For an Artist, a Glass Box by Mies
Published in The New York Times
June 16, 2006
By FRED A. BERNSTEIN
Published: May 7, 2006
TO many architecture buffs, the chance to live in a building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe would be a fantasy come true. As fantasies go, it turns out to be an inexpensive one.
Matthew Gosser pays about $600 a month for a spacious studio on the 12th floor of the Colonnade apartments, one of three buildings by Mies near Branch Brook Park in Newark.
The buildings, which opened in 1960, are almost entirely glass, recalling Mies's better-known masterpieces like the Seagram Building in Manhattan.
Since the Colonnade opened, its lobby has been altered, in part to improve security for tenants, but from the outside the building is immediately recognizable as the work of Mies, the German émigré who declared that "less is more."
Mr. Gosser, a 34-year-old artist and architect with reddish hair and handlebar sideburns, likes living in a building with a pedigree. He also enjoys living in Newark, where his view, at least for the moment, includes the 60-foot-high bottle atop the old Pabst Brewery, a landmark since the 1930's. The brewery is gradually being dismantled by developers who hope to build a residential and retail complex in its place.
Mr. Gosser has made hundreds of visits to the Pabst site, scooping up things like old conveyor belt components, which he used to create furniture with an industrial aesthetic.
An exhibition of his work received an enthusiastic review in the New Jersey section of The New York Times last fall, and one of his industrial-parts sculptures will be on display at the Micro Museum in downtown Brooklyn through May 31.
Mr. Gosser, who still visits the brewery regularly, said that luckily for him, its demolition "appears to have slowed to a crawl."
If Mr. Gosser's art is very much about stringing disparate objects together, his home takes the same tack. In a sense, he occupies a triplex: his main living area is the studio apartment, which he shares with a gray-and-yellow cockatoo named Buddy.
Twelve floors down, in the building's basement, is Mr. Gosser's art studio. (Until recently, the space housed a video store — part of the Colonnade's underground shopping center — and people still knock on the door looking for movies on Saturday nights.)
Mr. Gosser pays $100 a month for the 500-square-foot space, a price he thinks is fair because there are no windows, and pipes in the ceiling sometimes leak.
Outside the building, and down a steep hill, is the third section of Mr. Gosser's compound: a Volkswagen van that he parks in the Colonnade's lot and uses as a kind of storage locker. The parking space costs a mere $25 a month, which makes the arrangement perfectly sensible.
"It hasn't run in about four years," Mr. Gosser said of the van, which contains such items as filters for the fish tank in his apartment. The one time the van was broken into, Mr. Gosser said, the thief left empty beer cans and removed blankets and pillows.
In addition to the van, Mr. Gosser has a pickup truck that he uses as his primary mode of transportation since walking around the neighborhood, he said, can be a little scary. Over the years, Mies's window-walls have given Mr. Gosser views of shootings, stabbings and "even a giant brawl," he said, adding, "It can get a little exciting out there."
But Mr. Gosser said he feels completely safe in his building, which he describes as an "internal neighborhood."
Built in the late 1950's in an effort to keep middle-class families from leaving Newark, the Colonnade has more than 600 apartments, and its tenants are ethnically diverse. In the hallway, Mr. Gosser greets many of his neighbors by name, while lamenting that the vinyl-tile floors have been covered with flowery carpet.
His apartment retains the original black linoleum tiles. Mr. Gosser added a partial wall of glass blocks to make his sleeping area more private. Furnishings include a sofa by Le Corbusier, from the Italian manufacturer Cassina, that he picked up for $35 at a thrift store. Opposite the sofa is a large-screen television, purchased on the street for $8. "I haven't spent more than $50 on anything in the apartment," he said.
But he doesn't need to. The clean lines of the building — and the spectacular views of western New Jersey — dominate. "Mies is one of my favorite architects," Mr. Gosser said. "I find the simplicity very soothing."
Mr. Gosser, who was born in New Jersey but grew up in Ohio, works two days a week for a Hoboken architect named Lee Levine, and two days at his alma mater, the New Jersey School of Architecture in Newark, where he teaches architectural graphics. (He gets high marks at ratemyprofessors.com; one student wrote, "He is fair and soooooooo cuteeeeeeeee.")
Mr. Gosser still has ambitions to open his own architecture practice, but right now, he said, "the art thing is taking off."
Like many conceptual artists, Mr. Gosser works in several mediums, taking photographs of the Pabst brewery at the same time he mines it for art supplies.
Some of his pieces are meant to hang on walls. A particularly striking collage incorporates photos of dozens of long-ago Pabst employees.
Other objects are functional — chairs and chandeliers made from the old factory parts. And a few are purely decorative. Pieces called "Industrial Growth" consist of flowers made from machine parts and "planted" in ashcans.
When asked about practically anything in his studio, Mr. Gosser gives the same answer: "It isn't really finished yet." An inveterate tinkerer, he sometimes refines a piece for years.
In other ways, too, Mr. Gosser is a young man in no hurry. Most of his friends from architecture school left Newark years ago. "They've married and settled down," he said.
Mr. Gosser said he has no plans to follow suit, at least not anytime soon. "I go to art openings like twice a week, and meet girls all the time," he said. "It's too much fun right now."
Mr. Gosser has been known to mention the Colonnade to women he has just met. "If they care about architecture," he said, "they're impressed that I live in a Mies van der Rohe building."