the busy world is hushed

Conceived and founded by those fabulous de Menils, Rothko Chapel was dedicated in 1971 as an ecumenical non-denominational sanctuary. The tranquil grounds contain an unprepossessing octagonal brick Chapel and a public plaza where artist Barnett Newman’s colossal Broken Obelisk sculpture rises from a large, rectangular reflecting pool. Recognized as one of the great artistic achievements of the latter twentieth century, as a work of religious art it is firmly on a par with Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary or the Notre Dame du Haut Chapel by Le Corbusier. Widely known for his color field paintings, Mark Rothko had long yearned for the opportunity to create a total art space, to shape a complete environment where his paintings would be seamlessly integrated into the structure and purpose of the space that housed them. The Chapel commission granted the artist the unique freedom to create such an environment. Working closely with architect Philip Johnson, Rothko designed a sunlit octagonal space to hold a suite of fourteen majestic paintings in deep velvety blacks and purples, cultivating a spiritual quality of reverence and intimacy. As a non-believer the power of the Chapel as a sacred space is a bit difficult for me to grasp at first. Fitted with little more than a handful of benches, it’s a place to meditate, worship, pray, or experience the transformative power of art. Call it what you will, it’s a rare bird: a place where at least briefly the busy world can be hushed in abeyance of something larger.

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a park unlike any other

Minutes from downtown, San Diego’s Balboa Park is home to 15 major museums, several performing arts venues, amazing gardens and a bunch of other cultural and recreational attractions, including the world-famous San Diego Zoo. If that sounds like it might be a bit cramped, don’t worry: at 1,200 acres it is the nation’s largest urban park and handily ranks as one of the best green spaces in the world.  Much of the stunning Spanish Renaissance architecture and landscaping is the legacy of two great expositions that were crucial in creating the park as it stands today: the 1915 Panama California Exposition which heralded the opening of the Panama Canal and the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition held to boost the local economy during the depression. Many of the park’s cultural attractions lie along El Prado, a wide boulevard which cuts through the center, including The Old Globe, the Museum of Man, the Timken Museum of Art, and the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world, Spreckels Organ. Gardens in the park range from the formal plantings of the Alcazar Garden, to a Desert Garden of some 1,300 succulents from around the world; from the tropical oasis of Palm Canyon, to the fragrant Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden. There’s even an 18-hole golf course, a velodrome, archery ranges, and the Navy Medical Center, all within its generous boundaries.

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bom dia, portugal

It’s Mediterranean Month here on the site, with March trips to both Portugal and Spain. (Technically, I guess that makes it Iberian Month, but that’s not nearly as euphonious, n’est-ce pas?) Curiously, this is my first trip to the Iberian peninsula, so I am excited to see what’s in store:  the food and fado of Portugal, the art and architecture of Spain.  And of course, all that glorious Iberian ham.  For now, I think I’ve made the right choice in eschewing the city to start my travels in the lush Sintra countryside at Penha Longa, which traces its origins back to the 14th Century.

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we bring good things to life

Everybody knows the General Electric Building, the iconic structure that stands as a towering focal point of the Rockefeller Center building complex.  (Or at least everybody thinks they do)  Yet the other night while skyline-gazing on the magnificent rooftop of The Palace I discovered what turns out to be the original G.E. building – one of the most impressive examples of Byzantine-influenced Art Deco in the city – just a few short blocks  away to the east.

It was easy to get distracted by the southern view, which captured both the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings in one sweeping panorama.  However, looking to the east I quickly became enamored of the tall building on the corner of 51st and Lexington with Art Deco detailing in a warm rosy granite and an astounding Gothic latticework roof of carytids and sunbursts.  Thanks to the wonders of iPhone, I learned the 1931 skyscraper was first the home of RCA Victor, before becoming the General Electric Building.

Tucked in and behind St. Bart’s church, which fronts Park Avenue, the tower serves as an almost unofficial campanile, complementing the warm color of the church’s stonework while rising high above it.  It’s an unusual move for a commercial building and a very early example of contextual design.  And though by today’s standards the lobby would be considered small and sedate, there is a refined beauty in the details of  intricately vaulted ceilings and polished pink marble walls.

Even the subway entrance outside the building has a flash of Deco extravagance. Plus, notice the attention to detail afforded the glass lighting fixtures  along the perimeter.  Occupying such a small plot of land, the slim tower is adorned with a quantity of decorative detail that belies the building’s significance – which makes it the very quintessence of civic romance.

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adios imanta

One last look at Imanta – just because architecturally I really do love how the complex integrates into the environment rather than disturbing it or being obtrusive.  From the locally quarried stone and responsibly harvested wood, to the black slate pools and minimalist interiors, it’s an obvious design (and ethos) homage to Aman Resorts, but who cares?  Conceptually the idea of high-style/low-impact is a new thing for Mexico, land of the gringo-driven, mega-resort beach hotel, so any place that can make good on the promise of sustainability deserves credit in my book.  To do so with a flash of wit or whimsy only heightens the seduction for this traveler.

By the way, Imanta is only three months old.  They’re just getting their sea legs, so to speak, but are off to a stellar start.  I’m looking forward to watching this one grow up.

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wish list: ice hotel

It was back in 1996 that a handful of artists from around the world started visiting Jukkasjärvi in Swedish Lapland to help build  the first ICEHOTEL. About five hundred artists have passed through the tiny Arctic village since then and in November of 2009 another thirty-nine arrived to create one-of-a-kind art suites for the hotel’s twentieth anniversary.

Hailing from Australia, Bulgaria, Chile, England, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the USA, some  of the artists have been before, others not. Many have never before worked with snow and ice. It is a mix of men and women between thirty and seventy years of age: painters, multimedia designers, art directors and interior designers.  And all of them magicians, to an extent; all of them dreamers.

ICEHOTEL is often referred to as a fairytale world – a Narnia in Swedish Lapland.  Is it a hotel or an art installation?  A fantasy or the ultimate in hard-edged environmental realism?  Created each winter through a combination of wild imagination and  backbreaking work, it melts away under the unforgiving rays of the sun come springtime. All that remains are footprints, memories – and a few hopeful possibilities for the next year.

Label it what you will from a distance- it sounds like a place that needs to be experienced in order to be understood.

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norway on my mind

I was recently invited to travel to Norway next month and go trekking in search of the Northern Lights.

Coincidentally, an exhibition of the groundbreaking Norwegian architecture firm, Snøhetta, only just opened at Scandinavia House here in New York.  I’m eager to get down there to check it out before it shutters April 3rd.  Snøhetta is doing some of the most exciting work out there today:  socially conscious and sustainable, they create structures integrating culture, climate and context as these striking photos of the 2009 Mies van der Rohe Award winning Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo attest.  (Click each image for greater detail)

Even more exciting for New York, the firm has been commissioned to design the 9/11 Memorial Pavilion dowtown.

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