Towers rise, towers fall: Sandfuture by Justin Beal

The World Trade Center must have been climbing its way toward the heavens when I first visited New York City, my mother’s hometown, in 1969. However, at the age of nine, the tall building that caught my fancy was the Empire State. It made no impression on me that its record height was soon to be overshadowed—I best remember the imposing measures taken to keep visitors from plunging to their deaths from the observation deck. Being terrified of heights I was struck by the twin existential shock and thrill that such a risk could even be a concern. Somehow, it’s a strange, small comfort to know that Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Center shared the same fear, allowing his own sense of comfort to influence his proposal for narrower, deep-set windows on his famed—and infamous—creation. Although he would be convinced to open up the view in several ways, the Twin Towers sealed his reputation for better and worse, because even though he did not live to witness the events of 9/11, his life and career cannot be abstracted from the dramatic destruction of not one, but two, fated architectural projects.

Until now. A sensitive, humane account of Yamasaki’s life and work lies at the core of Sandfuture, an ambitious work of literary nonfiction by artist and writer Justin Beal recently released from MIT Press. Not explicitly a biography nor a treatise on the collapse of architectural modernism (literally or figuratively), it is rather a far-ranging, inventive hybrid essay. Woven around the central biographical narrative is a fascinating stream of memoir, architectural history, and reflection on the myriad ways bodies, buildings and cities mirror one another in sickness and health. Beal draws on his own experience as an artist and as a student and admirer of architecture, and as a partner and a new parent, but he never gets in the way or loses the key focus of the interconnected ideas he wants to pull together.

Throughout Sandfuture it becomes clear that in so many things in life and art, fate and design are inextricably bound. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Justin Beal happened to be sharing an apartment with a couple of friends just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, so he was personally caught up in the rush and panic that followed the collapse of the two buildings. That event, because we all know it so well, looms in the background, a ghost of future tragedy that haunts Yamasaki’s entire life and career and beyond, but the event itself plays a peripheral role in this book. There are many other forces and factors at play when disaster strikes. In fact, Beal had recently relocated to Manhattan from Los Angeles on October 29, 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard hard and that natural disaster is where his account begins with a vivid depiction of the force of water pushing down on the lower lying areas of New York, bringing destruction and flooding and exposing the socioeconomic distinctions that drive urban development and decline. Meanwhile, closer to home, countless pieces of artwork stored beneath the gallery his girlfriend co-owns are damaged beyond recognition. In the drama of this opening section, some of the key threads that will loop through so much of the material to follow make their first appearance.

Minoru Yamasaki was born in Seattle on December 1, 1912, the son of Japanese immigrants. Inspired to pursue architecture by a visit from an uncle, he entered University in 1929—just before the Stock Market Crash, an event that forced him to earn money for his tuition by working in Alaskan salmon canneries over the following summers. It was an experience that helped forge his personal mythology yet it also signals a trajectory marked by unfortunate timing. He arrived in New York in 1934 with $40 to his name, just as the Great Depression was taking hold. But the city gave him his start, and over the next decade he gained valuable experience, made important connections, and met his first wife.

In 1945, he was recruited to join a firm in Detroit. The city would become his long-time base, but when he first arrived racist sentiments fueled by the war kept him from buying a house in a desired neighbourhood. Curiously, more significant racial tensions would become synonymous with the legacy of his first major project in his new position—the design of a landmark public housing project in St. Louis named Pruitt-Ioge. The goal was ambitious: replace densely-packed slums with a massive complex comprised of thirty-three buildings and almost three thousand apartments. Guided by a vision he hoped would foster community building, Yamasaki’s design incorporated a number of design features intended to encourage interaction, some of which would, over time, prove not only counterproductive but dangerous. The buildings deteriorated, crime rose, discontent escalated, and conditions fell into a state beyond repair. Finally, in the spring of 1972, the first explosions detonated on the now abandoned buildings were broadcast on live television. While the World Trade Center rose, Pruitt-Ioge was systematically reduced to rubble. As Beal demonstrates, the factors contributing the project’s failure are multifaceted beginning with strict cost-cutting measures from the outset, but in the public eye the architect would publicly and unfairly wear the blame.

The architect is so often imagined as hero, gracing the pages of novels or commanding the silver screen, projecting an impossible romantic ideal. He is also a figure who makes a regular appearance throughout the course of Sandfuture. Standing against it all, is the real, very human character of a man who casts a somewhat shadowy presence even in his own archives. Yet it is Yamasaki who gives this story its soul. He was an architect who challenged conventions with varying success, often hobbled by the constraints placed upon him by the confluences of forces and interests driving any major project. Drawing on influences from time spent in Japan, India, the Middle East, and elsewhere, he wanted to promote a movement away from modernism which he saw as overwhelmingly monotonous and lacking “delight.” He persisted, dedicated to his craft and vision, but the pressure took an early toll on his health. He drank heavily, married several times, eventually reuniting with his first wife, and waged a battle with ongoing stomach troubles—ulcers and, finally, cancer. He comes across as a conflicted figure, as prone to bouts of both despair and overconfidence as any other driven professional, lauded, then slipping out of favour, only to be awarded the most prestigious project on the planet. But as ever, so much rides on the final product. Each design is, in the end, a structure that has a life of its own—bound to a vicious cycle of critical reception, practical and public utility, repurposing, and ultimately neglect and decline by which point the architect has already moved on.

Author Justin Beal, as an artist with a deep fascination with architecture, brings a unique perspective to this multi-stranded biographical effort. Having studied the subject, he enters into his serious engagement with Yamasaki’s work and ideals burdened by an architectural education that was inclined to deride the architect’s value to the field. He has to relearn what he thinks he knows. As he scours library documents, architectural journals, news reports and, of course, the many buildings Yamasaki designed during his long career, the sense of a genuine desire to interact with and understand the difficult, maybe misunderstood man behind the designs never wanes.

So, if Yamasaki is the soul of Sandfuture, Beal is the heart. He, his partner, and his daughter are a measured presence, their adventures adding a novelistic quality to transitional passages that, if at first unclear, lend new, relevant dimensions as the work progresses. Prominent among these “memoirish” side threads is a recurring discussion of migraines. Beal’s girlfriend, Nina as she is named here, suffers from crippling migraine headaches. At one point she is even hospitalized. The exploration of this topic sets the foundation for discussions of the history of sanitariums, interconnected notions of bodies and buildings, Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and the concept of sick building syndrome. After all, whether one is constructing a house, a temple or a skyscraper, the mechanical is as essential as the organic. Or so it should be.

The construction of the World Trade Center is, of course, an essential feature in this book as it is in the career of its designer. Structural dilemmas and decisions are explained with just the right amount of detail and tension. Woven around this element are two other key architectural projects: Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Ioge, its televised fate foreshadowing that of the Twin Towers, and at the extreme opposite end of the residential income spectrum, 432 Park Avenue, the luxury condominium project towering over Central Park. This, rather than One World Trade Center is Beal’s post 9/11 counterpoint. This striking triangulation of structures is telling—none of these buildings is, or was, able to meet the reality of its intended (or desired) tenants. They reflect the motives of developers and urban planners, fueled by ego, money and ambition. They have all come up hard against practical, social and economic pressures, greater threats to any architectural project than gravity itself.

Sandfuture is one of those books that is so full of interesting ideas and information that, in the end, it is almost impossible to succinctly describe what it is about. With such projects there is always the temptation to throw in too many sidenotes, too many literary references, too much personal information. It’s a balancing act and yet somehow in this whirlwind it all manages to come together seamlessly. At one point my editorial instincts questioned the layout—one 250 page effort broken only by small section breaks—leading me to wonder if this hybrid effort was too ambitious to succeed, but that concern soon faded. Intelligent and entertaining, Beal maintains a tight pace throughout, turning in unexpected directions and connecting everything back to his main themes and to give his rather unfortunate hero his due.

Sandfuture by Justin Beal is published by MIT Press. It is a handsomely presented paperback featuring a centre section of black and white (and one colour) photographs and a detailed source note on materials used.

A city no one ever sees unveiled: Documentary in Dispute: The Original Manuscript of Changing New York by Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland by Sarah M. Miller

When the 1939 World’s Fair opened in Queens, New York, its motto, “The World of Tomorrow,” invited visitors to look to the future, to embrace the wonders that technology was expected to deliver in the coming years. Of course, with the Second World War still in its early days, the horrors that technology would make possible could not yet be envisioned. Building on a theme conceived at the height of the Great Depression, the Fair’s forward-looking mission was focused on a dazzling world of exciting possibilities.

As one might imagine, a bevy of brochures and books were published to celebrate the event and tie into its theme. Of these, one of the best known is Changing New York, a stunning collection of photographs by Berenice Abbott paired with captions by her life partner, esteemed art critic Elizabeth McCausland.  It would serve as Abbott’s career defining work. However, the book that met the public was a faint echo of the project the women had proposed. Their visionary design, a visual documentary of the city’s changing face in image and text had, against their protests, been reworked to conform to the format of a conventional guidebook.

The fact that the publisher, EP Dutton, along with the Federal Arts Project, had interfered with Abbott and McCausland’s intentions was not a secret, but until now the original manuscript has never been released in full. Over eighty years after Changing New York was first published, art historian Sarah M. Miller has restored the women’s intended text and image selection, presenting it together with a thorough exploration of the motivations behind Abbott’s extensive and impressive photographic project and an examination of the factors that lay behind its ultimate fate. The resulting book, Documentary in Dispute, a co-publication of the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and MIT Press, is a detailed and fascinating work of artistic reclamation.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbott (1898 –1991) moved to New York to study sculpture in 1918. There she met important members of the American avant-garde such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and others. These connections proved critical. In 1921, she headed across the Atlantic to continue her studies and would remain in Europe for the better of the decade. Here she made the artistic shift to photography while working as Man Ray’s assistant at his Paris studio from 1923 – 1926. Although she learned her craft there, she absorbed the foundations of her own creative philosophy from the Surrealist artists to whom she was exposed. However, it was in the work of French architectural photographer, Eugène Atget, that she discovered an understanding of documentary that would shape her vision and become the driving force behind her landmark study of New York—a city that was, during the 1930s, in a state of flux and change. MoMA has an good online collection of 75 of Abbott’s photographs, from early portraits (such as James Joyce) taken in the mid-1920s through to her abstracts of the late 1950s. The bulk of the images on the site feature her signature subject and include many of the photographs that appear in Changing New York and in the much more expansive, text at hand. (Note: I will link to images in collections rather than reproducing images that may be copyright protected.)

Documentary in Dispute is the latest addition to RIC Books’ series on the history and theory of photography. As a work of scholarly research, however, it is engaging and fully accessible for anyone interested in photography, social history or the politics of publishing. The book opens with a brief Preface wherein Miller outlines the fraught publishing history of Changing New York and the intentions and objectives of the current photographic project and the essays that comprise the study. Central to the reading experience is, of course, the reconstructed manuscript—the images of Berenice Abbott and the words of Elizabeth McCausland are presented as they proposed, made all the more fascinating and frustrating by the inclusion of the published captions, final book placement and, in certain cases, the point at which a photograph was eliminated.

Abbott’s approach to documenting the urban landscape is evident from the very first image in the intended manuscript, a photograph that holds its place essentially by virtue of its title, Brooklyn Bridge, Water and New Dock Streets, Brooklyn. Abbott insisted on ordering her work alphabetically by title within broader subject categories. This unusual practice introduces a certain randomness and avoids a tendency to fall into a contrived order. An immediate contrast to the desired guidebookishness that would ultimately transform the finished book where this same image is number 87. However McCausland’s text also speaks to the photographer’s vision. In the photograph the skyscrapers of the distant city skyline are framed by an older building, a segment of the bridge, and a construction project. The caption reads:

The taut cables of the first bridge to link Manhattan with Brooklyn visibly soar above the brick warehouse. Every molecule of steel in the fine-woven strands and in the interlacing girders and beams contributes to the perfect equilibrium of the suspension. At the same time, this tension (invisible to the eye, which scientists have been able to photograph at speeds of one-millionth of a second) is a living element in the picture. Between the power of steel and the pull of gravitation, the photograph achieves its own equilibrium, powerful and dynamic.

Here McCausland paints an unexpected organic image of steel—a material that fascinates again and again—while calling attention to the subject and to the energy within the photograph itself. What an opening! By contrast, in the published volume (where the image appears toward the end), the text begins with an accounting of the date and costs of the bridge construction—dollar and dates are detailed wherever possible—and then goes on:

Brooklyn Bridge is the technological ancestor of all the great steel cable suspension bridges which connect Manhattan Island with the world. The Roebling’s success in devising a steel cable strong enough to support the strain of its mighty spans opened the way for the Williamsburg, Manhattan and George Washington Bridges.

And that’s just the beginning. The original manuscript of Changing New York featured 100 photographs. Drawing on her interest in book design, Elizabeth McCausland offered a proposed layout that challenged the time-honoured conventions of photographic publications—one photograph per two-page spread with the caption on the facing page. In the end, of course, tradition won out over innovation. Some images were replaced; several others were removed in the final stage without replacement. It’s interesting to speculate about just what it was that inspired the publisher to pull an image. Too controversial, too political, too abstract?

The New York that Abbott uncovers is, intentionally, not the one most tourists, and many residents, never see. She captures humble businesses, vendors, neighbourhoods, many of which are on borrowed time. Modern skyscrapers soar above the city skyline, the point of interest is typically an older structure in the foreground or a feature in the distance. Statues survey their domains, in contrast with their backgrounds or, in one deleted image, stand shrouded, awaiting reveal. Simple scenes come alive through the play of light and shadow, seemingly insignificant architectural details are highlighted, storefronts are packed with goods, roads are often curiously quiet and, of course, bridges and elevated train tracks are approached from unexpected angles. If a bridge detail could be granted life, Abbott in her choice of subjects and McCausland in her captions did not shy away from social commentary or from expressing a sense of loss as architecture of the past (and the history it represented) was disappearing from the urban landscape.

However, the documentary imperative in Changing New York was not restricted to tracing a mutable city alone—the viewer was to be encouraged to see and understand what that might mean. Abbott, together with McCausland, imagined a work that would not only invite the viewer to observe locations they might not have ventured into, from perspectives unnoticed or unavailable, they wanted to illuminate the limitations, challenges and possibilities facing the photographer and her camera. Consider, for example, Broadway to the Battery: Manhattan, which looks down on the road from on high. The caption talks about how “20th century steel frame construction, skyscrapers” allowed a new elevated view of the city:

The human eye is more flexible than a camera eye, it makes an accommodation (psychological) which the lens cannot in this new vision, in this new range of sight, the 20th century artist—specifically the photographer—has a new world to conquer. Broadway to the Battery, by its inhuman perspective, distorts the scale of human life. The ant-like people in the street, the liner in midstream dwarfed to a fictitious tininess, the almost infinitesimal dots of human beings in Battery Park—these are the humanistic equivalents of the lens’ distortion imposed on the artist by the new morphology of the city.

This type of conversation elevates the manuscript, as intended, beyond what the viewers photographic books in the 1930s would have anticipated. The photographer’s dialogue with her subject, and the writer’s dialogue with her reader, would have promised an interactive experience sadly lost as the publisher stripped and shoehorned the envisioned project into the shape of an acceptable guidebook for the World’s Fair visitor. Apparently, “The World of Tomorrow” was not to apply to textual material.

The reconstructed presentation of Changing New York, is followed by a presentation of archival materials that shine light on the publication that Abbott and McCausland had envisioned, from the photographer’s 1935 pitch to the Federal Arts Project to sample commentaries prepared for the publisher, to a document that reveals the extent of the conflict over the design changes. Finally, the third part of the book is comprised of two generously illustrated essays. The first, “Archiving Abbott” by Julie Van Haaften and Gary Van Zante offers a look into the extensive amount of material Abbott collected and organized documenting herself. “She archived nearly every aspect of her career, from newspaper notices and reviews to drafts of talks and magazine articles, ideas for projects and inventions, and her business correspondence.” She was, it would seem, preparing for future biographers. She did not doubt her own worth. The second essay, Sarah M. Miller’s “Documentary in Dispute” is an in depth examination of Abbott’s artistic and philosophical development, the vision and aims behind the manuscript as originally proposed, and the editorial process that ultimately produced a volume deemed to meet the interests of the publisher and the FAP.

A slow, careful engagement with Abbott’s images of a shifting New York together with both the intended captions and the reduced, revised replacements is the best way to entertain this book. The essays that follow will then enhance one’s appreciation of Abbott as an artist and understanding of how and why Changing New York was itself changed in the process of publication. The final book was, it must be noted, met with great critical acclaim and stands as an important photographic text. Now, however, its creators original project can be appreciated, and full power of Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland’s documentary vision can be understood.