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Manhattan Small worlds of self-discovery

PRACTICE

Michele Saee invites the public to follow their instincts and use their imagination in his proposal for a park in downtown

‘Architectural education and practice have overemphasised the visual aspect of built form,’ says Michele Saee. ‘We produce for the body but not with it - as if physicality were some distant concept that we can only grasp abstractly.’ Among his recent attempts to counter this is a provocative proposal for the redesign of a small park in New York City - Lt Petrosino Park.

Saee - born in Persia, and a student in Italy - has been based in Los Angeles since the early 1980s where, after two years with Morphosis, he opened his own practice. Projects have included houses, apartments, restaurants, clothing and jewellery stores, and a ‘cosmetic dental clinic’ - a very la mix. His concern with ways in which the body might be more integrated into architectural production began to crystallise in 1994, in two temporary projects: a workshop with students from Florida a&m University (involving an excavation/installation in the campus grounds) and ‘Art Works for Children’. The latter, with cloth partly wrapped around a sinuous, contorted linear structure (of one-inch diameter rod) in the courtyard of an la house, ‘could only have been constructed manually’, says Saee. ‘You could see the hand and arms in its curves, the reach of a limb in the length of a rod.’

His scheme for Lt Petrosino Park pursues this interest in work generated by the body, while suggesting also what might constitute an appropriate park in so resolutely urban a setting as Manhattan’s East Village. Saee, of course, doesn’t mistake ‘culture’ for ‘nature’. Citing Central Park, he says: ‘We stretch a grid over the land and fill it in, but keep an opening. Then we create a forest in the opening, and deceive ourselves with paths that we believe lead back to our natural side.’ At Petrosino, the urban environment is not resisted: instead, Saee explains, ‘the forces that created the space continue to insert themselves, and the park embraces them’. Yet the natural world still figures - not as a beleaguered green fragment but as a model, or analogue, for design.

The site is a particularly awkward one: a wedge some 25m long and 10m at its base. Traffic surges all around it. The present ‘park’ there is pitiful: simply a fenced-off area of the wedge, a bare triangular enclosure, the brick piers at its entrance subsiding badly. Saee’s proposal is very different. At first glance the model of it - with elongated planes curving, unfurling, and almost converging in mid-air - looks more like a ‘table sculpture’ by Sir Anthony Caro than a possible park. But its logic gradually becomes clear.

Amid these steel-frame forms coated in rubber there are no defined routes: users invent them as they move around. Saee is thinking here of the way that, in the countryside, the line of least resistance gradually becomes a path. Nor are there any fixed furnishings, such as benches, but surfaces at various heights and angles on which to sit or to recline. Meanwhile the flexing, overhanging planes form idiosyncratic canopies, offering shelter and shade - in Saee’s words, ‘like trees’. Again, the possible functions that the park’s elements can play (or meanings they can possess) are left to its users, their bodies (and minds) more freed than constrained in a small world of self-discovery.

But what of the more prosaic world of building regulations, of health and safety requirements? Could this proposal for Petrosino be realised without too much compromise? ‘Morality today has been replaced by laws and how the lawmakers define different aspects of our lives,’ says Saee. ‘What seems important to me in this atmosphere is to redefine these concepts and question then as many times, and in as many ways, as possible.’ Sites like that of Petrosino are, he believes, ripe for experiment: ‘They can dramatically change perception - and, hopefully, restore our confidence that we can make our cities more desirable to live in.’

Saee’s work is subject of a recent monograph published by Rizzoli, £24.95

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