Tall Tales

Towering achievement: At the Skyscraper Museum, an exhibit about the World Trade Center.Photo: Max Joel

You could tell by the way architecture historian Carol Willis bikes headlong through treacherous New York traffic—eyes peeled, blonde hair swept back, looking a little like a streamlined Chrysler hood ornament—that she would eventually prevail in her magnificent, single-minded obsession: founding a skyscraper museum in Manhattan. For the past seven years, she has run a nomadic enterprise, staging shows in a succession of borrowed, mostly downtown spaces. But this month, she finally opened a museum of her own at 39 Battery Place. Willis single-handedly made the Skyscraper Museum happen right where such buildings first germinated in Manhattan and where, since September 11, 2001, the need for an institution like this approaches urgency.

The 5,000-square-foot space, in the belly of the mixed-use Ritz-Carlton tower, is a squeeze, but for the next 67 years, it’s rent-free, a condition set by the Battery Park City Authority for the right to develop the mother building. Designed by Roger Duffy, a partner in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the museum ramps visitors past a ghostly wall gridded with enlarged postcards transcribed onto frosted glass, and then up to a gallery where exhibits are displayed in tall, columnar vitrines designed to recall skyscrapers. Each column houses an exhibit—Empire State Building photo logs, wind-tunnel models—forming, literally, a case study within a neighborhood of other case studies. By applying mirrored surfaces to both the floor and ceiling in the eleven-foot-high space, Duffy has created the illusion of vertiginous height for this virtual city of interior towers.

The inaugural show, “Building a Collection,” borrows from previous exhibitions and touches on established themes. Willis expands her subject beyond formalist styles to embrace everything from real-estate pressures to issues of construction and engineering: Grainy photographs show work crews atop skeletal frames and inside foundation pits; a vintage chart from the late twenties explains how the profits grow per floor up to 63 floors, after which they decline.

“Duffy has created the illusion of vertiginous height for this virtual city.”

This first show, however, doesn’t really cohere; it’s little more than a smattering of disconnected anecdotes. The stand-alone vitrines do not merge into a story or history; their very verticality interrupts the narrative momentum that flows naturally from horizontal displays. The next show, coming in October, will feature thirteen towers by Frank Lloyd Wright, and it promises to make better use of both the space and the format. Willis also plans to install, on the back wall, a permanent exhibition that explains the basic finance, construction, and engineering of skyscrapers, to give visitors a grounding in the building type.

The $3 million Skyscraper Museum is both the beneficiary and a casualty of the pro bono design offered by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The conceit of an interior city of skyscrapers is cute but misguided. The gallery layout is based on a grid, but downtown’s street pattern is almost medieval in its irregularity, distorting the floor plan of the museum’s host tower. This part of Manhattan, so close to the water’s edge, does not conform to the right angle but to more organic contours. As though trying to fit a square plug into a round hole, Duffy has forced gridded floor and ceiling panels and square towers into a triangular wedge.

The museum’s Website (skyscraper.org) has received 10 million hits over the past twelve months. Visitors armed with its 3-D Web tours can use the building as a base camp before heading into the real show outside: downtown’s extraordinary trove of skyscrapers.

The Skyscraper Museum represents an instance in which a single individual with a vision has made a major contribution to the city. This is unquestionably a space that New Yorkers have wanted and visitors will use. Willis’s first show may be disjointed, but she has put in place an infrastructure for understanding and interpreting a building type that, after taking root in these parts, went on to conquer the world.

Identifying the origins of modernism is a notoriously elusive task, but in Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum has nailed one of the epiphanies that gave rise to the movement. On the first floor of the old Carnegie mansion, the curatorial team has arrayed the exuberant output of perhaps the world’s first industrial designer, a Victorian who worked closely with factories to create everything from wallpaper and fabrics to cast-iron furniture. A contemporary of William Morris, Dresser was a self-described “ornamentist,” abstracting from nature dense, intricate, purposefully flat botanical patterns that were highly popular in the nineteenth century. Even mansions like the Carnegie were influenced by the ideas coming out of England.

But at the top of the home’s baronial staircase, the exhibition suddenly pivots, along with Dresser’s career. After a three-month trip to Japan starting in 1876, Dresser returned to England and upended his own widely published design theories, producing the first industrial objects that could be called “modern.” In a series of tabletop articles designed in Britannia metal, which resembles pewter, he shifts from the decorated surface to pure shapes: Handles are squared; bowls become perfect spheres; Euclidean geometry prevails. He designs with a new simplicity that anticipates the Bauhaus by a half-century.

In Japan, Dresser visited ateliers to understand fabrication processes. In a series of art pottery displayed on the second floor, he sculpts vases in asymmetrical shapes, sometimes pinching them, and then ladles glazes that ooze with a lax beauty different from the highly stylized, overcontrolled patterns of his early work. Some glazes resemble the color-field paintings of Abstract Expressionists almost a century later. In his late textile designs, floral patterns of Art Nouveau fabrics sway in aqueous flotation. The liquid shapes of glass vases burst the girdle of symmetry: Bubbles in the diaphanous material effervesce, like frozen champagne.

“Shock of the Old” is one of the Cooper-Hewitt’s best shows in recent memory, and one that makes apt use of a building that has resisted many previous installations. Dresser’s work looks and feels at home here. We almost have to double-check the digits in the dates to assure ourselves that this genius of industrial design belonged to the nineteenth century and not the twentieth.

Tall Tales