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Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

The Phantoms of the Fifteenth Arrondissement

August 11, 2015 | by

In an unremarkable section of Paris, Roger Caillois saw hiding places for “floating beings.”

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Caillois ca. 1975. Photo: R. Minnaert

Pity the Fifteenth! Paris’s most populous arrondissement is also one of its least celebrated. Stretching from the Front de Seine high-rises in the northwest to the Tour de Montparnasse in the southeast, the Fifteenth is sleepy, residential, and architecturally undistinguished. Home to minor government agencies and the headquarters of various corporations, its streets and thoroughfares are named for military officers, former colonial possessions, inventors, and Émile Zola, France’s dullest great novelist. Rue des Entrepreneurs intersects Rue de Commerce, where it branches off into Rue de l’Église and Rue Mademoiselle, which gives a good indication of what was on the minds of the men who incorporated the small suburban villages of Grenelle, Javel, and Vaugirard into the metropolis in the early years of the Second Empire. To make matters worse, the Fifteenth is tantalizingly adjacent to some of Paris’s genuine landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower, located just across the Avenue de Suffren in the Seventh, the Cimetière Montparnasse, on the other side of the neighborhood’s eponymous and much-reviled skyscraper, or the tony apartment buildings on right bank of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.

Yet this is Paris, and even the most unremarkable stretches of Zone 1 have their devoted mythographers. Born in 1913 in Reims, the jack-of-all-genres Roger Caillois knew something about being fame-adjacent. If you were to look at the faded group photographs of some of the most important avant-garde literary movements of the twentieth century, you would see him, in the background, with his thick eyebrows and chubby cheeks, manuscript in hand, ready to launch into a lecture about his latest intellectual obsession: mimicry, ludology, the sacred, gemstones, secret societies, science fiction, the City of Light. As a student at the prestigious École pratique des hautes études, Caillois became acquainted with the works of pioneering philosophers and anthropologists like Alexandre Kojève and Marcel Mauss. He was a member of the surrealists until a disagreement with André Breton over the nature of a Mexican jumping bean got him kicked out of the movement. He went on to found a discussion group, the Collège de Sociologie, with fellow excommunicant George Bataille, contributing articles to Bataille’s journal Acéphale while skipping the meetings of his secret society, one of which notoriously involved a serious discussion about a ritual sacrifice of one of the members. Walter Benjamin loathed him, but nevertheless included several citations from his writings on Paris in The Arcades Project. In Buenos Aires, where Caillois, a militant antifascist, spent the war years, he met Victoria Ocampo, the editor of the journal Sur. Ocampo was responsible for publishing some of the leading lights of what would become known as the Latin American Boom. Upon his return to France, Caillois took up a position at UNESCO, using his influence there to introduce the French reading public to his new friends Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Silvina Ocampo. Read More »

Tickle the Feline Ivories, and Other News

July 17, 2015 | by

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Illustration of the cat piano from La Nature, vol. 11, 1883.

  • Earlier this year, Donald Antrim gave a commencement speech at Woodberry Forest School. His subject was “the unprotected life” and coping with its devastations. For years after a long suicidal depression, he said, “I did not write. It was enough to be restored, and I deeply and sincerely regretted ever writing at all. I’d seen what it could do, what my own choices, my own work, had done to me. I was afraid of what I might write, and afraid, too, that, were I to sit down to it, were I to try, I would only learn that I was broken, and that it was no longer possible for me to bring out a word.”
  • Time was, if you didn’t like any of the real musical instruments out there in the world, you’d just make one up in writing. The rich history of “fictophones”—imaginary musical instruments—includes Francis Bacon’s pluperfect sound-houses (“where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation”), the tublo cochleato (an enormous French horn-ish megaphone thing for amplifying the voice), and the torturetron (an organ that sends spikes into the sides of anyone near it, thus adding their pained groans to its own sounds). Best of all, though, is the cat piano, “a set of cats arrayed as sound-producing elements to be activated by the fingers,” which dates to the sixteenth century and was rumored to have cured an Italian prince of his melancholia.
  • Information overload is often depicted as one of the most tragic fates of the media age, anathema to all who prize the human condition. But it could be pretty good for poets, who can drown themselves in the “information sublime”: “Poets have not been passive victims of the proliferation of information, but rather have actively participated in—sometimes benefiting from, sometimes implicitly advocating, sometimes resisting—that proliferation … Poetries of information overload—by which I mean poetries and poems that relate either formally or historically to information saturation—demonstrate an extraordinary range of innovative responses to changing technological conditions.”
  • Today in the shifting sands of interlingual communication: German phrases have begun to yield to their English equivalents in interesting, not to say insidious, ways. “Germans are noticing that English is changing their fixed phrases, and even grammar. In English, something ‘makes sense.’ For Germans, though, ‘es hat Sinn’ (it has sense) or ‘es ist sinvoll’ (it’s sensible). The German is actually more logical. How, as in English, is something sensible actually making sense? The question is unanswerable; language is weird, and idioms especially. But nonetheless, many Germans are starting to say es macht Sinn, a loan-translation straight from English. Germans are proud of being thoughtful and logical; the idea that making sense is something they would have to borrow from the English might give a traditionalist the shivers.”
  • New York has a long, sad history of demolishing architectural wonders: the original Penn Station, the Roxy Theatre, St. John’s Church, the City Hall Post Office. The establishment, in 1965, of the Landmarks Preservation Commission did something to stop the destruction, but it was late in coming—a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks,” reminds of all that’s been lost.

Solve Your Problems with Symmetry, and Other News

July 15, 2015 | by

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The Shaker Meetinghouse in New Lebanon, Columbia County, New York.

  • Philosophers are always telling us what to do and why to do it—telling us, in essence, how to rescue ourselves from childhood, how to grow up. For Vivian Gornick, their advice is lacking in what a college counselor might call real-world experience: “The Hebrew philosopher Hillel urged that we do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Kant urged, similarly, that we not make instrumental use of one another. With all the good will in the world—and remarkable numbers of people have it—we have not been able to make these noble recommendations carry the day. Not because we are lazy or venal or incompetent but because most of us live in a state of inner conflict that makes purity of behavior an impossibility. Every day of our lives we transgress against our own longing to act well: our tempers are ungovernable, our humiliations unforgettable, our fantasies ever present … ”
  • Today in ill-advised marketing campaigns: the Australian publisher of the new Lisbeth Salander novel has taken branding to a disturbingly literal level in its quest to find “a female fan prepared to ‘donate’ her back for three months. This would have involved being adorned with her very own Dragon Tattoo for advertising purposes.” The so-called tatvertising campaign sought to find someone who could “handle the pain, just like Lisbeth Salander.” The publisher has since canceled the promotion, but there’s nothing stopping true fans from pursuing masochism to please their corporate masters.
  • Does the art market depress you? The answer should be a resounding yes—no one likes plundering plutocrats. But here’s a thought: you can probably just ignore the whole sordid commercial aspect of the thing. “Sensing that people will one day look back on this era as a freakish episode in cultural history, why not get a head start on viewing it that way? Detach and marvel. Meanwhile, art goes on making meaning for those who are rich only in the desire and leisure to engage with it … To expect the running-scared super-rich to behave benevolently, in regards to art, is plainly foolish.”
  • So you’re conceiving a building in which the sexes are segregated—congratulations! The Shakers have just the kind of architectural design you need. The key is extreme symmetry, “in which one side meticulously mirrors the other, door for door, stair for stair, each fitting answering another … The control implicit in the design goes further. Men and women worked in different trades, so rarely encountered one another in the workplace … The Shakers perfected what they called a ‘living building’: a settlement that served their purposes while also reinforcing their separation from non-believing outsiders.”
  • Critical thinking remains an integral part of an education in the liberal arts—and a vague, endlessly broad term, with no real applicability. What is it? How do we use it? For the answers to these and other unanswerable questions, all you have to do is go to college. But even there the term is on watch now. “One of my colleagues adamantly rejected the inclusion of an allegedly trendy catchphrase (‘experiential learning’) as part of our mission statement, and insisted that we use ‘critical thinking’ instead. My colleague was ostensibly rejecting the professionalization of college education, in favor of the more properly academic priority of intellect. This preference, however, struck me as curious, as it revealed that ‘critical thinking’—whatever cluster of ideas or intellectual ideals hide behind the phrase—had become something for which we felt nostalgia.”

Chez Donald Judd

July 6, 2015 | by

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Donald Judd moved into 101 Spring Street, in New York’s Soho neighborhood, in 1968. The area was then the “Wild West,” as artist Trisha Brown once put it: a wasteland in which anything was possible. Judd had purchased the five-story, century-old building for sixty-eight thousand dollars and immediately set about restoring its interior, floor by floor, detail by detail—a project that would take him nearly a quarter century to complete. (Today, it is the only single-use cast-iron building remaining in Soho.) He aimed to create open, minimal spaces for working and living in which all elements existed in harmony, both in the context of the building’s architecture and with regard to his own aesthetic. On the fourth floor, for instance, he reproduced the parallel wood planes of flooring on the ceiling; the room feels like a light-filled wooden box.

Judd also intermixed nineteenth- and early twentieth-century objects—such as a cast-iron wood-burning stove, tin ceilings, an oak rolltop desk—and pieces from his substantial personal art collection, which includes sculpture, drawing, painting, furniture, and prints by John Chamberlain, Carl Andre, Lucas Samaras, Marcel Duchamp, Alvar Aalto, and others. Some of his interventions, however, are less formal: in the second-floor kitchen, a flap of wood on the wall opens to reveal a puppet theater Judd devised for his children. Read More »

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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 »