Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holidays

Christmas card by Bob Wirth depicting LCM Chair as Santa Claus. Sent to Charles and Ray Eames in 1948 (Source)
A quick note to thank everyone for helping make 2010 a great year for this is a456. I could not have done this without your support and enthusiasm.

See you in 2011!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Sartorial Moment

"The unveiling of the Palace of Soviets' model, Paris, 1931" (Source: Jean-Louis Cohen, Le Corbusier et la mystique de l'URSS: Théories et projets pour Moscou, 1928-1936 [Bruxelles: Mardaga, 1987] 165)

We are confronted by a strange image.[1] Taken in 1931, this photograph reveals a surprising episode from one of Le Corbusier's most trying (and defining) moments—the competition for the Palace of Soviets. It captures the very moment when the architect reveals the architectural model for the first time. To the left, we see Pierre Jeanneret and another employee from Le Corbusier's studio in the rue de Sèvres, holding a white sheet they have just pulled away. The Palace of Soviets model sits freshly uncovered, or, to use T.S. Eliot's term, "etherized upon a table"[2], that is, not asleep, but made ethereal. The project's telltale arch and roof-supporting spars are immediately recognizable against the ghostly cloth. And on the right, standing just to the side of the model is Le Corbusier himself, wearing a trim, fitted suit, hands wrapped around a double bass. His left hand cranes the instrument's neck. The right hand strokes the strings above the fingerboard, a position that could be a little too high for proper pizzicato technique, but a show nonetheless. He may be pretending to play the instrument. We are, after all, watching a performance.

Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Palace of Soviets, interior perspective (1931) (Source: Le Corbusier Le Grand [New York: Phaidon Press, 2008]). 
Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Palace of Soviets, axonometric drawing (1931).

Perhaps it is the stark, uncompromising lighting, or even the stage-like composition that drapes the subjects in dark, void-like shadows and brilliant fields of white: there is something about this image that just seems so appropriate. Le Corbusier's competition entry, with its innovative programming, attention to acoustics, emphasis on closed air ventilation (or respiration exacte), and distinctive roof-supporting arch, was many things—skeletal frame of pure functionalism; death-knell for Constructivism; moment of clarity severing relationships between the European and Soviet avant-garde; explanation foreshadowing his support of Marshal Pétain. Yet the proposal remains enigmatic not because of its architectural gestures, but because of its fate. Le Corbusier's proposal, which could have been "perhaps the greatest building ever built"[3], never made it past the second round of the competition. On 28 February1932, a letter announced Ivan Zholtovsky, Boris Iofan, and Hector Hamilton as the winners. It was not Le Corbusier's first loss (he had been disqualified earlier from the Palace for the League of Nations competition). It was, however, his most stinging and significant defeat to date.

The importance that Le Corbusier assigned to his proposal surely explains the ritual-like nature of its unveiling. But what was being veiled? Or, to use use the language of detectives and investigative magistrates, what was being uncovered? The amount of time and labor invested in this project is legendary, but why all the drama?  Le Corbusier's status as a figure in the history of architecture is undisputed. But an opportunity should be taken to examine all possible aspects leading to this claim, and hence the issue of "unveiling" takes an additional significance. The use of sheets as well as the clothes that Le Corbusier wears in the photograph from 1928 to 1931—a period coinciding with his Moscow projects— take on an special significance. A familiar architectural metaphor is in order. Architecture not only constructs, but is constructed. The same applies to the designer: an architect not only creates, but is created. And sometimes an architect's sartorial bent is presented as evidence of his stature. The clothes not only make the man, but they also make the architecture.

It seems as if no meditation or survey of Le Corbusier's life and work, whether intended for popular or scholarly audiences, overlooks the significance of his clothes. Thus in the introductory essay to the most recent omnibus volume of the architect's work, Jean-Louis Cohen writes how "The nearly geometric rigidity of [Le Corbusier's] figure in his corporeal and sartorial frame was evidently an artificial construct, a deliberately prepared camouflage."[4] The description is a nod to the idea of the modern architect as a person with a certain "look" that is not only cultivated in building and writing, but also in external appearances.

This emphasis on appearances follows two separate, but complimentary tracks. One the one hand, the architect's sartorial nature is seen as a legitimizing move, a conscious effort to place himself within a certain historical narrative.[5] On the other, the various material artifacts in an architect's attire (coat, tie, glasses, pipe) contribute to an iconographic portrait that hides as much as it reveals. The architect therefore appears as "a global brand name and embodied logo veiling the reality of a large-scale collaborative practice."[6] Together, these two statements help explain the construction of the modern architect ... and the architect as a modern construct.

Some amount of reexamination is in order. Both observations (rightly) privilege the image of the architect. Yet Cohen's implicit separation of Le Corbusier's figure into "corporeal" and "sartorial" selves  merits further exploration. The image of the architect is still of importance, but the significance of clothing can be instrumentalized in such a way to unveil and reveal more about architecture and its role in the writing the history.

Le Corbusier at the Centrosoyuz site (Source: Cohen, Le Corbusier et la mystique de l'URSS: Théories et projets pour Moscou, 1928-1936, 9)

"A March morning, 1930. Snow still covers the izbas and brick buildings of Moscow. Dressed in a voluminous woolen overcoat and a wide-brimmed, peaked cap (both bought at the GUM[7]), Le Corbusier smiles, notebook in hand."[8] This sentence, the very first from Cohen's landmark study of Le Corbusier's exchanges with Moscow during 1930s, is almost unassuming of its descriptive power. The architect here is revealed both as a consumer and as a writer. Yet the accompanying image reveals very little about his architecture. We are made to understand that this picture was taken on the construction site of the Centrosoyuz, Le Corbusier's first major public building. And though Cohen mentions the scaffolding in the background that would eventually become the building, we see very little of it. In fact, like the expansive adjectives used to describe Le Corbusier's attire (the "voluminous" coat and "wide-brimmed" cap) this photograph calls more attention to clothing than to building. The figure of the architect—exhausted, contemplative, freezing—is caught in a candid and vulnerable moment that seems very far removed from the critical and exalted images of architects we are accustomed to.

Le Corbusier outside the Centrosoyuz site (Source: Le Corbusier Le Grand [2008])

It is only when we see the entire image that a different figure emerges. Here, staging and framing replace candor and vulnerability. The edge of the house that we see behind the architect now becomes a demarcator, separating the photograph into two areas that seem to be in dialogue with each other. On the right, a white apartment building frames the already familiar figure of Le Corbusier.  This side of the image speaks to construction: a completed building foregrounds the constructed architect. To the left we can see the Centrosoyuz scaffolding more clearly. Its skeletal scaffolding foregrounds a singular, stripped wooden utility pole that occupies the same space as the architect in the right hand of the photograph. But whereas this pole is coexistent with the white building behind the architect, Le Corbusier's figure contrasts that of the Centrosoyuz. Whereas the building is the process of being built, the architect is swaddled in layers. The Centrosoyuz is exposed. The architect, protected. In other words, the building is naked, unclothed.

The clothing metaphor here is, of course, wholly intentional. Design historian Adrian Forty observed how architecture thought since antiquity had, in some very notable cases, looked to textiles and clothing as a model for utility. If imitation is indeed more than a sincere form of flattery, then any discussions about architectural form, surface, or even structure benefited from imitating the applied arts: "Just as a person should dress according to their station in life, so architecture should be appropriate to the use and importance of the building."[9] Forty continues his analysis on through to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, looking to Gottfried Semper's analysis of walls as symbolic clothing, John Ruskin's writings on dress to argue for more naturalism in architecture, and Viollet-le-Duc's writings for evidence of the idea that good, well-constructed clothing should serve as a model for architecture.

American girl in tennis costume, from Sigfried Giedion, Befreites Wohnen (1929) (Source: Forty, "Of Cars, Clothes and Carpets: Design Metaphors in Architectural Thought: The First Banham Memorial Lecture," Journal of Design History, Vol. 2, No. 1 [1989], 13).

Turning to the modern movement in architecture, he concludes his analysis with an image of a young girl in an "American tennis costume." Taken from Sigfried Giedion's Befreites Wohnen (Liberated Living) (1929), the image makes an immediate (and perhaps too easy) comparison between the telltale white surfaces of signature modern housing projects like those from the Weissenhofsiedlung in 1927 and the athlete's form-fitting white garments.[10] For Forty, the white tennis outfit "allows good ventilation and freedom of movement for the body, in contrast to its imprisonment by the conventional airless and restrictive dwelling."[11]

This image invites a more nuanced discussion about the idea of clothing as architecture. This equation is not as strange as it seems. After all, clothing and architecture are two kinds of interventions that protect humans from the natural environment. But this direct equation has a historical pedigree that is worth investigating. Consider, for example, Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833).  In that work, the English essayist and historian offers a sardonic and cutting jibe at German idealism in the guise of a novel about fashion. The main protagonist, a tailor named Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, offers a "philosophy of fashion" that compares changes in culture with changes in fashion. Yet Carlyle's invocation of an architectural metaphor is worth block-quoting: 
In all his Modes, and habilitory endeavors, an Architectural Idea will be found lurking; his Body and Cloth are the site and materials whereon and whereby his beautiful edifice, of a Person, is to be built. Whether he flow gracefully out in folded mantles, based on light sandals; tower up in high headgear, from amid peaks, spangles and bell-girdles; swell out in starched ruffs, buckram stuffings, and monstrous tuberosities; or girth himself into separate sections, and front the world an Agglomeration of four limbs,—will depend on the nature of such Architectural Idea: whether Grecian, Gothic, Later-Gothic, or altogether modern …[12]
Note how this passage marks a transformation of sorts that mirrors the above analyses and foreshadows what is yet to come: clothing is at first something that constructs the architect, that capitalizes on the metaphoric relationship between dress and building, and that finally reaches its sartorial apotheosis—that clothing has become architecture.

With Carlyle's invocation of various modes of dress now firmly in mind, Le Corbusier's sartorialisms now take on added significance. Here, I want to focus momentarily on a brief observation from Reyner Banham's Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture (1962), namely, that Le Corbusier openly flaunted architectural modernism's uniform-like "white walls":
For twenty years—thirty in the case of some critics—the defence of modern architecture was the defence of the uniform quite as much as the defence of Functionalism, and there are still people today who cannot accept a building as functional unless it wears the uniform gear. But already in the early thirties, Le Corbusier was adjusting his dress, and incorporating sporty or tweedy elements not accepted by the rest of the gang.[13]
This is a provocative quote, an almost too-facile invocation of Le Corbusier's nerdy dress as a critique of functionalism and anti-fashion statement.[14] And indeed, a look at Le Corbusier in the Soviet Union, preparing for the building of the Centrosoyuz (and the competition for the Palace of Soviets), reveals how some of these fashion gaffes did operate as a critique of sorts.

Le Corbusier poses next to a Russian peasant woman. Photograph taken by Sergei Kozhin in 1928 (Source: Starr,  "Le Corbusier and the U.S.S.R.: New Documentation" Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, Vol. 21, No. 2 [Apr.-Jun., 1980], 218).

Two photographs from 1928, taken by the young architect Sergei Kozhin in the Moscow countryside, show Le Corbusier in a literally different guise. The first is a tight medium composition framing Le Corbusier and an older peasant woman. It is, to say the least, a study in contrasts. The woman, head covered with a baboushka, her body clad in a large, dark overcoat and blanket, appears weatherbeaten. Her pose is natural, unassuming, and yet provides the viewer with a glimpse of hard living only years before forced collectivization would take hold. Le Corbusier, on the other hand, appears as a sartorial emissary wearing a felt bowler instead of a peaked cap, his "overstuffed" coat open revealing the tweedy garments that bemused Banham so much as to call attention to them.

Le Corbusier stands by a peasant hut on the Moscow countryside. Photograph taken by Sergei Kozhin in 1928 (Source: Starr, "Le Corbusier and the U.S.S.R.: New Documentation", 218).

The second photograph shows the architect standing in front of a log house with pitched roof. Following Banham's suggestion, this is a very portrait of anti-fashion. Again, it is Le Corbusier's tweedy, rumpled garments that should call our attention here. But before we follow this tack and claim that his Tati-esque outfit complements or corresponds to the shabby house, it is important to note just how frail and small Le Corbusier appears in the photograph. It is an image where vernacular architecture overpowers the high modernist.

There is more, however, for here are the beginnings of Carlyle's "Architectural idea." Kozhin's photograph of the log house shows Le Corbusier in a manner not unlike that of the elderly peasant woman's: he too is buried under layers of bulky clothing. But, to recall the very "Architectural idea" that introduced this post—unveiling and concealment—what exactly is hiding under all these layers? Is it, as Cohen noted, the architect's geometric figure? When comparing this image with that of the architect sitting in front of the Centrosoyuz scaffolding or during the unveiling of the Palace of Soviets, the lack of definition is notable. The only things that are recognizable are the shape of Le Corbusier's head and his signature black glasses. In other words, is it possible that the process of constructing the self involves a fair degree of concealment?

In her study of C.G. de Clérambault's maligned course on drapery given at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1923, Joan Copjec provides us with a plausible answer to this question. It is an answer that involves, of all things, Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture (also from 1923). Copjec begins with telling quote from a 1928 lecture by Clérambault called "Classification of Draped Costumes": "a draped costume must be defined by the scheme of its construction."[15] She equates this "demand" with utility, and therefore sees a parallel development in the rise of functionalism in modern architecture theory. Citing the importance of Vers une architecture to this equation, Copjec notes that "It is at this point that style and ornament began to be considered precisely as clothing; their connection to the building, in other words, was taken as arbitrary rather than necessary, and they were thus viewed, for the first time, as the wrapping or covering of an otherwise nude building ... Functionalism, in the form of architectural purism, peaked, then, in a rending of clothing."[16] Literal unveiling now becomes a figurative shredding of clothes, a sartorial term describing the advent of a new architecture.  Unveiling, whether through the removal of drapery or rending of clothing, becomes functional and reveals a building underneath.

A Functional Unveiling

This description may seem tacit, but let us get back to the very image that started this discussion—the unveiling (or uncovering) of the Palace of Soviets from 1931—in order to understand its further implications. What this picture makes clear is that the very thing that is being uncovered is a building. And in fact, it was not only a new kind of building for Le Corbusier (it would have been his largest building to date), but also incorporated elements from other building types (separated circulation à la Charles Garnier, a concrete arch perhaps inspired by Eugène Freyssinet's dirigible hangar at Orly, classicist- and Beaux Arts-inspired biaxial symmetry) into an organic whole. Furthermore, the competition program required a spatial response to a new kind of building use—Le Corbusier's monument to the first Five-Year Plan incorporated two auditoria that could house and move 22,000 spectators along a system of sloped floors. The building was, in the architect's estimation, not just big, but bol'shoi (big), a project that envisaged the whole of the Soviet Union.[17]

Unveiling also suggests another kind of architectural valence, one that this post has attempted to utilize. If unveiling amounts to a kind of functionalism, then it follows that in terms of the writing of history, the uncovering of facts and details demonstrates another utility, that of constructing something general from something specific. It is an indirect kind of knowledge, one that not only emphasizes the (sometimes) conjectural value of an inference ("I will build an argument from the following clues"), but that also recognizes the importance of telepresence ("I will have to build an argument from the available information here because I cannot be there to assemble all possible clues"). But then again, we may have come full circle and understand the value of weaving a tapestry in lieu of uncovering it to detect something. The cloth therefore becomes a metaphor for the writing of history.[18]

Inverted Commas

But let us look at the image of the unveiling of the Palace of Soviets even closer. Follow the hands. Specifically, the hands framing this scene. On the left, one of the draughtsmen holds his right hand up in the air, his wrist bent at a downward angle. To the right, Le Corbusier's left hand straddles claw-like to the middle range of the double bass's fingerboard. These are hands that appear as quotes. This calls to mind a brief moment from Colin Rowe's "Mathematics of the Ideal Villa" (1947), his influential study of the value of historical references to Le Corbusier's work. Rowe has this to say about the designer of the Palace of Soviets: "with Le Corbusier there is always an element of wit suggesting that the historical (or contemporary) reference has remained a quotation between inverted commas, possessing always the double value of the quotation, the associations of both old and new context."[19] This is more than an apt description of Le Corbusier's afflictions for history. It is also more than a reference to the Palace of the Soviets sitting there in the middle between these two inverted commas.  It could very well describe the writing of this post.



[1] This image appears only in the original French version of Jean-Louis Cohen's text. The image is attributed to the personal collection of Orestis Maltos.
[2] The quote comes from the third line of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917).
[3] Robert Furneaux Jordan, Le Corbusier (London, 1972), 57-58, quoted in Frederick Starr, "Le Corbusier and the U.S.S.R.: New Documentation," Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr.-Jun., 1980), 213.
[4] Jean-Louis Cohen, "The Man With a Hundred Faces," in Le Corbusier Le Grand (New York: Phaidon, 2008), x.
[5] Mark Jarzombek, "The Saturations of Self: Stern's (and Scully's) Role in (Stern's) History," Assemblage, No. 33 (Aug., 1997), 13: "[Stern's] monochromatic dark suit, the conservative tie, the silk handkerchief in the vest pocket, the Mona Lisan smile, the coat draped capelike over the shoulders speak of him not only as a successful member of the working bourgeoisie, but also as the holder of important spiritual and aesthetic values. The soft tones of the face and the direct glance imply a tenderness that seems to be pulled out of the reluctant architect by the studied focus of the camera. The hands are interlocked in a calm, meditative pose, while the scrolls project forward out of his coat like Samurai swords at the ready. The endearing qualities of the architect are posited here in reference to the enduring qualities of history."
[6] Jeffrey T. Schnapp, "The Face of the Modern Architect," Grey Room, No. 33 (Fall 2008), 9-10.
[7] ГУМ, or Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin, the main department store in Moscow, designed in 1890-1893 by Alexsander Pomerantsev and Vladimir Shukhov.
[8] Cohen, Le Corbusier and the Mystique of the U.S.S.R.: Theories and Projects for Moscow 1928-1936, xi.
[9] Adrian Forty, "Of Cars, Clothes and Carpets: Design Metaphors in Architectural Thought: The First Banham Memorial Lecture," Journal of Design History, Vol. 2, No. 1(1989), 10.
[10] The relation between fashion and modern architecture has generated a very substantial body of literature. Though a review of this literature could well require many long posts, it is worth acknowledging the many instances in which modern architects not only wrote about, but also designed clothes. These include figures such as Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman, Henry Van de Velde and Frank Lloyd Wright. Le Corbusier, of course, also fits this bill perfectly, as he featured fashion accessories in his articles for L'Esprit Nouveau as well as in L'Art decoratif d'aujourd'hui (1931) (appearing later as The Decorative Art of Today, James I. Dumont, trans. [Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: MIT Press, 1987]). Any discussion about the role of white clothing and white modernist buildings is indebted to Mark Wigley's White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001).  It is also important to note most of the historical literature that associated architectural modernism with fashion appeared in the early 1990's. Some notable examples include Deborah Fausch, Paulette Singley, Rodolphe El-Khoury, and Zvi Elfrat, eds. Architecture: In Fashion (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991); Wigley, "White-Out: Fashioning the Modern," in Fausch, et al., Architecture: In Fashion, 148-268; and Wigley, "White-Out: Fashioning the Modern [Part 2]," Assemblage, No. 22 (Dec., 1993), 6-49 (these last two texts appear later in White Walls, Designer Dresses). The best historiographic and analytical treatment appears in Leila W. Kinney, "Fashion and Fabrication in Modern Architecture," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 48, No. 3, Architectural History 1999/2000 (Sep., 1999), 472-481. This essay is important as it situates the production from the early 1990s within larger art historical, theoretical, and architectural contexts.
[11] Forty, "Of Cars, Clothes and Carpets," 12.
[12] Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinons of Herr Teufelsdrocke (London: 1833), quoted in George Van Ness Dearborn, "The Psychology of Clothing," in James Rowland Angell, ed. The Psychological Monographs, Vol. 26 (1918-1919), vii.
[13] Reyner Banham, Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 39, quoted in Wigley, "White-Out: Fashioning the Modern [Part 2],"7.
[14] It is worth noting that Wigley's "White-Out" is a thorough investigation of this idea of anti-fashion and how it informed the construction of modern architecture, "a close examination of the way in which the white surface emerged out of architectural discourse's prolonged, but largely suppressed engagement with the antifashion movement in fashion design." Ibid., p. 8.
[15] G.G. de Clèrambault, "Classification des costumes drapés," quoted in Joan Copjec, "The Sartorial Superego" October, Vol. 50 (Autumn, 1989), 66.
[16] Copjec, "The Sartorial Superego," 67. I am not doing justice to Copjec's argument: in this piece, she looks at the relationship between drapery and utility in the construction of a postcolonial subject. Her invocation of Le Corbusier and architecture criticism locates Clèrambault's work within a larger cultural context.
[17] Le Corbusier declared that until convinced of the meaning of "big" vis-à-vis the Palace of Soviets, he had understood "Bolshevik" to be "a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth." Frederick Starr, "Le Corbusier and the U.S.S.R.: New Documentation," Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr.-Jun., 1980), 211.
[18] Carlo Ginzburg and Anna Davin, "Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method," History Workshop, No. 9 (Spring, 1980), 23.
[19] Colin Rowe, "Mathematics of the Ideal Villa," in Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1982), 15 (italics added).

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Seen and Not Seen

Postcard depicting the Comte de Lambert's 1909 flight around the Eiffel Tower (Source: Wright State University Library Special Collections)

The earliest, most well-known romance between architecture and aviation had everything to do with seeing ... and not seeing. We can look to the very opening moments of Le Corbusier's Aircraft (1935) to have this revealed before us, the portrait of the young architect as a young polemicist. The year is 1909, and the young Le Corbusier, then an apprentice in Auguste Perret's office, sequestered in a "student's garret on Quai St. Michel,"[1] hears a noise. It is the sound of the Comte de Lambert flying his Wright flyer around the Eiffel Tower. It may have not been the loudest noise in the world, and yet the aircraft's single 35-hp engine would have created enough of a distinguishable drone in the air to catch an unsuspecting ear. The flight was the latest event in what would be a watershed decade for the history French aviation—and a momentous occasion for Le Corbusier as well. This was, after all, the very moment when "men had captured the chimera and driven it above the city."[2] And yet the Comte's flight was literally obstructed by architecture. The noise was enough to cause our young architect to crane his head out the window, away from the building, so to speak, "to catch sight of this unknown messenger."[3]

Such talk of messengers is wholly apposite, for as Le Corbusier tells us, it was some time later when Perret burst into his atelier brandishing a copy of L'intransigeant announcing Louis Blériot’s successful flight across the English Channel on July 25, 1909. These two events—the Comte de Lambert's fight around the Eiffel Tower and Blériot's channel crossing—have a special significance for narratives of architectural modernism in that they anticipate Le Corbusier's own romance with flight and flying machines. There are of course other, and in some cases, earlier and more fruitful instances where the cultures of architecture and aviation have merged. Yet what is important here is that this early entanglement with aviation would inform some of Le Corbusier's most important polemical statements about architecture.

Le Corbusier-Saugnier, "Des yeux qui ne voient pas ... Les Avions" L'Esprit nouveau No. 9 (1921)
Within the pages of L'Esprit nouveau, the publication edited and published by Le Corbusier[4] and Amédée Ozenfant from 1920-1925, there appears a series of installments with the cryptic title "Des Yeux Qui Ne Voient Pas" ("Eyes That Do Not See"). The phrase, attributed to a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé called "Le phénomène futur,"[5] is an indictment of Le Corbusier's contemporaries, architects who are incapable of seeing without any sense of clarity, of not seeing what "is right before our eyes."[6]  It is as much an appeal to contemporaneity as it is a demand for architects to really look at the various industrial objects around them to truly understand how to pose a design problem.[7] The first "Eyes That Do Not See" that appeared in L'Esprit nouveau No. 8 (1921) is about ships, and the second, from No. 9 (1921), concerned airplanes. Here, Le Corbusier looks to aircraft to demonstrate how architects should be looking at design problems. The logic goes something like this: if an airplane is a machine for flying, and a bomber a machine for bombing, then the reason why houses are not looked at as machines for living is that architects have not trained their eyes to really pose the question in this manner.[8] Thus the photographs of aircraft in the pages of L'Esprit nouveau No. 9, many of which would be reprinted in Le Corbusier's influential book, Vers une architecture (1923), serve a didactic purpose. They are evidence not only of design problems that are well-thought out, but also exhibited (if that's the appropriate term) to stand in stark contradiction to the work of contemporary architects. Hence the last spread in "Des Yeux Qui Ne Voient Pas ... Les Avions" (1921) pairs an ensemble of public and private buildings, all gaudy and overscaled, against the sleek lines of a Farman Goliath. Whereas Le Corbusier labels buildings by Marcel, LaJoie, Vorin, Lavirotte, Garriguenc, Gosselin, and Castel as "Le problème mal posé ... des yeux qui n'ont pas vu" ( "The badly posed problem .... by eyes that have not seen")[9], the Goliath, on the other hand, appears pristine against a cloudless sky. It is visible, obvious.

SPAD S.XIII from "Des yeux qui ne voient pas ... Les Avions" L'Esprit nouveau No. 9 (1921)
Farman F.40 from L'escadrille 44, France, 1916 (Source) (Note the horseshoes printed on the rear horizontal stabilizers: these also appear on the image in L'esprit nouveau)

This is not to say, however, that the aircraft appearing in "Des Yeux Qui Ne Voient Pas ...  Les Avions" or Vers une architecture were at the pinnacle of French aviation development. Much as the text rarely corroborates or references the images of aircraft, the vehicles themselves seem to have no relation to each other other than the fact that they are aircraft, and that many of their images are culled from publicity brochures and advertisements. Most are Maurice Farman designs. For example, the image on the title page of "Des Yeux Qui Ne Voient Pas" (reproduced in Vers une architecture) is a Farman F.40 from L'escadrille 44 flying a reconnaissance mission over Verdun sometime in 1916. By the time L'Esprit nouveau went to print, it was an airplane that had already been superseded by sleeker, faster, and bigger  models, including the Goliath. How interesting, then, that one of the aircraft that Le Corbusier chooses to present is a SPAD XIII, one of the most celebrated aircraft of the First World War.

In 1912, textile heir Armand Deperdussin founded the Société de Production des Aéroplanes Deperdussin. And with the help of aircraft designer and engineer Louis Béchereau, Deperdussin's company became famous for designing fast, single-engine monoplanes that became popular with foreign buyers. In 1913, Deperdussin became embroiled in a fraud scandal and was subsequently arrested and sentenced to trial. An external consortium of aviation experts appointed Béchereau as the head of Deperdussin's former company. The head of this consortium was none other than Louis Blériot, the very same pilot and aircraft designer who made the first crossing of the English Channel by plane in 1909. They renamed the company Société Pour L'Aviation et ses Dérivés, or SPAD. Under Béchereau's supervision, and just in time for the outbreak of the First World War, SPAD produced a series of agile, heavily armed biplanes, including the SPAD A-Series and the more successful S.VII. But it was the S.XIII, with its powerful 220-hp Hispano-Suiza engine, that became the one of the Allies' favored front-line fighters during the First World War. It was the very airplane that made French airmen Rene Fonck and Georges Guynemer, Italian pilot Franceso Baracca, and American aces Eddie Rickenbacker and Frank Luke famous.

The caption underneath the picture of the S.XIII in L'Esprit nouveau identifies it as a "SPAD XIII Blériot." This is because in 1918, Blériot had purchased all the assets in Béchereau's company and taken over the production line. The new company, now named Blériot-SPAD, continued producing aircraft using the SPAD brand until 1921. This means that the aircraft depicted in L'Esprit nouveau was not technically produced by Blériot-SPAD (production of the S.XIII halted in 1919). In other words, it is an archival image probably used to depict the history of Blériot-SPAD's production line. This perhaps explains the appearance of Bécherau's name (he had left the company after the war to establish, along with Adolphe Bernard, a new company, the Société des Avions Bernard). The image is therefore a testament to the designer's legacy, perhaps a suggestion that it was Bécherau, and nor Blériot, that had posed the so-called design problem well.

Louis Blérior prepares for his cross-channel flight on 25 July 1909 (Source)
The above materials, the ways in which they implicate Le Corbusier's interest in aircraft are well-known.  So are the methods used to articulate this interest. Archival images and photographs, period newspaper and magazine clippings from the early 1920's are scoured by scholars. The idea here is that the proper contextualization of Le Corbusier's work requires finding direct correlations between the process of writing and laying out L'Esprit nouveau and Vers une architecture. It is a way of acknowledging the perniciousness of intentional fallacy. In other words, although the work of an author is of primary importance, there still added value in acknowledging the importance of other work that Le Corbusier may have consulted.

But before we cast Blériot as the one who "had not seen," it is not only important to recall that this pioneering aviator was also an industrial designer, but also to recognize one of the central themes of this post. I am, of course, talking about seeing and not seeing—a distinction that invites another discussion as to the significance of the eye.[10] The idea of the disembodied eye is one that is indelibly woven into the fabric of modernity. Thus philosophy scholar Karsten Harries uses the term "Angelic Eye" to describe a "move to objectivity" to "defeat doubt."[11] This is, however, much more than a description of the commonly held view that objectivity and rationality are coextensive with modernity.[12] Historian Martin Jay points out, for example, that Harries is presenting a more complicated view, so to speak, one that considers how the disembodied eye "expressed the very human ability to see something from the point of view of the other."[13] This is a point of view that resonates well with one made earlier by Swiss literary critic Jean Starobinski in L'oeil vivant (The Living Eye) (1961). The subject of this book is the writer's eye, an eye with not only the capacity to see the world, its objects, and through its objects, but also with the ability to recognize its limits, to know when one cannot truly see.[14] Starobinski describes this tension between the desire to see everything and nothing in poetic terms: "One must refuse neither the vertigo of distance nor that of proximity; one must desire that double excess where the look is always near to losing all its powers."[15]

If Starobinski's task is to warn of the dangers of "le regard surplombant" ("the look from above"), then it follows that a slightly different vantage point is needed, one that modulates between distance and proximity. My charge here is to describe this process of seeing as somewhere between a close reading and a general history.  This entails recasting Starobisnki's idea of "le regard surplombant" as a medium-altitude scan. From this height, then, facts, events, texts, images become part of a larger fabric. And yet one of the benefits of observing from this height is that the fabric below appears as a much more fragmented surface. Subject to this medium-altitude scan—this bird’s-eye view of the bird’s-eye view, so to speak—the landscape below becomes a vexed object. No longer a smooth or continuous isotropic space, our subject is irregular, wrinkled, serrated. Actors, objects, histories shuttle in and out to complicate this vantage point.

Consider how this complicates the connection between Le Corbusier and Louis Blériot that introduced this post. Until now, our brief survey of this period of Le Corbusier's works involved a close reading of his sources. These are moments of diligence: images are traced to specific publications, which are alluded to in letters between Le Corbusier and others, which, in turn create a tight, interconnected skein of sources and texts  that give way to a historical picture. But now, moving a little higher to our medium-altitude vantage point, we note an additional series of texts and authors that, although not directly related to L'Esprit nouveau, are nevertheless instrumental to our understanding of it. And at this height, we can capitalize on the value of coincidence.

Top: Blériot ("PHI"-type?) dynamo; Bottom: Blériot dynamo placed on an engine flywheel (Source: Codd, Dynamo Lighting for Motor Cars [London: Spon, 1914])

Although he is more closely associated with developments in aviation, Blériot was also an important figure for automobile culture. And like many aircraft designers, he plied his trade in the design and manufacture of car parts before achieving fame as an aviator.[16] An issue of The Automobile from 1909—the very year that Blériot crossed the English Channel—announces his publishing of an airplane catalog  "in which aeroplanes are listed in a commercial basis."[17] The announcement also mentions that Blériot's factory, on 16 Rue Duret in Paris, also specializes in the manufacture of custom woodwork for aircraft framework. And as early as 1902, a small listing in an issue of L'Aérophile (a publication started in the 1890's by the Aéro-Club de France) tells its readers that Blériot, "known throughout the automotive world for his powerful acetylene headlights" has just built a flying machine in that very same factory.[18]

Blériot also became famous for designing the dynamos needed to power automobile headlights. Attached to an engine flywheel, the dynamo was a device that would generate the electricity needed to power a headlight thought constant, rapid revolutions. And in 1914, Mortimer Arthur Codd, a leading authority on the design of power components for automobiles, published a whole book devoted to the operation of headlights called Dynamo Lighting for Motor Cars. Codd surveys the entire European landscape of dynamo designers, and even devotes an entire section to Blériot's current dynamo, "modelled on the lines of a central station machine, its parts being of quite ordinary design and of considerable strength and robustness."[19] It is quite likely that the very dynamo presented in this pages a Blériot "PHI"-type design.

Advertisement for Blériot PHI-type dynamo, L'Aérophile, 15 October 1910

In 1910, Blériot published an ad in the pages of L'aérophile promoting this line of dynamos. The image is remarkable, even illuminating. It reads: "Une automobile sans dynamo 'PHI' c'est une visage sans yeux" ("A car without PHI dynamos is a face without eyes"). Underneath is a Modigliani-esque image, a stark, lean face carved out of the interplay between the blackness of the hair and brows and the whiteness of the skin.  Earrings shaped like the Greek lowercase "phi" appear in lieu of ears. And the eyes, as the title declares, are missing. The implication here, of course, is that your car's headlights will not work without a set of Blériot dynamos. But it is the use of the face that really calls attention to the suggestive nature of this image. This is not just supposed to remind us of the front view of a car; it calls attention to the fact that the eyes are missing.

Around the time that Ozenfant and Le Corbusier began to publish L'Esprit nouveau, they would have been familiar with an automobile's standard front-end light-and-radiator arrangements. When viewed as a front-end elevation, the front of the car would indeed have appeared as a face. Part of the reason for this particular style is that for dynamos to work properly and efficiently, they would have to be placed somewhere near the engine. This would require mounting headlight fairings as close as possible to the engine block: this proximity is what gives the front of the car its literal and figurative visage.

Drawings of radiator and front-end assemblies for automobiles (Source: The Autocar, 7 February 1912)

This idea was not unfamiliar to automobile culture, however. Automotive industry trade publications in the early twentieth century published schematics showing the latest designs by car and parts manufacturers. And when showcasing the various kinds of radiators, such publications would often have to depict the front end of a car without its headlights. They were, in essence, publishing faces without eyes. A 1912 issue of the British automobile trade publication The Autocar devoted a whole section to radiators. Displayed in alphabetical order, the images are familiar in the sense that they are perspective drawings of the front ends of cars. But the lack of headlights makes them, if not unfamiliar, disconcerting, as if something was wrong with these cars. In the "D" section, there even appears the front end assembly for a Delage automobile.

Top: front end of Delage automobile without headlights; Bottom: front view of Delage Grand-Sport from L'Esprit nouveau No. 10.

To get a sense of what a Delage would have looked like with its headlights mounted, one would only have to look through the pages of L'Esprit nouveau No. 10. And there, at the very end of an article named "Des Yeux Qui Ne Voient Pas ...  Les Autos" is a photograph of the front end of a Delage Grand-Sport automobile. Like the images of aircraft in No. 9, this image also appears in Vers une architecture. And there, too, the image of the Delage Grand-Sport is juxtaposed against a photograph of the Parthenon. Jean-Louis Cohen has observed how these two images demonstrate how "the eyes of an era were invited to accept a literally iconoclastic rapprochement between Greek temples and automobiles."[20] The reference to eyes and vision are, of course, wholly intentional. And here, the issue of proper vision is couched in terms of standardization. In other words, Le Corbusier uses cars as examples of properly-posed questions in the sense that they represent the pinnacle of a design process (i.e., a standard).[21] To go one step further, however, this sense of vision correction would also apply to the various components that make up a car. And though many of the photographs have a distinct emphasis on form, Le Corbusier alludes to the importance of standardized components when he writes in Toward an Architecture that "All automobiles are essentially organized the same way."[22]

Such talk of organization invites a larger discussion about the role of the historian and critic in sifting through these materials. Consider this moment from Henry Adams' "The Dynamo and the Virgin," his mediation on the significance of the dynamo exhibit at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris:
Historians undertake to arrange sequences,—called stories, or histories—assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about.[23] 
Briefly acknowledging that Adams is here writing under the spell of dynamos, it is nevertheless important to recognize that the very process that he is describing here is not unlike what Le Corbusier was doing while assembling the materials for L'Esprit nouveau and Vers une architecture. It is a description of organization, of a process that also recalls the kind of archival and interpretative heavy-lifting normally associated to historians. Yet the very sense of doubt that Adams alludes to here—doubt in historical and critical methods—should not be overlooked. It seems that the only recourse would be to remember the significance of the eye. And here, I am not talking so much about the eye that reads things closely. Nor am I referring to Starobinski's "view from above"—the eye that reads objectively. The eye I am talking to is neither subjective nor objective, but synthetic. It hovers somewhere above, not too high nor too low, and allows us to piece things together that do not necessarily correlate. Because from this vantage point, we are afforded the luxury to question those things that we look at, to invert and re-invert the relationships they have with other objects, institutions, and histories. To cast something not only as a car without headlights, but as a face without eyes.



[1] Le Corbusier, Aircraft (London: The Studio, Ltd., 1935), 6.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] For his various articles in L'Esprit nouveau, Le Corbusier signed his name as "Le Corbusier-Saugnier."
[5] Jean-Louis Cohen, introduction to Toward an Architecture, by Le Corbusier, John Goodman, trans. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute Publications, 2007), 13.  For more on Le Corbusier's attitudes to poetry, see Francesco Passanti, "The Vernacular, Modernism, and Le Corbusier" Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), 447.
[6] Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, p. 156.
[7] For more about Le Corbusier's inventory of industrial objects within the pages of L'Esprit nouveau, see Beatriz Colomina, "Le Corbusier and Duchamp: The Uneasy Status of the Object" in Taisto H. Mäkelä and Wallis Miller, eds. Wars of Classification: Architecture and Modernity (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991), 37-62.  A version of this essay, with more illustrations, appears in Colomina, "L'Esprit Nouveau: Architecture and Publicité,"in Colomina, et al. ed. Architectureproduction, Revisions 2 (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1988), 56-99.  An analysis of Le Corbusier's interest in automobiles in relation to futurism can be found in Tim Benton, "Dreams of Machines: Futurism and l'Esprit Nouveau," Journal of Design History, Vol. 3, No. 1(1990), 19-34.
[8] I am, of course, summarizing here.  To better understand the intellectual milieu surrounding the idea of "Des Yeux Qui Ne Voient Pas," see Cohen's introduction to Vers une architecture, especially pp. 13-17.
[9] Le Corbusier-Saugnier, "Des Yeux Qui Ne Voient Pas ... Les Avions" L'esprit nouveau No. 9 (1921), 986.
[10] I began this discussion with my post on atemporality in the work of Reyner Banham, Albrecht Dürer, L.B. Alberti, and Herbert Bayer in Story of an Eye (and Another Eye, and Yet Another Eye) (posted to this is a456 on 19 March 2010).
[11] Karsten Harries, "Descartes, Perspective, and the Angelic Eye, " Yale French Studies, No. 49, Science, Language, and the Perspective Mind: Studies in Literature and Thought from Campanella to Bayles (1973), 32.
[12] For one of the most articulate and most recent rejections of this view, see Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Catherine Porter, trans. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993); Peter Galison, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).  For an expert dissection of Galison's idea of the "mesoscopic view," check out "Traditions of Practice: Mesoscopy, Materiality, and Intercalation", from the excellent history and historiography of science blog, Ether Wave Propaganda.
[13] Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 81, n. 187.
[14] Here I am paraphrasing Wallace Fowlie's review of the English translation of Starobinski's The Living Eye.  See Fowlie, "Sight and Insight," The Sewanee Review, Vol. 97, No. 4 (Fall, 1989), cxx-cxxii.
[15] Jean Starobinski, L'oeil vivant: Essais (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), quoted in Ibid., p. 20.
[16] For more on this trend, see Herrick Chapman, State Capitalism and Working-Class Radicalism in the French Aircraft Industry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
[17] Anon. "Recent Trade Publications" The Automobile, Vol. 21, No. 22 (25 November 1909), 941.
[18] Anon. L'Aérophile: revue pratique le la locomotion aérienne, No. 11 (Nov., 1902), 292: "Nous apprenons que M. Louis Blériot, l'ingénieur bien connu du monde de 1'automobile par ses puissants phares à l'acétylène, construit dans ses ateliers de la rue Duret une machine volante qu'il compte expérimenter sous peu."
[19] Mortimer Arthur Codd, Dynamo Lighting for Motor Cars (London: E. & F.N. Spon, 1914), 61.
[20] Cohen, introduction to Toward an Architecture, 17.
[21] I am also being reductive here.  For more information on standards and standardization, see Cohen's discussion of how Le Corbusier used the German word standart to describe this process in Ibid.
[22] Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, 182.
[23] Henry Adams, "The Dynamo and the Virgin" in The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1918), 382.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Figures of Involvement

Minutemen (L to R: d. boon, George  Hurley, Mike Watt) at the 1984 Los Angeles Street Scene (photo by Eric Stringer) (Source).

While we are on the topic of statistics [1], I only need to remind you of a song verse. It goes something like this:
Let's say I got a number. That number's fifty thousand. That's 10% of 500,000.   Oh here we are in French Indochina.  Executive order. Congressional decision. The working masses are manipulated. “Was this our policy?” Ten long years — not one dominoe shall fall.
Some of you will recognize these as the lyrics to “Viet Nam,” from the Minutemen’s ground-breaking Double Nickels on the Dime (1984).  Released by SST Records the very same year as Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on the Dime was a blast of jazz-funk-inflected agitprop that continues to be recognized as one of the most important rock albums of the late 20th century, if not all time.  Combining guitarist d. boon’s slinky, trebly guitar parts, Mike Watt’s muscular and melodic bass playing, and George Hurley’s acrobatic drumming, the Minutemen did much more than just create the definitive sound of America’s music underground during the early 1980s.  They created a template for punk rock’s labors by setting a minimum threshold for band membership and songwriting.  Guitar.  Bass.  Drums.  That was all that was needed to write songs.  With hardly a guitar solo, and with tight compositions that made the most of the band lineup and instrumentation, Minutemen albums were, sonically-speaking, lean affairs.

Top: What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982) (Featuring cover art by Raymond Pettibon).  Bottom: Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)

But that’s only part of it.  Not only could the Minutemen play songs better than most (they were all incredible musicians), but by the time your shitty band finished a song, boon, Watt, and Hurley already played four or five.  This was the Minutemen equation: don’t just play better music, but play more music.  The result was a head spinning catalog of music where almost all songs clocked in somewhere between 45 seconds to 2 minutes.  Listen to a Minutemen album, and suddenly the idea of diminishing returns is turned on its head.  Each musical volley leaves you wanting more and more.

Here is some statistical evidence.  Their first full-length, The Punch Line (1981), contained 18 songs.  The longest track from the album, “Tension,” clocked in at 1:20.  The shortest, “Fanatics,” at 0:31.  The album’s total run time is only 15:00, which, by my math, is over 5 minutes shorter than Rush’s epic “2112” (which is somewhere around 20:33).  The Minutemen’s second album, What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982) also had 18 songs but ran at a slightly longer 26:39.  The 8 songs from Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence of Heat (1983) could technically qualify their third studio recording as an EP, but it was marketed by SST as a full-length LP (its run time was 15:30).  These songs tended to be longer affairs, a trend that would continue with Double Nickels on The Dime (43 tracks, with a 73:35 running length).  Their last album, 3-Way Tie (For Last) (1985) featured their one of their longest songs, a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’sThe Red and The Black” (4:09).  With 16 songs, its run time is 36:11.  Here’s the final tally: 5 albums; 103 songs; and 4 hours, 16 minutes’ worth of recording time.

But back to “Viet Nam.”  The song is a furious, nervous exchange of ascending and descending figures between bass and guitar (a popped bass note marking the transition between each phrase).  Underneath all this, Hurley begins with a crescendo/decrescendo of drum rolls, eventually sliding into a crisp, brillant, breakneck high-hat motif.  The drumming only hints at something that is not-quite-disco, not-quite-funk.  But whatever it is, it is thrilling and propels the song forward like a cannonball, its concussion rattling your tympanum, your brainstem, until something gives, and the very thing within you that resists the urge to get down suddenly, beautifully, gives way.

Detail to back of gatefold sleeve for Double Nickels on the Dime (1984), "Viet Nam" begins on the second line
(Photograph by Francisco Ramirez)

The excerpt that introduced this piece contains all of the lyrics to the song.  It is the song “as heard.”  However, if one were to peer at the back of Double Nickels’ gatefold sleeve and look at the lyrics to “Viet Nam,” one would see this:
Let's say I got a number. That number's fifty thousand. That's 10% of 500,000.  These are the figures of our involvement in French Indochina.  Executive order. Congressional decision. The working masses are manipulated. “Was this our policy?” Ten long years — not one dominoe shall fall.
The difference here, of course, is that the lyrics as written refer to the statistical number as “figures of involvement.”  Never sung in the recording, yet part of the original song, this small clause points to the political nature of much of the Minutemen’s work.  The name "Viet Nam" suggests that this was a song protesting American foreign policy, and if you were—like d. boon, Mike Watt, and George Hurley—in the business of politically-oriented punk music, you would probably be writing songs about the Vietnam war as well as American involvement in Nicaragua or El Salvador (for example, cue the first track, second side, second album of Double Nickels, “Untitled Song for Latin America”).  As Michael Azerrad points out in his definitive Our Band Could Be Your Life (2001), "America was in a catatonic state through the Eighties, and the Minutemen's music—all angular starts and stops, challenging lyrics, and blink-and-you-missed-'em songs—was a metaphor for the kind of alertness needed to fight back against the encroaching mediocrity"[2].

Rear to gatefold sleeve for Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) (Photograph by Francisco Ramirez)

In addition to their music, their look, and their ethos, the Minutemen used their catalog to communicate their message in unique ways.  Along with “Viet Nam,” all of the lyrics to Double Nickels on The Dime—in fact, all Minutemen albums—fit in a compressed space, covering only up to 20% of an LP's 144 square inches of graphic design real estate.  Although this layout reflects the band’s brand of short, urgent songs, it is nevertheless visually compelling.  This is because when printed, the lyrics do not look like lyrics; that is, they are not presented as poem-like verse.  Instead, all lyrics on a Minutemen album  are displayed as a single block of unjustified type, with the titles of songs (usually in italics, bold, or both italic and bold typefaces) separating the songs.  The lyrics to a single song are therefore printed to appear as a single sentence with hardly any punctuation.  The effect is twofold.  On the one hand, the seemingly unconnected song lyrics become part of a single stream-of-consciousness rant.  On the other hand, they mimic the actual listening of the recording.  You can’t just pick up at one point only to go to another.  You read the lyrics in the way you listen to the recording: from beginning to end.

Top: rear sleeve to What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982), also featuring artwork by Pettibon.  Bottom: detail of sleeve (Photographs by Francisco Ramirez)

Such presentation of lyrics rings quite familiar in this day of Facebook status messages and clipped 140-character Twitter bursts.  To be tapped into the constellation of social networking sites requires one to be clipped and to the point.  It is as if one's online existence is reduced to short sentences and paragraphs.  This kind of practice has a visual component: strange as it may seem, you only know if a person has updated their status or Twitter stream when a new sentence, phrase, or clause appear.  Your existence in ætherized, online space is mediated by episodes of smallness: short messages, blips, utterances comprised of few characters that announce your presence to the world.

Top: book of poems by Charlotte, Emily, and Branwell Brontë measuring 2 3/4in x 1 1/2 in (Source).  Bottom: excerpt from Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, The Secret (1833) (with accompanying ruler for scale) (Source)

Robert Walser, "A Will To Shake That Refined Individual," Microscript 215 (Source)

This kind of economy by virtue of size has some important precedents, to be sure.  Emily and Charlotte Brontë (along with their brother, Branwell) wrote miniaturized “books” that were large enough to be held by dolls and often included their own maps and illustrations.  Robert Walser composed thousands of cryptic “microscripts” on the backs of business cards, book covers, and other found paper objects using a special alphabet that was only millimeters high.  For the Minutemen, however, their economy of size was inversely proportional to the influence of their output.  Their shortened songs (with shortened lyrics) amounted to a music that was easily consumed and that delivered a maximum wallop.  The visual presentation of their lyrics in condensed blocks of text was a vital part of this strategy. 



[1] An edited version of this piece appeared in Junk Jet 4, the "Statistics-of-Mystics" issue.  A big "thank you" goes to Asli Serbest and Mona Mahall for letting me publish a version of this piece in their wonderful, offbeat "jetzine."
[2] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), 71. (Note: this book's name is a reference to "History Lesson, Pt. 2," from Double Nickels on the Dime).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Volume to Space

Olivier Messiaen in Bryce Canyon, Utah, 1971 (Source)

More remains to be said about the relationship of music criticism to architecture criticism. Or put another way, music criticism should be considered as a kind of architecture criticism. This is not to say that the two realms have been far apart. Far from it. In fact, books like Mark Treib's Space Calculated in Seconds (1996), Robin Evans' essay "Comic Lines" from his posthumous The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries (1995), or even more deeply historical works such as Emily Thompson's The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (2002) all consider, to a certain extent, a spectrum of relationships between music and architecture.  These relationships are both literal and figurative. As Treib's and Evans' work shows, the relationship between Le Corbusier, Iannis Xenakis, and Edgard Varèse went beyond physical artefacts such as the Phillips Pavilion (1958), but also extended to design methods as well. And as Thompson expertly demonstrated in her influential book, the history of architectural modernism could be understood through acoustical technologies.

There is still more work to be done. Take, for instance, the role that the trip to the desert has played in the late 20th century. From Robert Venturi's, Denise Scott Brown's, and Steven Izenour's Learning From Las Vegas (1972), to Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), to Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto) (1965), and even, to a certain extent, David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the desert has become a place of reinvention and a site of reinvigoration. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has even given the desert an architectural significance of sorts. "What attracts the stranger to the city is what makes the city and desert alike," he writes. "In both, there is just the the present, united by the past, a present that may be lived as the beginning, and a secure beginning, a beginning that does not threaten to solidify into a consequence ... In the city as in the desert, the stranger, the wanderer, the nomad, the flâneur finds reprieve from time."[1] And yet this timelessness operates on a musical register as well. Thus in his preface to The Rest is Noise (2007), critic Alex Ross describes the effect of atonal music on 20th century audiences, noting how something noisy and disorienting can be "so singularly beautiful that people gast in wonder when they hear it. Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, with its grandly singing lines and gently ringing chords, stops time with every performance."[2]

Cover to a CBS recording of Des canyons aux étoiles ... featuring an image of Bryce Canyon.

The reference to Messiaen is very apposite, as the French composer created one of the most important desert-related works in recent memory. In 1971, philanthropist Alice Tully commissioned Messiaen to compose a piece for the upcoming U.S. bicentennial. To prepare, he took a research trip out west to Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah to study the various birds and landscape colors there. Messiaen, who had bi-directional sound-color synaesthesia, created a system for correlating the colors of the landscape, the local species of birds, and various sounds. Music historian Jonathan Bernard recognized the importance of Messiaen's ailment:
His synaesthesia, like the true form of the phenomenon in any affected individual, is involuntary, the pairings of colors and sounds out of his control. What Messiaen has managed to do, however, is to find the particular sound combinations that will give rise to an extremely wide and variegated range of color responses, an accomplishment which affords him the ability to paint, as it were, in sound what is visible. It is difficult to know for sure whether this reverse aspect of Messiaen's synaesthesia—that is, visible transmuted into audible rather than the other way around—is also involuntary or simply a well-oiled habit, but the fact is that he can do it, with significant impact on his creative output.[3]
The result of the desert trip was Messiaen's most important work, the massive, 100-minute Des canyons aux étoiles... (From the Canyons to the Stars...) (1971-4). Arranged into twelve movements, many named after a specific bird, Messiaen's piece is a combination of conventional and unusual instrumentation. Stringed and brass instruments are paired along whips, wind machines, sheets of metal, and even a geophone (an instrument of Messiaen's own invention), the end result being the evocation of a particular landscape unmoored in time. Oliver Knussen, who published a review in 1976 of the very first performance of Messiaen's magnum opus cannot but help bring in spatial and architectural observations:
It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to encounter a relatively intimate and genial work, employing an orchestra that is by Messiaen's standards modest … This restraint was no doubt conditioned to some extent by the dimensions of Alice Tully Hall in New York, where the work was premièred. This hall is one of the most beautiful and warmly resonant that the present writer has experiences: a fact worth bearing in mind while listening to Canyons in the dryish acoustic of the Festival Hall, where the imagination had to supply some of the inscapes of reverberation which Messiaen characteristically takes into account.[4]
The review continues with its hints of architectural and spatial orientations. Movements are "polychrome edifices."[5] Each places "things next to another in horizontal juxtaposition."[6] It may not be fair to impart the author with an architectural understanding of Messiaen's work, yet the connection remains useful as it points to other realms in which architecture and music collide.

More analogies could thus be made of the various instrumentalities shared by architecture and music criticism. In addition to analyses of forms and structures, of shapes and compositions, there is always volume. Volume is an important concept to architectural modernism. And yet the conflation and confusion of something tangible like mass with something intangible like volume yields productive observations. A key point of reference here is Frederick Etchell's famous mistranslation of "volume" into "mass" in his 1927 version of Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture (1923).[7] Another would be the fact that the term "volume" has another set of spatial connotations that have to do with just more than form. Erwin Panofsky famously described Renaissance perspectival techniques as the transformation of "psychophysiological space to mathematical space"—a transformation resulting in a view of space as a "quantum continuum."[8] And later, in "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures," he described the combination of sound, movement, and image in film as both a "dynamization of space" and a "spatialization of time."[9] When combined, these two observations lead to an idea of space as something defined by the presence and movement of light and matter. In other words, it is a framework that could be understood as a way for sound to create and define space. Sound emantes from a source, and waves shape and define the space and objects in the same way that radar or sonar use wave phenomena to "paint" a picture. Volume, in its musical sense, can refer to either the quality of a sound or to its combined strength, power and mass. And yet volume is not only a way of describing three dimensions, but it is also a way of describing how sound travels in three dimensions.

Consider, for a moment, the sonic call-to-arms "MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS." It is an equation of sorts, a seemingly pithy grouping of words featured on all of Sunn O)))'s albums. Comprised of Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, this Los Angeles-based outfit specializes in a blend of low-frequency bass and guitar feedback drone combined with a sometimes-baroque sensibility—it almost goes without saying, but this is some very loud music.

1969 ad depicting Sunn Orion amplifiers (note logo at bottom left)

Schematics depicting location of Sunn O)))'s gear

Volume is a product of the band's massive array of Sunn and Ampeg amplifiers and cabinets. The band's logo, which references Sunn's own logo, shows an eye-like "O" emanating unidirectional waves. And yet a 2005 schematic published for the band's European tour hints at another dimension of architectural-ness. Note the placement of the various cabinets and amplifiers. Here is something of a sonic equivalent to Ludwig Hilberseimer's Hochhausstadt (1924), obsidian-like rectangular forms distributed across an empty, isotropic expanse. Or, squint your eyes a little bit, and there is a passing resemblance to Le Corbusier's drawing of Buenos Aires from the River Plate, an negative image where fields and black and  white are confused for one another.

Ludwig Hilberseimer, Drawing of a Hochhausstadt, from Groszstadtarchitektur (1924)

Le Corbusier, drawing of the Voisin Plan of Paris in Buenos Aires, from Precisions (1930)

[1] Zygmunt Bauman, "Desert Solitaire" in Keith Tester, The Flâneur (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 140.
[2] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Picador, 2007), xvi.
[3] Jonathan W. Bernard, "Messiaen's Synaesthesia: The Correspondence between Color and Sound Structure in His Music" Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Fall, 1986), p. 44.
[4] Oliver Knussen, Review: Messiaen's 'Des Canyons aux Etoiles...' Tempo, New Series, No. 116 (Mar., 1976), p. 39.
[5] Ibid., p. 40.
[6] Ibid., p. 41.
[7] For more on the mistranslation of Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture, see Jean-Louis Cohen's introduction to Toward an Architecture, John Goodman, trans. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute Publications, 2007), pp. 1-82.
[8] Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, Christopher Wood, trans. (New York: Zone Books, 1997), p. 31.
[9] Panofsky, "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures," in Irving Lavin ed. Three Essays on Style (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1997), p. 96.