Open House NY: Another haven among headstoneless graves

After Sunday’s tour of “Sacred Havens of the East Village” for Open House New York, I hurried to the New York Marble Cemetery to spend an hour there before it closed. Open to the public only a few days per year, the burial ground sometimes known as the “Second Avenue Cemetery” is the “oldest public non-sectarian cemetery in New York City.” Interments took place in 156 underground, Tuckahoe marble vaults, marked above ground at their entrances by markers prone in the grass, and some by monuments. Without headstones, the cemetery has the initial sense of a private garden, its rows of flat markers resembling hopscotch squares. But after time spent there, the place reveals an air of sanctity that only an historic cemetery can evoke. The first three images below are of a poster, displayed for OHNY, with photos and drawings of the cemetery vaults in plan and section; click to zoom and find out how the site was designed. Scroll down for a slideshow of photos I took in this quiet corner of the city.



Open House NY: Sacred Havens of the East Village

This afternoon, derailed by “necessary track work,” I took a circuitous tour of the underground (subway stations of the cross?) that eventually reached the Open House New York tour of “Sacred Havens of the East Village.” The latter expedition, led by Terri Cook, author of Sacred Havens: A Guide to Manhattan’s Spiritual Places, explored some of the sites that have acted as cultural and spiritual refuges for the various immigrant groups that have populated the East Village throughout its history.

We first gathered outside of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer on E. 3rd Street near Avenue A. Built in 1851-52 and renovated in 1913 by Paul Schulz, the church was established for German immigrants living in the area of the city that was known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.” Although the church moved on to serve new immigrant communities, it is still known as the “German Cathedral.”

original stained glass from 1852

The Meseritz Synagogue was founded in 1888 to serve Eastern European Jews. A rare remaining tenement synagogue, squeezed between buildings on a narrow E. 6th Street lot, it has made news in recent years for its resistance to landmark designation.

The Max D. Raiskin Center began as the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark in 1848. Most of the victims of the 1904 General Slocum steamship disaster (the greatest loss of civilian lives in New York City until September 11) were women and children from St. Mark’s congregation. Largely as a result of this tragedy, many of the surviving German men in Kleindeutschland migrated elsewhere in the city, and the area’s Jewish population became more prevalent. The 1940 conversion of St. Mark’s into an Orthodox Jewish synagogue left the building’s interior footprint untouched.

Established in 1628, the Middle Collegiate Church erected its current building in 1892 and served a Dutch congregation. The church apparently houses a dozen Tiffany windows. (I wish I could have seen them; my sole gripe with this Open House NY tour was that only two of the sites we visited were actually “open house.”)

The St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Roman Catholic Church moved into the next building on the tour in 1901 and ministered to the Polish community; it continues to conduct most masses in Polish.

The tour’s last stop was the St. Nicholas of Myra Church of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese, located at E. 10th Street and Avenue A. Designed by the esteemed James Renwick, Jr., the 1883 church’s Renaissance Revival brick exterior opens into what our guide accurately described as a “little jewel box” of bright paint and glass. This haven provided a picturesque setting for her concluding appeal for us to continue supporting NYC’s built heritage. These buildings have survived thus far for a reason, she said, and by preserving the history of the different groups who have passed through them, we are preserving our own history, too.

 

Tenement Museum: Telling the many stories of a 5-story building

the Tenement Museum, courtesy of ahistoryofnewyork.com

97 Orchard Street may not have been a model tenement, but its current incarnation as the Tenement Museum serves as a model of responding to challenges in interpretation. First, it has devised a clever solution to the question of encouraging repeat visitors to a historic site, and simultaneously broadening the diversity of that audience. The museum offers eight different guided tours that appeal to a variety of interests, including five tours that explore the building’s physical stories through the lens of historic residents’ life stories, and three walking tours of the neighborhood that set the tenement itself into wider contexts. Using the floors of 97 Orchard as microcosms of the building’s history, and by extension the history of the tenement form in New York City, the five building tours, one hour each, rely largely on visitors’ imagination and sense of empathy to animate the rooms. In one case that is specifically advertised for families, the “Confino Family Living History Program,” a costumed interpreter assists with this animation, demonstrating the museum’s plan of appealing to different audiences through strategic interpretative methods.

As an indecisive person, I was a bit overwhelmed upon first visiting the museum’s website. Which of the tour options would provide me with the best sense of the tenement’s history? After poking around reviews and travel forums to gauge the tours’ popularity, I chose “Getting By.” This tour, which took place on the second floor of the building, visited the restored apartments of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family in the 1870s and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family in the 1930s. While I was initially disappointed that my experience of the building would be limited to one level, and a bit skeptical that an hour-long tour could sustain interest while restricted to two small apartments, I was ultimately impressed with the scope of the experience and saw the benefits of offering multiple tours.

The reason that one floor was sufficient material for an hour was that the interpreter used each apartment as the setting for telling the story of a family who actually lived there, and then generating a discussion of the family’s conditions in relation to a modern context. She interwove the historical accounts with questions designed to help the audience observe certain characteristics of the apartments and to connect with the families, not only by occupying the space they once inhabited but also by considering the emotions and thought processes that might have accompanied certain events in the history. These questions ranged from “What does the word ‘tenement’ make you think of?” to “What would you do if you were Natalie Gumpertz and your husband disappeared?,” from “How does the 1930s apartment look different from the 1870s apartment?” to “How did your own ancestors get by in the Depression?”

Throughout the tour, the interpreter was clear about what facts the museum did and did not know, even passing around the documents that were the basis for the museum’s research. She encouraged visitors to fill in the gaps between these facts with their own conjectures and experiences, as opposed to fabricating a narrative undifferentiated from fact. It was unclear whether the furnishings and objects in the apartments were original artifacts (although the guide later clarified that many were), and these objects were often not identified or interpreted. The goal of the tour was not to experience individual elements of the apartments, which again were quite small, but to experience each space as a whole. The few objects with which visitors interacted—turning the light switch to experience the hallway in historically-accurate darkness, passing around a sad iron to feel its weight—were used to produce the effect of simulation and help visitors to better relate, even at a corporeal level, to the families whose stories they were hearing.

the Baldizzi kitchen, courtesy of the Tenement Museum

This sense of connection reached a climax when the interpreter paused before leaving the Baldizzi apartment to play for us a bit of oral history from the Baldizzi daughter Josephine, now an older woman. As we stood in the kitchen, Josephine described concrete memories of how her family used that space, while the interpreter subtly directed our attention to the objects to which Josephine was referring—Linit Starch, a gas heater, a set of Chinese checkers. Through these multiple means of interaction, interweaving documented facts, visitor-driven speculation, object-based simulation, oral history, and personal reflection, the Tenement Museum has addressed the challenges of engaging visitors, appealing to universal themes and to both emotions and intellects, and guiding visitors to discover their own sense of the significance of this historic place. In the end, the visitors from Texas, California, Australia, and the native New Yorkers on the tour with me could all relate to the families who had lived in the tenement. The comments that I heard afterward multiple times were “great research” and “great story;” I think that both were key to the Tenement Museum’s interpretation plan.

Seeking a white night (and avoiding a dark day) in Toronto

I’m back from a slight blogging respite; the last two weeks have been whirlwindy! This time last week, I was on my way back from Canada after Saturday’s nocturnal wanderings at Nuit Blanche, billed as an annual chance to “experience Toronto transformed by artists” from “6:59 pm to sunrise.” For the past three nuits blanches, I’ve awoken to 3am phone calls from my partner, M, narrating street installations of color and light, with strains in the background of electric sound, or opera, and hanging up has felt like letting some little magical portal fall closed. My expectations, then, were high for our first chance to go together; at the same time, they were vague, the imagining of an energetic blur of color, light, sound. And as such, they were absolutely met.

This year, Nuit Blanche included over 130 projects sprouting from corners and squares throughout the city; buildings and streets became both art and museum, actor and stage. It would have been difficult to predict and plot which sites most merited a visit, and impossible to see them all, so our path was a bit more organic; we used Yonge Street as a spine and wandered from King up to Wellesley. While the projects varied in individual potency—for some, the primary source of magic was surely their setting in the cold midnight city—the overall effect of migrating from light source to sound-and-light source was one of profound and somehow invigorating disorientation. Many of the installations were interactive, reintroducing us to the city by altering our interchange with it.

My first true sense of this effect was the “Soon” installation, which artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard explained as “a materialization, a frozen moment between the before and after. Something above Commerce Court is watching us and an inexplicable encounter unfolds.” As spotlights from a building top scanned the courtyard, filling with people and smoke and nervous, toneless music, we stood dazed. But one couple began to run, chased by the light, and then another, and then people stepped to the rim of the central fountain, their arms outstretched as if in some extraterrestrial gesture. It was unclear whether they were hired to take part in the spectacle or simply responding as they saw others respond, and that was part of the intrigue.
“The Way Up is the Way Down,” by Dennis Hale and Mike Sharpe, was described as “an enigmatic, floating, flashing amber beacon” intended to “transform public space and the meaning of civic engagement.” When we dialed a given number from M’s mobile, this glowing pendulum shook and rang like the possessed dial of a rotary phone suspended above Bay Street and King Street West, then shrank back to silence—the call unanswered, no message left.

“Intensity” by John Notten began with a queue outside a tent, and the enigmatic separation of tall people from short as we were directed through openings. Inside, we were submerged beneath low-hanging cloth; we felt our way along this makeshift ceiling until a hole emerged overhead. Coming up for air, M and I found ourselves in a pocket of space, a little dome of translucent fabric; through it we saw, in a communal, laughing realization with everyone else inside, that our heads were housed in miniature tents pitched on a lit stretch of turf. As the project description explained, “while you may think you’re entering the presentation centre for a new, luxury condominium development, you will find yourself in the middle of a seemingly endless tent city. Occupancy is fleeting, for within minutes you will be evicted.” Indeed, as soon as we had regained our bearings in this strange tent world, a disembodied voice instructed us to leave the premises immediately; we ducked back down, and out, to readjust to the open night.

Nearby in the Bay and Adelaide Center Courtyard, we stood in another line for “FLUXe,” the Scotiabank-sponsored “immersive art experience” that would let us “digitally transform the urban landscape.” At our turn, M and I were given a Blackberry tablet and instructed to select from nine artists whose strokes we could use to draw on the screen. We first chose Nanami Cowdroy, and our fingertips released a stream of etched cranes that were projected on the side of the building in front of us. (We were later able to access our chef d’œuvre online; see below!) City and color and light converged, literally beneath our hands.

our masterpiece

On a significant side note…That this flurry of cultural activity could bring hundreds of thousands of people to shun sleep and huddle in the streets, seemed ironic when four days earlier, Toronto’s City Council had considered the closures of several (unidentified) city-run museums based on low attendance—though, thankfully, voted to postpone them. While the potential cuts will soon be reconsidered, this reprieve allows time to rally the cultural troops and reflect on how to safeguard Toronto’s arts and heritage. The city cannot assume from any quantitative data that its cultural sites lack relevance, or that its citizens lack interest; it should take any numerical declines as simply signs that it should express and foster more pride and delight in its own resources. Nuit Blanche showed in no uncertain terms that energy and curiosity abound in Toronto; when people are beckoned to engage directly with the arts and the built environment, they will do so from 6:59pm to sunrise and leave wanting more.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s plant-painting at the Capitol

This weekend kick-started WalkingTown DC, Cultural Tourism DC’s ten-day celebration of city exploration in the capital, including over 175 free tours. It coincided with National Museum Day on Saturday and the National Book Festival all weekend, which meant quite the smorgasbord during a quick trip to visit my parents. Before my bus back to NYC on Sunday, my dad and I took the tour called “Frederick Law Olmsted and the US Capitol Grounds,” led by Steve Livengood, the US Capitol Historical Society’s director of public programs.

As I’ve written previously, I’m not a stranger to the Capitol grounds and Frederick Law Olmsted’s legacy there (especially Summerhouse), but the tour provided me with a lot of new information and an improved sense of the grounds’ cohesive design and the narrative of their development. The grounds, Olmsted’s only landscape meant to enhance an already-existing building, exemplify his origination of landscape architecture. As opposed to landscape gardening, this field entails placing a building within the frame of a landscape, or as our guide put it (paraphrasing Olmsted’s friend David Burnham), “painting with plants.”

The tour began with a historical overview of the building Olmsted intended to put on display. The iconic Capitol was designed by William Thornton, who won the commission through a competition in 1793, and his plan for a new Pantheon with wings was later modified by Henry Latrobe and Charles Bullfinch. The construction of the building, the largest stone building in the US at the time, encountered a number of obstacles, including being burned by the British in 1814. By the time it was completed in 1824, the country had tripled in size, necessitating expansion of the building. In 1850, Thomas Walter added new chambers for the House and Senate, setting these additions perpendicular to the original building to avoid overwhelming it. He replaced Bullfinch’s dome with a cast iron one (cast in Brooklyn) in 1863; the wood of the old dome was burned to feed the steam engine used in constructing the new dome. The Capitol’s expansion included enlarging the grounds from 30 to 59 acres; enter Olmsted.

Commissioned in 1874, Olmsted worked on the grounds for 15 years. His design capitalizes on the 21 streets and 47 walkways that feed into the square and strategically guides visitors through the site. He was assisted by Thomas Wisedell, who brought a sense of Chinoiserie to the benches and lampposts and helped with the plans for Summerhouse. Speaking of my favorite place in DC, I learned that, although it may be years before Summerhouse is restored because of budget constraints, the historic structures report was recently completed and restoration plans are indeed in the works — most notably including replacement of the concrete floor with brick, as originally intended.

Here is more of what I saw and learned on the tour :

Olmsted wanted to line the path to the east entrance with tulip trees, which were the tallest species in the area and not usually grown near buildings...

...so these squares at each tree's base can be removed to adapt to the tree's growth.

Original red granite lamp piers

Terra cotta benches designed by Wisedell

Olmsted's wrought-iron streetcar shelter; right across from the building, but I'd never noticed it before

Olmsted designed details down to the tree placards. He never used flowering trees that would distract from the building (though some have since been planted).

The subtle approach to Summerhouse

This little replacement tree was recently planted outside of Summerhouse.

I learned that the hooks on the side of the fountain (one is towards the top left in this photo) once held ladles for the drinking water. The newer drinking fountains (bottom right) might be replaced in the restoration with something more historically appropriate.

"Olmsted's most successful tree," a willow oak

Olmsted added terraces to the west entrance, containing storage spaces and topped with palmettos, because he felt the building otherwise appeared top-heavy.

The tour ended at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial with this view of the Capitol amid Olmsted's carefully painted plants.

Joel Sternfeld on photographing the High Line

The High Line, an elevated rail line reincarnated as a park, is a new mecca for historic preservation in New York City, and one of my favorite places on the planet. Climbing up the stairs in the rain felt tonight, as it does every time I visit the park, like ascending to a secret dimension threaded through the top of the city, both suspended in time and crystallizing time’s passage. Joel Sternfeld created a similar effect through his photography of the park before its transformation, an assignment the Friends of the High Line gave him in 2000. Tonight he spoke about the images he captured of the wildflowers and weeds that had claimed the rails after the last train passed through in 1980 (notoriously lugging frozen turkeys). These photos helped to seed the movement that rescued the High Line from demolition.

These days, the High Line is rarely empty, but Sternfeld had the place to himself as he pursued the perfect images to tell the High Line’s story. “It was my own private park for one year,” he said, because “the money shot takes time.” He photographed on days when the sky was “neutral, so that if there were any beauty in the picture, it couldn’t be attributed to my ability as a photographer, or to the day: it was emanating from the High Line itself.” He recalled one day in particular when it seemed to be his personal utopia: “There was no place else on earth that I would rather be…it was exquisite.”

After the High Line’s metamorphosis, Sternfeld felt disoriented in the place he had come to know so intimately; he compared the impression to losing a limb: “Every now and then, I feel a little bit of phantom pain for the old High Line.” In a sense, though, this is a sweet sort of pain that any visitor to the High Line can experience to a degree; the ghost of the High Line’s past life remains in the park by invitation. Sternfeld came to see the power of the rail line’s new form, especially as the product of a passionate group of people overcoming opposition, as well as for its link to his interest in environmental conservation. “The great value of the High Line now is as a symbol,” he said. “This is hope symbolized.” He stressed the importance of completing the park; Section 2 opened in June, but Section 3’s development is pending. “I don’t know which is harder: to solve global warming or to get something done in New York City,” he said, “but I hope that we’ll all join in this fight to truly save the High Line.”

Next week, my architectural photography class is making an excursion to the park. It will probably be a lifetime before I get anything approaching a “money shot,” but I think I will benefit from remembering Sternfeld’s approach: translating the insistent history of the place, but first quietly letting the High Line speak for itself.

Barnhopping: Ontario vernacular

North of Toronto, along the southwest coast of Lake Simcoe, the roads dip through farmland and yellow fields to stop, unexpectedly, at rocky shoreline. As we wandered around the countryside in search of hidden bits of lake, my lovely and patiently obliging partner pulled the car to the shoulder in front of every old barn we passed — some with flaking wooden planks, some green with ivy — so I could snap phone photos of these quiet bearers of Ontario’s history. Here are a few of them:





Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 2)

One of the primary issues at hand is the differentiation that some art critics have drawn between graffiti and street art. Cedar Lewisohn, who wrote for Tate Modern one of the few available scholarly books on “street art,” first separates “graffiti,” by which he means “any form of unofficial, unsanctioned application of a medium onto a surface,” from “graffiti writing,” by which he refers to “the movement most closely associated with hip hop culture…whose central concern is the ‘tag’ or signature of the author.” “Street art,” while a sub-genre of graffiti writing, is more focused on using graffiti imagery, not strictly tags, to “[interact] with the audience on the street.” Graffiti writers and taggers tend not to want their work to be viewed as art; its purpose instead is to serve as a secret language among them, and to “[destroy] or [deface] cities…making ugly places even uglier.” They tend to look down upon “street artists” for their appeal to the masses. Some art theorists do not as readily acknowledge the differentiation between non-artistic “graffiti writing” and “street art.” They believe that graffiti writing, which they identify as “a practiced skill to which the artists or ‘writers’ devote their lives, perfecting a certain style of letter formation,” falls under the definition of art. There are theorists who view that “art should be infinitely impractical” and that “graffiti has no real purpose, other than its own existence,” and therefore qualifies as art. While this particular position seems flawed, as most graffiti writing actually does have significant purpose within the culture of graffiti writers, the implication that a line between graffiti and street art might be less clear than suggested by critics such as Lewisohn is useful. It is a line unacknowledged by many state authorities, including Hackney Council, Transport for London, and the members of SWAAG. Unlike the aforementioned art theorists, however, these authorities choose to regard street art at the same level as graffiti, but regard both as simply illegal vandalism.

http://www.banksy.co.uk

A potential solution to the problem of whether or not councils should remove Banksy’s work might be to formalize the differentiation between graffiti writing, which does not appeal to the public (and indeed, is not intended to), and street art, including works such as Banksy’s that address a wider audience. But again, the divide between writing and street art is not always clear. If the state were to remain firmly against graffiti writing and declare “street art” legal, it would be taking on a significant responsibility as art critic, asserting its authority to decide what is graffiti and what is art. State officials surely lack the art theory and history background to make such a decision in full confidence. At the same time, it is impossible for state authority to escape the role of art critic. Even by denying that they are art critics, denying the responsibility of differentiation between graffiti and street art, like Hackney Council and TfL, they are still making a statement about art, saying that it falls within the confines of the law, even if public opinion supports the art. Islington Council played the art critic by deciding to protect Banksy works, deeming them art because popular opinion said so. By letting the public choose directly whether or not to keep Banksy’s work, Bristol City Council was affirming that art transcends the law. Bristol’s interpretation of its inevitable role as art critic seems to be the most appropriate reaction to the issues of legality raised by the graffiti movement. The Council admitted that it, and not the law, had the authority to judge Banksy’s work, and it invited the public to directly influence its judgment and have a say in the art it gets to see. A lack of public involvement is exactly what Banksy has said is wrong in the Art World: “These galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

The Art World has not readily accepted graffiti as a legitimate art form, largely due to its intrinsic illegality. Graffiti’s gradual entry into the realm of the art gallery began with the work of a few photographers, most notably Gyula Halász, known as Brassaï. His documentation of Parisian graffiti in the 1930s predated by decades the spread of graffiti as a popular movement, and the success of his photographs paved the way for later photographers like New York’s Henry Chalfant. It can be said that photography of graffiti was accepted by the Art World before graffiti itself was ever recognized as a legitimate art, and photographers’ work contributed to the popularity of graffiti by encouraging the public to look differently at the graffiti on their streets. Photographic documentation is important to many graffiti artists because of the ephemeral nature of their work. Banksy himself has released books containing photographs of his art, and his former art dealer, Steve Lazarides, began as a professional photographer who took pictures of Banksy’s graffiti and gained his confidence. Banksy’s immense popularity, stemming largely from the clever social criticism contained in his work and the media hype surrounding his anonymity, brought graffiti into the limelight. Lazarides began selling Banksy originals and exhibiting the work of other graffiti artists in his own gallery in Soho, an operation which has since expanded.

Soon, it was not only small, Banksy-approved galleries displaying graffiti as art. In May 2008, London’s Tate Modern invited six international graffiti artists to participate in an exhibition called “Street Art” by painting on the museum’s brick façade. Banksy’s work was noticeably absent; it was suggested that he was not interested in participating in the Tate’s official, Nissan-sponsored project. “Street Art” demonstrated that questions remain regarding the extent to which the art establishment has come to understand graffiti. As art critic Ben Lewis pointed out, “Even the location of the exhibition is clever: by putting the artwork on the outside of the Tate, the museum appears to be respecting the street in Street Art. At the same stroke, it’s a cunning way of avoiding the big issue of whether the work really is art in the same sense as the stuff inside.”

Reference to graffiti’s struggle for wider acceptance as an art form should not imply that all graffiti artists are aiming to have their work finally be that “stuff inside” the Tate Modern. On the contrary, Banksy’s popularity is problematic in that it has caused tension between the art industry’s interest in his profitability within the system and his own desire to remain outside of it. He is, in a sense, caught between two worlds—that of the art establishment’s critics, some of whom dismiss his artistic skill as “reasonably competent, not brilliant” and his subject matter as “agitpop…protest art with a smile on its face,” and that of the graffiti artists, some of whom think “his message is naïve” and view him as a sell-out for allowing his art to be sold for great sums of money, including to the “Hollywood glitterati.” Simultaneously, the evident marketability of Banksy’s work can be seen as a benefit to both sides: Marc Schiller of the Wooster Collective credited Banksy with having ‘create[d] a market for an entire category of art that until now has not been recognized at the level that it is now being recognized at.” One irony in this situation is that artworks such as Banksy’s, by means of their location on the street, are intended to belong to everyone. People who buy his work at auctions are essentially paying thousands of pounds for what already belonged to them, and everyone, for free, exhibiting a capitalist desire for individual ownership.

Another irony is that Banksy continues to use his artwork to criticize the very establishment that is now embracing his work. After one of his pieces was sold at auction for £100,000 in 2007, he posted a new drawing on his website. It depicted an auctioneer selling a canvas that bore a message making plain Banksy’s feelings about his own marketability: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” In 2005, he attracted media attention by “infiltrating” four museums and art galleries in New York, surreptitiously hanging his own work on their walls. When he did the same in the British Museum, displaying a “chunk of ‘rock art’ depicting a stone age hunter with a shopping trolley, together with the caption crediting it to “Banksyus Maximus,'” the museum took eight days to notice, and ended up adding the work to its permanent collection. Banksy may not be successfully conveying the criticism of the art establishment he intends if such activities as the 2005 “infiltration” are accepted by museums and lauded by the media as publicity stunts.

Ultimately, his commercial success is dependent on that establishment. It has been pointed out that “history is littered with anti-establishment figures that end up embracing the establishment they rail against, particularly as they grow in popularity.” For example, Banksy’s position is reminiscent of the ironic tension between William Morris’s socialist beliefs and the fact that his hand-crafted art intended for the wider public was expensive to produce and, thus, available only to the wealthy. Banksy’s place in art history is difficult to predict; perhaps one day he will reveal his identity and succumb to the spoils of his fame. But for now, he seems to be entertained by his Art World success while remaining separate from and critical of it, having “[hijacked] the established system of art exhibition… drawing attention to its shortcomings.” In the words of art critic Walter Januszczak, “His chief achievement, and I believe it to be a mammoth one, was finding a way to operate so successfully outside the art world.” In doing so, Banksy has said, he hopes to “show that money hasn’t crushed the humanity out of everything.”

Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 1)

I have an admission to make that might seem paradoxical, coming from a preservationist: I am guilty of liking graffiti. I would never say so without exception or qualification, and I’ll state for the record that I don’t advocate graffiti, and I abhor the reckless use of historic buildings as spray-paint canvases…but in certain rare cases, as I’ve previously mentioned, I just can’t help but find it appealing. From 2007 to 2008, a time when Banksy’s bravado was reaching new heights of popularity, I was living outside of London. While there was plenty else to occupy my eyes in my favorite city, I remember the thrill of turning down a new street and finding another one of his recognizable rats. Equally provocative was the narrative that arose as state authorities and the public were cornered into the role of street art curators, and graffiti, so often the bane of preservationists, became the object of preservation itself.

Banksy, Sweep at Hoxton, Wikimedia Commons

Banksy echoes many other graffiti artists when he explains that much of the thrill of his work stems from its illegality. In his own words, “You could stick all my shit in Tate Modern and have an opening with Tony Blair and Kate Moss on rollerblades handing out vol-au-vents and it wouldn’t be as exciting as when you go out and you paint something big where you shouldn’t do.” He has called himself an “art terrorist,” and some property owners and residents feel accordingly victimized when graffiti appears in their communities. Various state authorities categorize graffiti as a quality of life crime, an environmental crime, and an antisocial behavior. Graffiti is blamed for reducing property values, causing community members, tourists, and retail customers to feel unsafe, reducing the enjoyment of public spaces, and, if not quickly removed from an area, encouraging more graffiti to be added there.

In London, graffiti is linked with rubbish as the target of clean street initiatives. It is frequently described by state authorities as “unsightly,” as it is “a sign of a neglected neighbourhood and is associated with increased levels of crime and the fear of crime.” According to the Council of the London borough of Southwark, “Graffiti is vandalism and it’s become a really expensive problem. Removing graffiti costs the UK over £1 billion a year. We and other agencies have to remove graffiti from walls, street furniture, telephone boxes, bus shelters, monuments and even gravestones.” Countering graffiti is the responsibility of individual boroughs, and each has its own policy regarding graffiti removal. In addition to removing graffiti from public spaces and council-owned property, many boroughs provide free removal from business and residential properties, in some cases only when the graffiti is visible from a street. The amount of time in which a request for graffiti removal will be answered varies for different boroughs, but one commonality is that response time decreases significantly for graffiti that is deemed “racist or offensive.” Some boroughs are particularly severe in setting forth their stances on graffiti. Merton Council, for example, states that “Graffiti is an eyesore that nobody in the borough wants to see. It is also criminal damage and we are determined to stop it.” Merton is a founding member of South West Action Against Graffiti, or SWAAG, which is “a group of southwest London councils who, along with the police, are determined to fight graffiti on all fronts.” The Council of Barking and Dagenham, another member of SWAAG, warns that “graffiti is often the first element in a spiral of decline” and declares that “its artistic merits are irrelevant. It represents one group of people imposing themselves on everyone else and as such is a form of pollution, like people playing loud music.”

The matter of graffiti’s artistic merit is not so straightforward to the many people who view graffiti work such as that of Banksy as more art than eyesore. The rise of Banksy created a dilemma for local authorities, particularly in the London boroughs and other areas of England that were fortunate enough to receive the gift of his artwork, or alternatively, wronged by his “guerilla art.” Many local authorities yielded to the pressure of Banksy’s public support and chose not to remove his work. Council workers in Islington went so far as to restore Banksy works that had been vandalized by the tags of other graffiti writers. According to an Evening Standard article posted by a seemingly bemused Banksy on his own website, Islington Council “defended its policy to clean up and repair the artist’s work. It insisted it was spending taxpayers’ money on the operation in response to residents’ demands.”

In July 2006, the City Council of Bristol was faced with the question of whether or not to order the removal of a Banksy piece near their offices showing a woman in her underwear, a suited man leaning out of a window, and a nude man, presumably the woman’s lover, hanging from the window ledge. The Council decided to ask the public via an internet discussion forum whether or not the piece should be allowed to remain. When ninety-seven percent of responses were in favor of keeping the work, with only six people dissenting, the Council decided that the piece was worthy of being kept, although Councillor Gary Hopkins stressed that “the decision to keep this Banksy image is not a green light for more graffiti in the city.” This incident perfectly illustrates the way in which the rise of graffiti found state officials and the public placed into the role of art critic. Given the nature of Banksy’s work as both illegal and arguably artistic, both state and public were forced to reconsider their definitions of graffiti and decide whether art should transcend the law. In the case of Bristol’s “naked man mural,” the state, disregarding the clear illegality of Banksy’s art, made a judgment of his work based on the deciding factor of public appreciation. Banksy’s response to the incident was, “I think it’s pretty incredible a city council is prepared to make value judgments about preserving illegally painted graffiti. I’m kind of proud of them.” Six months later, after an early Banksy mural was mistakenly removed when contractors were hired by Bristol City Council to “tackle graffiti adjacent to the Banksy work, but wrongly targeted the piece itself,” the Council seemed more sure about its position on Banksy graffiti. It ordered “an investigation into the blunder” and that “all Banksy works in the city…be preserved.”

Other councils, however, offered no apology for their removal of Banksy works. Hackney Council was particularly firm in its anti-graffiti, and therefore anti-Banksy stance, calling for the removal of a number of Banksy works. In February 2008, the Council showed initial signs of yielding to public pressure by allowing a Banksy piece to remain; however, it called for the removal of a portion of the piece, censoring an image of male genitalia that was deemed offensive. Local residents complained that they should have been consulted first, as in the Bristol case. As one resident said, “We’ve been given a work of art. It’s a shame the council have defaced it.” However, a spokesman for the Council argued, “We can’t make a decision on whether something is art or graffiti. The Government judges us on the number of clean walls we have.” Transport for London made a similar argument in response to public outcry when it had a Banksy mural near Old Street Tube station removed. Referring to its “tough line” on graffiti removal, TfL stated, “We have no intention of changing this policy as it makes the transport system safer and more pleasant for passengers. We recognize that there are those who view Banksy’s work as legitimate art, but sadly our graffiti removal teams are staffed by professional cleaners, not professional art critics.”

(To be continued…)

Spring Grotto, Summerhouse: my little brick secret

Last week, I mentioned that I have a number of beloved places in Washington, DC. One of them I would place among my favorite buildings in the world, right up there with Florence’s Duomo, albeit on a very different scale. Because much of its charm derives from the subtlety of its location, I would hesitate to advertise the secret without a disclaimer: read no further if you’d rather discover this paragon of hexagons on your own.

I first stumbled upon Summerhouse during a family trip to DC, a decade or so ago. On a path just northwest of the Capitol building, we began to pass a little whirlpool of shrubbery, then found ourselves within it, down through an arch, one of three rising from woven brick. Inside, the red room was symmetrical (I’ll admit to a weakness for six-sided spaces) with the green of a courtyard garden and, encircled by stone benches and scrolled niches, the quiet energy of a Gothic church. Bound by a waving roof of Spanish mission tile, the structure’s center opened to a sky of trees and a round fountain. Above one set of seats was a mossy grotto behind a wrought-iron grille, a window to a spring-fed planet buried in the Capitol grounds.

Since my family moved to the area several years ago, I have often returned to Summerhouse and finally sought out its story. Constructed from 1879 to 1881, the building was a featured folly in Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscaping plan for the Capitol grounds. His Riverside and Central Parks here in New York are spectacular, of course, and I frequent them. Still, I tend to prefer paler glimpses of grandeur; Summerhouse is, to me, his most elegant work. He intended to fold within this busy site a source of respite and water for visitors and their horses; what he created was a tiny sunken cathedral. According to the Architect of the Capitol, an intended twin on the Capitol’s south side was never built, due to inevitable “congressional objections.” Olmsted also planned that the fountain’s overflow would play a chiming carillon, but the device didn’t function and wasn’t installed. Both of these exclusions are just as well, I think. The space’s solitary sense probably wouldn’t survive being doubled, and its unnatural calm is, in fact, natural—in this red brick heart of DC, minutes from the National Mall, you hear only water and the occasional bird.

Through my many visits, I’ve become a bit possessive of the building. I’ve taken to perching beneath the grotto, like a scrawny blonde gargoyle, reading or watching the spring, and always looking to the doorways when I hear anything that is not water. Sometimes runners appear through one arch, drink from the fountain, and disappear through another. Sometimes families trickle in, staring, photographing, paraphrasing my family’s own discovery; I am often asked if I “know what this place is,” and giving an answer feels like folklore. Despite its name, I tend to prefer it in winter, when snow makes the grotto seem all the more unreal. The building was stabilized in 2009, including repair of its historic walls, and I hope that it will continue to receive attention in the years to come—but not too much. In a city known for its monuments, Summerhouse is my little brick favorite.

By Chip Somodovilla, Getty Images, for Life Magazine

Spring Grotto, Summerhouse, me in winter