Sunday, December 5, 2010

European Health Spa

For years, we've been driving down Westchester County's Central Park Avenue, and I've told myself that one day, I'd stop and take photos of the European Health Spa in Scarsdale. Last month, that day finally came. Husband, daughter, and I had a surprisingly good time for an exploration that wasn't natural in its nature and one that we explored in a surface way. As you can see below, daughter now likes to imitate the gestures of statues, which is what really made this pit stop interesting. And, of course, getting her in a "No Trespassing" photo. It's obvious that at one point, the European Health Spa was "visionary" for its creative use of architecture on a strip mall street. But now plants have taken over in much of the inside, and upon a closer look, that fantastic statue is plastic. No wonder it hasn't been taken by vandals. I found a post about this abandoned site dated 2004. I'm curious to see how long it will be before this buiding actually gets demo'd.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

2009's UE book of the year

If you're interested in urban exploration literature, you're already aware of Christopher Payne's photography book Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. Released in late September (2009) by The MIT Press, Asylum seemed to attract more publicity due to its inclusion of an Oliver Sacks essay, but Amazon states that it also won the 2010 Ken Book Award presented by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City Metro (NAMI-NYC Metro). For UE literature followers, it seems to be furthering the trend of UE subject-themed works, ie: photos featuring cans containing cremated human remains, gas station photo essays, and online visual encyclopedias of abandoned theaters.

Although part of UE photography is undeniably the beauty of ruins, there is a significant benefit derived from these subject-themed works. UE photography is shifting from being viewed as an artistic aesthetic and being used as a historical resource.

These UE subject-themed works are serving as journalism, but one that's aesthetically pleasing. Documenting ruins is now valued on a more mainstream level. Like any other genre of photography, the photographer engages in the activity for a variety of reasons; it might be about the modernist aesthetics to one; the photographic act for another. But documentation of what once was is arguably the most important aspect.

Oliver Sacks addresses this topic in the last, lengthy paragraph of his essay. Most of the essay provides a context only possible with works: the history of lunatic asylums, institutionalization, deinstitutionalization. But in his last paragraph, he states "One must not be too romantic about madness, or the madhouses in which the insane were confined...Payne is a visual poet as as well as an architect in training...His photographs are beautiful images in their own right, and they also pay tribute to a sort of public architecture that no longer exists. They focus both on the monumental and the mundane, the grand facades and the peeling paint."

Payne's essay provides a more specific context for the reader. He spends quite a bit of time explaining "the Kirkbride Plan", illustrating it with a four-part photograph and the floorplan of Massachusetts' Danvers Hospital. (The Kirkbride Plan is a design that was used by many mental hospitals and consists of a central administration building with numerous attached pavilions, built in a V formation.) Paynes' "Afterword" is a more personal recount of his experiences and includes beautiful photos of Danvers' demolition. Within the photos, Payne adds a few words as well; his paragraph about "The Quintessential View" is wonderful.

But what of the photos? As expected, they're provoking, thoughtful, and pleasing. A combination of exterior and interior shots, black & white and color photography, they show both the absence and presence of the patients. The buildings have a physical grandeur and importance that conflicts with their abandonment.

So, Asylum is 2009's UE book of the year, mostly because it is one of the few UE books to get mainstream recognition but also because it sheds light on what UE photography often means to the reader and viewer: an edgy, catchy, easy way to learn our history.

A couple of related links:

The New York Times' David W. Dunlap has a nice summary of the book, along with a slide show.

Amazon is so huge now that it's often accurate in regards to rare, out-of-print books. And the customer reviews are pretty great. This details Payne's previous book.

Sewell Chan's article focuses on Queens' Creedmoor Psychiatric Center.

Payne's photographic series on North Brother Island can be accessed here on his official website.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

my 2010 calendar

For the last couple of years, my wall calendar of choice has been the Environmental Art calendars from . Unless environmental art is your expertise, there are many relatively unknown artworks highlighted (one per month). is also a wonderful museum site featuring the work of many. (Of note, does indeed exist only online.)

Environmental art is more than Andy Goldsworthy, Robert Smithson, and Christo, and a lot of the work is much more complex. Some of the pieces featured in the 2010 calendar hit on an immediate and seemingly uncomplicated level: for example, Nicole Dextras' Yucca Prom Dress (2005) and Ilkka Halso's Rollercoaster (2004) (which, for the record, I find fascinating).

My favorite work in the 2010 calendar is multi-layered, ie: hits on the "immediate" level but also has numerous other concepts, statements, and implications within the work. Gilles Bruni and Marc Babarit's The Greenhouse and the Shed (2002) is March's art of choice, but I couldn't wait until March to post about it, as I sit here in January in New York and dream about springtime and walking in a green great outdoors.

I'm including the text included in the calendar; as you'll see, there's a lot of information about the art in the calendar in addition to the provocative artworks and photography. If you like to intepret art without any commentary whatsoever, stop reading now and avoid the spoilers....

The Greenhouse and the Shed
Gilles Bruni and Marc Babarit, dead Picea abies cones, boughts and branches, Corylus avellana branches, wire, stones, horticultural protective netting, Val di Sella forest, Italy, 2002.

For nearly twenty years, French artists Gilles Bruni and Marc Babarit have collaborated on experimental outdoor installations, combining agriculture, ecology, architecture and photography. A fallen Norway spruce tree on a slop of the Val di Sella forest in Italy provided them with an unexpected temporary world to explore and transform.

"We are 'sentenced' to share with the plants, the ladybug, the rat, the cloud that passes by, the night that falls, the cold, the rain," the artists say. "Thus we think that we have to find the ways toward a renegotiation of our relationships to the world, and that this renegotiation can, in particular, be done through art: we never actually work in neutral places, we have to take into account a third party with whom we must compromise."

On this Italian forest hillside, death created a space for rebirth, allowing the artists to propose a new order: "casting a net over the summit to protect the planting, protecting the cones to fertilize the compost."

Once the planting and protective structures were almost complete, "after waiting for clouds to appear, on a heavy but clear day in the valley," they took this final photograph, giving the tree another way to live on beyond the forest.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

children's book recommendations

Children are curious, inquisitive, and constantly on the lookout for new people, places, things, and ideas. Most parents love this aspect of raising children, as do I. This exploration encompasses everything in our seen and unseen world, so it makes sense that there would be a few children's books that touch upon urban exploration, even in tangential ways.

In A Curious Garden, (2009) by Peter Brown, a young boy named Liam unwittingly changes a "very dreary" city into a green utopia by exploring an abandoned elevated railway track and turning it into a garden.
He was wandering around the old railway, as he did from time to time, when he stumbled upon a dark stairwell leading up to the tracks. The railway had stopped working ages ago. And since Liam had always wanted to explore the tracks, there was only one thing for the curious boy to do. Liam ran up the stairs, pushed open the door, and stepped out onto the railway.
Inspired greatly by NYC's High Line, The Curious Garden encourages children to explore, to do, and to enjoy the great outdoors. I plan on reading this book to Charlotte until she understands its messages. The illustrations are quite wonderful, including the old dreary "before" scenes.

Up Above & Down Below (2006) by Sue Redding is a book that my nineteen month-old will have to grow into, as she doesn't yet understand that there is something "below" every visible "above" world. Many above/below scenarios are illustrated (in a fresh, modern way), in both the man-made (city streets/subway platform; theater stage/under the stage) and natural (the Arctic/water below the ice; jungle/ground) environments. I hope to see the look on Charlotte's face as she finally understands the under/above concept, and I hope that it doesn't involve monsters underneath her bed.

The most frequent type of children's urban exploration book would have to be "animals-in-architecture" genre, as I've found two of these books so far. Architecture ANIMALS (1995) by Michael J. Crosbie and Steve Rosenthal is a board book with photos and accompanying poems for animals depicted in architecture country-wide. For example, The Owl Cafe in Albuquerque, New Mexico is photographed, and its accompanying poem reads:

Who lives in the desert/In company most fowl/Who watches in neon/Who indeed, this horned owl.

An elephant, duck, swan, stork, squirrel, and walruses are among the other found animals.

Urban Animals (2009) by Isabel Hill differentiates itself by featuring sites only in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Two photos for each site are included, one showing the the animal on the building's facade and then a close-up of the depicted animal. The poetic text itself also provides context:

Over an entrance they shimmer and glow, art deco seahorses stand in a row.
Even if you're "stuck" inside with your dear child, you can share a sense of exploration. Until, of course, they're old enough to go on a physical exploration with you to some of these sites or others.