MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

À la Recherche de l’Espace Perdu: Leo Saul Berk at the Frye

Wind Jangle, 2015 Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

Leo Saul Berk: Wind Jangle, 2015
Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

There’s a house west of architecture-rich Chicago, in Aurora, that was scorned by other residents when it was built back around the middle of the last century: the so-called Ford House, designed for Albert and Ruth Van Sickle Ford by the maverick architect, painter, and composer Bruce Goff. With its dramatic geometrical accents and manipulation of light and space, along with its use of recycled World War II materials like Quonset huts, Ford House is a testament to the idiosyncratic, visionary imagination of the Kansas-born Goff.

Ford House also happens to be the dwelling in which the Seattle-based artist Leo Saul Berk spent part of his childhood. Structure and Ornament, Berk’s first major solo museum show, distills his memories of the wondrously unconventional environment in which he grew up. The resulting works, now on view at the Frye Museum, take the form of sculpture, video, and photography, along with two site-specific installations.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Some of Berk’s pieces involve fanciful recreations of particular details from Ford House: “recreations” in the sense of attempts to recapture the visual poetry, say, of the setting sun as perceived through the semitransparent glass cullet windows positioned in Goff’s walls of coal masonry, which cause it to cast a green glow. (Berk’s backlit true-to-scale photograph is titled Clinkers.)

Other pieces are more tangentially related riffs on the impressions the house made on Berk growing up — impressions he’s been contemplating again over the last few years. This reengagement with Ford House led Berk to strike up a friendship with its current owner, the architectural historian Sidney K. Robinson. “Going back” to it both physically and in emotional terms has intensified Berk’s curiosity about the enduring impact his former home left on his artistic development.

My favorite among the loosely related fantasies is a video piece inspired by Berk’s visit to re-explore these roots. He was initially grossed out by a film of calcium deposits lining the bathtub, but when he filled it with water and then pulled the plug, a dancing cosmos of starlike detritus emerged, spotlit by the skylight directly overhead, before vanishing down the drain’s black hole.

Less effective is a sculpture in which Berk uses modern technology to try to “update” Goff’s vision, creating a miniature model of the central dome that had been the architect’s original plan. (The original specs proved too complex to execute.)

One piece, Berk’s homage to Goff’s organizing concept of a birdcage dome, gives the exhibit its title: the plywood-and-acrylic Structure and Ornament is both spikily abstract and mesmerizingly quirky — and in fact remarkably fragile, says Berk, for all its defiant severity.

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

And the concept of structure and ornament — construed by some modernists as at odds or even incompatible — feeds into larger concerns, according to Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Dansker.

Berk’s responses to Ford House, she writes, “propose a modernity that honors visionary, utopian dreams of the past in which light, color, structure, material, ornament, poetry, and music could ignite a spiritual force that would unify the arts in harmony with nature and transform individuals and the social and cultural life of a nation.”

Structure and Ornament continues at the Frye Museum until 6 September, along with a series of exhibits on Andy Warhol and ideas of portraiture. Admission is free.

(c) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: architecture, art exhibition, Frye Museum, preview

Built-In Beauty

Photo by Monique Blanchard

Photo by Monique Blanchard

My latest piece for City Arts :

The Smith Tower celebrated its 100th birthday earlier this month, and to mark the architectural anniversary visitors were able to enjoy the Tower’s Chinese Room and the vistas from the Observation Deck for the original admission price collected in 1914—a budget-busting 25 cents.

Of course, Smith Tower is always just “there,” part of the ever-present scenery of daily life in downtown Seattle. Maybe on your checklist of show-off-the-city items for visitors. But try for a moment to ignore the familiarity of icons like this.

Because architecture is so integrated into our everyday patterns, it’s easy to take the urban landscape for granted—buildings, facades, interiors, walkways, skylines—yet at the same time they profoundly influence the way we experience those everyday patterns, at however unconscious a level.

It’s the mission of the Seattle Architecture Foundation (SAF) to “awaken people to these influences and increase the public’s awareness and appreciation of design in the built environment.” To that end, SAF is currently offering a baker’s dozen of walking tours both downtown and in a variety of other neighborhoods, each conducted by members of their reserve of highly trained tour guides.

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Filed under: aesthetics, American history, architecture, city life

Happy 100, Smith Tower!

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What a work of beauty it is: a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture that once held the title of tallest building west of the Mississippi and long reigned as the tallest on the West Coast, Smith Tower was opened to the public during the July 4th holiday period 100 years ago (technically, July 3) — the very month in which the First World War began.

And even amid the present Seattle skyline, where it’s dwarfed by the “Darth Vader” Columbia Tower and other urban mountain peaks, the Smith Tower retains its matchless poise and sturdy elegance. It arose in the aftermath of the Great Fire that had destroyed the old downtown Seattle in 1889 and represented the vision of Lyman Cornelius Smith, a prominent New York industrialist (who founded what would become the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company).

 Smith Tower under construction, 1913

Smith Tower under construction, 1913

Smith died before the building was completed, but his son, Burns Lyman Smith, took over to see the project through. Designed by the Syracuse brother architects Edwin H. Gaggin and Thomas Walker Gaggin, the Tower reaches to 489 ft at the top of its spire, with 38 floors of office space (42 total), and 304,350 sq ft. The famous Chinese Room on floor 35 contains gifts from Empress Dowager Cixi, the “Last Empress” of China.

My friend Ben Lukoff observes the following in his book Seattle: Then and Now: “The Smith Tower, which was designated a city landmark in 1987, is still the seventeenth-tallest building in the city. It has twice undergone renovation and was a popular office location during the dot-com boom.”

View of the Chinese Room

View of the Chinese Room

Filed under: architecture

The Ark Nova Project

Ark Nova

Ark Nova

This is brilliant — and this humanitarian, socially committed project makes me very proud to be associated with the Lucerne Festival (I serve as the English program editor). It’s the brainchild of Intendant Michael Haefliger, the Japanese architect Arata Isosaki, and the Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor: a concert hall that is indeed mobile, designed in a way that makes it quick to assemble and then take apart to move to another location.

It all resulted from the urgent desire to do something to help the victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 that wrought such incredible devastation in northeastern Japan. Most of the world has forgotten that two and a half years on, the local population in the most heavily affected areas is still living in makeshift housing.

In the case of Ark Nova, the idea was to somehow deploy artistic expertise to improve conditions for these people. “With our humanitarian cultural project we want to contribute to the ongoing reconstruction,” says Haefliger. The Ark Nova — “ark” being the German version of the Greek arche for “beginning,” though I also like the verbal resemblance to Noah’s Ark — is meant to provide a venue for desperately needed cultural inspiration, where the local populace can get together as a community.

“We want to bring artists from around the world to Tohoku to restore strength and bring back confidence for the people in the region affected by the disaster in 2011,” explains Isozaki. (The project’s name, I’m told, also refers to an old Japanese proverb, but I don’t know the details.)

Ark Nova interior

Ark Nova interior

Here’s one of the official descriptions of this amazing design:

The shell consists of a PVC-coated polyester tarpaulin of over 2000 square meters. It is 0.63 mm thick and weighs 1700 kg. When inflated, the hall has a volume of over 9000 cubic meters. In the final stage, the maximum expansion is 29 meters wide, 36 meters long, and 18 meters high. Therefore this unique construction offers a space of 680 square meters for a large stage and around 500 seats, allowing for the concept of flexible use for various events appealing to different large audiences. The audience benches are made of wood from cedar trees in the region of the Zuiganji Temple of Matsushima which had been uprooted by the disaster of March 2011. Thus a link will be forged between LUCERNE FESTIVAL ARK NOVA and this place of historical and spiritual significance.

Ark Nova overview

Tomorrow Gustavo Dudamel will be on hand to get the Ark Nova started. He’s going to lead a workshop of local kids, who are forming an ad hoc orchestra. Periodic updates on the project will appear here.

Filed under: architecture, cultural news

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