Monday, February 27, 2017

Santiago Calatrava’s New York City Oculus

The main concourse inside the Oculus
I know it’s a cliché to say, I don’t know much about art—but I know what I like. But in my case it is true. I also know little about architecture, but that has never stopped me from appreciating great examples of the form, be they magnificent Gothic cathedrals or cloud-busting skyscrapers; iconic bridges, or beautifully constructed Victorian homes.

On my visit to New York City last year, I often found myself surfacing from the bowels of the massive Fulton Street subway station, from where I made my way into Santiago Calatrava’s amazing Oculus, or to give the building its official title, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. Calatrava seems to have become a somewhat controversial architect for reasons I don’t fully understand, and since I am not qualified to comment on them, I won’t try and explain them here. I have not personally seen any other of his architectural constructions, so I can offer no comment on those either.

What I have seen with my own eyes, however, is the Oculus that sits above the vast underground subway and Path train network that services New Jersey, and sends tendrils of underground railway lines snaking up the island of Manhattan, all the way into the Bronx, and across the East River into the heart of Brooklyn.
Look up! Look up!

Each time I walked into the vast hall that sits below the soaring white ribs that form its outer shell, I have been awed by the grandeur and vast scale. I suspect many New Yorkers don’t take the time to linger in the building or pause to appreciate the towering interior. If that is the case, it is a great pity.

Might that be why the building has come in for much criticism? Even now that the building is complete, the Oculus comes in for regular bagging. Why? Is it the design? Is it the final cost, which blew out from an initial projected cost of $2.2 billion to around $4 billion? Is it because only 40-50,000 commuters pass through the hub on an average weekday? Is it because, as the writer Martin Filler describes it in his article for the New Yorker headlined, New York’s Vast Flop, nothing more than a glorified shopping centre? Maybe it is for all these and many other reasons. 

In the article (which is in fact a review of three newish books examining various aspects of what came to be known as Ground Zero), Filler complains that the construction of the Oculus was a “…stupendous waste of public funds.” To be fair to Martin Filler, the title and thrust of his review seems to be aimed at the whole of the World Trade Center complex, not just at Calatrava’s Oculus.

However, I just can’t bring myself to agree with Filler’s feelings about the Oculus, which, apart from the “…stupendous waste of public funds,” he variously describes as “…this kitschy jeu d’esprit,” (meaning; a light-hearted display of wit and cleverness, especially in a work of literature.”) Literature? Whatever…

The Oculus and WTC One
Martin Filler also talks about the “…maudlin sentimentalism of his [Calatrava’s] design," and in his most damning paragraph writes in part: “What was originally likened by its creator to a fluttering paloma de la paz (dove of peace) because of its white, winglike, upwardly flaring rooflines seems more like a steroidal stegosaurus that wandered onto the set of a sci-fi flick and died there.”

Wow. Don’t hold back, Martin. And he doesn’t. He goes on to write: 
“Instead of an ennobling civic concourse on the order of Grand Central or Charles Follen McKim’s endlessly lamented Pennsylvania Station, what we now have on top of the new transit facilities is an eerily dead-feeling, retro-futuristic, Space Age Gothic shopping mall with acres of highly polished, very slippery white marble flooring like some urban tundra.”

And further:
“Far from this being the “exhilarating nave of a genuine people’s cathedral,” as Paul Goldberger claimed in Vanity Fair, Calatrava’s superfluous shopping shrine is merely what the Germans call a Konsumtempel (temple of consumption), and a generic one at that.”
External view of the Oculus
Whew! I think it’s pretty clear that Martin Filler doesn’t like the Oculus. Personally, I’m with Paul Goldberger from Vanity Fair. I love the building. I love the “white, winglike, upwardly flaring rooflines,” and I also love the “retro-futuristic, Space Age Gothic shopping mall” feel of the building. If it doesn’t turn up in a big budget, oversized superhero movie sometime during the next five years I’ll eat my hat.

Who, but a handful of New Yorker’s cares that the complex took twelve years to complete instead of the five originally planned for? Who, but a bunch of bean counters even remembers that the price of the building blew out to $4 billion? And does it matter that Grand Central Terminal has a daily commuter tally of 750,000 subway riders, compared to the already noted 40-50,000 that pass through the Oculus? Of course not. Nor does it matter, that it cost more than One World Trade Center.
The Oculus as seen from Brookfield Place
What matters today is that the building stands completed, and that as long as it is maintained and cared for properly it will still be standing there in not just fifty years, but in a hundred years. Properly cared for and maintained, no one (apart from a few critics and envious architects), will remember or care about the length of time it took to complete, or the final cost.

Finally, in his March 9, 2017 article, Filler writes that the Oculus, “…opened to the public in March 2016, though with no fanfare whatever.” While that may have been the case, it is also the case that there was in fact an official opening for the centre six months after Filler’s article was published—on Tuesday, August 16. I know this because I was there, as were thousands of other people.

People gather for the official opening, August 16, 2017
Native New Yorkers, and the many thousands of visitors who pass through the Oculus will make up their own minds about how they feel about the building. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of them will stop to look up and admire the sheer scale and beauty of this new architectural gem, which I predict will eventually go on to be lauded for the “retro-futuristic, Space Age Gothic” building it may well be.

More Information:

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Was David Letterman At 1969 Jimi Hendrix Gig?

Screen grab of Jimi Hendrix from the 1969 Royal Albert Hall concert

Well you can call me crazy, but today I was watching a YouTube video of Jimi Hendrix playing a concert at London's famed Royal Albert Hall in 1969, and as a camera pans across the faces of audience members, I swear I spotted David Letterman in the audience. 

Yes, the David Letterman of the old Late Night show. 

Letterman, who was born in 1947, would have been around 21 or 22 at the time of the concert.

Does anyone know whether he ever spoke about seeing Hendrix in London on his show?

Below is a screen grab from the video with an insert I've added of Letterman. You can see a clear resemblance, or am I seeing things?


Screen grab from the video with an insert of David Letterman
Somewhat disconcertingly, the camera stays focussed on Letterman as he turns his head, mouth wide open in a smile regular views of the Late Show will instantly recognise. However, look at the condition of those teeth!

Screen grab of David Letterman from the 1969 Royal Albert Hall concert

In the video of the 1969 Royal Albert Hall concert, Letterman appears for about three seconds in the video at the 2:37 mark.

* * * 


So am I crazy or not?

Festive Times in The Festival State

Adelaide Fringe Parade
As ‘Mad March’ fast approaches, Adelaide, the capital of South Australia is well into its festive season. Already this summer the city has hosted the Tour Down Under (January 17—22), that annual international bike race that was first staged in 1999, with the local rider Stuart O’Grady taking the win. Since then the Tour has grown to become the biggest cycle race in the southern hemisphere with international cycle stars like Cadel Evans, Marcel Kittel, Andy Schleck and Andre Greipel just a few of the many great cyclists who have participated. 

But the Tour Down Under is only the starter event for South Australia’s festival season. Underway as I write this is the Adelaide Fringe (February 17—March 19). The Fringe has been taking place for more than 55 years, and this year features a veritable smorgasbord of more than 500 acts covering everything from comedy to cabaret, music to magic, visual arts, theatre, film, and so much more.

For many local and visitors, the Adelaide Fringe holds more interest and excitement than the premier arts event in South Australia, the annual Adelaide Festival (March 3–19). This major international festival has been taking place since 1960, and features a program of theatre, opera, music and dance, more visual arts and film, talks, and installations, some commissioned specifically for the event.

Writer's Week
A major component of the Adelaide Festival is the free Writer’s Week (March 4–9), which takes place in the open air at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden. This year, as always, Writer’s Week celebrates a diverse range of writers and writing, and includes writers from Chile and Cuba, Ireland, Iceland and Indonesia, the United States and Canada, and of course a host of writers from Australia. For a book lover like myself, the opportunity to listen to some of the best writers on the planet talk about books and read from their latest works is not to be missed.

But wait, there’s more!

Rev heads, have not been left out. Somewhere, in the middle of this high art and low culture, the annual Supercar motor race, the Clipsal 500 (March 2–5), hits the streets. During this event visitors get to indulge their love of fast cars, burnt rubber, skimpily clad women, and high-octane fuel. At the end of the day's activities on Friday and Saturday night, participants can rock into the night to the music of the Hilltop Hoods, The Funkoars, Baby Animals and one of the great Aussie rock bands, Hunters & Collectors.


But Mad March (as the locals refer to this period every summer), is the gift that keeps on giving. If you have not yet been exhausted or financial broken by fast cars, highbrow theatre and arts, books and their writers, and the almost unlimited shenanigans of the Adelaide Fringe you can always put on your tie-dye T’s, braid your hair into dreadlocks, douse yourself in patchouli oil, and spend a weekend at WOMADelaide (March 10–13).

This four-day world music festival is located in the city’s Botanic Gardens, and this year includes more than 60 acts and speakers from more than 20 countries. Among the performers this year are the Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans; the Specials, a band that brought an updated version of British Ska music to the world; and The Philip Glass Ensemble which will be performing music from Koyaanisqatsi. Apart from the music, WOMADelaide features workshops, Planet Talks, an ElectroLounge, a KidZone, a host of international food stalls, and a Healing Village for those needing some time out from the feasting and dancing.

Whew! I'm exhausted simply from the anticipation and the promise this list of amazing events suggests. Sadly, time, money and age will all combine to ensure that at most, I will only be able to dip into the many sweets on offer. But then, that is probably exactly how it should be.


Dear reader, you may not be able to attend any of the above events at this time, but I seriously encourage you to think about planning a visit to Adelaide during the summer festival season. If there is one thing I can guarantee you, it is that you won't be bored.

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