The Politics of Pleasure

The Van Alen Institute’s latest exhibition is a scenic argument for the importance of recreational spaces in cities.

Most people don’t think of urban areas when imagining that idyllic set of conditions sometimes referred to as “la dolce vita,” “la vie en rose,” or the good life. Despite exaggerated associations with luxury, cities such as New York, London, and Paris are equally renowned for overcrowding, traffic, and claustrophobic density. Chicago may have its Lake Michigan beaches, Los Angeles its perfect weather, and Miami its spandex-friendly strip, but when it comes to leisure we normally head for more remote and peaceful destinations.

This month New York’s Van Alen Institute leaps into this breach with The Good Life: New Public Spaces of Recreation, an exhibition at Hudson River Park’s Pier 40 showcasing dozens of projects either planned, under construction, or already realized that insert the rare combination of scenic refuge and pure pleasure into the hurly-burly of cities. “People are just desperate for these sites,” senior curator Zoë Ryan says. “Not everyone can escape the city during the summer, so this sort of destination has become increasingly important.”

Designed by Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, of WORK AC, with display graphics by Project Projects, the exhibition assembles urban recreational spaces from around the world as video installations grouped thematically and projected onto screens embedded into a fabric wall curving through the four-and-a-half-acre warehouse. The projects include new twists on more conventional cultural venues, such as David Adjaye’s 2005 London library recast as an Idea Store, and Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss’s proposed conversion of a handball stadium in Novi Sad, Serbia, into a new media center. Others rethink the use of waterfront areas, such as SHoP’s concept for a mixed-use glass pavilion on the East River, and Weiss Manfredi’s Olympic Sculpture Park, in Seattle—opening next month—in which a gently sloping landscape zigzags over the roadway and rail lines impeding access to the Puget Sound. The exhibit shows off some fantastic temporary solutions to waterfront access as well: for the past four years Jean-Christophe Choblet’s urban beach on a riverfront expressway in Paris has brought a bit of the French Riviera to the Seine, and next September Jonathan Kirschenfeld’s shipping barge retrofitted with an Olympic-size swimming pool will import a touch of the Hamptons to the docks of New York City.

Ryan also gives those transient events that momentarily open up the imagination of city dwellers their due in a section on “The Fun City,” featuring urban treasure hunts, mass pillow fights, and interactive games—among them Metropolis art director Nancy Nowacek’s Karaoke Ice project with Katie Salen and Marina Zurkow. The Van Alen even commissioned Kevin Slavin and Frank Lantz of area-code to develop an urban game to be played out on the city’s streets every weekend using global positioning systems on mobile phones. “Many of these things are very temporal,” Ryan says. “They come and go, but it’s a chance to show the totally wide range of possibilities for animating public space. Some of them are very small but they canhave a really amazing impact.”

Recent Programs