14 August 2010

Big Bambu

DH on the roof of The Met.
The bamboo has much tactile appeal - you can't help but touch it.

View from The Met rooftop- great space, great view.

For several months this year that supreme vessel of culture, The Metropolitan Museum in the City of New York, has accessed its inner Robinson Crusoe and put a treehouse on its roof. The wonderful structure is formally titled "Big Bambu: You Can't, You Don't and You Won't Stop", and is conceived by twin brother artists Doug and Mike Starn.

Unlike the solitary Crusoe's shelter, however, this project is the product of a community of rock climbers, who began lashing lengths of bamboo together in March and will continue their high-wire building throughout the summer and early fall; the exhibit closes October 31. Although the structure itself is improvisational the art lover must plan ahead. While every visitor to The Met may go up to the rooftop, only 10 -15 people are allowed on each tour up and into the structure. Tickets are given out at specific times, with extra tours on Friday and Saturday. Our daughter joined the queue around 11:30 am on a Saturday; there were about twenty people ahead of us in line. You must be there in person to acquire a ticket and have a photo id. Shortly after noon we snaked up to the desk, and received tickets for the 3:30 pm tour.

We form an orderly queue.

The rules of conduct and attire for the tour.

The beginning of the tour.

View from up in the sculpture.

This exhibit was the first one I've experienced with rules, an upper weight limit for visitors (400 lbs.), a release form and a dress code. Enclosed, non slip footwear only - and they mean it - a slip could be trouble, as it's a long way down. Skirts are unwise, unless you want everyone to see France, and we left our handbags in lockers provided before walking up to the rooftop. I confess I took my camera and snapped a few illicit photos while on the tour.

Bamboo is hollow - hence lightweight -
except at the node between each segment of the culm, or stem.

Bamboo lashed to make a platform.
The bamboo gently flexes slightly as one walks on it.

Bamboo matrix contrasts with traditional architecture beyond.

Our tour guide was an enthusiastic young woman who gave us some of the background and technical details of the structure; one of our fellow visitors commented that he has worked in China and this is how they do scaffolding for buildings under construction. Another museum intern brought up the rear. The tour lasts about twenty minutes; we learn that on a previous tour a young man sat down on a sort of bamboo ledge, proposed and was accepted.

Daughter and rear guard at the end of the tour.

DH and daughter at end of tour.

The intern kindly gave us extra time to snap the photo before roping off the path.

Bamboo gate at end of the tour.

This installation, which I would strongly recommend visiting, affected me on many levels. I remember an art class at MIT during the '75-76 school year (yes, there are art classes at MIT) with the late sculptor Richard Filipowski. He asked us what was the first architectural connection. We looked confused - the mortise-and-tenon joint? No, the knot. When men and women first used fiber to connect sticks, that was the beginning of architecture. You see, it really does all come down to fiber.

Untitled, by Richard Filipowski.
credit: ACME Fine Arts Gallery, Boston.

I think Professor Filipowski would have appreciated the Starn's construction. The bamboo is tied together with assorted, multi-colored nylon cords, in a variety of knots, some recognizable from a camp manual, some uncategorizable. We always felt secure, however. Bamboo has incredible tensile strength, and there's a lot of redundancy in the structure.

Bamboo lashed, tied, bound, roped, made fast, secured - the verbs rush out.

Part of the structure christened the vortex,
If I'd shot this in black and white,
it could almost be an abstract expressionist "action painting".

We were lucky with weather for our trip in July - no heat wave that weekend - and enjoyed a bright sky, against which the bamboo formed a network of dark stripes.

Stem by stem, knot by knot, the bamboo forms - well, choose your metaphor:
neural lattice, multi-nodal network, interconnected web; you name it.

It would be fun to return on a weekday,
and watch the construction.

There are several types of bamboo, and the darker, greener type is
a denser, stronger stem. The color also changes over time.

I like her skirt in contrast with the monochrome bamboo.

The tour path.

You can see another tour group up in the structure.

Raw materials, from Georgia and South Carolina.

This structure has the exuberance and spontaneity to which Frank Gehry aspires. However, his buildings are functional, permanent structures that only posture improvisation - every odd-shaped window, every eccentrically loaded column, every bit of titanium sheathing of his costly designs is calculated, fabricated and modelled by sophisticated computer-aided software. The Met, that stolid, solid piece of neo-classical architecture, knows its place, but provides the perfect foil for these temporary installations. In much the same manner, Central Park provided the perfect backdrop for 2005 The Gates installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I wouldn't want The Gates to be permanent - it was special partly because it was fleeting- and Central Park shone again for its mutability.

The fact that Big Bambu is temporary and ephemeral makes it all the more special. Historically, there used to be a lot more temporary construction than today; this may help explain the appeal of Gehry's buildings - we crave the novel but have lost the tradition that built jousting lists and coronation stands, so we allow the latest fashion into our permanent landscape and then wonder why our landscape lacks coherence. Today, the term "temporary architecture" means little more than emergency shelter; it used to encompass structures for celebrations and events.

Ever-changing shadow and light - as the artists say,
the only constant is change.