A Downtown Architect Explains That Silly Manifesto

A year ago, Ali Tayar was just another downtown architect. Working in a renascent modernist idiom that owes as much to the James Bond movie Dr. No as Eero Saarinen’s Trans World Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport, he did interiors for Waterloo, a restaurant on Charles Street, and Gansevoort Gallery on Gansevoort Street. Some of his aluminum furniture had been acquired for the design collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Montreal’s Museum of Decorative Art. Since Pop, his latest restaurant design, opened on Fourth Avenue near 12th Street in April, he’s become a sort of downtown celebrity of the moment–the guy who wrote the over-the-top design manifesto that was included with the restaurant’s menu.

The interior of Pop has been praised for its blond plywood banquettes, simple, clean lines, and a soaring cherry-red metal ceiling that shows off Mr. Tayar’s knowledge of structural engineering. But the architect has been ridiculed in both The New York Times and the New York Post for his use of the type of jargon-filled writing that passes for English among starry-eyed graduate students. The design of the restaurant, Mr. Tayar writes with the wide-eyed idealism of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead , is “based on postwar social idealism and trust in technological innovation, mass production and prefabrication. While it resonates with the midcentury American dream, Pop has been realized with end-of-the century means.” He goes on to say in the lengthy diatribe: “The project is conceived as a kit-of-parts system consisting of modular ceiling and seating elements. These have been assembled within the space with minimal permanent impact on the original structure.”

Perhaps the manifesto is a bit too much to digest along with the geoduck clam tartare featured on the menu. “This is not just a place to eat, drink and be seen–it’s a design statement,” Jared Paul Stern noted in the New York Post . “Who the hell wrote this?” Mr. Stern said that his companion asked.

Mr. Tayar has an explanation. “First of all, I think it is a little pretentious to call it a manifesto. It is a press release. The manifesto wasn’t supposed to be included with the menu but I couldn’t stop Roy from putting it there,” Mr. Tayar told The Observer , referring to Roy Liebenthal, the owner of Pop. Mr. Liebenthal was the owner of Cafe Tabac and is the current owner of the Lemon restaurant on Park Avenue South.

For his part, Mr. Liebenthal says that he included the manifesto as “a goof. It was to be a futuristic menu. I thought the language was funny. Something you would laugh at.” Mr. Liebenthal believes that it has been “taken out of context,” by The Times and the Post .

“The name Pop came first,” added Mr. Tayar, a fairly serious, trained architect who is slightly befuddled by all of the attention he has gotten for an insert in a menu. “Roy had this idea that he wanted to do something that would be called Pop and I tried to phrase it in some way that would, for one, interest me and somehow relate to the name. I am trained as an architect. There is no Pop architecture. There is nothing you would study that would be called Pop architecture. It corresponds to midcentury high modernism. So I thought I would phrase it in such a way that it relates to the midcentury architecture and perhaps pop art and the movies. I thought of Dr. No and Contempt and Blow Up .”

There is nothing about Mr. Tayar’s background that would suggest he would become a hip downtown architect. Born in Istanbul in 1959, he was educated at the University of Stuttgart in Germany in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In 1986, he received a master’s of science degree in architecture studies from M.I.T. His thesis was on “structural optimization.” Unlike other students trained as architects at that time, Mr. Tayar rejected the then-popular postmodernism as “too decadent.” His preference was for pure modernism from the middle of the century. He points out that it would have been impossible for him to gain such an education at Harvard or Yale at that time, because pure modernism had come to be seen as dated as the Hula-Hoop.

“When I came out of school, I never thought modernism was going to become fashionable again, said Mr. Tayar, whose first job after graduate school was designing airplane hangers for Lev Zetlin Associates in New York. From 1988 to 1991, he worked for FTL Associates on the Carlos Moseley Music Pavilion, the portable performance facility the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic use for outdoor performances. Still, Mr. Tayar did not have much of a place in the Michael Graves and Philip Johnson world of postmodernism that dominated architecture in New York. In 1991, he struck out on his own and formed Parallel Design Partnership with Ellen Levy. Living on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, he designed furniture. In 1995, his design for a system of shelving and a molded particle-board table was included in Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design , a groundbreaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

His clean, modern interior designs were featured in design magazine articles with titles like, “Let’s Twist Again,” but he was still more apt to wax on about the “flow of forces in structures” than speak out in hip, deconstructionist jargon. The turning point in his career came this year. Mr. Tayar’s designs for a chair and screen were purchased by International Contract Furniture, or I.C.F., the New York-based manufacturer that has produced the designs of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and Josef Hoffmann, the father of the Wiener Werkstätte movement. In May, he won an award at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Javits Convention Center for Rasamny , an indoor-outdoor chair made out of teak and aluminum.

Even with all of his success, Mr. Tayar still has the wide-eyed quality of the star science student who explains his projects in such technical detail that it leaves everyone stupefied. Standing next to his chair at a reception at the manufacturer’s headquarters on Broadway in May, he attempted to show how the chair was put together and the theory behind the chair. Daniel Fogelson, the vice president of marketing for I.C.F., said that he and James Kasschau, president of I.C.F., had decided to take on Mr. Tayar as one of their designers as soon as they saw his work because “Everything he does is clear and clean. There is no hidden story behind it.” Mr. Fogelson added that for I.C.F. the key to working with Mr. Tayar is: “His ego is under control.” That is, as long as he stays away from those manifestos.

Harlem Renaissance

On May 27, American Vision Gallery 145 opened on 145th Street and Edgecombe Avenue in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem. “A lot of the artists are excited and want to come back to Harlem and show their work,” said Donald Clayton, one of the owners of the gallery, which will show African-American and Latin American artists. “During the Harlem Renaissance there were galleries in this part of Harlem. This is the first public gallery to open in Harlem in a long time. We feel that this area is going to be one of the major forces in the arts. There are a lot of upper-middle-class people with million-dollar brownstones up here.”

The show includes The Last of the Blue Devils , a Romare Bearden painting never exhibited before, as well as works by Ed Clark, Herbert Gentry, Faith Ringgold, emerging West African artist Ephrem Koukou and Norman Lewis, considered the father of abstract art among African-Americans. The gallery, open from 11 A.M. to 6 P.M. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, has been receiving a lot of foot traffic from European tourists on guided tours of Harlem, according to Mr. Clayton.