Faculty Feature: Jade Doskow
VISITING THE LOST UTOPIAS OF THE WORLD’S FAIR MONUMENTS
April 23, 2018
by Michael Bilsborough
Jade Doskow just launched her solo debut exhibition in Manhattan, Lost Utopias, now on view at Front Room Gallery. The exhibition marks the tenth year of Doskow’s work documenting the remaining architecture of international World’s Fairs. Lost Utopias shuttles viewers on an extraordinary architecture tour from North America to Europe and back, alighting in New York City, Montreal, Brussels, and more. Lost Utopias is also at home in book format, available as a 128-page hardback from Black Dog Publishing.
With her show up, and with new courses beginning this summer, Jade shared insights about her project, her process, and her teaching here at SVA Continuing Education.
SVACE: What originally drew you toward World’s Fair sites? Was it one structure, in particular? Did you have an interest in architecture, generally?
JD: The best projects usually arrive when one is in a fluid state of inspiration and creation of new work; such was the case with Lost Utopias. At that point I was busy photographing architecture that was both abandoned and repurposed in the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, and so was often thinking about the original intention of a piece of architecture in relation to the unforeseen repurposing of a structure.
The idea for Lost Utopias struck me when traveling in Seville, Spain, with family. We were on a bus around the city when we unexpectedly turned away from the old city and across the Guadalquivir River to something completely clashing visually: acres and acres of semi-abandoned fairgrounds from the 1992 Seville Expo. Despite the fact that the site was overgrown with weeds, the people of Seville were clearly very proud of what had happened here, and there was a wonderful sense of the utopian to the dystopian in the experience of this first site.
I only photograph architecture and landscape, yes.
SVACE: For Lost Utopias, you travel to sites in or near large cities, yet the images appear to be mostly unpopulated. Is it a challenge to find this solitude? Or do these sites really attract few visitors?
JD: World’s fairs were—and are—essentially, temporary mini-cities, and for this reason, they are typically constructed (with a few notable exceptions, such as Seattle and Paris) on the outskirts of cities, where there is space, such as Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York. Often, viewers of my work comment on the notable lack of crowds or people in my work. However, for the most part, when I am on a site photographing, which is usually a 3-5 day span, there have not been huge numbers of people present on the site. And this is due both to logistics (when during the year I am working) and time of day. Architecture, as it is famously known, is best captured at dusk and dawn, and these aren’t necessarily the busiest times of day for certain sites.
A rather intriguing example of a relatively empty image: San Diego’s Spreckels Organ Pavilion is actually open only for organ concerts for 2-4 hours a week, and I was not able to get there to photograph during that tiny span of time. As a result, the organ itself is concealed behind a roll gate not dissimilar to a New York deli storefront roll gate, and there are just a few people scattered throughout the seating. And this is the case with many of these places. There are specific events here or there, but for the most part, they exist in a state of surreal solitude.
SVACE: What are some technical challenges you’ve faced in your ten years of visiting and photographing these sites?
JD: I’ve learned a lot as I’ve gotten more deeply into the project. For example, when I first photographed in Montréal in 2012, an entire island that was on my shoot list was closed for a private NASCAR event. That was a hard way to learn that I could not just show up and expect to have access, so now I always reach out to the organizations in charge of the sites before traveling there. This might seem obvious, but these are primarily public parks, again with exceptions, so typically I could just ‘show up’ and work. The good thing is that with years of work the local organizations are usually quite enthusiastic to be part of the project, as my photographs often illuminate the unusual beauty of these places.
There were more challenges earlier in the project when I was still getting used to large-format film and understanding the layout of each place. Now I spend many hours preparing, researching, and making relationships with locals prior to travel, which definitely smooths the way. And as any outdoor photographer will tell you—there is always the weather to contend with! In Seattle, predictably, it was pouring the entire shoot, but if anything, it helped increase my mental focus, and some of the strongest images in the project are a result of that shoot.
SVACE: Although these structures are still standing, many are not functional. I rarely think of Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion, except when I’m riding to or from the airport. What is the lesson there about these monuments? Is the lesson about preservation: that they remain at all? Is it about obsolescence: that societies have moved on from them? Is it about myopic design: that designers neglected the future needs of the structures and their surroundings?
JD: Actually, many of these structures are still functional, only in different ways than what was originally planned. For example, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome in Montréal was the epitome of smart, futuristic design in 1967 as it is today, and served as a fantastical, sophisticated exhibition space for the 1967 Montréal Expo, but the acrylic shell originally encapsulating the dome was lost to fire later on. The interior, nonetheless, was rehabbed and is now the Biosphére museum, dedicated to sustainability and the environment.
The New York State Pavilion, on the other hand, is a wonderful example of the complexities of preservation; designed by a famed mid-century architect but with no real budget as to how to bring such an unwieldy structure into a functional future, it exists in a limbo state, structurally unsound but freshly painted.
I think of this entire project as a provocation; why and how do we create monuments? How do they shape our sense of the everyday within these public parks? Why does a city prioritize saving certain buildings and not others? How do these sites shape the perception of the entire city in which they are situated?
SVACE: For the current exhibition, your artist statement reads, “World’s Fairs often exist at a strange intersection of inspirational hope for future technologies and designs, braggadocio, and a (possibly misplaced) sense of global cooperation.” Do you see this in the recent architecture of New York City?
JD: An element of architecture that I find endlessly fascinating is the unpredictable nature of how a piece of architecture will age, or how it will fit into an unknown future, or how the use of the structure may or may not change from what it was originally designed for. For all of the seeming lack of hubris of contemporary architects, we are only here now, and whatever seems shocking and obnoxious now will become, as I have started describing it, “quaintified" when we see it as we look backwards from the future.
The Eiffel Tower was criticized as a modern vulgarity at the time of its construction, and it goes without saying what actually happened to the reputation of that tower. New York is having a crazy building boom right now, and certainly some buildings are more exciting than others, such as Bjarke Ingel’s Via 57, which adds complexity and dynamism to the West side, or any of the competitive, futuristic building going on in the Hudson Yards, which is nearly a mini-world’s fair in terms of scope and ambition.
There are a lot of terribly and cheaply designed condo buildings going up everywhere—in fact, my beloved old neighborhood, Red Hook, is now filled with hideous such buildings—but most likely they will be demolished or completely transformed over the next years. These things won’t last. New York is always reinventing itself.
SVACE: What does the Lost Utopias book offer that the show does not? And vice versa?
JD: The Lost Utopias book offers the entirety of the first ten years of the project, so one can understand changing styles in architecture, and clearly see how these design choices reflect very specific eras in regards to history, science, art, and technology. The work is contextualized within the wonderful writings of Jennifer Minner, PhD, a professor in the Urban Planning Department of Cornell University who has studied world’s fair sites extensively; Richard Pare, an extraordinary scholar of architectural photography, history, a remarkable photographer, and a mentor to me as I have made this work; and a full glossary of the sites that I have photographed with data pertaining to each site, such as how many acres of land, how much it cost to construct, and notable firsts that were introduced at that fair, such as modernist architecture or hot dogs.
SVACE: Does Lost Utopias influence the courses you teach here at SVA Continuing Education?
JD: An easy way to answer this; yes, me and my work are one, so my courses never stray far from my passion for photographing the constructed environment and how it shapes who we are.
SVACE: What do you recommend to students and emerging photographers, especially those with an interest in architecture, cities, and monuments?
JD: Work slowly and deliberately. Spend time with any piece of architecture (or cityscape, or monument) you are planning to photograph. Understand how it exists within the environment around it, how it speaks. Spend time observing the flow of light and how it shapes or flattens out your subject matter. If you are in New York make the most of the resources here, visit the museums and galleries and lectures. Good work is never made quickly—so be patient!