american institute of    architects'    
      guide to   new  york cit  y
    four th     edition    (2000)

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    part six
continued from previous page.

The art of beholding. And that's where a good architectural guide can show the way; it allows us to read the backdrop as every other detail of humanity, of hip and not-so-hip vitality, spontaneously takes its place. Thus, through the years, Norval White & Eliot Willensky and their like have shown me the way, given me incentive to explore and discover and "read" the nether regions of Manhattan...and Staten Island...and Queens Boulevard...even that which it doesn't identify in detail...and in their turn trained me to "read" other places, elsewhere, all over, Boston, Brescia, Brantford, Bytom. But few (especially outside the design profession) have likewise taken the cue, or even grasped the cue...and that's a shame.
               And maybe it takes representatives of the enlightened "ordinary" to show the way. If White & Willensky themselves can be identified with any centre of gravity in New York architectural practice over the past half century, it may be with the lineage of Gruzen, Davis & Brody, et al --quality workhorse architectural creators that represent the best in several decades of New York modern vernacular, consistently decent and stylistically astute, a clear level above speculative banality and overloaded kitsch, even if seldom self-consciously spectacular or cutting-edge. It's the good grout that holds the good city together. George Baird has made the claim, which he's meant as praise, that Toronto has the best second-rate or second-class architecture in North America; in New York (which, curiously like Toronto, has lately been preoccupied with its past-generational absence of boldly "world-class" architectural creation), the name Gruzen would be the analogous epitome of the best of the second division. Of course, one may think back to c16 Italy, where Vasari epitomized the well-positioned "second-rate" creator as first-rate observer of and guide to the artistic scene --but the magic of architecture is that while the culture of artistic discussion has conveniently, effortlessly banished Vasari's own painting and mural schemes to the realm of dull and banal hackwork (hey, art-loving folks and armchair scholars, don't waste your time, stick with Michelangelo), you can't do that so conveniently with architecture, where the honest, decent (and sometimes not so decent) works with no pretense toward the first division really do enrich the broad tableau. (And those who do try to crudely apply prima-donna models of judgment to architecture wind up looking either excessively snobbish or even--like many who highmindedly argue against local historical designations--middlebrow-yahooish.) It's certainly telling that Vasari the architect has been treated far less derisively than Vasari the painter, although the Uffizi may be argued as no less prepackaged Michelangelo-by-the-yard.

Architectural tourism is really a phase apart from "regular" tourism; it's where everything else is stripped away and the buildings do the talking...and in its turn, the physical fabric allows the staffage of shops and offices and people to unfold. It's neither overly earnest nor elitist nor insipid; like architecture itself, it's a celebration of paradoxes. Maybe it's the purest, yet most complicated, most all-enveloping tourism of all--even nature tourism tends to collapse into its own uneasily reactive vacuum in a way that architectural tourism avoids. The well-tempered architectural tourist can exist at some kind of ease with anyplace, even the most horrific or hostile anyplace. It's the ultimate anti-tourism --we can even practice it at home, everyday, or else turn all the world into our "home". It is the allseeing eye of tourisms.
               Given this, it's odd that architectural guides haven't been more cherished or celebrated or even properly understood, even by their own creators, whether as things to be consumed or as things that teach us how to consume. (Or maybe the fashionable architectural profession at large has spent the last half century too wrapped up in its pomposity to notice.) Even with the sometimes mixed results of its 2000-edition overhaul, AIA-NYC still out-hips, out-cools all the Accesses and Lonely Planets out there, and why not: it has a gravitas that goes beyond tour-guidedom, at ease in the tourist's hand, but also in the enlightened local's bookshelf, and --this is important-- as a footnoted source in articles, scholarship, municipal heritage studies, etc. Buy this one as a ground zero; and everything else, you can just fleetingly mooch a peek into at your big-box bookseller. (Which raises an interesting observation, that may have unfortunate bearing on where the architecture and design and scholarship--and, perhaps, the book retailing--profession's gone in recent years: it seems that while the 1988 edition found a more common place in "design" sections, the 2000 edition's been more prone to retail banishment to the travel-section nether world. An orphan through intellectual pretense and Mammon--and perhaps, through the unfortunate, blinding, diminishing-in-spite-of-self filigree of modern-day tour-guide genres.)

NEXT: see ya in TEN YEARS... in PART 7.

guide to guides AIA Guide to New York City entry in Omnitectural Forum's "Guide to Guidebooks"

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