Placing the Museum

Placing the Museum

I have written multiple posts on the idea of place and museums, exploring both their exterior public space and the impact of the design of their interior space. Both of these draw on the concept of placemaking in that museums are constantly attempting to make their spaces more comfortable for the visitors that roam through their galleries. Museums, in my opinion, have the power to be the ultimate public space. One the combines leisure, learning, and cultural enrichment. They face an issue though in that many people do not seek out museums as a place in which they want to spend time. Many see museum visits as a chore for school, something reserved for tourism, or just too daunting to approach. I hope that museums can make an active effort to shift their focus onto the visitor experience in an effort to establish themselves as place institutions.

The first step to shifting the museum from private to public is in transforming the ticketing process. While it is near impossible to completely remove all ticket prices and make every museum free to all, there should be a shifting emphasis to “pay-as-you-wish” or free evenings and days. Even with “pay-as-you-wish” museums should be sensitive to the visitor’s wishes, meaning that if they pay 50 cents or 20 dollars, they will be treated the same. Currently, there is frequently a negative response to those who wish to pay less, and this only ruins the essence of public access into museum galleries. A more positive response to “pay-as-you-wish” policies will allow for visitors to immediately feel like they just as much as anyone else have the right to be in the museum and enjoy the space.

I am also interested in expanding the already public spaces that museums have. I wrote about The Metropolitan’s new entrance pavilion, which boasts increased seating, decorative fountains, and a couple of trees. Museums, if they place emphasis on these spaces (or for instance, MoMA’s sculpture garden, which I believe should be open to the public) they again place emphasis on the visitor and create an open environment for people to enjoy their space. This may mean that there are some parts of the museum that are open to the public and some that requires admissions tickets. While it is not an ideal situation, it would be a step towards furthering the placemaking essence of a museum.

Museums have always been important places for me, I seek solace in their walls because art and museums are what I study. I understand though that many people do not have the same level of comfort in these seemingly inhibiting, institutional spaces. There are small and large steps that museums can take to transform their aura, and I hope I can be a part in this transformation. I am always interested in hearing about museum visitor experiences, so if you have one that you want to share, let me know, as I hope my future in museums and visitor work can be shaped by a knowledge of as many perspectives as possible.

The Spirit in a Symbol

The Spirit in a Symbol

Not many cities have a designated city flag. Or rather, not many cities have one that its residents know about. This is not the case for Chicago, whose flag flies on almost every street corner and manifests itself in different ways through street art, tattoos, apparel and the like. It is interesting to think about how one simply designed piece of fabric can maintain such importance for Chicagoans, but its a small symbol of something much larger that contributes to the sense of place in the Second City.

In 1917, Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson set out to develop a flag of Chicago that would remain well known and symbolic for the city. What was developed by designer Wallace Rice is just that: a simple white flag with two blue stripes and four (originally two) red stars. The three white stripes represent the North, West, and South sides of the city while the two blue stripes represent the North and South branches of the Chicago River. The four stars represent different points in history that the city have shaped the city, including: Fort Dearborn (the founding fort), the Great Chicago Fire, the 1893 World’s Fair, and 1933 World’s Fair. While remaining so simple, the flag has great symbolism that every Chicago student is taught in their history classes alongside the symbolism of the American flag.

It is not just the symbolism of the Chicago flag that leads to its contribution to the spirit of place in Chicago, it is the way in which Chicagoans have taken ownership of the flag and transformed it into an overall symbol of the spirit of the city. I can think of a half dozen people off of the top of my head that have the flag tattooed somewhere on their body, another half dozen who have the flag hanging at their homes, and even more with some sort of art piece or jewelry derived from the colors and symbols. Even my sister’s dog has a collar with the flag’s design on it. Other cities have symbols that its citizens hold onto, such as sports teams symbols or a landmark, but the Chicago flag transcends all of those as it can transform in many ways.

I currently do not have a Chicago flag in my apartment, as it seems weird to bring that Chicago sense of place to New York. It’s an interesting phenomena in that when I think about it, very few people I know who are from Chicago but currently outside of Illinois have a Chicago flag with them. It seems as if that spirit has to stay in the area to keep its spirit. I have seen a few outside of Chicago and while I get filled with joy over the reminder of home, it also is a reminder that I am not home and that spirit can only stretch so far.

New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down

New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

LCD Soundsystem released a song titled “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” in 2007. In 2007, I was sitting in my suburban home listening to the song on my blue iPod mini, imagining if my future life in New York would be so bleak.

(Disclaimer – Not the Official song video, but it’s much better than some of the other amature videos on youtube)

At this point, I knew I wanted to go to New York for college. What I did not know was just how relevant James Murphy’s lyrics would be to the four year roller coaster in New York that I have found myself reflecting upon a lot recently. In an effort to explain my four years, I found that selections from the lyrics highlight each year perfectly:

Freshman Year:

New York, you’re perfect/Don’t please don’t change a thing

In my naiveté and little exposure outside of the mile square radius of NYU’s campus, I thought I was in heaven. I had the world at my fingertips: excellent classes, museums a subway ride away, 24 hour restaurants, and the ability to say that I was “living” in New York. Was I actually living though? It’s hard to say, because I was so coddled by NYU that I was more of a college student than I ever thought I would be. Either way, I was in love with New York and ready for the next three years.

Sophomore Year:

New York, I Love You/But you’re freaking me out…./There’s a ton of the twist/But we’re fresh out of shout

Sophomore year my relationship with New York had taken a turn for the worse. I was living on Union Square, dealing with an equal balance of tourists, roucous teens and protestors, and homeless people. I felt swallowed by the twisted nature of the city. I was unable to focus on my work and developed anxiety. The glimmer that once shined on the subway stairs turned into piss and I was done. One eight hour flight later, I was in Florence for the spring and grateful for my self imposed separation with my toxic relationship.

Junior Year:

In the neighborhood bars/I’d once dreamt I would drink

I returned, hesitantly, my Junior year to my apartment and a move towards a slightly “realer” experience of New York. I had real neighbors, not an RA, and a certain piece of possibly illegal plastic that introduced me to the glory of East Village bars. Though I was still battling the residual anxiety from the year before, things were evening out for me. Through my efforts to learn New York outside of Washington Square I returned to the healthy side of my relationship.

Senior Year:

Maybe mother told you true/And they’re always be something there for you/And you’ll never be alone

There was a moment a couple of months ago when I left my friend’s studio apartment on the LES after drinking bad wine, eating seamless, and talking about our jobs/internships that I realized that I think I’ve crossed over into truly living in, and not just occupying a place in New York. In almost every neighborhood, I have someplace of comfort, from a coffee shop on the Upper East Side to my former job in TriBeCa. It is the roots that I have planted here that has finally given me a sense of comfort in the city that I never imagined would be possible.

Post Grad:

New York, you’re safer/And you’re wasting my time

As a plan the next steps of my life I am beginning to wonder, are these roots in New York really what I want? While I love the city, have the connections to (hopefully) get something that resembles a job, and a decent group of friends, I wonder if a fuller life could be had elsewhere. This idea is exactly what LCD Soundsystem explores in “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. My New York story may or may not be done in 6 months, but I will always have this four year love affair to shape my next one.

The Non-Place of Study Abroad

The Non-Place of Study Abroad

I spent four great months at NYU’s multi-villa campus in Florence, Italy. One of my closest friends in the program hated it, constantly referring to the city as a whole as a section of Disneyland. While I do not think that the whole city of Florence has Walt’s touch on it, whenever I think back to Villa La Pietra and the mini NYU that the university created for itself on the north side of the city, I cannot help but think that there is something especially non-place about its perfectly groomed landscape. Whenever I entered through the gates of the campus, showing my NYU ID card along the way, I entered into a safe bubble of NYU. All around the campus there were charactactures of Italian culture, from the dining hall serving traditional Italian food next to chicken nuggets, to the american administrative staff, who spoke fluent Italian yet still had incredibly American accents.

Edward Relph describes the disneyfication phenomenon in his book Place and Placelessness as something that seems almost out of place because of its absurdity. This concept leads to a sense of placelessness because it removes itself from the culture around it in favor of an idealized space.  He writes, “The products of ‘disneyfication’ are absurd, synthetic places made up of a surrealistic combination of history, myth, reality and fantasy” (95). While NYU Florence’s campus is not on the extreme side of this scale, there is a sense of the history and myth that Disneyland relies on present in the villas. Whether this sense of myth is a result of the campuses previous owners, the Acton family or NYU, there is a goal to maintain an Italianness that borders on inauthentic.

The campus museum reflects the history of Disneyfication upon Villa La Pietra, a theme that allowed for NYU’s eventual perpetuation of the theme. When the Acton family moved into the Villa in the beginning of the 20th century, they decided to remodel the garden space based on its original Italian Renaissance style. The resulting garden is a reference to the past, while the villa itself contains a jumble of medieval to 20th century art place together in overcrowded rooms. The sense of creating an “authentic” Italian Renaissance place instead highlights the inauthenticity of the world that the Actons created.

The NYU Florence campus definitely has a confusing sense of non-place, or placelessness as Relph describes it. While I had a great experience, I often wonder what my time would have been like had I focused on developing a sense of place while I was in the city rather than just agree with the campuses efforts, and ultimate failures, to determine their own. This brings to question the entire concept of the “Global University” structure that President Sexton prides himself upon. Can we, as students and staff, ever develop a sense of place a culture while remaining in the NYU structure? Based on the trajectory of the university’s development, we may never know.

Modernism and the Museum

Modernism and the Museum

Museum architecture is a widely debated topic among the professionals in the museum world, and currently I am living in one of the top debates in American museums. The Whitney Museum, at which I intern, is currently in the process of moving from its Upper East Side building to a new Renzo Piano designed space in the the Meatpacking District. This move is a long awaited transformation for the museum, which for years has struggled with space restrictions and a lack of resources in their old building. While Marcel Breuer’s 75th Street building had its faults, it is also one of the most important mid century buildings to contribute to the transformation of museum architecture.

When the building was designed in 1966, it was part of a revolution in museum architecture, along with the Solomon R. Guggenheim space opened less than ten years prior. Early museums were created to mirror classical palaces and temples (which can best been seen with the Metropolitan Museum of Art). In contrast, Breuer opted to followed the modernist school in creating the Whitney building. The building is a mix of intimate and overbearing, with its stark and heavy stone exterior and small galleries and simple interior. Museums created after the Breuer building and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim followed a similar style – innovative and different just like the art they house.

The visitor’s museum experience is directly related to the architecture of the building and the galleries, and I can attest to the fact that the Whitney’s modernist space was perfect for presenting art. In contrast to the palatial nature of early 20th century museums, the Breuer building had a great environment in which to view art. Overall, the building was small, and sense of size was reflected in the lobby. When I walked into the space, the lobby was easy to navigate and the elevators and short stairwells added to the ease of moving around the space in the galleries. Overall, the dark nature of the museum’s non-gallery spaces (the exterior, the stairwells, and the restaurant), in contrast to the bright gallery walls created a balance that made me instantly at ease in the space rather than overwhelmed by architecture.

It is important for a museum to create a space in which the visitor is comfortable because if the space does not allow for basic comfort and sense of security, then we cannot truly enjoy the works of art around us. As with any building architecture, the museum must present a beautiful, well designed space that then recedes into the background to feature the items it houses or purpose for which it was built. The Breuer building is incredibly successful in making a statement then addressing the needs of the viewer and the art on its walls. 

The Consistency of Subway Stations

The Consistency of Subway Stations

Living in New York City, it is almost impossible to separate one’s daily commute or routine from one of the 468  subway stations that loom under the sidewalks (and sometimes overhead). This space, in which we move quickly through and often do not acknowledge as more than a walking space between trains, is only this way because it is so much a part of our lives. Imagine someone from a rural part of America takes a visit to New York and encounters a subway station for the first time, it is inevitable that he will be either overwhelmed or just in awe of something so foreign as unground hubs for public transportation. J.B. Jackson wrote about a similar experience in that when he returned from war, he returned to larger cities and more parts of manmade landscape brought into the vernacular. Those around him that had not been out of the country for years found everything around them to be so simple and normal that he seemed against the vernacular due to his confusion.

How did New York’s subway stations become so much a part of the vernacular? At the beginning of the 20th century, the first of the New York train systems developed. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (or IRT) developed an underground train system in response to issues with the already existent elevated tracks that ran through the city. With the birth of this track, the underground train system expanded until 1940 when the MTA adopted its full subway system mirroring that which we have today. For 75 years New York has allowed the subway stop into its vernacular and it will not be removed anytime soon. In fact, public transportation usage has increased over the last decade.

When I think about my time in the New York subway system, I realize that I have very little attachment to one stop, or the image, organization, or any of the particulars of a stop because they are all too similar. Of course, I can differentiate between large hubs like Times Square and small stations like my personal 1st Ave L stop but in their general architecture and design, all are the same. This concept means that Subways are definitely a part of the city vernacular and they can be compared to the commonality of parking lots in suburban strip malls. We obviously know which stop (or parking lot) we need to go to but pay no attention to the composition of the space, merely the final destination that we use it to get to.

One of my regular subway routines is the L from First Ave to Union Square to transfer to the 6 Uptown to 75th. Within these subway stops, I have an exact routine of how I navigate the stops. I walk to a certain point in each station, get on the same car, and then exit through the same exit. This may seem to negate the concept of the subway stop as vernacular, since I am attaching routine to the specifics of each stop, but I have found myself mirroring this routine, like when I am at the 3rd Ave instead of 1st Ave stop, or when I am at 86th instead of 75th. The relative uniformity of the stops allows for each New Yorker to has his or her routine and accept the space as just another part of one’s landscape.

 A Suburb Created Before Suburbs

 A Suburb Created Before Suburbs

The concept of Suburbia always confused me growing up. I lived in a “suburb” of Chicago, but it was nothing like those described by James Howard Kunstler describes in his book The Geography of Nowhere. In Oak Park, there were rows how houses but none of them identical mini mansions that one envisions when thinking about suburbs. There are very few cul de sacs, no curving roads for kids to play on during the summers. We played in our alleys, enclosed by two car garages that do not conveniently connect to our homes. The town definitely presents itself in contrast to the “far” suburbs of Chicago that take on the traditional curvy shape. I find myself now asking, is Oak Park even a summer?

The reason why my town does not match the traditional idea of the American suburb is because it predates the suburb. The city was formally founded in 1902, but my high school opened in 1871 and boasts that Ernest Hemingway is an alumnus. Most of the city planning as it stands today mirrors the city planning of the turn of the century, the houses have large but not too large yards, each has a distinct architectural style, and there is a strict grid system.

My old house, and block is a perfect example of the way in which Oak Park does not follow the traditional suburbanFair Oaks ideal. Built just over a century ago, the brick box sits on a small hill next to two very different homes. Individuality is the goal of Oak Park homes, and my georgian style home definitely contrasts the Frank Lloyd Wright down the block. Even the stairs leading up to the houses are different, my neighbors to the north covering their in foliage and my neighbors to the south leaving their wide stairs open with brick accents.

Along with the residential side of the town, there is also a goal of remaining urban, as the Chicago train and bus system runs through the city, and our eastern border rests with the city’s western. Our “downtown” is bustling with boutiques and other small businesses. That said, there is still a sense of the suburbia that Kunstler describes. We may be close to the city, but we are not constantly immersed in the city culture. During the summers, my days became increasingly more boring, as the novelty of the boutiques and Wednesday $3 movies wore off. Even when I became old enough to drive, it just made it easier to see my friends on the other side of town and sit in their basements. This makes me think that the suburb is something more than just the sprawl that we immediately think of, the identical houses and curving roads. Suburbs were developing before the middle of the century, they just took a different shape.

What We Think We Need From a City

What We Think We Need From a City

City planning is a peculiar thing, and I am in no way going to argue that I know anything about the complexities of population to acre ratio or the like. That said, I noticed in reading both of the arguments about StuyTown and Jane Jacobs’ writing that the general “ideal” of a city (that Jacobs argues against) does not appeal to what average city residents need. Jacobs writes about her experiences in the North End of Boston and her friend’s response to the space, bringing to light his contradicting thoughts on the neighborhood based on what we think we need in urban spaces “Here was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him the North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for city neighborhoods, everything that made him an expert, told him the North End had to be a bad place” (Jacobs 10).

This phenomena fascinates me, as it is one that plagues many disciplines that are meant to serve populations without actually acknowledging them (for instance museums and the visitor, which I have made my concentration for this reason). In terms of city planning, in the middle of the century when Jacobs, Mumford, and Moses were writing, there was an established way in which cities were meant to develop, accounting for population ratios and green spaces, but is this really what people needed? I found a comment by Mumford, a critic of StuyTown, to be especially amusing because of its complete lack of regard for the general population “My monograph on Stuyvesant Town has brought other letters, from tenants who wish to defend the apartments they live in against my criticism…the feel that they are in heaven…They praise Stuyvesant Town only because they do not know how much is missing from its design” (Mumford 68). While Mumford may be a quality theorist, how can he disregard the opinions of those actively living and interacting with the space in which he is finding so many problems?

In an attempt to clarify my thoughts, I would say I agree with Jacobs in that she wants to focus on the needs of the people who are living in the environment designed by the elite urban planners. That said, I would guess that she is against developments like StuyTown because of their interior courtyards, removal from the city streets, and isolated community structures, and I do not think I am against them. I will admit, I am a current resident in StuyTown, and I have also lived in Peter Cooper Village. To my understanding, many of the residents of the development, especially families, find the space to be a good balance of the city and a residential space (and I personally love not having to deal with a five story walkup). It is difficult to establish a perfect medium, a utopia space within the ever evolving city, but if a city planner successfully does it is because he or she listened to the people rather than relying on statistics or ideals established by “experts”.

Avoiding the Unavoidable Landmark

Avoiding the Unavoidable Landmark

When I studied in Florence, I loved trying to get lost. The concept of roaming aimlessly through  the city did not come easily to me though. This was the only semester of my college career where I was not working multiple jobs along with a full course load, so I had a lot of free time and no idea what to do. In one of my free afternoons, I set out on a walk to explore my new city. I strolled over Ponte Vecchio, looped through southern section before coming finishing my walk on the east side of the city. Very quickly I discovered the small streets and alleyways that were great to get lost in, or at least, I thought I was lost.

Florence has an ultimate landmark that can orient anyone on any street. La Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, more commonly known as the Duomo, reaches above most buildings in Florence and acts as the center landmark of the city. As I navigated deeper and deeper into the side streets in an attempt to lose myself in the smaller neighborhoods of the city, every time I looked up I could spot the Duomo and immediately be oriented. My apartment was a block away from the landmark, so as long as I could see it I knew I could make it home. This sense of orientation was both reassuring and upsetting. While landmarks and orientation are great, can one ever get really lost in a large city with notable architecture?

People frequently comment on our modern reliance on smart phones and google maps (which I fully agree is a problem) but it is interesting to think that the Early Renaissance construction of the Duomo was in a sense a city wide map itself. Along with its landmark status, the bell tower rang twice a day, to signify the times in which the city gates opened and closed for the day to protect the city. This central building essentially controlled the citizens of the city and kept structure in their lives. There is no escaping landmarks, so we can only embrace them and feel comfort in being able to get back to the safe city center easily.

Piazzale Michelangelo is the only point of the city where you can truly feel above the Duomo and separate from its command. Up a long hill with foreboding stairs, one can climb to the peak of the south side of the city and look down upon all of the landmarks of the city. On one of my walks, I found myself in the Piazzale looking at the Duomo and finally recognized the significance of landmarks. This cathedral is not an overpowering presence looming over Florence, it is Florence. Landmarks are excellent for orientation but they are also important in defining the city and the culture surrounding it.

Navigating New York's Labyrinth

Navigating New York’s Labyrinth

Let’s take a moment to talk about the West Village. For the first three years of my time in New York, I avoided the West Village like the plague. I’ll admit, I was a bit scared of the far west side of the Manhattan with which we East Village inhabitants share a partial name. Why was I so scared of the West Village? Was it the clubs of the Meatpacking District? The block solely dedicated to Marc Jacobs boutiques? No, those were not the fear. It was the breakaway from our beloved New York grid system.

The grid system is an ingenious part of New York’s city planning that has saved me from many lost moments running through Midtown. Comedian John Mulaney describes the impact of the grid system in his excellent critique of a 90s movie classic,  (skip to 1:03).

There is really a beauty to being able to climb the stairs from a subway station and immediately orient yourself at an intersection of an avenue and street. It is impossible to get lost, that is until you walk into the West Village.

When you enter the West Village there are no rules. Streets intersect with streets, paths run on a diagonal and seem to have no starting point or end. This district of New York is like a labyrinth, similar to that described by Kevin Lynch in his book The Image of the City “Many of us enjoy [the labyrinth]…This is so, however, only under two conditions. First, there must be no danger of losing basic form or orientation, of never coming out” The second you cross Sixth Avenue, there are no guarantees you are coming out. Lynch has described the one district of New York immune to safety when it comes to city mapping.West Village Walking Route

Walk with me on my daily commute between campus and my internship at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building on the far west side. Depending on the day, I either take West 4th Street or 11th Street. For the more fun route, I will discuss West 4th. First, take a look at the google map options for this walk – notice anything strange? All of the options are on a diagonal.

Moving on, I walk along West 4th to 7th Avenue South, only to hit a triangular intersection with no direct street sign pointing me to continue on West 4th. After a few days of mistaken turns, I finally know exactly where to walk and continue on my way. Within a block I hit my next issue: two streets colliding! Never in my understanding of New York did I think two streets would be able to intersect, because of the grid, but again I was wrong. Continuing along I encounter other triangular intersections at 8th Avenue and Gansevoort, before finally landing safely at my destination (which to add to the fun, is opposite Little W. 12th Street, because apparently streets can have little siblings).

After six months of ritually performing this walk, I have become a little more accustomed to the West Village’s ways. Yet there are days when I try to diverge from one of my two established paths, only to get immediately lost again. The only difference now is I can embrace the labyrinth as described by Lynch, knowing that just a few blocks away is Sixth Avenue and my return to the grid.


Leave a Comment