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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Postcard from New Jersey

April/May 2009

New Jersey gets a bad rap. Poverty, pollution, (highly) organized crime. There is also great beauty in the landscape. We went out to Glen Rock in Bergen County a few weeks ago to see Jennifer Busch, the editor of Contract. It is a leafy suburb with gently curving streets, modest hills, well-built Dutch Colonials from the 1920s, and a two-block downtown framed by two train lines. It is an archetypal East Coast suburb where your neighbor might have been Donna Reed or Marcus Welby.

There is even a store that repairs vacuum cleaners. Although Glen Rock was a relatively early suburb, it feels so familiar that it’s easy to forget that it’s an invented form. The train from Penn takes you through Paterson, the town that William Carlos Williams wrote about. You change trains in Secaucus, a major interchange. On my return I changed here to catch a train out to Princeton to see my friends.

Princeton makes parts of Beverly Hills look, well, almost cheap. The houses are epic. People used to build with stone, something we don’t do in California. The houses look as if they have all been standing for at least a century. Princeton feels like Europe in that way, as if it were always the way it is now. Affluent California suburbs like Bel Air, Santa Barbara, or Malibu seem to get burned down every few decades and start anew.

Henry Moore in Princeton

Old friends at Princeton

Downtown Princeton has several small squares connected by alleys and pedestrian walkways. It is as charming as Carmel, but not so forced. Even the national chains seem inoffensive. And the gelateria was the best I’ve visited outside of Rome. The town nestles up to the campus, which wears its ivy effortlessly. No wonder it’s used so often in the movies. The art museum looks quite modest from the exterior, yet was hosting a fine show of contemporary Chinese American artists and their influences.

Just outside Princeton, you drive through what appears to be farmlands. Behind the farms lurk large corporate headquarters, mostly out of view. Only a few miles from this faux agrarian paradise is Trenton. We went to pick Paul up at the train station as he was coming in from Manhattan. He changed into his dress clothes in the station’s men’s room, where he was accosted by a transsexual in a wig, short skirt, and flashing a Prince Albert. Since s/he was so high, the situation was fairly easy to ignore. When we told our host, the response was, “Welcome to Trenton.” We took a wrong turn and ended up doing a tour of downtown Trenton on our way to the country club for the benefit party we were attending. The ghetto looked far worse than West or East Oakland. The despair, the hopelessness, hung in the spring air like stale summer.

The Trenton Country Club was like something out of a 1960s sitcom. Cheap faux colonial architecture, chirpy, polo-shirted teenage valets, and a buffet featuring a mashed potato parfait. Definitely the sit and eat diet. But the cause was important – Princeton’s teenage sex and drug education program known as Hi-Tops. No platitudes, but real information. We heard good news that President Obama has done away with the idiotic abstinence program. Of course, the highlight was our dear friend Cherie getting an award for all her contributions to the group. It is a model for other organizations doing this kind of work.

One of the benefits of getting older is to watch my friends have families and to be part of the kid’s childhood memories. I’ve known Cherie’s daughters their entire lives. Much as I wanted to linger over coffee Saturday morning, the young women had to get back to their work. One to school to conduct rehearsals for a play she is directing, and the other to Manhattan to talk about a possible film project. This gave Cherie and me time to find one of the great little American buildings of the second half of the 20th century.

We found the address of the Trenton Bath House online and put it into our GPS system. When the unreal voice told us we had arrived, we were driving past a hideous-looking faux art deco diner. We had to laugh. This is also New Jersey. We drove around the block for a few minutes. Just behind the diner and next to the Jewish Community Center, an undistinguished late 1950s building, sits a great moment in modern architecture, one we nearly lost.

Many of us grew up with community pool structures built of concrete block; they were utilitarian and often dull. At first glance, this modest group of pavilions could be mistaken for one of thousands of similar bathhouses across the country. A few subtle moves in this little group of changing rooms lead to a new way of thinking about the possibility of architecture in the second half of the 20th century.

The Trenton bathhouse by Louis Kahn - at last.

It can be argued that modernism ignored history at its own peril. Practitioners, in a spirit of youthful rebellion, disregarded lessons of order as well as incremental growth and accretion. Corbu imposed an arbitrary order at the city level, which didn’t work. His own buildings got better when he introduced sensuality and his own murals. Mies’s endurance as a sculptor of space is rooted in his deep understanding and translation of order. Kahn became a seminal architect because he embraced modernism and history as he strived to create something original. Kahn felt that a shift in his own work happened here, in Ewing, New Jersey. If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere.

By the time of the bathhouse (1955), Kahn had already completed what is generally thought to be the first of his mature buildings, the Yale University Art Gallery, which was recently restored. As Susan Solomon points out in her excellent book, Louis I. Kahn’s Trenton Jewish Community Center, it was in this bathhouse that Kahn was able to work out his idea of served and servant spaces. The spaces themselves are extremely modest; indeed, one of the servant spaces outside the bathhouse was holding faded plastic pool toys.

It could be argued that the floating roofs are not purely modernist, because it’s hard to figure out what supports them. But they serve at least three functions: protection from the summer sun and rains, provision of natural light within the enclosed spaces, and ventilation. Although clad in simple shingles, the pyramidal forms are eternal. This is Kahn’s genius writ small. Common contemporary materials and a classic plan of served and servant spaces combine with a legible historic form that results in an articulate hierarchy of space. All this for changing rooms at a suburban swimming pool.

We were visiting in late spring when the building was closed. While it appears to be in disrepair, it has been used recently for the summer swim season. (Ownership has been transferred to Mercer County and Ewing Township .). At this writing, it’s not clear how the building will be restored, although one report suggests reconstruction. Future blogs will look into the building’s preservation and future in greater detail.

One aspect that has not been widely seen, and that I barely knew about, is the original mural at the entry. According to Susan Solomon’s book, it was probably painted over early, but there are historic photos in her book, and a sketch for the mural can be seen at the website of Max Protetch’s gallery (www.maxprotetch.com/main.html?id=37&show=7). Of course, Corbu was known for extraordinary murals and spent part of every day painting. As far as I know, Kahn’s murals are few (although his beautiful sketchbooks are numerous).

More info on the Trenton Bath House can be found in Ms. Solomon’s book and at www.kahnbathhouse.org.

A few extra photos from the trip:

Saarinen at JetBlue

Off to the Gala at the Trenton Country Club

Paul explains it all to Catherine Goldschmidt and April Masten

The Goldschmidts

Cherie gives her acceptance speech. Well organized as always.

Another cocktail please (but not one of those mashed potato confections!)

David, Jess, and Connie shake it up.

April and Vince catch their breath

Sisters record sweaty glamour

Kenny and Paul in Central Park

Kenny and Paul loose on the roof

William Thompson tries to turn it off

1 comment:

Julie Kim said...

The Trenton Bath House, of course! I remember making a mini-pilgrimage down there (my parents live 45 mins north, in Somerset County) in my first year of arch-torture school. (It was the first model I ever made!) I also remember the circulation, the ceremonial procession through, splitting of the sexes, then coming back together toward the exit. It's a beautiful diagram.