Posts Tagged ‘starchitects’

Apollo’s Girl

August 7, 2012



Latinbeat and a Little More

We’ve got two calls to action here: before I get down with Latin Beat  I must warn you that you have less than 24 hours to see Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy. Part of the Film Society’s series of NYFF’s past-perfect picks, it’s being shown only once—tonight at 6pm. Whatever your plans, you will just have to change them. Trust me. Even if you have to beg at the box office or whine piteously on the standby line.

Mike Leigh has a huge palette, but Topsy-Turvy was one of his biggest surprises, and surely one of the best. Like a favorite uncle’s 19th-century chromolithograph come to life, Leigh’s gorgeous take on the Victorian era, its infatuation with all things Japanese during the 1885 exposition, the fabulous Gilbert and Sullivan, their evergreen Mikado, the backstage tumult that made it sing, and the intimate pains of Gilbert’s marriage should not, and cannot, be missed. And if you can’t get in, flood the Film Society’s office with pleas for an encore showing.

And now, back to Latinbeat.

Like its namesake, Chinese Takeaway (Argentina) will fill you up, but leave you wanting more. There is a sly, deliciously loopy humor to the film, anchored by just the right emotional heft and some serious issues. A really ingenious story, told through Sebastián Borensztein’s artful writing and direction and the performances of Ricardo Darin and Ignacio Huang, is matched by technical values that make the entire meal a pleasure. The jokes are actually funny, and the cast has as much fun as the audience. There are surprises, too (also ingenious). In fact, the director claims it’s based on a “true incident”. Maybe. But, on the other hand (no spoilers here), you will have to stay through the credits to find out what that incident was. DO NOT LEAVE THE THEATER! It’s definitely worth the wait. There are few comedies of this skill and wit around. Make sure you find time to enjoy it.

Then, there’s Unfinished Spaces (Cuba). It’s an architectural, political and moral tragedy that had me poised to open my window, like a refugee from Network, to scream “I’m sick and tired and I’m not going to take it any more!” Of course I will tell you why. Please bear with me (second call to arms and digression alert):

When you have seen a lot of architecture, it’s hard not to be aware that it’s not just about the building itself, or the materials it’s made of, but where, and how, it fits into its cityscape. In New York, the cityscape was on a human scale for more than a century, with the occasional iconic skyscraper popping up for appreciative ogling. It made for a uniquely varied and compelling skyline. But no more. Now it’s become all about that scourge of the urban landscape: air rights. So that anyone with enough money and lack of care can snatch them, grab the capital, and put up something both overwhelming and overscale wherever it can be shoehorned in. Designed, of course, by a starchitect who needs to keep his name in the limelight and his staff on salary.

A perfect example: Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street, plunged into a streetscape of once-and-former three-story houses—an ever-diminishing reminder that New York was once both vibrant and humane. Where J & R now stands there was a theater that staged the American premiere of Don Giovanni;  in living memory, there was an aged bookseller nearby whose dusty volumes were on offer near the corner of Park Row and Anne Street. More: the row of modest brownstones opposite Carnegie Hall have been replaced by the current candidate for “New York’s tallest building,” One 57, with 90 stories, by Christian de Portzamparc. The list grows longer every day.

But it’s not just about size: it’s about context, and celebrity. The Hearst Building was designed by Joseph Urban in 1928. It’s understated but sturdy, and was always meant to support a tower. A matching tower, for which Urban’s original design remained unbuilt because the Depression intervened—until 2006, when Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower opened its doors to receive the Hearst Corporation’s working stiffs back to their new glass-and-steel quarters. Foster has specialized in work that calls attention to itself not only for its size, but for its inappropriateness. (Anybody remember when Prince Charles went on a tear about the architect’s proposed addition to London’s National Gallery—the “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”?) So each new hulking contestant is another nail in the coffin of peaceful coexistence of periods and styles; its success depends on how much noise it can make, how much attention it can steal, and for how long.

Which brings me back, believe it or not, to Unfinished Spaces. In 1961, Fidel Castro decided to build a multi-disciplinary national arts school on what had been Batista’s pride and joy: an exquisite golf course for Cuba’s pre-Revolutionary elite. Three architects were commissioned, each one to design different buildings for different disciplines; their designs were unique, free and venturesome for the era. They incorporated historical building materials and iconic themes, and modern technology, driven by Utopian ideas. The ballet school in particular, by Italian architect Vittorio Garatti, was as graceful as the performers it was meant to house. But nothing, in art or architecture, ever goes exactly as planned.

The new buildings attracted a certain amount of spite and resistance; someone whispered in Castro’s ear that they were “not good architecture,” and work was stopped in its tracks. The ballet school was closest to being finished, so it became a repository for a number of interim enterprises. But without maintenance, the buildings decayed and turned into unloved wrecks. Until the pendulum began its return journey, drawing the attention of author John Loomis book filmmakers Alyssa Nahmias and Ben Murray and, finally, the regard of the World Monument Fund and a pending designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Enter Carlos Acosta, a Cuban ballet hero who has achieved superstar status abroad, who will be returning to Cuba to direct the Cuban National Ballet, to be housed in Garatti’s former Ballet School building, to be “converted” (according to the New York Times) by Norman Foster. Acosta and Foster are “working together to transform the buildings for future use”. Unlike Joseph Urban, long dead, whose plans for the original Hearst Tower were simply tossed on the junk heap, Vittorio Garatti’s plans are very much extant, as is Garatti (now living in Italy) himself. How exciting it would be to have the architect’s vision completed (with updated systems), rather than completely obscured by another architect who revels in the practice.

Shooting for almost a decade, the filmmakers have managed to turn a dauntingly complex story into a sizzling narrative and balancing act. It’s sure to haunt you as the final chapters, still being written, are played out. Although the film is scheduled for PBS broadcast in the fall, Latinbeat has done us the favor of making it available on the big screen; for this subject, with its stunning visuals, it’s the way to go. And the filmmakers will be there in person for both screenings (August 11 and 13).

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