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Lebbeus Woods (1940–2012)

Of the architects we’re proudest to have published first, and often, Lebbeus Woods is surely near or at the top of that list. Starting in 1989 with his monograph, OneFiveFour, we subsequently published War and Architecture (1993), Radical Reconstruction (1997), and The Storm and the Fall (2004). All feature Lebbeus’ well-known and inimitable drawings, kinetic lines so full of energy that they seem to lift the architecture he so vividly imagined clean off the page. Sadly, I spoke with Lebbeus ten days ago about a new book, this one a history of post-WWII architecture, told from his unique insights as one of the great architectural visionaries of our times. He sounded strong and in good spirits (he’s been ill for some time), and excited about nearing completion of a major built work, a sky lobby in a project in China planned by his close friend, Steven Holl. I hope we’ll be publishing his just-finished history in the next year or so—stay tuned here for details. Although it will be his last printed book, his influence is deeply imprinted in the architectural and visual culture of the early twenty-first century and in legions of devoted students. I can state with certainty that, as sorely as he will be missed, you haven’t heard the last from Lebbeus Woods: he will be with us for a very long time to come.

PAPress in 50 Books/50 Covers Competition

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There are many levels of satisfaction that come from working at Princeton Architectural Press. In addition to working with an insanely talented group of people, there is the simple thrill and sense of pride that accompanies each new book that arrives from the printer. In spite of dummies, color lasers, PDFs, and paper and binding material samples, we really don’t know how a title is actually going to come out, so there’s always some nervous anticipation and, almost every time, elation that the finished book exceeds our highest expectations. It’s the thrill any maker, whether architect, chef, furniture maker, or craftsperson experiences when a project is finally complete. As much as we create these beautiful objects because we love them and believe in what they say, there’s another adrenaline rush that comes when the book finds its audience: gets reviewed, blogged or “tweeted” about, and, in the best of all possible worlds, flies off the shelf. There’s a kind of vindication here: we’re not simply making these handsome, interesting books for ourselves, there is, indeed, an audience for what we do, and sometimes a surprisingly large and enthusiastic one.

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The Harris Observatory

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Harris, New York, seems an unlikely place for an art exhibition, especially one of the caliber of The Harris Observatory, by Philadelphia-based artist Richard Torchia. Situated in the southwest corner of the Catskills, in a landscape of dense forests dotted by small enclaves of boarded-up storefronts and factories, prisons, and fallen-into-disrepair summer cottages, many Jewish summer-camps with uncomfortable visual echoes of concentration camps, The Harris Observatory occupies a twenty-foot high geodesic dome building on the campus of The Center for Discovery, a residential and learning community for children and adults with significant mental and physical disabilities.

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Torchia’s work over the past two decades uses the ancient optical phenomenon of the camera obscura to project exterior landscapes into interior viewing spaces, until now at a much smaller sale than this sprawling half-sphere. Generally, these luminous images are projected through lenses onto walls or other fixed surfaces (one of the most famous camera obscura, at the Greenwich Observatory outside London, projects the London City skyline onto a table top). Given that many of viewers of this exhibit will be wheelchair-bound, Torchia decided turn this limitation to his advantage and make the viewing screens small and portable, so that the observer is responsible for selecting one of the many views (each facet of the dome houses a small aperture, offering dozens of different views of the adjacent Catskills forests), and focusing it by moving the screen, a round translucent Plexiglass disk, closer or farther from the lens-in-wall opening.

By making the spectator an active participant in the installation, Torchia has only magnified the magic of the camera obscura while deepening our understanding of the optics involved. Birds perched outside are brought into the space in a kind of otherworldly projection that is neither video nor photograph, but somehow more gratifying than either, occupying a zone somewhere between microscope/magnifying lens and telescope/binoculars.

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Snow on leaves in nearby trees has an immediacy it might not have even outside by being cropped and enlarged and literally held up in front of us for appreciation and contemplation.

Almost as if this weren’t enough, Torchia has removed part of the cladding of the dome and perforated it with small holes that are the representation of the constellations immediately above Harris, a rare chance to occupy the center of a planetarium and a reminder that light permeates space whether from fifty feet outside the window, or millions of light years into the cosmos.

Just outside the Center for Discovery a small road sign reminds us: New York – 89 miles. For an installation of this scale of wonder, that seems a small distance to travel, indeed.

The Harris Observatory in on view until March 3 (10 a.m. – 5 p.m.) or by appointment by contacting catskillcenterpieces@gmail.com. It is also the subject of this excellent short video by Noah Hutton.

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