Genesis

July 2nd, 2010 § 12

Beginnings are arbitrary, accidental and mysterious. It is hard to know exactly when a point in a process becomes the beginning of something. Moisture, barometric pressure, temperature, currents of air carrying pollen, dirt, crystals of salt off the sea gather and develop a direction and momentum that form fog, a front, a storm or tornado. It separates itself out with identity, a path, force and consequence that serves to replenish, inseminate, or destroy. But when did it begin? Like one weather system morphing into another, the creative process continues and inspires one work after another. Authorship is complicated. Guardianship of an idea is perhaps a more accurate characterization. At what point does intention declare itself if the beginning is arbitrary? At what point is the accident seized? At what point is the mystery recognized and pursued? And by whom?

All of this comes to mind when thinking of one beginning, one set of beginnings, a Rashomon set of stories of beginnings of a project that started more than 35 years ago. The stories, not the authorship of the project, may cohere.

The project involves an idea, the birth of an idea back in the early sixties, in New York. It involves one of countless ideas that went into the making of Lincoln Center, more specifically, the making of the Opera House in Lincoln Center. And more specifically than that, the idea behind the origin of the points of light that drop from its ceiling. I am referring to the design of the Chandeliers in the Metropolitan Opera House.

Metropolitan Opera House Chandeliers

Metropolitan Opera House Chandeliers

You may have seen them. They make a spectacle at the start of every performance, an explosion of light refracting from crystals that ascend, literally ascend, to the ceiling to announce the beginning of an opera.

Genesis, the ultimate beginning, makes one think of the first book of the Bible for its believers, the origin of the universe as The Big Bang for non believers. Interestingly, physical evidence for The Big Bang was developed at about the same time as the Metropolitan Opera House design was being developed. With optical telescopes, the space between stars and planets is black; but with a radio telescope, a glow is visible; this glow is cosmic radiation. In 1964, scientists explained that this radiation is leftover from the origin of the universe, the first physical evidence of The Big Bang.  There was excitement in the media about this discovery. The world was looking up and out into space. The U.S. and Soviet space program was in full swing. This context is the basis of a story of origin of the design of the chandeliers.

About the same time, a year earlier to be precise, The Austrian Government announced that it would make a donation to the new Metropolitan Opera House: a set of crystal chandeliers for its foyer and auditorium.  In July of 1963, Hans Harald Rath of J. & L. Lobmeyr, a celebrated Viennese crystal and chandelier manufacturing company, came to New York to discuss the design of the chandeliers with Wallace Harrison of Harrison and Abramovitz,  the architect of the Opera House itself.

Three years ago, I met Leonid Rath, the grandson of Dr. Rath at the ICFF.  Both Leonid and his brother Johannes are the current head of J. & L. Lobmeyr. Mr. Rath was in New York to begin discussions of the dismantling and cleaning of the Met’s chandeliers. He told me that when his grandfather and WKH met to discuss the chandeliers, Harrison gave Hans Harald Rath a book on galaxies. This book served as inspiration for the chandeliers’ design. The crystals are held by metal rods that radiate out from the center of the chandeliers, making them appear like starburst constellations. They were installed in May 1966 and became known as sputniks, after the Soviet space satellites, from the night the Met opened.

On Sept. 13 1966, 3800 people were in the audience for opening night of the Opera House. It was an exciting evening, the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. The first ovation exploded as the curtain was lifted and 21 chandeliers rose toward the ceiling.  Wallace K. Harrison, Hans Rath and my father were there. This brings me to a second story of the chandeliers’ genesis.

The genesis of genesis has an Old English origin of gignesthai meaning birth. The etymological dictionary entry states, “be born…see KIN.” While birth is the beginning of one that is distinct; kin carry shared family lines and history.

My father, Tad Leski, far left, with draftsman, and Wallace K. Harrison far right.

My father, Tad Leski, far left, with draftsman, and Wallace K. Harrison far right.

My father, Tadeusz Leski is an architect; and a painter. He was a designer for Harrison and Abramovitz.  Harrison was a painter and an architect like my father. He was also a statesman, a businessman, and spent time in high profile social circles being [1] linked by marriage, socially and professionally to the Rockefeller family. This consumed his time.  My father, who entered H&A in 1953, straight off the boat, so to speak, was a recent immigrant to this country. He had survived the war; fighting as a Pole in the French army getting captured and escaping work camps. He ended up in London where he finished architecture school and had just left England with his wife and young daughter and a portfolio of drawings under his arm. Harrison recognized the artist and architect in my father. They were close because of it. So close, that my father designed and built a house for our family on a piece of property adjacent to Harrison’s own house. It seemed to me that Harrison was drawn to my father and the kind of conversations they could have. They could converse by standing over sketches, marker or pencil in hand. I imagine that my father’s English wasn’t so good back then; but, he could draw beautifully. These exchanges were recluse for Harrison. He got to speak his favorite language of gesture, mark, space and form. It was a respite from the countless board meetings that I am sure Harrison had to attend.

My father was the designer for the Metropolitan Opera House—as he was for many H&A projects. And he prepared the initial design sketches as he always did, countless fast perspective sketches done in marker or ink and white paint washes on trace, vellum or even cardboard. He would meet with WKH and separate them out based upon strengths and weaknesses. The sketches would become orthographic projections—or plan, section and elevation, and models. Eventually the design would be rendered with a ruling pen and gouache.

My father, Tad Leski on the job site of the Metropolitan Opera House. He is standing to the left of Wallace K. Harrison

My father, Tad Leski on the job site of the Metropolitan Opera House. He is standing to the left of Wallace K. Harrison

Along the way, in preparation for one of the meetings, my father was hurriedly finishing a perspective sketch of the Met’s interior. One fault of my father’s was that he never knew when to stop a painting or a drawing until it was too late. He would obsess over the work, changing one thing and adding another until, as he used to say, “he made a mess of it.” His disgust with the work because of the one too many changes, would make him abandon it; and only then was it done. So he was characteristically “finishing” this sketch of the Met’s interior with markers and india ink. In the rush to finish, as a charged brush traveled from a bottle of ink; it happened, a splatter –a fat drop of black ink—fell from the brush.
ink_splash
The splatter extended across the image, resembling an explosion of fireworks. “Boże” (oh god) my father thought. “I made a mess of it.” He dabbed the splatter to soak up some ink.  And then he thought that it looked like the explosion of light from a chandelier. He added white paint to the splattered droplets and attached them with lines so that it could be interpreted to be the points of refracted light projecting from an abstracted chandelier.

One of hundreds of interior sketches for the Opera House by Tad Leski

One of hundreds of interior sketches for the Opera House by Tad Leski

Harrison thought the sketches were great. And he particularly liked the idea of the exploded geometry of the splatter as the form of the chandeliers.  An accident was the genesis of the Chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera House. A drop of ink followed the laws of gravity, surface tension and impact instead of the intentions of the artist. This moment of genesis is suspended like a drop of ink over a page just beyond where my father had intended and before an idea of exploded geometry came to light.

Origins are critical in establishing authorship. But like any beginning, the origin of a work of art or invention is not crystal clear. Constellations, the dots of light in the sky that we connect and name, are imaginary. They inspire myths of princesses, heroes, winged horses and sea monsters. We mentally connect the dots of light as mnemonic devices. Narrative connections serve our imagination and memory. The actual physical locations of these points of light are stars light years away from us, spread out in three and four dimensions. From another point of view, away from the Earth, the constellations would not be recognizable and could not be connected the same way. Different points of view inspire different stories which inform memory and shape what we know.


[1] WKH was married to Ellen Milton, sister in law of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s daughter, Abby Rockefeller. He was also a friend of Nelson Rockefeller.

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§ 12 Responses to “Genesis”

  • David Gersten says:

    Dear Kyna,

    What a great story, wonderful, beautiful and crafted with true precision. Inspiring, like a spire (to use your formulation) the spiral that locates (navigation). The story itself, a lighthouse ink drop, hanging into this world (sac; sacred). Linking: evolution, the cosmos, history, personal memories (history), individual creativity (both your fathers and yours);; your story, due to its precision, locates others (me for one!). The capacity to situate us in time and space (relational), is the gift of language and memory, your story accepts/manifests this gift. In this sense it is a construct / contract (in time). The ink drop and the stars, I will not see tonight’s fire works the same, also because of your reverse fire works image from your “light talk”, points of light all returning to a point of origin (we can imagine it, but it is now gone…perhaps that image is linked to this ink drop…).
    I love the line “His disgust with the work because of the one too many changes, would make him abandon it; and only then it was done.” this opens a powerful (emotive) crack (disgust) within ‘evolution’ and ‘creation’…. ECLIPSE… “Always never done”…. which is another way of saying: TRANSFORMATION. Creation: is always new; recurring occurrence. Evolution: complete in its incompletude: ECLIPSE, abandon, eclipse, abandon (transformation)….. Bergson’s ‘creative evolution’ speaks to this; many durations, occasional alignments (elan vital).
    The ink drop falls leaving a vertical line (traced ineffably in our mind, gone like the fireworks). Your father in ‘drawing out/in’ the vertical line (‘drawn ‘in’ the drawing’ ‘drawn ‘out’ of time’) situates (suspends) the drop in its present field: the drawing. The drawn line transforms the drop into the new light, (chandelier). The force line (instant of the drop) is suspended in time by the line he drew, (same line as drop) hanging both in the space of the drawn concert hall and suspended in a continuous present with relation to the dropping ink. Perhaps your story itself is a kind of ink drop that contains a drawn line and a new light, if you draw the vertical line that locates it as such. One vertical line I imagine: Yes, perhaps a high jacking, (stolen legacy)…but a heist that ended with a bag of faux diamonds, the real diamonds lie in the experience of the ink drop and the capacity to suspend it (your fathers). This true diamond then placed (drawn) into the eye of a daughters love, is re-manifest in this, the story that you have constructed. In this sense you’re ‘telling’ is at once the ink drop and the drawn line that locates it as new light (exposure, exposing legacy)…itself the chandelier that your father found. ECLIPSE:ECLIPSE. It is not only that you take the ‘authorship’ back by correcting history (that too!) but more your chandelier (story hanging into this world, suspending time, SAC), exposes the faux (social) diamonds taken (for real) so long ago. As your fathers drawn line manifests the drop, your story manifests your fathers drawn line. This drawing of the line (your story) locates the fact that the real light / diamonds are in you. In you’re loving memory of (father) the moment of drop (emotive crack). Held ‘IN’ for 40 years, now manifest in the drawn vertical line of your story. An alignment in space and time: 40 acres and an M (stolen legacy)::: 40 years and a Moment (a driving moment). As such your story exposes our lives as ink drops falling through sheets of time as we draw our vertical lines locating our light, our time, our stories.
    THANK YOU KYNA. Not sure the name of the person who helps direct the scull? (while rowing) but this story has given me a very welcome ‘call out’ and adjustment in direction….
    Best,
    David

  • kynaleski says:

    The person who directs a shell in sweep rowing is the coxswain. The lead rower while sculling is a stroke. I never thought of the rowing stroke (the action or the person) in terms of drawing…but it makes so much sense to. All the technique is in service of this gesture…just above the water (it shouldn’t touch)…and the mark it makes in the water: “puddles” are vortexes that tell all: who is pulling and who is not.
    This is all so interesting: “The force line (instant of the drop) is suspended in time by the line he drew, (same line as drop) hanging both in the space of the drawn concert hall and suspended in a continuous present with relation to the dropping ink.” My father also told us of how the idea of the chandeliers in the concert space was problematic acoustically and visually…until my father suggested the lifting by pulley. It is beautiful that the origin of the “Opera” (opera is Italian for work) is the return to the top of the line…back to the location of where the drop of ink was released from intention. It is wonderful for me to think that a reversal of the ink dropping is the ceremony that announces the beginning of each performance. This must make my father smile.

  • Jose-Joaquin With Love says:

    Kyna,

    Bellota’s hunter story comes to mind…”simultaneously habilis and sapien the creature -the man- fought the space first, before the beast…allotment to his prosperity as a nimble hunter.” This passage is most telling with regard to the job site image. Your father concealing the bow, revealing the fact (with his expression). The arrows up there landed. They watch. The nimble hunter completed his dirty work. We watch and thank him.

  • kynaleski says:

    I didn’t know what to think of my father’s expression in that photo; but now I do. Since you pointed out that he was looking at how his “arrows up there landed,” it seems so self evident.

  • Stuart Blazer says:

    A pleasure to cloud your clear words.
    Reminded each sentence of Authority sought and found. The story offers such pleasure as noun & verb, personal & impersonal. I love the narrative, its luminous details. Galaxy (domesticated stars) registered as implosion radiated.
    Thinkblots.
    Hope to see more of your father’s drawings. This one resounds Chopin–
    David’s complex response also a treat. Image I’m left with as attention (mind’s chandelier) lifts from the page is of ink rising through pen then forehead (screen) shooting stars.

  • Friedrich St. Florian says:

    In the serenity of precious moments of relaxation and silence I finally read your essay “Genesis”. It is a very special, moving and telling story. I think it is a proven fact that accidents, or rather fortunate incidents, abound in the forthcoming of creative invention. What is so fascinating about your story is the likely fact that your father was very conscious about the mishap of his painting brush and thus caught between seeing the suggestive brilliance of the scattered ink on paper and the awareness of the accidental act. On the other hand, Mr. Harrison was not compromised by the accident since it was not his.Thus he could immediately see the beauty and glamour of your father’s design.

    Still accidents are uncommon. Genesis is more often born from thoughtful (critical) analysis and speculation. In “Adam’s House in Paradise”, Rykwert speculates that Le Corbusier’s sketches of a primitive hut is an attempt to get close to Adam’s habitat in paradise in order to comprehend the essence of home. Louis Kahn’s theory of “Wanting to be” is in the same mode of speculation. Searching for the beginnings is again an attempt to come close to the essence of the Gestalt of something.

    Regardless, I think accidents can be beautiful because they are mysterious and inexplicable.

    Very kindly, Friedrich

  • Le argomentazioni trattate in questo artticolo sono di assoluto interesse storico oltre che di interesse architettonico. L’auto re dell’articolo evidenzia assai bene le problematiche del cantiere per la costruzione dell’opera architettonica finale.

  • Stuart Blazer says:

    Postscript offered as proof of after thought living on as present tense. Quite taken with implicit force made explicit by that mix of rigor & grace we recognize as beauty. That those chandeliers behave like stars, ascending while their light falls, allowing us to focus attention elsewhere–again that figure of the fountain pen drinking ink, feeling it rise as blood through hand then head, its attended surface not external only but (a made place) between stage–page–& mind. The Maoist barrel of the gun brought down by its Daoist antidote; cartridge of the pen.
    Somehow a return to willed origins a la Bachelard.

  • isabelle says:

    Could you kindly let me know the source of the photographs of the chandeliers? Are they from your private archive? Many thanks!

  • night skin says:

    Not a bad start in life being linked to the Rockefeller family!

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  • Ngan Forgue says:

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