Take Sussman’s fish test here

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Image from Ann Sussman’s fish test (which you may just have taken).

Ann Sussman, the Concord, Mass., architect and researcher, asked me to take a test a few days ago. I was to look at a set of illustrations of fishes and note what my eyes do. I took her test, and my eyes did what they wanted to do. Please, reader, take the test – very brief – and then return to this post.

Pausing while you take the test

Welcome back! The test results affirm the idea that our eyes instinctively seek faces in everything we look at. This idea has been central to Sussman’s pathbreaking research. If a face can be found in a picture of a fish or in the façade (root: face) of a building, our eyes will find it and focus on it first. That’s what the fish test is all about. The basic facial configuration can be manipulated, for example by turning it upside down. Your eye will see it as a face, but if a rightside-up face sits next to the upside-down face, your eye will always go to the more traditional face first.

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Harvard Lampoon Building. (Wikipedia)

The fish test is one of many explanations of why people, led by their eyes and their brains, prefer traditional architecture to modern architecture. Traditional buildings are far more likely to have windows, doors and other features that manifest as faces. A building beloved of many visitors to Cambridge is the Harvard Lampoon, in which the configuration of a face is even more obvious than in most traditional architecture. Or just look at any drawing of a house by a child.

Sussman uses eye-tracking computers to carry out the experiments that have led her to her conclusions. Pictures of traditional buildings draw the eye to windows and doors in patterns that resemble a face. Pictures of modernist buildings generally draw the eye to windows and doors as well, but not first, because the patterns do not generally resemble a face. In pictures of modernist buildings, in fact, the eye often does not even focus on the building itself, which can seem blank, but rather it focuses on its edges or a nearby street lamp or traffic light, as if the eye really couldn’t be bothered with it. Read what you like into this, but for most people the phenomenon reads as a preference for traditional architecture.

For more information, visit Ann Sussman’s website, The Genetics of Design.

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How eye tracking interprets the features of modernist and traditional buildings. (Sussman)

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Along NYC’s Museum Mile

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Block of townhouses along East 79th St., near New York’s Museum Mile. (Zack DeZon/NYT)

In late March, Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic for the New York Times, strolled up Fifth Avenue with architectural historian Andrew Dolkart of Columbia University on a “virtual tour” of the Museum Mile. Readers of this blog are indebted to Kristen Richards of the ArchNewsNow website for reprinting Kimmelman’s wonderful article, his second in a new series on the streets of New York City in this viral period. His first was on Broadway.)

Conversing along the way, the two discuss not just the museums – mostly repurposed mansions – but the townhouses along the side streets off of Fifth. What they had to say, however, is not as fascinating as the accompanying photographs taken by Zack DeZon for the Times. Zowie! I even thought of entitling this post “Zack DeZon for president” but decided against it.

As for Kimmelman and Dolkart, their interest focused more on the lineage of the buildings’ ownership than on the design of their glorious façades. Feel free to ignore the chat and focus on the photos. Still, the text is not without its own revelatory titillations. For example, Dolkart really seems to love the architecture of the side streets, in this case 79th Street. He declares:

In House of Mirth, Edith Wharton’s heroine turns a corner and sees grand new houses, “fantastically varied, in obedience to the American craving for novelty.” Americans at the turn of the century felt they had inherited the whole of Western civilization, that it was theirs to do with as they wished. …

And why not? Dolkart seems slightly miffed at that. Nevertheless, he goes on to further describe the variety of the buildings along East 79th:

So you get the Acuavella Galleries at 18 East 79th, designed in 1908 by Ogden Codman Jr., a Francophile, next to a building that looks like it was shipped from Bedford Square in London, next to two buildings that could have arrived straight from Beacon Hill, Boston. Then the block ends at the corner of 79th and Fifth with a chateau from the Loire Valley. Crazy and wonderful.

[Kimmelman:] And it works together.

I think of this variety as Americanness. The corner chateau, for example, both fits in and stands out.

And of course all of this beauty is affirmed by DeZon’s photography. He may be almost as good as Sandor Bodo of the Providence Journal.

And yet neither Kimmelman nor Dolkart seem to have noticed the implications of their mutual pleasure in the creativity and innovation of classical architecture. These days classical creativity and innovation are in very bad odor, amounting to pure denial. This is because damning classicism as “unimaginative” is de rigueur under the rules of the lockstep modernist response to the proposed presidential executive order shifting federal architectural styles from modernism to classicism. I don’t know where Dolkart stands on the E.O., but Kimmelman himself recently opined that it amounts to a “war on architectural innovation.”

So, notwithstanding how happy we are to see this article, a slap to the wrist of Mr. Kimmelman is in order. And a gentler slap on the wrist for Mr. Dolkart as well, who has yet to get with the program. Where are Kimmelman’s editors at the Times? Asleep at the switch?

Just askin’.

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Embellishments of the Ukrainian Institute, designed by C.P.H. Gilbert. (DeZon/NYT)

 

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How the coronavirus fools us

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Coronavirus battalion prepares to attack human immune system. (Getty)

Citizens worldwide are wondering how the coronavirus behaves after entry into the human body. How does it get past our immune system? Scientific antiviral studies report that the coronavirus, once inside its host, does not continue to look like a golf ball sprouting tees. It anthropomorphically mutates into novel strains with facial recognition systems designed to fool human antibodies into letting it sneak past our immune response system. Below, enhanced by photographic microscopy, are some of those strains:

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April Fools! The images above are not mutant stages of the coronavirus but microscopic photographs of small natural creatures that might nevertheless be competing to beat the virus into your body, migrating from your scalp or your food or the grass you roll around in your backyard or the park to which you flee home for fresh air and exercise. The images have been compiled by a website called Sad and Useless (sadanduseless.com). Tip of the hat to my friend Marya Schrier, of East Providence, for sending them on Facebook to my wife, Victoria, who graciously volunteered to infect my dreams with their charmingly humanoid features. Visit here to learn each critter’s identity.

Posted in Humor | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sports ban play-by-play

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Nick Heath’s play-by-play in the market-bargaining regional qualifier. (Rugby Media)

Survive the shutdown of life, including the sportin’ life, amid the coronavirus pandemic by watching out-of-work British rugby broadcaster Nick Heath’s hilarious play-by-play for a string of everyday events in London. From the market-bargaining regional qualifier (top photo) to the international 4×4 pushchair final to pigeon dressage to the two-lonely-blokes-in-a-park final to the find-a-bargain steeplechase to the find-a-brunette-a-seat qualifier to the 2020 crossroad dash (bottom photo) – 15 video clips of two or three dozen seconds per clip – they are all totally hilarious, though some might be more to your taste than others. Press “Play All” (or the red button on iPhone) for all 15 to play one after the other. The clips are produced by Nick Heath for Rugby Media. Enjoy! This may be all the Olympics we get anytime soon.

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The 2020 crossroad dash, in London. (Rugby Media)

Posted in Humor, Video | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The foreboding of H.H. Reed

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I reprint this post less than a year after its publication last May because, for the first time in modern architectural history, there is a chance that the Modern Movement might get its come-uppance. The proposed executive order to shift federal buildings away from modernism and toward classicism, if it is signed by President Trump, would vindicate the seminal advocate of classicism, the late Henry Hope Reed. It is Reed’s vision, in his 1959 book The Golden City, that Bruno Zevi warns against in the review quoted below.

***

Here’s a passage from “Warning to the Architectural Avant-Garde,” in the May 1959 issue of the journal L’Architettura, by Bruno Zevi, as translated in a collection of essays called Architecture in America: A Battle of Styles, edited by William A. Coles and (the late) Henry Hope Reed, Jr., published in 1961*:

If historical-critical thinking in Italy has any value, it should succeed in defeating the intertia, uncertainties, formalistic evasions, and superficialities which presently pollute the Modern Movement and threaten its development. …

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Henry Hope Reed in Rome.

This year there was published in the United States a book entitled The Golden City by Henry Hope Reed, Jr. It is the most reactionary but also the most skilful attack on Modern architecture written in the last decades. It begins by comparing a series of buildings executed in the Greco-Roman style between 1860 and 1920 with their Modern equivalents and it concludes in favor of the former. …

With a consistency and a display of ideas worthy of a better cause, Reed denies the significance of a century of history and maintains that it is not only necessary to return to false arches, columns with bases and capitals, and pastiche decoration, but that we will inevitably return to these because the language of Modern architecture has gone sterile and its crisis can only end in a return to the neoclassical.

We must consider this book not so much to refute it analytically as to understand how the project could have been conceived, how in the world a scholar with a solid knowledge of history dares to prophesy with tightly argued logic the coming of the neo-Roman and the neo-Renaissance. It is not a question here of dealing with an old man nostalgic for the past, like our late teachers, but with a culturally equipped individual who has followed the development of Modern architecture and still, with an astonishingly anti-historical mode of approach, denies its significance.

The Golden City denounced the architecture of the Bauhaus school 40 years after its wretched founding, and 60 years before its ridiculous centennial this year. Even then the modernists knew what was wrong with modern architecture. But they are still here. Why?

***

* Henry Hope Reed Jr. and William A. Coles were art historians and, in 1968, founders of Classical America, which merged with the Institute of Classical Architecture in 2002 to become the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

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A deliriously lovely chapter

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Salon inside the Villa Kerylos, on the French Riviera. (lostpastremembered.blogspot.com)

One of the most beautiful passages in contemporary literary history will surely be, when it is published on May 5, chapter 20, “Sunlight on the Furniture,” in Villa of Delirium, by the French author Adrien Goetz. Its English translation by Natasha Lehrer will be published by New Vessel Press, of New York City.

In my recent post “Tale of a Greek villa rebuilt,” I wondered whether Goetz has forced his protagonist to dislike beauty as he grows older. I’m about two-thirds through the book and so far the answer remains unclear (to me). But whether I end up liking the book in principle or not, its literary style is delicious, especially (so far) in chapter 20, and commands my respect. I copy it below in its entirety.

The book, a historical novel of the early 20th century, is the reminiscences of its fictional protagonist, a poor boy taken up by the rich family that built the Villa Kerylos – now a national cultural landmark – on the French Riviera.

***

The furniture in the library [of the Villa Kerylos] was, to my twenty-year-old self, the most beautiful in the whole world.

Pontremoli [the villa’s French architect] designed the pieces as he went along. One day he gave me a couple of sketches for tables, wonderful to behold. It’s not easy to furnish an ancient villa. In Greece, apart from caskets, chairs, and beds, there was little furniture. Fanny Reinach [wife of the villa owner] drew up lists of what she needed and [husband] Theodore amused himself thinking up ideas for them. A dressing table? A chest of drawers? A small desk for keeping up with correspondence, where his wife could sit in the morning and reply to invitations? A little bell on the table? He took note of everything. He was making it up as he went along.

I sometimes went up to Paris, to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, to check on the progress of the furniture, which was being made in Louis-François Bettenfeld’s workshop. Bettenfeld crafted solid furniture from carefully chosen wood: lemon from Ceylon, wild olive from the Mekong Delta, plum from Australia, tamarind from the Indies … [ellipse in text]. Pontremoli wanted inlays of mother of pearl, ilex, ivory, subtle touches of mahogany, nothing too elaborate. It was like watching [his lover] Ariadne’s watercolor palette, the way she layered colors, waiting for the flat tints to dry before dabbing on a touch of purple or emerald in just the right place. Rays of sunlight pierce the curtains and sweep over the furniture, sketching new and unexpected lines, making me think of her, her delicacy, the way she explained everything to me so that my illustrations would be less dry and precise.

To have style is rather easy; to invent a style is more extraordinary. Theodore’s directives were straightforward. That requires talent. He knew what he didn’t want. He wanted to avoid any variation of neo-classicism, a return to Grecian style as has been practiced for centuries. The warmth and pale wood of Austrian Biedermeier furniture could be kept; the main thing was to forget the Empire style, in spite of its straight lines, and the gracious style of Charles X. He wanted simple forms, occasionally broken up with turned feet, bronze scrolls, or huge nails, to give an impression of asceticism and refinement. The furniture in Kerylos is quite unlike any other. It was the kind of furniture that before the First World War people looked for, but didn’t find: imposing, solid, practical, comfortable, and elegantly crafted. Like the house, measurements were calculated in Athenian cubits and feet, the measurements of the Greeks – there was no question of using meters and centimeters. The most extraordinary pieces, in my eyes, were the chaise longues where Theodore liked to lounge and read, the fruit of a guilty romance between the English deckchair and the starkly virile Roman chair portrayed by David in his prerevolutionary paintings. When, several years later, I came across Art Deco furniture, I detected a family resemblance to those chairs: as is so often the case, it is by reinventing the past that one catches a glimpse of the future.

Cerberus [their dog] died of old age. Theodore, for whom these daily walks were immensely important, replaced him with a watch-dog called Basileus. At last the villa would be guarded – one might have suspected that, on our return from Athos, Theodore wanted to dissuade prowlers and burglars. He did not dare ask Pontremoli to design a kennel, even though the architect hadn’t forgotten even the most trivial objects for the bathrooms – but those were for humans; it would not have been seemly to ask him to make something for the dog. The caretaker enjoyed the task, nailing together several planks in the shape of a temple with a pediment, designed according to the animal’s dimensions so that it could lie down comfortably inside. Theodore himself picked up a paintbrush and wrote Basileos, which could mean either the dwelling place “of the king,” or the kennel that belongs to Basileus. This folly, enlivened with small columns, sat proudly beneath the peristyle in front of the entrance to the library.

The books were hidden away. Theodore arranged them in wall cabinets, trunks, and behind the curtains in the gallery above the library. It was unthinkable to display modern bindings; he wanted people to imagine scrolls, as numerous as those that had been found in the ashes of the volcano at Pompeii, in the Villa of the Papyri. Theodore was a genius. He didn’t flaunt quotations like his brother Joseph. He didn’t bludgeon other people with his knowledge. Joseph, when he read about a discovery in the Journal des savants, would cry, “Well now, this is absolutely extraordinary! I shall have to write about it!” One day, during lunch, Fanny Reinach burst out laughing when she heard this familiar phrase. Joseph didn’t understand, but he fell silent.

Theodore, rather than responding to my question about the golden crown [of Alexander the Great, which the two of them had stolen from a Greek monastery], took down from a shelf a volume published by Hachette, the translation of a dialogue attributed to Lucian of Samosata, who composed dialogues with the dead and voyages to the moon as if they were true stories. He hastily assured me that this was not the work of the great poet himself, but probably of a certain Leon, one of the academic philosophers, about whom nothing more is known.

“It is called Halcyon, or the Metamorphosis. Look.”

I have since got hold of another copy. I remember reading to him:

” ‘What voice is that, Socrates, a good way off from the shore? How sweet it is to the ear. I wonder what creature it can be, for the inhabitants of the deep are all mute.’

” ‘It is a sea fowl, called the kerylos, or Halcyon, always crying and lamenting. It is very small, but the gods, they say, bestowed on her a recompense for her singular affection: while she makes her nest, the world is blessed with Halcyon days, such as this is, placid and serene, even in the midst of winter. Observe how clear the sky is, and the whole ocean tranquil, without a curl upon it.’

” ‘This indeed is as you say, a Halcyon day, and so was yesterday; but how, Socrates, can we believe the tales you spoke of, that women can be turned into birds, and birds into women? Nothing seems to be more improbable.’ ”

According to myth, the halcyon built its nest upon the Aegean Sea. The seven days that precede and the seven days that follow the winter solstice mark the period when the seas are flat, everything is calm, and, according to legend, the halcyon’s eggs were protected. During those days of calm between two storms is a time of quiet, for doing nothing, thinking about nothing, eyes wide in the light of the day.

***

Typing out such a long passage this evening was almost as delightful as reading it for the first time last night. (Fortunately I was a dictationist at AP WX in my youth and learned to type fast, though maybe typing this slowly would have been even more pleasurable.)

Posted in Art and design, Books and Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Canonicus Square betrayed?

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Citizens Bank branch erected in 1921. (ricurrency.com)

Hoyle Square, in Providence’s West End, where Cranston St. branches off Westminster, was renamed for Canonicus, the Narragansett sachem who in 1636 gave tribal land to Roger Williams for Providence Plantations. I could not learn the year the square’s name was changed, but the people who still call Canonicus Square Hoyle Square are dying off; those who remember the Hoyle Tavern on that spot are long gone. Erected in 1724 by some accounts, or by others in 1739 or even 1782, the tavern was torn down in 1890 and replaced by commercial buildings, which were demolished to make way for a Citizens Bank branch office in 1921. (See “Hoyle Tavern was a rowdy country spot before Providence named Hoyle Square for it,” by Sheila Lennon.)

That same year, the bank sought to change the square’s name to Citizens Square, but was rebuffed by the city council, which was reluctant to spend money to change the name in municipal documents. Until the middle of the last century, when Route 95 cut the West End off from downtown and urban renewal wrecked much of Hoyle Square’s fine-grained architectural fabric – replaced largely by modernist schools and school administration buildings – Canonicus Square was a hub of activity. Alas, the elegant Citizen’s branch has for decades sat forlorn amid something of an urban desert.

Now a developer, the Omni Group, wants to repurpose the building for mixed use (but not a bank branch, I hear), and add four new buildings with market-rate apartments and a ton of parking in the branch’s bare hind quarters. It ought to be a reasonable idea, but it looks as if the developer – and the city – intend to foist a bag of crap on the neighborhood.

The West Broadway Neighborhood Association, the Providence Preservation Society and others object that the new apartment buildings will have no affordable units, no street-level retail, and will not heed best practices set forth in the city’s comprehensive plan. PPS has put the bank building on its list of endangered properties. The city seems to want to rush the project through with as little public input as possible, and to that purpose has deemed it a minor rather than a major land development.

As hinted at above, Canonicus Square deserves better. It sure looked a lot better back before city-sponsored urban renewal wrecked the vicinity, and new plans for the area should seek to improve its appearance. This is key to any regenerative possibilities that this or any redevelopment could have. No plan of any sort should be approved by the city unless it serves that purpose at the very least. As the WBNA has stated:

A development opportunity like this is rare, and holds the potential to realize a vision that has been written into Neighborhood and Comprehensive Plans since 1992, including reconnecting the neighborhoods to downtown, creating a robust gateway to Federal Hill and the West End, and rebuilding the neighborhood’s commercial corridors with responsive and human-scale streetscapes – an effort WBNA has tackled since its founding 35+ years ago.

Instead, the new buildings proposed for the area behind the bank branch, designed by McGeorge Architecture Interiors of East Greenwich, would be tedious at best. Granted, the bad trad proposed by the architects does not live down to the deconstructivist-style of the Career & Technical Academy across Cranston, but that’s a very low bar that ensures that there will be few takers for the planned market-rate units. No doubt the project will be called “Canonicus Gardens,” or some other obviously bogus branding moniker. The units seem likely to rent at market rates so low that they might as well have been slated as officially affordable. Why not at least get the public relations boost the designation would bring?

Um, better not answer that question.

(In fact, some ace investigative reporter such as Jim Hummel should look into that school. For the city to build a school designed to discombobulate students – as is the admitted purpose of deconstructivist architecture – at a cost of $88.5 million is a scandal sitting in plain view at Canonicus Square.)

Maybe it is too late to stop or to improve this development, but maybe not. Covid-19 is throwing a lot of plans off track these days. Or maybe the city – which seems intent upon developments that in the long run are sure to minimize the city’s revenue inflow even as they dynamite its reputation for beauty – will grow a spine.

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Hoyle Tavern. (WBNA)

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To left of Citizens Bank branch, Providence Career & Technical Academy. (Greater City Providence)

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Apartment buildings designed by McGeorge Architecture Interiors. (McGeorge)

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Site plan for development of Canonicut Square. (McGeorge)

Posted in Architecture, Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Tale of a Greek villa rebuilt

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Painting by Andy Lloyd of Villa Kerylos from Cap Farrat, Côte d’Azur, 2015. (Pixel)

I was recently sent a novel, Villa of Delirium, about the lives of the historical inhabitants of a villa on the Côte d’Azur built at the turn of the last century as a copy of a palace in ancient Greece. The book is written as the memoir of a family servant named Achilles, who from his youth embraces, through the kindness of his wealthy and erudite employer, the cultures represented by the villa – old and new. But in the end, it appears, Achilles rejects the validity and appeal of the new villa, at least – and possibly the very idea of classicism and classical beauty.

The book is by Adrien Goetz, who teaches art history at the Sorbonne and edits Grande Galerie, a quarterly published by the Louvre. Villa of Delirium has not been published yet but is due out on May 5. I have an “advanced reading copy, not for resale” sent me by my former colleague of decades ago at the Associated Press, Michael Z. Wise, a co-founder of New Vessel Press, which specializes in the translation of foreign literature into English. Villa of Delirium was translated by Natasha Lehrer.

Michael did not tell me that Villa of Delirium was not just a historical novel but a suspense novel. Early on, Goetz writes that his fictional protagonist falls out of love with Kerylos. On page 4, he has Achilles note in his diary: “When I was twenty it represented a kind of perfection. Today I find myself wondering how I could have ever found it beautiful.” On page 12 he adds:

I needed something new. I moved away. I couldn’t stand this absurd passion for Greek antiquity anymore. I became a painter. I wanted to be of my time, I exhibited many paintings, destroyed others. I loved purity of shape. I was a Cubist. It was not the simplest life I could have chosen.

These passages, which stabbed me in the heart (if not in the back), have transformed my attitude toward the book from the pleasure I take from historical novels to the perplexity of a suspense novel – one that toys with my fondest beliefs. Will Achilles in the end reject what is good and beautiful for the vile and ugly? Or will he regain his passion for Greek antiquity, and for Kerylos. The passages above leave little room for hope. The possibility that Achilles might in the end embrace a more enlightened view, which I was obliged to fabricate so that I might cling to hope against hope as I read on through the book, adds to it an intriguing dimension.

On the other hand, passages like the following serve to pull me on, and give me reason to suspect that Goetz has not created a character who, as we are told in advance, will undermine the credibility of his narrative, which, so far, is all about the ancient, delicate, beautiful, classical sensibility that was cast out by the global elite’s embrace of modernism. In this passage, the family patriarch – Theodore Reinach, a French archaeologist, mathematician, lawyer, papyrologist, philologist, epigrapher, historian, numismatist, musicologist, professor and politician (says Wikipedia) – meets the architect whom he then hires to build Kerylos:

They only met by chance. Theodore found in him an interlocutor who knew Greece in a different way. [Emmanuel] Pontremoli was not so knowledgeable when it came to classical texts, but he had been on excavations and come up with a design for the reconstruction of the Pergamon monuments, the city that reached the peak of its glory under Alexander’s successors, where an exuberant, unbridled artistic style developed: monuments laden with draperies and garlands, statues that were restless and tormented. In a small gallery, Pontremoli was exhibiting drawings that showed the citadel as it might look after restoration. They talked about the more austere temple of Apollo at Didymaion, the site the architect-archaeologist would be working on next. The subject fascinated the archaeologist, who had always dreamed of becoming an architect. They had found each other.

I was unable to find any image of the original Kerylos (if that is what it was called), on the Greek island of Delos, whether intact or in ruins. Among other places, I looked at the website of the modern Kerylos, which was built in 1902-08, and is now a French heritage site. The overseers of Kerylos are apparently embarrassed that it copied the past: “Far from a pastiche, for Théodore Reinach and Emmanuel Pontremoli it was about creating an original piece of work while “thinking Greek.” In the book Kerylos is described as if it were an exact duplicate of the original, down to the furniture. Achilles, if he remains at the end of the book in the frame of mind suggested on pages 4 and 12, would be proud of the official apostasy.

I will continue reading Villa of Delirium with a gimlet eye.

Posted in Architecture, Books and Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Deconstructing the church

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“Die Belastungsprobe” (Endurance Test), 1912-13, by Heinrich Kley. (graphicwitness.org)

I’ve just finished reading a curious and compelling book called Living Machines: Modern Architecture and the Rationalization of Sexual Misbehavior, by E. Michael Jones. It makes a strong case for what has become a notable cliché: that modern architecture symbolizes the degeneracy of its founders and subsequent practitioners – and today represents our degenerate popular and (I would add) scholarly culture.

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Here is a spicy quote from this spicy book, from a section on the movement to shift ecclesiastical architecture away from its traditions to the deconstructivist strain of modern architecture. The author believes that modern architecture has by this point died, to be replaced by later strains, including deconstructivism; I think these strains are merely the continuation and evolution of the boring glass-box modern architecture, which was originally anti-traditional to its core and remains so today, only worse. But my definition is neither here nor there as far as Jones’s book and the following quote are concerned:

Peter Eisenman organized a series of dinners at the Century Club in New York City, to which the architectural elite (as defined by Eisenman) were invited. Philip Johnson always held the seat of honor at these gatherings. One can imagine Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry and Philip Johnson with tears of laughter rolling down their cheeks regaling each other with the latest monstrosity which some church just commissioned from them. One can imagine a standing contest at the Century Club architectural dinners – Gehry, Johnson, and Eisenman vying with each other to see who could be the most outrageous in ridiculing the beliefs of religious clients and still get the commission.

Jones goes on to list some of them, such as Johnson’s cartoon chapel in Houston, Gehry’s plywood chapel at Loyola in Los Angeles, and Eisenman’s (unbuilt) Millennium Church in Rome. However different they may look, they are alike in their contempt for religion. Jones goes on to declare that “just as postmodernism is Jewish, the postmodern classical revival is Catholic. The breakdown is hardly coincidental, no matter how much Catholics like [Notre Dame Prof. Philip] Bess want to ignore it.” (Jones quotes throughout from Bess’s 2006 book Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism and the Sacred.)

Jones’s book is mostly a delight, but it is marred by a large chapter that seems to have been written by someone else and parachuted into Living Machines, or written by Jones for some esoteric journal and then shoehorned awkwardly into his book. At 48 pages, “Aut Vitruvius Aut Nihil: The Logos of Architecture and its Opponents” is four times the length of the book’s next-longest chapter. Throughout, Jones uses Phil Bess as whipping boy in what seems to be an effort to show that Jones can out-overintellectualize even Eisenman. Browbeaten, and with no opportunity to respond to Jones’s attack, Bess nevertheless is revealed as by far the more sensible thinker.

So, is modern architecture, and especially what emerged after modernism beat off the challenge of postmodernism, really “Jewish”? Of course not. Jones attempts to demonstrate that after the Holocaust everything changed, and that architecture splits into modern or traditional according to how it addresses what he labels “Logos” – or Jesus, or the Word of God, as Jones defines it. The ancient philosophers defined Logos as order and knowledge, a meaning that doesn’t quite help with Jones’s theory.

As if to prove the contrary of what Jones asserts, modernist ecclesiastical architecture in North America includes churches of diverse denomination, and not just synagogues. This may explain Jones’s reluctance to broaden his thoughts on Catholicism to include Christianity as a whole. Christianity’s willingness to dabble in modern architecture does not fit easily into the idea of modern architecture as Jewish. For that matter, Catholicism has itself dabbled all too extensively in modernism in the post-Vatican II era, only lately seeming to ponder a return to tradition.

(Although I am a Jew, I eagerly and hopefully await the pope’s upcoming encyclical riffing off Donald Trump’s draft executive order encouraging classical architecture for new federal buildings in Washington, D.C.)

I have no capacity to untangle Jones’s argument, except to note that whether classical architecture reflects the Word of God or not, it does reflect order and knowledge in architecture. The thinking behind modern architecture is certainly anti-traditional, not to mention disordered and ignorant. Still, whatever modernists may think as they inflict their work on the rest of the world, the divisions of architecture cannot be summed up as neatly as Jones suggests, however complex he makes it sound.

Notwithstanding this major caveat, which the reader can easily moot by skipping over the chapter, by describing the lives and hypocrisies of its founders and later advocates, the book adds considerable detail (much of it titillating) and much useful, engaging analysis to the indictment of modern architecture as a paragon of perversity.

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A few minutes in Stockholm

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Screenshot from Expedia video of Stockholm, Sweden.

This eight-minute tourism video of Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, is part of an excellent series of such films produced by Expedia, the booking agency. For some reason, modernists seem infatuated by Stockholm, even though very little modern architecture appears, at least in this video – not even the famous Stockholm Public Library (see the bottom photo below), designed by Gunnar Asplund and opened in 1928. Most of its classical embellishment was stripped off during its design, beginning in 1922. An intermittent 30 seconds or so feature obligatory scenes of more recent and inferior works of modern architecture, but by far the bulk of this excellent video focuses in on the city’s lovely traditional architecture. A sort of charming grandiosity, if it may be so described, seems the leitmotif of Stockholm, where, however, narrow lanes bend in from the past, charming without grandiosity. It may be that there is more modernism here than indicated by this video – which merely suggests that its producers followed a tradition of keeping such buildings off center stage so as not to generate trip cancellations. After all, postcards almost never depict modernist buildings, why should travel videos? Enjoy!

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Stockholm Public Library, by Gunnar Asplund. Charming, for a modernist building! (ArchDaily)

Posted in Architecture, Video | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments