The Idea Mill pix
While the rest of the Hamptons plays, Robert Wilson's Watermill Center is hard at work on an operatic or theatrical production
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 9/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Modern ceramics in a space eventually destined to function as a residential loft for guests or Robert Wilson himself.
The the central light well in concrete block and a wing clad in corrugated zinc.
Southeast Asian totems in the courtyard off the communal kitchen.
Modernist chairs, tribal totems, and Marlene Dietrich's shoes on display in a future rehearsal and performance space.
A miniature Louis XVI chair hung alongside Gio Ponti and Buckminster Fuller originals in the residential loft.
The skylight above the chairs.
Indonesian wooden floats for turtle hunting, temporarily installed on a 1780 birch table in a small rehearsal space.
An acrylic on canvas by Jeff Elrod in the residential loft.
The light well's paving of stones collected by Wilson in Indonesia.
|It's difficult to cast Robert Wilson as a specific kind of artist. The Texas native studied architecture at Pratt Institute in New York, but he went on to become a designer of gallery installations and a director of experimental performances. Wilson's stagings of original pieces and reinterpretations of classic theater and opera meld music, dance, lighting, furniture design, painting, and sculpture into a minimalist fantasy.
Now he's inaugurated the new home of the Watermill Center, a building as enigmatic as the artist himself. Located in the New York hamlet of Water Mill, on the wooded site of an old Western Union lab, the center defies easy categorizations. It's emphatically not a performance venue or a museum, although pieces from Wilson's encyclopedic collection of ancient artifacts and modern objects are displayed throughout the 35,000-square-foot interior. Think of it as part renaissance atelier, part commune.
Wilson founded the Watermill Center in 1992 as a summer program for the arts and humanities—a laboratory for the creative process. However, the Western Union building wasn't fit for habitation, so virtually all activities took place in tents. Actors, singers, lighting and set designers, and carpenters joined Wilson to work on operas or art projects, cook and eat meals, and tend the gardens, which are dotted with sculptures and installations.
"Bob sees this as a place of possibility," says Carsten Siebert, managing director of the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation, which runs the center. (Wilson is the foundation's artistic director.) To call this a collaborative environment would be a grand understatement. In summer 2006, the center was filled with 50 students and artists working on productions of The Threepenny Opera for the Berliner Ensemble, Turandot for the Los Angeles Opera, and Phèdre for the Comédie-Française; a light-based artwork for California's Orange County Performing Arts Center by Cesar Pelli & Associates; and installations for the Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art and the Triennale di Milano.
Wilson's aesthetic is decidedly architectural. Still, in designing his first bricks-and-mortar building, he never abandoned his method of creating stage sets and installations with full-scale mock-ups. Staffers moved cardboard replicas of concrete-block walls around until they were in what he considered the ideal spot. Gluckman Mayner Architects and Michielli + Wyetzner Architects took it from there.
Wilson refers to the U-shape building as "violent," with sharp edges and hard lines. Most notably, the two zinc-clad wings' fronts have been conceptually sliced off to reveal floor-to-ceiling glass. The aesthetic is also extremely urban, with subway-tiled stairwells and simple black window frames. And the openness recalls the downtown lofts where Wilson made his name among the avant-garde of the 1960's.
One wing—with raw concrete floors and concrete-block walls that Siebert calls "prison deluxe"—houses a kitchen, a dining room with a huge round table designed by Wilson, a space that will become a dormitory when it's eventually furnished, and a full-floor loft-style apartment for Wilson or visitors. The more polished wing, dedicated to rehearsal and exhibition spaces, has white walls and ebonized oak floors. Joining the two wings is a meditative concrete-block tower partly open to the sky and paved with stones gathered in Indonesia.
A 2,100-square-foot double-height room is, for now, a fantastic gallery populated by pieces from Wilson's collection: an original Gerrit Rietveld Zig-Zag chair, a walrus-bone stool for seal hunting in Greenland, the silver pumps Marlene Dietrich wore for her farewell tour, tribal statues from Borneo. Wilson's office has a Donald Judd desk and chair.
In a building full of surprises, the best-kept secret is a room where part of Wilson's 8,500-piece collection, started when he was 14, serves as an "image archive," as he calls it. Lovingly, he lifts pieces from the plywood shelves and gives the provenance of each: a Richard Serra model, bundled textiles from Africa, headdresses from the Solomon Islands, an Egyptian bowl from 1500 BC, Rudolf Nureyev's blood-stained ballet slipper.
Wilson strokes a cardboard prototype of a Rietveld bentwood chair from 1925. "You can just see the power in the back," he says—before zooming in on a wooden sculpture from New Guinea. "These works are not in glass cases. You can actually touch them." Indeed, collaborators are free to rummage through his treasure trove to find ideas.
Sometimes there's a direct correlation between an object and a Wilson production. The precisely folded sleeve of a Han dynasty terra-cotta figure, for example, inspired costumes for Madama Butterfly at the L.A. Opera last year. "You have a different relationship with something when you pick it up and grasp it," Wilson says. That's the guiding concept of his collection. And, indeed, of the enigmatic facility he has built.