History’s Shadow


David Maisel, History’s Shadow GM16

A recent exhibition at New York’s Yancey Richardson Gallery was David Maisel‘s eerie project, History’s Shadow. They were made during a residency at the Getty Research Insitute where he re-photographed X-rays of antiquity sculptures. These X-rays were originally made for research and conservation, but Maisel’s images brought out something quite different from the scientific.

“The ghostly images of these x-rays seemed to surpass the potency of the original objects of art. These spectral renderings were like transmissions from the distant past, conveying messages across time, and connecting the contemporary viewer to the art impulse at the core of these ancient works.”



HC-B & M-C V-B

Vaillant-Couturier-1                                                Henri Cartier-Bresson, portrait of Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, 1945

Henri Cartier-Bresson is renowned for his brilliant compositions and for his lightning reflexes. No photographer could match him in the elegant designs of his photographs which were made in the fleeting moments of his photojournalist encounters. I’m sure some of what is written about him is myth-making but it is undeniable that his photographs were very well composed.

Take this impressive portrait made just as the war was ending. Both HCB and his subject were war heroes, and the photograph is the meeting of equals. He had served as a soldier, was captured and escaped three times from a German prison camp and had then worked in the Resistance.

The subject of his portrait, Vaillant-Couturier, had an extraordinary twentieth century life. A photojournalist for VU in the 1930s, she became a Resistance fighter during the war, was captured and sent to a series of Nazi concentration camps including an 18 month term at Auschwitz. At the time the portrait was taken, she was becoming a member of the French parliament. Why are there no movies about her?

The composition of the portrait is a wonder. The oval of her face is linked to the arch behind her head, and it’s echoed in the loop of the white chair back. The rightangle of her arm draws a square with the triangle of her lapel, and it echoes the square radio in the background. These shapes counter the round shapes of the composition. The shape of her hand holding the cigarette offers a secondary focal point to her face. Her reflection on the glass table hints at another dimension to her personality. All the parts work together in a tight composition, but the picture itself does not feel tight. Instead, it holds her in balance, and somehow implies the balance of her own identity.

The portrayal is of a clear-eyed and self-determined individual, and that is what she was. She had a long career in left-wing politics as an MP and public intellectual, was a witness at the Nuremberg Trials, and was later made a Legion D’Honneur, Frances’s highest honour. You can see all that potentiality ahead of her in Cartier-Bresson’s sparkling portrait.


Citicorp story



Greg Neville, Citicorp building, 601 Lexington Ave, corner of 53rd St. New York.

Citicorp is one of the ten tallest buildings in Manhattan and it’s at the centre of a great architectural tale. Errors made during design and construction led to it becoming a structurally unsound building, 59 storey high, in crowded mid-town Manhattan. Here is what happened:

A student’s question made engineers realise that wind loads at a 45-degree angle to the tower had not been considered during design. A hurricane plus a failure of the electrically powered mass-dampener could combine to shear off the bolts that join the building’s girders together. While the original design stipulated welded joints this had changed to bolted joints during construction, a weaker outcome. Statistically, this outcome was possible once every 16 years, a serious threat.

For three months a construction crew welded two-inch-thick steel plates over each of the skyscraper’s 200 bolted joints during the night, just as the the hurricane season brought a major storm, Hurricane Ella, toward New York.

These alarming facts were kept from public knowledge and did not emerge for twenty years. No buildings below were evacuated in case the truth came out. The story has since become an architectural legend and is taught as an ethical and engineering case study in architectural courses.



Most unpopular building



Greg Neville, Met Life building above the Helmsley building, 2014

The Met Life building was originally the headquarters of the now defunct airline Pan Am. It was built in 1958-63 by Emery Roth and Walter Gropius. Yes, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus. He had been on a long journey since designing the Dessau Bauhaus in 1926.

In a 1987 poll in New York magazine it was voted the building that New Yorkers would most like to see demolished. Why? Because it is not interesting enough and it occupies a very dominant site above Grand Central Terminal and Park Avenue. In other words it’s a loud, pushy neighbour that nobody invited.




Looking up in New York


Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle, New York. Architect David Child, 2003.

This sharp Late Modern development went up on the then most expensive real-estate in New York, facing Central Park on Columbus Circle. David Child is the architect of the new World Trade Center building on the 9/11 site, he out manouvred Daniel Liebeskind in that venture.


Hearst Tower, Eigth Avenue at 57th St. New York. Architect Norman Foster, 2006.

This High-Tech building by one of the Sirs of British architecture rises out of a handsome Art Deco building from the 1930s. This original structure was commissioned by none other than William Randolph Hearst, the fictionalized Citizen Kane, as the headquarters of his dastardly Hearst newspaper conglomerate. It was the Fox News of its day, spreading yellow journalism all over America.

The new building is a highly original design which has won prizes for its green credentials. It’s one of the new landmarks on the Manhattan skyline, always glinting in the sun.


One57, 57th St. New York. Architect Christian de Portzamparc, 2014.

This is a luxury condominium that rises high over mid-town and is the tallest apartment building in the world. At the time this picture was taken, the penthouse was sold for $90 million. Tall as it is, another vertical streak about 30% taller is soon to go up a few doors down.