Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Book Review: Two New York City Guides

Public Art New York by Jean Parker Phifer, with photography by Francis Dzikowski
W.W. Norton, 2009
Paperback, 288 pages

10 Architectural Walks in Manhattan by Francis Morrone and Matthew A. Postal, with photography by Edward A. Toran
W. W. Norton, 2009
Paperback, 303 pages

In a recent review for publication I called two guidebooks for New York City part of a cottage industry. Beyond the usual tourist guides, a plethora of books try to carve a niche from the many layers of history, culture, art, architecture, landscapes and other conditions that make up the metropolis. How a book locates itself in this cottage industry is a good indicator of how successful it will be, of how useful a reference the guide will become for tourists and locals alike. These two guides, both published by W.W. Norton, each have a very clear focus, though also a good amount of overlap that make them fitting companions. Art and architecture in the eyes of the urban explorer are many times fused into one, the latter only varying the inclination of the gaze when tall buildings come into play.

Public Art New York by architect Jean Parker Phifer collects "the best public art in all five boroughs," though the majority is, not surprisingly, in Manhattan. Public, in Phifer's words, is meant in the broadest sense of the term, including indoor spaces open to the public, such as lobbies, a decision that recalls how Nolli rendered the interior of churches and other buildings as extensions of the public realm. The guide uses full-color photos by Francis Dzikowski for every selected artwork to help the reader/explorer determine what he or she will visit. Of course the inverse holds true, and like other guides it becomes a handy reference when coming unexpectadly coming across a sculpture or other artwork.

The 242 works are arranged geographically into 11 chapters, with reference maps that unfortunately omit subway lines and notable art-related locations in the area. (Testing the book on an Upper East Side walk, I felt like stopping by the Whitney, but I couldn't remember exactly where it's located; an anticpatory glance at the map failed to yield its location.) The artworks run the gamut in style, time period, medium, as well as geography. Descriptive text is brief but informative, elevating the importance of context, be it physical, political, economic, etc. Given Phifer's background as an architect, installations in and in front of buildings are found throughout, giving the guide a balanced view of what is considered art, in addition to what is considered public.

The Municipal Art Society's (MAS) 10 Architectural Walks in Manhattan puts down on paper what the organization has been doing since 1956, showing people the city on foot, rain or shine. Two of their knowledgable tour guides contribute five walking tours each; Francis Morrone (of 2Blowhards fame) focuses on the historical walks, while Matthew A. Postal (editor of the Guide to New York City Landmarks) deals with modern and contemporary architecture. My tastes veer to the latter, but finding myself at my old City College stomping grounds recently I brought along the guide as a companion to the campus and surrounding Hamilton Heights. It should be said that even though the walking tours have a start and an end (well-mapped at the start of each chapter, with subway lines to boot), they read well in reverse order or as separate buildings. References to other buildings are thoughtfully keyed, aware of the manner in which a book allows for the walking tour to devolve into something more personal, less scripted. Clearly the book cannot recreate the experience of listening to Morrone, Postal or another guide, even as it encourages an A to B route.

Returning to Hamilton Heights, Morrone's text is full of the formal and stylistic descriptions common to appreciations of historical architecture. Those curious about tracery, pediments, gargoyles and other features will be satiated, but thankfully Morrone brings a deep knowledge of the island and each building's past, situating the latter in the former's context. His tongue is especially barbed when it comes to recent architecture, particularly when it stands in strong opposition to something like City College's Shepard Hall, as the North Academic Center does. Of course this is an example of an overbearing Modernism that doesn't work on so many levels I'm inclined to share Morrone's ire. Postal is more sympathetic to modern and contemporary architecture, but he still pulls out the critical punches when he sees fit. His descriptions likewise focus on appearance mixed with history, blurring the authorship, so that only the historical/modernist dichotomy of the chapters indicates even a need for two authors. Or, in other words, this is a MAS guide first and foremost. It furthers their mission of celebrating the city's many layers and appreciating them firsthand.