Tuesday, June 29, 2010

An Ithaca of Sorts

S.S. Albert Ballin (1923)

And then, that hour the star rose up,
The clearest, brightest star, that always heralds
The newborn light of day, the deep-sea-going ship
Made landfall on the island … Ithaca, at last.
     -- Homer,  Odyssey 13.105-108 [1]

Gegen Mittag Land in Sicht. Lange flache weiße Strandlinien. Blaues, unglaublich
frisches Meer.
     -- Erich Mendelsohn, on board the S.S. Deutschland, 11 October 1924 [2]

HAPAG (Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft), the German shipping company that inaugurated the famous and profitable Hamburg Amerika steamship service at the beginning of the 20th century, launched four of the most luxurious passenger ships ever built during the early 1920s. One of these, the “palatial twin screw oil burning” S.S. Albert Ballin weighed in tare at a modest 21,000 gross tons.  It was not the largest of vessels. Measuring over 600 feet from bow to stern, the ship was 200 hundred feet shorter than the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic. Yet the Albert Ballin featured comforts otherwise unknown in seagoing passenger vessels after the First World War: spacious first-class berths, sumptuous dining halls, a modern gymnasium, private writing rooms, and even an innovative “anti-rolling” mechanism insuring “the greatest degree of steadiness in all weather conditions.” The vessel resumed HAPAG’s famous “de-Luxe” service across the North Atlantic, making frequent voyages from Germany to New York via Southhampton, England. Along with the Albert Ballin, HAPAG’s other new passenger ships, the Hamburg, and Resolute, and the S.S. Deutschland all carried thousands of passengers on the profitable Atlantic crossings.

 S.S. Deutschland (1923)

Hamburg Amerika vessels served with distinction during the interwar years, some meeting odd, nefarious ends. In 1935, for example, the German Navy, or Kriegsmarine, rechristened the Albert Ballin as the S.S. Hansa.  Like Walther Rathenau, the founder of Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (A.E.G.) electrical equipment company, Ballin was a prominent Jewish businessman eventually disgraced by the Third Reich—the renaming of his vessel with a Germanic moniker was a symbolically- and politically-charged act. The Deutschland, on the other hand, met a much more sordid fate. In 1940, the Kriegsmarine assigned the Deutschland to the German-occupied port of Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on the Polish Baltic coast. The port was not only turned into a naval base in 1943, but it also became an important point for the transfer of prisoners to a nearby concentration camp, also called Gotenhafen. In 1945, the German navy used the Deutschland to transfer over 70,000 refugees seeking protection from the advancing Red Army.

The Deutschland no doubt reminds us of war’s own exigent circumstances and countless tragedies. Yet the vessel’s strange relationship with the Second World War begins sometime around 1924, when the Deutschland was only beginning its heralded transatlantic service. Indeed, a passenger standing on its teak decks, gripping the side railings as the ship lumbered into New York harbor, might not be able to see very far into the future, to witness the smoldering ruin of Europe during the 1940s. Even Hamburg, home to the Blohm und Voss shipyards that gave birth to the Deutschland, would be laid waste by the Royal Air Force’s devastating firebomb raids in the Spring of 1943.

 "This is the foil for the flaming scripts, the rocket fire of moving illuminating ads, emerging and submerging, disappearing and breaking out again over the thousands of autos and the maelstrom of pleasureseeking people."  Fritz Lang, Photograph of Broadway (1924) (Caption by Mendelsohn, photo republished in Mendelsohn's Amerika)

This voyage away from home was nevertheless a formative experience for two passengers. Aboard the Deutschland’s deck, Fritz Lang would have seen a massing of medium-height buildings, crowning the very spit of land forming Manhattan’s own prow, with the Brooklyn Bridge’s iron tendrils reaching across the grey waters for nearby land.  Lang’s first visit to New York resulted in a series of photographs that inspired those very dystopic urban visions forever associated with Metropolis (1927). In one of these, a night scene on Broadway, lighted Coca-Cola and Dairylea billboards leave incandescent traces across the celluloid. It as if Lang were momentarily disoriented, moving too rapidly, avoiding the onslaught of artificial light while keeping the camera aperture open. This light inscribes everything as a double-image, anticipating the scene in Metropolis when the technocrat Johann Fredersen stares outside his own office at the frenzied city lights flickering faster and faster: a vision of a city in disrepair.

Lang’s photograph would eventually make its way onto the pages of Erich Mendelsohn’s Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten (1926).  Mendelsohn, who was not only a passenger aboard the Deutschland, but who also toured New York with Lang, processed his own ideas about the American metropolis differently. Whereas Lang found inspiration in this trip for his upcoming films, Mendelsohn was overtly caustic in his appraisals. He did admire much of the industrial architecture we saw during his travels in the United States, but was nevertheless struck by the abject moral bankruptcy that such buildings represented. The text accompanying the photographs in Amerika is pithy and biting.  Indeed, in the very opening chapter to the book, called “Typical American Traits”[3], a picture of Manhattan from the sea inspired Mendelsohn to describe the city as the “Port of the world.  Announcer of the new country, of liberty and the unmeasurable wealth behind it”.[4]

This first visit to the United States had a powerful impact on Mendelsohn’s subsequent work. The photographs of skyscrapers, industrial structures, and city streets gracing the pages of Amerika are portentous. If, for Le Corbusier, the aerial view is totalizing in its ability to indict urbanism’s own failures, then for Mendelsohn, the Sheeler-like views from below opt for something else. In the preface to Amerika, the architect declares that “America demands nothing of our love, but wants to be treated by us as unemotionally as we are treated by her. In architecture this country supplies everything: the worst of Europe’s refuse, deformed offspring of civilization, but she also gives hope of a new world.”[5]

Mendelsohn’s own captions reinforce this totalizing conception of architecture, its ability to encapsulate everything. In the introduction to Amerika, Mendelsohn noted “For what we generally characterize today as ‘typically American’ is a caricature of the European mother countries of Americans.”[6] Yet Mendelsohn finessed the idea of typicality by suggesting that a single American city was a synecdoche for a larger swath of European cities. Describing New York to his wife Louise in a 1924 letter, Mendelsohn declares that the towering spires of the Woolworth Building stand for something else, something greater: “That is not a city in the European sense, that is the whole world, in a pot”.[7]

Consider Homer’s Odyssey, the very first travel monologue, a record of a personal Diaspora. Signs of a wholly modern predicament unfurl from the poem’s hexameter strains: tensions between personal and national identity, crises of faith, geographic dislocation by virtue of armed conflict. And in 1922, only two years prior to Mendelsohn’s departure for New York, James Joyce published his very own paean to Odysseus' travels.  Ulysses, Joyce’s contemporary retelling of Homer’s work features these very same elements. The novel’s main protagonist, Leopold Bloom ( Leopold Virag) is distanced from his very own personal Ithaca. Within the urban fabric of post-Easter Rebellion Dublin, Bloom wanders, questioning his own religion, Irishness, matrimonial loyalty, and history. In the novel’s penultimate Ithaca chapter, before the storied return to home and hearth, father and son, Leopold Bloom’s Odysseus to Stephen Dedalus’ Telemachos, levitate into the firmament, seeing the planet below in its own totality, their very own world, literally, in a pot.  The implication could very well be that return is conditioned only on the greatest possible distance away from home. For Odysseus, it was an endless sea voyage; for Bloom, a voyage into (literal) outer space. And yet such wanderings are preceded by unparalleled tragedy. Odysseus travels began the moment the Trojan Wars ended, as the fiery hulk of Troy sat on its searing plain. Mendelsohn’s own exile coincides with the incipient Nazi regime’s promise of war during the 1930s. When aboard the deck of the Deutschland in 1924, even if he could have seen the vessel’s own twisted and mangled hulk at the bottom of the Bay of Lübeck in the near future, he might not have been able to recognize its significance of such a portent. Not yet.

Wave crashing on the deck of the S.S. Deutschland (date unknown)

Upon his return to Germany, Mendelsohn experienced pendulum shifts between commercial success and dismal failure. Indeed, the years between 1924 and 1933 were very fruitful for the architect. In addition to his expressionist fantasy, the Einsteinturm in Potsdam, Mendelsohn also finished some of his most significant and memorable works. His Schocken department stores in Nuremberg, Chemnitz, and Stuttgart all featured his signature curvilinear facades. Unlike these buildings, his domestic projects were all flat-roofed cubic compositions. In 1936, however, after Adolf Hitler’s election as Reichschancellor, and eager to escape incipient anti-Semitism in Germany, Mendelsohn moved to England. He became a British citizen, dropped the “h” from his name and entered into a partnership with Serge Chermayeff. Though their working relationship may have been contentious, the two designed one of the first welded steelframe buildings, the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea.  Impoverished, with seized assets, and excluded from German Architects’ Union, Mendelsohn turned to his good friend, Chaim Weizmann, who helped the struggling architect open an office in Jerusalem in 1940.

Mendelsohn’s Palestinian projects mark a different stage of his creative trajectory. Gone are the dynamically expressive forms of the Einstein Tower. Here, the volumetric explorations of the Hat Factory at Luckenwald are replaced with a much more sober, staid style. Buildings such as the Hadassah-Hebrew University medical complex in Jerusalem or the Anglo-Palestine Bank have a decidedly regional influence: built of white stone with domes and brises-soleil, these structures not only reference the sun of this part of the world, but the nearby Arab architectures that so fascinated Mendelsohn. Though the architect desired to build all of Palestine, he had few projects before his eventual move to the United States in 1941.

Working out of offices in New York and California, and while on the lecture circuit, Mendelsohn again evoked the same images of fire that he saw in Lang’s photographs of Broadway. He abandoned the subtler criticism underlying these earlier images, instead prophesizing a fiery vision of a war, a conflict whose winds would cause uncontrollable conflagrations and “strike dead the past and all who ride with it.”[8]  An eerie premonition indeed, for only a couple of years later, working as a consultant for the United States Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) and Standard Oil Development Company, Mendelsohn would be instrumental in helping the United States Army Air Force perfect the dark business of firebombing.

 Erich Mendelsohn, Konrad Wachsmann, and Antonin Raymond, "Typical German and Japanese Test Structures" (Built, Rebuilt and Destroyed, 1943-1944) Dugway Proving Ground, Tooele County, Utah (Source)

In 1943, the CWS and Standard Oil entrusted Mendelsohn with describing how a singular building could represent the whole of the German world “in a pot.” The goal of this project was the design and construction of a series of “Typical German Test Structures” – replicas of apartment housing blocks in major German industrial-residential areas. These structures not only faithfully replicated the interiors and exteriors of buildings in major German cities, but they were the result of a concentrated and directed program of research spearheaded by Mendelsohn and Konrad Wachsmann. This project marked the end of a tedious and controversial program inaugurated by the National Defense Research Committee in 1942 for the design and development of incendiary munitions, culminating in the creation of the M69 napalm-based incendiary bomb.[9]

 Test of M69 bomb on Mendelsohn's and Wachsmann's "German Village" (1943) (Source)

Writing from Jerusalem in 1935, Mendelsohn summed up his work to his wife: “I am drawing up plans, I am alive. I am building for the country and rebuilding myself. Here I am both a peasant and an artist – instinct and intellect – animal and human being.”[10]  The tone is optimistic, reflective. Perhaps Mendelsohn did not characterize his working in Palestine as a part of an exile. For him, it was a return to a religious and ancestral home, only short-lived by his inability to get a city planning commission.  He realized that emigration to the United States would bring necessary professional and pecuniary benefits.

Mendelsohn would never go back to Germany. In his offices at Croton-on-Hudson, New York and San Francisco, California, the architect would design the very artifacts documenting an exile without return. Away from Palestine, half-blind and with failing health, Mendelsohn completed designs for synagogues, community centers: all evocative of his wish to create architectures of faith. And only several years before he completed these projects, a War Department consultant eager for work, Mendelsohn would return home. Not to Palestine, but Germany. His last act as a German architect would be to recreate his own Ithaca, home and hearth, in the alkali flats of Tooele County, Utah.

 S.S. Cap Arcona, shortly after launch (top), and after attack on 26 April 1945 (bottom)

The very vessel that inaugurated Mendelsohn’s own travels met a fate similar to that of the "Typical German Test Structure" built in Utah and many Northern and Central European cities from 1943 onwards. In early 1945, back from service at Gotenhafen, the Kriegsmarine retrofitted the Deutschland as a hospital vessel.  On 26 April 1945, a little more than a week before Germany’s unconditional surrender, the Deutschland, along with the S.S. Cap Arcona, and the smaller Athen and Thielbek, were part of an orchestrated effort to transfer prisoners from the nearby concentration camps at Neuengamme and Mittelbau-Dora to neutral Sweden from the Bay of Lübeck. Due to a shortage of white paint, only some of the vessels could be marked with proper hospital markings. And later that day, acting on uncorroborated intelligence reports that a naval attack on Norway was commencing, fighter-bombers from the Royal Air Force’s Second Tactical Squadron, 83 Group, attacked the flotilla from the northwest with rockets and bombs. After listing helplessly in the frigid waters, the Cap Arcona, Thielbek, Athen and Deutschland all burned and sank to the bottom of the bay. Survivors who managed to swim back to land were promptly executed by SS guards. 7,000 refugees were killed.



[1] Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fagles, trans. (New York; Penguin, 1999): 289.
[2] Erich Mendelsohn to Louise Mendelsohn, 1924 in Oskar Beyer, ed., Erich Mendelsohn: Breife eines Architekten (München: Prestel Verlag, 1961): 60.
[3] “Das Typisch Amerikanische”
[4] “Hafen der Welt. Verkünder des neuen Landes, der Freiheit und des hinter ihr liegenden unermeßlichen Reichturms.” Erich Mendelsohn, Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten (Berlin: Rudolf Mosse Verlag, 1928): 12. Compare a more recent version of the book, where the same passage is translated as “Port of the world. Announcer of the new country, of liberty and what lies behind it: measureless wealth, the most reckless exploitation, gold seekers and world domination.” Stanley Appelbaum, trans., Erich Mendelsohn’s “Amerika”: 82 Photographs (New York: Dover Publications, 1993): 1.
[5] Louise Mendelsohn to Bruno Zevi, in Zevi, Erich Mendelsohn: The Complete Works (Boston: Birkhauser Verlag, 1997): 80-81.
[6] Appelbaum, trans., Erich Mendelsohn’s “America”, p xi.
[7] “Das ist keine Stadt im europäischen Sinn, das ist die Welt, ganz, in einem Topf.” Erich Mendelsohn to Louise Mendelsohn, October 16, 1924, in Erich Mendelsohn: Breife eines Architekten (München: Prestel Verlag, 1961): 61.
[8] Erich Mendelsohn to William Bruck, quoted in Tom Vanderbilt, Survival City: Adventures Along the Ruins of Atomic America (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002): 73.
[9] For more information about the design and development of the M69 incendiary bomb, see Louis F. Fieser. The Scientific Method: A Personal Account of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace (New York: Reinhold, 1964), Chemical Corps Association, The Chemical Warfare Service in World War II: A Report of Accomplishments (New York: Reinhold, 1948), and Charles Sterling Popple, Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) in World War II (New Jersey: Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, 1952). Materials regarding the results of the M69 trials at Dugway Proving Ground are located at the National Archives: ETF 550 E-2844: Military Intelligence Division, Great Britain – “Dropping Trials of Incendiary Bombs against Representative Structures at Dugway, USA, October 12, 1943”, Edgewood Arsenal Technical Files Relating to Foreign Chemical Radiological, and Biological Warfare Retired to the Defense Intelligence Agency for Reference Purposes (Entry 1-B), Records of the Defense Intelligence Agency (Record Group 373), and ETF 550 E-2844: Military Intelligence Division, Great
Britain, IBTP/Report/128, “Comparison of the Japanese Targets and Test Results at the Building Research Station, Edgewood Arsenal and Dugway Proving Ground, H.M. Llewellyn, M.A. London”, Report No. R3583-45, June 29, 1945, Edgewood Arsenal Technical Files Relating to Foreign Chemical Radiological, and Biological Warfare Retired to the Defense Intelligence Agency for Reference Purposes (Entry 1-B), Records of the Defense Intelligence Agency (Record Group 373).

[10] Erich Mendelsohn to Louise Mendelsohn, 1935, quoted in Zevi, p. 234.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Two-Dimensional Realism

Photograph of Mordecai Gorelik's stage design for Charles Bickford's stage adaptation of Carl Sandburg's Casey Jones (Source: "A Locomotive Steals the Show: 'No.4' Is Hero of Dramatized 'Casey Jones'" Life (Mar. 14, 1938), p. 41.) 

"The white surface descends and the events of the three dimensional stage imperceptibly blend into two-dimensional illusions."[1]  And so the German sociologist and film critic Sigfried Kracauer describes that moment just after the orchestra stops playing and right before the projectionist screens a film on the movie screen.  Here, it is as if the lowering of the movie screen saves the audience from the orchestra's musical assault.   And yet Kracauer's description of film as "two-dimensional illusions" presents something of a problem.  This is because cinematic set design—a broad term describing the various constructions and decorations used to evoke a film's concepts and ideas—is also about presenting and conjuring the illusion of three dimensions.  Movies and stage plays both rely and capitalize on the audience's ability to see things in three-dimensional space.  But the ability to manipulate two-dimensional objects to make them appear as three-dimensional objects is also an important aspect of set design.  This manipulation also had political dimensions.

In a 1947 issue of Hollywood Quarterly, a craft-oriented journal covering the film industry, veteran stage designer Mordecai Gorelik issued a vituperative rant against RKO studio management.  “In some ways the Hollywood treatment of settings cases a revealing sidelight on the general Hollywood approach to reality,” Gorelik writes.[2]   Reminding the reader that a film set is first and foremost a “human environment” and a “highly important, if mute, aspect of the screen story,” Gorelik continues: “What happens to this part of life on its way through the camera lens?  As a Broadway designer who has also worked in pictures (as film production designer), I am bound to report that any attempt to bring reality to movie settings encounters stern resistance on the big lots.”[3]

Concept Drawing by Mordecai Gorelik for None But the Lonely Heart (RKO, 1944) Image: Gorelik (1947)

To prove his point that Hollywood producers did not value realism in set design, Gorelik recounted his experiences as a production designer for several RKO films.  He refers to the the original production designs and art department sketches of street scenes from Clifford Odets’ None but the Lonely Heart (1944) as  “cliché” designs executed by a “Prix de Rome type” who was eventually fired.[4]   Odets would eventually hire Gorelik, who then remade the street scene into a “typical example of rattletrap slum housing.”[5]   This was a shabby aesthetic that Gorelik would perfect for other films as well.  Thus for a British production at Ealing Studios, he designed a dark, squat antique store that called attention to “the pathetic smallness and the sordid poverty of the things on sale.”[6]

Gorelik’s concept sketch for an antique store, Ealing Studios, London. Image: Gorelik (1947)

Gorelik felt that his designs were openly antagonized.  For Jacques Tourneur’s Eastern Front drama, Days of Glory (1944), another RKO production, Gorelik designed a guerilla encampment made to resemble something that impoverished yet redoubtable Red Army cheloveks would mount in anticipation of a Nazi siege.  Gorelik recounts RKO’s set design philosophy at the time:
The RKO method was to do a perfect carpentry job with dressed lumber from the studio stockpile and then chop up the result with axes and chisels in order to denote rude construction […] It was my painful duty to interrupt this process and have the stairway built of logs, saplings, charred timber, old doors, and other material that any reasonable person would consider more available under the conditions of the story.[7] 
Gorelik felt that he was correcting instances of what he labeled “Belasco Naturalism,”[8] a form of “literal reproduction” that amounted to nothing but a “superficial ‘snapshot’ technique without selectivity, style, or dramatic content.”[9]   Gorelik understood that realism could not be achieved “by the literal reproduction of anything”, and thus he advocated a type of documentary quality, an American variant on neorealism’s imprimatur of showing “characters of great humanity caught up in everyday life” in a rich mix of cinematography, writing, and direction that created a cinema based on “the material signs of everyday existence, on the inherent qualities of place, on autobiography, on authentic sentiment.”[10]   This, too, was met with resistance from the studio.  Gorelik continues describing his art director’s heartaches on the set of Days of Glory:
The same picture called for a peasant cart made of crude lumber.  I found just the right material for it on a nearby ranch – rough boards that had lain for years in the open.  The cart was built at the ranch and was brought to the studio.  Next day I saw it in one of the studio alleys.  It had been painted a fine, spanking battleship gray all over; all texture was gone, and you couldn’t tell the wood from the metal parts.  It became necessary to repaint the cart with artificial wood graining in an effort to restore some of its original appearance.[11] 
Such anger and disappointment could perhaps be explained by the fact that Gorelik was one of the foremost stage designers in left-wing and radical theater groups during the 1930s. During that time, New Deal legislation initiated many programs in art stewardship, and theatre groups in American large cities took the initiative and started companies that specialized in the production of “social plays” that responded to the economic, social, and political woes spurred by the Great Depression.  In 1935, Gorelik was a member of the Theatre Union, the most well-known Socialist theater outfit of the era. The Union’s organizers were well-versed in contemporary theater trends, and although they were familiar with a poorly-received 1925 New York production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, they did not know much about the playwright’s other dramatic works.  Brecht was disliked among other theatre circles, but he also became famous for his film Kuhle Wampe (1932), a piece of anti-fascist agitprop, and along with Kurt Weill, was identified as part of a new generation of anti-Nazi “revolutionary figures.”  Also, by 1935, the once-maligned production of The Threepenny Opera was beginning to be viewed as a critical success.  Through Friedrich Wolf, director of the Theatre Union, and Benno Schneider, artistic director of the Yiddish left-wing theater group ARTEF, the Union arranged for Brecht’s arrival in the United States.  The two were familiar with Brecht’s most recent play, Die Mutter (The Mother) (1935), the playwright’s ambitious adaptation of the Maxim Gorki novel of the same name, and were busy securing rights and financing to produce the first English-language performance of this play.  Like many other German intellectuals of his generation, Brecht was in exile, seeking solace and protection from the burgeoning rise of Nazism in Germany.  Finally, in 1935, Brecht stole away on a worm-ridden dingy from Denmark to New York.  Upon landing, Brecht immediately contacted Wolf and Schneider, ready to begin work on the American production of The Mother.

Brecht and the Theatre Union did not have an easy relationship.  At first, the production was marred by financial hiccups and major disagreements between Brecht and the show’s producers.  However, the relationship between Brecht and Gorelik was a different matter.  The two became close friends as collaborators.  Gorelik was a devotee of Brecht’s and admired the playwright’s ideas for the set and production design.[12]   When The Mother finally opened on 19 November 1939, the production featured many of the performative elements, such as projection screens, visible lighting apparatuses, and audience-actor participations, commonplace to Brecht’s Lehrstücke, or teaching plays.[13]   There was a small budget for set design for The Mother, but Gorelik nevertheless created a “small revolving stage partitioned through the center” that stood “just under a projection screen.”[14]   Gorelik continues describing his design: “At stage right were two grand pianos.  The stage was illuminated by a row of visible spotlights … The projection screen was in constant use as an editorial commentary.”[15]

Mordecai Gorelik’s stage design for Brecht’s The Mother (1935). Image: Baxandall (1967).

Gorelik’s anti-naturalist sentiments can also be traced to his work with Brecht on The Mother.  Brecht notes that American productions (presumably still under the sway of Belasco’s techniques) utilized a form of naturalism that did not serve the revolutionary potentials of theatre.  Brecht continues:
Naturalism has a revolutionary aspect, for it shows the social conditions which the bourgeois theatre takes great pains to conceal.  Also, a call to fight is sounded, which proves that the fighters exist.  But only in a second phase does proletarian theatre begin, politically and artistically, to qualify itself for it social function.  The first phase shows that the class struggle does exist.  The second shows how it ought to be conducted.[16]
The professional relationship with Brecht was also productive in other ways, for it was during this time that Gorelik was able to formulate his ideas for New Theatres for Old (1940), a book-length exegesis on this history of stage and set design and the first written treatise of the notion of “Epic Theater.”

Epic Theater was a kind of experimental dramatic production that featured “a non-illusory style that was designed to impart an explicit socio-political message through the intentional destruction of theatrical verisimilitude.”[17]   At first, this notion may seem paradoxical, but the main idea behind Epic Theater (as with Brecht’s Lehrstücke) was to break down any type of slavish naturalism, unnecessary photorealism, or—to use Gorelik’s own language—literalism that would impede or dilute the essence, or “scenic gestus” of the production.  On the heels of The Mother, productions like Erwin Piscator’s and Lena Goldschmidt’s The Case of Clyde Griffiths (1936) (a stage adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy), Paul Green’s Johnny Johnson (1936), George Sklar’s Life and Death of an American (1939), and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937), used agitprop elements such as “direct appeals to audiences, choral effects, political slogans, non-illusory setting and staging, episodic structure, type characters”[18]  to deliver a clarified message to the audience.

Gorelik believed that Epic Theatre was the latest and most important event in the evolution of the dramatic arts, a position he vehemently upheld in his New Theatres for Old.  In that book, Gorelik looked to the prehistory of Epic Theatre—Renaissance and Baroque drama—and identified two strains of set and stage design: the conventional and the illusory.  Illusory stage design was in essence a form of symbolism, a form of “attenuated naturalism” that suspended critical judgment and operated under a directive “according to which the environment was reduced to atmosphere, to ‘dreamlike mists,’ [whose] only function of was to create a powerful emotional impression on the beholder.”[19]

Gorelik, on the other hand, characterized Epic Theater as a type of conventional theater.  Finally, here was a type of theatre that “organized experience into a rational structure” whereby each performance was transformed into an “impartial” forum where “facts were introduced, hypotheses were investigated, and fallacies were exposed.”[20]   Epic Theater relied upon the “objective logic of events” by applying principles of scientific Marxism to bring to drama “the experimental, unprejudiced and precise method of the scientific laboratory.”[21]   For Gorelik, the stage presented an opportunity to bring to light “the temporal affairs of the socio-economic world” and to provide “an instrument for the transvaluation of political consciousness … a means of promoting social change.”[22]   Gorelik did believe, however, that the principles of Epic Theater could be applied to the screen as well:
No Epic play or film can hope to present facts which will not be questioned, no matter how well supported the evidence may be.  What is significant is the tendency to rely upon facts, to rely upon the objective logic of events rather than upon subjective emotion.[23] 
But in his 1947 piece for Hollywood Quarterly, Gorelik seems to have made an about-face.  “What of the more subtle use of setting in achieving the style or dramatic content?”[24]  he asks.  Gorelik thus describes another design challenge on the set of None But the Lonely Heart:
For the back alley of the Fun Fair in Lonely Heart the art factory offered a piece of prosaic naturalism, without regard to the fact that this alley was one of the most romantic locales in the story.  Again I was obliged to redesign, curving the walls of the alley, arching it with trees, placing shadowy hoods over doors and windows.  This shift towards a more poetic imagery was meaningless to the art regime.[25] 
Perhaps Gorelik’s invocation of curved forms and manipulated shadows is a veiled reference to Hans Poelzig’s architecture and film set designs.  Yet Gorelik's fluctuations between realism and "poetic imagery" suggests how this landmark figure was trying desperately to be employed by the "Hollywood Art Machinery" that seemed all too eager to reject him.

This is not to say that global concerns made issues of theatrical realism totally irrelevant.  In 1943, just before Gorelik was working for Odets and Tourneur,  RKO's "authenticity division" deployed several employees to assist the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service in building and designing the interiors for the "Typical German and Japanese Test Structures" at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground.  Acting on information about wood construction techniques and architectural design in Germany and Japan provided by Erich Mendelsohn, Konrad Wachsmann, and Antonin Raymond, the RKO group was only one example of how entertainment and military interests conjoined in service of the war effort.  Gorelik was no exception.  He took up an additional job directing radio plays for the Office of War Information while working as a set designer.  During this time, in 1944, he also began a stint at Douglas Aircraft producing exploded axonometric drawings of airplanes.[26]  And after the war ended, he became a film instructor at a special university for discharged G.I.'s in Biarritz.

Mordecai Gorelik holding a maquette of his stage design for Casey Jones (Source: "A Locomotive Steals the Show: 'No.4' Is Hero of Dramatized 'Casey Jones'" Life (Mar. 14, 1938), p. 42.)

Gorelik was fairly well-known.  So was his struggle against what he would call "Belasco Naturalism."  Such issues of naturalism versus realism on stage are best encapsulated by a review in Life of Charles Bickford's 1938 stage adaptation of Casey Jones.  The reviewer describes the centerpiece of the stage design: a giant replica locomotive designed by Gorelik (see image at the very top of this post):
It is made of lath, covered with black velours.  Its fire is a red spotlight.  Its steam is real steam blown by a fan.  Its bell is a sound taken on the New York Central Line.  Its sway is produced by two stagehands operating levers on either end.  Its cost was 81,500.[27]  
Most of the review features images of Gorelik's stage design.  And in one instance, a small photograph shows the designer himself, holding a small scale model of the "No.4" locomotive, giving the reader a sense of how a three-dimensional object has been flattened to become more of a two-dimensional one.  The review ends with a poignant jab: "Casey Jones, its locomotive aside, is not a good play but it has the makings of a superb movie."[28]



[1] Siegfried Kracauer, “Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces” Thomas Y. Levin trans. New German Critique No. 40 (Winter, 1987): 91-92.
[2] Mordecai Gorelik, “Hollywood’s Art Machinery,” Hollywood Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 2 (Jan., 1947): 153.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Odets declared of this set design: “This place is so pretty that I’d like to live in it myself.  What I want for my action is not a relic of the good old days, but a relic of the bad old days.  This street must be the villain of the story; it is the sinister primary reason for the whole dramatic chain of events.” Ibid.,p.155.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., p. 156.
[7] Ibid., p. 157.
[8] Named after David Belasco (1853-1931), the influential set designer and dramaturge recognized for bringing a new type of naturalism to American stages in the early 20th century.  His techniques emphasized natural lighting and often attempted to create a realistic stage atmosphere.  Belasco famously declared “it is much easier to appeal to the hearts of audiences through their senses rather than through their intellects.” Lise-Lone Marker, David Belasco: Naturalism in the American Theatre, Review Author: Thomas F. Marshall, American Literature Vol. 47, No. 3 (Nov. 1975): 454-455.
[9] Gorelik, “Hollywood’s Art Machinery,” p.157.
[10] Maristella Casciato, “Neorealism in Italian Architecture” in Sarah Williams Goldhagen and Réjean Legualt, eds. Anxious Modernisms: Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture (Cambridge: MIT, 2000): 25-26.
[11] Gorelik, “Hollywood’s Art Machinery,” p. 157.
[12] Set design for The Mother had always been a divisive issue.  According to Theatre Union member George Sklar: “[T]he use of ‘das kleines Brecht Vorhang,' the seven-foot –high burlap curtain strung on a wire and pulled by hand to close it.  We saw no sense in this curtain.  The Civic Repertory Theatre had two balconies.  The audience in the orchestra couldn’t see what was happening behind the seven-foot curtain when it was closed, but the audiences in the two balconies looked down over it and could!  Why?  We never did find out from him.  Gorelik  … fought with him about it for a couple of weeks, then discovered the brilliance of ‘epic theatre’ and became a Brecht disciple.” Lee Baxandall, “Brecht in America: 1935” TDR (1967-1968) Vol.12, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967): 78.
[13] See Anne Fletcher, “The Gestus of Scene Design: Mordecai Gorelik and the Theatre Union’s Production of Brecht’s The Mother” Theatre History Studies, Vol. 23 (2003).
[14] Baxandall, “Brecht in America: 1935”, p.78.
[15] Gorelik, New Theatres for Old (New York: Samuel French, 1940): 396 quoted in Ibid.
[16] Baxandall, “Brecht in America: 1935”, p. 84.
[17] Ira Alan Levine, Theatre in Revolt: Left-Wing Dramatic Theory in the United States (1911-1939) PhD dissertation, University of Toronto (1980): 227.
[18] Ibid., p. 228.
[19] Gorelik, New Theatres for Old, p.263 quoted in Ibid., p.241.
[20] Ibid., p. 244.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., p. 295.
[23] Gorelik, New Theatres for Old, p.435-436 quoted in Ibid., p.282.
[24] Gorelik, “Hollywood’s Art Machinery,” p.158.
[25] Ibid
[26] Fletcher, Rediscovering Mordecai Gorelik: Scene Design and the American Theatre (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), p.166.
[27] "A Locomotive Steals the Show: 'No.4' Is Hero of Dramatized 'Casey Jones'" Life (Mar. 14, 1938), p. 41.
[28] Ibid.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Reproduced Form/Form Reproduction

Under what circumstances can a work of art be reproduced?  Here, a series of historical examples and judicial opinions involving the copyrighting and patenting of steel tube cantilevered chair designs provide some guidance.  These cases demonstrate a conceptual wordplay of sorts.  Whereas some deal with issues of reproduced form, the others concern form reproduction.  Or, put another way, whereas the former is an investigation into form, the latter is an examination of process.

However, no discussion invoking the term "reproduction" can begin in earnest without at least a brief mention of Walter Benjamin’s seminal and oft-quoted essay, “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” (“The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility") (1939).[1]   The much-lamented loss of the aura, defined as the “formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of spatiotemporal perception,”[2] is of little use here.  Yet Benjamin’s essay reveals additional insights concerning an original work of art and its copy.  Beginning with the dictum that all art is in essence reproducible, Benjamin distinguishes between manual reproduction and mechanical reproduction, noting, “Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis a vis technical reproduction.”[3]   This type of reproduction has two aspects.  First, it is a process that is “more independent of the original than is manual reproduction.”[4]   Second, “technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain.”[5]   Here, Benjamin is perhaps inviting us to make further distinctions between the processes of technological reproducibility and the objects of such processes.

(Top) Marcel Breuer, Model B3 "Wassily" Chair; (Bottom) Völkisch dining room from Gretsch, Planung und Aufbau im Osten (1941) (Source: Michael Thad Allen, "Modernity, the Holocaust, and Machines without History" [2001])

To further delve into this distinction, a contemporary understanding of the problems surrounding issues of mechanical reproduction are in order.  A series of images will provide some initial guidance.  In “Modernity, the Holocaust, and Machines without History” (2001), historian Michael Thad Allen features a series of images that, when viewed together, reveal more of a polemic than an editorial decision.  One is a picture of one of Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer's most recognized chair designs—the Model B3 or "Wassily."  Culled from the Bauhaus Archiv, this is a familiar object, a complicated skein of pressed leather stretched tautly across a polished steel-tube frame.  When set against the light background, it looks as if the chair were suspended in midair. The image stands in stark contrast to another image, a sketch of a völkisch kitchen from Diploma Engineer Hermann Gretsch’s Planung und Aufbau im Osten (Deutsche Landbuchhandlung, 1941).  Here, atop wooden parquet, a phalanx of wooden chairs surrounds a large, flat maple-hewn table.  The drawing, from an omniscient birds-eye view, reveals a series of wall-hangings, each featuring a deity or character from Der Nibelungen or any other Nordic phantasie.  The image depicts a comfortable setting, and yet suggests a more complicated set of values.

Diploma Engineer Gretsch was an advisor to Deutsche Edelmöbel (German Nobel Furniture), the SS’s venture into furniture and industrial design.  Towing the party line and vehemently opposed to what he envisioned as modernism’s slavish aping of capitalistic styles, Gretsch was a tireless advocate of a design ideology he called “Agrarian Objectivity.”  A “’timeless’ aesthetic located in an imagined epoch before capitalist spoliation,” Agrarian Objectivity was a “direct attack upon left-leaning artistic movements associated with ‘New Objectvity’ [Neue Sachlichkeit].”[6]    Here was a design concept that made no effort to conceal its political orientation and that placed an unmistakable priority on production.  Allen therefore remarks on what he labels as productivism:
Production was to manufacture the German spirit, a spirit forged as the maker rather than the consumer of goods.  At the heart of Nazi modernity was the dream of a perfect system […] But it was to be a system whose overarching output was supposed to be culture – the New Order of National Socialism.[7] 
For Gretsch, Agrarian Objectivity ensured that its material artifacts became emblems of German race and values.[8]   Gretsch famously declared: “Race, heritage, tradition, and lifestyle are important, but designers completely forgot them.  They have forgotten that they must also satisfy cultural needs.”[9] 
Agrarian Objectivity was not only a manifestation of Nazi ideology, but as a theory of industrial production, it placed great emphasis on the creation of artifacts.  If a wooden stool was superior to a cantilevered chair in that it suited the German spirit, it was only because woodworking, and not the wooden stool, fueled the imprimaturs of productivism.  To suggest that Agrarian Objectivity paid no attention to form may be too simplistic, however.  The form and look of a heimat or Biedemeier furniture set is as important as the industrial techniques used to produce them.[10] 

Breuer’s writings provide another example of how a form versus process dichotomy begins to take shape.  Consider Breuer’s own meditation on form and its relation to the modern movement in an article titled “Metallmöbel und moderne Räumlichkeit” (“Metal Furniture and Modern Spatiality”) (1928).  Here, Breuer notes:
Since the external world affects us today with the most intense and various impressions, we change the form of our lives in more rapid succession than in earlier times.  It is only logical that our surroundings must undergo corresponding changes.  We are approaching furnishings, spaces, and buildings which, to the greatest possible extent, are alterable, mobile, and accessible to various combinations.  Furniture, even the walls of the space, are no longer massive, monumental, apparently permanently rooted, or in fact permanently installed.  They are much more injected with air, drawn, so to speak, in space; it hinders neither movement nor the view through space.  The space is not longer a composition, no rounded-off whole, since after all its dimensions and elements are subject to essential changes.  One comes to the conclusion that any correct, usable object fits in the space in which it is needed, similar to how a living being fits in nature: a person or a flower.  The reproductions show metal furniture of the same characteristic form, determined by the type of design, in the most various spaces: in the theater, auditorium, atelier, dining room, and living room.[11]
Granted, for the proponent of Agrarian Objectivity, as well as for the avatar of Neue Sachlichkeit, technological reproducibility (or technical reproduction) was an inescapable condition of contemporary society.  Benjamin does not devote much time to finessing any distinction between form and process—one can only speculate as to any importance he would have assigned to this issue.  This distinction between form and process nevertheless becomes important especially when considering issues of copying.  For a further examination of how Weimar-era and Nazi authorities dealt with issues of form and process, this analysis once again looks to the manufacturing of chairs in Germany prior to World War II.  An excellent and influential article by historian Otakar Máčel involving legal claims surrounding the manufacturing of tubular steel chairs is indispensable.  In “Avant-Garde Design and the Law: Litigation over the Cantilever Chair” (1990), Máčel outlines two lawsuits of paramount importance: the first, involving a 1929 claim by Hungarian furniture impresario Anton Lorenz against the international furniture company Gebrüder Thonet Aktiengesellschaft (AG) (“Thonet”); the second, a claim by Mauser Kommanditgesellschaft (KG) against Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from 1936.

Mart Stam, drawing of first cantilever chair (1927) (Source: Otakar Máčel, “Avant-Garde Design and the Law: Litigation over the Cantilever Chair,” Journal of Design History Vol. 3, No.2/3 [1990])
Reproduction of Stam's 1926 cantilever chair (Source: Máčel)

Stam, tubular steel chair licensed to L.&C. Arnold (1927) (Source: Máčel)

Although the facts underlying these cases are complex, the origins of the claims can be traced to the 1927 Werkbund exhibition in Stuttgart.  There, Dutch designer Mart Stam sketched his concept for a cantilevered chair on the back of a wedding invitation at the Hotel Marquart. Stuttgart was a fertile environment for other European designers and avatars of modernism.  The Werkbund exhibition itself provided an ideal forum where designers could market and license their creations.  Stam was no exception, for shortly after he modified his chair design, which consisted of gas pipes arranged in the “continuous line” typifying cantilevered design, Stam licensed this design to the iron works of L.&C. Arnold in nearby Schorndorf.  Unknown to Stam, and in an event that would be significant over a decade later, in 1923, a metalworker named Gerhard Stüttgen designed a steel-tube chair that did not use legs for its back supports for his students at the Köln Kunstgewerbeschule.[12] 

Around the same time that Mart Stam completed his chair designs, both Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe also completed designs for steel tube furniture.  In 1926, Breuer designed a series of stools and tables that utilized the principle of the cantilever chair.  Breuer recalls a conversation he had with Stam in 1926 or 1927 regarding the cantilevered chairs:
I explained [to Stam] that I was working with a craftsman in Dessau and I would like to introduce a heavier tubular section to do a heavier cantilever chair.  He went home and drew it up this chair.  He somehow got legal protection.  But he did it in solid pipe […] I mentioned to him my stool […] that if you turn it on its side it is a cantilever chair.  But the tubing was not thick enough; I needed 25mm tube.  I did it myself; turned it over.[13] 
Breuer and Mies van der Rohe featured their designs at the Werkbund exhibition.  Unlike Stam’s and Breuer’s decidedly angular designs, Mies’ chair featured the well-known curved and continuous profile.
In Berlin, Marcel Breuer’s own company, Standard-Möbel Lengyel & Co., became the licensee for all of the designer’s furniture.  The company was not successful at first, and 1928, Breuer and business partner Kalman Lengyel hired Anton Lorenz, a successful Hungarian entrepreneur, to run the company.[14]   Although Breuer entrusted Lorenz with the future of the furniture venture, a sudden instance of pragmatism inspired him to license the rest of his tubular steel furniture designs to Thonet in July 1928.  This eventually created a situation where two separate companies—Standard Möbel and Thonet—were manufacturing Breuer’s chair designs.[15]

Breuer, tubular steel chair (1928-9).  This is Breuer's version of Stam's chair—also known as the Thonet B33, and the inspiration for the Standard-Möbel L33 (Source: Máčel)
DESTA ST-12 tubular steel chair (1929) (variant of Stam's chair, similar to Standard-Möbel  L33) (Source: Máčel)
Breuer, tubular steel chair (1929) (first version of the Thonet B34 chair) (Source: Máčel)
Anton Lorenz, DESTA SS32 chair (1929), based on Breuer's design? Or Stam's? (Source: Máčel)

A series of events further complicated legal matters in 1929.  On April 11 of that year, Thonet bought most of Standard-Möbel’s interests.  This transaction excluded Standard-Möbel’s own factory on the Teltowerstrasse in Berlin, and as a result that part of the company was not only able to keep the company name, but kept Lorenz as the firm’s only officer.  Included in Standard-Möbel’s sale was the transfer of all Breuer’s designs to Thonet.  But in an inexplicable instance of major legal oversight, Standard-Möbel’s L33 and L34 chairs were not included in the rights transfer.  Standard-Möbel refused to assign the rights to these chairs to Thonet (ostensibly because these designs were to be manufactured at the Teltowerstrasse factory).  A letter signed by Standard-Möbel’s lawyers on June 18, 1929 thus explains:
Your particular request to hand over to you models L33 and L34 cannot be complied with, as these models are patented and copyrighted by our Mr. Lorenz who does not intend to transfer these rights to you.  There is no doubt whatsoever that these pieces had been assembled from your materials and in your working-time; our Mr. Lorenz will be pleased to receive your invoice for assemble and labour, upon receipt of which he will reimburse you in cash.[16] 
Thonet nevertheless continued to produce the chairs, and Lorenz filed a suit against the furniture maker in July 1929.  Standard-Möbel’s officer, however, arranged for other legal maneuverings securing the ability to own the rights to all cantilevered furniture.  Not only did Lorenz enter into a separate contract with Mart Stam to purchase all the designer’s rights to cantilevered designs, but Lorenz also formed another company in September 1929, Deutsche Stahlmöbel (DESTA).  DESTA manufactured the L33 and L34 chairs (ST12 and SS32 respectively), as well as furniture concepts by other well-known designers.

The ensuing legal opinions interpreted Lorenz’ claim as a question of authorship.  Lorenz’ attorneys sought an injunction to prevent Thonet from manufacturing the Breuer chairs, claiming that the designs were originally authored by Stam.  The civil division of the Landesgericht Berlin found in favor of Lorenz.  Thonet appealed to the federal Reichsgericht and subsequently lost that decision on June 1, 1932.  That court specifically asked whether the Stam chair was “an object of arts and crafts or a technical innovation,”[17] an important issue because only the former could receive copyright protection.[18]   Thonet maintained that the chair was the result of a technical process.[19]   In disagreeing, the judges concluded:
The basic feature of Stam’s chair resides in the austere and strident movement of line; avoiding all superfluous parts it embodies modern objectivity in a sparse form derived by the simplest of means.  Whether or not its formal aspects are also technically inspired is irrelevant to the question of its artistic quality.[20] 
Thonet also argued that the quality of its chair was better than that of Standard-Möbel’s.[21]   This difference in quality was raised in order to reaffirm the idea that Stam’s chair was a product of technical innovation, not artistic design.  The court, however, saw the issue differently.  The reproduction of Stam’s form was actionable—Thonet was therefore in copyright violation.  In noting that the chairs “so closely resemble one another that no essential features can be found to differentiate them,”[22]  the court basically emphasized that the Thonet chair was a replica of the Standard-Möbel chair.  In other words, in declaring Breuer’s chairs were replicas of Stam’s, the court came to the unbelievable conclusion that Thonet was in reality producing Stam’s chairs.

If Lorenz’ case against Thonet emphasized the mechanical reproduction of an object’s form, then what types of legal criteria can be used to describe the process of reproduction? Here, a case by Mauser KG against Mies van der Rohe becomes of special importance.  On the heels of the Werkbund exhibition, Mies filed patent DRP 467 242 on August 24, 1927 covering the manufacturing processes for a series of steel tube chairs.  The “salient features” of this patent included: “the use of cold-drawn bent steel tube; sufficient springiness (or resilience) for comfort; and, as far as the form is concerned, a chair – in which the seat frame and its support are made out of a single piece of resilient curved steel tube … [t]his tube is bent in a semi-circle and forms a continuous line form the supporting part to the seat and the back.”[23]   In 1936, the outspoken architect made public statements that both L.&C. Arnold and Mauser KG were violating his patents.  Later that year, Mauser sued to invalidate Mies’ patents.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, tubular steel chair manufactured by Berliner Metallgewerbe J. Müller (1927).  According to Máčel, this chair was later manufactured by Bamberg Metallwerkstätte in 1931 and Thonet in 1932.
 Gerhard Stüttgen, tubular steel chair (1923) (Source: Máčel)

Mies’ attorneys mounted a defense based on two criteria.  First, Mies contended that several of Mauser’s chairs, though not sharing any formal characteristics with his designs, nevertheless violated his patent.  However it is the second criterion of Mies’ defense that deserves special mention.  Here, Mies’ attorneys asserted that by the time the patent was filed in 1927, several furniture producers were already employing similar manufacturing techniques.  The idea here, of course, was that Mies was the first to develop and exploit these processes.  In an unexpected development, Mies patent attorneys used Stam’s chairs “as proof of the contemporary existence of designs embodying the characteristics patented” by Mies.[24]   At the time, Mauser had just obtained the rights to Stüttgen’s previously-mentioned chair designs, and introduced evidence that it was he, and not Mies, that had pioneered the manufacturing process.  Yet bad lawyering hampered Mauser’s case—Stüttgen was forced to admit that when he was developing his own manufacturing processes, he did not believe that they would be able to manufacture any useable furniture designs.  Mauser responded by claiming that Mies had knowledge of Stam’s designs (thereby claiming once again that the patent was invalid).  Yet the court determined that Mies filed his patent three days before the Werkbund exhibit even begin, thus invalidating any claim that Mies had prior knowledge of this process.[25]   The Kammergericht (Supreme Court) decided in Mies’ favor in 1937, and awarded Mies previously-owed compensation.  These decisions, as opposed to the Lorenz-Thonet cases, demonstrate that in matters of mechanical reproduction, form is indeed subordinated to technical inventions, materials, and construction.
[1]The most recent and authoritative compendium of Benjamin’s work uses a more literal translation of this essay.  Previous versions refer to this essay as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings (Volume 4: 1938-1940) (Cambridge: Harvard, 2003), series editor Michael Jennings notes that the essay was a work in progress from March 1936 to April 1939.  This is the third revised version made famous by translators Harry Zohn and Edmund Jephcott in the popular Illuminations (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968).
[2] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility” n.11 in Michael Jennings, ed. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings (volume 4: 1938-1940) (Cambridge: Harvard, 2003): 272.  The argument continues: “One might encompass the eliminated element within the concept of the aura, and go on to say: what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura.  The process is symptomatic; its significance extends far beyond the realm of art.  It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition.  By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence.  And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced.  These two processes lead to a massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the past – a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal of humanity.” Ibid.
[3] Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Harry Zohn trans., in Hannah Arendt, ed. Illuminations (New York: Schocken).  Compare the translated passage in Jennings’ collection: “But whereas the authentic work retains its full authority in the face of a reproduction made by hand, which it generally brands a forgery, this is not the case with technological reproduction.” Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproduction” in Michael Jennings, ed. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings (volume 4: 1938-1940) (Cambridge: Harvard, 2003): 254.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Michael Thad Allen, “Modernity, the Holocaust, and Machines without History,” in Michael Thad Allen and Gabrielle Hecht eds. Technologies of Power: Essays in Honor of Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes (Cambridge: MIT, 2001): 193.
[7] Ibid., p. 188.
[8] Here is a prefect encapsulation of Benjamin’s dicta that Fascism aestheticizes politics and that Communism politicizes art.
[9] Dipl. Ing. Hermann Gretsch, “Zeitgemäßes Wohnen,” Die Bauzeitung 38 (1941): 425, quoted in Ibid., p.193.
[10] This may be too easy of a distinction.  Consider, for example, historian Anson  Rabinbach's account of the "attempt to legitimize political rule aesthetic symbolization" during the Third Reich using the modernist architectures created by the Nazi Amt Schönheit der Arbeit (Bureau of Beauty of Labor).  Anson Rabinbach, "The Aesthetics of Production in the Third Reich" Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 11 (1976), pp. 43-74.
[11] Marcel Breuer, “Metal Furniture and Modern Spatiality” (1928), in Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg eds. The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California, 1994): 453.
[12] Otakar Máčel, “Avant-Garde Design and the Law: Litigation over the Cantilever Chair,” Journal of Design History Vol. 3, No.2/3 (1990): 127. 
[13] Unpublished interview of Marcel Breuer by Christopher Wilk, 1979, quoted in Ibid., p.129.
[14] Ibid
[15] Breuer’s designs were classified by Standard-Möbel as L33 and L34 (tubular steel chairs with and without armrests) and later designated by Thonet as “B33” and “B34.” Ibid., p.130.
[16] Ibid., n.17.
[17] Ibid., p.132.
[18] In American jurisprudence, for example, the Copyright Act of 1976 recognizes as copyrightable an “original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”
[19] It is interesting to note that Thonet called none other than Walter Gropius as its primary expert witness.  Macel continues, “Gropius declared in a written deposition … that Breuer was the first to use nickelled tubular steel for chairs and that, in his opinion, the chair by Stam was an imitation of designs by Breuer, although it showed some characteristics which could be attributed to Stam himself.  Thus, he considered the disputed model of the cantilevered chair to be a consistent development of Breuer’s earlier B5 model. Máčel, “Avant-Garde Design and the Law”, p.133.
[20] Ibid., p.132.
[21] Breuer’s chair was made of “precision nickel-plated steel tube”, whereas Stam’s chair was made of “enameled cast iron tubing.” Ibid., p.133.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., p. 138.
[24] Ibid., p. 139.
[25] Máčel notes, “This shows the difference between juridical argumentation and historiography.  Seen from a historian’s point of view there can be no doubt that his prior knowledge of Stam’s idea influenced Mies van der Rohe when designing his patent chair.” Ibid.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Impure Opticality or: When Urban Screens Were Architecture

Shibuya at Night (Source) 

We normally think of urban screens as those larger (and brighter) than life media displays that illuminate cities and public spaces throughout the world.  In places like Shibuya or Times Square, for example, building façades have become the sites for what Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer call the "spectacular exhaustion of urban space." [1]  The term serves a double purpose.  On the one hand, it does allude, albeit subtly, to the idea of how media screens become sources of light pollution.  The suggestion is that urban screens, with their barrage of lights,  exhaust and confuse the urban dweller to the point of sensorial exhaustion.  On the other hand, the term operates as a nod to Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle (1967) as well as to Paul Virilio's idea of architecture as "media building"[2]—the latter being a term describing how architecture has transformed from a practice of creating structures of habitation to designing vehicles of information.  Such language immediately invokes buildings like Toyo Ito's Sendai Mediatheque (2001).  Ito's statement that his building—a Maison Dom-i-no for the information age integrating “the primitive body of natural flow and the virtual body of electronic flow”—really does invoke architecture as the literal building of media.

Historical analyses are useful in detecting the social, cultural, and technological milieus that led to the deployment of urban screens.  However, what kind of history are we (or should we be) talking about?  In his contribution to the Urban Screens Reader (2009), Erkki Huhtamo outlines an "archaeology of public media displays"—an ostensibly foucauldian approach that looks at past practices in order to understand the present. He links contemporary urban screen practice to the development of "trade signs, banners and broadsides to billboards and the earliest dynamic displays"[3] of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Huhtamo's essay asserts that urban screen practice is first and formost urban—and from this we can infer that urban screens are therefore coextensive with the development of modern urbanism.  Such an assumption would normally cause us to deploy our favorite quotes and aphorisms by Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, or Siegfried Kracauer in support of Huhtamo's observations at a moment's notice.  And yet somehow the history of architecture remains a muted presence.

Urban screens are architectural in two senses of the word.  Urban screens generally stand perpendicular to the ground plane, a characteristic that places them in the same architectural categories as walls or facades.  Yet urban screens also operate as a kind of architectural effect.  They transform facades and curtain walls from blank or ornamented surfaces into actively charged envelopes.  And this transformation has been the object of recent criticism.  In an essay on the mediatic function of postwar American architecture, for example, Reinhold Martin makes a deceptively simple equation between curtain walls and television screens.  At the heart of this equivalency is a well-placed quote from Samuel Weber:
[T]he television screen can be said to live up to its name in at least three distinct, contradictory and yet interrelated senses.  First, it serves as a screen which allows distant vision [tele-vision] to be watched. Second, it screens, in the sense of selecting or filtering, the vision that is watched. And finally, it serves as a screen in the sense of standing between the viewer and the viewed, since what is rendered visible covers the separation that distinguished the other vision [the seeing someone or something seeing] from that of the sight of the spectator sitting in front of the set.[4]
The same could be said, for the most part, about urban screens.  Architectural effects, of course, have their own history, and Weber's framework can provide a solid foundation from which to understand this development.  To modify this statement and apply it to urban screens as architecture requires some elaboration.  The first two definitions of screen—of screen as a mediator of distant vision and as a kind of selective filter—certainly do apply to urban screens.  Urban screens can depict scenes from faraway or physically distinct locales much in the same way as a television screen.  The third definition, however, is a variant of the first.  We can think of it as a way of distinguishing the sight of the viewer from the source of the image on the urban screen.  It is an impure opticality (to modify Clement Greenberg's term)—an opticality that relies on the flatness of the urban screen (or just the condition of flatness) for its ability to project and transmit images.  The idea of an impure opticality recognizes the urban screen as a hybrid site that can include and display various kinds of media at different times.

Fritz Lang, Photograph of Broadway (1924) (Republished in Mendelsohn's Amerika) (Source)

What, then, are architectural examples of screens that exemplify this notion of impure opticality?  An attempt at an exhaustive catalog of examples remains far beyond the purpose of this post.  Whole books have and remain to be written on the subject.  But for our purposes here, we can begin with a picture (and accompanying passage) from Erich Mendelsohn's Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten (1926).  The book includes photographs of buildings that Mendelsohn took while on a visit to the United States in 1924 at the behest of his publisher, Rudolf Mosse.  At one point, Mendelsohn reproduces a picture by Fritz Lang (who accompanied him on the trip) of a series of billboards along Broadway in Manhattan.  Here, lighted Coca-Cola and Dairylea billboards leave incandescent traces across the celluloid.  It as if Lang were momentarily disoriented, moving too rapidly, avoiding the onslaught of artificial light while keeping the camera aperture open. This light inscribes everything as a double-image, anticipating the scene in Metropolis when the technocrat Johann Fredersen stares outside his own office at the frenzied city lights flickering faster and faster: a vision of a city in disrepair.  And in his caption to the photograph, Mendelsohn writes:
Uncanny. The contours of the building are erased.
But in one’s consciousness they still rise, chase one another, trample one another.
This is the foil for the flaming scripts, the rocket fire of moving illuminating ads, emerging and submerging, disappearing and breaking out again over the thousands of autos and the maelstrom of pleasureseeking people.
Still disordered, because exaggerated, but all the same full of imaginative beauty, which will one day be complete.[5]
Lang's photograph and Mendelsohn's caption are a useful starting point for our investigation of urban screens for two reasons.  First, notice how the photograph elides any distinction between building and media.  This arresting image owes as much to its exposure as it does to the phantom traces captured on film.  But it is also important to note just how critical Mendelsohn is of the resulting image.  The casting of lights onto urban space is "beautiful" yet "disordered."  Like the attendant image, his observations collapse any difference between building and billboard—we get the sense that he directs his ire as much to the billboard as to the underlying architecture, and yet it is difficult to maintain any difference between the two.

Erik Gunnar Asplund, Advertising Mast (1930) (Source)

We can think of Lang's photograph as one of the first architectural conceptualizations of urban screens because of its equation of light effects with buildings.  Although this was precisely the point of Mendelsohn's invective, other architects took advantage of this equivalency.   Only a couple of years later, Swedish architect Erik Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940) drew an elevation for an advertising mast for the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930.  The drawing reveals only the most minimal of architectural interventions—a neo-Constructivist fantasy of sorts.  A giant, metal frame, carried aloft above grade, acts a mast supporting a small observation platform between clew and tack.  Steel battens extend outward, each holding a thin cable suggesting the existence of a sail.  Between head and clew, and somewhere along the leech, nautical banners flutter in the wind.  Along the luff, illuminated signs bearing the names and logos of various companies are stacked upon each other.  Asplund's mast acted like a beacon, casting its incandescent information into the air.  The Swedish novelist Ivar Lo-Johansson even remarked how "the high steel mast on the exhibition grounds projected like a signal, like a thrilling expression of joy, toward the bright blue sky.  The era of functionalism had blown in."[6]

C.G. Rosenberg, Photograph of Asplund's Advertising Mast (1930) (Signage by Sigurd Lewerentz)

One of the most compelling and dramatic images of Asplund's advertising mast was taken from ground level by photographer C.G. Rosenberg.  The camera, trained upwards, reveals the aforementioned stacking of corporate logos (designed by fellow Swedish architect Sigurd Lewerentz).  Here, unlike in Lang's photograph, the logos never dominate or overpower the image.  Lewerentz's signs occupy only the top half of the image.  They almost totally obscure the mast.  The observation platform dominates the bottom half of the image.  This trick of angle does more than just compress the entirety of the advertisement mast into a single frame—it equates the relative flatness of the corporate logos with the flat, smooth, white surfaces of the observation deck.  And yet, the building in the picture, though white and supported in the air, nevertheless appears heavy and overbearing.  Here, through careful composition, architectural modernism literally and figuratively supports the projection of images into public space.  Architecture becomes the foundation for the broadcasting of media.

Venturi, Rauch, Scott Brown, National College Football Hall of Fame (1967)

Fast forward another 40 years or so, and we finally get to Robert Venturi's and Denise Scott Brown's famous dictum from Learning From Las Vegas that "billboards are almost all right."  Their tongue-in-cheek appraisal of architecture's communicative potential is more than just a vindication of building as a form of visual art: it is an affirmation of "the validity of the commercial vernacular."[7]  And just before their legendary Las Vegas studio, Venturi and Scott Brown had already explored the limits of commercial vernacular to the fullest extent possible.  Their unrealized National College Football Hall of Fame (1967) in New Brunswick, New Jersey is as close as one can get to the architecturalization of a billboard.  They called it a combination of sign and building, or "bill-ding-board"—a nod to the project's dominating billboard facade.  Venturi's description of the project in the April 1968 issue of Architectural Forum is especially resonant for those interested in urban screens:
The building fronts on large parking spaces and Rutgers Stadium and backs onto an exhibition field.  The billboard is 100' x 200'.  Buttresses integrate it with the rest of the building.  Interior display niches fall within the buttress, static spaces along a long gallery.  This billboard, itself several feet thick, is backed by a maintenance catwalk, interlaced with the buttresses.  The screen, the approximate proportions of a football field, is lit by 200,000 electronically programmed lights which produce moving sequences of naturalistic images, or words and diagrams of football plays.  Immediately below the screen, where seats are bad in a movie, is a moat.[8]
What differentiates this project from Lang's photograph or Asplund's mast is an emphasis on entertainment.  Venturi's description affirms the building's role as a provider of images for public consumption.  More specifically, however, the National College Football Hall of Fame is an important predecessor for urban screens not only because of its architectural qualities, but also for its use of a literal screen as a means to display a combination of images and data—a first stab at an architecture for the sake of impure opticality.

Urban Apartment Block, from Playtime (dir. Jacques Tati, 1967)

More needs to be said about Weber's quote, and especially about the relevance of television screens to an examination of urban screens.  If there is a building that truly exemplifies the relationship between television screen, curtain wall, and architecture, it would be the modernist apartment block from Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967).  A medium shot captures the bottom two stories of a glazed building.  Four large picture windows, roughly the same proportion as television screens, reveal four families watching television sets inside their apartments.  Except for a few lamps, the television glow lights each unit from within.  The effect of course being that each unit now resembles a television set.  Here, spectator and spectacle, observer and observed are conflated onto the building's window wall: "the generic window-wall becomes a metaphor for the movie screen itself, its extruded architectural technology multiplying it ad infinitum."[9]

: Louis Sullivan, Carson, Pirie Scott and Co. Department Store (1899-1904); Bottom: Le Corbusier, Maison Clarté (1930-32) (Source: Sigfried Giedion,
Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, Fifth Revised and Enlarged Edition [Cmabridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008 (1966)]).

Jenney's Leiter Building vs. Le Corbusier's Maison Clarté, from Giedion, 
Raum, Zeit, Architektur: Die Entstehung einer neuen Tradition (Berlin: Springer, 2000 [1960]).

Tati's careful framing recalls similar photographs of building facades from Sigfried Giedion's Space, Time and Architecture (1941).  In that book, Giedion looks to photographs of windows and skeletal frames of buildings such as William Le Baron Jenney's Fair Building (1891) and Leiter Building (1889), as well as Louis Sullivan's Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company department store (1899-1904) as buildings where "what is expressed in its construction and its architecture" are equal.[10]  The demarcator between the various structural/architectural elements are the horizontally-elongated "Chicago windows" that give these buildings their glazed appearance.  And in one famous instance, Giedion utilizes a Wölfflinian approach and pairs Jenney's Leiter building on one page against Le Corbusier's Maison Clarté (1930-32) on the other.  Although Giedion uses these images to show how these two architects used skeletal frames to achieve a kind of architectural purity, again it is the difference in glazing that deserves attention.  Whereas the windows are cut deeply into the Leiter building's facade, in the Maison Claré, window and structural unit seem to become part of the same surface. This too is a compositional trick.  With careful cropping and the use of a telephoto lens, the terraces and walkways are flattened onto a single image.

In Playtime, the apartment building also reveals a decided Chicago Frame influence.  The dark, horizontal floor plates, when played against the lighted vertical framing, suggest that the windows are also cut deeply into the facade.  And yet the ambient television glow from within problematizes this distinction.  A second glance reveals that the glass planes are indeed flush with the surface facade.  And as in Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1957), external wide-flange vertical beams are deployed as subtle ornament.

Eiffel Tower reflected onto Tativille glazing, from Playtime (1967)

This collapsing of window onto facade becomes yet another way to erase any distinction between building and image.  And this is even more so in Tati's film, where glazed curtain walls reflect other parts of Paris.  Here, then, glass becomes architecture.  Architecture becomes a screen that reflects images onto public space.  In short, as demonstrated by the various buildings (and reflections of buildings) in Playtime, architecture has become a true urban screen.

Let us return back to Weber's definition of "screen".  Specifically, the second definition—that of a screen as a filtering device—becomes important because is alludes to how an urban screen may be deployed in front of a building.  The urban screen becomes a site of impure opticality, a surface where various kinds of images, colors, and information, illuminate city spaces.  And yet, once we move beyond Huhtamo's archaeological investigations, we note that urban screens filter and obscure much more than the supporting architecture: they conceal histories of architectures that gave rise to this phenomenon in the first place.



[1] Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer, Introduction to Urban Screens Reader (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009), p. 10.
[2] Gianni Ranauldo, Light Architecture, New Edge City (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2001), p. 7.
[3] Erkki Huhtamo, "Messages on the Wall: An Archaeology of Public Media Displays" in Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer, Introduction to Urban Screens Reader (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009), p. 15.
[4] Samuel Weber, "Television: Set and Screen," in Alan Cholodenko, ed. Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), quoted in Reinhold Martin, "Atrocities.  Or, Curtain Wall as Mass Medium" Perspecta, Vol. 32, Resurfacing Modernism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001), p. 70.
[5] Stanley Appelbaum, trans., Erich Mendelsohn’s “Amerika”: 82 Photographs (New York: Dover Publications, 1993), p. 52.  The original caption reads:
Unheimlich. Die Konturen der Häuser sind aus gewischt. Aber in Bewußtsein steigen sie noch, laufen einander nach, überennen sich.
Das ist die Folie für die Flammenschriften, das Raketenfeuer der beweglichen Lichtreklame, auf- und untertauchend, verschwindend und ausbrechend über den Tausenden von Autos und dem Lustwirbel der Menschen.
Noch ungeordnet, weil übersteigert, aber doch schon voll von phantastischer Schönheit, die einmal vollendet sein wird.
Erich Mendelsohn, Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten (Berlin: Rudolf Mosse Verlag, 1928), p. 130.  For more information, see Enrique Ramirez, "Erich Mendelsohn at War" Perspecta, Vol. 41, Grand Tour (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2008).
[6] Ivar Lo-Johansson, The Author (1957), quoted in Dag Windman, Karin Winter, and Nina Stritzler-Levine, Bruno Mathsson: Architect and Designer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 14.
[7] Rober Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977 [1972]), p. 6.
[8] Venturi, "A Bill-Ding Board Involving Movies, Relics and Space," Architectural Forum (Apr., 1968) pp. 74-76.
[9] Joan Ockman, "Architecture in a Mode of Distraction: Eight Takes on Jacques Tati's Playtime," in Mark Lamster, ed. Architecture and Film (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), p. 189.
[10] Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967 [1941]), p. 385.