Museums

How Comfortable Are You in the City, Really?

by Liza Eliano on August 16, 2011

The sleek but simple pavilion of the BMW Guggenheim Lab designed by Atelier Bow Wow, (photo by Paul Warchol via www.bmwguggenheimlab.org)

Can anyone ever be truly comfortable in New York? I’ve lived here my whole life and still feel the daily stresses of subway rides, traffic, overcrowding and of course insanely high prices (tickets to MoMA cost $25 now?). These Manhattan blues are part of the reason I was both intrigued and skeptical of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a pop-up event space in the East Village that will present a series of lectures, film screenings and interactive programs all based around the idea of confronting comfort in our cities and urban development. With corporate sponsoring shoved right into its very title, I wondered if the Lab would stick to a privileged, glossy view of urbanization or actually offer legitimate “solutions for city life,” as the program’s website states. Even the word “comfort” suggested to me that these solutions would be targeted only towards a particular social class who has the resources to take advantage of them.

Despite my reservations, when my friend emailed me last week to attend one of the lectures I decided I would hear what the Lab had to say. I did appreciate that the Guggenheim built an unassuming makeshift space to house the Lab that at least in its physical design promotes an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere. Located in a small park on Houston Street and Second Avenue and designed by the Japanese architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow, the minimal structure gets almost lost among the booming high-rises in the East Village. Walking up to it I thought, “Wait, is this it?” The pavilion is open on either end and includes an exposed rigging system on the ceiling used to drop down LED screens and other technology tools during events. The space feels organic, as if it has sprung out of the sidewalk itself, which suites the Guggenheim’s mission to involve the community as much as possible and bring the discussion of urban living down to street-level.

Elizabeth Diller gives her lecture on “Comfort in our Cities” in the Atelier Bow Wow pavilion, (photo by the author)

The lecture I attended was hosted by Elizabeth Diller of the high profile and oh-so-chic architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro whose work includes the High Line and the newly renovated Lincoln Center. Entitled “Comfort in our Cities,” the lecture posed the question, “How do new technologies, surroundings and expectations regarding privacy and time relate to comforts and discomforts in our urban landscape?”

Diller showed a number of the firm’s projects that were each orientated towards exploring issues of public and private space in the city and the ways in which architecture and technology can either uphold or shatter the boundary between the two. Diller noted that, “Being at home in the modern world means being comfortable in a state of entanglement.” In many of the projects such entanglement stems from the voyeuristic pleasures of living in a city where all of our lives are available for public viewing. Yet what can initially seem like transparency may also be manipulated towards social control. Diller brought up the example of glass to make this point, explaining that glass architecture at first was used to create a sense of truth or mastery over the world but soon became a “material of anxiety,” allowing for constant 24-hour surveillance that is now the norm. “In today’s omni-optic culture, we just give in,” noted Diller.

Three of the projects from the lecture stood out to me as interesting commentary on this tension of visibility in the urban landscape. Is the ability to see and be seen a mode of freedom or control? Is it comfort or discomfort?

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, “Facismile” (2004) (Photo via www.dillerscofidio.com)

The interiors of office spaces, as shown here, are one of several scenes that appear on the monitor of “Facismile” (photo by author)

In “Facismile,” a 16’ high by 27’ wide video screen is attached to the façade of Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. The screen travels across the building while broadcasting a series of animated vignettes. The scenes are quirky and humorous (the shot shown above got several laughs from the audience), showing everything from disheveled office spaces to businessmen undressing in their hotel rooms. Diller described the apparatus as a “magnifying lens” or “periscope” that deceives the viewer into thinking they are seeing the action inside of the Convention Center. I loved this idea of the screen scanning the building as if to make an exact copy of it but instead producing something that is so obviously skewed. The project shows that even though our world is supremely visual, images don’t always guarantee more transparency.

A still from “No (No Smoking)” hangs above the audience at the lecture (photo by the author)

Two birds with one stog: Puffing and networking in Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s “No (No Smoking)” (2008) (photo via Diller Scofidio + Renfro)

Visibility in the city can come down hard on some, especially if you don’t always follow the rules. Among the misfits that urbanization attempts to keep in line, the new outcast in the city is now the lone smoker, who Diller described as a“tragi-comic icon.”

In “No (No Smoking),” a project that was never realized, Diller Scofidio + Renfro create private shaft spaces where smokers can enjoy a guiltless cigarette away from prying eyes. The first drag activates a touch screen that displays a private network of smokers in other locations, offering social media for the nicotine addicted. Other than a surefire way to choke on second hand smoke (although it really doesn’t matter since you’re already smoking), the project is hilariously ironic. While the shaft tries to create a private space in the public realm, it only makes smoking more visible and even sinful, especially when the smoker’s enforced isolation is on view for everyone else to see.

A graphic from Diller Scofidio + Renfro's project "Exit" that shows displaced populations in Turkey (photo by author)

While most of Diller Scofidio + Renfro works catered towards a middle class sense of city life, their project “Exit” shows in Paris in 2009 goes global to explore population shifts around the world due to war, natural disasters and environmental changes. A globe spins around the room on a large screen and prints out maps with statistics of migration as it spins. There was almost something satisfying in watching the Earth leave behind a neat train of information like a giant stamp. Here it would seem that again seeing is understanding, but the statistics arranged in pretty graphics deny the actual story they tell of urban discomfort.

My initial suspicions of the Lab, at least as far as this lecture, were somewhat confirmed. I left feeling that the topic of visibility had been centered on a specific and affluent demographic in the city. What about a visual on those who we like to pretend we don’t see and their urban discomforts? Possibly the BMW Guggenheim Lab should have taken a page from the homeless man — or was he a possible protestor? — who laid himself out on the street for all to see in front of the pavilion during the opening. I wonder if he’s feeling comfortable?

The BMW Guggenheim Lab will be open in NYC until October 16. Check www.bmwguggenheimlab.org for event dates and times. All events are free, but some may require an RSVP.

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  • Robert Arihood

    Actually the man pictured  , Muhamed , is neighborhood . According to NYPD personnel he is quite ill with cancer in addition to being as pictured quite drunk . I suspect that an drunk’s forgetfullness is all the comfort there is here . 

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