Thursday, January 16, 2014

From School of Design to DSM New York

On the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and East 30th Street sits an impressive temple-like building that may look familiar to some TV watchers. The building is portrayed as the library of Finch on Person of Interest, but well before this fictional existence the building served as the home for the New York School of Applied Design for Women. Designed for the school by one of its professors, Harvey Wiley Corbett, the building was completed in 1908 and designated a NYC landmark in 1977. The school, which eventually became the Pratt-New York Phoenix School of Design, sold the building to Touro College in 1991, who in turned sold the building in 2006. Since last month the building has been home to DSM New York, a seven-story fashion bazaar curated by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons fame.

[All photos by John Hill]

Some glimpses of the "high-priced temple of consumerism" can be had from outside, but for the most part what's going on in DSM is hidden behind the substantial walls:

But once inside the place is anything but subtle. A cafe is found on the ground floor below the high windows at the corner. A yarn-wrapped column stands out in the otherwise brick-and-drywall space, the same column treatment that happens on other floors in the same location. Besides this column and the glass elevator that runs through the seven floors, the rest of the space is a hodgepodge of interior design and fashion, reflecting the diversity of the many occupants crammed into the small building.

I visited the building to check out the "Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator" designed by Madeline Gins, what must have been her last built work; she died on January 8th.

Obviously a stair rather than an escalator, the cocoon-like piece connects the third and fourth floors at DSM New York. Even amongst the interior design and fashion clamoring for attention, the sculptural stair stands out.

For those not familiar with the ideas of Gins and her partner Arakawa (who died in 2010), the duo aimed to overcome death by creating unfamiliar spaces that require the constant reconfiguration of the body. They believed that the body's movements linked with the mind would suspend death, if you will. To put it another way, familiar environments numb us, while their creations elevate our experiences and therefore our lives.

With a communicating stair that must comply with building and accessibility codes (for stairs, this means a minimum width, a small range for handrail sizes and heights, maximum riser heights, and minimum tread depths) there is not much room for their "reversible destiny" architecture, but Gins worked within the practical frameworks and small space to create something memorable.

First, there is the exterior form, a blob that is clearly a handmade sculpture rather than the blobs generated in the computer by architects.

Second, there are the "wings" that protrude in and out of the shell – each one is a study of a room at a different scale, each with an appropriately sized wood mannequin.

Third are the curling and intertwining handrails that veer just enough from the norm to feel different as we run our hands along them.

And finally there are the steps themselves, which feel like they are slightly irregular. They are not too tall nor too shallow to not comply with code, but they feel like they vary from one step to the next, even if only a fraction of an inch. We use stairs so much that we become conditioned to their ADA-mandated sizes and the consistency from step to step, so much so that even the slightest departure from the norm is noticeable.

Gins may not have survived long after the opening of DSM New York, but she's left something that hopefully will give shoppers something to think about and feel. Seeing some shoppers taking note of the stair and taking photos of each other inside of it on my visit confirmed that she created something special.

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