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Architectural Blasphemy, and Other News

April 20, 2015 | by

Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino House, 1914.

  • Readings from Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, and Czesław Miłosz are among the new recordings released by the Library of Congress, which has finally digitized some seventy-five years of magnetic-tape reels.
  • Poetry is, to some extent, the art of “anti-aphorism,” “seemingly wise but ultimately ungraspable”: “I believe that to read poetry, one must have a mind of poetry. You must enter a state where you come to understand meaning-resistant arrangements of language as having their own kind of meaning. It’s quite similar to those Magic Eye posters from the nineties: If you haven’t figured out how to look at them, you can’t believe that anyone really sees the dolphin.”
  • In late eighteenth-century London, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies served as a kind of vade mecum for the seasoned brothel-goer, endeavoring to list “the most celebrated ladies now on the town.” It was so salacious that its creators eventually wound up in jail. A sample listing for one Mrs. Banner speaks of her “irresistible eye”; her “favourite spot below” apparently “calls for the Priapian weapon,” eager “to receive it in her sheath at its most powerful thrust up to the hilt.”
  • In the early twentieth century, Le Corbusier concocted Maison Dom-Ino, a blueprint for standardized housing with all the hallmarks of modernism: he envisioned a skeletal structure of concrete slabs. His idea was never realized, but decades later, Italian architects borrowed liberally from his designs, and now Maison Dom-Ino rip-offs freckle the countryside: “It’s a design innovation that’s been turned into something, especially in Italy, that is regarded as something completely the opposite. It’s a form of architectural blasphemy. It became synonymous with an eyesore, and a dilapidated landscape.”
  • On Frank Stanford’s new collected poems, What About This: “More than anything, like Basho, like Li Po, like Emily Dickinson and Yeats, Stanford was a poet of the moon. The moon cycles through nearly every of his poems. And it’s never the same moon sliver. The moon gravitates as a  ‘beautiful white spider,’ ‘a dead man floating down the river,’ ‘a woman in a red dress / standing on the beach.’ It’s ‘a plate with no supper,’ ‘a clock with twelve numbers,’ it’s ‘swollen up / like a mosquito’s belly’ … ”

Dreams from a Glass House: An Interview with Josiah McElheny

February 9, 2015 | by

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Phillip Kester’s portrait of Paul Scheerbart, 1910. Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Fotografie, Archiv Kester

Paul Scheerbart doesn’t figure very prominently in modern German belles lettres—nor, more regrettably, on the drafting tables of venerated Berliner architects and urban planners. Scheerbart, an eccentric, Danzig-born poet and architectural theorist, is best remembered through obscure citations from Walter Benjamin, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut. But in the spirited era of Berlin’s café culture, he was a popular serialist, publisher, and proto-surrealist. From the late 1880s to his premature death in 1915, he wrote prolifically on science, urban planning and design, space travel, and gender politics, often in the course of a single text. His most celebrated treatise, Glass Architecture (Glasarchitektur, 1914) foretold of a sublime, technocratic civilization whose peaceful world-order was borne from the proliferation of crystal cities and floating continents of chromatic glass, a vision summed up in his aphorism: “Colored glass destroys all hatred at last.”

Taut, an architect and devoted disciple, dedicated his 1914 Werkbund Exhibition building, the Glass House, to Scheerbart—his so-called “Glass Papa.” Like his French contemporaries Camille Flammarion, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Raymond Roussel, and Alfred Jarry, Scheerbart’s prophetic oeuvre oscillated between themes of technology and aesthetics in a genre known in the Francophone world as fantastique.

Translations of Scheerbart texts have trickled into the English-speaking realm; Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader, edited by Josiah McElheny and Christine Burgin, is the first attempt at an English-language collection. Assembled from his fiction and critical works, drawings and photographs, and secondary texts from friends and acolytes, the book’s publication hopes to inspire what McElheny calls a new generation of “Scheerbartians.”

I recently spoke to McElheny by phone from his studio in Brooklyn, where we discussed Scheerbart’s belated American reception, the cultural amnesia of World War I, and our mutual fascination with Utopian literature.

How did you first come across Scheerbart’s writing?

The first major publication of his work in translation was Glass Architecture in 1972. I read that sometime around 1988, and I didn’t really know what to make of it. I came to it as though it were an architecture book, but it read to me like a piece of literature. I found it to be captivating and somewhat Borges-like—not in structure but in its spirit. Then around 2001, there was the publication of The Gray Cloth with Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel. I was struck by its very unusual literary style—very sparse, thematic, and highly evocative—and fascinated by the entire novel, which is about people struggling over the political and spiritual meaning of aesthetics. I had never encountered anything like it in historical literature—the way it speaks in a proto-feminist voice but also with the deep undertone of misogyny that one associates with that era. It was a very disturbing book and it really bothered me—the way in which he demonstrates how aesthetics can have this implication about sexuality. I had so many questions about the translation itself. Later I learned that much of the strangeness of the language lay in the original German. Read More »

The Pomegranate Architect

January 29, 2015 | by

Becoming the world’s only accidental architect.

Ray Bradbury

From the cover of Sam Weller’s Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.

I first met Ray Bradbury while writing a feature story for the Chicago Tribune magazine in 2000, the year he turned eighty, and we quickly bonded over our shared childhood experiences (roughly fifty years apart) growing up in northern Illinois, as well as in Southern California. We had a remarkable number of things in common and a similar sense of curiosity and a joie de vivre, and we began to work together closely, as I became his authorized biographer.

For two years, from early 2010 to April 2012, Ray had an essay that he wanted to work on each time we met. It was always one of the first things he mentioned—“Can we work on my architecture essay today?”

Despite the fact that he had written about his work in the field of architecture in his book of essays, Yestermorrow, and I had surveyed his work extensively in my biography, Ray was resolved to get the entirety of his creations in the field of architecture down in one essay. He wanted me to submit it to Architectural Digest. The essay was never completed—it was never quite right, because he always had more memories or thoughts he wanted to add to it. And it was rough, having been dictated over many months. Even on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, with guests in the house, he called me into his den and asked me to record a new section. And the very last time I saw him, less than two months before he passed, he asked me again to help him finish it. There was something vital about this essay to Ray Bradbury—he wanted, I think, to prove to the world his influence on the field of architecture. Whatever the case, he very much wanted this essay published. It is presented here and in Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, in rough form, for the very first time. —Sam Weller

 

How did I become an architect? It was all a happy accident. I suspect it began when I was three years old, living in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1923. My grandfather influenced me by showing me architecture. He had pictures of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. I looked at these pictures through an old stereopticon, a Viewmaster, and I could see all the old, beautiful buildings.

When I was five, my grandfather influenced me yet again. And I think this caused me to go on and to eventually influence other people and to start thinking about public spaces and buildings myself. My grandfather was so important. When I was around five years old, he showed me a copy of the magazine Harper’s Weekly. It was an issue from around 1899, and it contained a story by H. G. Wells called “When the Sleeper Wakes.” The story had marvelous illustrations showing the cities of tomorrow. They were so beautiful. I fell in love with those pictures. They burned into my subconscious. Read More »

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How Not to Preserve Ancient Scrolls, and Other News

January 23, 2015 | by

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A replica demonstrates how a scroll might have looked when it was new. Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto, 2014

  • Resolve your literary feud the media-friendly way: (1) do it at a public event, (2) make sure there’s not a dry eye in the house, and (3) invoke the memory of Charles Dickens, just for the sport of it. More than fifteen years ago, V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux “fell out in a spectacularly-bitter war of words, after Naipaul sold some of Theroux’s gifts at auction. The anger seethed for almost two decades. But on Wednesday the hatchet was resoundingly buried, with eighty-two-year-old Naipaul breaking down in tears after Theroux praised one of his most famous books at a literary festival in India, and compared the author to Charles Dickens.”
  • Centuries ago, an excavation in Italy revealed a collection of some two thousand ancient Roman scrolls, most of them treatises on Epicurean philosophy. Unfortunately, the scrolls have a tendency to crumble in your hands, which makes it fairly difficult to read or even preserve them. People have tried taking knives to them (didn’t work), applying a gelatin-based adhesive (didn’t work), or just throwing them away (didn’t work). The latest solution: X-rays.
  • The architect who bought Ray Bradbury’s Los Angeles house demolished it earlier this month, thus unleashing a furor from Bradbury fans. “It’s really been a bummer,” the architect said, adding in his defense that the home was exceptionally bland. “I could make no connection between the extraordinary nature of the writer and the incredible un-extraordinariness of the house.” Yesterday he hatched a new plan to honor the space: a wall.
  • On Quvenzhané Wallis’s black Annie: “the fact that a black Annie has arrived on the scene at this particular cultural moment seems to me cruelly ironic … When it comes to persuading Americans about the virtue of selfishness, Ayn Rand has nothing on Annie … By making innocence seem invulnerable, Annie and other Teflon kids in fiction and film have helped to enable the widespread apathy about social inequalities that allows Americans to claim that our society is child-centered even though the percentage of children living in poverty in this country continues to grow.”
  • Has technology accelerated life to the point of meaninglessness? On Judy Wajcman’s Pressed for Time: “Wajcman recalls seeing, at a nursing home, a daughter with one arm slung around her elderly mother, the other tapping on her smartphone. Though Wajcman acknowledges an initial negative judgment of this scene, she quickly reconsidered. The elderly mother was clearly not very aware of her surroundings and was likely comforted by her daughter’s presence. The daughter was able to provide this solace while engaging in other activities. (She could also have been reading a book or magazine.) Is this really to be condemned?”

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Behind Our Latest Cover

December 5, 2014 | by

TPR 211The cover of our new Winter issue features Stairs Building, a photograph by Marc Yankus, who’s been taking pictures of architecture since the nineties, though he doesn’t consider himself an architectural photographer. The building is in Manhattan, on Thirty-Ninth Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Marc wrote to me about it:

In Stairs Building, I was drawn to the strange design of the rectangles off the street-side facade and the discreet doors tucked away toward the back. I spotted the building from a rooftop party I’d attended—its unusual shape drew me in, and I felt compelled to come back and photograph it. 

I’m not sure what it is about some buildings that just stops me in my tracks. Everything around them vanishes. I notice that I am often attracted to older architecture and unusual, forgotten buildings. For this portrait, I faded out the surroundings in a haze, making the featured building more prominent and monolithic. 

This photograph was taken in mid-July, 2013.

In our new issue you’ll find “The Secret Life of Buildings,” a portfolio of sixteen of Yankus’s pictures with an introduction from our art editor, Charlotte Strick. Subscribe now and have a look. In the meantime, here’s a larger version of Stairs Building, plus a few additional photographs not included in the portfolio: Read More »

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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 2

November 7, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Read Part 1 here.

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Karl-Marx-Allee Block C South, 1951.

Philipp and Quentin live in an apartment next to the Rose Garden, in Block D North, a comely segment of the Karl-Marx-Allee designed by Kurt Leucht.

“It takes time to get used to the style of the buildings,” Quentin tells me. “It’s so massive. There’s nothing delicate in the style.” He points to the oversized street lamps from his window. The lampposts dwarf the cars parked beside them; the lights alone are taller than a seven-year-old child. Life disappears in this enormity. “If you’re sitting on the grass, you don’t see the insects. If you look out the window, you see everything.”

The apartment’s former tenant, Philipp tells me, spent some six decades here and just recently passed away. In the kitchen, Philipp shows me the “refrigerator” that tenant used in the days of the GDR: a wooden cupboard under the window, built into the building’s thick walls. It was the coolest space in the room.

When they were built, the buildings of the Stalinallee were—with their elevators, gas heating, warm water, and private bathrooms—considered luxurious. But the GDR faced a severe lack of resources: certain innovations and foreign-produced goods, like automobiles and refrigerators were produced and acquired at a stiflingly slow pace. Over time, the immaculate facades of the Karl-Marx-Allee fell off. The GDR was coming apart, and so were its buildings. The ceramic tiles began to drop—some fifty thousand square meters of them were lost. There were no replacements, and even if there had been, there were no volunteers and hardly any workers to put them up. Read More »

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