Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Just Color Me Mauve

I've been downloading some Art Nouveau images recently, and I thought I might share some with you.

Here's a pin that Rene Lalique made for Sarah Bernhardt. Only she could get away with wearing this.

Here's another piece of jewelry by Lalique. I doubt even the Divine Sarah would dare to wear this one.

This is a piece of furniture by Emile Galle. I'm not quite sure what this is, but it looks very expensive with exotic woods and intarsia work. I'm sure it was for displaying Art Nouveau tchochkes by Emile Galle and Lalique.

Now we're getting into "too much" territory. This is a staircase designed by Victor Horta.

This is a dining room designed by Alexander Charpentier. Was anyone meant to sit down to a meal here? I doubt it. Imagine trying to eat Jell-O in this room.

Art Nouveau excess that is so excessive that it's transcendent; Antonio Gaudi's Casa Mila in Barcelona.

A wrought iron balcony from the Casa Mila

A staircase in the Casa Mila.

And most amazing of all, the roof of the Casa Mila

The Germans called it Jugendstil, but it was the same Art Nouveau nuttiness. Here are two old photos of the Elvira Studio in Munich designed by August Endell. One of the photos is colorized because Endell painted the outside in different pastel colors regularly.

Here is the interior of the Elvira Studio. It was a portrait photography business. It looks like Nosferatu's Munich apartment.
You didn't think something like this would get by Hitler's culture police or Allied bombs did you? There's not a scrap of it left.

Oscar Wilde coughs into his mauve handkerchief and exclaims that this is all just too ... too!

"Survival of the Fittest"

Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase in the title

In a world divided between winners and losers, there can be no middle class.

I think I've figured out the mystery of the new alliance between Ayn Rand followers and Christian fundamentalists, and the answer is supremacism. Both groups see themselves as history's true legitimate winners held back by the masses of losers.

With 40 million people on Foodstamps, and the numbers on government assistance at all time highs, there is a lot of pain and anger out there. Our mandarin classes are blind and deaf to it, and the Oligarchy just doesn't care.

We seem to have abandoned the idea of mass prosperity entirely, an idea once embraced by both political parties. Both parties pursued government policies that created the broad prosperity that lasted for about 4 decades after World War II. Now, most Americans face a future of low wages and declining living standards. The right wing waves the Bible and Atlas Shrugged and triumphantly declares that God's winnowing fork is separating the wheat from the chaff, while Democratic leaders like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner talk about a "new normal."

The only people, ironically, who seem to genuinely believe in that idea of broadly shared prosperity are the publicly much despised advocates of all things green. They genuinely believe in what our grandparents once believed in, a measure of prosperity and security for all, only now adapted to new circumstances and made environmentally sustainable. We may enjoy punching hippies for sport now, but the hippies turned out to be right all along about the Vietnam War, and with heat waves in Russia, melting polar ice caps, and ever more destructive hurricanes, they may well be right again.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katrina, 5 Years Ago Today

The hurricane struck the Louisiana coast 5 years ago today. It killed 1836 people making it the deadliest storm in the USA since 1928.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My Dream These Days ...

... is the nightmare of 1848.

In that year, raw power and brute force defeated hope and courage. The Haves squashed the Have Nots because they had the money, the governments, and the militaries, and the Have Nots had not. The ruling nobility in Germany (as well as most other countries) used the military to crush the uprising, and destroy the movement for a liberal unified Germany with violent reprisals, driving thousands to immigrate to the Americas (including my ancestors).
The world really did become divided between winners and losers. Herbert Spencer would soon coin the phrase "survival of the fittest" ever afterward mis-attributed to Charles Darwin. Spencer meant that phrase not as a description of nature, but as a description of the world of industrial capitalism, a Hobbesian war of All against All for survival and domination.
Great novelists like Dickens, Thackery, and Edith Wharton would expose the savagery that lay just beneath the strict social decorum of the late 19th century. Beneath the public pronouncements of confidence lay private anxieties, including an abiding fear of the sullen and defeated poor.

There are times when in despair that I think that raw power once again defeats courage and hope right in front of me. What people worked so hard and suffered for, and for many generations, is being appropriated and emptied of all meaning. The victimizers now assume the role of victim, and once again, might makes right.

Ernest Meissonier, The Barricade, 1849

The Real One, 47 Years Ago Today

The Fake One

‎"I have a dream, where rich white property owners can say 'Jump!' and the rest of the world can only ask 'How high?' I have dream where citizens become shareholders in a nation where Liberty and Justice are for those who can pay for them! I have a dream today."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Spam Spam Spam

I love Blogger's new "mark it as spam" option on commentary moderation, and I've been using it generously. However, I still seem to be getting the same spam on the same old blog posts. Is anyone else having more or less success with this?

Ken Mehlman Finally Comes Out ...

... and wins the Roy Cohn Prize!

Joe.My.God details for us just how much Mehlman richly deserves that prize.

--Mehlman backs a 2004 Ohio ballot initiative to ban gay marriage.

And there is so much more including the fact that 21 states banned gay marriage during his tenure as GOP chairman, all of them with the endorsement of the GOP.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Christian Victory Monument

So much of the anti-Islamic rhetoric these days is about Muslims erecting "victory monuments" in our midst, that Islam is a religion of military conquest...

... as though Christianity is not.

Here's a Christian victory monument (one of legions), the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City built on the site of the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan with stones from the neighboring Templo Mayor.

Christus Vincit indeed.

I Love Wikipedia

I grew up with the World Book Encyclopedia, 1966 edition, and it looked just like the set above. My parents' meager grandmother-subsidized incomes would not permit a set of Britannicas, so this is what I was educated with. I loved it. I loved the pictures, the easy-to-glance graphics and layouts, the short articles. It was written for school children more than for the basic reader.

Today, everyone bashes Wikipedia. My academic colleagues are very divided over it, with some like me who love it, and others who forbid their students to use it.

Yesterday, I looked up something that I know I could never have found in my old World Books, the Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong. Wikipedia had a detailed biography of the Emperor, discussion of his reign, his domestic and foreign policies, a list of his ministers, his family tree, the spellings of his name and titles in traditional and simplified Chinese, pinyin and Wade-Giles transliterations. There was a long list of footnoted references and external links. The old World Book had nothing like that. Just as good, I didn't have to pay a penny for any of it. When Wikipedia is good, it is very good.
I had a similar experience with the Florentine guild system. Someone had gone out of their way to photograph examples of all the guild emblems in Florence, and to sort out the guilds in order of importance from the Arte Maggiori to the Arte Piccoli. I was impressed. Their articles on artists are very good and certainly would be useful for my students.
Something else that the World Book never had, and I doubt the Britannicas had, is lots of articles on popular culture. It's fun to open up the discussion sections and to read the movie and music mavens arguing with each other. I don't remember Britannica having sections for scholars, experts, and mavens to argue publicly.

As for biases, I look back at my old World Books and I think, "My! What a lot of Cold War propaganda!" You should read the articles on Communism and socialism in the old 1966 edition. They are anything but fair and balanced. The religion articles slanted heavily toward Christianity with anything other than Protestant Christianity presented as something very exotic. Articles on women were very pre-feminist. Articles on African Americans began with the word "Negro" and had nothing on African American literature or history.

The old encyclopedia was a very inflexible format. I remember that World Book revisions came out every year in the "Yearbook." An online encyclopedia is much more flexible, and responsive to changes in history and scholarship.

Wikipedia gets a whole lot wrong. I notice the most problems in articles on celebrities, and in articles on political and historical issues that are still very contentious. That is a risk that any project that lets people come in and edit or contribute to the article must take. If it was up to me, I'd confine editing decisions to a board of editors, and keep arguments and dissensions on a public discussion page, with a red flag indicating to the reader that there is controversy. Usually Wikipedia is good about warning readers.

I agree with that basic mission of Wikipedia, to democratize knowledge, to keep it from becoming a commodity, more gist for the profit mills. I also agree with their mission to shrink the distance between expert professional and amateur expert. So much of academic jargon is intended not to clarify, but to obscure, to establish the bounds between the initiated and the uninitiated. It is good to see experts and expertise made accountable. This runs the risk of all kinds of abuse with rumors transformed into "facts" and superstition become science. But, it is better to see reason battle it out directly with ignorance in public and open to discussion. Usually in this country we see reason retreat into an academic cloister. Intellectual life is not always very public here the way it is in much of the rest of the world. I've always said that universities and colleges in the USA play the role of inoculating the public against new ideas by locking them up in academia like a tuberculosis germ. Perhaps the web will help to crack open that shell.

"Charles, People Will Think..." "What I Tell Them to Think!"

Billionaire media autocrat Rupert Murdoch cooked up this whole ground zero mosque controversy to help Republicans in the November elections, and to intimidate Democrats, never a difficult task (I wonder sometimes if Democratic politicians really are such cowards, or if they're just selfish bastards on the corporate dole).
In doing so, he's undermining all American political and military efforts in the Islamic world, a world of 1.5 billion people. I wonder what our allies in Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Indonesia, Albania, central Asia, Iraq, and Pakistan must think of Newt Gingrich comparing Muslims to Nazis on prime time television. What must they think of that parade of Christianist nutters comparing Islam to the hordes of Satan on Fox News? What must those in the Iranian dissident underground, who might otherwise be friendly toward us, think when they see ginned up protests against mosques in the USA? Do we really think that they only watch Al Jazeera? Do we really imagine that they are not paying attention to our domestic politics (which affects them directly and in which they have no say)?

Of course, this creates yet another golden recruiting opportunity for Osama Bin Laden and his little wizards, who seem to be prevailing so far, not because Bin Laden is so brilliant, but because we are so feckless and short-sighted. We are in the process of reshaping our whole attitude toward the Islamic world on his terms. Remember folks that Bin Laden's the one who first described Western intrusion in the Muslim world as a crusade against Islam, not some megachurch demagogue. Bin Laden is the one who first described the current crisis as a "clash of civilizations," not Thomas Friedman. Our own jingoistic bigotry, aided and abetted by cynical political calculation, is doing Bin Laden's work without him bothering to lift a single finger. It will be our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq who will first feel the backlash. Our credibility is so shot in Afghanistan that General Petraeus might as well pack up and leave now.

Rupert Murdoch's game of world domination for fun and profit is doing us no favors and our soldiers and ourselves a lot of harm.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Human Nature

I remember a long time ago in a Texas far far away, the Ayn Rand devotees used to corner me and demand that I confess if I thought that "...man was basically good or basically evil!" They seemed convinced that humankind was basically good.

Jean Jacques Rousseau seemed to believe that humanity in its natural state was fundamentally good. It was civilization that corrupted humankind by alienating it from nature's inherent benevolence and harmony. Voltaire famously made fun of this idea, and volunteered to walk on all fours.

The Marquis de Sade believed that human beings were basically predatory. In response to Rousseau's declaration that nature was averse to crime, he said, "Nature averse to crime?! I tell you that nature in all her pores yearns for bloodshed!"

John Calvin believed that humanity was evil and depraved, a craven bunch of sinners ready to sell out their better part at the drop of a hat for a bargain price. The gulf between God's glory and humanity's wickedness was immense. Only God could cross it. That God had any love for humanity at all was a mystery and a miracle.

I don't think we are basically good or basically evil.

If we are basically anything, then we are selfish and easily frightened, like all other animals. We labor under the prime directive of all life, self preservation.

Things get complicated, and interesting, when we try to move beyond that perimeter.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

My Last Word on the "Ground Zero Mosque" Non-Issue

The spectacle of a mob mentality grown mighty through modern media technology should give us all pause, and make us think twice about how safe we really are in our own neighborhoods. What's happening to the Muslim community in Tribeca could happen to any of us for any reason anyone cares to make up at any time.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mies Van Der Rohe, German Classicist

I was walking around midtown last week after running a brief errand, and I stopped by the Seagram Building, as I usually do when I visit that end of town.
The Seagram was completed the year I was born, and it remains, in my opinion, the Parthenon of glass and steel corporate skyscrapers. I use the word Parthenon deliberately.

As Mies Van Der Rohe recedes into time and history, he looks less to me like the Arch-Modernist Secretary for Ideological Purity of the Revolution (a role he made for himself), and more like an old time German Neo-Classicist like Karl Friedrich Schinkel or Leo Von Klenze.

I must confess to a fondness for his architecture precisely because it is so classical in its exacting sense of measure and proportion, its very centered and focused compositions, and in its use of fine materials. Where Mies can be faulted was his abstracting of the old classical demand for rightness of proportion. The Greeks, who invented that form language, began with the human body. What looks and feels right in architecture is analogous to what looks and feels right in our own bodies. Mies forgot that origin, as did a lot of earlier German Neo-Classicists so busy with their calipers trying to figure out Polykleitos' and Vitruvius' systems of proportion. The geometry and the proportional systems seemed so beautiful in themselves that the flawed human animal would just have to bend to adjust to living in such perfect spaces.

The corporate world loved Mies' architecture because it was so suavely beautiful, had no political or religious content, and it was so cheap to build (at least his imitators were cheap to build; the Seagram Building remains the most expensive skyscraper ever built with cladding made of cast bronze).

The Seagram Building on Park Avenue and 52nd Street, designed by Mies Van Der Rohe and completed in 1957.

The glass and steel curtain wall of the Seagram Building on all 4 sides is clad in cast bronze. Mies was the son of a stonemason, and had a craftsman's sense of exact proportion and material that did not always agree with industrial processes. When the developers complained about the expense of cladding an entire building in bronze, Mies refused to yield and the money was spent. There is expensive and beautiful material beautifully used throughout the building; travertine marble, green marble, grey granite, etc.

Main entrance to the Seagram Building facing Park Avnenue.

The Seagram Building has no gimmicks or spectacles. It's a very simple straightforward design. The lobby is a glass box with the main support piers of the building forming a peristyle around the ground floor. Inside are four elevator shafts clad in travertine marble and nothing more. It is so plain, and yet so beautifully designed and proportioned. It remains one of the most beautiful lobbies in New York, though definitely not one of the more spectacular.

Mies designed an even more austere and classical building for Berlin's National Gallery. The bulk of the Gallery sits in a granite box that forms a kind of podium for the glass and steel main entrance hall on the top.

The entrance pavilion of the National Gallery in Berlin with an Alexander Calder Sculpture.

The National Gallery at night

The entrance pavilion with Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk.

The National Gallery is an even more explicitly classical building, a columned temple of steel and glass sitting on top of a podium with a cryptoporticus housing the bulk of the museum's collection.
Mies was so demanding and absolute about the rightness of the proportions of the building that he refused to design an underground extension to the building. It would have been invisible from the surface, but Mies refused to go outside his design perimeters, even underground.

Mies designed this building with another famous Berlin museum building in mind, Schinkel's Altes Museum completed in 1830 to house the King of Prussia's collection of antiquities, the first museum built on Berlin's "Museum Island."

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Altes Museum, Berlin, 1823 - 1830. Behind the colonnade, there was once an enormous mural painted by Peter Cornelius. Most of the building that we see today was rebuilt after World War II.

This is a very fine building, but Mies was not the only architect to admire it. It was also a favorite of Albert Speer (and of Speer's employer, Adolph Hitler). That knowledge will forever spoil our view of this building.
Speer would take Schinkel's repetitions and monumentality and inflate them all out of proportion.
Mies appreciated Schinkel's very exacting classical proportions and understood that they were integral to the success of the design of the museum. He made his own version of Schinkel's grand public building in sheet glass and steel.

Mies is very out of fashion today. If anything, so much of current architecture is a reaction against his long domination.
Sadly, much of that opprobrium is richly deserved. Mies was an ideologue (as were his German Neo-Classical predecessors) with clear and strict ideas about what was "correct" in architecture. His vision about what was "correct" in architecture was very abstract and even anti-humane sometimes. He had a very Hegelian concept of History as the realization of Idea into Form. He believed that the architect was the passive vessel through which History spoke. He had a very reductivist view of form declaring that "form follows function." All else, including historical meaning and imaginative engagement by the people who live in and around the building, was just so much extraneous ornament, a "noodle." He had the powerful backing of everything from academia to the international corporate plutocracy. Small wonder that there is such a ferocious backlash against him.

And yet, in this age of celebrity architects with huge egos, Mies' buildings seem very unfussy and understated. In an age where so much architecture looks like a giant game of Jenga, where chaos theory long ago put Vitruvius on a back shelf in the library stacks, Mies' buildings seem so clear and focused, if very abstract. So much current architecture holds the surrounding historical context in contempt even more than Mies ever did. Mies' buildings are hard to love, in the way we might love the Chrysler Building or the local courthouse (and that is a big flaw in his work in my opinion), but they are easy to admire.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Letter from an East Coast Elitist to a Group of Religious Undesirables

This guy lived in New York at the time. Their religious leader wrote to him to thank him for his recent visit. Who does he think he is, trying cram all this "political correctness" down the throats of ordinary decent Christian Americans?

The letter from Moses Seixas to President George Washington

To the President of the United States of America.


Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits — and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

With pleasure we reflect on those days — those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, — shielded Your head in the day of battle: — and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: — deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine: — This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men — beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: — And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island August 17th 1790.

Moses Seixas, Warden

The letter from George Washington in response to Moses Seixas

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.


While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, designed by Peter Harrison

Washington visited Newport in 1790 at the time when the Bill of Rights was being debated.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque

Fox News to the contrary, there ain't gonna be any mosque at Ground Zero here in New York.

There will be an Islamic center 2 1/2 blocks away on the site of an old building that once housed a Burlington Coat outlet store. It will have a place for prayer, but will not be a mosque. The center is the initiative of a moderate to liberal Muslim group seeking reconciliation with all faiths. The imam is a friend of former President George W. Bush. There are already small mosques and cab stands serving Bangladeshi and Pakistani cab drivers and store clerks blocks away in Tribeca. Before the World Trade Center was built, the area was a Syrian and Greek neighborhood with tenement mosques next to tenement Eastern Orthodox churches.

There is someone who has been forgotten in all this hysteria who you should really remember.
Mohammed Salman Hamdani was a 23 year old NYPD cadet and EMT. On September 11th, 2001, he saw the attacks and ran toward the burning towers. Rescue workers found his remains weeks later in the rubble next to his EMT bag. He apparently was leading a group of people out when the tower collapsed. The local and national press tried to vilify him, accusing him of being a collaborator in the attacks despite the lack of any evidence. The evidence on the ground indicated that he was in fact a hero who died trying to rescue others. He was belatedly and posthumously recognized for his heroism by the City of New York.

Mohammed Salman Hamdani's funeral

I fully expect that 10, 20 years from now, there will be much that has taken place since the 9/11 attacks that we will bitterly regret, as much as we regret the WWII internment of Japanese Americans, and as much as we regret racial segregation.

There were scores of Muslim victims in the September 11th attacks. Some were passengers on the planes. Others were employees in the towers. Many were employees at Windows on the World working at a breakfast event that morning.

If hysteria prevails and the Islamic center is scuttled, then we will no longer be the United States of America. We will be something else. We will have forfeited our national birthright in the name of fear and expediency. We really will be the Empire of the Frightened Bitter Old White People.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

San Francisco City Hall

Anti-Proposition 8 demonstration

Instead of commenting on the protests and celebrations surrounding the rise and fall of Prop 8, I’d like to talk about that building in the background. We see it on all the CNN live feed covering Prop 8. It’s not the California state capitol, it’s the San Francisco City Hall.

I’ve always envied San Francisco for their civic center. We have nothing so large, so grand, or so fine in New York. Our city hall is much older (1810), but not nearly as big or as splendid. The huge courthouses that surround Foley Square are cause for despair, the proper settings for lawyers always trying to manipulate legal processes for advantage. Some of New York’s biggest and ugliest buildings line that square, with all the glory and grandeur of government forms. “Beati Qui Ambulant In Lege Domini,” declares the façade of St. Andrew’s Church over the scurrying crowds of lawyers and clerks, adding to the gloom.

In contrast, the San Francisco City Hall is an exhilarating spectacle at one end of a wide sunlit plaza.

City Hall from the Civic Center

It makes the perfect setting for mass gatherings of commemoration, celebration, or protest. New York does not have any open space comparable.

Anti-war rally in the Civic Center

Saint Patrick's day in the Civic Center

I’ve visited the place twice. The first time, my old friend David Giesen gave me a thorough tour of the place including the Mayor’s office and the meeting room of the Board of Supervisors. But for the metal detectors, the building is wide open to the public (in contrast to New York’s City Hall which remains inaccessible) during business hours.

To everyone’s great surprise, the current City Hall opened in 1915 just four years after the start of construction, and nine years after the great earthquake destroyed its predecessor. The reason for the surprise is that the previous city hall took 27 years to complete.

Old San Francisco City Hall.

Anti-Chinese rally at the old city hall. Maybe there's something to that idea that bad politics and bad design go together.

The earlier city hall was a huge rambling palace built on the cheap by corrupt politicians stealing its construction funds. When the earthquake destroyed it, the graft that built it was there for all to see. What was supposed to be marble and cast iron turned out to be plaster and concrete stuffed with old newspapers and trash (there is similar history behind the old Tweed Courthouse here in New York). San Francisco’s earthquake beleaguered citizens were outraged at the discovery.

Old city hall after the 1906 earthquake.

The San Francisco Civic Center with its city hall is a major masterpiece of what used to be known as the American Renaissance movement in architecture and design.

The movement was closely bound up with both liberal and conservative good government campaigns to clean out the corruption of local politics in the First Gilded Age. The artists and architects of the American Renaissance wanted to likewise clean up and modernize public architecture. To them, the ramshackle messy historicism of Victorian public architecture (which we now value) reflected the messy corrupt politics that built such monuments. The destroyed San Francisco city hall was, for these architects, a particularly glaring example of such unfocused excess. That it was so shabbily built came as no surprise.
The great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham designed the general layout of San Francisco’s Civic Center. He got to build in San Francisco what he wanted to build in Chicago after its great fire. Burnham’s plan for the rebuilding of Chicago centered on a big grand civic center with a wide open plaza lined with public buildings and dominated by a large city hall at one end. He intended San Francisco’s Civic Center to be like his own unbuilt Chicago Civic Center, a focus for the whole city. However, in his design for the rebuilding of Chicago, Burnham laid out wide boulevards linking the civic center to the rest of the city in imitation of Hausmann’s rebuilding of Paris, and L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington DC. In San Francisco, Burnham remained bound to the city’s existing grid street plan.

San Francisco Civic Center in a satellite photo

San Francisco Civic Center in an old photo, probably from the 1930s

Arthur Brown Jr., a local San Francisco architect and a French Beaux Arts trained protégé of the great Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck, designed the City Hall and most of the original buildings surrounding the civic center plaza. He organized it as two wings around a large central rotunda very much like the US Capitol and many state capitols. However, San Francisco has only one legislative body, the Board of Supervisors, which is not large. Brown made the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor’s office face each other across the rotunda on the second floor. The Mayor’s office occupied the second floor above the main entrance facing the plaza. A grand staircase leads to the Board of Supervisors in the rotunda, declaring the supremacy of the people’s representatives over the executive. The two wings that are built around legislative halls in other capitol buildings, here are built around courtyards. The wings house courtrooms and government offices (San Francisco is a consolidated city and county).

Grand staircase in the rotunda to the Board of Supervisors' meeting room.

Stucco work in the rotunda.

interior of the dome.

Brown designed the building to be a declaration of San Francisco’s return from the catastrophe of the 1906 earthquake. Phoenix and fire motifs appear throughout the building. “San Francisco, O glorious city of our hearts that has been tried and not found wanting, go thou with like spirit to make the future thine,” is inscribed in the rotunda, composed by a former mayor, Edward Robeson Taylor. The rotunda is a showpiece of carved stucco-work. Brown’s city hall does what its predecessor did not. It expresses clearly the government functions that take place within, the social contract on which those functions are based, and the pride of a city that returned so miraculously from devastation.

I must confess that I am partial to the American Renaissance movement, and I’m happy to see it rescued from the oblivion assigned to it by decades of modernist criticism. San Francisco’s city hall and Civic Center are among that movement’s greatest accomplishments, comparable in my opinion to Copley Square in Boston.
The San Francisco Civic Center is historicist in its design. Burnham had Renaissance and Baroque town planning in mind when he laid out the plaza. Brown looked to buildings of the High Renaissance for inspiration, to Bramante and Michelangelo. The dome of the city hall is a modified version of Michelangelo’s dome of Saint Peter’s. This was all to the point. The American republic, so the architects explicitly declare, is the heir to the legacy of historical republicanism beginning with Greece and Rome and continuing with the revivals of Renaissance Italy. The grandeur of Baroque city planning intended to proclaim the majesty of princes, in San Francisco proclaims the majesty of the sovereign people. Like the best American Renaissance design, it incorporates modern technology such as all electric lighting and space for automobiles.

In my opinion, modern form is at its weakest in the public forum. Modernism began as commercial and domestic architecture. It did not become architecture for public buildings until after World War II. Modern and Post Modern design still has yet to find a form language to articulate public ideas as clearly and as eloquently as the old historicist styles did. It still alienates individuals more than it engages their imaginations, and draws them together into a common sense of purpose.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Christianity is a Rotten Family Values Religion

I remember reading years ago that Martin Buber's biggest complaint about Christianity was its individualism. There was no sense to it of nationhood, of a continuing community of blood ties as well as belief and ritual down through the generations. Anyone was free to come into the Christian religion and become part of it. There was no sense of historic collective covenant to it at all, nothing passed down directly from parents to children.

I doubt that the founders of that apocalyptic religion, Christianity, imagined that there would ever be anyone born into their faith. They apparently believed that they would live to see the end of the world. If they didn't see it in their lifetimes, then surely it would come upon the junior members of the congregation. Saint Paul describes marriage as a grudging concession to human need as the expected Eschaton was already delayed a generation. St. Paul preferred that those who are waiting for the Second Coming to remain celibate.

Christ was a young man who apparently never married (despite modern claims to the contrary), never started his own family. Instead, he appears to have deliberately left his working class family, and the family trade, behind. He died in disgrace, executed like a common criminal, without children. Many of his followers left behind -- abandoned -- their families to become His followers. Children left behind parents (James and John), and fathers left behind spouses and children (Peter). They believed that their world was in its last days, and that the business of raising new generations didn't matter much.
When told that His family was looking for Him, Christ pointed to His followers and to the multitude and said that they were His true family.

These are the founders of a religion that now claims the mantle of champion of domestic virtue and family sanctity. It is not a very good fit. It is especially odd to see celibate men and women claiming the role of champions of generational continuity in the Catholic Church. It is equally strange to see evangelical pastors, who look as well fed and well dressed as bankers, claim to be apostles of that earnest young misfit who abandoned His family and lived off the charity of others without a permanent roof over His head. It is so very odd to see both priest and pastor champion the biological family as the foundation of church and state. Christ abandoned His family, was condemned as a blasphemer by the priesthood of the day, and executed by the state as a minor political troublemaker accused of sedition.

I should think that all of these earnest folk so concerned for the family as an institution (as opposed to the welfare of actual families) would ditch the Christian religion for the very same reasons Martin Buber disliked it. It is so very individualistic, atomized, and anti-nationalist.

I've always thought that the best family values religion would be the old Roman religion of hearth and ancestors. In that religion, the family was literally sacred. The household fire was holy. The family matriarch had the duty of sacrificial worship of the goddess Vesta who presided over every household fire. The family patriarch had the duty of worshiping the family's ancestors and consulting with them in all family matters. He held the power of life and death over all the other members of the household, family, slaves, and hired employees, as judge and priest. When he died, he joined the ancestors and was worshiped as a god. Every family had its own presiding genius as well as ancestors. Every household had its Lares and Penates to look after the household and the family. Every family had its own peculiar rites and religion.

The Romans considered their state to be a vast household with the Senate, and then later the Emperor, playing the role of patriarch of the nation. Vesta not only looked after the welfare of individual households, but over the whole vast household of the Roman state. The idea of the family as cornerstone of the state was not just a tired old metaphor for the Romans. It was literal reality.

Now that's a family values religion.

The Romans loathed early Christianity for its impiety. The early Christians couldn't have cared less about those very institutions of home and family that were so dear to the Romans. Educated Romans coined the term a theoi, without gods, the root of our word "atheist," to describe the Christians. The Christians' refusal to make the obligatory sacrifices to Roma and the Emperor proved their sedition and their impiety. Nero had little difficulty goading the bereaved and homeless population of Rome into blaming the Christians among them after the great fire of 64. He accused them of bringing down the wrath of the gods upon the city by their impiety.

A Roman patriarch from the last days of the Republic carries a pair of ancestral busts. He wears the toga, a religious garment for public and private rituals.

Roman reverence for family meets Egyptian belief in perpetual life in the mummy portraits from Roman Egyptian cemeteries. Many of these were probably painted from life, and then cut down and fitted in the mummy bindings of the deceased and buried with them.

Roman-Egyptian mummy portrait

A lararium in Pompeii. The lares of the household flank the family genius in the form of both a young man, and a snake below.

Another lararium from Pompeii showing the patriarch and matriarch tending the sacred household fire entwined by the snake representing the family genius. The lares flank them on either side.

Homosexuality was open in ancient Rome. As in most of the ancient Mediterranean, it took the form of pederasty. It was love between a mature man and a teenage boy that usually ended when the boy reached his early 20s. The older lover was expected to play a role in the education of the younger man. Such unions certainly were not equal, nor were they intended to last.

Marriage in Rome was an institution for family continuity. The point of it was inheritance and legacy. It was too important a business to be left to young people. Marriages in Rome, as in most of the ancient world, were the end results of negotiations between families. Young people were not expected to love each other, or even to like each other. They were expected to produce a male heir to continue the family line. Marital sex was probably an obligatory biological function to fulfill a family duty. For young men, and certainly for young women, I doubt it was much of a pleasure. Sexual gratification came through slaves and prostitutes. Love was for children, not for spouses. Lovelorn spouses could find solace in mistresses and lovers. In this, the Romans were not much different from any other people of the ancient world.

I can understand why the early Christians were less than enthusiastic about such an institution.

The idea of two people of the same gender having sexual relations was not strange to the Romans. The idea of two lovers of any gender setting up a household and making a family on their own volition would have been alien to them.

Something to think about in the arguments over gay marriage.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

More Music For New York

David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York, circa 1978 - 1979

Then there is that everlasting and vital part of New York that is the Mother of Internal Exiles. The Village and the East Village are nothing like what they used to be, but I can still stroll down St. Mark's Place, or Avenue A, or stroll through parts of East Williamsburg or Bushwick where the current generation of alienated exiles live, and I can still hear the Velvet Underground loud and clear.

Music for New York

Weegee, Lighting Over New York

The trip to San Francisco is off. Michael is just too sick to travel. He came down with some kind of ferocious stomach flu yesterday, and is in bed with the cats now.

So, we'll leave our hearts in San Francisco some other time.

Michael, like most native New Yorkers, hates New York. And yet, he's never lived anywhere else. He's traveled extensively, but he's never picked up and moved to another place, except from Long Island to Manhattan to Queens to Brooklyn.
I can't imagine him in any other place that he would not find boring or irritating after a month or two.

Until about 20 years ago, I lived like a Bedouin, moving from Texas to Missouri to Michigan, to Kentucky, back to Missouri, and to New York.

In my art school days, Woody Allen's Manhattan shaped my conception of New York.

I liked the movie less when I actually settled here. That magnificent opening that made sad trashy late '70s New York look so glamorous precedes a long epic about the most boring group of people in the whole city, privileged intellectuals. The movie is 2 hours of people who have everything whining. It's not even about New York or Manhattan. It's almost all set on the Upper East Side, New York's most affluent and boring neighborhood.

Woody Allen makes a great case for seeing the city in Black and White (though his black and white is very artful Edward Steichen Black and White, certainly not Weegee's or Jacob Riis' screaming high contrast tabloid flash camera black and white).

For me, New York is dark grays and umbers punctuated with spots of brilliant color (a fruit and flower stall in front of a deli, or a parade, or a neon sign). My early experiences of it were less grandeur, and more tiny little dark corners that could be very cozy, friendly, and magical. There are times when the city can be tremendously exciting and exhilarating, just like in so many movies. And there are so many other times when it can be irritating and dreary.

George Gershwin's music is for that grand glamorous New York of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and for all of their spiritual descendants haunting the city's more expensive night spots.

For me, the music that best captures the experience of New York is Duke Ellington; the sophistication, the sex appeal, the fun, and the fear and suffering of life in New York are all there in his music.