Sep 29, 2010

A Bamboo Castle in the Air

Rather hesitantly, I stepped onto what looked like a completely ad-hoc pathway that disappeared into a crazy mess of bamboo above my head. In spite of having grown up in India—where tall bamboo structures go up every day, as temporary shelters or scaffolding —I was just a bit scared. Then the little old lady in my tour group passed me by; effortlessly climbing up the path with her grandchildren in tow. Duly ashamed, I entered Big Bambรน: You Can't, You Don't, and You Won't Stop – Mike and Doug Starn’s latest installation that rises 40 feet above the rooftop of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

May 4, 2010

Putting Out Fires in Style: A History of the Fire Extinguisher

Tucked away in corners and niches, invisible in spite of being large and red, the fire extinguisher is one of the most controlled objects in our environment.  Manufacturing standards for fire extinguishers in the USA are stipulated by the Underwriters Laboratories. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regulates their use and maintenance with a national code; in addition to a fire code formulated by each state. Each extinguisher, therefore, bristles with the seals and certifications, the panels of instruction and information that painstakingly ensure its compliance with all these rules. However, outside the 15 seconds it takes for them to empty their contents (as stipulated by the NFPA), they hold little meaning or personal significance for their users.

This wasn’t always the case, especially in the days when the only way of fighting a fire was to hurl a bucket of water at it. A law passed in 1687 called for every citizen of New York to own one leather bucket for every chimney, clearly marked with the initials of the landlord. These were to be at the disposal of firefighters in the event of a fire, and failure to comply would result in a fine of six shillings. Yet, leather fire buckets from the 1700s were beautifully crafted objects, often carrying a painting of the building or a portrait of the owner. They were clearly objects that people were proud to possess, whether or not the City required it. In 1803, a group of citizens in New York actually took up arms against city officials because their buckets were not being returned to them after the fire had been extinguished. This event has gone down in Fire Department history as the Great Bucket Revolt in the Third Ward.

Apr 4, 2010

The Missing Apartment of Holly Golightly

“I am always drawn back to places where I lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment.”

The opening paragraph of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a vivid description of his apartment. It is only one among the myriad other physical spaces that Capote describes in his story, each in great detail: Joe Bell’s bar, the New York Public Library and the interiors of Woolworth’s. All of these spaces find due place, albeit in slightly altered forms, in Blake Edwards’ eponymous 1961 film. But there is one space – absolutely vital to the film – that is never described in Capote’s novella: Holly Golightly’s apartment.

In the film, we first see Holly’s apartment when Paul Varjack rings the buzzer below. Until now we have only seen a sophisticated Holly, strolling down Lexington Avenue in a black Givenchy sheath and oversized pearls. Our first peek into her apartment presents a shocking contrast: she wakes up among rumpled bed linen in an incredibly messy room, a cat nonchalantly strolling among the piles of stuff. Who is this woman, we ask ourselves, whose interior life is so different from her exterior life?

Mar 31, 2010

Part Human, Part Machine, Part Fantasy, Part Real

Download a pdf of illustrative images here.

The sight of Oscar Pistorius running unsettles me. All the visual tropes of the running athlete – bulging calves, stretched tendons, flexing ankles – are conspicuous by their absence. This is because Pistorius’ legs end at the knees. He runs on two curved pieces of carbon fibre that are sold under the name Cheetah Flexfeet. The cutting edge in prosthetic design, modeled on a cheetah’s feet, they will allow the disabled Pistorius to compete against abled runners in the 2012 Olympics. Cheetah Flexfeet are prosthetic limbs that actually work better than human limbs.

I am ashamed to admit it, but all I can think when I see Pistorius is “Cyborg.”

Mar 20, 2010

Ode to a White Coffee Cup

O white porcelain hemisphere,
O quotidian receptacle
of caffeinated elixirs!
Do you comfort me
with your fragility,
or mock me
with such extreme perfection?

Love Thy Neighbour: the Sad Tale of the West Park Presbyterian Church

The bright blue plywood roof of a pedestrian protection corridor wraps around the massive red sandstone walls of the West Park Presbyterian church at 86th street, clearly marking it as a construction site. “For Sale” signs on the plywood list the numbers of real estate agents, but you may be sure their phones aren’t ringing off the hook. Under the dark shadows of the pedestrian corridor, the notice board carries only one sign: Services are now being held two blocks west, at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew.

This was the sorry state of affairs at West Park Presbyterian even before the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) officially designated it a historical landmark in January 2010. Designed by Leopold Eidlitz and Henry Kilburn in a Romanesque Revival style and completed in 1889, this gabled church, with its rose windows and high tower, richly deserves the designation. It was a landmark in its time, with a wealthy Upper West Side congregation. However, that congregation steadily dwindled, putting the church in financial straits and causing the building to fall into disrepair.

Feb 7, 2010

Harry Potter and the Historic District

By early evening on 20th June 2003, a gaggle of pointed hats and starry capes had formed around Broadway and Prince Street. They had come to hold a midnight vigil for the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This was the first Harry Potter book to be launched from the newly completed Scholastic Building on Broadway, designed by Aldo Rossi. It seems fitting that the largest publisher of children’s books in the world had the addition to their office designed by a man who Ada Louise Huxtable called “a poet who happens to be an architect.”

Jan 26, 2010

Times Square on Foot

All cars are now banned on Broadway in the Times Square Area.

Times Square has never been a Square. Not geometrically, because as Broadway sashays across the perfect grid of Manhattan, and passes 7th Avenue, it creates a series of trapeziums. It has also never been a square in terms of its urban function.