Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Today, the weather changed, and it was chilly, windy and raining. An inside job was the order of the day. So off on the subway, up to 42nd Street and Grand Central Terminus. Being Sunday, I thought it would be a good place to look around and have some breakfast there.

I had seen many pictures of the station before, with the iconic (mid Fifties?) image taken with the very moody shafts of light cutting across the concourse being the one which stuck in my mind. But today, I wanted to see it for real. You approach it through a low, wide tunnel from the subway station, and enter directly onto the concourse.

What a magnificent structure. It hits you almost physically as you enter the huge space, with a really confident feel to the vast Concourse. The whole building has recently been subject to a major renovation project, costing something approaching $200 million, and it absolutely shows.

All the walls are newly faced with a thick, expensive coat of creamy, beige marble, giving it a lovely light, airy feel, and the roof is amazing. It has been painted in a soft green, with a gold, illuminated zodiac showing all the stars painted over it. I'm no astronomer but I understand the constellations were painted, possibly unintentionally, back to front – this being hurriedly explained, it seems, as representing "God's view" of the heavens. You had PR and spin in the 30s, so there's nothing new there. There is one small roof area which has been left unrestored, presumably to show the extent of the restoration work done.

In the exact centre of the vast concourse floor is a booth topped by a beautiful 4-faced gold clock, It's one of those things where if you said to a friend "Meet me by the clock in Grand Central" there would be no chance of getting confused – it acts as a real focus to the building. And, almost inevitabably, to commemorate 9/11, there is an enormous Stars and Stripes hanging down from the ceiling.

Even downstairs, in the Food Hall, the same opulence carries on. I bought my breakfast there – Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese Bagel, a very French tasting Croissant, freshly squeezed orange juice, and half decent coffee – all of it of very good quality, and costing £6.

The whole impression is excellent and gives great credit to its original designer, as well as those who undertook the restoration. It's a bit like a Twentieth Century version of what's happened to St Pancras Station in London. Here though, it's not a new futuristic railway line they're symbolising because the station is only used now for local New York Commuting trains and the days of the Twentieth Century Limited steaming into town are long gone – I looked for the Chatanooga Choo-Choo in vain. A really great feel to the place though. And Highly recommended.

This flag thing is everywhere. On a previous visit to New England, we reckoned, driving around, that 1 in 10 of the houses there had a large flag in the garden. Here, it's the Municipal Buildings where it happens. The New York Stock Exchange near Wall Street has three largish flags hanging from angled flagpoles across the front of the building. But the whole of the front of the building is then covered by a gigantic one which must be 75 feet across.

All the Americans I've had a decent conversation with, are overtly proud of their Nation and maybe this is what's behind it all. But maybe also, it's a confidence issue. They do all seem, to a man, to be really scathing about their politicians. They all have said the same thing to me – "How are we going to get out?" or "There's no way out". Meaning Iraq. It comes up time and time again. They are also, and they don't talk anywhere near so much about this, very fearful of the economic situation. They are almost ashamed of the weakness of the Dollar, and you can feel a sense of personal failure here. They are strangely reticent about it all, perhaps on the basis of not wanting to talk it down, but the Elephant, most definitely, is in the room – and it's a Big One. "It's real, real tough, out there." was the most I got out of one of them.

But, back to the Grand Tour. There was no decent light for pictures today, and it was coldish. So a bit of culture was called for. Off to Museum Mile Uptown on Fifth Avenue, and the Guggenheim. This is a remarkable looking building, and it caused a huge shock to New Yorkers when it was built in the Fifties.

Everything in Manhattan is at right angles, at least when you get above the Southern Tip. From 14th Street up to 135th Street (which is where my Map stops), the Grid system is absolute. And mixed in with "square" buildings, the architectural signature of New York is clear. Square is Cool - Curves are Out.

Until you see the Guggenheim. This is a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, built as a slowly rising circular spiral building, which makes a real impact when you see pictures of it. I had huge expectations, and expected to be wowed as I walked round the corner of 88th Street.

But No. The impact this morning is very muted, because it's covered in what looks like the biggest Bin Liner in the World. Now, when you see these things, you think - It's being restored. But this is an avant garde museum, so I did wonder if it was being used for one of these "Installations" where they wrap the building up in Clingfim or Tinfoil to make a huge artistic point, like they did with the Reichstag in Berlin.

So to avoid looking like an idiot, I kept schtumm and approached it very noncommittally. You could imagine chatting to a bystander, and commenting that the builders are making a bit of a mess of the place, and "Are they going to get it finished on time?" only to find that he's the artist, and has just won the New York equivalent of the Turner Prize with his efforts.

There has even, I found out later, been an argument between Those Who Matter here about the colour the outside should be painted when the restoration is complete. When it was built, it was in Yellow, but this was later replaced by a Pale Cream. It would seem that Committees were formed, arguments were had, faces were scratched and Prams were completely emptied of Toys, but the latest Stop Press news is that The Creamists have triumphed.

Picking up a leaflet in the queue to get in, all is made clear. Yes, it's being restored - for a Fiftieth Year Old celebration in 2009. So, that's bit of a shame for those of us here in 2008. But inside, it's OK. It really is a most unusual space. The walls run in a five ring spiral, like looking outwards from the inside of a large Apple that an Accountant has peeled. All the exhibits are mounted on the walls of this spiral, which means that you view them at an angle of around 2-3 degrees off the horizontal, and spend the next hour leaning slightly to the right. Being the said Accountant, I had to suppress a constant desire to level them all up.

I'd read beforehand that the special exhibits on show were a selection of Early Twentieth Century paintings by the likes of Kandinsky, Klee and Kokoschka, and some works by a Chinese Post-Modernist artist named Cai Guo-Qiang (I've got the Microsoft Red wiggly line under that, and it won't go away!). I arrived expecting to love the pictures and hate the Chinese artist's work. It turned out exactly the opposite. I was going to say that, in the end, I leaned towards the Chinese part of the Exhibition, but I'm not going for the cheap jibe here!

There were a few pictures with which I connected – Paul Klee, Joan Miro, and a couple by Kandinsky, but the rest left me cold, and strangely unmoved.

But the installations by Cai were brilliant. One was a stream of 99 life-size tigers, teeth bared and all different. Hugely dynamic poses, which were quite frightening. You started walking through them, as if you were taking a pack of dogs for a stroll. They looked real, although they had all been made for the exhibit, and they gradually got closer together into a tight Tigerstream, and "took off" (they were mounted on wires) until at the end there was almost no space between them and they rushed headlong from above your head into a glass screen tumbling to the ground in a mass of distorted shapes. I think it's meant to be symbolic of the lead-up to Russia pulling down the Berlin Wall, but my Audio cassette had stopped working, and I was on my own in working out what was going on.

This exhibit led into the next, which was an icon of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. 102 lifesize clay models of Chinese people, some workers, some women, some children, some soldiers, all bringing the feel of fear, decay and deprivation literally in to your face as you walked through them – inches away from your face. They never stopped coming at you, and it built up in intensity as you walked through. It sounds depressing, but the quality of the sculpture, and the looks on the people's faces, as well as the sometimes agonising poses completely held you. They made a real impression on me.

I'd literally never seen anything like it, and it keeps coming back into my mind. It really, really surprised me.

Lunchtime now, and a walk across Central Park to the American Natural History Museum. In retrospect, after the Guggenheim, this was a bit of a mistake. You were brought down to earth with a bump. I had a so-so containered lunch of Chicken Caesar Salad which they managed to make without any dressing on (different!), and set off round the Museum. It's vast – a bit like our Natural History Museum, or even the British Museum.

The exhibits are Top Drawer – the Biggest This in the World, and the longest That, but it lacked sparkle to me – all a bit worthy.

You tended to rush around to try and see everything, and ended up seeing far less than if you'd picked one bit out and concentrated on it. But the sight of a full size 50 foot Blue Whale is not forgotten easily!.

It was about 4pm and I was flagging a bit now, so gave up and decided to return to base. I walked along the Avenue bordering the Park, past the Dakota building, outside which John Lennon was shot in 1980, and onto the Subway, and back to the hotel.

I went for a "peace and quiet" evening, and strolled down to the Waterfront for a leisurely evening meal. I found an old, slightly decrepit Italian place, where the menu looked as if it was of the "Whatever's delivered today, We'll cook for you" sort, and gave that a go. Apart from the massive portions, it was a good choice. Antipasta, and Seared Scallops on Garlic Pasta, Lemon Sorbet, and a couple of Beers. Had a long chat to the guy behind the bar about this and that (He hates Bush, as well – that's Six out of Six, so far). The DJ on the radio was playing songs from the Fifties and the Sixties, and rather depressingly he and I were the only ones there who knew the words. So we had a rather low key, geriatric Karaoke session until the programme finished.

We then put the world to rights, and they shut up shop and threw me out. He went home on the Staten Island ferry, and I went back to the hotel.

A lower key, "inside" day, with Grand Central Terminal and the Guggenheim being the star attractions.


1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

Thanks for the synopsis. I'll have to come back and read your guide again when I finally get around to a tour.

I feel like a philistine- all these years of visiting New York and I've yet to set foot in a museum. Of course, only having 12 to 15 hours including sleep time does cramp the agenda... Same problem with London. I've been there dozens of times, yet not done much more than a Jack the Ripper walking tour...