December 9th, 2011

Windows looking out to the Park.

A look at the outside
of the Richard Meier building
at 1 Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

The Richard Meier apartment building, On Prospect Park, is now apparently 70% full. When they were building it I was hoping that it would have a swank bar, like in a hotel, on the ground floor. Or some store. Something that would allow some direct engagement with the neighborhood. Even if it was a high-end, imperiously sedate, design or clothing store. Something to break through the glass wall a little bit.

In Holland, or at least in Amsterdam, it is common to see the front rooms of apartments and houses unshielded by drapes or shades. Even in the evening with the lights on. This naturally creates a different relationship between public and private than is the case here — and most other places for that matter — where there are curtains or walls or hedges. This practice of turning the lights on and leaving the view open places an emphasis on the natural dialogue always going on in our lives between the public and the private. I credit this as an exemplary will toward engagement. And as an expression of a belief in how people should live and relate to one another. It is also simply a public expression of private lives being lived. We don’t go in. But we get a glimpse. It is not a full picture of the whole of these private lives. You don’t get how their mother treated them or how well they are doing in fifth grade or how the cat’s litter box smells. But you get an intimation, a public expression of what these lives might be like.

From the Street.

I live near the Richard Meier apartment building and see something similar when I go by. The apartments are all composed largely of glass walls that stretch from floor to ceiling and so glimpses of this private/public interaction can be gathered. Couches, bookshelves, electrical cords trailing behind tables. Varied styles of furniture, more mixed and colorful than the modernism of the advertising for the building. There is a good deal that looks encouragingly personal, that reflects some of the complications of the lives of individuals. But no one is piling up empty boxes or leaving old newspapers stacked against the glass. I haven’t ever seen anyone eating breakfast on their balcony. It is human, but composed. Its availability is stately. The openness is crisp, not cold, the whiteness helps warm it, but one feels the power of the radiant breeze that has swept away shades and veils and the cobwebs of superfluity. And with its back to most of its neighbors, its bright and frank gaze beams right out past the neglected sidewalk, people, the street, and the rushing angry traffic of Grand Army Plaza perhaps only alighting on the green treetops of the park or the army on the Arch or the sky above the city. And while this turning outward is a kind of disappointment to passersby like myself this outward looking becomes a manifestation of much of its strength giving it overall a look of bravery and fortitude despite the delicacy of so much blue-green glass.

Neighborhood Ornament.

Most of the buildings in the neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods are significantly older. They keep to themselves and require some investigation before their charms are revealed. In all directions are galleries of old facades. For the most part, inscrutable. They seem to share so little of the life that goes on behind them, reveal so little of the attitudes of their inhabitants. They are faces fixed in time, some by landmark status, most by inertia. Behind them, the chambers and cavities of the houses and apartments have been divided and undivided and made plain and made baroque been made modern or romantic, neglected or refined. Their variety and individuality are predominantly on the inside. Their faces are in varying ways distanced from the private worlds they conceal, distanced from the private body. But they are, at the same time, an integral part of the public body and are able to contain its aspirations. These faces are part of what New York looks like, part of the way it is seen and sees itself. We may have lost the thread of what these faces originally said to those who read them when they were first built. But their lights and darks and bendings and swirls continue to provide notches and landings for all the new stories we tell about ourselves. There is comfort and sustenance for the imagination. New meanings are being made. And plenty of these stories are also about bravery and fortitude.

From the Street.

The Meier building has its own inscrutabilities. It has no wrinkles. It’s face is light and clean. We don’t yet know what it will say. Probably the usual things. For now its air of expectation and promise is alloyed with unfulfillment. But it has already begun to define the public space around it, less in a personal individual way, than in a large-scale symbolic way. And in this capacity it begins to open a dialogue with the monument and the library, the circle of traffic, the park, the neighbors, breaking the ice with its big ice cube body.

Williams Trent