The Art of Stillspotting: Questions for the Guggenheim’s David van der Leer


David van der Leer (photo by Jonathan Bowen)

David van der Leer is helping the Guggenheim step outside of its iconic shell on the Upper East Side, and engage with the rest of New York.  The museum’s Assistant Curator of Architecture and Urban Studies has embarked upon a major, site-specific series of installations and tours called stillspotting nyc that will examine how we manage to find peace in a city that constantly bombards our senses.

The first “stillspot” debuts in Brooklyn the next two weekends, June 2-5 and June 9-12—a temporary clinic called Sanatorium envisioned by artist Pedro Reyes. Upon arrival at Sanatorium visitors will be greeted by a receptionist who, after a brief conversation, assigns a series of “therapies” to each specific visitor. (We’ve listed the full roster here.) Below, Van der Leer, who has worked for award-winning architects Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl, describes Sanatorium and the remaining stillspots that will pop up around the boroughs for the next two years.

What inspired you to create the stillspotting nyc series?

I have been fascinated with stillness over the past years, as it is such an important, and often underestimated, topic for cities. When I first moved here a little over five years ago I was amazed with the sounds of the city. It was, and is, loud here. I wondered where people find their quiet moments as so many of us live in incredibly cramped situations. When we started to study the topic more in depth in preparation of the launch of this program I learned that there are 20 million adults and 10 million children in the United States who suffer from noise-induced hearing loss, but that it is 100% preventable. We realized there is a reason beyond mere poetry to run a project like this and help people and city governments understand that stillness can and should be an important element in our everyday lives.

Do you seek solace from therapy or a place in the city? Does urban life require some kind of respite for us to engage with it fully?

Yes, I am convinced that we need to take a breath every once in a while in order to cope with the stress and excitement of a city such as New York. I find it at times in nature close to the city, or at other times simply by biking along the West Side. But the interesting thing is how we all find it in different ways and at different times: and that is what we wanted to play with for stillspotting nyc.

Is there anything about life in New York that you find therapeutic?

I think healing, or therapeutic moments can be found in many places around the city. For instance, I have this soft spot for these two beautiful doves that are quietly cooing out on my fire escape. They get me out of my mode of continuous production that this city mostly seems to stimulate. I am sure everybody else has equally quirky stories to tell you.

What about art—do you find it therapeutic?

Yes. And that is exactly what I wanted to show with this project. By asking artists, architects, and also composers to make installations and tours that each deal with stillness I hope we can help people see everyday life a little differently. Imagine going to Pedro Reyes’ Sanatorium in Brooklyn: during a brief visit of just two hours you will be introduced to some simple but effective strategies that all take you out of your comfort zone and help you slow down, think and appreciate it all a little more.

What was the selection process for Sanatorium? Why choose Metrotech and not a more peaceful setting in Brooklyn, like Red Hook?

We looked at many places in Brooklyn from Williamsburg, Bushwick, Crown Heights to Dumbo, and found our favorite place for the first edition of stillspotting nyc in Downtown Brooklyn. To many it is a place of work or transit, but so few people realize it can also be an incredible resource for stillness that will be transformed over the coming years. I hope we can highlight the hidden potential of an area as Downtown Brooklyn through Pedro Reyes’s Sanatorium.

In the family therapy sessions, how will Reyes or his colleagues attempt to help every member?

There is a large number of therapies available during each day that the project is open to visitors. During family days we will have educators join for many of the therapy sessions that will facilitate a more fluid process between the ‘therapists’ and the visitors. Although it is all about finding the quiet moment through these therapies we believe it also will be quite a bit of fun.

Some of Sanatorium’s sessions draw from religious traditions. Ex-Voto borrows from the Catholic faith for instance. Do you think New Yorkers can use a little more spirituality in their lives?

Spirituality can be experienced in so many ways. I think by paying attention to the special moments around us, such as the quiet moment, we may find these exceptional experiences. New Yorkers are active people, so taking a pause every so often certainly would not harm.

Are you looking forward to attending any sessions yourself? Which ones?

Oh yes I am. My favorite visit would probably start with a Goodoo session that according to Pedro Reyes may help to channel healing energies even when I am far away from the city. This would then be followed by the simple, but oh-so elegant aligning of energies with hand movements at THE DEPARTMENT OF MUDRAS, and then the large group session, The Tunning Effect. This was originally created by Melvyn Bucholtz, who joins us to host many of the sessions, and helps to solve the unsolvable. That in all just two hours: seems like a pretty good deal to me.

If Sanatorium were to have a corresponding self-help book, what would be the title?

That question would probably best be answered by the artist Pedro Reyes himself. My best bet would be: “Sanatorium: Guiding Principles and Strategic Stillness,” but I am sure Pedro has some more exiting ideas in mind.

What will the next stillspotting nyc project be like? And have you planned each one or are you still curating the series?

I am currently working with Sarah Malaika, our excellent Stillspotting Project Associate, on the development of the full series. The second edition of stillspotting nyc will be created by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and the Norway and U.S.–based architecture firm Snøhetta. Visitors on this tour around Lower Manhattan (early September of this year) will experience music and sound installations framed by urban spaces in Lower Manhattan.

Sanatorium, located at the storefront level of 1 Metrotech Center with an entrance at 345 Jay Street, in Downtown Brooklyn, will be open June 2-5 and June 9-12. Visitors engage in three therapy sessions from a roster of over 15, with registration times offered every two hours on site. Advance tickets ($15 for adults and $10 for members) are required. To learn more about sessions, including Family Sessions on Sundays, find directions, and purchase tickets, visit

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