June 2017

Life Underground

by Don Friedman on June 30, 2017


For the last fifteen years or so, getting on the A train at 14th Street has been a treat. There’s an art installation called “Life Underground” spread throughout the station. My picture above has two of my favorite pieces: a sewer alligator rising up to drag a victim to his doom, and two little guys sawing down one of the support columns for the station roof.

The various pieces that make up the installation are all joking to some degree – a telephone with a large ear for the mouthpiece, for example – but are not without social commentary. If you look closely at the two men next to the alligator you’ll notice that they have moneybags for heads. This is an image with a 146 year history in New York: it was one of Thomas Nast’s pictures of Boss Tweed.

Public art used to be heroic. Then, for a while, it was abstract. The problems with the heroic tradition start with the fact that when it fails, it fails spectacularly; and that it does not really provide critique. There’s also a contextual argument that a subway platform is a poor place to try for heroic poses. The problem with the abstract tradition is that it may evoke an emotional response but it inherently cannot engage the viewer in discussion of specific topics. The little people and creatures of Life Underground give comments on their immediate surroundings which, of course, include us.

Finally, speaking of emotional repossess, there’s something about the vaguely old-fashioned clothing and demeanor of the Life Underground people that feels right to discuss just before the upcoming July 4th holiday.

The Hedgehog And The Fox Debate Practice

June 29, 2017

The oldest version of the saying is from Archilochus: The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing. It shows up in Aesop and was more recently used as the based of an essay by Isaiah Berlin. If we strip away various morals that have been found in that one sentence, it is a comparison of […]

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Transformations

June 28, 2017

Adolf Loos’s entry for the Chicago Tribune competition, from The international competition for a new administration building for the Chicago Tribune, MCMXXII: The architects at Hollwich Kushner have engaged in a fascinating exercise: reimagining existing buildings as if they were designed today. The article makes a mention of code and zoning changes but the real issue here […]

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Vermiform Squared Off

June 27, 2017

If you have good eyesight, or if you click on the picture above to expand it, you’ll see three odd appendages running up the side of the building. They’re maybe two feet square in plan and go from about the fifth floor level all the way to the top. The two that flank the narrow […]

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Peeking Through

June 26, 2017

Infrastructure is to us as the ocean is to fish: it’s everywhere around us, and we depend on it completely, but we usually don’t see it even when we’re looking at it. Sometimes it shows up as oddities that require explanation; sometimes it shows up as windowless buildings. The cute corporate-art-deco structures in the two […]

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Skyline Chess

June 25, 2017

This is genius: Skyline Chess.

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Live Time Lapse

June 24, 2017

I’m a sucker for this kind of thing: a side-by-side video comparing various New York locations as seen from a car in the 1930s and today.

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“It’s Alive!”

June 23, 2017

That beautiful specimen of design is the Pulaski Bridge (not to be confused with the Pulaski Skyway – General Pulaski was a fellow worth memorializing) over the Newtown Creek, running between Greenpoint in northwest Brooklyn and Long Island City in western Queens. The bridge is a double-bascule, otherwise known as a drawbridge with two movable […]

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Riveted Lineage

June 22, 2017

National Geographic articles always have great pictures, and this one on the construction of Yankee Stadium is no exception. The article text tells the basic story; the best of the old drawings is, in my opinion, the 1934 extension steel diagram. (Yankees purists – which I am not – will probably prefer the architectural section […]

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Why Green Roofs Are Not A Fad

June 21, 2017

People have known about the heat island effect for some time, where the concrete, asphalt, stone, and brick of buildings and streets absorb more heat than a natural landscape would, where black roofs absorb heat, where human activity generates heat, and the relatively lesser amount of vegetation means that the natural cooling from plant respiration […]

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