Happy birthday, New York World’s Fair!

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. This year is also the 75th anniversary of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, which took place in the same park in Queens. I can’t be at today’s festivities (which include the New York State Pavilion being open to the public from 11 am to 2 pm – if you’re in New York City, please try to find a way to take advantage of this RARE opportunity!), but I made a quick and dirty Google Map featuring some of my favorite highlights of each fair. In most cases, I’ve marked spots where you can still see some physical evidence of the item or event, but a few – like the Carousel of Progress & it’s a small world pavilion locations – are just grassy fields today.

I’ll continue adding to this as time goes on (and as I learn the finer points of Google Mapping), but this is a pretty good start if you’re a fairground newbie. A link to the full map, freed from its iframe, is here.

Also, because I am pretending I am at the fairgrounds today, here’s a picture of me with the Unisphere when they had the fountains on for the Queens Museum’s grand reopening last fall.

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Elsewhere

Today, I am lucky enough to be over on Not Intent on Arriving, a blog run by my friend Kristin. I was thrilled when Kristin asked to include me in her ongoing Wednesday Writers series – it’s great to get a chance to talk about a bit of the why and how behind my internet presence, including this blog.

If you’ve clicked through from Kristin’s blog, welcome! Posting’s been a little light lately, but hopefully you’ll find something you’d like to read. I’ve got some pretty fun posts about Disney World, New York, and Alabama in the pipeline.

Park Benches and Public Performance: The World’s Fair & Beyond

When was the last time you actively thought about a park bench? I mean, beyond, “Hey, there’s a bench! What a wonderful place to take respite from my outdoor activity! I am going to sit on that bench, and sit on it good!”? Benches are one of those objects that we prize for their utility. Yes, they are also often lovely, but that isn’t our primary interest in them. In an ideal world, they are just set-dressing in a beautiful park, and there is always one available for us to use under the shade of a broad-branched tree.

One of my first weekends here, I was taking a walk through our local postage-stamp park when I glanced at a park bench and noticed the embossed mark of its maker on the leg.

This bench hailed all the way from the Nutmeg State! Just like me! Because I am a sucker, I immediately decided it was a sign that I could also find a comfortable home in Alabama, where I could grow lichen all over me, just like that bench!

And then, through the magic of Twitter, the story unfolded:

Fantastic! If there was ever a bench for me to discover, it was this one! This bench was designed and built originally for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, though it is in use in parks around New York City and the rest of the country through today (obviously). It’s a pretty classic park bench. According to the manufacturer’s website, Robert Moses collaborated with Kenneth Lynch himself on the design of the benches, in order to maximize comfort and improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process. Ms. Sears also informed me that Central and Prospect Parks use the Central Park Settee, also created by K. Lynch and Sons, and they still order them from the company today.

Both the 1939 and 1964 world’s fairs were held in the same place in New York City, Flushing Meadows Corona Park. I’ve written about the remnants of the fairs before, more than once. It probably doesn’t surprise you that one weekend just before I moved, on my way to LaGuardia to return a rental car, I stopped off at the former fairgrounds for a last look-see before I headed south for a while. While I was there, I noticed the benches. Because, I am learning, I apparently like benches. Anyway, this is what they look like in 2014:

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Those curved legs and that jaunty posture! No other bench has ever shouted “SPACE AGE” at me so clearly. I had walked by these benches dozens of times before without giving them a second glance. This visit, though, I snapped a photo, figuring they were part of the park’s infrastructure that hasn’t been changed since the 64-65 fair.

I remembered seeing a photo of women seated on benches at the 60s fair, and did a quick Google search to turn it up. The photo was shot by Gary Winogrand, and was recently on exhibit at SF MoMA.

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If you look beyond the ladies, you’ll recognize the shape of the benches’ legs from the photo above.

Armed with the information about the manufacturer of the 1939 World’s Fair benches, I took to their website and discovered that K. Lynch and Sons also has a 1964-65 World’s Fair model bench, though it’s not clear to me if they designed the ones originally used during the fair or just based their model on those. I did find some info on the materials used in these benches, and about updates made to them in the years since the fair:

All benches for the 1964 World’s Fair were composed of cast aluminium supports with green fiberglass slats. Only 8 of these benches retain their fiberglass slats and all the rest have been replaced with wood, which are fixed on top of and not wrapped around the aluminum knuckles. This changed their ergonomic profile, so sit on each type and see which is more comfortable!

I also found a piece from the NYC Parks Department identifying this model as one still used in parks, but without much further information. I haven’t seen this bench type in any other parks in NYC or elsewhere, but if you have, let me know!

The 1960s bench seems a perfect artifact of its era and for its purpose. The 20th century world’s fairs were future-gazing extravaganzas, and 1960s futurism was all curved lines and modern materials (remember, these benches were originally outfitted with fiberglass slats). Think of the intro to The Jetsons, which originally aired in 1962-63. Everythaaang is curvy, and all those buildings on tall poles remind me of the observation decks on the NY State Pavilion, still standing 100 feet from where I snapped the photo of benches a few weeks ago.

The 39-40 World’s Fair was also preoccupied with the future, but its benches were Victorian in design. In fact, that NYC Parks post actually says the 30s bench was based on a turn-of-the-century design. I don’t mean this as a condemnation of the benches, since they are lovely and still in use all over the place. In fact, perhaps they were based on an older design as a way of future-proofing them; Moses, et al, knew the benches would be in use beyond the end of the fair, and didn’t want them to be immediately dated. We saw similar attitudes in approaches to futuristic theming later in the 20th century, when anyone trying to create a futuristic world went back to 1950s ideas and aesthetics about the future.

I did a little more sleuthing around, and found similar benches in this post about seating at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. And, in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Jack Spence photographed what I’m pretty sure is actually a 1939 World’s Fair bench, though it’s missing the crossbars behind the back:

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Another photo in that post shows a bench with legs similar to the 64-65 World’s Fair bench. I only wish I’d done this research before my recent trip to Walt Disney World, so I could have been on the lookout for more!

The fact that each fair had its own bench designs, that several of the parks in NYC have their own, and that so many different thematic areas in Disney theme parks have their own seating designs, speaks to the importance of seating in setting the stage for the activities that go on there. In 1964, organizers wanted visitors to the New York World’s Fair to be thinking about the future, to feel like they were getting a glimpse into it, to feel like the Avenue of Progress wasn’t just a street, but a path to the future. So they created a bench. In the area of Disney’s Hollywood Studios where the above bench was found, designers wanted visitors to relax in a picturesque version of the USA where some of their favorite movie characters may have lived. And, in the parks that still use the 1939 World’s Fair bench today, everyday citizens are invited to sit on a picturesque, stereotypical park bench, the kind you see in paintings and in the movies, and enjoy the day. You may not realize it when you’re participating in it, but the design of the bench you’re sitting on – the whimsy of the curved wrought iron, the classic green slats – is probably influencing your park experience in a positive way. By sitting on that bench, you are giving a performance of What it Means to Go to the Park, whether you’re in Central Park in New York City, or Cloverdale Park in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Beta Release of the Cooper-Hewitt’s New Collection’s Portal Lights Up Their Collection

There is lots to explore in the beta release of the Cooper-Hewitt’s new collections portal.

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First, check out the way the images are displayed. The thumbnails are giant and all square, but when you mouseover, you see the full image in its original aspect ratio (as I’ve done in that image on the right up there). They use close ups to lead the viewer in, trusting them to click on and explore more deeply objects that interest them.

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Secondly, there are about a million ways to explore the collection, including by COLOR! Super fun way to remove a barrier to entry that lots of people who aren’t art historians (like me!) experience.

They have detailed a lot of their process (and have released some of their codes) in this blog post, which is a good read: http://labs.cooperhewitt.org/2013/b-is-for-beta/ 

And once you’be poked around on the Cooper-Hewitt’s collections portal, consider checking out the Rijksmuseum’s, from with the C-H folks borrowed pretty heavily. The Rijksmuseum’s collections portal is a fabulous resource, fun to explore, and they’ve made high resolution images of their objects available for download under a Creative Commons license. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection If you haven’t already done so, make sure to play with the Master Matcher tool to find works that you’re a total match with: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/mastermatcher

Open House NY: The TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport

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Last October, I got to explore the TWA Flight Center as part of the 10th annual Open House NY Weekend, a glorious weekend in the city where architects, private residents, and organizations open their doors and let the public in, in order to raise awareness and appreciation for the city’s architectural landmarks and design treasures. They released the guide to this year’s weekend, and I was delighted to see the TWA Flight Center on the program again.

Closed since 2001, the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport is currently empty and now ringed in by JetBlue’s shiny, new Terminal 5.  There have been many attempts to restore and repurpose the iconic space since then, but nothing has quite made it through (most recently, I’ve heard it’s going to be turned into a branch of the Standard Hotel).

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The flight center was dedicated in 1962, and is now recognized as a glorious icon of forward-thinking design. The architect, Eero Saarinen, designed the space for efficiency, realizing that the age of mass air travel was upon us. It was one of the first terminals to feature enclosed jetways (the glorious tubes shown in Catch Me if You Can), baggage carousels, a PA system, and closed circuit television. Unfortunately, as time went on, planes got bigger, passenger expectations changed, and the terminal just couldn’t handle the demands of modern airline traffic. When American Airlines bought TWA in 2001, following the airline’s extended financial troubles, the terminal was closed. In 1994, it was declared a historic landmark, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

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I visited the Flight Center on a rainy morning last October, and fell in love immediately. I admit that I didn’t know much about it before trekking down to JFK, but it was absolutely worth the trip. The building’s streamlined, uplifted design makes you want to get in an airplane immediately, and the whiteness of the interior makes you feel like you’re already among the clouds. Huge windows in the seating area allow you to daydream about the destinations of planes you’re watching take off, and the many intimate corners of the terminal recall the romance of mid-century commercial air travel. And those tunnels! I can only imagine how it must have felt to pass through the long, sloping tunnels on your way to an airplane to adventures and exotic locales.

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Personally, I was struck by how different modern airport terminals feel compared to the atmosphere in the TWA Flight Center. Granted, a crowd of design dorks are different from a bunch of harried travelers, but still. On a recent trip, I had a layover in Atlanta where I wandered the airport for a few hours, thinking about how all airports feel basically the same, and how the cobbled-together terminals representing different eras somehow all feel like a mall, and a weird, liminal space all at once. When I travel by plane today, I feel transparent, and I can only ever grit my teeth and wait for it to be over. I can’t imagine that waiting for your flight on the luscious red upholstered benches in the TWA Flight Center could have felt that way; a visit to the terminal today is a glimpse into the days when plane travel felt glamorous.

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I hope that the Powers That Be settle on a fate for the TWA Flight Center soon. It’s a fascinating building that deserves more than occasional public use. The same way that Philip Johnson commented that enclosing the building by the JetBlue terminal was like tying a bird’s wings, leaving a building created for public use empty and stagnant is like slowly suffocating that bird. Public space should be active in order to remain relevant. And next weekend, you have a chance to activate the TWA Flight Center during the 2013 Open House NY Weekend. I won’t be able to make it this year, but I’ll be thinking of the flight center fondly on Sunday.

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P.S. If you like this, check out a few of the other old airline-specific terminals at JFK. Some super cool history and architecture there!

Complex Beauty: Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters

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I haven’t been to The Cloisters in about a million years (scientific!), and Sunday was a glorious early Autumn day in the city, so I figured it was about time to make the trek to Fort Tryon Park. An additional draw was the chance to experience Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, a work I loved at PS1.

The piece is considered Cardiff’s masterwork. She recorded each member of a 40-part choir singing their individual parts of a 16th century motet and plays each recording on its own, dedicated speaker. The effect is gorgeous when you’re standing amongst the speakers, hitting you square in the chest in a way that most recordings of the human voice just don’t. And, as an additional layer of the experience, you can walk to each speaker and listen to the individual parts. I haven’t been to a choir performance in a while, but I don’t think they welcome audience members to walk from performer to performer.

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 At PS1, the speakers were arrayed in an empty, white-walled former classroom, with large windows letting light pour in. The work was surprising and interesting, and it was a delight to wander among the speakers after a beer at WarmUp last summer. At the Cloisters, Forty Part Motet is placed in the “Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain.” The chapel is impressive, and has wonderful acoustics, but I actually found the setting distracted from the work. It put it into a religious context that, for someone who does not identify with that religion, made me feel like I should not be enjoying the piece as a work of art, but as a religious work. And it also pushed the piece into the realm of the heavy-handed and, dare I say, a bit cheesy.

That said, I still found the work inspiring, and admit that I probably wouldn’t have made it up to the Cloisters without it as a draw. The chapel was bustling with visitors on Sunday, and the galleries were well-attended. And even though I preferred the experience at PS1, there was some magic in hearing strains of the music filtering through the labyrinthine rooms and courtyards of the museum. It was a reminder of the lives many of the objects on display at the Cloisters had before they were in a museum, when they were in use, and that is a powerful thing.

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Forty Part Motet is the first contemporary piece to be shown at the Cloisters, which itself deserves more thought than I am qualified to give it. It will be on display at the Cloisters until December 8, and is definitely worth the long subway ride to northern Manhattan. After you visit, consider jumping on the M4 bus for a scenic ride down to the Met, same-day admission to which is included with your Cloisters ticket. (A slightly stranger spot to visit near the Cloisters is the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, where the remains of Mother Cabrini, who was canonized in 1946, are displayed.)

New Favorite: #AskaCurator Day! Today!

TODAY, September 18, 2013, is #AskACurator Day! Jump on Twitter (and find me at @heyshaelyn!), where you can use the hashtag #AskACurator to reach scores of curators from almost 600 participating museums who are at the ready to answer your questions about the field, their collections, their interactions with visitors, their favorite colors – anything you’ve ever wanted to #AskACurator!

I opened the Twitter app on my phone this morning, intending just to browse, and couldn’t help but ask some questions of the lovely curators in Europe who were online at that time. The response has been incredible, even to my sleep-muddled, lame questions. I can’t wait for curators in the US to join the fun any minute now!

More info, from the day’s organizer here.

A list of participating museums here.