dan graham

Peter Doroshenko: Over the last twenty-five years you have examined architecture and urban planning in both your art work and critical writing. How is New York City changing as an urban center?

Dan Graham: New York is slowly becoming suburbanized. Besides the large city-operated parks, I have been fascinated over the years by the corporate make-overs of open public spaces, such as the botanical garden inside the Chemical Bank headquarters on Park Avenue or the IBM Building atrium on Madison Avenue and 57th Street. This was the very beginning of the suburbanization of New York. The gardens and atriums these corporations built, as part of larger complexes, were an attempt to have a controlled, semipublic green space, to keep people in the city.

Doroshenko: Are there any successful corporate arcadias?

Graham: The Ford Foundation Building designed by Kevin Roche and the building's landscaped atrium garden designed by Dan Kiley is the best example of an ecologically balance public space. It is a very classical modernist space, but very ahead of its time, since all of the plants use rain collected from the roof and condensed stream collected in a cistern. Each office has a sliding door onto the atrium and it creates a sense of common purpose.

Doroshenko: Once homogeneous, the suburbs have taken landscape architecture further along than New York has. Is this the missing component in the large city projects?

Graham: New York has less space to work with, but more could be done with what we have. Landscape architects need to do more with future building projects and the existing city parks. I still question the success of corporate public spaces and the city's funds that are diverted from public safety and cultural programs to build them.

Doroshenko: Don't developers get incentives to create public spaces in their planning and construction of new buildings?

Graham: In the late 1960s, the city passed zoning laws to allow incentives for covered public spaces or atriums. If a public space or certain amenities were to be added to a construction project by the developer, it would increase the total floor area of the building.

Doroshenko: Aren't there various community boards and organizations that screen most of the new building projects?

Graham: I believe all New Yorkers should look to sister cities in Europe to examine the next steps of urban planning. The Europeans are very concerned with public spaces and the suburbs are not an issue.

Doroshenko: But on the newly revamped Avenue Champ-Elysée in Paris, there has been an outbreak of mini-malls.

Graham: It's pure capitalism, happening on only one street in the city, set up to attract the visiting Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut tourist shoppers.

Doroshenko: Having exhibited your work mainly abroad over the years, do you think there is anything specifically American in your work?

Graham: My work is more influenced by the time and site for which it was made, rather than a geographical place of its making.

Doroshenko: Do you feel there is a right or wrong way to understand your recent works?

Graham: Yes. The newest projects deal with architecture, urban space and power.

Doroshenko: Power?

Graham: The way corporations are changing the urban landscape of New York and the continued suburbanization of high traffic pedestrian locations.

Doroshenko: So, does the suburbanization of New York continue with the construction of shopping malls such as Pier 17, Trump Tower and Winter Garden over the last ten years?

Graham: Originally, the mall concept was tied into luxury housing, offering suburban convenience in the city. The first mall was South Street Sea Port and later the addition of Pier 17. This project was built as a fake market space, an early 1980s concept of historical restoration. Buildings were rehabed and then leased out to national retail chains and upscale restaurants. It proved to be a financial disaster because our historical curiosity with this fabricated past came to an end. The problem with the South Street area is that it was set up as a major tourist attraction and the community in and around the development suffered in the long run — overcrowding, lack of services and higher real estate costs. What people living in that area want is less tourism and more of a real neighborhood. The same could be said for the other mall projects.

Doroshenko: Whether it's a small strip mall on 7th Avenue or a gigantic multilevel mall at Herald Square, they seem to be changing the urban landscape. Even the airports are mimicking the mall idea.

Graham: Well, La Guardia, Kennedy and Newark airports were originally designed and built as having separate pavilions and were much more isolated than they are now. I would hate to travel through Denver or Pittsburgh and deal with their new mall stylized airports.

Doroshenko: Today, almost all the airports contain several, big name, fast food restaurants, a few specialty shops and a small subway system.

Graham: Subway? What New York really needs is an express subway or rapid transit train to and from the airports, similar to the RATP/SNCF in Paris or BART in San Francisco. A transportation system that will go longer distances, supplementing the local subways and trains. The only way one can get to and from any of the airports in New York is by either taxi or limousine.

Doroshenko: Aren't limousines and car services a bit expensive as transportation systems?

Graham: They were a luxury at first, in the 1970s and 1980s, but now they are very competitive and inexpensive. Using this kind of transportation is only good to the airports and nowhere else — taking a limousine from the airport back to Manhattan is very pricey.

Doroshenko: A situation where it's fun to leave New York, but it's not fun to come back.

Graham: Exactly! But it's great fun to take a ferry. It would make sense to implement a more extensive ferry system, besides the ferries that now go to Hoboken and Jersey City. An express ferry to La Guardia or Long Island City would make sense.

Doroshenko: I don't understand why Manhattan built a new Robert Venturi designed ferry terminal downtown, but Staten Island did not get an upgrade on its present facility?

Graham: You would think both sides would be equally important for the Port Authority, since only Staten Island residents use the ferry. It's all comes down to money, Manhattan has the financial resources and Staten Island doesn't.

Doroshenko: At the same time, Manhattan is not an automobile city — the tunnels and bridges are always congested with traffic. What makes it so unique is the ability to walk everywhere.

Graham: New York is the only city in the United States where you can walk everywhere and to everything. I don't know of another city where walking is not only a recreation, but a possibility. Since the city is so vertical, it is also very much about walking on various layers, separated only by a set of stairs or an elevator.

Doroshenko: In your walks around the city, have you ever come across successful public art projects?

Graham: The two strongest works that come to mind are Richard Artschwager's "Chase Lounge," in Battery Park City and Dennis Adams's "Bus Shelter I" which was temporarily installed for a few months near Broadway and 66th Street. Unlike Claes Oldenburg, whose works are Disneyland fantasies, Richard Artschwager's installation plays with the concept of typical suburban patio furniture and the suburban planning of the Battery Park City area. The Dennis Adams bus shelter had a certain derivation from my work with pavilions, but his installation had a site situation and a pictorial content. Both installations are or were used by many people, either as a rest stop after walking a distance or waiting for a bus.

Doroshenko: Wasn't Battery Park City the first time artists were invited to participate in the planning of a large permanent public park project in the City — either in collaboration with an architect or on their own?

Graham: Yes, but the finished projects were very disappointing, most of the works were very ineffective. The landscape architect who worked with some of the artists was the most imaginative, making a walk through the park more enjoyable.

Doroshenko: Wouldn't it be nice to find easy access to a restroom after walking a few hours?

Graham: There is great irony to this problem — restaurants are happy to serve you water, but they don't want you to use the restroom. I love New York, but San Francisco is more of an innovation leader when it comes to the public's needs; they have had the French-manufactured public restrooms for a few years now, maybe because San Francisco is a very compact city and a large tourist destination. I really don't know what the holdup is on getting public restrooms onto our streets, maybe some politician should make it a campaign issue.

Doroshenko: In which part of the city would they be installed first?

Graham: Probably around City Hall. Being a typical New Yorker, I would like to see more done for the City's neighborhoods. I still have a residence in Chinatown and a studio on the border of Chinatown and Little Italy. These are real ethnic communities that make the City an interesting and enjoyable place to live.

Doroshenko: Are these neighborhoods changing?

Graham: They are slowly becoming ethnic ghettos. When I first moved to Chinatown, there was an interesting mix of Chinese, Jews, Italians and artists living together. But, after the huge Hong Kong investment and immigration into the community in the 1970s and early 1980s, the population balance changed and now, for the most part, only Chinese remain.

Doroshenko: Keeping a diverse ethnic balance in a community may be impossible.

Graham: I keep believing it can happen, but many times it has to do with economics. In the early 1980s, many Koreans began to open up gourmet grocery stores and small businesses in SoHo. It was great to see them there among the various boutiques and art galleries.

Unfortunately, many had to relocate after only a few years because of the rising costs of real estate.

Doroshenko: This sounds like a story that many artists have experienced.

Graham: Well, it seems that every time artists invest their time and money in a neighborhood, it only becomes a matter of time before the trendy boutiques and restaurants follow — the East Village and Tribeca are good examples.

Doroshenko: Today, the demolition of older buildings and the construction of new ones in such areas as the East Village and Tribeca is rare, most are converted to other uses.

Graham: In the early 1970s, when the city had its first major financial crisis and almost went bankrupt, the real estate market collapsed and many New Yorkers turned to the concept of urban recycling. The idea of putting a cultural institution inside a decaying building brought out a lot of civic pride — the pride of making something out of nothing. Artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark who destroyed condemned buildings as art — putting more holes where there were holes before — were championed by the art world. A negative rather than a positive aesthetic became popularized. The city needs to have that same spirit again — people co-opting space, taking over dilapidated spaces and creating their own situations.

Doroshenko: Similar to your Rooftop Urban Park at the Dia Center for the Arts?

Graham: Yes. When I was first approached by former director, Heiner Friedrich, in 1987 to do a project for Dia at its West 22nd Street building, I instantly became interested in using the roof which no one had conceived of using before. My idea was to construct a park that would be related to the surroundings of Battery Park City, the Hudson River and the New Jersey landscape. It was to be an extension of the history of Battery Park, a sandy landfill that was later used in the summer of 1985 for an art event called Art at the Beach.

Doroshenko: So, you started planning and working on this project before the Dia moved into the building?

Graham: Yes, but I had to convince the architect, Richard Gluckman, who was hired to renovate the entire building, not to alter the roof.

Doroshenko: I read somewhere that you worked with other architects on this project.

Graham: It was a collaboration with architects Mojdeh Baratloo and Clifton Balch.

Doroshenko: Other than the glass pavilion, no other structures were added to the roof?

Graham: No. I wanted the park to feel open, and yet have all the amenities of the IBM Building atrium or the Winter Garden atrium in The World Financial Center.

Doroshenko: Such as the coffee lounge in the converted utility shed?

Graham: Yes. And a video viewing room, plus a performance space in and around the pavilion. I was interested in the possibilities of servicing different audiences in the Chelsea neighborhood as the alternative space The Kitchen once did. My project became emblematic with the way Dia operated and their own content was grafted onto my original programs. Both have grown together over the years.

Doroshenko: Most of Dia's projects and exhibitions on West 22nd Street are temporary and replaced after a certain amount of time. What is the fate of Rooftop Urban Park?

Graham: The staff is in the process of purchasing the work for the Dia permanent collection. It would be wonderful if the project could become a permanent part of the building's architectural context.

Doroshenko: A known destination for artists and architects?

Graham: The most interesting spaces in art centers are the restaurants, coffee bars and book shops — romantic spaces where people could relax.

Doroshenko: A place people meet each other? A pickup spot?

Graham: The lobby and restaurant of The Museum of Modern Art are the best places for people watching. I always see people flirting in these locations and I wanted to carry a bit of that spirit into my project.

Doroshenko: Dia's roof also has one of the best views in New York.

Graham: What I didn't realize was that my work was going to become an Eiffel Tower for young artists.

Doroshenko: Every century needs its own Gustave Eiffel.

Graham: Which fulfills the fantasy I have always had: artist as architect.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.