All Eyes, No Skin

When I get tired I stop at an awning above a tall sidewalk table and an unopened Corona, thinking I’m at a bar. It turns out to be a barber shop, but the man inside insists I sit down as long as I like, and even lets me drink his Corona. The sidewalk is uneven, and this particular stretch of Flatbush is dusty and empty. The awning is not a particularly attractive color, nor does it really sit in my memory. But it was not created to be looked at; it was created to be used, and it was.

On virtual Archtober

Photograph by the author.

On my daily walks up and down the middle section of Broadway, which runs south of the northern perimeter of Brooklyn, I pass stores built in the two-story vinyl and brick Bushwick style—stores that cut keys or buy pawned goods, and several that sell washer-dryers and stovetops. The first one I pass is home to nine cats who move in and out of the shop carelessly, in contrast to the furtive shoppers in their masks; the third houses about seven large exotic parakeets, who cannot move in and out but whose screeches bleed out onto the sidewalk. At the corner bar on the next block, every conversation is routinely interrupted every seven minutes by the J train hurtling overhead. The built environment of Broadway is active and breathing; it has voices and smells, it calls for active encounters.

In 1996, the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa mourned, in his book The Eyes of the Skin, our contemporary veneration for the purely visual appeal of the built environment, and the decline in value of the “lesser” senses of touch and hearing. Pallasmaa’s advocacy of the necessary messiness of architecture remains popular today; in the past year and a half, he has, at 84, contributed to a book, narrated a documentary, and given interviews and lectures. Much of recent architecture, Pallasmaa writes, is less about our bodies and our physical experience of living and moving through buildings—and more about the spectacle of its image. It invites passivity. Pallasmaa talks of “tactile values,” the importance of experiencing the built environment sensually rather than cerebrally. He writes that materials like glass and steel, which in my neighborhood generally signal the infrastructure of gentrification, are “unyielding” to our touch and gaze; they are not warm or receptive. “Buildings of this technological age usually aim at ageless perfection, and they do not incorporate the dimension of time,” he writes. Natural materials like stone, brick, and wood, on the other hand, yield to us; they show traces of our bodies as they wear and age, and their “history of human use.”

Of course, materials aren’t the only thing our tactile experience depends on. The decline of the tactile urban experience is perhaps more apparent now than it’s ever been, after months spent avoiding surfaces, door handles, railings, windowsills, signposts, outdoor benches, air particles. In my months indoors, I felt the glaring absence of the touch and feel of the city, an intense haptic starvation, a longing for filthy surfaces that was similar to my longing for human touch. (“The door handle is the handshake of the building,” Pallasmaa writes.) Architecture at its best, he argues, reinforces what it means to be an active social member of the world: “There is an inherent suggestion of action in images of architecture, the moment of active encounter, or a promise of function and purpose.”

This past October marked the tenth anniversary of Archtober, an annual month-long series of events hosted by the Center for Architecture in celebration of design and architecture. For the first time in its run, these lectures, workshops, and tours were largely conducted online. Throughout the month, participants learned about the basic physical units of life and living, in front of screens—“without the choppy current and no wind to mess up your hair,” as one East River tour was enthusiastically advertised. This was architecture as all eyes, no skin.

My first talk was a session on the architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray, who believed strongly in the fusion of indoor and outdoor to create something interactive and alive. “A house is not a machine to live in,” she wrote, challenging Le Corbursier’s ghastly contention. “It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation.” I watched the session about Eileen Gray on my phone, walking south on Stanhope Street on my way back from CityMD, where I’d spent two hours in a line, reading a vivid Cynthia Zarin book about moving through the streets of Venice while listening to the streets of Bushwick.

Eileen Gray often asked how objects in our spaces activate those spaces and our lives—she believed that the objects in a home should be designed for the aesthetic, personality, use, and mood of the inhabitants, rather than the other way around. Her furniture was meant to act on the space around it, transform space even when it wasn’t being used—and some of it was never meant to be used. (In this session for the first time I realized that there are chairs in the world that are designed and acquired but that are not meant to be sat on.) But walking around Bushwick I wonder more often about the opposite. What if we adapted to objects, instead of acting on them?

The premise of a guided tour is, of course, an act upon the environment in its own right. The tour directs the gaze, minimizing contingent encounters and serendipity. But at least an in-person tour offers room for interactions with the environment that are not built into its design: I can briefly slip away, look at streets or buildings or details other than those being presented. I can simply watch people, tuning in and out of the guide’s talk. For all their artifice, tours allow for active engagement with buildings and the city around them, a possibility that vanishes when the city is experienced through a screen.

The house is not a machine for living in, but neither is the city. A city’s physical meaning—and its political possibilities—emerge from the loitering that it allows for, from the spontaneous uses of the built environment that not only conform to the intention of design but also defy it. One wet night in June, while I am sprawled on the ground outside City Hall among a mass of hundreds of other sprawlers, I watch a girl carefully stop by the edge of the entrance to the 6 train, a green metal grill surrounded by art and graffiti and the clothes of all the people camped out, and spread her raincoat on the ground. I am leaning against a stone wall draped in blue tarpaulin, not fully horizontal yet, but I watch her get down onto her knees with a book, and then a few moments later, descend onto her elbows, and finally, still reading her book, take her shoes off and lay down flat on her stomach.

What I saw at City Hall was intensely, intentionally used space—people’s behinds and hips and backs and stomachs touching the ground that was only meant for feet, and feet in shoes at that. Pallasmaa describes an ideal “flesh of the world,” a collective physical experience of the city that I think manifested in the encampment, which in my memory smells of incense and feels like the damp laundry I helped separate. During my first months in New York, I had a similar sensation sitting in a DIY venue that was just coming into existence, watching a group of kids in flannel T-shirts build a bathroom, a stage and the seating around it, lights demarcating the exits, a garden upstairs and a fence for the roof, hammering away into the night and chatting to each other with their mouths full of nails. The fence’s core structure and foundation supported by nails that touched the inside of those boys’ mouths; inside, the girl who built the garden standing behind the bar, adding limes to the half-finished drinks. I think about these things sometimes, about the traces of their bodies on every surface of that venue.

Watching and remembering these spaces come into being, create a sense of belonging and freedom, I realize that building, too, is not just a noun but also a verb.

In quarantine, every errand was lumped together as rigidly and efficiently as possible; minutes were trimmed off of our exposed time outside as far as they could be trimmed. After the floodgates break at the end of May, everyone is out on the streets to protest, and then suddenly it seems as though everyone is out on the streets for other things as well. I sit on as much outdoor furniture as possible, pulling out my copy of Pallasmaa’s book at every corner. I had fished my copy out from the back of my bookshelf, where it had been sitting unread since I’d found it abandoned in my college library. At the height of quarantine, I’d drawn up ambitious study schedules for myself, and I quickly became attached to the book, and then carried it outside with me when I finally emerged. Sitting on a new wooden bench opposite a busy torta stall, I read Pallasmaa’s recollection of his grandfather’s farmhouse—he doesn’t remember what it looked like, but he remembers the feel of its wooden door, “scarred by decades of use.”

I distribute errands, split them up so they’re done in multiple trips instead of one. I insistently trace the same routes again and again around Bushwick, or I fling myself out onto the far ends of the city. I take the train to Jamaica, to Pelham Bay Park, to Bay Ridge. One Saturday I get on the subway with a new novel and stay on until I’m done six hours later, riding up and down the lengths of Queens and the Bronx. The subway is mostly empty, and at every last stop I watch MTA workers come on board to sanitize every car before the train takes off again in the opposite direction.

Another day, I take a bus heading south and get off on Flatbush somewhere past Brooklyn College, at the end of the subway line, and keep walking south toward Sheepshead Bay. When I get tired I stop at an awning above a tall sidewalk table and an unopened Corona, thinking I’m at a bar. It turns out to be a barber shop, but the man inside insists I sit down as long as I like, and even lets me drink his Corona. The sidewalk is uneven, and this particular stretch of Flatbush is dusty and empty. The awning is not a particularly attractive color, nor does it really sit in my memory. But it was not created to be looked at; it was created to be used, and it was.

My walks down Broadway always make me think of one of my earliest and best encounters here, an old man sitting at  a piano placed out on the curb as garbage, testing its keys. It sounded awful, but that moment pleased me so much I told everyone I knew about it. Years later I told a friend who replied that he was the one had seen the man tuning, that in the story I first recounted to him, the piano was actually sitting in solitude.

But the tuner and the off-key sounds are important to my memory of the piano, not only pretty but also used, and touched, and singing: a bench offered to a passerby, along with a gift.

I have an ongoing obsession with outdoor furniture and the possibilities for participation and sensory engagement it offers. Here is the opposite of Eileen Gray’s vision for furniture, which receives the moods of its users. Sitting on the makeshift furniture around Bushwick, I feel included in the life of the city and the streets, open to encounters that unstick me from the smallness of my own routine. The sensory engagement is a participation “in time cycles that surpass individual life.” The alone-ness in my own life has always been mitigated by the benign shelter of the city.

Outdoor furniture often feels to me like it’s simply grown out of the earth, a natural part of the urban fabric: wooden slabs jutting out from tree trunks and surrounding the trees all along Evergreen and Irving, outside laundromats and delis and restaurants, where neighbors gather and sit around playing cards or gossiping. This summer offered a new wealth of outdoor seating: neat wooden slabs extending our boundaries from the sidewalk onto the road, as though after months of not being touched, or being touched only in fear, New York streets are growing and expanding their surface area for maximum human contact.

The pleasure of touch is inseparable from the pleasure of use. But so many months have been spent calculating all the degrees of transmission by touch; every surface is compromised by every other surface or patch of skin that it has touched. The possibility of expanding my nerve endings, my own touch, by touching other surfaces, was cut off absolutely. Unable to spread myself across the surfaces of the city, I shrunk.

On one of my passages up and down Broadway late at night, I walk all the way to the end until I reach the river; I turn onto the Williamsburg Bridge and walk until there’s water below me. When I’m at the first tower, I slip off my shoes, hang them by the laces around my neck, use my toes to scramble over the grill separating the pedestrian footpath from the cables,  make my way up to a tall metal door whose lock I know has recently been broken, and climb the wide, exposed flights of stairs that line the pier, at each flight leaning over the edge to look at the water. I finally emerge onto the open-air landing above the suspension, up the ladder into an enclosed chamber that smells like pee and is covered in graffiti, and then finally out onto the tallest point on the Brooklyn-side pier, three hundred feet above the river.

The real view from the tower is downtown Manhattan, but when I’m up there, and every time I return, I’m always drawn to a vast stretch of gaping, pitch-black shadow in the middle of the twinkly Brooklyn skyline—the Domino Sugar Refinery. The building is the source of much whispered lore and anguished art. It has been a favorite of urban explorers for all its years of vacancy, and when I look at it from my perch above the bridge—or while crossing it on the subway at night—it always seems more tangible as the blank negative it is at night than it does as a beautiful brick face in daylight. Pallasmaa suggests that deep shadows and darkness are essential components of the tactile city: they “dim the sharpness of vision, make depth and distance ambiguous, and invite unconscious peripheral vision and tactile fantasy . . . the imagination and daydreaming are stimulated by dim light and shadow. In order to think clearly, the sharpness of vision has to be suppressed, for thoughts travel with an absent-minded and unfocused gaze.”

In 2017, Practice for Architecture and Urbanism began developing designs for a new, refined Domino for their client, the developer Two Trees. One of their staff presented the plans at a discussion during an Archtober event this October, and described their plans for turning it into a workspace and event hall. The woman pointed out that what from the outside looked like a single, uniquely shaped building, was actually three collections of machinery, a “cloak.” You can’t adapt and reuse a building where one never existed, she says. In this spirit, the new design has six feet separating the “cloak,” the outer brick shell protected by preservation laws for landmarked buildings, from the glass building inside it. (It’s only the interior glass building that people actually enter.)

The interior of Domino was always dark, its windows taking up only a fraction of its face—and while it may not have been a single “building” when it was processing sugar, it certainly was for all the groups of kids who nested there in the dark, getting  their hands dirty running them along the walls and blindly clambering up ladders, trying to race each other to the most dangerous spots. (“Darkness creates a sense of solidarity,” Pallasmaa notes, “and strengthens the power of the spoken word.”)

The new Domino is designed explicitly for light, and for sight. It is meant to be looked at, inside and out. In the new design, the stories of the inner glass building are spaced out with high ceilings to let light in from two levels of windows. The mockups of people using the new space show a gleaming new interior efficiently capturing the maximum light of sunset, and the glorious Manhattan skyline from the rooftop event space, which also seems to be coated in glass. Domino has always felt like a place unique to Brooklyn, but the new Domino centers around Manhattan, selling itself largely on its proximity to the island.

Instagram did not yet exist when Pallasmaa was writing The Eyes of the Skin, but he seems to write in anticipation of the platform. “The hegemony of vision,” he writes, “has been reinforced in our time by a multitude of technological inventions and the endless multiplication and production of images.”

Image also seems to be the priority of this year’s Archtober, whose virtual tours were advertised without much of a nod to what’s lost when we sit in our apartments in New York City, watching encounters with New York City on our screens. After a strange virtual tour of Schermerhorn Row, where I watch recordings of a woman talking about the history of Fulton Street crackle and cut jerkily, speaking to a camera that points at a blank white wall while she talks about the view from a window I cannot see, I decide to do my final virtual tour, of the Lower East Side, in person.

A few dozen people or so sign up for this tour through the Eventbrite listing on the Archtober website. My guide, a librarian at the New York Public Library, reminds us a few different times that we do not need to actually show up at the location, Seward Park at the corner of East Broadway and Essex, that it may indeed be better this way, and that nothing really is lost. You’ll be joining me from the comfort of your own home! he writes to us. Rather than hop around the map, focusing on historic landmarks, this tour will simulate an actual walking tour, enabling you to take in history from your computer or device.

I walk across the Williamsburg Bridge to Seward Park anyway. With my headphones in and the video call open on my phone, I wander around the four-block radius that the tour focuses on, trying to take in both the streets and buildings around me as well as the presentation and the guide’s speech. Most of my time is spent just looking for what the guide is talking about as he flips efficiently through slides showing newspaper clippings and old photographs and diagrams. His “actual walking tour” is not, after all, designed for anyone actually physically in the neighborhood. It’s clearly better suited to those sitting at home watching his presentation, free to look at his archival photos without the felt distraction of contemporaneity.

The guide gallantly reads in a radio-announcer voice a speech he has prepared about the history of the park and the adjacent branch of the NYPL, a beautiful red brick building on the southeast side of the park that was praised by its contemporary architecture magazines for being elegant, but not so elegant as to “clash with the environs of the ghetto.”

Children are central to his story of the development of Seward Park in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: children crowding in the thousands for the park’s opening ceremonies, children from the neighborhood basketball team constantly tripping up their opponents on the courts, children being sent away by the librarians for having dirty hands, children being boisterous in the “unlucky” park fountain, which originally was at Rutgers Square on the south side of the park, where a statue of Boss Tweed also once sat, but which now sits despondently near the entrance on Essex. I wander in and out of the park and see no children; there are elderly men sitting on every bench, and elderly women exercising on one volleyball court—all of them in silence—but the basketball courts and playgrounds are deserted.

I walk back north up Essex, following the tour back to the J train, and see the fountain again and realize this is the one the guide has been talking about, where kids came to hide from grown-ups or cool off in the summers, neighborhood boys recruited to keep watch over it and ensure that its inscription, There shall come water out of it that the people may drink, held true. In 1909 a man discovered his pants on fire while sitting at Essex Market, and ran down Essex in a panic and dove into the fountain.

At no point in any of my tours or talks has anyone actually come out and said it: that it may be convenient and necessary to hold this event inside our homes, and that of course we’re lucky to have it at all, but that everything we’ve done to celebrate architecture and the city this month has been representative of a gaping loss in our physical imagination and experience, a deliberate turning away from what it means to inhabit a city with any sort of solidarity or collective engagement. We are very far away from the naked children and the man with the flaming pantseat laughing and gasping in the Seward Park fountain.

When I walk by it on my way up to Delancey, I find that a fat sparrow and an old man in a newsboy hat are the fountain’s only companions. The guide remarks—unnecessarily, for me—that the fountain has been dry for decades and is covered up with chainlink. Inside it are only a few puddles of stagnant water and clumps of autumn leaves. The guide begins moving north, talking about a high school on Essex on the way to Essex Market, where the tour is supposed to end. But before I hit Grand Street I turn around and come back to the park. I sit on a bright pink patch of paint on the fountain rim, swing my feet over the edge, and finish the tour leaning against the inside of the fountain.

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