Realms of Rubble

Art exists in the city as the city exists in art. The formal definition of art, any vehicle of aesthetic pleasure that communicates a chosen message, implicitly associates artistic creations with painted or sculptured works. Such works exist within a set context; framed by walls, these artistic creations beautify  their immediate surroundings. At the core, formalized or academic art is that which can be observed, critiqued, and questioned by human spectators. However, this overly narrow definition of art limits masterpieces to domestic or selectively public museum settings. Adopting instead a wider definition of art, the spectator must observe the greater context, the city, before dissecting the object of creation. A house for art, the city is the purest form of art. Thus, in discussing an overarching definition of art, one must evaluate architecture—the rubble, ruins, remains, and reconstructions.

While our lives concentrate around the hearths that house us, the buildings in which knowledge grows, science advances, government legislates and business operates, it is easy for the modern citizen to take for granted the aesthetic beauty of such basic foundations. Often termed concrete jungles, cities are viewed as technological and human hubs and championed for their concrete advances rather than for their concrete foundations. It takes an honest observation of the architecture of antiquity to fully realize the artistic soul of the city. As Socrates infamously stated, the city completes the individual; it is a place for realization and contemplation.

Standing on top of Filopappou Hill (Hill of the Muses) in Athens silently observing the sun crest the mountain, illuminating the Acropolis with natural light, I grasped the eternal truth of Socrates declaration. Ruined and rebuilt, the city of Athens is a place for realization. It forces the spectator to realize the finite nature of his existence—life rises and falls like the cresting sun. Yet, such realizations prompt contemplation on the beauty of such a finite existence. The Acropolis stands testament to the genius of man passed. However, it is also a symbol to the progress of man present. The stoic Doric columns and imposing geometric forms are weathered, but resilient. While fragmented, the structure stands. The Acropolis’ architecture retains the poignancy of a picture, affecting emotional musings within the spectator. Rather than a lesser form of art, architecture, as evidenced by the Acropolis, asserts the supremacy of materiality—the beauty of our classical beginnings. Turning an eye on our present state of architectural ingenuity, one can only revel at the sublimity of glass, scaffolding, and brick.


Money, Morality, and the Preservation of Beauty

In relocating ancient treasures, are we truly seeking to preserve historic objects for posterity or are we selfishly hoping to acquire objects of foreign beauty for our own enjoyment? In a debate that considers both money and morality, I find it hard to justify that it is our moral side driving these foreign acquisitions. While seeking out beautiful things is not a folly, it is erroneous to believe that money entitles one to beautiful things that another person or place holds in its possession.

However, money and morality are not always applied in isolation of each other. In some instances, it is the moral drive to preserve beauty coupled with the monetary capital to fund the act of preservation that results in the successful acquisition and transportation of treasures. The Cloisters located in Washington Heights and operated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an example of such. Comprised of precious artifacts from religious monasteries in Europe, the Cloisters in New York were constructed to preserve artifacts that were degrading due to lack of upkeep. While, these treasures have been taken from their context of creation, they were not robbed.

Funded primarily by John D. Rockefeller, the Cloisters exemplify the positive outcome of artifact relocation. Salvaging pieces of history that would have been destroyed from neglect, the Cloisters now function as a cultural and educational center. The respectful structure is renown for its beauty and tranquility. Home to the The Unicorn in Captivity tapestry, which is famously featured in Harry Potter, as well as to well-curated small-scale exhibitions, the Cloisters is both familiar to a repeat visitor and intellectually surprising.

From my beginnings in high school art history, the Merode Altarpiece, which is housed at the museum, has been a source of inspiration. The Deutsch masterpiece is revolutionary for its time and remarkable for its high degree of religious symbolism. The presence of the altarpiece at the Cloisters is more than fitting; it functions both as an educational tool and a source of intellectual inquiry. Thematically linked with its surroundings, the altarpiece is both enhanced by and enhances its surroundings.

In totality, the Cloisters promotes the production of artistic beauty, highlights the ingenuity of the Medieval Era, and champions the need to preserve past great works.

Process, Prototypes and Presentation

Monitoring the crowds outside the Guggenheim during the heavily trafficked Museum Mile Festival, I was repeatedly asked to provide directions to the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. Flummoxed, I pointed the visitors towards a security guard standing nearby. I had previously thought the Guggenheim, located on 89th street, was the upmost point of the traditional “Museum Mile.” My curiosity prevailed, and after the closing of the event, I walked further up the Upper East Side until I reached the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Excited at this new discovery, I was determined to visit the institution in the following weeks during its operating hours.

Undergoing a major reopening in 2014, the Cooper Hewitt is an under-trafficked and under-appreciated cultural institution on the Upper East Side. The Museum, which focuses entirely on historic and contemporary design, opened in 1897. Committed to collecting art of the everyday, the Museum has amassed a robust permanent collection of furniture, wall hangings, and décor. The Museum collection chronicles how design aesthetics evolve and morph in response to contemporary tastes. Embracing technological innovation, the Cooper Hewitt provides each visitor an interactive stylus to record his or her unique design preferences.

The forth floor exhibition “Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio” complements the Museum’s other offerings by detailing the process as well as the product of design. Juxtaposing photographs of finished structures with digital and physical models, the exhibition emphasizes the iterative nature of the creative process. Fanciful constructions such as the Snail Bridge and the cauldron for the London 2012 Olympic Games Torches, which began as abstract conceptions, slowly materialize into feasible actualities and much later into physical structures. It is mesmerizing to observe the process of innovation in which the failure of first prototypes evolves into the success of practical architectural marvels. Heatherwick Studio’s architectural creations highlight the collaborative and responsive nature of design; they illustrate that it requires the open interchange of ideas, which are derived from a spattering of beautiful minds, to craft a singular structure of unprecedented beauty.


The collision of art, nature, and mankind

Be innovative, but restrained. Embrace boldness, but be conscious of the historical environment. Create a timeless landmark, but do so in hurried time frame. The lofty expectations set upon architects are inherently contradictory. Modern architects today are pushed to conceive a new generation of public works that owe homage to their storied predecessors, yet also experiment, setting the next architectural precedent with their innovation. The collective drive to integrate technology into all aspects of architecture has resulted in architectural marvels as well as public eyesores.


In a mixed urban environment, such as New York, both occurrences are equally prevalent. I followed the buzz about the new Whitney before arriving in the city. While the building has received mixed reviews, and I agree that the elevators and staircases were not constructed without flaw, I think favorably upon the new structure. The raw creativity of the new Whitney is an example of how architects can use technological advances to make public space accessible and interactive. Liberated, the Whitney has opened itself up to natural light, inviting the public to easily maneuver through its open galleries and traverse its multi-tiered balconies. It is on these balconies, on which culture and nature collide, that the viewer attains a sense of fulfillment. Renzo Piano, the chief architect of the revamped Whitney, designed an intellectually stimulating building that matches the daring nature of the museum’s contemporary and modern American art collection.