Photographs by Frankie Alduino, designed by Eli Showalter, with an introduction by Dr. Miriam S. Chaiken
When Westbeth Artists Housing opened in 1970, it was a radical model for communal living in a city that was increasingly unaffordable for most artists. Westbeth was (and is) a lifeline for artists in New York, offering them both affordable housing and the freedom to pursue their craft uninhibited by financial concerns. Alongside well-known residents like Diane Arbus and Hans Haacke, Westbeth attracted a host of more obscure artists, all of whom were inspired by the community’s creative spirit. But more than five decades later, many of those residents have passed away, taking with them the memory of Westbeth’s vibrant original community.
Photographer Frankie Alduino first set out to capture the oldest generation of Westbeth residents in 2017. Most of the artists he spoke with were well into their 80s and 90s and had stopped exhibiting several decades ago. As a result, Vertical Village, Alduino’s monograph of Westbeth and its residents, reads as an archive of sorts. The photobook is an attempt to celebrate this colorful community and a last-ditch effort at preserving this fading element of the city’s cultural heritage.
Like its residents, the Westbeth building is a peculiar relic of a previous era. In fact, the West Side Elevated Line, part of which later became the High Line, originally terminated in Westbeth. The industrial buildings that form Westbeth Artists Housing were constructed between the 1890s and 1930s to house various facets of Bell Laboratories. The compound was abandoned in the 1960s when Bell moved its operations across the river to New Jersey and lay dormant for more than a decade. If the building’s lore is to be believed, Westbeth was the vision of Joan Davidson, the daughter of grape juice magnate J. M. Kaplan. Davidson had seen her artist friends priced out of the city and came up with the idea to convert the old Bell complex into affordable housing.
Kaplan commissioned Richard Meier to design the community—it was the architect’s first solo commission. Meier’s plan created 400 live/work studios, which were built to be as open and versatile as possible. Alduino photographed the residents in their apartments, capturing his subject and their studio space, illustrating how these spaces become extensions of these artists’ practice and personalities. The apartment of Jack Dowling, a writer and painter, is an elegant loft with columns and accents reminiscent of a neoclassical library. Dowling is posed on the steps leading to the lofted floor, playing the part of an erudite retiree. This stands in stark contrast to his neighbor, the Latvian-born dancer Vija Vetra, whose cluttered apartment is stuffed to the brim with tchotchkes and relics. Vetra stands in the middle dressed in black, a commanding presence that unifies the eccentric room.
Because Meier was tasked with combining a series of existing factory buildings, Westbeth has a labyrinthine structure. To reach some apartments, residents must exit at a lower floor, walk down the hall, and take a separate elevator to the higher level. Signage is sparse and landmarks are often invisible to the foreign eye. Like the residents of a small village, Westbeth’s artists are often the only ones who can navigate the building and its intricacies. Indeed, while photographing residents for the book, Alduino often required their assistance to move between apartments.
The photobook, then, is closer to a tour of Westbeth and its residents than a collective portrait of its members. The opening photograph features a floorplan of the building, introducing us to the complexity of the space. Between portraits of the residents and their apartments, Alduino intersperses photographs of the building’s interior architecture. As we visit the book’s subjects, we also move within the building’s interior space, at times picking up on the unusual spacing of doors and stairwells that serve as landmarks for the residents. In short, the building itself becomes a character.
The publication of Vertical Village last year coincided with the 50th anniversary of Westbeth Artists Housing. The pandemic delayed the celebration until this year, and included oversized images of Alduino’s work displayed in the building’s courtyard. But the pandemic also accelerated the atrophy of Westbeth’s original generation. Several of the artists Alduino captured, including Jack Dowling, passed away due to complications related to COVID-19. With few of the original residents actively producing work, there is a palpable fear among the remaining tenants that Westbeth’s artistic legacy is already being forgotten. In time, photographs—and the work of the tenants—will be all that remains.