Riverhead Tower


The artist/writer Jalal Toufic, in his reply to an interviewer’s questions expressed frustration that the cover of a book did not precede the writing of the book. If a picture is worth a thousand words, he asks why not start the book with the cover? Going on to examine movie posters in the same vein, he sees the poster as the generator of the film, i.e., start with the poster and make the film to fit. This way of thinking has engendered a project: Riverhead Tower.

We see the Riverhead area's potential arising out of the town's place on Earth. It is unique geographically. Riverhead is at the divergence of Long Island's North and South Forks. It has Long Island to the West (and New York City), the Atlantic to the South, Connecticut and New England to the North across the Long Island Sound and the forks and bays of Eastern Long Island to the East. Ask someone from Riverhead where it is on a global atlas and they will point to it with confidence and ease. 

The features of its geography can easily be found on any Earth map. A favorite fly-over of Long Island is Riverhead for the views of the area, from The Cape to New York City. On the smaller, local scale, Riverhead retains its geographic uniqueness. The Pine Barrens forest to the West and South of the town provide a protected watershed. To the direct West and to the North lie some of the last agricultural areas on the Island. The former Grumman Aircraft complex is extant; deeded to the town by the U.S. Navy it is being developed as an industrial complex.

So why a tower? A tower of extreme height here seems absurd. The first thing it would provide (ahead of all the problems such a project implies) is a vantage point from which to view this part of the Earth and its geography. But it is the problems that lie with a real tower that pose the challenging questions; they force the mind to see the town in consideration of its geography and what its potential holds. The tower becomes a focal point for thought beyond the small town and on to its integration with its larger environment.

There are obvious problems to consider, the practical aspects of the implied tower: Use? Parking? Utilities? Stress on the environment? Structure? Water? Services? Waste?

Parking? Simple. The concept of such a tower inspires the use of extreme measures: Make Riverhead a car free location. On the aftermath of the Sandy Hurricane disaster, thousands of damaged cars were parked on the runways of the former Grumman airfield. A return to the lesson of that experience opens the possibility of parking in the same area with a public transportation such as a monorail following the LIRR and LIE into town. Transportation in town can be limited to buses, bicycles, pedicabs and those can be upgraded with electric power.

Utilities? The Grumman area could also be used to provide electric power by sheltering the parking with raised solar panels as has been done at the Suffolk County Offices in Center Drive. The use of the tower, business, residential, decorative, would expand on the question of utilities. We are in the process of what Toufic might call, “designing the book’s cover, the film’s poster”.


Utilities: totally new thinking required re: power, waste, etc.

Stress on the environment: Where to begin?

Structure? Engineers, please.

Use? Merely a tower or habitable, useable, profitable?

Financing? Money, created every minute requires substantial fields for its investment.


Coming to New York:

A person arriving from Europe observed that on the flight in the pilot announced that the passengers would soon be able to look down on Eastern Long Island as the plane made its approach to JFK. Sitting at a window seat, looking down one could clearly see a particular familiar house in Riverhead, thirteen thousand feet below. Echoing that experience of returning from Europe, a favorite fly-over of Long Island is Riverhead for the view.


Absurd ideas:

Meeting a person at a local gathering of supporters of the arts, we introduced ourselves. He asked what sort of thing had my attention and when I mentioned that I was working on a project for a half mile high tower for downtown Riverhead, he said not a word, turned and walked away.

Ref’ to current thinking with apartments with firetrap fire code, no parking, overloading facilities, noise, traffic, etc., . . .



Models are under construction. A model about five feet high is in progress. The first section of a twenty foot high version is built. Design is happening as the models are being built; the models represent the idea, not a real building. They will be three dimensional renderings of the idea. The complexity of constructing the model has to be balanced with the facilities we have as well as factors like time, people and expense. Our attention is directed entirely to the model rather than a representation of a larger structure and the complications that entails. TBD is key to the process. Thoughts from others are encouraged as to all the possibilities the project implies. We encourage the exploring of the concept through the ideas of many.  


Why? This project arises out of paying attention to the managing of the town of Riverhead. The powers-that-be limit their vision of what's possible to nearby "success stories" that really paper over their own local disasters. Our contention is that inspiration for the town's possibilities lie within the town itself and that local thinking could use a dose of disruption.



The size and bulk of the model’s buttresses were made intuitively; the “Why?" is left in limbo to be slept on. As the model has progressed and its integration with the map of downtown Riverhead has begun we’ve become more conscious of the implications such a structure has on access and services. They could be occupied by ground level businesses, offices and service facilities as well as required structure. All of this development could result in a sprawling of its elements extending the base of the tower and negating the simplicity of how it springs from the Earth.

Background: ONYX projects such as DEC, Earth Cubed, HSM, CHINA and the ONYX broadsheets. 


An Open Approach


Speaking about this project with someone new to the idea can be a challenge. Part of this is the strangeness of working with what we are calling an open approach. The idea was to start something that was inherently inchoate, unrealized, but which arose from an idea that was too easily apprehended from an initial description: that of a super high building in a place super unfit for such a structure. No matter the nature of introduction to the project, the absurdity or perhaps the extremity of it inspires immediate reactions. 


Architects see structure, planning. Drivers see parking problems, those whose concerns are specialized such as sanitation engineers or activists concerned with water or air quality instantly see the problems in its possible implementation. At times the idea seemed so absurd to some that they could do no more than walk away - the continuation of a conversation was not only unworthy and unthinkable but totally absurd, the babbling of a crazy person. Very few could see past what could only be described as an emotional reaction.


This was not expected but delighted us as we saw the instant emotional reaction the idea could inspire. we were not discouraged by these reactions probably due to experience with art and speculative architecture and being used to reactions to it. Thinking about the emotional nature of many reactions actually reinforced our motivation. At the heart of the success of many controversial ideas is just such a reaction. If it's negative, the idea's possibilities grow since those reactions will tend to be defended and in that defense a conversation begins. (As we know today in our current politics, absurd ideas can be so powerful as to make opponents attack them with such focus they forget to project their own message, reinforcing that which they detest.)


In the art world we have the examples of the Abstract Expressionists, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damian Hirst and other artists who made their careers and their mark by exciting negative emotional responses to their work. There is of course, another emotional extreme that can be a part of the reaction to art or architecture, that of pleasure, of seeing beauty. But that is much less easy to excite and to reinforce whereas the negative incites a sense of threat and change with which the viewer may have difficulty coming to terms. The question of the relative power of antipathy or appreciation is for another discussion however it is one of the aims of this exercise [Friends of Interpretable Objects, Miguel Tamen] to alter the attitude of as many people as possible when they consider how the environment in which they live and have invested their lives is treated by those they choose to represent them on the larger questions of their community.


But this is wandering from the subtitle of "Open Approach". This project began with conceptual sketches of a super tall building, a real building above the Peconic River in downtown Riverhead:



As the concept led toward a conventional architectural development, the many hurdles such a project might create began to show their form. As these objections began to grow, the less determined the approach to a "design" became. It was obvious that the many aspects of the idea were beyond the scope of the initial participants. The idea of a building, recognizable as such became more vague and sketches became more ephemeral, blowsy, cloudy as though billowing canvas hid the intention and structure.




A decision was made to build a model. The uncertainty of early  sketches would need a structure; concentration focused on just that. The model was begun at a scale that would quickly out-strip space and resources. It was saved by concnetrating a smaller model similar in scale to a wedding cake, an object meant to "impress" and be displayed on a table top. The modeling was restarted and as it progressed it became subject to an Open Approach itself, especially with its design. Some inspiration came from the thought of Oskar Hansen and his concept of "Open Form".

The initial approach to the model's structure was to make a number of telescoping segments that when expanded, could be set upon a separate base set, in turn, upon a model of the site. The model's making exposed unresolvable situations. It is entirely logical as a model but does not try to meet the requirements of a "real" building. Concentration on the model allowed architectural observers a new possibility for objection and taking part in the discussion. The point: having initiated an attitude that was "open" the open approach took over. 

This project started out as questions arose about the way people thought about the town of Riverhead and its environs. The questions were a jumble; they lacked a focus. There was a need for something to dwell on that would enable a conversation. We thought a very large thing that would stand behind any question or statement, like a place, that could be returned to so that there was always some thing that shocked and demanded attention. 

The first test of an idea came up at a meeting of local supporters of the arts. On encountering a participant and being asked what sort of work had our attention we said that we were working on a half mile high tower for downtown Riverhead. Our new acquaintance immediately turned around and walked away. It looked like a good idea!

We decided to just start and see what happened. Form was explored in our sketch books. First sketches were of a building with floors, structure, conventional in every way. But this felt restrictive too soon. The form on paper became billowy, like a canvas covering draped and blowing over something hidden. 


We began building an actual model with a simple structure in mind. Of course some aims were required and the first was to make a model that would have the character of a tower in spite of it’s scale. We chose a model height of about twenty feet, which would barely fit in the workshop. Much like an architect’s study model, it was begun with materials at hand, sorting and trying different ways to make something that would say “TOWER’.

What we didn’t realize was that we were beginning a project with what we came to call, “An open approach”. No goals, they would take form as we figured out how to make the model. Soon we realized our intentions outstripped our space and resources but we kept on. Then an old friend suggested something smaller using the metaphor of a wedding cake set on a table meant to be the focus of an occasion. We decided to work on something about five feet high which turned out to be a much saner path as the complexity of the model and the idea began to be resolved. 

Involved discussions arose in short order. The focus of newcomers to the project was on the architectural/engineering practicalities of the larger structure, the “idea". We had enough to consider with the model itself and so, to enhance our ability to concentrate, we found ways of putting off the questions that might be part of the project’s future. The first way was to invite the critics to take part and present their own version of the idea. Then we pointed out that this was a model, not a building - we began to realize how powerful the concept of a building itself could be.

Many of the technical choices we made came out of having in a limited space that had to accommodate various other work. We used materials and ways of working that relied on past experience working with model airplanes as well as architectural models. We started with rectilinear frames, “boxes" that could telescope into each other to extend to the model’s full height. This was discarded in favor of box frames that simply stacked. Lots of little details demanded attention and we became aware of complications that might come up as the project progressed. It was like dealing with a large, largely wooden puzzle that had the idea of a town, a region and the Earth lurking in the background.

When we’ve worked on similar projects in the past there was always an accepted way to set up a plan for the effort. There was always a method and a goal - design, draw, build a model and present it. Here there was no design. There was a framework “happening” but what it was a model of had no answer. What kind of building would this be? Commercial? Residential? A combination, multiuse? Would it even be a building or just a tower, a “thing” like the Eiffel Tower of the St. Louis arch? 

We set that all aside and concentrated on what we were making, looking at it as it progressed, figuring out how to make it and what configuration it would take on from week to week. It was like making a piece of sculpture of found or easily obtainable materials, coloring them experimentally and keeping it moving toward having a presence. We solicited opinions from friends, tried one thing and then another and when a way of moving ahead fit with what we’d already made and looked as though it wouldn’t present problems along the way, we adopted and moved ahead. 

As the project has progressed, it’s future was always a consideration. How would it be presented? To whom? Where? How would it be moved about?

As we continue this process we’ve become aware of the inherent power an object being created takes on. Louis Kahn asked one question that has been a feature of his heritage: “What does this want to be?” Working on the project openly that has been illuminating. There’s no need to ask the question: the process itself tells us what it wants to be. 

As the model has progressed one of the unexpected occurrences has been what’s happened with the accumulation of peripheral objects that have been required to make the model. We noticed that the fixtures used to make accurate assembly, identical parts, support for processes had taken on an aspect that gave them character. Each fixture's unique reason for being gave it a form that inspired curiosity when they were removed from their prime purpose. A fixture that was used to make the small gussets that reinforced the corners of the tower’s frame became a small abstract composition.


© Ronald Williams 2017