Site Specific Art at The New School: Bells & Whistles

Stairwell pressurization systems can be found in most high-rises in New York. These systems are in place, in the event of a fire, to keep smoke out of the stairwells, allowing them to act as a means of egress. Because smoke will flow from an area with a higher air pressure to one of lower pressure, the goal of these systems is to make the stairwell (and possibly other spaces in the building) achieve a higher pressure than that of surrounding smoke-filled rooms, effectively keeping fire at bay. Twisting and turning its way through The New School’s University Center, Rita McBride’s Bells and Whistles is much more than your average pressurization system. Commissioned by the school from 2013-2014, McBride was “prompted by the struggle between serving and served space—a struggle central to modernism—the open, inhabited, and transparent areas versus the dark, concealed, mechanical spaces.” This battle between open and closed spaces creates a very unique piece: one that exists simultaneously in neither and both spaces.

Over 530 feet long and across 6 floors, McBride’s pressurization system is a behemoth. While the duct itself can only be seen from some classrooms and communal spaces, its brass exterior shines to make it highly visible in these spaces. In the stairwells around the school, the duct can also be seen, but often in two forms. The first, being the duct in its entirety weaving in and out of the stairwell. The second, being the flat profile of the duct against the wall: a perfect brass pentagon. Because these pentagons are affixed in the wall not too far off the ground, they can be easily reached. Measuring approximately two feet across, the duct bends at angles as opposed to smooth corners, almost resembling a low-poly, 3D modeled pipe.

Coming in and out of view throughout the entire building, this duct seems to exist in a liminal space—neither within the “guts” of the building, nor completely visible to the naked eye. This creates a rather unique feeling while viewing the art, for even while exclusively viewing segments rather than the whole, one gets a feeling of connectivity throughout the entire building. Two of the main places from where the duct can be seen are the cafeteria on the 2nd floor and from a student lounge directly above the cafeteria on the 3rd floor. Looking at the spaces, a student at the New School would likely go to one (if not both) almost every day. The duct’s connection to the entire building seems reminiscent of the connection throughout the student body at the New School. One of this school’s biggest missions is to be all-inclusive and maintain a diverse student body. McBride’s piece seems to reflect the values upheld and fought for within The New School community. Similar to this stairwell pressurization system, students seem to wander in and out of the University Center and on campus. While the student body is spread out across the few blocks that are the school’s campus, there is a sense of connectivity through the entire school.

In looking at this piece, one must take into account the name that McBride bestowed upon it. “Bells and Whistles” often refers to any additional features on or with an object that are non-essential and purely for visual pleasure. This name is particularly interesting within this context because the work performs the function itself. However, the piece itself is designed to perform a function, in addition to being beautiful, as opposed to the other way around. With McBride, it seems that beauty comes first and any “additional features” or “bells and whistles” would be the function of the piece. In this regard, this piece almost falls into the category of pop art. McBride is taking something that is often mass produced in small parts or panels and is reproducing that herself, while creating her own alternative. However, this piece retains the purpose and function of any other stairwell pressurization system.

Through creating a unique piece that would usually be mass produced, most likely in the exact same fashion for all the high-rises in New York, McBride seems to cross the bridge between pop-art and architecture. In addition, while weaving in and out of the building, her work reflects the values of the school and student body, all of which are interconnected. While the spaces where she chose to have the duct visible certainly play in to student populations and popular areas in the University Center, one must ask if there is any functional reason that the piece is visible in those areas and not others. Exactly how much of McBride’s work pertains to beauty and how much pertains to function? While she claims to simply highlight the building’s mechanical programs, it seems as though the primary focus in this piece is on form rather than function, inverting the typical definition of “bells and whistles” in which beauty would normally come second.


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