To a Great City

Second edition of the Guggenheim Museum’s stillspotting nyc project.

Despite what many non–New York residents think, there actually are quiet, serene places in New York City (I’m partial to the North Woods in Central Park), but frankly, I don’t think the financial district is the best place to look for them. Arriving in Battery Park to visit the first “stillspot” selected by the architectural firm Snøhetta to provide a space that “transports visitors from the hustle and bustle of the streetscape to an elevated urban experience that makes them newly aware of their sense of hearing,” I was skeptical. And that skepticism never quite dissipated. The five To a Great City stillspots vary dramatically in their transportive ability, and the journeys from one to the next are somewhat exhausting.

But then the work concludes with a final stillspot so spectacular that the inadequacies of the previous ones seem irrelevant. In retrospect, I have a niggling suspicion that the show’s creators knew that would be the case and didn’t bother overmuch with the first four, and that makes me feel a little bit cheap. I can’t work up too much indignation, though—not when the memory of that fifth stillspot is so glorious.

Snøhetta marks each stillspot with at least one big white weather balloon floating a couple feet or so in the air. It’s a striking sight, but not necessarily a calming one. On the Fort Jay Overlook on Governors Island (you have to take a ferry to visit all five spots), the wind buffeted the balloon mercilessly, to disquieting effect, and once Sean pointed out that the balloons look exactly like Rover, the murderous Village guard on The Prisoner, I couldn’t unsee the association. (Rover is actually quite scary in context, which is weird considering that it is, you know, a balloon. Then again, The Prisoner is so trippy, it could make bunny rabbits nightmarish.)

There are the issues with the music, too. The works of Arvo Pärt are alluringly contemplative in their chant-like repetitions and sonorous tones, but not every site lends itself to easy broadcast. In those cases, visitors have to go through a tiresome song-and-dance signing a form and handing over ID as collateral in exchange for headphones and an iPod Nano with the appropriate track. That’s a drag, and at the Battery Park stillspot, no matter how loudly I turned up my headphones, Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (truly a gorgeous work) couldn’t even come close to drowning out the insistent steel drums entertaining tourists nearby.

Given those distractions, it’s not really surprising that the most successful stillspots are indoors. Inside the magazine chambers at Fort Jay, the recording of countertenor David James singing “My Heart’s in the Highlands” reverberates powerfully against the stone, and the single balloon floats serenely in relative darkness. The effect is beautifully eerie. The stillspot in the lobby of the Woolworth Building isn’t quite as striking—perhaps because the cathedral-like setting simply feels too obvious—but at least there’s a stillness there that can envelop you, given a chance.

Neither of those compares, however, to the experience of seeing the city from the forty-sixth floor of 7 World Trade Center, just south of the newly opened 9/11 Memorial. When you get off the elevator, you step into a completely open space with floor-to-ceiling windows on every side. The space alone is evocative—empty but for a cluster of placid balloons and a few folding chairs, it has the ascetic austerity of a monastery—and the view is nothing short of breathtaking: the memorial’s vast reflecting pools, the expanse of the Hudson River, the whole of Manhattan stretched out toward the horizon. The truism that the world looks uncannily peaceful from a great height is a cliché but true nonetheless—and almost unbearably poignant given the location. Pärt’s “Hymn to a Great City” repeats again and again as you gaze out at the city, hushed and still, finding the project’s promised tranquility at last.