David van der Leer’s first impression of New York City? “Ugly. Very ugly.”
“I was accustomed to beautiful European cities,” said the assistant curator of architecture and urban studies at the Guggenheim. It was the beautiful brownstones in Park Slope that finally sold him on moving here in 2006 from Holland. “I now live in Chelsea and New York has turned out to be a very beautiful city—or it’s my mindset that changed.” Van der Leer currently curates the stillspottingseries as well as the BMW Guggenheim Lab. Thematic projects such as these are designed to reach people outside of the museum setting and shake up conversations about cities, how to design them, and how to best live in them. One issue is urban noise, a topic addressed in stillspotting.
“Telettrofono,” the latest edition of stillspotting, began at the Staten Island Ferry terminal and, just like the ones that took place in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, embarked on a quest for urban mindfulness. Sound artistJustin Bennett and poet Matthea Harvey created an audio story walking tour that married history (Antonio Meucci, the unacknowledged inventor of the first telephone) with fantasy (Esterre, the mermaid who leaves the water to marry him).
“This particular stillspotting had a lot of fantasy, but during the sound-walk there are also moments when you’re just alone with the sound, which provided opportunities for introspection,” said van der Leer. “The walk spiraled away from the water into land and became increasingly quiet, where you could find several mental still spots.”
“Telettrofono” ended on August 5, but while we wait for the final edition in the Bronx, stillspotting fans can experience van der Leer’s personal favorite still spots in the city.
While he was scouting for “Telettrofono,” van der Leer discovered how peaceful the Alice Austen House and the Staten Island Ferry could be. “To the south of the Alice Austen House lawn, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is huge and very imposing,” he said. “On the ferries, most commuters stay inside and tourists always flock to the side of the deck with views of the Statue of Liberty. The other side is quiet. I like being in a spot where I can’t really do anything except sit there for 20 minutes and enjoy the water.”
Most of his personal still spots are similarly transitory, discovered during a bike ride home or an evening stroll through the neighborhood. “These spaces become part of your everyday life.”
In Brooklyn, van der Leer often meandered through the “very huge and very quiet” Green-Wood Cemetery. “There are so many stories,” he said. “My imagination is always running wild there.” He was also oddly drawn to theGrain Terminal, an abandoned warehouse in Red Hook, though he never went inside. “It feels forceful but in a strange way it’s a calming setting.”
Some of his still spots seem even more counter-intuitive. For instance, underneath the elevated train tracks in Queens. “Stillspotting can be about quietness sound-wise, but also about moments that quiet you down, even if it’s rather noisy,” he said. “I used to try to keep talking when trains came despite the noise, but I’m finding more and more that it’s nice to pause.”
Also in Queens is the Panorama of the City of New York. “You hardly ever get this kind of overview of the city and it makes you curious about spots you’ve never been to,” said van der Leer. “Sarah Malaika, who works with me on stillspotting, told me anyone can adopt a building on the Panorama. If I were to buy a building…I would buy a public building. I quite like theMetLife building and its placement in the grid. The grid plays such a big part in our anxiety in New York because it invites us to constantly keep on going. There’s almost no respite from it. This building is promptly positioned to obstruct the grid.”
Taking up quite a bit less real estate on the grid is Le Petit Versailles, one of several community gardens in Alphabet City that have charmed van der Leer. “I think it’s amazing that these spaces were developed by individual projects and now make the neighborhood so beautiful.” Another favorite spot in Manhattan is the bike path along the Hudson in Riverside Park, specifically between West 82nd and West 89th Streets. “In these few blocks you’re right above the boat basin where they’re not docked, just floating. When I lived up there, it was on my ride home. Very calming views”
A bit higher up is Spuyten Duyvil Creek, at the top of Inwood Hill Park, between Manhattan and the Bronx. “The cliffs make it a nice contemplative zone because you’re lower than everything around you,” said van der Leer. “It’s a perfect introduction to the Bronx.” He also likes visiting River Park, nuzzled next to the Bronx Zoo’s south entrance on East 180th Street. “It has a little waterfall, which is spectacular. A waterfall in the middle of the city!”
In terms of stillspotting and art, van der Leer likes the Noguchi Museum in Queens and gallery hopping in Chelsea, but never on opening night. “My favorite is still just watching people,” he said. “For me, the best experiences in culture are when I feel part of what’s taking place around me.”
Which no doubt motivates his projects. Van der Leer is currently working on the final installation of stillspotting in the Bronx and the third installation of BMW Guggenheim Lab, which next moves to Mumbai, a place where peace and quiet is even harder to come by. “It’s an exciting city, but so noisy,” said van der Leer, who has been traveling there once every couple of months. “Every time I come back from Mumbai, New York feels like a Swiss village.”
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