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Privately owned public space: Graham and Vogt's Pavilion on the Met's Rooftop

Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout, Dan Graham and Günther Vogt’s roof garden commission at the Met, triggers Lili Carr to question the contradictions behind land ownership in cities

From the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, midtown Manhattan looks almost archaic. This is partly due to the unusual distance this view affords of the iconic cityscape, which rises from the canopy of Central Park’s south-eastern quadrant as if from a wilderness. It is this illusion coupled with a generosity of acreage and landscaping, that makes Central Park uniquely labyrinthine and linear, both wild and cultivated, anarchic and policed. It is at once Manhattan’s backyard and Manhattan’s interzone, and its magnificence lies in this inherent ambiguity.

It is against this setting that the Met presents its latest commission for the Iris and B Gerald Cantor Roof Garden: a site-specific pavilion (the second in a new series for this site) conceived and realised by the American artist Dan Graham in collaboration with Swiss landscape architect Günther Vogt

Set atop Vogt’s undulating faux-grass lawn, Graham’s structure – a precise assembly of curved steel framing and two-way mirrored glass – reflects both cityscape and self-image, intertwined and superimposed onto parallel box hedgerows and unsuspecting voyeurs. Images warp and morph on this slice of downtown, relocated surreptitiously to a suburban landscape, in turn relocated to Central Park. Yet the pavilion’s interest does not lie in the multi-referential critique of the corporate glass facade (that narcissistic camouflage) but rather in the property demarcations of public-private implicit in such a project. The work is both insistently public and visually surprising – a quasi-functional play on a cityscape, familiar to anyone traversing the streets of Manhattan on a regular basis.

Since the introduction of the 1961 zoning invention ‘incentive zoning’, which granted private developers extra height on office and residential towers in exchange for the provision of publicly accessible and usable sites, New York City has seen the proliferation of over 500 ‘Privately Owned Public Spaces’. These appear in the form of plazas and arcades, galleries and through-block connections, open-air concourses and widened pavements. Sometimes elevated, sometimes inside, and almost always behind a door or stairway, these spaces appear as cracks in the city – an access granted to something that has already been removed from the public domain, with a combined acreage totalling nearly 10 per cent of Central Park. They are quintessentially corporate and unmistakably New York, however these sites often transcend the blanket characteristics that have come to define mandatory public space, instead offering themselves as idiosyncratic curiosities to those that discover them.


Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout by Dan Graham with Günther Vogt

Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout is not the first time Graham has called attention to the anachronistic and sometime mythical qualities of the downtown corporate vernacular. There are echoes of an earlier video essay Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube and a Video Salon (1992), a love letter disguised as thesis to these places in the city that are not quite known. The camera sweeps over atria whose aesthetic merges the ideals of the English Picturesque with elements of the Baroque, all the while set against the sleek metallic surfaces of corporate functionalism. In Graham’s words, it is a documentation of places that marry ‘a ’70s dream of the Earth as garden with a ’60s dream of outer space’, and his collaboration with Vogt is the 21st-century continuation of these observations.

Graham calls attention to these locations in much the same way Jeff Koons’ reflective metallic public works accentuate the narcissistic qualities of the city – New York is, after all, a metropolis that delights in seeing and being seen. Koons’ sculptures lend a visual generosity to the plazas they inhabit, however their overarching message is one that says ‘look, but don’t touch’. Graham’s pavilion says ‘look, what do you see?’ It is tempting to understand the work as a sociopolitical commentary on the corporate sponsorship of collaborative works. However, this critique, like those surrounding the inherent contradiction of privately owned public space, would be an anachronism; a denial of the current realities of real-estate and the layers of ownership in a city where occupiable space is at a premium, and where ultimately places just want to be used.

Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout makes visible a pre-existing condition. Its architecture is pervasive, but speaks to a utopian vision that is, by now, half a century old. Somehow, something about these defunct ideals lends the spaces that exhibit them an archaic quality, one that roots them in the unmistakable landscape of the city. The Municipal Arts Society of New York recently launched an open call to consider the latent potential of these corporate leftovers as a fundamental public resource. Perhaps, having lain fallow for best part of the 21st century, New Yorkers will recreate Privately Owned Public Spaces as a disaggregated Central Park – enduring, tantalising and open.

Hedge Two-Way Mirror Walkabout

The Roof Garden Commission: Dan Graham with Günther Vogt, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 29 April – 2 November 2014 (weather permitting)

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