Body of an Angel

Geoff Manaugh at BLDG/BLOG wrote this inspiring pitch for Ghost Busters 3.

“…spoiler alert – halfway through the film, the Ghostbusters realize that NYNEX isn’t a phone system at all: it’s the embedded nervous system of an angel – a fallen angel – and all those phone calls and dial-up modems in college dorm rooms and public pay phones are actually connected into the fiber-optic anatomy of a vast, ethereal organism that preceded the architectural build-up of Manhattan. Manhattan came afterwards, that is: NYNEX was here first.”

I had an image of an enormous celestial being tripping and falling on the edge of our continent. It hit its “head” and lost consciousness, an enormous body made of stars and black voids of antimatter that only partially existed in three dimensional space sprawled out across from the Jersey shore to just south of Boston. It either died instantly or after millennia, but it was so long ago the rules of time weren’t yet codified and its passage would be incomprehensible to humans. After some great time or no time at all its body turned into outer space. It disincorporated itself and floated away from the earth like reverse meteorites. What’s left is a jumbled circuit of energy lines that were trapped as they were encased in copper that they “magnetically” seeped from the earth. If you can’t imagine it, maybe I’ll draw a picture.

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Salvador Dalí | What’s My Line

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The Value of Architecture in Civic Greatness (part 2)

In part one I argued in support of a more decorous and inspiring civic architecture, or at the very least to maintain those qualities in existing public structures.

As I was finishing the post I realized I hadn’t discussed an important point: the unique problems of civic architecture. I cited several buildings that I admire, Grand Central Station being among my all time favorites. Its enormous space is truly awe-inspiring and its fixtures are well maintained examples of a craftsmanship and attention to decorative detail that we don’t often see these days. I consider this to be a fine example of a truly inspiring civic architecture.

The problem is that Grand Central utilizes the same gestures as so many palaces, cathedrals, and fortresses. As these architectural motifs were developed in the service of sovereign powers as a means of subjugating a population rather than ennobling or empowering them, they’re not particularly well suited to the allegedly democratic ambitions of our civil society.

Historically, cathedrals have been built to inspire admiration and fear in a congregation by embodying the sublime. From Notre Dame to today’s mega-churches, a major theme in the architecture of worship is to dwarf the individual, subsuming and connecting him to the spiritual body of community and faith. Anyone who’s seen the Cologne Cathedral would be hard pressed to argue that that isn’t true at least some of the time.

The palace is also constructed to capitalize on the drama of scale. As the architectural expression of the sovereign’s power its important that subjects recognize in it the physical manifestation of the wealth, glory, and divine right to rule.

Similarly, one of the fortress’s chief functions is to intimidate any would be attackers. After all, the safest castle is one that doesn’t get attacked in the first place.

All of these architectures have one thing in common: the intent to subjugate and bring the will of the population or individual into docility.

These architectural symbols of power have been hybridized and articulated in contemporary architecture as well. A skyscraper is the palace of corporate power, built to inspire awe in its employees [subjects] and demonstrate might in the marketplace, private gated communities are fortresses, designed to intimidate would be invaders, and so on.

Now, I’m not changing my mind about the whole “civic architecture should inspire pride” issue, but none of this subjugation/intimidation stuff sounds like its in keeping with the principles of civic responsibility and participation. A well-considered civic architecture should reflect the values of the civil society it is constructed for. For us, that might mean that it needs to be democratic and scaled for human purposes, not the purposes of would-be gods and sovereigns. Our current architecture knocks the king off the throne and God out of heaven but replaces them with the State.

Some groundbreaking early 20th century architects sought to break with Neo-Classical motifs but utilized the same gestures of scale, mass, and volume to dwarf people. The ultimate end of a particular strain of subjugating architecture came when Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia imagined buildings so outside the scale of human use that they were unbuildable.

This is a logical end of one architectural vernacular of power (Futurist Fascism), but one that seems patently inappropriate for the democratic ambitions of the United States. In fact, public buildings in the last hundred years have been so quick to eschew humanness for dramatic effect that we can hardly imagine what a human shaped building would be like anymore.

My proposal is that a sensitive, inclusive, and participatory architecture should be developed for civic buildings. I could expand on any of these ideas but my thinking while typing would quickly turn itself into a book so here’s a basic list:

  • Civic architecture should be scaled appropriately for human use.
  • It should make citizens feel empowered, not small.
  • It should be ecologically responsible.
  • It should be local.
  • It should be sensitive to its context without pandering or mimicking pre-existing structures.
  • It should be historically relevant but also distinctly contemporary.
  • It should be designed chiefly to include and inspire all citizens, not to coerce, or intimidate, but to be open to participation and dialogue among citizens.
  • It should overtly reference the hand of the people who built it, ideally the work of craftsmen and laborers and not just the mechanized processes that render materials.
  • It should be inspiring yet modest.
  • It shouldn’t be cheap or common. Conversely it shouldn’t be ostentatiously luxurious.

I’m trying to think of buildings that embody these attribute, but I can’t. This fact alone sends up a red flag. Is this sort of building rare because its wrong-headed and impractical or because it disrupts that power of the bodies that enforce social regulation through architecture? What I’m looking for is obviously something that is at odds with Modernism, but also seemingly at odds with everything that’s come after.

I’m going to try to find some examples and come back to this. If anyone else comes up with any, please post them.

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The Value of Architecture in Civic Greatness (part 1)

I have jury duty this week. Most people seem to live in mortal fear of being chosen for a jury, but I’m actually happy to exercise this civil right/responsibility.

Beyond the many legal surprises, what interests me is the architecture and design of the spaces I’ve seen. It’s clear that the Brooklyn supreme court was once a fine modernist embodiment of the principles of law, order, and justice, built solidly of marble, glass, steel, and wood as a symbol and manifestation of state power.

The traditional aesthetic of state power in the US is rooted in a bizarre sort of neo-classicism that was preferred by the founding fathers (I’m looking at you Jefferson!) and emulated through the next two centuries in state capitols, post offices, and public university buildings. This architectural vernacular is a manufactured symbol of the stability and longevity of a great nation, a not so subtle attempt to tie our history to those of much older and much admired societies. It utilizes the same semiotic mechanisms that most national chain stores use to signify authenticity. Applebee’s signifies the authenticity of time honored Americana and folk culture by putting a bunch of goofy crap up on the wall, the government signifies authentic authority by making believe that the United States was founded in some fantasy version of antiquity. In the context of Doric columns and Prussian eagles the imperious judge with his timeless robes seem natural. Despite the fact that judges robes, Doric columns, and Prussian eagles are actually completely anachronistic to one another.

The Brooklyn Supreme Court was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon and completed in 1958. The architectural design is a well-considered adaptation of a mid-century American modernist style used to express the ideas of a strong juridical power, one based on centuries of tradition descendant from English sovereign rule. (There’s even an educational video shown to jurors to explain the origins of our legal system). It appropriates the language of post-war international corporations as a means of describing power. Since then a few elements have been added (escalators for instance) that update the aesthetic somewhat to a later International style.

The true success of this modernist expression of government power lies in how well the judge is able to convey the authority of the state, which in this case I can imagine was quite well when the building was originally erected in 1958. The large common areas are suitably over-sized to intimidate citizens. Important people sit up high and do their best to address the subjects of the law with respect and dignity. The judge wears a judge’s costume, the lawyers wear lawyer costumes (some better than others) and those things seem to fit their environments. My court room is a nearly perfect cube of paneled wood. The dramatic height of the ceilings accommodates an over-sized inscription that interestingly seems to have been chiseled out of the wood paneling in Futura, as if the wood were stone.

This last bit seems symbolically potent to me. The “chiseled” lettering is an oblique reference to the chiseled capitals traditionally found on the friezes of neo-classical buildings but the use of the ur modernist letterforms in a softer material is a sly wink. The effect is dramatically scaled and smartly contemporary to mid century American sensibilities. All in all, it’s easy to see why people approved of this building in 1958.

However, today there are some problems.

Since its construction there seem to have been quite a few additions, primarily to the diminshment of the experience of state power. As we jurors were moved from one holding area to the next in a series of warren like antechambers and waiting rooms I couldn’t help but notice that the once noble building has begun to show signs of wear. As needed, it has been repaired primarily with frugality and efficiency in mind. Where you would naturally expect an extension of the original materials you find that marble, terrazzo, wood, glass, and steel have been replaced by laminates, acoustic tile, cheap paint, and mundane office furniture designed for heavy use. The most jarring juxtaposition is the proliferated composite wood furniture found throughout the building. This includes the lectern from which the attorneys question their witnesses and the desks provided for court clerks and recorders. The counselor’s lectern is particularly vexing because the laminate clashes with the benches directly behind it.

Economically it makes a lot of sense to repair the building in this way. Undoubtedly taxpayers don’t want to imagine that millions of dollars are being sunk into these old buildings for no other demonstrable benefit than keeping them pretty. The cost of materials has outpaced inflation as has the cost of fine detail labor. The wear and tear on the building is substantial as thousands of people use it ever day. Its responsible to a frugal constituency that demands fiscal accountability for the use of its tax dollars.

I would argue that the loss of esteem and civic pride isn’t worth the savings. The paradox is that as the building begins to look shabbier citizens are bound to lose respect for the government and pride in their own civic participation. Once we’re disenfranchised we don’t feel the responsibility to support a fading institution and things get worse. The less we admire the court, the less we want to participate in the law. This attitude is clearly expressed by people’s aversion to jury duty and their unwillingness to dignify the proceedings with comportment and attire that they once demanded. It was sad to hear a court employee tell hundreds of jurors that food, beverages, and cell phones are not allowed in the court rooms. I can’t help but believe that in a different environment this would be self evident. I could be wrong, but I don’t imagine that at the beginning of mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral a priest comes over a loud speaker and tells people they need to smoke outside.

In capitalist enterprises this is implicitly understood. While fiscal responsibility to shareholders would naturally lead corporations to build modest offices, most do precisely the opposite: they build luxuriously appointed testaments to their power and wealth. They want to inspire confidence in their partners and intimidation in their competitors, not assurance of conservatively sound reason (one of the rare exceptions to this strategy is Wal Mart, who’s modest corporate offices have been well documented).

The case for this strategy being implemented in civic projects has been made in the restoration or Grand Central Terminal. Every day I travel through this secular cathedral I marvel at the power and beauty of my city. I feel pride and a connection to the greatness of New York. I feel similarly about the 42nd street library, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Bridge. These projects are just a few of a long history of civic projects intended to work practically as well as inspire and awe. From pyramids to aqueducts to places of worship, every great civilization has not coincidentally built for greatness. I hate to think that we have decided to leave construction of our legacy as a civilization to private industry because we are too practical to strive for greatness.

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Soft Prog | Experimental and Smooth

One of the joys of record collecting is getting to create new taxonomies of music. Record stores do an passable (albeit subtly racist) job of organizing records so they’re easy to find, but most of them don’t do much to help create new connections and genres of music.

Every time we reorganize our records we create a new system before we start shuffling things around. The joy in the end is discovering cultural associations and musical connections that we didn’t know existed before. Suddenly artists we’d never connected to one another sit side by side on shelves. The gaps in our collection are exposed, and most excitingly, new genres emerge.

A genre I would love to see gain wide acknowledgment is Soft Prog. Soft Prog is (or should be) a cousin of traditional progressive rock, but with a decidedly smooth sensibility. Think about it like this: if there is a bleed on one end of the spectrum from early metal bands (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple) into prog groups (King Crimson, Jethro Tull), then soft prog would be the other end of prog that interfaces with smoother, “light” rock and “easy listening” (The Captain and Tennille or Barry Manilow for example).

As a fan of this wholly contrived genre, I’ve compiled a few examples below. They span from the early 70’s to the early 00’s. I’ll refrain from any amateur musicology that would attempt to articulate the common musical thread and instead let these songs do the work for me. Enjoy. Next up: Avant Soul.

10 CC | I’m not in Love

The Band | Whispering Pines

Roxy Music | Mother of Pearl

Alan Parsons Project | Eye in the Sky

Robert Fripp and Daryl Hall | North Star

Robert Wyatt | Shipbuilding

Sebastien Tellier | Universe

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Cool Lessons | The Ronettes Be My Baby (w/ a little Sam and Dave at the end)

The Ronettes were one of the greatest girl groups of all time. This clip devolves into a sort of hysteria induced collapse. I imagine Ronnie Spector as a preacher in a church of teenage cool who’s being driven by a mass hypnosis machine devised by her mad svengali husband. Its funny to think that parents were scared of rock n roll, because this has clearly taken over these kids minds.

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Raquel Welch Space Dance

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Wayfaring Stranger | Bill Monroe

Michel and I came across this video yesterday. I was already thinking of doing a bit about how cool Marty Stuart was in Lester Flatts’s Nashville Grass. After seeing this I couldn’t imagine posting any other bluegrass video. Even Lester Flatt was just Bill Monroe’s side man, and Marty was Lester’s side man. As cool as he is, when Marty Stuart is standing on stage with Bill Monroe he’s just a man standing next to an icon. So here’s the original, Mr. Bill Monroe.

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A typographer who doesn’t read for pleasure is like a chef who doesn’t like eating.

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¡Que Viva México! “The Mexican scorns death”

In 1931 the great Sergei Eisenstein traveled to Mexico to film a documentary about the Mexican people. The film was financed by Upton Sinclair (now that’s a commie team up!) Eisenstein and Sinclair planned on filming one more segment but were unable to get funding before Stalin recalled Eisenstein and slapped him on the wrist by denying him funding. Regardless, the film is amazing even in its incomplete form.

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