Wednesday, February 3, 2010
I spent a good part of the day in Manhattan on business. Coming from Brooklyn, it feels like I'm in another country. The jarring contrast of one borough with another reminds me of going from west to east Berlin back in the 70's. I used to like going to Manhattan to look for books and music. Now I have the internet. It weakens the pull of Manhattan for me.
When I see residential buildings that are more than 30 stories high, I feel sorry for the people in them. There are stretches of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn where vegetation is a rarity. I saw a whole neighbourhood in Canarsie that was almost devoid of trees. Little slivers of grass were worked into postage stamp sized plots. I lived in a city with very little green worked into it. Back in the 70's, Torino, Italy had whole sections where you couldn't find a place to sit down. When I am surrounded by concrete like that, I feel a sense of existential loneliness, of longing to see life in forms other than human. Seeing a tree brings a rush of emotion. Stray animal elicit a nod of affinity.
What if high residential buildings had indoor parks every several floors or so? Could it be done? There is a lot to be said for regular access to park benches as well. My favourite urban stretches are Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn and Eastern Parkway. The trees planted at regular intervals with their branches arched over the pedestrian paths remind me of a canopy, especially in the height of the spring.
There is an artist and architect named Friedensreich Hundertwasser who questioned urban architecture. He was a man who devoted his life to art, environmental causes and "living architecture". Hundertwasser was in some ways an extremist. He was opposed to straight lines in architecture and painting, calling them "ungodly". He is quoted as follows.
"Just carrying a ruler with you in your pocket should be forbidden, at least on a moral basis. The ruler is the symbol of the new illiteracy. The ruler is the symptom of the new disease, disintegration of our civilisation."
Hundertwasser incorporated his beliefs into his architecture. There are actually people and businesses using buildings designed by Hundertwasser, who carried the principle of asymetry down to the detail of purposely unmatched doorknobs.
Austria took pride in Hundertwasser as a native son. Despite this, Hundertwasser's background gave him a detachment from national classification. Born Friedrich Stowasser in 1928, Hundertwasser had an Austrian Catholic father and a Jewish mother. He and his mother escaped the fate of much of her family by posing as Catholics.
Hundertwasser felt a special connection to New Zealand, and was buried there when he died in the year 2000. For ten years he lived, traveled and painted on a boat which he called the "Regentag" (rainy day) which was also the second of his three names (Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt) . His full name translates as "Domain of Peace (or Rich in Peace), Rainy Day, Darkly Colourful. His last name, Hundertwasser differed from the original "Stowasser" solely in the translation of the Slavic "sto" meaning "hundred" to its German equivalent. Hundertwasser was as meticulous in crafting his chosen name as he was in any of his paintings or architecture.
February 19 will be the 10th anniversary of Hundertwasser's passing. He made powerful statements with his artistic work. In every sense it can be said that he lived by his seemingly impractical beliefs. When I was looking over the towering and barren Manhattan landscape, it reminded me of Hundertwasser, his dislike of straight lines and fondness for vegetation. I would love to live in an urban space designed by Hundertwasser. When I was in Jerusalem in some of the winding narrow streets, it reminded me of Hundertwasser. I wonder what he would have said about such beautiful spaces.
The seamless manner in which Hundertwasser connects his life, art and philosophy draws me into his world. I wish his outlook were better reflected in urban landscapes. I hope that as the tenth anniversary of his death is properly noted, that his ideas, architecture and painting will get the attention that they deserve.
Hundertwasser poster gallery
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