Art Is Everywhere in New York City

By Matt Cantor
Wednesday December 30, 2009 - 09:38:00 AM
Matt Cantor
Matt Cantor
Matt Cantor
Matt Cantor
Matt Cantor
Matt Cantor

There’s something about New York City. Its hard to put into words. My wife and I have been here for the last week and we were talking about how much Berkeley is like a tiny version of NYC. Surely there are very large differences… geographically, architecturally and in terms of the complex infrastructure of each, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s social, cultural, political and, I would argue, aesthetic. Despite its large scale mechanical features (skyscrapers, subways, the elevated trains and bridges), there has always been and continues to be a love and dedication to the ways in which the built environment touches and moves it’s inhabitants, those lucky New Yorkers. 

A tiny thing, so emblematic of this experience, is the way in which each subway stop is demarked. From the earliest years of the subway, beautifully fonted, colored and arranged mosaics was used to identify each subway stop; but this tradition has been revived as the system has been renewed and repaired with modern artworks in tile, often by new young artists, adding glee to these screeching, dank cavern walls.  

Its amazing what it adds and I can’t stop taking pictures of the lettering, the mosaic craftwork and the signs as wholes. There’s also an inherent message that comes with these installations and this is so critical. When we take the time to make art out of ordinary functionary objects like signs, we tell the viewer that we know that they are capable of appreciating this level of aesthetic sophistication. We also say that we care enough to decorate these otherwise plebeian spaces for their pleasure. 

New York just keeps saying this lots of ways. For one very large thing, there’s Central Park. Now, stop and think about it. Central Park is absolutely huge (over a square mile) and cuts through some of the most valuable real estate in the world. A 2005 professional appraisal placed the land value of the park at over half a trillion dollars! 

If we were designing a new large city today (say, Los Angeles), would we take a square mile of the most valuable part of the city and devote it to ambling, to migrating birds, to Shakespeare in the park? We’d all like to think so but the trend of cities and of architecture in general seems very much to be going the other way. It’s all about economics. But I digress and I’m not done with effusion. 

The International style saw the beginning of the end for detail and decoration in large scale architecture and marries up with the small scale simplicity of Bauhaus, De Stijl and the popularization of what we considered Japanese style to encompass. In fact, all of this was nothing more than the overtaking of economic interests. But prior to this and all over NYC, there are large buildings with nothing less than the most glorious and outlandish decorations imaginable.  

Not unlike the Victorian styling of our own San Francisco painted ladies, it appears that the developers of everything from apartment buildings like John and Yoko’s Dakota to the lowliest industrial structures crowding the hedges of the city, took the time and spend the cash necessary to embellish, frill and amuse the surfaces of these building in order that the viewer and occupant feel special. In order that we stop and notice something beautiful. In order that we consider these places to have significance, place and esteem. That we consider them something more than just…buildings.  

Most of the cost of constructing a building is fairly well established by large scale criteria such as square footage, height, facing material, the need for fire control systems, elevators, etc. Extraordinary architectural feats can add on significantly but these are the rare example rather than being commonplace. Even greening adds only moderate sums. It’s a common misconception that the cost of adding attractive architectural elements doubles the budget. Another 10 percent is probably more than enough to make the difference and 20 percent more can turn an ordinary building into a really pretty one. 

Berkeley’s Bard of architecture, Bernard Maybeck made a career out of proving that cost was not the issue, creating masterworks such as the First Church of Christ, Scientist on a modest budget through the use of ordinary materials used in special ways. He also employed simple castings in concrete that added Corinthian flavor using Medieval tones. This was easy and cheap. The modern answers seem to be to vacuum up anything so maudlin as a decorative frieze or sentimentally romantic as an elaborate column capitol. 

The schools of America have been long suffering the same sort of bad luck. Budget cuts seem always to start with music and as the scythe ravages our humanity, decapitates art, the epics and theater. Our built environment is just the same. Capital, not capitols, seems to rule and square footage is the metric of our architecture today. Were we all, like my friend Harold, to take a good long time building a carefully crafted stone wall with love and patience, how much sweeter might be each of our journeys. How much less hungry might we be for the unnamed. How much more complete our lives.