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Recently revisited New Orleans and was struck anew by how gracious the people are- Everyone we met had been personally affected by the catastrophe of Katrina…some lost everything. All chose to return home and rebuild their lives and graciously welcome strangers to their amazing town with its beautiful historic architecture . Very sobering to by hear on a post-Katrina tour about where, when and how levees broke. When 80% of the city flooded, the waters marinated with household pesticides, rotting food, and chemicals to make a toxic quagmire. Seeing the “Make it right houses” rising up out of the desolation and empty lots was truly inspiring.

Walking Men 99

Walking north from Ground Zero on Church street one comes upon a construction fence painted with figures of walking men. Immediately recognizable as inspired by the iconic figures of a walking figure in urban traffic lights around the world, it was designed by Maya Barkai and is called “ Walking Men 99”

It’s part of the public art program Re:Construction produced by the Downtown Alliance.

This initiative channels the energy of Downtown’s rebuilding process by recasting construction sites as canvases for innovative public art and architecture. Each project uses standard construction barriers to embrace the ongoing nature of Downtown’s redevelopment with original and whimsical design. The Downtown Alliance works closely with public and private developers to produce each installation. www.downtownny.com/reconstruction

Central Park has been spectacular this fall. No need to travel to New England for leaf peeping when the maples and gingkos are ablaze in the late fall sunshine as they have this past week. How fortunate are we New Yorkers to have this incredible public space at our disposal with it’s natural wooded landscape and formal allees, it’s winding pathways leading to dramatic vistas. Central park’s creators Fredrick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux were truly visionaries.

Greeley Square

Walking south on Broadway, just past Macy’s and Herald Square, what used to be an oppressive nightmare of traffic fumes and confusion is now a beckoning and lively oasis between two major thoroughfares…. one gets absorbed into a fantastic public space recently revamped following the tenets of American urbanist William “Holly” Whyte who believed small urban places are “priceless,” and the city street is “the river of life…where we come together.” Whyte championed the idea of moveable lightweight street furniture affording flexibility and spontaneity in urban groupings. Greeley Square is thoroughly charming with potted flowers, gorgeous green and blue trash bins, lightweight French café metal folding chairs clean and modern bathrooms, information stands and on the day I passed through, there was not a vacant seat in sight!

This entry is in honor of Mary Barnes, a woman I feel honored to have known. 2010 is the centennial of her birth. My first job out of architectural school was working for her husband Ed- otherwise known as Edward Larrabee Barnes ( 1915-2004) one of America’s great modern architects. The office was very much a Mom and Pop organization. Mary ran the interiors department, but more importantly, she was the heart and soul of the place. Possessed of a razor sharp intellect, she also loved to laugh. I can still hear bell like voice ringing through the studio, I still remember her total recall for details and people, I am still inspired by her exquisite taste- modern, pure, classical, unerring. When I met her, she was 73, and still a great beauty with startling blue eyes and she favored wearing that color from a Santa Fe turquoise work shirt to the chicest Armani navy. I treasured working under her and later- when she and Ed “retired” to Cambridge to live in a modernist apartment overlooking the Charles I adored visiting them …we discussed life and people and books… she recommended her favorite authors Tracy Chevalier and Alan Furst to me. Happy 100 years to Mary!
In Ed’s monograph he writes this acknowledgment:
“Finally there is Mary, whose sure eye, color sense, understanding of people, architectural sensitivity have underpinned all of my work”

A dear friend and architectural historian invited me to tag along on a tour of the Glass House- Philip Johnson’s iconic house built in 1949 in New Canaan, Ct. The site of sloping meadows with rustic stone walls and mature tree stands is punctuated with diverse structures housing art galleries, a library and visitor center. These act as follies in the 47 acres of conserved park and were designed in the divergent styles that characterize Johnson’s oeuvre which careened from modernism to post modernism to Gehry inspired sculptural form making.

The glass house is an austere symmetrical box handsomely articulated in black structural steel frame and firmly grounded by its low red brick base and brick floor paving. It is the masculine sibling to Mies van der Rohes’ elegant white Farnsworth House; it is also part of a family of modern rectangular houses built by architects such as Gropius, Breuer, and Edward Larrabee Barnes for their own use. While impressive for it’s forceful simplicity and total transparency, it is not an inviting or comfortable house by any means, yet Johnson lived there for almost five decades and died there in 1998, one year short of his 100th birthday.

As my historian friend pointed out, Johnson’s glass house is seminal because of its function as a salon with Johnson holding court to generations of architects who came to visit, sip martinis and discuss Architecture with a capital “A”. Before he died, he bequeathed the house and property the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a hugely generous gift to students and lovers of architecture alike.

To grow up in Virginia is to be under the ever present influence of Palladio as interpreted by Thomas Jefferson. Some thirty years after attending Professor James Ackerman’s Palladian architecture lectures in graduate school, I finally made a pilgrimage to the Veneto this summer and saw my first in the flesh Palladian villas:
Villa Rotunda and Villa Barbaro at Maser. They did not disappoint, grand yet almost cozy and inviting, relating each , spectacularly to its particular site .