - bright monuments emerging from an arcane and industrial location.  Here lies a refreshed vision of the 1980's New York City, where art that has grown within these graffiti-wrapped walls is budding to attract the new urban yupster.  The artists here will surely move on and others will come in for the next showing, but for now the residents at Crane Street live peacefully in the industrial backwoods of NYC.

Visit Crane Street Studios: by subway...E, V trains to 23rd St./Ely Ave...G train to Court Sq....7 train to 45th Rd./Court House Sq.  Visit the website for more information.