Art & Architecture on the Olnick Spanu Landscape

Collectors usually choose easier, ordinary architects for their living quarters. Architects who care only about lighting or preserving conditions instead of creating tensioned space that blends nature and life together with the human and art pieces that inhabit them. At Olnick Spanu Garrison house Campo Baeza dared, as he has done elsewhere, to subject to tension the space layered between two vast horizontal planes, ceiling and floor, taking them as close as possible to the very edge where this place explodes onto the surrounding landscape of the Hudson Valley, or implodes toward the entropy portals represented by all works of art.

A space with three axes combined: the vertical axis of the human figure standing firmly on the pedestal of the floor covered by the suspended ceiling of the sky above; the transversal axis, marked by the walls’ direction toward the underlined panorama and acting in conjunction with the perpendicular longitudinal axis along which the works of art are arranged.

Daring to live in a masterpiece of architecture is not the same as just living surrounded by major pieces of art. The Olnick Spanu choice, embracing both at the same time is an uncommon one.

A collector’s eye, but the trained eye of the real estate expert as well. An eye for beauty while daring to live in it, to inhabit it. And above all, choosing the right spot: location, location, location. Always on the edge, living on the threshold.

The power of the collections in the space at their Manhattan premises is balanced by the views from the riverside home. Major works by contemporary artists shared with the family at their dining table, the paintings of Dubuffet, combined, in a subtle balance, with the zen experience of the East River flowing by. Intimate spaces loaded with art compensated symmetrically by the abyss of the city cliff where it presides over the river at the big canyon of New York. Choosing such a powerful spot on the dividing line between two worlds instead of the domestic bliss of an Olmsted Central Park view.

Campo Baeza’s Olnick Spanu House is a total reflection of their life. A niche in nature from which one can comprehend, contemplate and enjoy the panorama, immersed in the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley, with the extended perspective of the ebb and flow of the great meandering river. Landscape in the very heart of the house, silence in the heart of light, and there in that silence suspended between sky and land, immersed in nature, within that transparent heart, the owners and their art collection.

Art residing in a suspended space, a space for family, friends and social life, where the doors of the belvedere generously open to unveil important cultural events relating to the artists of the collection.

An art collection blending with daily life, but also on a pedestal, in the countryside but distant from it, within walls that slide into the landscape.

From the very first sketches of the house in June 2003, this duality became apparent: the cave and the belvedere, the tectonic and the stereotomic, always mindful of the human scale and the work of art.

A Pistoletto sphere in that first sketch was at the center of the cross-section of the residence. And that focus continued with other great protagonists like Paolini and Merz, all of whom became elements equally important in terms of the work as the inhabitants of the house themselves.

Nancy and Giorgio clearly conveyed to Campo Baeza the make-up of that other family that would inhabit the house, describing in detail who each of its members were to be and how it would grow. I am, of course, referring to their art collection.

I would venture to say that this is one of Olnick Spanu’s outstanding attributes: clarity of vision regarding their objectives and demands in relation to the commissioned work, but with complete respect for the architect.

I have always believed that there is never a good work of architecture without a good client, but the terms of reference are very elastic. We recall, for example, the famous anecdote about Balenciaga, who was asked by a client: “Maestro, what do I have to do in order to be elegant?” The great designer replied: “Money, my dear, money, and leave the rest to me.” While economic factors indubitably play a decisive role, it is my belief that the principal contribution of the client consists in generously disclosing his needs, unveiling his privacy while at the same time opening his heart and mind to the solutions presented to him, however much they may surprise him.

I always tell my students that an architect turns dreams into reality, and in particular those of his clients, often creating unexpected solutions; his task is to do what the client needs, not what he wants, given that this is all too frequently contaminated by market trends and fashions.

Olnick Spanu House is a clear example of knowing what is required and finding who can respond to these needs, while at the same time creating a work of art. Allowing the work to proceed, while intervening throughout the process. The perfect bond between client and creator.

In all the drawings landscape and house overlap, the hills on the other side of the valley and the space of the house. The silhouette of the mountains as the final destination of the whole composition.

Transparency above a landscape as a backdrop to life, that Viscontian gruppo di famiglia in un interno in which the work floats in space or sits on that other axis, the longitudinal axis of the residence. Inside the house two levels of life coexist: the intimate, private life of the family rooms, and that other life of the belvedere, open to the world and to nature.

Views dominate the terrain, possessing the landscape on which they are placed, always actively present, gazing at the work of art, at the architecture and from the architecture.

That view out over the Hudson, always out onto the water, onto the magnificent meander of the Hudson in Garrison and over the East River, on to Roosevelt Island in the city.

The view at the edge of Manhattan where the two currents of traffic and water combine as if into a rampart, but also the urban point with the calmest and most disperse vision of the city.

A relationship with architecture surrounded by life, yet keeping its distance, as if flying above it, also at their house in Rome, right in the heart of the city par excellence, overlooking the great domes of Sant’Agnese and Sant’Andrea della Valle. The city as a nutrient, a reference, an anchor. And a view extending over the city, possessing it, like an element of the collection.

In their museum priorities are very different; it is, quite simply, the collection. Self-absorbed, in a closed space, designed for contemplation, for display, for sharing, for giving back something of value to the community. The mechanism is different: it is the collection that takes precedence, entropy thrives and everything outside the collection disappears.

Here dialog is not with life, nature or its inhabitants; that belongs to the private domain of the collectors, to their own living quarters,—and I mean living in its widest sense—to the life of the couple.

In the museum what takes precedence is resolving a simple space, where the pieces are in dialog with each other and a dedicated technical team looks after their construction and arrangement, but it took a long road to get there. Campo Baeza attempted to resolve the project in various locations, facing very complex situations in terms of authorizations and licenses, with the difficulties of finding the perfect location interrupting the process. However, as with all important works, some of these endeavors re-emerged in subsequent works, as another built idea.

The location finally chosen reutilized an existing pavilion to which a simple volume was joined as a new extension, thus reducing the complexity of the assignment. Campo Baeza then proposed to his clients that one of his former collaborators, Miguel Quismondo, who had already worked with him in the technical management and follow-up of Olnick Spanu house, and who had continued on at the firm, should undertake the task.

With the addition of a new, simple, closed volume, Quismondo resolved the museum space, connecting it to the existing building with a patio, and a terrace opening the building out to the landscape. The new pavilion effectively balanced the mass of the pre-existing one and was equipped with all the facilities which the technical program of a museum requires. Quismondo’s collaborator on the project was another young Spanish architect from the ETSAM UPM, Jesús Aparicio, who had also worked at Campo Baeza’s Madrid studio.

These two separate pavilions, the transparent belvedere on the edge of the cliff above the Hudson landscape and the metaphorical cave providing a sanctuary for the art collection, remind me of another collection of art and architecture in the neighboring state of  Connecticut: Philip Johnson’s series of pavilions on his estate in New Canaan, the original glass house at the edge of a crest, the artificial lake, rendered immense by the artifice of a small pavilion whose scaled-down size plays with our perception of the surrounding landscape, and just a few hundred meters away, set into the hill, an earth-berm structure designed to house his art collection. A space created for preservation and enjoyment, closed off from the outside world.

Nature reigns in both estates, where architecture and art intertwine and seek refuge inside when they wish to avoid its contest, embracing it when celebrating life and everyday existence. Both sets of pavilions embrace the coexistence of life and living, transparency and dominion over water, the river, the lake, and the contemplation of art, the descent into the cave, concealment, art as archetype shown as shadows on the cavern wall, leading us on to another reality, portals to another dimension.

Art and architecture, time standing still, prolonging and enriching everyday experience. Life in the heart of nature. Nature and artefact, artifice manipulating time and space. Reflected in the glass panes of a house, transparent when we look through them, but mirroring an oblique reality too when our gaze is distorted, and accumulating in their layers a vision of internal and external spaces, enriched with that succession of overlapping layers that constitutes the experience of life itself.

A life lived at work, in construction and architecture, in the administration of properties, but also devoted to achieving beauty and the enjoyment of the calm that art and architecture create.

I do not know if these are fitting reflections on what they themselves called “a labor of love”, a complex relationship in which life, work and art overlap and intertwine.

They are observations based on cues left by them, for while I do not claim to know them intimately I know of them as persons, and I speak of person in the strictest phylogenetic sense of the word, the masks that actors wore in Greek theatre to denote their character. Masks are our relations with the universe, so closely linked to us that they ended up giving a name to our very being. Their masks are their collections and their residences, the external shells of their personality in which they seek refuge and are enveloped but that also amplify the echoes of their thoughts, feelings and actions, their relationship with the world, with art and with architecture.

I met them for the first time as curator of Alberto Campo Baeza’s exhibition at the Urban Center in New York. They were accompanied by Massimo Vignelli and were discussing with Alberto the initial stages of their house. The inauguration was attended by the great and the good in the city, Kenneth Frampton, Richard Meier, Steven Holl, Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina and so many others, and Campo Baeza’s new clients were there, excited at the prospect of the first stages of the creation of their new project.

Successive exhibits allowed me to follow step by step the creation of the work; the work in progress was displayed in drawings and models, followed by photos, almost in real time. At Vicenza’s Palladian basilica, I made a beautiful container to record its genesis; I again showed it at the Gallery Ma in Tokyo invited by Tadao Ando and finally at the MAXXI in Rome—an inauguration that celebrated the new work of the house and welcomed them in their dual role as clients of one of the main projects on display and proprietors of one of the most important collections of Arte Povera in private ownership. At Rome’s Museum of 21st Century Art and Architecture, they were at home in more ways than one.

The MAXXI was one of the most deeply emotive exhibitions of my life, occurring at a very delicate time for me personally, where they were such generous Roman hosts to us, vying with the entire city, which was enthralled with the exhibit.

I do not know if my observations amount to more than a pale reflection of reality among so many other reflections of the Hudson and the East River on their American homes, or the reflections of vibrant forms and colors under the light of the translucent volumes of their glass collection in the new reality of their museum. I do not know if my observations, like the light that penetrates the heart of their house to its innermost nature, are accurate, but their intent is to reflect something of that reality and, echoing Eliot, they are “private words addressed to you in public”.

Manuel Blanco, 2016
Full Professor. ETSAM, Madrid Polytechnic University, UPM