Alexandra Lange | Essays

The Sound of Waves

There’s a lovely confluence of modern architecture and waterfalls on the east side of Manhattan, and we managed to hit three excellent examples of the type during Open House New York. Our destination was the Japan Society, which just opened a lovely show of mostly stencilled textiles by 20th-century Japanese artist (once a Living National Treasure) Serizawa. There’s a kimono in the show from 1976 as luscious as any Morris Louis painting. My husband had never seen the Japan Society because he (like me until recently) had embarrassingly thought it was the same thing as the Asia Society.

The 1971 building by Junzo Yoshimura was the first by a leading Japanese architect in New York City, and is exactly what you would expect a Japanese architect, tasked with building a monument to his own traditions in Manhattan in the 1970s would do. From the outside, it looks like SOM in modest mode, with dark metal siding and long horizontal balconies. The underside of the second-floor balcony, which holds lighting for the sidewalk below, is lined with thin wooden flanges, softening the lights and the corporate lines.

Walk in, and the city literally falls away. The interior of the four-story building (later expanded to five) is filled bya fountain whose falls create a sonic hum that blocks all other noise. Trees and grasses grow around and in the water on two levels, and a wood-tread staircase leads you up to the second-floor gallery, also housed behind wood walls. It is as if a Japanese house and garden had been transplanted wholesale. The atrium has a plaque thanking Blanchette and John D. Rockefeller III, and it is another Rockefeller, John’s sister Abby, responsible for the falls (louder still) at GreenAcre Park on East 51st Street.

We happened upon GreenAcre, which I had read about many times in William H. Whyte’s Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (watch his films on YouTube) walking from the 6 train and had to stop. There’s a snack bar, and a pergola, and green-painted Bertoia chairs around tiny Tulip tables. This is one of the parks that Whyte used as the positive argument for the midtown plaza bonus in his book, and a rebuke to all those building owners who purposely design repulsive piazzas. It is both intimate and able to be scanned from the street, shaded and wide open. Once up the short flight of steps you could be anywhere. The Japanese influence is plain in that pergola, and in the stepped fall of water that separates the park from the synagogue to the east. The architects, Sasaki Associates, landscaped most of the modern corporate campuses of the 1960s, using water, naturalistic plantings, and changes in grade (all tricks of the Japanese garden) to make places appear larger than reality.

The last falls are adjacent to 100 United Nations Plaza, a double-waterfall set a few steps below the sidewalk and hard by First Avenue. There are just enough built-in brick stools and low walls for three small groups to happily eat lunch, and the rush of water masks the traffic. Right around the corner is the Choux Factory, selling the delicious custard puffs that are big in Japan. The owners obviously felt right at home next to the falls.

Posted in: Architecture

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