Monday, February 11, 2013

From the Archives: A Tower Among Skyscrapers

In this post, archivist Anne Kumer shares some park history. This post also appears on NYC Circa, a history blog about New York City, its buildings, and public spaces. 

In the late 1960s the city began mounting art exhibitions in outdoor public spaces throughout Manhattan. Bryant Park's central location made it the perfect space for exhibiting large sculptures, and in the following years, several were displayed on the expansive lawn. One of the first was Kenneth Snelson's Needle Tower, as seen in the photo below with Sixth Avenue in the background. (This view is almost unrecognizable today, because the buildings that appear to be along Sixth now have larger buildings in front of them; the Bush Tower looks fantastic.)

Needle Tower in Bryant Park, 1967. Photo: Parks Department
Snelson's 60' x 20' tower was accompanied by three smaller pieces, and received positive feedback from the public as well as critics. Needle Tower is a "tensegrity" work -- the word is a combination of the terms tension and structural integrity. Compressed parts (in this case, bars or cables) are attached not to one another, but to a network of cables. The tension of the cables dictates the structural shape and stability of the whole object. The term supposedly was coined by Buckminster Fuller, but Snelson argues that he came up with the underlying principle.  

Watch a computer animation of Needle Tower assembling itself along with several other examples of tensegrity on Snelson's youtube channel.

Snelson with several smaller models including Needle Tower (center). 

Today, the tower stands outside the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington DC.

Photo: AK

New York City's commitment to public art continues today with the Art in the Parks Program.

Read more about public art exhibited in Bryant Park, including works by Mel Chin, George RickeyAlexander Calder, Kate Gilmore, and Sheryl Oring.

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