Archive for July, 2009

Jewel Box

July 31, 2009

  Horace Greely famously told Josiah B. Grinnell to “Go west, young man, go west”.  The Congregational minister did and ended up in the middle of Iowa and a town here now bears his name.  It is a wonderful place with much to see and do.  Grinnell College is there and its campus is magnificent.  Make sure to visit the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, a neat building designed by Cesar Pelli.  North facing light catchers bathe the stuff on display in its Faulconer Gallery with slightly blue toned light.

  But another building is even more interesting and alone worth the short trip north from I-80.  It is Louis Sullivan’s Merchant National Bank.  It is the finest example of the several “Jewel Box” banks that he designed in second half of his career.

Sullivan Grinnell 1

  Sullivan is famous for his “form ever follows function” which is often misinterpreted it seems to me.  Sullivan didn’t mean minimalism or the absence of adornment.  One look at the entrance to the bank and its explosion of terra-cotta should put any such though to rest. 

  A reporter wrote at opening on January 1, 1915 that something “must have worked like hashish” on the architect to induce such a vision.  Such a thought would not grace any review of, say, David Chipperfield’s Figge Art Museum.

  Sullivan meant that a building’s ultimate form should be the organic emanation  of the spirit of the place and its people.  This bank was built as a repository for the fruits of the labor of area farmers with reverence for the hard work signaled thereby.

Sullivan Grinnell 2

  The entrance faces south and thus for most of the year and most of each day sun pours through the beautiful stained glass window.  There is also stained glass on the east which fills with light till noon or so and sky blue glass on the ceiling***.

  The effect of the glass and light is beautiful, but perfectly not profound.  No “metaphysics of light” here****.  A lesser hand would have combined the same elements to a more clerical effect which would have not only been disrespectful to Fr Grinnell’s gothic church (which used to be just across the street to the east) but also to the local common consciousness.

  The ceiling height is about twenty feet creating a spatial experience which (without too much of a stretch) could be said to allude to one in a barn or in a field looking toward the sky.  Or, indeed, like being a gem in a jewel box – but one with some of the dividers missing.Sullivan Grinnell 3

  The interior was changed and a touch diminished by the removal of the cages over the teller areas which originally served more of a purpose of tradition and proportion than security.  The effect is as if an element had been removed from a piece of abstract sculpture.   You would feel the absence of something even if you had no way to know what was missing.

  That extirpation would seem to have been unnecessary because a functioning bank was appended on the north and Sullivan’s jewel appropriately repurposed to house the chamber of commerce.  The commission for the addition must have been intimidating, but was done with respect and rhythm by Davenport firm Stewart-Robison-Laffan.

  Finally, this may be hard to believe, but the building was more comfortable in context in 1915 than now.  It was then of similar size and proportion to that of its immediate neighbors.  Roof lines met.  Now to the west is a low slung bit of impermanence and the aforementioned addition obvious in its respectfulness.

  Sullivan has been called the “father of the skyscraper”, yet the grand part of his career had been long over at the time of this commission.  Perhaps sensitized by intervening vicissitudes he found himself able to channel the essence of Grinnell and show what he “meant when he talked about the genius of America.*****

*Words of a reporter in the 1,1,15 Grinnell Herald.

** The glass was done by Louis Millet who was related to Jean-Francois Millet, the French painter know for his paintings of peasant farmers such as The Gleaners

***Term coined by Abbot Suger in the early stages of Gothic Architecture

**** January 1, 1915 Grinnell Herald

***** Some of the above came from the book by Bill Menner which is well represented in this website:


July 24, 2009

  About six months ago a tooth began to bother me.  It was a molar.  Top right second from the back.  Really began to ache and I called my friendly dentist.  X-rays and probing found nothing definitive.  “Nothing heinous” he said.  “Could be a crack”.

  Pain subsided.  Mentioned again at next regular check up.  Had me clamp down various strange ways with no acute response.  Began to ache though after visit and through the next day or so.  Long as I didn’t chew on that side everything was fine.

   During yurt party last weekend over wine and beer I was flapjawing and distracted.  Chomped a couple handfuls of peanuts.  Great night, but mouth woke me up the next am.  Throbbing got continually worse.  Called dentist.  His sweet wife, also a friend, said he was fishing in Wisconsin.  I replied that I hoped he could squeeze me in on Monday. 

  I called back later and she gave me his cell phone number.  Tooth socket was so swollen that tooth protruded significantly below the others and it was impossible to chew anything without it touching down first.  Throbbed like a heart in the hands of an Aztec priest.

  He met me in his office several hours later.  “Cracked through I’m afraid” he said with a kindly smile.  “It’s a gonner.”  He explained the options all of which began with extraction. 

  Next morning his nurse called with an appointment later in the day at the specialist’s.  Oh boy.  Expansive empty waiting area.  Perfunctory receptionist.  “Fill this out.  Both sides.  Initial every line.” Insurance info sure, but also a harrowing litany of possible complications. 

  I didn’t have to worry that the antibiotics might attenuate the effectiveness of any birth control, but the possibility of: bone chips, socket rupture, nerve damage, infection from the cadaver bone used to fill gaps, jaw fracture, and more didn’t exactly comfort me.

  Led back to the room, I started to sweat.  Doc whirled in. Visage and demeanor of Wallace Shawn. “Who’s beatin’ up on ya?”  I gave him the name of my dentist and started to tell him that the swelling had gone down and maybe… 

  He pulled my jaws apart, inserted a block of rubber to prop it open and wrapped gauze around my tongue (so I wouldn’t lick his fingers he told me).  Swabbed some electric tasting numbing compound.  Stood for a moment – elbows folded, dripping syringe in one hand, cigarette in the other – and then came at me.

  “We’ll give that stuff about ten minutes to numb ya up.”  Back in nine he had the nurse place the meat-hook like suction apparatus for which there was no need – my mouth was dryer than a mummy’s.  Reaching in with the pliers, he grabbed hold of the small half of the tooth and twisted and turned with vigor.  Sounded like a novice shifting the gears of a manual transmission.

  “Got it!” he said.  “Rinse?” I knew that I’d never be able to swallow and didn’t respond.  “Second half will be a little tougher” he said.  “Doin’ ok?  Got a good hold on somethin’?”

  Oh shit.  He grabbed the fat half with the pliers and both hands, rocked back on one leg, and raised the other to a position upon my chest. I stared so intently at the ceiling that it began to smoke.  I was completely soaked and started to slide down the chair.  Nurse grabbed me by the ears and pulled me back up. 

  It was like parts of a chicken being separated by another novice who can’t quite find the joint and so, cursing, twists and turns the drumstick until…

  Finally, it gave and he stumbled back against the wall.  With a backhand toss he flung it out of my field of view. I heard it hit the trash can.  “Two points.  Dry him up and I’ll be back” he said.  I’d forgotten that he was going to have to pack the socket to prepare for the implant I’ll never return to have. 

  Sat there for a few minutes with blood soaked gauze hanging out of my mouth.  Worst had to be over.  Return though he sure enough did.  Pulled the gauze out and with an Eberhard #2 he proceeded to pack the cadaver bone up into the socket.  Then took a fat curved needle threaded with monofilament and threw a few stitches to hold it all in, told a joke, and left.

  Nurse shoved clean gauze back into my mouth while telling me to eat soft foods for a while, not to overexert and thus pop the stitches, and that the gritty discharge, bleeding, and horrible taste and odor due to the anaerobic bacteria sure to soon seethe up there would only last a few days.

  “Drinks?” was all I could think of asking.

  “Long as you don’t mix it with the pain meds.”

  As I struggled to write the check a few minutes later, the cashier told me that I’d been lucky they’d been able to fit me in.  A primal grunt was all I could muster.  But my wife recognized it from across the lobby, came over, and helped me to the car.

Do You Know Where You Are?

July 17, 2009

  birds foot 6 001

    No, alas, this is not in my yard.  Not yet anyway.  It’s called Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus to a botanist) and is a member of the huge Pea or Bean (Fabaceae or Leguminosae) family.  The photo was taken along the interstate at the end of our ravine.

  The name Trefoil comes from Latin via Old French meaning three leaves -like the clover to which it is related.*  It has just come into bloom now and will remain so for most of the summer. This bright delight is not native to North America having been imported from Europe for forage.

  According to Iowa State University Extension, it was only first planted in 1938 but now covers more than 500,000 acres in Iowa alone.  Farmers like it because it is hardy once established; will withstand close grazing; is highly nutritious; and non-bloating.  It has provided daily weight gains in cattle exceeding a 30% premium over fertilized grass.

birds foot 4

  Laterly the plant became popular with road crews whose mission was/is to stabilize roadside growth.  It creates a dense low mat, will crowd out plants with a yearn to grow tall, blooms low and so can be cropped close.  If you live around here and are not agoraphobic, it will doubtless and frequently play a role in your field of view.

  Not surprisingly, citing almost exactly the same factors listed above, the philistines about consider it invasive, a weed, and incredibly difficult to control. “An ecological threat”  Control by conflagration not only doesn’t work, but instead increases seed germination!  Ha!

birds foot 6 002

  There is a new book out** that explores the chasm between us and our setting – the green movement notwithstanding.  The author writes of the seafarers of Puluwat in the South Pacific who can navigate by means of subtle swell patterns.  And of the Inuit who do the same with wind.  The Bedouin the stars.  Here in suburbia some use a GPS to cross town.  What’s up with the disconnect?  Is there a cost?

   The Trefoil’s beautiful, isn’t it?  Shades of yellow pea-like flowers with clover-like leaves.  The seed pod arrangement sort of resembles a bird’s foot hence the name. birds foot seed pod Doesn’t the fact that a lowly weed can be so gorgeous and have such a wonderful back-story give you pause?  Makes me think of Blake: 

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour. 

*The word also serves as a term in Gothic architecture referring to a manner of ornamentation by foliation or cusping. Look for it in church window-lights. 


**The book is You Are Here Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon but Get Lost in the Mall, by Collin Ellard.  It was reviewed in the NYTBR Sunday July 12 by Jonah Lehrer.

Canvas Cover for a Soul

July 10, 2009

 Yurt door 010

   The aforementioned yurt serves as divine studio space for my potter wife.  It replaces a cold wet cryptish corner off our basement which made a cell at Guantanamo something for which to yearn.

  Development of that transmigration required more than a few days and much ideation.  First thought was a familiar exercise in rectilinearity set akimbo in our front yard.  Then an appendage also in front.  Then she considered the expansion of the existing dingy cellar.

  Somehow the tent-like structure more common on the steppes of Central Asia came into her consciousness and she quickly concluded that yurt it would be.  (Well, she and the dog…)

  It is wonderful, even from this visitor’s perspective.  Its shape and nature fit organically on the side of the ravine in back of our house.  It looks almost to have grown there.

  We’re in the middle of town and abut an interstate.  Even so, from within looking out, all that can be seen is green.  Work started after woods leafed out, and thus I’ll bet neighbors (not far) across the way won’t have seen it till fall.

  It really is neat, made all the more special by being a few paces away from the house.  Going from one to the other in the rain you’ll get a bit wet.  Perfect.  Forces awareness of one’s place in the universe.

  To this philistine, it seems also perfect for the artist. Entering, it’s like stepping into a cloud with the world left far behind.*  I can’t wait to see where it takes her.

  Reminds me of some of Tadao Ando’s work in which sun, wind, and clouds are design elements.  His Azuma house, with which he first gained recognition similarly forced residents to interact with nature. 

  Contrast these to the emphasis on surface gloss found all too often in new additions to the built environment both public and private.  Lipstick might look nice, but it doesn’t necessarily tell much about the pucker.  Know what I mean?

  Anyway, this arrangement of site, structures, and stuff combine at night to make a softly glowing spot for wife to consider what another potter called “The Mud-Pie Dilema”**.

Yurt door 005

  More later. 

*Speaking of which – you should hear what heavy rain sounds like therein.  No need for thunder!

**The Mud-Pie Dilemma: A Master Potter’s Struggle to Make Art and Ends Meet by John Nance

Spirit of Place

July 3, 2009


  Ok.  I’m just about ready to rest my case.  I’ve written several times of the special beauty of my lawn.  The photo above ought to put all doubts to rest.  Representative of a good part of my small plot is that arrangement of several grasses, flowered clover, yellow oxalis, and wild strawberries. 

  Most people spend untold hours in the cultivation of their yards, but end up with only blade after boring blade of the same dang thing.  I spend as little time as possible and, well, results speak for themselves. 

  As opposed to most, I don’t attempt to inflict my own narrow opinion of what it should look like upon the earth.  Instead, I endeavor to create a condition in which such subtle wonder can unfold of its own accord.  Believe it or not, I planted virtually none of what you see above.

  What is more is that those colors are nearly perfect counterpoint for the string of Tibetan prayer flags strung across my roof high above.  It is said that with each flutter of every panel a prayer is repeated. They are nearly always moving.

Prayer Flags 010

  Perhaps that’s how the character of my lawn developed, having not always been so.  Only several years after the death of a brother (in whose memory I connected our chimney and roof vent pipe with the red, blue, green, white, and yellow squares) did things begin to change.  Or at least to my notice.

  It was imperceptible at first.  Then we had several seasons and several families of ducks that made home in front of our house.  And elsewhere coons and deer and cats and dogs and varieties of rodents wild and domesticated.  Five tree houses and now a yurt.  Once, while digging a hole for a fence post I found an ancient stone hatchet head.

yurt 1

  The prayer flags eventually wear out and I replace them with new crisp colors covered with tiny uchen letters.  It is somehow comforting to watch them waft in the breeze.  (Even though some folks ask just why we have our laundry line way up there in the encircling crown of maple and ash!)

  We’ve been here thirty + years and I absolutely don’t mean to say that I’ve things just the way I want them.  Yes, I trim and fertilize from time to time, but that’s just so these particular emergent rhythms don’t dampen.

  DH Lawrence wrote that “Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like.  But the spirit of place is a great reality.”*

  We’re all – flora, fauna, parents, and children – deeply imbued with the great reality of the spirit of our contorted tiny bit of the planet.

*Speaking of Lawrence, it may be obvious, but I’m also trying to make sure that the gamekeeper my wife runs off with is me…