The fictional scenario on which Jongwon Na’s winning undergraduate submission is predicated reads like a reimagining of the episode during the seventh century when a community living near the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace relocated there in an attempt to escape the invading Slavs.
However, in Jongwon’s project, the ruins are those of an abandoned holiday resort in upstate New York and the community the residents of the neighbouring township of Liberty. A successful Jewish holiday destination from the 1920s to ’70s, Grossinger’s Catskills Resort and Hotel ultimately fell victim to the success of cheap commercial air travel. It closed in 1986 but continues to stand on high ground above Liberty in a state of increasing ruination.
Jongwon sees the ruins as a permanent and painful reminder of the collapse of the industry that once supported the town and has conceived his project as a means of healing that psychological scar.
Inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s practice of dining in the Eiffel Tower so as to avoid having to look at it, he proposes relocating Liberty’s entire population inside the ruins, thus sparing them their constant presence on the town’s skyline.
New Liberty offers a scaled-down version of the old town – which in turn is allowed to fall into decay – and is conceived as a sardonic take on the American model of utopian communities. A series of new structures are gathered within the roofless but consolidated walls of the old resort, accommodating uses ranging from a church to a slaughterhouse.
The resort once offered vacationers a break from their day-to-day lives, but Jongwon has effectively inverted that escapist fantasy. Part-theme park, part-prison, New Liberty supplies its residents with the questionable comforts of seclusion and ignorance. The town’s name is not the least ironic thing about it.
An erudite and intelligent entry that plays with the notion of appropriating a haunting image by inhabiting and exploring it: being inside the image you can no longer see it, but you are also part of it and you can manipulate and transform it at will. Jongwon envisions the 1920s Grossinger’s Catskills Resort as archetype that he re-occupies and remodels, using an inspired iconography that combines William Eggleston’s and Stephen Shore’s photography with his own drawings. In quoting Baudrillard’s observation of America as ‘bland and artificial’ – but nevertheless ‘a paradise’, and, in reminding us of America’s artifice as being the original version of modernity (a TV set ‘left on’ in an empty room) with Grossinger’s (the first resort to ever use artificial snow) as the embodiment of Jewish-American resourcefulness, he vividly illustrates what a paradigm for ‘architectural paradises’ can be.