Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

MoMA Expansion

January 16, 2014 Leave a comment
Concept sketch for The Museum of Modern Art. View from 53rd Street

Concept sketch for The Museum of Modern Art. View from 53rd Street

[Diller Scofidio + Renfro]

Martin Filler, frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books on architecture and art, posted a powerful piece two days ago on the latest expansion plans for the Museum of Modern Art. Here is MoMA’s own presentation of the basic facts:

The Museum of Modern Art is committed to being the most welcoming museum in New York, and to bringing art and people together more effectively than ever before. A major new building project will expand MoMA’s public spaces and galleries, allowing the Museum to reconceive the presentation of its collection and exhibitions and offer a more open, accessible, and engaging experience.

For the past six months, we have been working with the renowned architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to develop a plan to integrate the current building with two adjoining sites into which the Museum is expanding: three floors of a residential tower being developed by Hines, and the site of the former American Folk Art Museum. After a lengthy and rigorous analysis, we have approved Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s recommendation for a new building on the site of the former museum. Construction will begin in Summer 2014.

So what does this building project mean for the MoMA community? Imagine the entire ground floor—including The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, an expanded and reorganized entrance hall, and a new glass-walled gallery for contemporary art and performance that opens directly onto 53rd Street—reconceived as a free public gathering space. With 40,000 square feet of new galleries providing 30% more space for experiencing MoMA’s collection, we’ll be able to expand our programming, present recent acquisitions, and bring together works from all mediums in new and unexpected ways.

With reimagined and expanded spaces for its ever-changing exhibitions, performances, films, and educational programs, MoMA will provide an even more enlivening and participatory experience, a space for both contemplation and conversation. This vision will be fully realized over the coming years, and we will share more information here as our plans develop.

The shock is MoMA’s willful destruction of the American Folk Art Museum. From Filler:

Last April, MoMA revealed that it would obliterate William and Tsien’s twelve-year-old Folk Art building—which abuts the museum to the west—allegedly because the building’s richly textured bronze façade clashes with MoMA’s predominantly glass street wall on West 53rd Street. (MoMA had acquired the 40-foot-wide building from the financially beleaguered Folk Art museum in 2011 to allow for further expansion.) …

Had MoMA officials been at all serious about integrating Williams and Tsien’s structure into the museum’s multi-architect ensemble—a far-from-uniform expanse that preserves the original 1936–1939 façade by Edward Durell Stone and Philip L. Goodwin as well as the 1964 addition by Philip Johnson, along with Yoshio Taniguchi’s expansion of 1997–2003—they would have engaged the Folk Art building’s original designers, who declared their willingness to retrofit their scheme.

By instead commissioning the “study” from the New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who were basking in goodwill after their much-admired High Line and Lincoln Center renovation projects, the museum apparently hoped to ride out the firestorm of criticism, without changing its underlying intentions. The unseemly alacrity with which Diller Scofidio + Renfro accepted the controversial assignment contravened a longstanding ethical rule among high-style architects: one does not participate in the destruction of a building by a living colleague. Nor, in some cases, even works by dead architects.


What is perhaps most shocking about this turn of events is Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s design itself. …

This bland and banal scheme possesses all the presence and panache of a commercial parking garage entry. In place of the Folk Art building’s metallic carapace we are about to get a vacuous, recessed “art bay” on ground level, surmounted by glass-fronted exhibition and performance spaces that will create a uniform wall plane with Yoshio Taniguchi’s façade to the east and Jean Nouvel’s proposed 82-story Tower Verre to the west (in the lower stories of which the museum will gain 39,000 feet of exhibition space on three levels contiguous with its existing complex). …

The only conceivable rationale for the Folk Art building’s removal would have been to replace it with something better. DS+R’s sad little sellout does not come remotely close to compensating for what will be taken away from both the cityscape and these architects’ reputations. They have violated the golden rule of opportunism: if you forfeit your soul, at least get a good price for it.

Here we see these architects devolving before our very eyes into establishment routineers, the same sorry phenomenon that befell the stately Taniguchi when he entered MoMA’s force field. Just as this Japanese master’s famously light touch, elegant proportions, exquisite detailing, and spiritual aura coarsened into unrecognizability with his mammoth New York assignment, so DS+R here have undergone a dire transformation from vanguard mavericks to corporate apparatchiks. …

What makes things even worse is that a presumed guardian of high culture—with incomparable permanent collections of modern architecture and design—will be party to the destruction of such an important work of art. Not since the vandalizing of Charles Follen McKim’s Pennsylvania Station half a century ago has New York City’s architectural patrimony been dealt such a low blow.

To their great credit, Williams and Tsien have been restrained in their criticism of the Folk Art decision. Yet it is difficult not to see their masterful new ice rink in Brooklyn as a powerful statement of everything MoMA seems to have lost sight of in this disgraceful and dispiriting episode.

Categories: Architecture

Bridge Fear

May 26, 2013 Leave a comment
Chesapeake Bay Bridge

Chesapeake Bay Bridge

Tomorrow’s NYT has an article on the fear induced in drivers by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which runs for a little over four miles from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to a point on the west side just outside Annapolis. Of particular interest is the service provided by Kent Island Express, which described itself as “the Preferred Bay Bridge Drive-Over Company. Nervous about crossing over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge? If so, you’re not alone. Our Bay Bridge Drive-Over Help will let you relax and enjoy the ride and the view!”

As Trip Gabriel explains in the NYT article, some clients aren’t so interested in enjoying the view.

Construction workers have been known to ride in the back seat of their pickup trucks, hats pulled over their eyes and their ears plugged. A woman once rode with a blanket over her head. A man asked to be put in his trunk, an offer that was refused.

In the spring of 1988, during the year we spent in Princeton, we took a trip to Annapolis. I decided it would be fun to cross the bridge, so we got off I-95 in Delaware, headed south a ways, then west on 301 and over the bridge. A great way to arrive in Annapolis. I have no memory of the crossing being scary.

No surprise, perhaps, for a Long Island boy who grew up crossing the Triborough, Whitestone, and Throgs Neck bridges regularly, the George Washington and Verrazano-Narrows bridges less regularly. (The bridges between Manhattan and Brooklyn? Not so much.)

Yet, I did experience bridge fear once, on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. It was Thanksgiving weekend, November 1995, and we were down for a family event. My parents and my brother’s family came out from New York and we all stayed at a hotel on Coronado. (No, not the famous one, though I did stay there briefly in the summer of 1966, and we did drive over in 1995 to wander around in it.) After the rest of the family left, we stayed in southern California for an extra few days, eventually getting up to Disneyland. Our first morning on our own, we departed from Coronado to head up to the Wild Animal Park in Escondido.

I approached the bridge without any concerns. But then a weird thing happened. As it curved left to change direction from the approach to the eastern crossing of San Diego Bay, I wasn’t convinced the car would go left with it. Of course, that was under my control. And I didn’t exactly panic. But I got mighty anxious.

Here, see for yourself:

Coronado Bridge

Coronado Bridge

You’re looking north at Coronado. I was driving from the north onto the approach and you can see the curve I was navigating. Up, up, up. Left, left, left. It just didn’t look promising. I can’t explain the feeling. I just knew I wasn’t enjoying the experience. Where was the Coronado equivalent of Kent Island Express? Worse, we’d be returning in the evening and I would have to make the drive one more time the next day.

The NYT article on the Chesapeake crossing has a link to a Travel and Leisure article from October 2010 on the world’s scariest bridges. It’s a slide show with each page featuring photos and text about a particular bridge. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is on page 9. Have a look. And go to page 15 too, for Washington State’s famous Deception Pass Bridge.

Deception Pass Bridge

Deception Pass Bridge

As the Travel and Leisure text explains about this one,

if the drive over this foggy strait in the Puget Sound isn’t particularly scary to you, try walking over the narrow pedestrian lane at the edge of the bridge. That’s where you’ll find especially hair-raising views of the rushing water directly below.

Yup. Even if I don’t usually get anxious driving over bridges, walking is something different altogether. I well remember the first time I visited this bridge, in the fall of 1981. I parked in the south side lot and began to walk northward. I didn’t get far.

Check out the other bridges. It’s fun to work through the slides and imagine crossing each one.

Categories: Architecture, Automobiles

TV Floor Plans

March 3, 2013 Leave a comment


A hat tip to our friend Laura for posting a link on Facebook yesterday to Aisha Harris’s piece at Slate, See the Floor Plans of Your Favorite Characters’ Home. Harris explains that “recreating the living spaces of famous characters through detailed floor plans is a popular pastime,” and provides examples and links, crediting interior designer Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde for some of the best designs.

I don’t want to take too much from Harris’s piece. You should click and see it at Slate. Or, if the example above intrigues you, go straight to Lizarralde’s website, where you can view plans, buy photos, or buy canvases. Enjoy studying floor plans for the Simpsons’ home, Lucy’s apartment, and more.

Categories: Architecture, Television

Sweet & Salt

February 17, 2013 Leave a comment


The lead story in today’s NYT arts section is a piece by NYT architecture critic Michael Kimmelman on contemporary flood control planning in the Netherlands. In the background, drone-like, is the question of how post-Sandy New York City should protect itself against flooding in a future of severe storms, sea surges, and rising sea levels.

It has been to the Netherlands, not surprisingly, that some American officials, planners, engineers, architects and others have been looking lately. New York is not Rotterdam (or Venice or New Orleans, for that matter); it’s not mostly below or barely above sea level. But it’s not adapted to what seems likely to be increasingly frequent extreme storm surges, either, and the Netherlands has successfully held back the sea for centuries and thrived. After the North Sea flooded in 1953, devastating the southwest of this country and killing 1,835 people in a single night, Dutch officials devised an ingenious network of dams, sluices and barriers called the Deltaworks.

Water management here depends on hard science and meticulous study. Americans throw around phrases like once-in-a-century storm. The Dutch, with a knowledge of water, tides and floods honed by painful experience, can calculate to the centimeter — and the Dutch government legislates accordingly — exactly how high or low to position hundreds of dikes along rivers and other waterways to anticipate storms they estimate will occur once every 25 years, or every 1,000 years, or every 10,000.

And now the evidence is leading them to undertake what may seem, at first blush, a counterintuitive approach, a kind of about-face: The Dutch are starting to let the water in. They are contriving to live with nature, rather than fight (what will inevitably be, they have come to realize) a losing battle.

Why? The reality of rising seas and rivers leaves no choice. Sea barriers sufficed half a century ago; but they’re disruptive to the ecology and are built only so high, while the waters keep rising. American officials who now tout sea gates as the one-stop-shopping solution to protect Lower Manhattan should take notice. In lieu of flood control the new philosophy in the Netherlands is controlled flooding.

In passing, Kimmelman writes,

I enlisted Tracy Metz to help me find useful lessons for New York in the Dutch example. An architecture critic based in Amsterdam, she is the co-author, with Maartje van den Heuvel, an art historian, of “Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch,” which should be required reading these days. Ms. Metz called in some Dutch officials and architects, and she took me to see the Maeslantkering, the giant sea gate guarding Rotterdam, the last of the Deltaworks, as big and spectacular as a pair of Eiffel towers, on their sides, which slide closed.

Ever dutiful, I immediately looked up my new required reading assignment, learning from the book description that

water management runs in the blood of the Dutch: draining the Netherlands and keeping it dry is a process they started centuries ago and continue to this day. In Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch, author Tracy Metz and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel demonstrate, in text and images, how the Netherlands negotiates its evolving relationship with water–and what the rest of the world can learn from them as our sea levels rise, our rivers swell and storms and droughts multiply. From New Orleans and Hamburg to Vietnam and China, the world is facing landscapes in drastic metamorphosis. And from the dikes and dams of the past to the new solutions of Dutch design practice for the future, the Netherlands’ history with water offers a much-needed perspective on life in our new waterworld.

Additional searching revealed that the book was the accompaniment to an exhibition at Rotterdam’s Kunsthal last year:

With a hundred and twenty artworks, the Kunsthal Rotterdam illustrates the affinity that the people of the Netherlands have with water. Top historical pieces by Old Masters such as Willem Maris and Salomon van Ruysdael are exhibited alongside remarkable works by modern artists including Theo van Doesburg and Edgar Fernhout, and contemporary artists such as Marijke van Warmerdam and Daniëlle Kwaaitaal. This varied selection of artworks provides an insight into the essential role that art plays in our perception of water. Visitors to Sweet & Salt can ‘experience’ the Dutch waterland in all its diversity, be they young or old, novice or expert.


The exhibition, together with a book of the same name, clearly illustrates how safety and flood management are increasingly making way for water maintenance and the theme of living in harmony with water. Sweet & Salt invites the general public, planners and policymakers to take a fresh look at the way in which water and landscapes are portrayed in art, to gain inspiration with regard to the management, maintenance and continually changing structure of the Dutch waterland.

And from a book review by James Russell:

You can open Sweet & Salt to a photo of torrential water ripping through the streets of a medieval town or a golden-hued painting of a peaceful ice-covered pond just after the chilly sun has set. Is this a history, a guidebook, a cautionary tale of climate change, a dike-designer’s handbook, or an art book? In the hands of Tracy Metz, a long-time contributor to Architectural Record, and art historian Maartje van den Heuvel, it is all of the above.

Sweet & Salt is an intensely heavily visual consideration of the history, culture, and engineering of water that engages our senses and our emotions—not just our intellect—with its ravishing (and beautifully printed) photography, cartography, and art. We’re awed and enraptured by water—when we’re not fighting it off.

You will not find any hand-wringing in this volume. Sweet & Salt is a profoundly humanistic consideration of the culture of water, with, along the way, many ideas by designers about how to deal with water’s myriad challenges. Architects, planners, and landscape designers will never think of a riverbank, levee, or seashore the same way again.

The not-so-underlying theme is of the Dutch as canaries in the global-warming coal mine. Much of Holland’s most productive land is below sea level, so the Dutch are acutely aware of subtle changes in the rivers, seas, and weather that get lost in the climactic background noise in America. After all, the nation has built its culture, government, social arrangements, and urban planning around water for hundreds of years.

I’m convinced. I’ve ordered the book. Amazon says it should ship in 1 to 3 months, leaving me less than confident that it’s actually available. I hope so. And I wish I could have seen the Kunsthal show.

Ada Louise Huxtable

January 7, 2013 1 comment


A month ago, I wrote about what I called a must-read piece by Ada Louise Huxtable on renovation plans for the New York Public Library, referring to her as a “famed architecture writer still at it at 91.” Alas, that was her final piece. She died earlier today.

In tomorrow’s NYT obituary, David Dunlap explains that she

pioneered modern architectural criticism in the pages of The New York Times, celebrating buildings that respected human dignity and civic history — and memorably scalding those that did not … . Beginning in 1963, as the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper, she opened the priestly precincts of design and planning to everyday readers. For that, she won the first Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, in 1970.

Growing up in New York in those years, I had no idea that Huxtable was a pioneer. The NYT was our local paper. Whatever it did I took to be the norm. Reading the obit now, I recognize many of the then-new buildings she discussed as ones I watched rise or open. For instance, the Huntington Hartford art museum on Columbus Circle designed by Edward Durell Stone, which she said “resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.”


The Kennedy Center in Washington, another Stone building, came in for opprobrium too:

Albert Speer would have approved. The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.

She was special. Read the full obit.

Huxtable on the New York Public Library

December 4, 2012 Leave a comment
The stacks below the New York Public Library's reading room.

The stacks below the New York Public Library’s reading room.

[A NYPL vintage illustration, from today’s WSJ]

Ada Louise Huxtable, famed architecture writer still at it at 91 as a critic for the Wall Street Journal, has a must-read piece today on renovation plans for the New York Public Library. The library’s “reimagining” of the main library at 5th and 42nd is described here, where we learn that they

aim to open this iconic building to millions more users — scholars, students, families, job seekers and more — offering them the collections, services, and programs they need, in double the amount of public space. For writers, researchers, and all patrons who need these resources after work, we plan to keep the Library open until 11 p.m. on the busiest evenings. This enlivened, democratic hub of learning and creativity would be a symbol of rebirth across the Library’s 91 locations.

Robin Pogrebin covered the ensuing controversy in a NYT article last April:

The New York Public Library is engaged in a public-relations blitz to address criticism from scholars and writers who object to the library’s plan to reimagine its Fifth Avenue flagship building at an estimated cost of $300 million.

In the past few weeks the library’s president, Anthony W. Marx, has written articles for The Huffington Post and Inside Higher Ed, appeared on radio and television and assembled an advisory panel that includes people skeptical of the plan.

The library’s efforts are the sort of salesmanship that traditionally accompanies any new ambitious undertaking. But they are also an acknowledgment that the plan, which includes the sale of two prominent Manhattan branches, is a dramatic reshaping that has, at the very least, upset library traditionalists.

Several scholars have published criticisms of the project, known as the Central Library Plan. On Friday others began circulating a letter of protest among academics; more than 200 have signed so far, including Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, and Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review. “We are alarmed by the Central Library Plan, which seems to us to be a misplaced use of funds in a time of great scarcity,” the letter says. “We think the money raised can be better used to preserve and extend what already exists at 42nd Street.” Mr. Marx said the issues raised by critics would be considered. “The scholarly community is concerned and we are concerned,” he said.

The project would convert the main library, now strictly a reference operation, into a hybrid that would also contain a circulating library, many computer terminals and possibly a cafe. The Mid-Manhattan branch and the Science, Industry and Business Library would be sold and their operations folded into the main building. To accommodate the new services, up to half of the three million volumes in the stacks under the main reading room would be moved into storage in New Jersey.

Critics say that the money would be better spent refurbishing deteriorating branch libraries, and that the changes will diminish the library’s role as a leading reference center, essentially turning it into a glorified Starbucks. Of particular concern: how long it will take the library to retrieve books from storage.

“The library is being repositioned less as an institution that thinks of research and scholarship than as a kind of fashionable place for intellectuals that is more about entertainment than depth of knowledge,” said Ilan Stavans, a professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, where Mr. Marx was formerly president.

In September, Pogrebin provided an update:

Responding to objections raised by scholars, writers, artists and others, the New York Public Library has revised its plan to remove most of the books from its flagship Fifth Avenue research center to make room for a circulating library. Library officials said that an $8 million donation would help pay for enough new storage space to keep 3.3 million of its 4.5 volumes at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at 42nd Street.

The change, approved by the library board on Wednesday, marks a significant shift in the Central Library Plan, a $300 million proposal to turn the historic building into the world’s largest combined research and circulating library.

“I’m very pleased both by the outcome but also by the process,” said Anthony T. Grafton, a Princeton University history professor who serves on the plan’s advisory panel. “It seems to me we saw a great public institution and its leader actually listening to the response of its public.”

The gift, from Abby S. Milstein, a lawyer and trustee, and her husband, Howard P. Milstein, a banker, will cover the cost of building 30,000 square feet of storage space to keep 1.5 million books that would otherwise have been sent to a warehouse in New Jersey. Scholars and others have protested plans to send the books away, arguing that research would be inhibited by the inevitable resulting delays in retrieving books, and that the changes would diminish the library’s role as a leading reference center.

Not impressed, Huxtable observes in her article today that “this is clearly meant to mollify critics. But it is also a red herring. The stacks will still be demolished.”

There’s the “research library versus internet café” issue, but Huxtable has a more fundamental concern (emphasis mine):

After extensive study of the library’s conception and construction I have become convinced that irreversible changes of this magnitude should not be made in this landmark building. I am not going to rehearse the intellectual, literary and sentimental arguments already on the record. This is all about the building, a subject that has not been adequately addressed.

She proceeds to make a forceful, eloquent case for preservation on architectural grounds. Here are excerpts:

No wonder the stacks seem like fair prey; they occupy 38% of the library’s gross area. The buzzwords are “outmoded” and “obsolete.” The fact is that they require substantial upgrading of climate control systems for proper preservation. But what no one seems to have noticed, or mentioned, is that the stacks are the structural support of the reading room. They literally hold it up.

An end section through the building shows the stacks and reading room as a structurally inseparable unit. A longitudinal section reveals their full extent, from end to end and side to side, under the 297 foot long, 78 foot wide and 51 foot high reading room. They are a supporting steel cage, with infills of iron shelving, end pieces and dividers detailed by Carrère and Hastings. There is a different structural system for the rest of the building. Each of the seven stack levels is 7 feet 6 inches high, an extremely compact use of the space.

The stacks are an engineering landmark, but they cannot be designated because they are not open to the public. Incredibly, the Rose Reading Room has not been designated either, although it is eligible. Landmark protection covers the building’s exterior and entrance and exhibition hall.

Bernard Green, who devised the system for the Library of Congress that was built a few years earlier than the New York Public Library, was hired as the engineering consultant for the New York stacks. A contact at the engineering firm that upgraded the Massachusetts State House Library believes that the space freed by moving some books under Bryant Park, along with the existing subbasement below the stacks, could accommodate the necessary mechanical equipment. Restoration and retrofitting would be easier and cheaper than supporting the reading room with the enormously complex and expensive engineering needed during demolition and reconstruction.

The location of the stacks under the reading room was the concept of the first librarian, John Shaw Billings. His rough sketch for the building was developed with the help of William R. Ware, the founder of the Columbia School of Architecture, and incorporated into the competition to design the library. No one was allowed to deviate from it. When the distinguished firm of McKim, Mead & White had the hubris to go its own way, it lost to Carrère and Hastings—architects who realized Billings’s scheme for an enormous, daylit top-floor reading room, directly over the stacks for the most efficient delivery of books to readers. They made brilliant use of a favorite Beaux Arts theme—a processional path from the Fifth Avenue entrance to the climactic experience of the grand reading room at the top. But all of Carrère and Hastings’ elegant classicism is not just window dressing. Their wonderful spatial relationships and rich detail are intimately tied to the building’s remarkable functional rationale.

The current Central Library Plan was conceived internally, using commercial consultants known for doing the numbers and moving the pieces around for organizational change and the best bottom line. It has the approval of Mr. Marx and his predecessor, Paul LeClerc, under whom it took shape, and a 60-member board of successful business leaders with a few writers and scholars for literary embellishment. Commercial consultants are generally clueless about nonquantifiable architectural and cultural values. And so, apparently, are most of the 60 trustees. There is an obvious paucity of architectural historians and structural experts among them.

This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library’s original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity. You don’t “update” a masterpiece. “Modernization” may be the most dangerously misused word in the English language.

Pogrebin’s April article referred to an Inside Higher Ed piece in which Anthony Marx argued for the Central Library Plan. You can find it here. Whatever one’s view on the importance of keeping research materials on site, he doesn’t address the question of architectural integrity that Huxtable raises. I’m no expert, but I found her argument convincing, all the more because she offers an alternative approach:

There are better options than turning the library into a hollowed-out hybrid of new and old. The radically different 21st-century model deserves a radically different style of its own, dramatically contemporary and flexible enough to accommodate rapid technological change. Sell the surplus Fifth Avenue property at 34th Street. Keep the Mid-Manhattan building; the location is perfect. Let Foster+Partners loose on the Mid-Manhattan building; the results will be spectacular, and probably no more costly than the extravagant and destructive plan the library has chosen.

By the way, that illustration of the stacks is amazing, isn’t it?

Categories: Architecture, Libraries

Georgia on my Mind

May 9, 2012 2 comments

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

You know from my posts (here, here, and here) on recent reading choices — Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War, Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road, and Thomas de Waal’s The Caucasus — that I have been obsessed over the last two months with the Black Sea and Central Asia. What a wonderful coincidence, then, that I received a travel brochure two weeks ago for a journey there.

As a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I regularly receive brochures for the trips they host in their Travel with the Met program. I used to throw them out. In recent years, when one comes, I take a moment to look through the itinerary to get trip ideas, after which I check the unimaginably high price and toss it. Mediterranean cruises are a staple. The appeal is that the ships are small and you are accompanied by an art expert, often on the museum staff, who educates you as you travel.

Here’s a typical trip, one that just took place: Undiscovered Cities of Art: Genoa, Bologna & Ravenna. It doesn’t take too much work to put together your own trip to Genoa, Bologna, and Ravenna, but you won’t get to travel with famed Met lecturer Olivier Bernier. Click on the link for the pdf brochure and you’ll find that it’s a pretty attractive package. You’ll also find that it cost $8650 per person for double occupancy, including eight nights at hotels, daily breakfast, four lunches, four dinners, the lectures, secreted sightseeing, entrance fees, airport and hotel transfers, taxes and gratuities. You also needed to pay to get to Milan and leave from Venice. If you’re willing to forgo Olivier, you might just be able to do better. And I feel pretty good about my ability to plan a trip to Italy.

But then there’s this, the new offering, which I’m sorely tempted to sign up for: The Silk Road & Southern Caucasus aboard the Golden Eagle. (The photo at the top of the post is from the webpage.) It’s a dream come true.

There’s no link to a pdf file for the brochure. I’ll lay out the itinerary. You depart from New York on Wednesday, October 24, fly overnight to London, fly overnight the next night to Almaty, Kazakhstan, arriving on Friday, October 26, in Almaty, where you board the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, your residence for the trip. From there:

Saturday, October 27: Almaty, Kazakhstan
Sunday, October 28: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Monday, October 29: Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Tuesday, October 30: Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Wednesday, October 31: Khiva, Uzbekistan
Thursday, November 1: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Friday, November 2: Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan; Baku, Azerbaijan
Saturday, November 3: Baku, Azerbaijan
Sunday, November 4: Tbilisi, Georgia
Monday, November 5: Borjomi/Kutaisi, Georgia
Tuesday, November 6: Gori/Uplistsikhe/Mtskheta, Georgia
Wednesday, November 7: Yerevan, Armenia
Thursday, November 8: Yerevan–>London–>New York

Sign me up! Please!

Um, the thing is, I actually have a job, and this is not good timing. Plus, there’s the price. How much? Well, you have to choose between Gold Class and Silver Class on the train. Both feature “en-suite bathrooms.” You get to “dine on traditional Russian specialties and savor fine wines in the beautifully appointed restaurant car.” And in case you aren’t aware, Georgia is famous for its wine. It may in fact be the source of the first cultivated grapevines, over 8000 years ago.

That price? Right. Well, for Gold Class, it’ll cost $19,195 per person double occupancy; for Silver Class, $15,395. I guess I could survive in Silver. All meals are included, wine at lunch and dinner, the lectures, escorted sightseeing, and so on. Splurge on Gold and you get drinks from the standard bar list in the bar car. Extra, of course, is the airfare.

I know. Crazy. But it’s my dream trip. Why quibble? And unlike putting together a swing through a few Italian cities, I don’t think I could pull this one off on my own.

I haven’t even mentioned our travel companion yet. That would be Joan Aruz, the Met’s Curator in Charge of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. With her help, “history will come to life as we walk in 2,500 year-old cities and see extraordinary architecture and artifacts left by generations of civilizations.”

Gail, shall we go?

Categories: Architecture, Travel

Chapel Hill

April 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Old Well, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This is it, my final post from our trip to North Carolina. I’ve written about our Tuesday outing to Durham, our Wednesday outing to Greensboro, and our Thursday outing to Raleigh. But what of our base itself, Chapel Hill? All I’ve mentioned so far are our dinners at Lantern and Crook’s Corner. Surely we did more.

Well, not much more, what with setting out after breakfast each morning for another city. Here are a few notes on what I left out.

1. Tuesday, we came back from Durham in mid-afternoon, after our visits to the Duke Homestead and the Nasher Museum of Art. This was our chance to wander around town and campus. On crossing over toward the heart of campus from the Carolina Inn, we came immediately upon the building housing the UNC School of Education. I couldn’t resist dropping in, since the dean is an old friend whom I used to work with here at the university. Fortunately, he was in and had a moment, so we chatted a bit. A day later, I would have missed him, as he was heading here to Seattle.

Next we walked up to Franklin Street to the Carolina Coffee Shop for Gail, but they only had table service. They recommended Jack Sprat Café across the street, which met her needs. From there, we could walk south through the main axis of campus, leading to the Old Well. I suppose you’d have to have UNC in your veins to appreciate the well’s importance. It was once the school’s lone water source.

Today, passers-by can drink from a marble water fountain supplying city water that sits in the center of the Old Well. Campus tradition dictates that a drink from the Old Well on the first day of classes will bring good luck (or straight A’s).

The Old Well is recognized as a National Landmark for Outstanding Landscape Architecture by the American Society of Landscape Architects. The Old Well is also used on the official stamp of all apparel licensed by the university.

There was a crowd around it, with people taking turns drinking while friends or parents photographed them. I couldn’t resist taking my own turn, and Gail couldn’t resist taking the photo, which I’ll omit. More interesting is the layout of adjacent buildings, Old East Hall, Old West Hall, and South Hall. Old East is the original campus building, with construction begun in 1793 when the university (the oldest state university in the country) was established. It has since been expanded, and of course renovated, and continues to function as a dorm.

Later in our walk south, we would arrive at the university’s main library, the Wilson Library, which contains The North Carolina Collection Gallery. Joel had suggested the day before that we may find this of interest, so we took his advice and found it. There we learned of the Masonic history of the university, and in particular, the Masonic tradition that dictated the layout of the well and the three buildings. This was part of a special exhibit on the history of the campus, with some wonderful old photos.

Also in the collection are the Sir Walter Raleigh Rooms; an exhibit about the original Siamese twins Eng and Chang, who lived the final decades of their lives in North Carolina; Audobon prints; some rooms from early Carolina houses; and much more. It was a good detour.

South of the library, across a street, is the bell tower, and below that, the football stadium — Kenan Stadium. The campus drops down a hill at this point, with the stadium following this drop, so that on the north side it fits quite nicely into the surroundings. A gate was open on the north, so we wandered in and looked down on the playing field, well below us. Ringing the outside are exhibits of famous Tarheel players, such as the greatest of them all, below:

Kenan Stadium, UNC

It was approaching dinner time, so we concluded our campus tour at this point and returned to the inn.

2. Dinner with Joel that night was at Mint, a surprisingly good Indian restaurant on Franklin Street a few blocks west of campus, out towards Carrboro. Gail and Joel had eaten there in July. I’m glad they thought to return, because dinner was excellent.

3. Thursday was our Raleigh day. When we got back to Chapel Hill, we conferred with Joel and discovered that we were too late to get in to a restaurant in Durham he thought worth trying. Instead, we headed over to Provence, a small restaurant in Carrboro not far from Joel. As it name suggests, it bills itself as serving regional French and Mediterranean cuisine.


Joel started with the escargots, Gail the lobster bisque, and me, well, gosh, I don’t remember what I had. Nothing that I see on the online menu. I must have had their soup of the day, some cream of something. I should have taken notes. I remember my main course, the lemon sole almandine. Gail had Beef Wellington and Joel some sort of noodle dish that again isn’t listed online. In any case, I was quite happy with my meal. But Gail’s beef was horribly burned on one side. She kept wondering what flavoring was used, until she turned it over and caught on to what had happened. We should have sent it back. It was really a disaster. Other than that, the restaurant was most pleasant.

4. You may recall that two months ago, when I first started thinking about what we might do in North Carolina, I wrote a post about an imagined day trip to Greensboro and Saxapahaw. Wednesday was our Greensboro day. Saxapahaw is a few miles off the main highway between Chapel Hill and Graham, the town where one gets on I-40 to head straight west to Greensboro. And the attraction of Saxapahaw is the Saxapahaw General Store, which had been written up in a short note in the Sunday NYT travel section in January. To quote from that article again, as I did in February:

I was polishing off a steaming bowl of coconut curry soup when a server appeared bearing a plate of plump pan-seared diver scallops atop creamy applewood-bacon succotash and braised asparagus. The food was befitting a candlelit restaurant, but I had a view of gas pumps outside and, a few steps from my table, fluorescent-lighted aisles packed with workaday necessities — toilet paper, motor oil, sauerkraut juice (aids digestion, according to the label).

This jarring contrast of farm-fresh food and service-station atmosphere is part of the appeal of the place where I was dining: the Saxapahaw General Store (1735 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road; 336-376-5332;, a no-frills convenience store and restaurant that has sparked a revival in the former mill town of Saxapahaw in central North Carolina.

On our way up to Greensboro, we didn’t want to detour, but we did on our return. The road to Saxapahaw was narrow and winding, perhaps our only drive in our time in North Carolina on which we got off main roads and got a glimpse of what backcountry North Carolina might look like. Not that this was so backcountry, just 10 miles out from Chapel Hill. We arrived at a small strip mall, with the gas pumps and store as described. As we walked in, there was a counter to the left running from the doorway to the back, with the cashier immediately to the left, then food cases, and behind was the cooking area. Running from straight ahead to the right were the store aisles, and far to the right, beyond them, were a few tables for dining. Pretty basic. But it was fun to work our way around the aisles and see what was for sale.

There was a small wine section up front by the windows, with shelves marked for French, Italian, California etc. Just to the right of that, on the top of a counter, was an array of North Carolina wines. We chose one to bring home.

I hadn’t mentioned, but over by that main counter to the left of the store is a big blackboard. Oh, you can see it in the article that headed the NYT article. Here it is, below:

Saxapahaw General Store

[David P. Williams, NYT, January 22, 2012 edition]

When we walked in, a young woman had just begun to fill the board with the list of dinner specials. It took a while for us to figure out what was going on as far as menu offerings. The deal is that there’s an all-day menu, with menus available on the counter, but I had missed them initially. One can order sandwiches, salads, and so on. In addition, there are lunch and dinner hours, something like 11 to 2 and 5:30 to 8:00, during which one can also order the specials listed on the board. We had arrived at 4:45. Waiting for dinner wasn’t an option, since our plan was to get back to Chapel Hill for dinner with Joel. It would have been different if we were in Chapel Hill already and could have headed out with him.

We arrived as the woman was writing the first special, pan-seared diver scallops with applewood-bacon succotash — the very one featured in the NYT. She would proceed to write each main dish, then turn to the scruffy looking guy behind the cash register, announcing what she had just written. He would look upwards for a moment for inspiration, then tell her what the accompaniments would be. It became apparent that he wasn’t merely the cashier. Indeed, he was probably the chef. As the listings got added, staying became more and more tempting. We’ll have to come back next time we visit, now that we know the schedule.

That’s it for North Carolina. We had a great trip.

North Carolina State Capitol

April 16, 2012 Leave a comment

North Carolina Capitol, Raleigh

I’m slowly writing a series of posts on our trip to North Carolina last week. I’ve written about our dinner last Monday at Lantern; our visits last Tuesday to the Duke Homestead and Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, our visits last Wednesday to the Greensboro Historical Museum, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, and the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro; and dinner last Wednesday at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill. Next: more posts, on the places we visited during our Raleigh outing last Thursday.

We arrived in Raleigh a little after 10:00 last Thursday morning, coming in from the west past the Carolina Hurricanes hockey arena, the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, and the NC State ag school. Pretty open spaces, no urban feel. The transition was sudden, and in moments we were passing by the north side of the main NC State campus, with lots of traffic, coming in on Hillsborough.

The State Capitol occupies a square block in the center of the city, with streets from north, south, east, and west deadending at the block. Hillsborough is the street coming in from the west. I imagined we would see the capitol from afar, but between its modest scale and the trees, it emerged only when we were two blocks away.

We had some trouble finding a parking lot. All the visible lots were marked for employees only. Eventually, as we widened our search, we found a private garage, circled up to a high level, and parked. Once we found the elevator and came down, we found that we had exited just a half block south of the capitol. (We also discovered that what we had exited from is called a parking deck, not a parking garage. I’d be curious to know just how broad a regionalism this is.)

The main entrance to the capitol is from the east. A couple of school groups were lining up to enter. We squeezed past them, went through the east door, and got in line at the security desk behind a family of three from England. When it was our turn, the security guard asked for ID from one of us. I gave her our license and wondered what systems her computer tied into. Could she log into the NSA files and review my email and bills? I suppose not, but I know she spent a good half minute doing something at her computer before okaying us. We went through the metal detector, beyond which was a counter and a woman offering information. She gave us a guide to the building and a brief orientation, telling us to come back if we had questions.

I soon realized that tours were only available for classes, of which there were several working their way around the building. Looking at the website now, I see that tours for the general public are given only on Saturdays. Since Gail wanted to use a restroom and the women’s room was one floor up, that’s where we started our tour.

While Gail was touring the restroom, I proceeded to the central atrium and looked in on the legislative rooms to north and south, the Senate and the House. They were beautiful.

North Carolina Senate, 1840-1961

Gail joined me and we went back and forth between the two, walking in as far as was accessible. There are plaques on the wall listing the members during the 1840 and 1961 sessions. Had I read the pamphlet I was holding, I would have realized this, but the legislature moved out of the building after 1961. My other clue was the fact that there is a new Legislative Building two blocks north, which we had driven past in our search for a parking deck.

There are public galleries on the third floor. We couldn’t enter them, but could look through the doorways and down on the two meeting rooms. Also on the third floor, to the west, was the meeting space for the state supreme court, and to the east, the state library. The court moved out of the building early on, with the space converted to storage for the state geological collection. A sign explained that the state hired a geologist to survey the state and look for economic opportunities. The collection has since been moved to UNC, but representatives remain in the room.

State Capitol 3rd floor, geology collection

I’ve failed to explain that the earlier state capitol building had burned in a fire in 1831. The replacement was built between 1833 and 1840. The state library had gone up in flames with the building, except for the books a particular legislator had taken out that were a year overdue, or so the sign explained. His books and a donation from former president Madison formed the nucleus of the new collection.

State Capitol 3rd floor, state library

The supreme court moved out, the legislature moved out, but the governor remains. Back on the first floor, we looked down a closed off hall to current-use offices. Across the way, a class of kids was looking into a room. We joined the line, then had the space to ourselves, staring into the array of furniture, not yet understanding that this was the real, live governor’s office. A sign explained that this and the not-visible room beyond were the offices of the governor and governor’s assistant, with the governor in the room beyond until, more recently (the 1940s? I don’t remember) the governor switched them at which point this room became the governor’s office. It has a pair of doors that swing open when the governor isn’t in, revealing the doorway we were standing at and looking through. To the left of what you see below is a large desk and additional furniture that it was difficult to make out.

North Carolina governor's office

We completed our tour by chatting with the woman who had given us the still-unopened pamphlet at the start. She was extremely knowledgeable, and funny. She said something about giving tours on Saturdays, which I now realize makes sense, since those are the days of public tours. She also filled in some of the gaps in our understanding. We learned about the construction, all stone. None of that pine that burned down a few years earlier. And we learned that the old House and Senate rooms are available for rent. I asked if we could hold parties there. No. No food or drink. Just meetings.

Here are two of the many stories she told: In the early years, there was of course no indoor plumbing. To use bathrooms, those working in the building had to head outside to a privy in the far corner of the property. In particular, that meant those poor judges on the third floor had a long ways to go and a hard climb back. No wonder they moved out early! And those books that President Madison donated? Well, you know, Dolley was a NC native. After the fire, she was so sad. Every night — our guide imagined — Dolley would look at James in just the right way, with just the right voice, and ask if he wouldn’t want to give some of his collection to the state. You know, the way women do. Until he said yes, sure. I suggested that maybe the guide wasn’t supposed to let me in on the secret ways of women. Too late.

The block immediately north of the capitol connects the capitol to the legislature. Picture this intermediate block as three north-south stripes. The stripe to the east, running north-south, is the North Carolina Museum of History. The stripe to the west, also running north-south, is the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. In-between is a walkway called the bicentennial mall, connecting the capitol and legislature blocks. It’s a lovely arrangement. See below for views north through the mall to the legislative building

North Carolina Legislative Building

and back south through the mall to the capitol, with the museums to the sides.

North Carolina Capitol

From the capitol, we would spend a couple of hours in the history museum. Then we went into the legislative building, pictured in closeup below.

After checking in, we walked up along staircase that leads directly to the third floor. To east and west are the public galleries for the House and Senate. They were locked, but we could look through the glass and down to the legislative spaces on the second floor. They lack the elegance of their 1840 counterparts, but were more attractive than I anticipated.

I skipped over our time in the North Carolina Museum of History. More in the next post.

Categories: Architecture, History

North Carolina Preview

April 1, 2012 Leave a comment

North Carolina State Capitol

Six weeks ago, I described a day trip we might take when visiting Joel in Chapel Hill this month. We would drive 50 miles west to Greensboro to visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, which opened two years ago on the site of the Woolworth’s where four college students began their 1960 lunch counter sit-in. And along the way, we would stop at the Saxapahaw General Store, featured in the NYT Sunday travel section in January, for a meal. That’s still the plan. The civil rights museum provides hour-long guided tours and we have made our reservations.

That leaves two more days to plan, not counting our arrival and departure days. Here’s what I’m thinking (though Gail has yet to weigh in). We’ll go down to Raleigh one day, hang out in Durham and Chapel Hill the other, and see still more museums.

Raleigh has three state museums, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of History, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. I can’t imagine going to all three. The good news is, we can’t. The natural sciences museum will be closed for two weeks in preparation for the opening of a new wing. This is bad news too, of course. It would have been fun to see the wing. But it simplifies our decision.

What most interests me at the history museum is an exhibit called The Story of North Carolina:

More than 14,000 years of the state’s history unfold through fascinating artifacts, multimedia presentations, dioramas, and hands-on interactive components. Additionally, two full-size historic houses and several re-created environments immerse museum visitors in places where North Carolinians have lived and worked.


Highlights in the first part of The Story of North Carolina include American Indian life, European settlement, piracy, the American Revolution and early 1800s farm life. The exhibit continues through the antebellum era, the Civil War, the rise of industry, the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and the Civil Rights movement.

The art museum has a park that is “home to more than a dozen monumental works of art, with artists actively involved in the restoration of the Park’s landscape and the integration of art into its natural systems.” One is pictured below.

Gyre, Thomas Sayre, 1999

The museum also has a notable collection of Judaica, such as the Torah finials below from the treasury of the Great Synagogue of Amsterdam.

Torah finials, circa 1765, attributed to Willem Hendrik Rosier, Dutch, Amsterdam, 1707-1775. Medium: Silver and brass; cast, repoussé, chased, partly gilded.

We could also try to fit in a tour of the State Capitol, completed in 1840 and pictured at the top.

On the day we go to Durham, we can visit the Duke Homestead State Historic Site.

At Duke Homestead, visitors can tour the early home, factories, and farm where Washington Duke first grew and processed tobacco. Duke’s sons later founded The American Tobacco Company, the largest tobacco company in the world. The Dukes became one of the wealthiest families in the country at the turn of the 20th century and now lend their name to Duke University, Duke Energy, and the Duke Endowment.

Duke Homestead offers an orientation film twice an hour, an extensive tobacco museum, and guided tours of the surviving historical structures on the grounds. Among these structures are early Bright Leaf tobacco barns, Washington Duke’s first and third factories, and his 1852 homestead.

And on the Duke campus, there’s The Nasher Museum of Art, which “opened in 2005 with a building designed by Rafael Viñoly as the center for the visual arts on campus.” We’re talking Nasher as in Ray and Patsy Nasher of Dallas, the Nashers of downtown Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center , and of the NorthPark Center mall, which displays more art from the Nasher collection. (I wrote about our visit to the Nasher Sculpture Center two years ago.)

The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

We may not have time to do all this. After all, we also want to enjoy the local restaurant offerings, walk around Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill to get a sense of what they’re like, and drive around as well. We’ll have to return soon.