Saturday, June 28, 2008

On Location

(see previous posts here and here)

Storefront for Art and Architecture, Corner of Kenmare St. and Cleveland Pl., New York, 2008 (via Google Maps Street View)

Corner of Kenmare St. and Cleveland Pl., New York, from Night on Earth (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1991)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cell Phones, Torpedos, and Funny Goings-On in Lausanne

Hedy Lamarr (Erica Newhouse) and George Anthiel (Joseph Urla) in Elyse Singer's Frequency Hopping (Source: Gothamist)

Two quick links to while your semi-summery Sunday away. Over at BentPly, Adam Miller posted the media and interaction design showreel from ECAL/Ecole Cantonale d'Art de Lausanne (also posted directly below):

Showreel - ECAL 07/08 (Media&Interaction Design Unit) from ECAL - Media&Interaction Design on Vimeo.

I would say that the work gravitates more towards the "media" as opposed to the "interaction" part of the spectrum, nevertheless, there is some good energy. My expertise in this realm is virtually non-existent (for more info, one should go here or here), but I wonder how I can start incorporating more stuff like this into this site. We'll see.

Hedy Kiesler Markey (Lamarr) and George Antheil, U.S. Pat. 2,292,387, Secret Communication System (Aug. 11, 1942)

This morning, WNYC's Studio360 broadcast a story about Hedy Lamarr's and George Antheil's brief foray into telecommunications and weapons research during the Second World War. The product of this unlikely pairing was, of all things, an aerial torpedo. Using a device much like a piano roll (see above), the torpedo could switch frequencies -- a process Lamarr and Antheil called "Frequency Hopping" -- thus making the torpedo hard to detect. The radio show can be found here:

And if you can't get enough of this story, why not see a musical version of it? Over at the 3LD Art and Technology Center, the Hourglass Group is putting on Elyse Singer's Frequency Hopping, a multimedia musical concerning Lamarr's and Antheil's work. The run ends on June 29. Here's to hoping I can make it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mobilizing Architecture for Film and War

Title card from The Lion Has Wings (Source: Criterion Collection)

In 1939, while working on the wildly popular fantasy epic The Thief of Bagdad, émigré producer Alexander Korda, along with Michael Powell (one-half of the estimable directing team of Powell and Pressburger), Brian Desmond Hurst and Adrian Brunel, directed a propaganda film called The Lion Has Wings. The film contained an unlikely mix of G.P.O. Film Unit documentary footage, maudlin storytelling, and anti-German sentiment. The story revolved around an R.A.F. Bomber Command pilot (played by Ralph Richardson), who is called into service and undertakes a (supposedly) dangerous mission against German shipping on the Kiel canal. The film even ends with a squadron of Spitfires thwarting a Luftwaffe raid, an eerie premonition of the Battle of Britain, which was still months away.

Advertisement for Coates' Lawn Road Flats (Source)

The Lion Has Wings serves to promote the R.A.F.'s prowess and to reassure the public about England's military preparedness. Yet the film is remarkable as it was created in an incredible climate of collaboration between architects and filmmakers. This is not surprising as it was Korda, after all, who produced the screen adaptation of H.G. Wells's Things to Come in 1936 (which like, The Thief of Bagdad, was directed by William Cameron Menzies) and who hired László Moholy-Nagy to create the special effects for the film. Korda and Wells were also friends with other Bauhaus alumni, most notably Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, who were residing in London at the time, both leaving for the United States shortly thereafter. Their haunt was Welles Coates' Lawn Road Flats, a constructivist fantasy of a building that would be the temporary offices for Breuer, Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, as well as for M.A.R.S. members Maxwell Fry and Morton Shand.

Propaganda in The Lion Has Wings has an architectural bent. In fact, one could very well say that it is an instance where architectural modernism is mobilized for war. This is evident in the opening moments of the film. Following images of bucolic English countrysides and busy cities, narrator E.V.H. Emmett describes England's achievement in creating clean, well-lighted, sanitary, and (sometimes) leisurely environments. During this narrative (which sounds like a laundry-list of Athens Charter principles), audiences would then see current examples of English architecture. Touted as pinnacles of English rationalism, these images serve to show that it is Britain, and not Germany, who is the world leader in creating hygienic spaces.

Images of Maxwell Fry's and Elizabeth Denby's Kensal House, from The Lion Has Wings (1939)(Source: Criterion Collection)

Two buildings share the limelight in the opening moments of The Lion Has Wings. The first is Maxwell Fry's and Elizabeth Denby's Kensal House. Built in 1937, Kensal House was one of the first attempts for re-housing urban slum dwellers under the strictures of the 1930 Greenwood Act. The Lion Has Wings features different views of the project. In an aerial shot, the buildings signature curved facade is clearly visible. In another, the clean, flat white walls shine brilliantly in sunlight.

Collage of Boots Factory Buildings by Owen Williams (Source)

The other is Canadian Owen Williams's Boots D10 "Wets" Factory, a building known by its large reinforced concrete spans and commodious lighting. The building is shown in The Lion Has Wings as an example of new factories that would increase worker productivity while keeping clean and healthy environments.

Williams' Boots D10 "Wets" Factory, from The Lion Has Wings (1939) (Source: Criterion Collection)

The use of modern architecture as a propagandistic tool in Britain is not new, however. An article about Berthold Lubetkin's Finsbury Health Centre in an 1930 issue of The Architectural Review contains a cartoon by Gordon Cullen that anticipates much of the tenor in The Lion Has Wings. This cartoon affirms how Lubetkin's building,
[I]s an open type of planning (the whole of the building being open to air and sunlight) as opposed to the old-fashioned idea of fitting as much accommodation on the site as possible by creating courts and unventilated areas ... by means of the general lay-out, as well as by the profusion of glass areas, a very light and airy effect is obtained, in opposition to the usual rather grim and sordid character of buildings of the same description.[1]
The cartoon shows Lubetkin's clinic, clean, spacious, symmetrical, alongside a cramped, dank non-modernist hospital. Whereas statements like "Dignity at the Expense of Health" and "Bad Stale Air!" grace the latter building, for the Finsbury Heath Centre, Cullen uses claims like "Open Courts, No Overshadowing, Proper Cross-Ventilation" and "Good Outlook to All Rooms -- No Shut-In Feeling" to give the reader a sense of just how advanced the building was.

Cartoon by Gordon Cullen showing Lubetkin's Finsbury Health Centre, from a 1930 issue of The Architectural Review (Source: Gruffudd, 2001)

The Finsbury Health Centre was also featured in of a series of wartime propaganda posters designed by Abraham Games. Titled "Your Britain -- Fight For it Now", the series shows many of the pastoral scenes from the opening moments of The Lion Has Wings. And like the film, the poster depicting the Finsbury Health Centre shows how modern architecture can be mobilized for social and political purposes. As geographer Pyrs Gruffuud writes, Games's image of Lubetkin's building
[S]howed the façade of the Finsbury Health Centre in vibrant colour. Behind that façade, however, lurked the devastation of an inner urban slum corner (labeled 'disease' and 'neglect') in which a boy suffering from rickets played with a toy boat. It promised a modern Britain rebuilt on hygenic foundations but was, ironically, banned by Prime Minister Churchill as being a disgraceful libel on pre-war conditions in British cities.[2]
Although not libelous in the same sense as Games's poster, the depiction of architectural modernism in The Lion Has Wings serves another purpose: to condemn the urban conditions in Germany. With images culled from Leni Riefensthal's Triumph des Willens (1935), it is not too tenuous to suggest that Korda, et al. are claiming that it was the unhygienic, crowded conditions of German urban centers that allowed Hitler to come to power.

Abraham Games, "Your Britain -- Fight For It Now" (Source: Gruffudd, 2001)

On the other hand, one must pay attention to the pedigree of architecture in The Lion Has Wings. To emphasize the primacy of architectural modernism in England, the directors opt to show buildings by English-speaking architects. There are no Berthold Lubetkins, no Serge Chermayeffs, no Erich Mendelsohns in The Lion Has Wings.

[1] Pyrs Gruffudd, "'Science and the Stuff of Life': Modernist Health Centres in 1930s London", Journal of Historical Geography, 27, 3 (2001), p. 408.

[2] Ibid., p. 412.

(Note: a pristine new version of The Lion Has Wings is available in the new 2-Disc edition of The Thief of Bagdad, from The Criterion Collection)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dreaming and Fearing the Latin American City

A quick note about two posts that are worth checking out for their interesting representations of Latin American Cities. Over at Candyland, Mario provides us with a video clip promoting tracts for sale at Mexico City's most famous suburb, Ciudad Satélite, founded in 1957. As Mario notes:
[T]his is one of the original ca. 1960 promotional tv ads for Ciudad Satélite, the first American-style planned suburb in Mexico (the 1940's-50's El Pedregal, with its posh Barragán-style modernist caserones scattered over a volcanic rock landscape and tied together by winding one-way circuits doesn't really count as middle-class suburb), the bastard brainchild of Mario Pani (Mexican Le Corbusier, father of the multi, a developmentalist take on the unité d'habitation), Satélite was supposed to be a "green belt" and provide "working class housing" but it was fueled by dirty interests (the land was property of former Mexican president, Miguel Alemán) and turned into an aspiring middleclass nightmare of over 3 million people scarred with water scarcity, crime, congestion, informal subdivisions and a name for being mexican whitetrash heaven.

The video's utopian predilections are obvious, yet the image of the two aliens scouring the Mexican countryside from a teacup (a literal flying saucer) plays an unintentional joke on Le Corbusier's own aerial flights of fancy over places like Rio De Janeiro -- the découverte aérienne of Latin American urbanism.

Chilean photographer Marcelo Montecino's photos of Santiago de Chile shortly before and after the 1973 coup led by Augusto Pinochet give us a sobering look at a city on the brink of collapse. These photographs -- some of which were taken by Montecino's brother, who perished in the 1973 coup -- are interesting for their details. One shows a series of political prisoners detained in Santiago's National Stadium. Another shows a Chilean carabineiri staring intently at a camera. In another photograph, a DINA sniper perched inside a van monitors the street. The photographs also show moments during the ebb and flow of the regime: Pinochet standing among a sea of Prussian helmets in 1987, and locals beating up an informant in 1988. The eeriest image, by far, is of a DINA operative arresting a person. The photograph, captured just as the agent is throwing his victim onto the ground, best captures the fear and repression of the Pinochet regime.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

In The Shit

Takin' Out The Rich Kids: Max Fischer is Gun Crazy in Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998) (Source)

Here's an unlikely image: a young man, wearing crisp, standard issue khaki's and maroon blazer festooned with a gilded school shield stands in a quiet, vaulted cloister. He wears a beret that's a bit too small for him, as well as glasses that would make a Honecker or a Jaruzelski proud. He also raises his fist in the air, evoking that moment during the 1968 Summer Olympic Games when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their own fists, a controversial (and inspirational) moment forever ingrained in American memory. The fist in the air, as well as the year 1968 have certain connotations of revolution and social insurrection, but we are quickly reminded that the very person raising his fist in this image is Max Fischer, the self-important and precocious hero of Wes Anderson's cult film fave, Rushmore (1998).

I was thinking of Max Fischer's beret while walking along a very Rushmore-like setting: Demetri Porphyrios' Whitman Residential College at Princeton University in New Jersey. The buildings that comprise Whitman College are Porphyrios' own paean to American Collegiate Gothic. Part of me, the part who has spent a great amount of time on college campuses, would certainly think "This is how a university should look." There is no doubt that Whitman College is beautiful and impeccably-wrought evocation of an idyllic collegiate life. But the project still presents an interesting problem for this reviewer. Music is my junk food, and this means that I always consider what I am going to listen to on my iPod before I enter and experience a building. I will forever associate first-encounters with buildings with music. On my first-ever visit to Berlin last summer, neither Beethoven nor Mahler in my ears; instead it was Kraftwerk's Der Mensch-Maschine. There's no rhyme or reason to it, that's just what I chose. Consider my surprise, then, when I opted to listen to The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society when visiting Porphyrios for the first time.

I must admit that in retrospect, listening to The Kinks while walking on Princeton's bucolic campus was somewhat appropriate. Rushmore's soundtrack features the band's bitter "Nothing In This World Can Stop Me Worrin' Bout That Girl." Partly a call to arms, partly a troubled mirror of Max fisher's romantic fervor and restless nature, the song presents an interesting counterpoint to the pastoral-themed The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. That album's title track still seems understated, but wholly appropriate for Whitman College's slate roofs and limestone fireplaces. Acoustic guitars and toned-down leads accompany a bubbly Hammond organ as Kinks frontman Ray Davies declares "We are the office block persecution affinity/ God save little shops, china cups and virginity/ We are the skyscraper condemnation affiliate/ God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards."

These lyrics immediately came to mind when thinking about Whitman College's opening and dedication this past October. Is Whitman really about "preserving the old ways?" Porphyrios declared then that his latest project was "important for the revival of traditional architecture in the United States." It is a statement that should not be taken for granted. Porphyrios is a scholar of the highest order (he received both his M.Arch and Ph.D degrees from Princeton), and has published important works on architecture history as well as vital critical monograph on Alvar Aalto and others. In other words, Porphyrios' words should be carefully considered, as the architect would readily challenge you if you were to say that Whitman College is a "revivalist" style. Indeed, he would tell you (as he told those individuals who equate Collegiate Gothic with a traditional style): "It is easy to confuse style with tradition. Architecture has always -- and will always -- be implicated with style. This is so since style what gives character and presence to an artefact of a building. All buildings, therefore, have (or are of a certain) style; yet, not all buildings are traditional. A traditional building is one which belongs to a line of precedent exemplars and which is constructed in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner."

What exactly, then, does Whitman College evoke? What are its precedent exemplars? The nod to Collegiate Gothic is visible in plan. Whitman's plan consists of two rhomboid quads. The uppermost frames grassy North Court on three sides. The lower contains South Court as well as Mazo Green, which slopes gently towards Elm Drive -- one of the main streets connecting Princeton's residential colleges with the rest of the campus. The discreet non-orthogonality not only reflects the site's irregular shape, but also evidences Porphyrios' desire to have Whitman College respond to its neighboring building in important, sensitive ways. The upper quad's most northernmost building thus faces Dillon Gymnasium, a move that certainly affirms Porphyrios long standing interest in context. This move is repeated again as the east and west buildings reflect the similar Collegiate Gothicisms that flank Whitman College's site. It is a very familiar configuration, one that we see at Harvard, Yale, and other American universities on the East Coast.

But it is Porphyrios' material usages and spatial manipulations that give us the best sense of what Whitman College is about. Both display a curious mix between past and present. Whitman's buttery, featuring an ur-Fordist "made-to-order" menu exemplifying state-of-the art decadence: students move around the various cooking stations, their hamburgers grilled to perfection, salads bristling with the exact amounts of sunflower seeds and alfalfa sprout. There is even a library with starkly-hewn mahogany reading desks that make the reading stations at the Laurentian seem rather posh. Community Hall, Whitman's own dining hall "has soaring, 35-foot ceilings emphasized by 8-foot oak panels." Noting the choice of materials, Porphyrios injects an aching contemporaneity to his typically overwrought flourishes:
The buildings of Whitman College are generally constructed in load bearing masonry with graduated roofing slate and concrete floor slabs and staircases. The external load bearing masonry is in traditional Princeton field stone. Indiana limestone is used for all window and door surrounds, arches and arcades and for copings, labels, hood-mouldings, crenellations and other architectural or sculptural features. Windows are timber casements with true leaded glass and built-in "energy-panels." The overall design philosophy stresses the use of passive environmental control wherever possible. Buildings are generally constructed in heavyweight materials producing well-insulated, low-response envelopes. The solid, traditional materials of the exterior fabric produce buildings that are user and maintenance friendly.
But in terms of spaces, it is Whitman College's arcade that deserves special mention. Whitman's arcade connects Community Hall with the boarding areas. It is an architectural promenade for the preppy set, so Porphyrios declares:
An arcade on the north side of the South Court leads past the library and administration offices to the central dining hall and student cafe. Two private dining rooms are appended to the east façade of the large gabled dining hall. To the south of the dining hall are the entrances to the auditorium and exhibition hall, which are located beneath the terraced South Court. These communal facilities are well-proportioned spaces of diverse size and scale and, depending on the activity they house, feature oak panelling, limestone surrounds and large fireplaces.
Another lyric from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society comes to mind, specifically the one where Davies declares that he is "Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you." And this is echoed by Porhyrios when he states that "The new Whitman College speaks of tradition in a modern voice ... Its architecture reaches across culture and time to heal the estrangement which humanism constantly faces. The new Whitman College furthers a Princeton tradition that has permanent value and perpetual modernity." Princeton always seemed to be a little lagging when it came to incorporating contemporary architecture: while Harvard had Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center for the Arts and Yale boasted its muscular Art and Architecture Building, Princeton's campus architects dabbled with a fairly innocuous mixture of Collegiate Gothic and (eventually) Robert Venturi, and Charles Gwathmey. Things are changing somewhat. On the heels of Porphyrios' Whitman College are projects by Frank Gehry and others. But one wonders what to make of this eclecticism: it has always been a part of American campus planning. Yet does this pluralist acceptance of various architectural expression really allow signature projects to stick out?

But let's return to Rushmore, if only for a little bit longer. One of the film's many brilliant scenes occurs at the very beginning. Max Fisher is attending a school convocation. It takes place in a room whose oak paneling and heavy spans would not seem out of place within Whitman College's walls. Max is rapt in attention as his unlikely mentor, the acerbic, dry, and cantankerous Herman Blume (played by Bill Murray) addresses a group of students. One could imagine Blume as a heavier, more wizened Jim Dixon, the upstart R.A.F. veteran and red-brick University lecturer from Kingsley Amis’ 1954 comic novel, Lucky Jim. It was Jim Dixon, after all, who lectured to a group of professors while in a drunken stupor, “The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period of our history.” But leave it to Herman Blume to be a little more direct. He tells the students of Rushmore Academy: "You guys have it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up. But I send my kids here because the fact is you go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore. Now, for some of you it doesn't matter. You were born rich and your going to stay rich. But here's my advice to the rest of you: Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can't buy backbone. Don't let them forget it."

There was a time when campus projects could inspire such unrest. Think of Claes Oldenburg's inflatable lipstick in front of Gordon Bunshaft's Beinecke Rare Book Library or Eero Saarinen's Morse and Stiles Residential Colleges. How different Whitman College seems, a stark contrast to those times when avatars of architectural modernism designed university projects that addressed Porhpyrios' need to heal in different, more poignant ways. Something has been lost, and Whitman College only reinforces this loss.