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Return of the Blob

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As if harking back to the 1950s horror flick, the Blob has reinvaded our culture. Now, though, instead of screaming hordes fleeing in terror, there are hordes of people rushing out to buy the G-shock watches, the iMAC computers, and the other symbols of the way in which our society has rejected the idea of form. The Blob is everywhere; you can't miss it. At Target a few weeks ago, I wandered into an aisle of strangely shaped kitchen utensils designed by pop-culture architect Michael Graves. I brought home a spatula to show my family: the end of the handle had a blobular shape on it, and it wasn't just of ergonomic concern. It's hip. Paging through a design magazine, one sees faucets, sofas, and light fixtures that exhibit the Blob Aesthetic. Brueton Studios produces an Advil-shaped stool called "UFO Seating"; on the streets of New York you'll see the twentysomething crowd sporting Blob backpacks made of foam. And in the computer lab at school there are four of those horrifyingly ugly computers, with their violent neon colors and mini-Blob mouses.

This rejection of traditional forms—of corners, planes, and straight lines—has spilled over into the discipline of architecture. Last year at the Museum of Modern Art, I heard Japanese architect Toyo Ito speak about his Mediatheque; its internal structure of curving tubes was inspired, he said, by bulbous, floating seaweed. New York, always the leader in world design trends, has its own amorphous monuments; surprisingly, perhaps the city's most striking example of the new aesthetic is a building nearing completion in Queens: New York Presbyterian Church, with a congregation composed largely of Korean immigrants and their children.

The architect primarily responsible for this astonishing structure is Columbia University's wunderkind, Greg Lynn, a graduate-level professor at the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at the age of 33. By his own admission, Lynn never carries a pencil; he doesn't even sketch without the aid of a computer. Already, he has formed his own theories about spatial relationships; he's fascinated by what he calls "anexact" relationships, neither exact nor inexact. Recently, Lynn combined with Garofalo Architects and Michael McInturf Architects to build the first actual structure he's been commissioned for: New York Presbyterian Church in Long Island City, Queens.

The first time I visited the site, the sky was gray and the clouds leaked out a light, spattering drizzle, playing an accompaniment to the industrial area all around. On one side are the railyards for the Long Island Railroad, and trains traveling east through Queens get a view of the church's north façade. On the opposite side is a large retail shopping center with bright colors, trying desperately to bring life to an area that looks like an inhabited ghost town. All around are factories and warehouses in drab, colorless, ashen shades.

The church was not built from the ground up but rather was integrated into an existing building (the Knickerbocker Laundry, dating to the 1930s and the heyday of modernism). Lynn's design for the sanctuary was based on what he called an aggregational model, rather than a congregational one. Members of a congregation remain subordinate to the concept of the congregation itself, using a "theocentric body" for structure. On the other hand, members of an aggregation retain their autonomy within the body, fusing together to form a "multiple, mutable, and mobile" body that remains ever-changing and dynamic.

The building is nothing if not aggregational: a conglomerate of shapes, structures, and ideas. I know of many architects who would cringe at the idea of naming parts of their structures, but Lynn and his associates don't shy away from it. The sacred void inside the sanctuary was referred to as the "blob," and the sanctuary itself as the "shed," names that project architect Gregg Pasquarelli threw at me without a trace of a smirk. Conceived on WaveFront software, a Lynn design, the blob is fed by two flowing "tubes," one from either side, that facilitate entering and exiting for a large number of people. The undulating roof of the sanctuary is composed of sharply cutting polygons that, if collapsed, would nest inside each other, prompting the nickname Nestor. So, the tubes are connected to the blob, the blob supports Nestor, and Nestor covers the shed.

Strangely, this comically grandiose form of architecture—formless, blobular shapes encased in curving walls and a tough industrial shell—has its charms. The interior space is delightfully confusing; the front wall, covered in a tile pattern of transparent and translucent windows, houses a fascinating space on the second floor. The staircase that leads down from the main hallway is flanked by a high, lofty wall on one side and a lower one on the other, and the play between the two is captivating. Walking around from the west wall, which has been left unadorned and staggeringly high, to the south side and catching the steel-plated far edges of Nestor as they give off a dull glow in the half-light, I needed to catch my breath at the sheer imaginative dazzle of the space.

Clearly Lynn has done an excellent job of analyzing the site and incorporating it into his design. He has stayed in the spirit of Long Island City, with an industrial color scheme. When the raw materials are allowed to show through, as in the steel-plated panels, they give off a fierceness that adds much to the strength of the building. The natural grays and blacks are wonderful; but the purplish-gray façade and the nearly baby-blue handrails are a step back from that raw, gritty feeling.

But despite these moments of glory, the building as a whole is rather unconvincing. It's cool to look at, cool to walk around in and experience, but it can't stand up to analysis. The Blob theory just doesn't hold water. I see an interesting contrast between Lynn and his former mentor, Peter Eisenman, now at Cooper Union. Eisenman's finely tuned logic and precise criticism are exactly what Lynn has missed. He needs more than a cool-looking space; he needs an idea and the ability to critique that idea until it becomes fiduciary. The parts of the building that have been fused together look fused together; they don't function as a cohesive unit. The aggregational model may be an interesting theory, but in practice—here, at least—it doesn't work. The elements need to be either so drastically different that they set each other off, or have more in common so that they flow together. As it is, it looks like a bit of a jumble.

There may be some theological problems with the aggregational model as well; it certainly doesn't seem to fit with Saint John's command that "He must become greater; I must become less." Perhaps Lynn intended the design to make some sort of negative statement about organized religion. But for Young Hee Lee, the senior pastor of the Korean congregation, this building represents something entirely different: a monumental conclusion to a search for a permanent home for his congregation, a search that has taken 21 years.

Pastor Lee and his congregation of more than 2,000 members went through countless property deals and borrowed buildings. He fasted for three days be fore going to confront the landlord of their current building (where they are meeting until the church is finished), a tough customer straight out of The Sopranos. Pastor Lee tells me the story quietly, with a smile and a humble spirit—here is someone who is truly dedicated to furthering Christ's kingdom on earth. "I told him what is the life of our people and what is our church vision. He was really moved"—so moved, in fact, that he commuted his price from 2 million to two hundred fifty thousand. Lee looks at me earnestly. "Miracle."

Their history as a church is full of miracles, and he is quick to acknowledge who is responsible for them: "In the early morning, every day, " he explains, "we pray. That is power source for church life." This building, he says, was raised up in prayer—from the moment they signed the contract with the architects, they had someone from the congregation fasting and praying every single day, that God would allow them to finish building Him a house. This continued for the next five years, and will keep going until the day they cut the ribbon on the new building. He tells me of the 5:00 a.m. prayer meetings and Bible studies, the time spent in prayer with the architects. "You prayed with Greg Lynn?" I ask incredulously.

Photo: Snowy Table - Baltimore, December 2002

Copyright © 2009 Emily Jorjorian Lowe. All rights reserved.

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