Wednesday, May 25, 2011

a trip to chicago

Chicago … it’s a city that’s always held great appeal for me. Maybe because I’m so into architecture; maybe ’cos it’s built along the water. But when we recently spun a pencil and asked, Which city should it be that we next squander our air miles on?, Chicago made it to the top of the list.

And utterly seduce us it did. Never mind that it blusterously lived up to its reputation of Windy City (Port Elizabeth, look out! You have competition). We seriously undercatered for the biting chill in the air (we thought we’d left that behind in New York), but its spring beauty took our breath away. All along Michigan Avenue known as Magnificent Mile for its 5th Ave-style designer stores — swathes of tulips were amassed so thickly that Holland must have been totally cleaned out. And it was the colour combinations that were so seductive. Aubergine and pink; sunburst yellow and scarlet-lightning stripes; white shot with moss-green; black-purple and orange. Chicagoans and visitors alike were entranced.

The city feels modern and elegant, which might be influenced by its abundance of exceedingly tall buildings (legend goes that Chicago is where skyscrapers all started). When you stand and peer up into the clouds to the top of the John Hancock Center, near the city’s historic Water Tower in the downtown area, it cracks your neck. I was convinced it was the tallest building in the city. It isn’t. (The Water Tower and nearby pump station, first constructed in 1869, are the only survivors of the great fire of 1781 which reduced entire Chicago to smouldering ruins.)

The Water Tower matching up to John Hancock Center

But the rakish angles and sleek glass facades and shimmering reflections speak of the 21st century; of modernism and technology; of advancement and the future.

In the foreground, Frank Gehry's music pavilion

Architectural detail 

City reflections

Then there is Millennium Park with Anish Kapoor’s giant polished-steel “jelly bean”, inspired by liquid mercury and named Cloud Gate. And a pair of glass-block towers by Jaume Plensa (yes, here he is again! See my post below) on which video images of the faces of a thousand Chicago residents are alternated; after a few minutes, each animated face purses its lips and a spout of water emerges from the mouth.

Cloud Gate, Millennium Park

Crown Fountain, Millennium Park

You can’t miss the futuristic silver “spaceship” music pavilion, designed by —  of course! my favourite architect Frank Gehry — with its billowing canopies and curved steel web of girders. And the truly wonderful collections at the Art Institute, bordering onto Millennium Park. We lunched in the Modern Wing, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano: all-white, airy, minimalist, divine. Although the nippy wind drove us in, the terrace gives onto open-air views across this part of the city.

And finally there is the waterfront area around Navy Pier, where land meets the blue-green waters of Lake Michigan, an expanse so vast there are tiny wavelets lapping on the beaches. Little parks and quirky sculptures, boat cruises and a giant Ferris wheel, a jagged skyline of shiny aluminium-sheathed towers … it’s a shore-scape that’s uniquely Chicago’s.
And one that, for me, seriously upheld its promise of magic.

 Real trees painted to become art. . .

Ceiling fan in a glasshouse, Navy Pier

A conversation in the park

a new face in madison square park

When it comes to art and sculpture, this park, near Fifth Avenue and New York's iconic Flat Iron building, always has the capacity to surprise. Right now, there's a new ghostly face rising from the foliage. A 44ft-high sculpture of polyester resin, white pigment and marble dust, its Eastern features very Modigliani-ish are there, but not quite there.

Created by Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa, it is constructed of 15 pieces that fit over steel scaffolding to display visible joins. This produces a wonderful sense of transparency, according to the artist. And it truly is luminous in its glowing whiteness.

Named "Echo" after the Greek nymph who was condemned by Zeus, king of the gods, to repeat the words of others, Plensa hopes that it will stimulate in New Yorkers an awareness of their own voices.

Friday, May 6, 2011

the High Line

Although the High Line, Manhattan’s newest urban park, has existed since mid-2009, it is still New York City’s best-kept secret.

In terms of tourist guidebooks, that is.

What's railing and what's shadow?

But the nicest thing about it is that even though well-informed visitors might have discovered this newish outdoor space, New Yorkers have fiercely commandeered it as their own back-door play-pit. (Sandpit doesn’t justify its sophistication.)

Before the disused, overgrown, rusty railway line running 30 feet above street level was transformed into a park, its life began in the 1930s as a freight rail, delivering milk, meat, produce, and raw and manufactured goods into upper-floor loading docks of factories and warehouses. The rail became elevated because train accidents at street level caused so many fatalities it was soon known as Death Avenue. In 1980 the last freight train, carrying frozen turkeys, finished its run on the High Line.

Spot the railway tracks . . .

It took a couple of friends, a few celebrities and enormous public support to preserve the abandoned railway and turn it into the impressive space it is today. So far, private, public and considerable mayoral funding has resulted in a park that, for now, stretches eight blocks (1.45 miles / +2.5km), from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 20th Street in West Chelsea. Eventually the High Line park will stretch to 30th Street, to the tune of a cool $171 million (that was the estimate in 2009).

This is perhaps partly because of who was involved: landscape architects (James Corner Field Operations), a renowned New York-based architectural company (Diller Scofidio + Renfro) and a Dutch planting designer (Piet Oudolf). And the magic definitely is in the details. You can only marvel at the sheer ingenuity of the design.

First, though, pause to consider. If you take it purely at face value say you come from a place of natural beauty where you’re surrounded by green leafy woods, mountains, crashing seas (in Cape Town we have all three) then this city park may not at first be remarkable. It’s more about the effort that’s gone into turning a derelict industrial site into a green public space in the midst of gritty brick, concrete and steel. It’s the careful thought, design flair and an obvious love for nature that really stand out.

The idea was to leave the ‘park’ a little wild, with traces of the old railway track emerging from indigenous shrubs, hardy self-seeded plants and tiny mop-headed grasses. But there are also pretty ornamental trees, bulbous-headed plants, cat’s tails and droopy Echinacea daisies. In sultry summer, butterflies quiver on leaves
and petals.

As you stroll along the concrete walkway, suddenly one of its planks rises up and morphs into a bench. Or concrete fingers extend into flowerbeds, integrating paving and planting. Thin, rod-like LED lights protrude unobtrusively but very 21st-century from the gardens. At 14th Street, where there is an uninterrupted view slicing through the buildings to the Hudson River (and the setting sun), there is a posse of reclining wooden deck chairs on train wheels. This is where New Yorkers love to linger, reading a newspaper, tapping on an iPad or smart phone, sipping something cool, or simply watching the world
drift by.

Best of all is the High Line’s raised elevation, giving you a fresh perspective on New York City’s streets, façades and traffic flows. At 17th Street, a glass-fronted amphitheatre with rows of benches hangs suspended over 10th Avenue. And most intriguing is the procession of avant-garde and architecturally pleasing high-rise buildings marching along both sides of this urban path. Beginning at Gansevoort Street where the onetime railway line cuts right through the base of the old High Line Building (an old meatpacking plant being transformed into shops and offices), you pass a wall of backlit coloured opaque-glass panels.

17th St amphitheatre suspended over 10th Ave.

Then there is Della Valle Bernheimer’s interlocking black-and-white façade juxtaposed with the azure-blue crossword puzzle effect of the next-door apartment; the wondrous milky-glassed billowing sails of Frank Gehry’s IAC building; Jean Nouvel’s amazing curved building with its mosaic of angled, mismatched windows that sparkle like marcasite.

I'm so entranced, I can't help myself . . .

As you pass the front façade to get a side-view of Jean Nouvel's edifice, you’re faced with a black-brick structure interrupted by, again, a mismatch of small windows which have been very carefully positioned to frame different mini-views of the city — like urban works of art.

Side-view of Jean Nouvel's building

Finally, in this tale of the High Line, there’s the amusing story of the ex-punk rock photographer who discovered that the new urban park’s spotlights had been carelessly directed at her back stairs and into her loft apartment’s windows. Like any savvy New Yorker, she turned the situation to her advantage. First, the washing she hung out there became more interesting leopard-skin camis and lacy lingerie. Next, she invited a jazz singer friend to don her finery and practise her vocal chords by singing a capella on the stairs at dusk to the surprise and delighted applause of evening stragglers on the High Line. If you were in the know, the signal for an evening’s performance was a vase of flowers placed in the window.
One day as we walked by, there were buttercup-yellow blooms, radiating in anticipation of the evening’s impromptu concert.

One Jackson Square, one of my most favourite
apartment buildings in West Chelsea,
its windows like baguette-cut jewels,
near the High Line

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

yay, it's spring in nyc!

Spring is so fleeting . . . the white Callery pear petals are already long gone, the creamy mauve magnolia flowers have blown away on the wind and the too-gorgeous-to-be-true cherry blossoms are choking every branch, but hanging on for dear life. Soon they, too, will have floated off with the wind. Already the paths are littered with cherry-petal confetti.

But, oh, so beautiful. . .

So quickly, quickly, before all the beauty fades, here are some pictures to inspire.

Prosaically called Red Bud, which belies their delicate beauty,
these tiny flowers sprout directly from the trunk and
sturdy branches of the tree!

Higan cherry blossoms

Serrated-edged tulip

My favourite, the wondrous Bleeding Heart

A bee's-eye view of the serrated tulip

Signing out with the purity of snow-white azaleas