Trump Plaza residents vowed they would do whatever it took to fight artist Michael Singer’s South Cove Regeneration Project in West Palm Beach.
His plan for “stepped tidal gardens along the seawall, tidal islands of mangroves and spartina” and other salt-marsh grasses, as well as sludge-filtering oyster reefs, would look like a swamp. Not the kind of artwork they had in mind when buying into unobstructed views at the 32-story tower. Furthermore, they argued, Singer’s proposed 556-foot elevated boardwalk and public observation deck would only invite vagrants to sleep over, per Joel Englehardt of the Palm Beach Post, May 13, 2008.
After spending a cool million on legal fees before and after construction, the president of the Trump Plaza Condominium Association ultimately conceded to the civic will and officials of the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resource Management. They, among others, celebrated the opening of the two-acre, $4 million South Cove project in November 2012. “Now,” says Jason Bregman, Singer’s Project Manager, “the habitation restoration islands have become a catalyst for more work on cleaning up the waterways. And even some of the Trump Plaza folks admit to liking it.”
Despite the Trump Plaza incident, Singer is more often one to make friends than pick fights. Collaborating with architects, engineers, fabricators, biologists, anthropologists, and civic groups, comprise part of his art. The layering of ideas and personalities ultimately adds, rather than detracts. There are too many stakeholders and too many areas of expertise to do it any other way.
This collaborative dynamic comes into play whether Singer’s acting as the lead, as in South Cove, or as a subordinate, as in the massive Queens City Plaza “Messy But Not Too” makeover we wrote about last month. Here landscape designer Margie Ruddick masterminded the restoration and humanization of this industrial ganglion. That said, Singer’s 3,000 widely-dispersed, individually sculpted architectural elements were key to implementing Ruddick’s vision. The mesmerizing patterns invite visitors to slow down in this urban space, meet, meditate, and congregate. Why zip through the new plaza when an urban rhythm of syncopated concrete pavers, bench caps, and runnels offer a priceless key to what mystifies us?
None of this sounds like art in the ordinary sense. We’re not lining up at a gallery to witness an individual vision, a nose-tweaking of the bourgeois, or a “game-changer” in the parlance of high tech. Although Singer’s summer studio and workshop in Vermont displays many of his stand-alone, fine arts pieces about its emerald turf, the plinth holding the big stuff can only be contained by planet Earth itself. Too see these, you may need some air miles: specifically, Uplifted Ground at the Austin Airport, a garden entry to the U.S. Embassy in Athens, a recycling facility in Phoenix, a “sculptural flood wall” in Grand Rapids, a “Seminole Parking Structure” in Coconut Creek, Florida, a proposed East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station (MTS) within Manhattan for with a green roof park for “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz of Sam Schwartz Engineering and GNA Consulting Engineers, housing and educational facilities for folks on the autism spectrum in collaboration with Dr. Matthew Goodwin of Northeastern University and the MIT Media Lab, and many more built or on the drawing boards.
If not art in the ordinary sense, what are these infrastructure interventions and architectural works? What all these creative collaborations suggest is that we need to redefine what these collaborators do. What does an artist do? An architect? An engineer? A landscape designer?
Long before Da Vinci drew Vitruvian Man, long before the Roman architect Vitruvius, it was the job of the creative class to connect man and nature, man and the gods, man in search of the meaning of the universe in all its chaotic frenzy. These ancients became the priests of a kind of sacred geometry, the mandalas and golden sections, the Harmony of the Spheres, and other ratios underlying the universe. Such equations they felt would express the divine in art and design from Egyptian pyramids to Hindu shrines, to Greek temples, to the Harmony of the Spheres, to Medieval cathedrals and, in the case of da Vinci, the human body itself.
Just look at a chambered nautilus shell, how its logarithmic growth allows it to grow without changing shape, honey bees’ hexagonal shells to hold honey, the glittering geodes in every natural history museum, the double helix of DNA strands. Consider, too, Einstein’s theory of relativity, stating that energy and matter are interchangeable. What does that say about “solid” 3-D sculpture and buildings?
Hence, Singer, his network of collaborators, and a growing number of artists and architects throughout the world have eschewed the role of lone, bourgeois-nose-tweaking genius for a role far more profound, as negotiators and interpreters between humanity and the universe. Geometry, physics, biology, ecology, anthropology supply the language for these creative acts, which, to many, still seem obtuse. This in part may explain why the National Endowment of the Arts, which had a hand in so many Singer projects, may be defunded by the Trump administration: cast as elitist, novel-seeking, and irrelevant, artists and their art can be shelved in the name of populism, all 46 cents per year paid out by every American.
“So, you’re my punishment,” recalls Singer of the chief engineer at his first meeting to discuss a mandated “conspicuous display of green technology” for a seven-story, 3,000-car Seminole Parking Garage structure to serve the tribal casino in Coconut Creek, Florida. “I never did meet a Seminole during the whole time, but I met a lot of the construction people, who seemed to be all from New Jersey and were like they had just stepped off the set of The Sopranos.”
Singer-designed solar canopies, sculptural biofiltration wall, rainwater harvesting systems, and green walls ultimately made a conspicuous display of green technology. What’s more, as a born New Yorker he found he had a lot in common with his Sopranos-like collaborators from Jersey. Together they somehow made the link between humanity and the cosmic order in the most unlikely of settings.
In the ’60s, Robert and Ethyl Scull used their taxi cab fortune to redefine the art world, buying up the work of unknowns such as Abstract Expressionists DeKooning, Rothko, and Rauschenberg and later pop masters Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Larry Poons. In Great Neck, Long Island, Michael Singer’s parents played cards regularly with their friends the Sculls, avowing to their son that the Sculls were probably nuts. Michael remained riveted on the Sculls’ collection and started drawing his own. In high school, he earned the distinction of being the first to finish his SAT exams. “I was bored with school and what they were trying to teach me so I just connected all the dots in a kind of Mondrian pattern,” he says.
Undeterred by his 300 SAT scores, Michael pressed on. He used his Bar Mitzvah gelt to buy a ticket to Ithaca, N.Y. and Cornell University where he hoped to persuade an astonished admissions officer to overlook his low scores. The officer introduced him to the head of the art department and he was in. Fast-forward to 1984 when Singer, now 37 years old, reached one of the pinnacles of the art world’s career trajectories: a one-man show at the spiral-shaped, Nautilus shell that was and is the Guggenheim Museum.
What goes up, goes down, per Newton’s Third Law of Motion. And down fast, with too many artists that rise fast, are lionized, emasculated, and forgotten. Instead, like Dante lost in his middle age in a dark wood, Singer found himself in the wilderness of the Florida Everglades, far from the New York City art scene. He began redefining his role as an artist, asking himself basic questions, questions he has kept asking throughout his life: the artist as researcher. What does it mean to be human in the natural world? What sustains us? Can I make something that would tell me about the role of light? Of water? What if I made site-specific art no one could see? Is Public Art necessarily a big red thing plopped down in the middle of a plaza, or something quite different? How can I turn the negative energy of a waste dump or a garage into something positive?
One of Singer’s first post-Guggenheim show infrastructure projects was a power plant in New York City. Anticipating the South Cove resistance, there was plenty of NIMBY, (Not in My Back Yard) pushback over the plant. That was from one direction. The other was from the power company itself. “I’m here to tell you everything you can’t do,” said the company engineer, Calen Colby. “But I want you just keep moving forward because I believe in what you’re doing.”
Colby ended up resigning, and with his wife, Sarah, beginning anew in Portland, Maine. Now their twenty-seven people, dog-friendly firm collaborates with Singer on almost all the Singer Studio projects, moving both art and engineering forward together.
Along with Project Director Jason Bregman and a network of other collaborators, they are recasting their modern roles in an ancient light. With every project, Singer focuses his team on better understanding and expressing the hidden order of the universe, its subtle patterns and effects, its ecology and geometric structure. If that isn’t art, what is?
c Louis Postel, first published by Graphisoft USA