March 3, 2004

A whimsical building for lower Manhattan. That is a good sign! It's another Santiago Calatrava building, to add to the cool World Trade Center transportation hub. (We have a Calatrava building in Wisconsin, and really, it couldn't be more whimsical: it has wings that open and close.)

The new Eighty South Street Tower is making Herbert Muschamp think about:

1966 and the helium-filled Mylar "Silver Cloud" sculptures that Andy Warhol presented that year at Leo Castelli's gallery. ... I mention Warhol because of the atmosphere of freedom those ridiculous silver pillows created around them. They were a child's garden of existentialism - bits of nothingness, faintly stirring in the breeze of gallerygoer conversation. Still, there was a precision to them: Warhol would go in and adjust the little lead weights attached to the corners so that they would float in midair. And they were balanced, in the rear gallery, by the wallpaper with those silly pink cows.

How did it happen that 1966 suddenly appeared to be encapsulated by the fleeting whimsy of silver clouds and pink cows?

Muschamp notes that Calatrava has gained inspiration reading Spinoza, and recommends Antonio Damasio's book "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain."

Dr. Damasio, a neurologist, has achieved renown by challenging our lingering tendency to regard reason and emotion as polar opposites. Science suggests otherwise. Dr. Damasio, like Freud and Nietzsche, regards these faculties as necessary partners in a dialectic intent on freedom from debilitating habit.

The book will not sit well with those who think that architecture is an art of people-pleasing. Spinoza's scheme of things was undeniably elitist. Only those with disciplined and educated intellects, Dr. Damasio writes, could accumulate sufficient knowledge and reason to put their intuitions to constructive use. But this path toward freedom is accessible to all who would make the sacrifices it entails.

Eighty South Street Tower conveys the idea that an entire city can embark on such a path. That is the design's great gift. This idea is transmitted in the design's perfect balance between the familiar and the unexpected. We recognize the similarity of the individual glass cubes to International Style office towers of the mid-20th century. But we have never seen one of those towers dance.

Calatrava can put together the forms and Muschamp can put together the ideas. I love Damasio (as I've said here) and Warhol and Calatrava, and--what the hell?--even Spinoza, Freud, and Nietzsche are excellent companions if they know their place. In any case, all hail Muschamp for mixing up the most delightful collection of names in a single piece about a really wonderful building that adds to the measure of happiness in lower Manhattan.

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