Michael Sackler of Tenafly is a drifter in the city.
He’s many other things as well. He’s an architect and a photographer, as well as a husband and a father; he’s a supremely visual man who looks as he drifts and uses his iPhone to record what he sees.
Because he works downtown, much of what Mr. Sackler sees is in the area where the World Trade Center once stood, and where new glass buildings being put up now reflect — literally reflect, that is — the old masonry buildings that still stand there. The complicated mix of old and new, so stark in downtown Manhattan and so representative of the city, undergirds much of Mr. Sackler’s work.
Although so much of Mr. Sackler’s professional life now is spent in Manhattan, he’s a Bergen County native; he grew up in Bergenfield and went to Bergenfield High School and Temple Emeth in Teaneck. He did detour to other parts of the country, though, before returning home.
After earning an undergraduate degree at Columbia, Mr. Sackler studied architecture at Yale. “The big interest then was in postmodernism and historic architecture,” he said, and he learned about both. In 1980, when he graduated from Yale, freshly minted architectural degree in hand, “I decided that I’d had enough of the Northeast, and of the Ivy League. I needed something else. So I got on a plane, and I went to Dallas.”
In Dallas, Mr. Sackler met his future wife, Lori Reisman, who now is a senior adviser for wealth management at Morgan Stanley.
At the start of his career, Mr. Sackler, the beneficiary of high-end academic training, “designed fast-food restaurants in Dallas,” he said. “It was almost like sticking a thumb in my teachers’ eyes.” But it taught him a great deal about the intersection of academic architecture and actual unglamorous real life. “It was educational in many ways, most of them having nothing to do with architecture,” he said.
The couple — who by now are the parents of two grown sons — stayed in Dallas for eight years and then, when the economy collapsed, moved back to the Northeast. (Architecture is dependent on the economy in ways that many other professions are not.)
In the 1990s, Mr. Sackler began to work with historic buildings. “I renovated some community colleges in Jersey City, some public schools in Newark, and did a gut renovation of a big pharmaceutical laboratory in Ardsley,” N.Y. “That’s when I came to understand the structural underpinnings of modernism,” he said; that’s because he had the chance to deconstruct and then reconstruct buildings.
“Until then, in the mid-90s, I wasn’t really a specialist,” he said. “I had worked in large and small firms, in residential buildings and office towers, but I didn’t feel like I had any traction anywhere. When I got back from Dallas, I did get some traction, in the area of renovation and redevelopment of older buildings — from about the 1920s and 1930s or so, not really historical.” Just old.
He renovated many old schools and other masonry buildings, most of them in New Jersey. “I worked with engineering consultants, and I really loved it,” he said. “I really loved getting on site during the construction, and having personal interactions with the contractors.
“It was sort of a surprise for me, because I came from a theoretical background, but I got a visceral charge from being on site. I love the practical side of it. And I found that I was pretty good at it,” at working at the crossroads where the physical and the abstract meet, “where architecture crosses over into engineering.
He finds the intersection of his work, the engineers’ more practical work, and the contractors’ supremely physical work, to be exciting. “On some of my jobs — and I suspect on many jobs — you get a bunch of contractors standing around looking at the ceiling, at the underside of a structure, trying to figure out some problem up there. ‘Oh God, how are we going to make it work?’ They’re clearly seeing an issue that we missed in the drawing. We’re all seeing it for the first time. I think it’s pretty cool — I go back to my office and work it out.”
Now, the firm where Mr. Sackler works, Voorsanger Architects, has him out on contract to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s architecture and engineering design unit. He’s part of a team of architects and engineers that’s working on the renovation of the sorely-in-need-of-repair La Guardia Airport, a monumental undertaking. His office is down near the onetime World Trade Center, later called Ground Zero. It’s where the old and the new, the soaring and the earthbound, the spiritual and the infernal meet.
That’s the architectural side. What about the photography?
Mr. Sackler’s been taking pictures since he was in high school. “I have found that it’s a very quick way of getting artistic gratification,” he said. “With architecture, it takes years and years before you get to the point of standing in the center of that construction site, looking upward, and sometimes it never happens.” When you take a photograph, on the other hand, the picture’s there on your screen right away.
Also, he added, “architecture is a team sport. Photography is meditative and individual. So I go back and forth. I vibrate between those poles.”
Although not all of Mr. Sackler’s photographs are of architecture, many of them, including all the images now hanging in the Waltuch Gallery at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, are. (There will be a meet-the-artist reception there on Wednesday, September 21, from 7 to 9 p.m.
And all those photos were taken with an iPhone.
Mr. Sackler came to iPhone photography almost by accident. Although he’s taken pictures for most of his life, “I’d been kind of undisciplined about it,” he said. He’d tried to submit some photos to a Soho co-op gallery, but they were rejected for being too general, almost generic. But soon he learned about a workshop that taught photographers how to make the iPhone work for them. “It was a turning point,” Mr. Sackler said. He learned how to use the phone not only to shoot but also to edit his work, “and I was off to the races,” he said.
Next, he talked to photojournalist John Stanmeyer, who not only takes pictures but also owns a café in the Berkshires. “He said that most of the time he’s working abroad, he uses a plastic camera and his iPhone,” Mr. Sackler said. “I said, ‘An iPhone?’ And he said, ‘Yes. You know that your best camera is the one that you have with you.’ And I said, ‘Aha.’”
Next, the Port Authority moved the office from which he works from Newark to the World Trade Center site. Mr. Sackler spends a great deal of time in the space where the towers had stood. “It’s essentially a graveyard,” he said. “It’s laid out in flat strips. Very sad. Mournful. And then there is the new transportation hub, made of concrete ribs that look like bones. And the new buildings are so reflective, all glass — they reflect the sky and enlarge the openness of the site.
“So I started thinking about what we call the presence of absence.
“Everything changes. The voids and the spaces in the city change. I look around and see the old buildings come down and the new glass ones going up, reflecting what remains of the old ones.
“And in some poetic sense, the reflections of the old buildings in the new ones are distorted reminders. The new buildings provide something of a distorted fading remembrance of the old buildings, and then it becomes an interesting aesthetic experience, overlaying the gridded faces of the new buildings against the masonry ornamentation and window patterns of the old ones.
“It’s a very modernistic setting, with the reflections of the sky in the new glass. You get the juxtapositions of the old and the new, the open spaces and the buildings, and it’s the layering of all of them that interest me.
“I’ve always been a wanderer, a city drifter,” he continued. “Often during lunch I go out walking and take pictures, and then I start editing them on the subway, and when I get home I pull them up and eventually do some final edits in Photoshop — and there they are. I photograph with the iPhone, edit on the subway, and then I print them at home.”
City drifting is not only an instinctive habit of the mind and feet that Mr. Sackler, well, drifted into — it’s also a phenomenon with conceptual underpinnings, he said. It’s based on a concept called psychogeography, itself based on a French movement called situationalism that flourished in the 1950s, he learned, as he pursued his rootless passion. “They were against the rigidity of contemporary society and city planning, and as an antidote to that they would do these drifts,” Mr. Sackler said. “They would wander around the city aimlessly, maybe using outdated maps, without any apparent purpose, just to see where they would end up.”
From there, he learned about deep topography, an English movement, again based on drifting, but this time the work of people who “write about their long walks through the city and the countryside, and the historic research into what once was on that site. How can we discern from what we are looking at now what existed 100 years ago? Sewer culverts, vanished rivers — anything.” (It makes sense that deep topography would be an English obsession; the English, on their tiny island, tread on ground so packed with their outsized history that it is impossible not to step on something even if you’re on tiptoe — and England, in this instance, is similar to Israel.)
Mr. Sackler now is thinking a great deal about Manhattan — originally called Mannahatta, which means “many hills.”
“New York City started in lower Manhattan,” he said. “It started on the East River, at the South Street Seaport. You look at street patterns — they’re narrow. They curve. The old streets follow the paths of the old streams. You see, as you walk from east to west — which isn’t that far down here — at that point the city opens up. Ultimately you end up here, at the 9/11 memorial. It’s an entirely open space that has been transformed radically in the past, and certainly in the last 15 years. At the same time, the big open fountains recall the footprints of the original towers. It’s layer upon layer of history.
“And also on the east side, where the street pattern still follows the natural contours of the topography, you have the taller buildings, the new skyscrapers, set back, creating plazas, and there’s sculpture in it, like the Nevelson Plaza, set up against the façade of the Federal Reserve Bank. Heavy masonry, and incredible dialogue between the old and the new, the buildings and the spaces and the evolution of the spaces.
“That’s what’s so fascinating — and that’s what I photograph.”