Archive for April, 2009

Reading About Reincarnation Is Not The Same Thing As Being Reborn

April 24, 2009

  Consideration of a work of architecture suffers from anything less than an actual visit.  A virtual representation of a painting, pot, or, well, turd* can only approximate a real-time in-person experience.  But a photo of a building conveys even less information of value.  A well known Magritte picture makes the point:


  The title is Ceci N’est Pas Une PipeIt Is Not A Pipe.  It’s not – it’s a painting of a pipe.  A photo or digital representation of a building bears even less resemblance to an intimate experience of it than the Magritte picture to the pipe.

  Thus the award of the annual Pritzker architectural prize must hold far more mystery (and allure) for the public than an Oscar, Pulitzer, or Grammy.  One can easily develop a relationship with the body of work of an actor, writer, or musician.  Very few knowingly visit multiple examples from the oeuvre of one, let alone several prominent architects.

  It is then quite ironic that most of us must in fact peruse the works of critics and photographers to develop any sort of opinion at all.  It is not impossible that we could admire the words and pictures, but find ourselves surprised or disappointed upon a visit.  Ceci N’est Pas Une Batiment.

  This year’s Pritzker winner for example, Peter Zumthor, leads a very small practice the output of which is almost all to be found in or near his native Switzerland.  The jury citation tells us that: “he develops buildings of great integrity – untouched by fad or fashion…only accepts a project if he feels a deep affinity for its program…modesty in approach and boldness in overall result are not mutually exclusive…”  It calls his chapel in Wachendorf, Germany “a universal breath of faith”.

  I’ve had the good fortune to visit one of his projects – The Kunsthaus Bregenz on the shore of Lake Constance in Bregenz Austria.  I had read about the building in preparation for the visit and expected not to like it.  I found the photos unattractive and befitting the “severe” label given by several critics.  Plus, it would have no views out from its perch on the eastern shore of a beautiful lake in-between Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.


  All too true.  However, it worked.

  The overlapping etched glass plated exterior has tremendous effect both inside and out.  Its translucency both allows sun to pour into the six foot inter-floor light catching spaces and then down upon the rooms and their contents. The non-reflective nature of its exterior mitigates the potential for glass to transgress a site.  No blinding glare.  Finally, the angles and lines one can just make out through the rough glass sheets relate to the lines and castellation of the surrounding buildings enabling it to fit in.

  The building is deeply rooted in the site.  The nature of the glass curtain wall allows one to peer below grade (along with the sun) toward lecture and service spaces. A subdued office/shop/restaurant structure nearby works with the museum building make a pleasant open space.


  Ground floor reception is indeed severe if not foreboding.  The walls are bare highly finished concrete, floors gray terrazzo. The lighting of the 80 sq ft by 14 ft space creates an austere numinous experience.  Three exhibition levels lie above and one doesn’t know whether to expect a Teutonic warlock with an obsidian blade or a priest to deliver last rites. 

  Attention acutely engaged, the similarly proportioned and finished temp spaces do way heighten the impact of the narrow range of objects and talismans not overwhelmed or neutered.  Shows have been primarily if not exclusively contemporary.  The Peter Kobler installation there during my visit was up to the task and provided perfect counterpoint.  Almost hallucinatory.  A tour felt like the traverse of a difficult transmigration.


  Zumthor likes tennis, cigars, margaritas, and jazz.  Apparently he doesn’t allow his professional and private lives to overlap.  Kunsthaus Bregenz is dead serious.

* I had a professor once who asked the class “If a bear shits in the woods, is that art?”  Stuck with me.

* The museum’s homepage: has a neat bit of embedded flash animation showing elevations, interiors, and detail.  Check it out.

Please Don’t Let My Wife See This Either

April 16, 2009

  A while back* I described the joy I take in the gorgeous array of dandelions that presents itself every year at about this time.  More subtle (at least visually) as well as more interesting is the ground ivy which is just beginning its ephemeral (again visually) resplendency.


  To all but those who take pride in their bluegrass and fescue, the lavender blanket is a welcome sign of spring.  That the color lasts but a week or so makes it worthy of a Basho haiku.  He’s long no longer with us so: 

Lush thick lavender.
Funeral blanket for the
Mouse the hawk swooped up? 

  It’s scientific name is Glechoma hederacea and is found just about everywhere.  When in flower, it stands only a bit taller than the newly awakened and as yet uncut lawn.  It is a member of the mint family and spreads even more aggressively than the Derby Julep eponymous component.

  I find it interesting on account of its provenance.  Settlers from Europe brought it to the new world to help in the brew of their beer.  Its use predates hops and was called Alehoof and employed widely by Saxons for the flavoring, clarification, and preservation of their favorite beverage.

  There should be no surprise that it found its way to these parts given the large scale nineteenth century emigration of people from that region of Germany to our area.  Some of my own ancestors, even.  Prost!

  Most of the time when we hear about mankind abetting the migration of some species or other from here to there it is with a more or less negative tone.  Like zebra mussels across the inland waterways, or rabbits to Australia, or (believe it or not) everything not winged or finned to New Zealand.

  Diets of the developed world would be far less kaleidoscopic had it not been for, say, potatoes coming north from Peru, tomatoes and corn to Europe, and ground ivy from our Teutonic ancestors.  And the sun in my every breakfast, oranges.


  Columbus himself brought them to these shores (well close), but they are thought to have originated in China near the South China Sea.  From there they made their way down the Malay Peninsula and then probably with the Indian Ocean current to the east coast of Africa.

  Caravan north to the Mediterranean and thence throughout Europe. In Paris Louis XIV thought so highly of his 3000 orange trees that 1n 1617 he built the Orangerie in the gardens of the Louvre to house them.  In that pre-Versailles palace is no longer a citrus arbor, but rather a display of Monet’s water lilies of incredibly ineffable beauty.  It’s a 360 degree experience and imbues even the most stolid with a wonderful spiritual tumescence.


  Funny how stuff works out.  Just think of all that would be lost if we were alone in this universe and collided with an asteroid.  Poof.  Remember, In Heaven there ain’t no beer. 

*5/9/08: Please don’t let my wife see this.

**If you like oranges read John McPhee’s Oranges  It’s fascinating.


April 10, 2009
        Had a great few days visiting son in Philadelphia.  Undertook examination of several different important bits of our culture. 
      First was Kenny Powers, the lead character of the HBO show Eastbound and Down which you’ll find disgustingly hilarious if you’re a guy.  Only disgusting if you play for the other team. 
      Kenny never read any Greek tragedies otherwise he’d have recognized his hubris and the show would have been one-of and not a series.  It starts with him, as a rookie pitcher, winning the World Series for the Atlanta Braves.  He immediately develops a hugely oversized ego, declares himself a free agent, and begins a long obnoxious fall.  
      Our star levels out as a substitute high school gym teacher living with his brother and family.  He happily tells the school principal that his fiancé was an old KP flame and the flame that he was still in love with her chest. Drunk and high on ecstasy at the school dance he parts the crowd to strut his stuff for her.  
      There is a video of it on You Tube which I thought about inserting here, but didn’t after wife said “You better be careful, I’m a substitute too.”  Matter of fact, I looked at all of the clips on You Tube and found none appropriate for this more or less PG space.  
      Next day son and I went to an incredible show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – Cezanne and Beyond – which intersperses about sixty works by the master with over a hundred by his heirs.  The experience makes for the enlightenment of even the most benighted philistine.*  Just take the two pictures below. 
      On the left Painting with Two Balls 1960 by Jasper Johns and (one of many of) M. Cézanne’s Mt. St Victoire (1903) on the right. johns-j-painting-with-two-balls  There is an elemental simularity – without the balls and thrust of the mountain both would be pure abstraction.  In a cezanne-msv-2very real sense the one by Johns is a reflection of the other.  Relation I mean.  Cezanne himself said “In my thought one doesn’t replace the past, one only adds a new link to it”.  So here we have the Fin de Siècle revolutionary dressed up for the 60’s.  Shows the truth in the saying: “Mediocre artists borrow.  Great artists steal”. ** 
      Son then had to take an exam (Mr.”I got ’em all right…” since the crib) and I went to another museum – the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts where many great American artists took training.  Importantly for me, this included William Merrit Chase whose (one of many) portrait(s) of his wife hangs in our museum here in town.


      I have returned many times to visit  Mrs Chase In Pink starting years ago when I was younger than both then were to now older making all manner of attempts to divine something of the nature of their relationship.  Without success.  I was never able to learn anything.


      Thus I was pleased to find another portrait of her at a much younger age in PAFA thinking that a youthful impetuosity might betray something for me.  No luck.  Thinking about this while reading a review of the Cezanne show I came across a description of M. C’s portrait of Mme. C calling her his “inscrutable muse”.  Aha!

      I’ve written in a post below how it feels to be caressed by the cerebrations of an artist/spouse and realized first that both women enjoyed each sitting.  More to the point neither was a mistress, but a life partner and a hint of ire or eroticism or pretention or whatever (while well within the power of the artist/ husband) would indeed be a betrayal of confidence and likely the last such opportunity.

      Later that afternoon as I was relaxing in son’s apartment enjoying the urban street noises below and waiting for him to return I looked through a book by one of his professors: Arup Uber Engineer Cecil Balmond.  In it (Element)  he draws attention to the, uh, congruence of all the myriad wonderful patterns found the world about  and says: “We are the nervous system of a great mystery”


      Ya, but I’m working on it. 

    *Given a hint and some time, even Kenny would figure out to what the two balls relate…

    ** Jasper Johns said about a Cezanne picture: “As for the Cezanne, it has a synesthetic quality that gives it great senuality-it makes looking equivalent to touching”.

Mirabile Dictu

April 3, 2009


Ever concerned that I relentlessly hone my intellectual acumen, son gave me a special book for Christmas.  Toilets of the World.  It is a colorful tour of this important, but often overlooked corner of the built environment.

From a rugged plein-aire outhouse in British Columbia to an aluminum one that pops up like a periscope at night in Soho in London, to the dual culture stool in India upon which you can stand or sit, we visit all manner of approaches to these bits of the daily life of every single person on the planet.


You may find this hard to believe but(!), there is even a website devoted to the best restrooms in our country. Even more surprising is that the facilities in our local airport were voted #5 in the USA in 2006!  The one in the video below (21C Museum Hotel Louisville, KY) was voted #2 last year and  I’m proud to say that I was a able to add it to my tick list when in that city for a ceramics convention with guess who.

Perusal of the not quite coffee table tome led me to reminisce and recall related memorable moments of my own.  And lest you think poorly of me for so indulging I will hasten with the reminder that I’m far from the first to incorporate such, uh, organic matters into exposition.

Take Aristophanes, for example, who several thousand years ago in Athens wrote a play (Peace) in which a major character rode to heaven on the back of a dung beetle.  Why?  Perfect feedback loop.  Passenger doubles as source of fuel.

Anyway, the list of course is endless.  Writing names in snow with my brothers.  Lifting a lid and watching railroad ties pass beneath.  Using snow for the hygiene part.  Standing at a urinal in a fancy hotel (see above) and watching people in fine evening attire make their way through the hallway.  Stack of books in my own special place at home…

No regular visitor to this space will find it difficult to believe that my fondest such memories are set in the out-of-doors.  Once a friend and I were stuck nearly frozen on a ledge knees to chest in a blizzard for two days.  When the storm broke I commenced up the next part soon to feel an intense churning deep within.

My partner was directly below me holding my rope and I was thus loath to do anything to annoy him.  Took all of my will power to both make the necessary progress and purse a certain orifice till I made it to the top of that pitch, tied off and moved to the side.  I won’t go into any more detail, but will speculate that the occasion may well have led to the new National Park Service regulation that thenceforth climbers in that park must step off terra firma with a means of not leaving anything behind.

The last experience with which I will regale you was as an observer.  Years ago a friend (became my brother-in-law) and I were doing a route called Guides Wall in the Tetons.  Mid-way up on an adequate ledge that sloped back to front, he realized that there was business to be done.  He undid what was necessary, backed up, leaned against the wall, and lost himself in thought.  Unfortunately, the sloping geometry allowed the ‘fruit’ of his efforts to roll down upon and into his knickers.

Oh well, be honest, who hasn’t found themselves in something of the same predicament?

And, oh, the view!