A layered history: interview with Mari Kroin

History is what we make of it, and these are short interviews with designers, manufacturers, artists, and residents who explore the tiny bits of urbanity we generally call street furniture. This interview was conducted over email and edited for clarity.


My name is Mari Kroin – I am a 90’s kid, born and raised in New York City. I went to Fiorello H. Laguardia High School for visual art (ed. note: the FAME school), during that time I delved deeper into an inherent interest in Architecture. Growing up in NYC I was immersed in an endless treasure trove of history and creativity, it has alway served as a source of inspiration in my work. Not wanting to leave the city, I chose to attend Pratt Institute for my Bachelors in Architecture. Here I explored crossovers in visual art and architecture and began to define my own form of representation. I became obsessed with the layering of color and potentials in physical transparency. This interest has carried over into my work at Yale, where I am getting a post professional degree. I would describe my work now as somewhere between the  state of waking and dreaming.

Wet Paint: A Study of Subway Columns

In Spring of 2020 I was lucky enough to take a seminar called “Polychromatic Reconstruction of Architecture” taught by David Gissen (@davidgissen). We talked about the loss or fading of color in ancient and classical architecture over time, the qualities of a ruinous state, preservation, and chromatic reconstruction. He asked us to investigate a case study or area of interest in relation to the reconstruction of color in built forms. I couldn’t help thinking about the beaten edges of subway columns, which reveal a long, layered history of repainting. I have always tried to bring elements of NYC into my work, it seemed like the perfect subject for this project: Wet Paint: A Study of Subway Columns.

The subway column paint chip is a nostalgic thing for many New Yorkers. While working on “Wet Paint: A Study of Subway Columns”, a lot of childhood friends reached out to tell me they still had paint chip collections. It was very exciting. Depending on the station, the chips can reveal a wide spectrum of colors. A painted tree trunk of sorts. Typically, columns are never fully stripped of their previous layer of paint, creating a thick build up. The texture changes over time, edges grow less defined, and debris between layers becomes increasingly visible. 

Train stops with heavy traffic have endured more coats of paint; the 23rd street E/C station is a local stop with moderate foot traffic. Seven unique color phases were found. The progression is investigated through a historical, visual, and tactile lens.

The project initiated with the collection of paint chips throughout the station, around the time COVID-19 first hit the city. These were dissected to analyze the thickness and texture of each layer and to establish a clearer color matching process. The colors were matched with acrylic paint and applied to identical column maquettes, mimicking the full-scale painting process over time. With each progressive column a new portal to the layer(s) below is revealed. I found myself getting sentimental simply mixing the colors, friends of mine noted my nostalgia particularly for the dark forest green. It’s amazing how our senses can be entwined with the memory of color.

In addition to color matching, I did some investigation into the history of the MTA’s chromatic and graphic language. The history and intention of coloring station tiles is incredibly interesting. Moreover, the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual (containing the work off Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda) gave me some insight into the progression of station graphics. While both the tiles and manual spoke to my area of interest, I did not find much on the progression of column paint colors. I therefore had to ask a few enduring locals from the west 23rd street area to recount upon their memory of station cleaning and renovation. Establishing a timeline of color phase duration, I had to do a lot of guessing too and used paint layer thickness to estimate span.

For the final project David suggested making identical maquettes to show the color timeline. I just ran with that and made it my own, creating new reveals with each column. I had wanted to make them out of metal and at a larger scale, to mimic the actual columns but we were in the beginning stages of work from home culture and I had to adapt. All of the art supply stores were closed so I made them out of scrap chipboard, used my dining room table as a work space, and made a little photo set up in the corner of my living room. I never really got a chance to display them to the public outside of my home but I enjoy looking at them on my bookshelf.

What is the one surprising thing you have learned while making this project?

I think it is incredible how color is tied to nostalgia.

Necessities in infrastructure and utility and the tactile everyday elements in the world around you play a huge role in individual and collective memory. I love when New Yorkers tell me subway stories after seeing this project. I think this is the first project I have worked on that consistently encourages sense-based recollection. The subway is something that ties New Yorkers together, particularly people that grew up in the city. It is exciting to feel a sense of community through memory.

On typology, and the city

In the case of the “Wet Paint” project, I think of typology as elements which form a collective, or parts of a whole entity. I see a city as a body or organism, something that evolves and tries to adapt to greater forces but distinct because of its elements, its organs and the parts that give it life.

As designers I hope we never shy away from color. I think there is a comfort in black and white lines and existing in monochrome but color is one of the greatest tools we have, and a fascinating and significant lens through which to examine history.

If you had to choose: Peter Eisenman or Christopher Alexander.

Neither.

I might get in trouble for this one! Eisenman is quite a presence at Yale. You have the Eisenman die-hards and people, like me, who might gravitate towards up-and-coming architects/theorists or just in a different direction in general. I really try not to venerate architects too much and I tend not to follow media accounts like NextTopArchitects, it puts pressure on ideals. I do have a lot of respect for certain thinkers and collectives and definitely refer back to some more than others… Boullée, Lina Bo Bardi, Miralles and Pinós, Barragán, Frei Otto, Ant Farm, Haus Rucker, E.A.T., Ando, Kenzō Tange, Kazuyo Sejima. I am half Japanese so I draw a lot of inspiration from architecture in Japan both past and present.

Thank you to Mari Kroin for their time. To see more of their work, check out their instagram @marzcargo and see more about Wet Paint: A Study of Subway Columns.


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