By James Maher
Name: Alan Good
Occupation: Owner, HENGE Outdoor Ping Pong Tables, Dancer, Choreographer
Location: Tompkins Square Park
Time: 2 p.m. on Friday, April 15
Last week, Alan, who moved here in 1977, talked about his early career as a dancer with Merce Cunningham. After an injury, he started thinking about his future. He pitched some goofy ideas... and one of them caught the interest of a worker with the city's Small Business Administration.
My advisers were kind of bored, but one day there was this one guy, 75 years old, who was in the fashion industry. He had Coke-bottle glasses and eyebrows out to here, and I said to him, I’m kind of thinking of concrete ping-pong tables. I know them in China and Europe because I lived and taught over there, but I don’t see any here and I can’t find any on the web.
And he stopped what he was doing and looked into the distance and said, ‘Ping pong, I remember ping pong.’ And the complexion in his face changed and his eyes watered a little bit. This was a sincere response, even a physical one.
So I [created] Henge in 2009. After six years you make so many mistakes and just keeping going. I wasted so much time — I almost caused my company to fail. We used to have this word in Merce Cunningham, ‘wrong.’ Wrong actually meant right. It was so wrong it was right.
In 2011, [the table in the center of the Park] became the eighth table we ever made and the second in Manhattan. I whipped up a suggestion for Tompkins Square Park of two tables over in [the northeast section].
When we came along finally to donate, at the last second another angel named Marc Schulz said, ‘Well that’s cool, but why don’t we put it here?’ [near the center of the Park]. I just wasn’t ballsy enough to suggest this. And in one fell swoop he probably determined the success of my company. Suddenly it was in the heart of the classical arching network of paths in the Park, right by the staff center and flagpole, and the intersection, most important, had 4-foot paths.
This became a performance area. The table gradually became this gathering spot, like a pub. One thing I like is that teenagers... sometimes I see them just draped over [the table]. They’re using the net as a pillow, and there are like 17 of them on it. It’s so sculptural.
This allowed me to reach so much further the aim of my company, which is not really about a cool object, it’s about the negative space — the space around and what people do with it. That’s reflected in the sculptural idea, not just in the base. The emptiness around here is what people flow through.
There’s a concept in the base of that table, which we call the T40, which is a well-known volume from the branch of mathematics known as topology. This is called Steinmetz solids, and as a positive, as an actual mass that exists, are two cylinders that intersect, often at right angles.
Can you imagine if you have two straws, perfectly joined? Now Steinmetz solids as a negative, meaning if you pressed them into clay and removed them, and you look at the imprint that they leave, they leave a very interesting and not predictable shape. Negative space is exactly what you’re looking at. You’re also looking at another more commonly known simpler form, also known in mathematics as the ogee. The ogee is also something in 3-dimensions, but it happens to be an S-curve. Once you take a step back and look at all the variations, you see it in fluid dynamics, the human cheekbone, the feet in furniture, and in water and rivers.
You see these strange clearly etched lines that you’ve never really seen before. They’re symmetrical and they’re curved, but they’re unusual, and they have kind of a rational to them. People should be destabilized. People should be knocked a little bit goofy when they see things. That’s the kind of thing that healthy societies do, something to pry you off balance. The concept was that you just throw two things together, like a fairly large-scale public event with paddles and balls and onlookers, and then a tiny little living ecosystem that people ... can enjoy and watch.
Upon visiting Portland, Ore., there was a series of plazas that link like a necklace through the city. The city had dictated to two architects that they were to include and not quarantine away or ticket skateboarders, on the risky notion that skateboarders are not evil people. They mix with courtesy with any other kind of person, people going to and from school and work, and that they can coexist. They’re not so wild that they can hurt you.
So I came away from that experience saying the least I can do coming out with this new public amenity for parks is invite and not repel skateboarders. So we made a triangular net that skateboarders can [ride].
Now we’re in 35 to 40 cities and we [put another table in the Park in 2015]. The mailing list for the weekly tourneys that we do is probably 200. We’re hoping to get other neighborhoods going, because there are 20 Henge tables in all and this summer there will be 42 in the New York City area. Jones Beach State Park is getting 12. What we want is the folks who come around here to come regularly. They bring that out of each other — the idea that you can by chance kind of expect a buddy to show up, even without the aid of text.
The whole company is about trying to get strangers to meet, and because negative space is so important, that the base is an early expression of the power of the negative space. The object is cool, but what’s around it is even better.
Read Part 1 here.