Sunday, May 23, 2010
P.S. 122 has renovated with a pristine surface of white poured stone. It's clean and new, but undistinguished. Dull in its glaring brightness, fawning and monkeying the commercial success of the clean edge, it proudly flaunts banality. Sadly, it covered one of the most poignant, beautiful and resonant façades in all Manhattan, including its crumbling brownstone Romanesque-Dutch influenced entryway.
Ruins can't be made: they become, despite themselves. That's their essence and their point. They tell us that we cannot control our world, that time and nature rule, that human genius is an ambition not an accomplishment, that foiled hubris can be noble and admirable and beautiful because it is an attempt at the infinite in a finite world. Ruins have pathos. And ruined hubris too: otherwise it would be oppressive triumphalism, like glass and steel.
Whenever I walked past P.S.122's, I always thought immediately of the painting in the early Flemish room at the Metropolitan Museum, variously attributed over the years (I think it's now Petrus Christus, but I can remember when it was a Hubert van Eyck, or school of van Eyck, and who knows next) strangely depicted from an aerial and oblique view showing a pristine church surrounded by the green, natural world. Between the constructed and the earthy sward lies a single step, degrading. The painter has taken great effort to render the details of this step, its smooth, worn-away surface as well its cracks and clefts and its exfoliated layers. Stone chips lie scattered on the earth before it.
It seems the painter wants to show a contrast between the fallen world of human fashioning and the perfect world of god's kingdom embodied in this perfect church building. But the church is much less interesting and appealing than this one stone step. The church is pretty enough, so is the surrounding foliage and the angel and Mary there, but the step is mesmerizing. The more you look, the more you think: about human frailty, human failure, about history and inevitability, time and loss. And while you think and muse, you also feel, more and more, that this step is familiar, welcoming and warm. It holds no pretensions, it demands no expectations. It's where we live; it's where we die. It's most us.
P.S.122 could have protected the public from its flaking sandstone with a modest awning or eave, but instead, it swallowed it up forever. Demolishing an old townhouse to build a hotel will at least benefit someone -- the owner, with personal profit. But covering this ruin of over a hundred years, benefits no one. It's a completely gratuitous act.
It's not a humanitarian disaster, but if we provide for basic needs of humanity without providing a human environment, what have we accomplished? A while back I took a group of inner city 19-year-olds from a prison halfway house to tour the neighborhood, showing them how history, economy and social structure explain the form of the buildings. They ate it up and assimilated the knowledge instantly, but when I pointed out an old tenement covered with terra cotta, they went bananas. "Look at the detail!" "That's MAD detail!" I couldn't get them away from it. Later, at the end of the tour, talking with one of the kids, I asked him what he wanted to do with his life. The answer: "I think I want to be an architect."
Don't tell me only the rich care about architectural beauty, the plebs don't. That's just bigotry and the true snobbism of paternalism.