19 June 2016

Things Seen in Oslo

Munch still packs them in at the National Gallery.
When I visited Oslo in May 2011, the landscape architect Jøstein Bjørbekk took me around the east waterfront, which he and his firm had a role in planning. We spent most our time at the new Opera House and then at Akke Brygge, an expansive redevelopment of an industrial and docklands area adjoining the ferry slips near Oslo City Hall.
The new Opera House by Snøhetta.

Before I met up with Bjørbekk, my cousin Helge explained—as we looked out from Ekeberg, a hillside restaurant that has commanding view of the harbor—that Oslo was forcibly moved from the east to the west side of Akershus, the fortress that guards the city, after one of Norway’s Danish kings tire of the fires that regularly swept through the town. Five years later, revisiting the city, I took the train from the airport to National Theater, a station that’s in walking distance of Akke Brygge

There’s so much new construction that it took me a while to spot familiar landmarks nearer to where the ferry to Nesodden docks. But I found it, stopping to have a coffee before the next ferry arrived. I noticed immediately that the building housing the café was different than I remembered. Bjørbekk told me later that it was replaced as part of the expansion that was in planning in 2011.

Two paintings by Harriet Backer that I've always liked.
Owing to the long weekend and my cousin Elsie’s funeral, I didn’t make it back to Oslo until five days later. I went first to the National Gallery, a favorite destination. There are plans to replace it with a new building closer to Akke Brygge. Meanwhile, the collection has been “improved” by organizing the work thematically instead of chronologically. Of course, there’s still a rough chronology, but it has changed the character of most of the galleries and reduced the amount of work on display. The old ordering made it possible to appreciate how artists of the same period develop separately and yet together. That contrast is useful, because every period includes its outliers. It also gives the unfolding work a broader narrative—in particular, about how art abandoned history and then the figure in the decades from the mid-19th century to the 1920s, roughly. 

Approaching the Astrup Fearnley Museum from the north.
Leaving the National Gallery, I walked through the National Theater end of the long park that’s fronted by the Parliament Building on the other end, and then made my way to Akke Brygge. Its expansion includes a lengthy promenade along the waterfront, ending in the new Astrup Fearnley Museum, designed by Renzo Piano and his workshop. It has two parts—one along the water, the other loosely attached to an apartment block that somewhat overshadows it. The collections are on the landside, while a bookstore, ticket kiosk, and café hug the water. This is a private museum with an eclectic contemporary collection—a mix of international “names” and less well-known artists nearer to home. 

Looking south from the upstairs gallery at the Astrup Fearnley Museum.
Piano and his workshop have done their best with a constricted site, organizing long galleries that sometimes dead-end and other times open out to the harbor or back to the town. I’m guessing that it was designed just before or around the same time as the new Whitney, and they share an interest in making the view part of the gallery experience.   

Detail of Akke Brygge, giving a sense of its density.
Akke Brygge proper may now be too dense. The promenade sports a number of restaurants with outdoor terraces—the most interesting are closer to the Town Hall end. Its design, including new bridges and places to get down the water, is very good. The buildings share a similar height and bulk, which makes for a less convincing whole. Efforts to differentiate them only create visual cacophony. 

The Bar Code seen from the Opera House.
On my return visit to meet up with Jøstein Bjørbekk, he came to the ferry and we took a quick look at Akke Brygge. Then we drove over the east waterfront to look at two areas that were just beginning construction when we saw them in 2011. The Bar Code is an assemblage of office buildings, closely spaced along the south side of the track way east of Oslo’s Central Station. 

Jøstein Bjørbekk crossing over the trackway. There's a Michelin-starred restaurant in the office building ahead - we were offered a rare table for two for lunch, which we declined.
Two new pedestrian bridges reconnect the two sides, and there are some new buildings there, too—one with a Michelin three-star restaurant, Maaemo.

One of the interior east-west passages under a Bar Code building.
Each Bar Code building is by a different architect. The packed nature of the site is relieved by its considerable porosity, with east-west paths linking it up and wider north-south paths providing multiple ways in and through. For a purely commercial project, the Bar Code is thoughtfully done. That care keeps it from feeling overwhelming, despite its density.

New housing in Bjørvika with a view of the harbor from an inner courtyard.
Along the harbor proper is the emerging new Bjørvika district that includes the new Opera House. Adjoining it to the southeast will be a replacement Munch Museum designed by Juan Herreros—a controversial, 12-story scheme with a three-story podium. (The original Munch Museum, which opened in 1963 in the Tøyen area of the city, was designed by Einar Myklebust and Gunnar Fougner.) 
Housing on pilotis to give a view of the harbor and promenade from a courtyard.
South of the museum site is a former shipping pier, long and wide, that has been completely redeveloped as a residential neighborhood. Bjørbekk and I spent most our time here, admiring the variety of housing types and the skillful integration of interior courtyards, walkways, waterside promenades, and places for recreation and events. The scale is looser and less intensive than Akke Brygge, with great use of the harbor itself as an amenity, since this is a fjord where people can safely swim. 

The swimming pool that uses the fjord for water.

The recreation event, in an area that looks over to the still-active harbor.
It was the weekend, and the Oslo “commune” had organized a festival of recreational events. Two food trucks augmented the on-site restaurant to serve the crowd. At the southeast corner of the former pier, an outdoor swimming pool has been created in the fjord itself, complete with lanes. At the other end, there’s a sheltered place to launch kayaks. Along the whole expanse, set apart from the housing rather than letting it hog the view, there’s ample room for outdoor life that makes full use of the fjord—a pattern that is typical of the region. That it’s shared with the community at large is a good thing.
Jøstein Bjørbekk with one of his Harbor Promenade markers.
Another promenade marker near the recreational event area.
While we were walking around Bjørvika, Bjørbekk pointed out one of his most recent projects, a series of orange markers, made from different parts of shipping containers, that denote a walking route one can take from one end of the harbor to the other. Each marker picks up on its setting, mixing super-graphics and other details to set it in place.

The Ekeberg restaurant terrace and view.
View from the path in the Ekeberg sculpture park.

We then left the harbor and drove up to Ekeberg, a restaurant and sculpture park that’s the brainchild of Christian Ringnes, a wealthy entrepreneur. Designed in the international style by Lars Backer in the late 1920s, the restaurant fell into disrepair, but was rescued and restored by Ringnes. It anchors Ekeberg Park, a vast woodland owned by the Oslo “commune” that Ringnes has filled with his sculpture collection. Bjørbekk and his firm worked on it as planners and landscape architects. The result is quite beautiful, setting the art within in nature in a way that never feels intrusive, but which also allows the work to find its own places in this unhurried, essentially natural setting.

Damian Hirst sculpture at the former German cemetery in Ekeberg Park.

I’m not that fond of Damian Hirst’s work, but his riff on the death sculpture that adorns many Victorian-era graveyards is entirely right for one part of the park that was the German cemetery during World War II. The dead were reburied elsewhere in Oslo, but the place has been recast to recover that history. “The dead are the dead,” Manfred Rommel said as he granted permission for the proper burial of Andreas Baader and others of Red Army Faction. I was reminded of his remark when I saw this.

15 March 2015

My Arts & Crafts

A few years ago, my friend Doug Wittnebel posted a digital sketch he made that included a photo. Making inquiries, I learned that he used an iPad app called Procreate to do it. After getting a copy, I started making photo-collages, typically sampling the stream of images that kick up on tumblr and Facebook. While there's an ebb and flow to it, I work fairly consistently at it, finding the medium conducive to the kind of free association that also drives my poetry. 

As a kid, I painted watercolors at a Saturday class at Tanglin School in Singapore. My mother kept the pad, so I still have a record of the work. She also kept several sketchbooks. The watercolors have a free style that seems to reflect a fearless approach to that quite tricky medium. The drawings are tighter, with text as a graphic element - literally, since I couldn't read, but had memorized perhaps 100 words in the course of trying and failing to learn by rote. The "J" in my name is typically reversed. Rudolf Steiner, understanding the visual nature of young children, tried to keep them from reading. In my case, not being able to read sharpened my visual-graphic memory. (I still can't remember people's names until I see them written out.)

I never did well with art as taught. Photography interested me, but it took the iPod and iPhone to revive it. The artist Henrik Drescher told me that he finds digital art too removed from art as he practices it, but for me, the iPad has proved to be a liberating medium. Starting with visual material triggers my imagination, which is fundamentally receptive.

In relation to weaving, though, I can appreciate Drescher's preference for materiality and process. I've done weaving for about three years, moving from a very simple two-shaft loom to a four-shaft loom on which I can do patterns. Weaving combines planning with improvisation. It's the closest I get to design - to the part that resonated with me when I studied it. Mixing different colors, thicknesses, and textures in with variations in the weft is the heart of it. I see commonalities between doing this kind of weaving and writing sonnets.

I post my photo-collages on my tumblr site as I do them. It's interesting to see what gets traction there. The one above had a life of its own; I wouldn't have chosen it myself. (The one below is a favorite, for example.) The artist Ward Schumaker told me that he generates a lot of work and then culls through it. So in this respect tumblr is my warehouse.

13 March 2015

Two Deaths

News of the deaths of Michael Graves and Herb McLaughlin reached me on the same day, although McLaughlin died earlier, in February. Their arc (1934-2015) was also similar. 

I met Graves once, at a signing party for the version of The Great Gatsby that he illustrated. I also heard him on a panel with Thom Mayne, during which it was evident that Mayne loathed him. Graves was an elegant man. On the panel, he was ebullient and self-deprecating, making no claims for his work except to note that he liked to draw. (His making no claims seemed to annoy Mayne even more.) Graves had a real hand, as good as Aldo Rossi. Their work had similarities, although Rossi was more astringent. His Theater of the World was to me their point of overlap. Charles Moore, the pop-art Venturi and Scott-Brown, Ettore Sottsass and Memphis, Isozaki, Botta, Jerde - at certain points in their respective careers, they and Graves overlapped.

Graves could be hit or miss. While some of his buildings were outlandish, others were iconic. The objects, especially the Alessi teapot, and the drawings are wonderful. He was a miniaturist who managed to get writ large. That's not always a good thing, but it comes with the territory of "architect."

Herb McLaughlin was an entrepreneur who attracted entrepreneurs in turn; they came and went. His instincts were sound, but his attention span was brief. He constantly reinvented his firm. To me, it never quite added up, but each new incarnation was interesting, a snapshot of the zeitgeist. Born later, he might have been part of the current cohort of new-tech moguls - disruption came quite naturally. Thanks to a mutual friend, I met him socially on two occasions. He too was elegant, and good company. Architects often stake their claims to a larger reputation on their work, but McLaughlin seemed to understand that "being Herb" was sufficient.

25 January 2015

Bill Callaway, 1943-2014

The program for Bill's memorial.

The landscape architect Bill Callaway died in the fall on 2014. I heard about it from a London friend whose October visits sometimes occasioned a dinner at Bill's house. He wrote me that "Bill lost his tussle with cancer." On 24 January 2015, my wife and I went to a memorial for him organized by his company, SWA Group, in Sausalito. The place was packed, which was good to see. Along with members of his family, the speakers included Peter Walker, a founder of SWA's predecessor firm and a mentor to Bill and others, and the architect Rodney Friedman, leading what must have been a Harvard cheer at the end.

Bill was a leading light among landscape architects and planners. In the panoply of that field, SWA has and had a strong reputation. It was never trendy, but it consistently produced good work, especially in the arena of commercial work where more high-flying competitors often faltered. Under Bill's leadership, SWA won the ASLA's Firm Award.

At a dinner once, I had a short, memorable conversation with Bill. It followed an even shorter one at the memorial for Barry Elbasani, another good man that cancer took early. It wasn't anything really special, but I got a sense of him. When this happened, other things made sense - I understood why Bill was the sun around which so many others orbited. When that light and heat go out, those lives can go dark. So I was glad to see everyone regrouping and hear the jokes. We all grew up listening to "Paint It Black," but Bill wouldn't have wanted us to take the lyrics to heart.

02 November 2014


Preparing the warp on a four-shaft Saori loom.
I started weaving a few years ago at Saori Berkeley, a studio not too far from my house that's run by Lynn Harris. I began with a two-shaft Saori loom - one of hers - but then another came up for sale. I bought it and, with her help, converted it to four shaft. In that configuration, I can weave patterns. 

The B&W-white striped arrangement of the warp.
Lately I've been weaving scarves. This latest one, as I envision it, will have a B&W weft. I bought a black linen yarn and a white wool yarn at Claddagh Yarns, a shop in Walnut Square in north Berkeley. I haven't decided yet whether to use these yarns exclusively for the weft or mix them in with carpet thread, which is easier and faster to weave. I don't think out the design, but improvise as I go along. Weaving is like writing sonnets: there's a structure and you start off with an intention, and then they interact.

Detail of a recent scarf.
My interest in weaving began when I went to an exhibit of Mayan textiles at the old de Young Museum in San Francisco. One interesting aspect of it was the transition, in the 1940s, to synthetic fibers, but I was also struck by the colors. The scarf above is probably the most directly influenced by that show. In 2008, I spent time with my daughter in mountain towns south of Granada, Spain. In one of them, we found the studio-shop of a pair of weavers. They had floor looms, much bigger than mine. 

Floor looms are capable of larger, more intricately patterned work. I've had two opportunities to get a loom of that size, but I'm not ready. I only weave two hours a week, for starts, and I like weaving in a studio with other people. Then there's the question of what do with the output. Early in the summer, I had coffee with an artist friend and traded her a scarf for a painting. I liked that arrangement.

A scarf drying after being washed.
That scarf, shown above, was better suited in length for women, who like their scarves wrapped around them. I don't scarves that way, so the ones I weave for myself are shorter. This one, hanging up to dry, looks like a Japanese fish kite.

A scarf in a twill pattern.
The colors I choose vary - sometimes colorful, sometimes dialed back. Often the back half of the scarf is completely different from the front, one result of improvising as I go along. This one I could wear, and probably will. I like especially the mix of blue and black. The color of the warp affects the colors of the weft, which is part of the interest.

Another view of the scarf I traded.
The interplay of warp and weft is why I wanted to do patterned weaving. Some of that's possible with two-shaft Saori weaving, also, but I think the patterns bring it out more and permit juxtapositions of color that I particularly like.