Matteo Pericoli found fame with his 22ft fold-out drawing of Manhattan's skyline. His new book shows the city through the windows of New York's artists and writers, from Annie Leibovitz to Philip Glass, David Byrne to Nora Ephron, with their thoughts on what those views mean to them
by Sean O'Hagan
The Observer, Sunday, 1 August 2010
The view from Philip Glass's New York apartment by Matteo Pericoli
The country singer Rosanne Cash glimpses two iconic New York landmarks through her apartment window: the Empire State building and the Chelsea hotel. She is lucky. From his window, the composer Philip Glass sees only "water tanks, air conditioning, exhaust pipes". But he loves his view all the same.
The screenwriter Nora Ephron looks out at the Chrysler building framed in a single pane: "the absolute epitome of every glittery dream I have ever had about New York". The satirist Stephen Colbert stares out at a towering "telecommunications skyscraper whose peak bristles with microwave transmitters" and thinks mostly about cancer. David Byrne, as if trapped in one of his elliptical songs, gazes out of his window at the windows of other people, some of whom he occasionally catches looking back at him. Peter Carey's novelistic imagination conjures up "dead people" walking past his window – "the famous showman, PT Barnum, passing along Broadway to arrange the wedding of Tom Thumb".
The view from one's window is, as the artist Matteo Pericoli puts it, "one of the least designable things about the buildings we call home, but the one that perhaps affects us most deeply every day". Pericoli, who is best known for his epic book, Manhattan Unfurled, a 22ft fold-out drawing of the New York skyline, has now turned his attention to a more intimate, but no less intriguing, subject: what New York's writers and artists see when they look out of their windows. It's a simple idea that yields surprising results – about the nature of urban living, about the creative imaginations of those who choose to live and work in a city and, perhaps most intriguingly, about Pericoli's own unique and slightly obsessive way of seeing.
"When you draw something, it often becomes more interesting somehow," he says, when I call him in Turin, where he now lives. "It is not just representation, it's more about telling a story. These drawings are not about how I see, but how I think. They are a kind of thinking process brought to life through lines."
Pericoli has found that the people who grant him access to the views from their windows are "constantly surprised by the results in a way that they would not be surprised by a photograph or even a painting". What he captures, he says, "is not a transient moment, but a presence of some kind".
Looking at Pericoli's line drawings in their beautiful simplicity, their wealth of detail and their mastery of line and perspective, you can see what he means. His drawing of the view from Glass's window is one of my favourites, a rendering of an often invisible or overlooked New York of water towers, warehouses and air conditioning machines, what Glass calls "the infrastructure of New York in plain view".
Sometimes, too, the window views seem to be accidental metaphors: the architect Daniel Libeskind looks out at towering stone buildings that seem to enclose his apartment; the skyline that the contemporary artist Nick Ghiz sees is interrupted by a bent steel pipe that is sculptural; the former mayor of New York, Ed Koch, has a window that, as he puts it, "allows the light to shine though unimpeded". Tom Wolfe says that he chose his apartment solely for the view – "To this day, I haven't really seen the apartment, only what's outside it." Ephron, paradoxically, chose her home in spite of the beauty of her vista: "When I write, I face away from it otherwise I would never get anything done."
Matteo Pericoli initially trained as an architect in Milan and it shows in every line, every shadow, every shape. He moved to New York in 1995 to work for Richard Meier & Partners, and ironically began working on a design for the Jubilee church in Rome. While cycling the seven kilometres to and from work every day, he began to think about drawing the Manhattan skyline in its entirety. The resulting book, Manhattan Unfurled, took just over two years to complete. The end result was two 37ft scrolls of the east and west side of Manhattan that were then condensed to what the publishers called "a 22ft-long accordion fold-out".
In early September 2001, Pericoli received the very first printed copies ofManhattan Unfurled. Two days later, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre disappeared from the skyline in the terrorist attacks of 11 September. "Suddenly, there was New York before 9/11 and New York after 9/11, and I had portrayed a New York skyline that was past tense. It was a very strange time for me because I had such a relationship with the place. You spend so much time looking at these buildings and then drawing them that the lines enter your brain and are embedded there."
The critical acclaim that greeted the publication of Manhattan Unfurledhelped him gain access to the apartments and houses of the likes of Tom Wolfe, Graydon Carter (editor of Vanity Fair), Annie Leibovitz and Steve Martin. Leibovitz presented him with a series of photographs she had made of her window view, but he insisted on working in his own way, stamping his own presence on the subject. "I don't draw a fleeting moment, I try to capture a sense of wholeness, of permanence."
The actor Steve Martin's view across Central Park was "so iconic, so fairy tale" that Pericoli decided not to include it. "It was just what you would expect; there were no surprises." Others, whom he will not name, refused him access. "Many people wanted to guard their private view and I respect that. It also made me feel happy in the sense that what I was doing had some deeper meaning."
For Manhattan Unfurled, Pericoli began by journeying around New York on the Circle Line cruise boat, photographing the skyline. For his current project, London Unfurled, he walked the length of the Thames, from Hammersmith to the Isle of Dogs, and back again, photographing constantly. "I am gently obsessive," he says, understating the case somewhat. "I walk 10 metres, then stop and photograph. All along the north side of the river, then back along the south. It was two incredibly intense weeks in which I took 6,300 photographs and destroyed a pair of shoes."
Pericoli has worked out that 50 photographs add up to 20 centimetres of drawing. As before, he worked on a long roll of architectural drawing paper, "10 to 15 centimetres at a time, never looking back at what I have completed, never worrying about, or erasing small mistakes. It's all there, the cityscape and the voyage of discovery that I undertake when I put it on to the paper."
When I spoke to him this week, he had just completed an 11.5m section of drawing that takes in Hammersmith to the Isle of Dogs. He has, he says, another 8.1m to go before he gets to the Gherkin. "I try not to think about the Gherkin too much but I can tell you I drew 900 lines, maybe more."
Pericoli will not see the drawing of London in its entirety until he has finished it. "This is just how I work, but also, on a more practical level, my house is just not big enough for me to keep unfurling the drawing. This way, you must trust yourself and your instinct and your ability. And, of course, the drawing gets better as I do it. In a way, I am rolling back time when I finally look at the whole thing."
Since 2000, Pericoli has followed his obsession, giving up architecture altogether to concentrate on his epic and intimate drawings. He now lives in Turin and travels the world to work. His drawings have appeared in theNew Yorker, the New York Times, la Stampa and Vanity Fair. Jet-lagged American Airlines passengers can see his most epic works as they stagger into the arrivals hall at JFK airport in New York: a 397ft panoramic mural called Skyline of the World. Cityscapes, whether large and small, epic or intimate, seem to hold an inordinate fascination for him. What does he think underlies his obsession?
"Always, I am trying to understand what makes a city work," he says, without hesitation. "In New York, I am an outsider and I have found that New Yorkers are strangely incurious about their city. So few New Yorkers take the Circle Line to look at Manhattan. This is interesting to me. What they see mostly is a little piece of New York through their window. But, there are millions of windows, millions of views, millions of tiny New Yorks. In a way, I would like to draw them all but that, of course, is impossible. Instead, I try to somehow synthesise the city, get close to its essence. This is what drives me and what drives me a little mad. The more complex the view, the more I have to synthesise to tell the story. In the end, I guess I am more like a short story writer than an artist."