I had a packed five weeks in Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Suzhou, and Ningbo
boats on Westlake, Hangzhou
View over Shanghai
In the Forbidden City, Beijing
Canal & Garden City, Suzhou
Temple outside of Ningbo
Architecture Buildings at CAA Campus
Two new posts on my experience in China and how it came into the workshop I taught at the China Academy of Art can be found at designintelligences.wordpress.com , “Something out of nothing; sense out of nonsense & Finding your way. . .” can be found here and “Workshop at China Academy of Art” can be found here. The students who were part of this workshop are currently continuing this work in developing proposals for social housing in China. Jiang Weihua, a CAA faculty who taught this workshop with me, is continuing with these students and is working on a book of this work.
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
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, 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  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
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.
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
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.
 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.
A new video of the Biltmore Hotel Porte Cochère project has been posted on 3six0’s YouTube channel. The evolution of the project is condensed into a 30 second animation that illustrates material reasoning driven by the net-like matrix of the hotel’s lobby ceiling, and the canopy’s function as a sheltering entry-marker that reverberates with the historic architecture of the Biltmore Hotel and the city of Providence.
STIX and CIRCA have both been published in the current issue of SPA-DE (Space and Design Vol.11) as part of the magazine’s “International Review of Interior Design” issue. The inclusion of these projects in SPA-DE, a Japanese publication, follows our recent features in the Korean magazine, PLUS Architecture and Interior Design. (February #262 / May #265)
Over 600 teams from 52 countries submitted their proposals for a semi-permanent summer pavilion to the recent “Art Fund Pavilion” competition in London. 3six0 finished in the top 20. The competition called for the design of a pavilion that can be transported and stored, with practical considerations for disassembly and reassembly (i.e. stackable components, modularity, longevity). The presentation boards were required to illustrate three intended scenarios: pavilion as formal presentation space, as exhibition space, and as informal gathering space. You can read the full competition brief here: Tent London.
“The pavilion design is created from both a conceptual approach and a constructional logic that share the same generative order of three intertwined bands. The bands coil in space to create three helical formations. There formations are limited in width to 300mm and are segmented into lengths no longer than 2400mm to meet manufacturing and handling requirements. The three bands are assembled into an intertwined configuration to create the pavilion volume in which individual bands spatially and structurally strengthen each other.
The seams between the bands are celebrated for their architectural potential. Bands, individually or collectively, reach into the interior of the volume creating glazed openings, skylights and horizontal display surfaces. Small gaps between the bands of panels house linear strip lighting, track fixtures and electrical power strips. The plywood panel construction is left exposed on the interior of the pavilion and finished with a clear coating.
The exterior of the pavilion is clad in metal sheets that match the seaming of the plywood panels. All metal panels lap subsequent panels in such a way that the pavilion is still able to be disassembled. Openings between the bands are glazed while the West and East ends of the pavilion are left open to the courtyard and protected by the overhanging roof panels above.” -3six0 entry text
Allison Paschke, a local artist, is awaiting the start of construction of a 3six0 designed residence (see model of wall design below) at her loft in the Jewelery District in Providence.
Jewelery District Loft Wall
But, she’s not waiting idly. She has organized and curated an exhibition of nineteen artists (see the exhibition images) that aptly explores the themes of architecture and ‘deconstruction’. In anticipation of the demolition required for the renovation, the artists were given free license to paint, nail, drill and even tear open walls. The result is widely varied and immensely engaging. There are colorful murals, mysterious miniature constructions, and entrancing translucent glass panels that enliven the space with color and curiosity. Walls peal back to create new paths through the space. There’s several installations that seem to grow on the walls: a sticky wallpaper that has become fuzzy from collected dust, elegant little paper shelves that have colonized a wall, and an pixelated topography that floats a few inches off the wall and casts shadows.
Together it gives the visitor the sensation that they have stumbled into an abandoned space where the curious has replaced the quotidian. As if, while nobody was watching the space was colonized by creative little creatures of re-invention. In that sense, it is easy to imagine this installation expanding to other abandoned, foreclosed or otherwise unoccupied spaces in the city. It may just be the little bit of magic that is needed to enliven spaces at the edge of oblivion.
The show is open from 12-5pm until Sunday April 12, 2009.
Principals at 3six0, Kyna Leski and Chris Bardt, were recently selected by Design New England Magazine to choose furniture, accessories, and color palettes that reflect the essence of Providence, RI:
“Providence is a small seaport city that has concentrations of formative culture. Institutions like RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), Brown University, and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble feed a sophisticated audience. Our sources of inspiration can be found in the historic Benefit Street houses, Narragansett Bay, and the ‘grit’ that survives from the industrial era.”
For a color palette, 3six0 selected a silver-leaf wallpaper from Starck and Benjamin Moore wall paint #715 “In Your Eyes” blue. Furniture selections include the Cloud Chair by 3six0 and the Farah walnut sideboard by E15. For accessories, 3six0 chose a toilet-paper holder by M. Zito for Agape Design, a leather zip-rug by Jim Zivic, and the Potence wall-mount light by Jean Prouve for Vitra.
Additional choices, which were not published, include:
This all made me think of the streets of Buenos Aires after the economic collapse of Argentina in 2001. Nearly a year after the protests quieted, these pictures captured the collective frustration of the Argentines as expressed on the canvas of architecture. Old, new, local and foreign: the banks in Buenos Aires had been attacked, vandalized and covered with graffiti. The graffiti accused the banks of robbery and even murder. Architecture essentially became a proxy for failed government intervention and a symbol of fiscal malfeasance, and as such bore the brunt of the populace’s anger and frustration. In response, banks were forced to board up all their doors and windows, only allowing entrance through a door (often steel) that was heavily guarded and equipped with a metal detector. The banks, so often rendered in an architecture of strength, transparency and brilliance were suddenly forced to recede into an architecture of conflict.
Lady snears in front of Bank of Boston in Buenos Aires
Citibank in Buenos Aires
Last week we posted about the authenticity of materials and by extension of architecture. The underlying idea that architecture can embody meaning and breed comfort points to the symbolic power of building. Buildings express our yearnings and our fears – an expression in built form of a collective will. One might say that the architecture of the last decade has been characterized by optimism, flamboyance and even excess. This begs the question of what our response will be to the stark economic and social climate that we face.
According to Trendhunter.com, 3six0 is a trendsetter in restaurant design. The site features a unique set of tables our firm designed for STIX Restaurant and Lounge in Boston: the tables fold up into the walls allowing the space to easily transform from a dining area into a dance floor. This is just one of three restaurants that 3six0 designed around the theme of motion. Achilles, also in Boston, transforms from a boutique into a restaurant, and Circa, located in Memphis, uses wine racks that double as screens and create optical illusions as visitors walk through the space.