Concentrating the mind and standing still often seem two of the most elusive experiences in New York. In To a Great City, the second edition of the Guggenheim’s multidisciplinary stillspotting nyc program that ran from September 15-18 and 22-25, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and the NYC- and Oslo-based architectural firm Snøhetta sought to provide New Yorkers with opportunities to do just that. At five sites located along the perimeter of Ground Zero, Pärt’s minimalist, monastic compositions permeated a series of spaces where large white balloons were the only physical alterations to already naturally seductive spots. The installation was a clear ode to New York, and the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was both physically and psychologically just beyond the immediate experience, providing a quiet and elegant elegy.
The recommended route took the visitor from the Labyrinth at the Battery, then onto a ferry to the two sound installations on Governors Island, back on the ferry to the Woolworth Building and then, in one of the best orchestrated (so to speak) finales to a project, up an elevator to the 46th floor of 7 World Trade Center and a 360-degree-view of the island of Manhattan and its surrounds.
At the entrance to the Labyrinth — a small, circular, grassy maze built to commemorate 9/11 on its first anniversary — visitors were provided with iPods programmed with an Arvo Pärt composition. As one concentrated on the maze, and the large white balloon in the middle of it, Pärt’s music completed the task of shutting out surrounding sounds, people and movement. Of course, it is impossible to forget you are actually in New York, and that was never the intention. One brief look up and the skyscrapers are still, reassuringly, there. Some visitors sat on nearby benches, listening to the music and gazing at the big white balloon and at others navigating the maze. Perhaps the most valuable experience these installations provided is one very rare for the modern city dweller — a place and time for such secular meditation.
The space where this was most obviously and effectively borne out was in the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building, whose famous gorgeous lobby was built to resemble the inside of a Gothic cathedral. Visitors were seated on the main staircase and faced out, looking onto Broadway, watching the traffic and the pedestrians while listening to an especially Gregorian-sounding score. The original Gothic cathedrals made their celestial claims persuasive through the use of architectural elements that appealed to people’s emotions — high vaulted ceilings, large windows pouring in light and a daunting, humbling scale — and the Woolworth Building shares many of these elements. But the combined experience of the five sites and installations, including the time commitment (visiting all five sites took at least 3-4 hours), the ecclesiastical-sounding music, the heightened awareness of your personal meditations within the surroundings of an overwhelmingly-large city, all effectively formed a sort of modern secular cathedral.
The sites on Governors Island did veer from this effect and seemed to have a program all their own, quite apart from the rest. The effort to get to Governors Island, the exploration of the multi-chambered underground cavern of the first site, with the slightly melodramatic music, did not provide the feeling that one has entered a place and left the rest of life behind. Instead, a more directed and anxious feeling of searching for the right way to experience the space and sound emerged, perhaps defying the objectives of the project. The other site on Governors Island, a grassy hill with the view of the city ahead, was lovely but reminded one that a long line and a boat ride back across the river awaited.
The final installation, on the 46th floor of 7WTC, was indeed a crescendo and one or two visitors even squealed in delight as the doors to the elevator opened and they took in the view — a full 360-degree view of New York City, with the Empire State Building in a seeming straight line to 7WTC. After the somber music, gilded and detailed architecture and stillness of the installation in the Woolworth Building, 7WTC definitely felt lighter, the music a touch more “Rhapsody in Blue” than Gregorian chants.
Some critics have mused that really all one needs is their own iPod with dramatic ecclesiastical music and a long walk along any New York street to achieve the same effects as these installations. And like the Gothic cathedral, which manipulates its visitors through emotional tricks, these installations perhaps do the same. But a secular cathedral is rare and valuable and it is indeed a shame that this project was temporary.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.