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Wednesday
Jan212015

P J Harvey: On Battleship Hill, 2011

Sunday
Jan182015

technical strategies: horses

Alexander the Great depicted in a mosaic depicting Battle of Issus. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images

In terms of strategy I'm beginning to wonder if contemporary news coverage isn't preoccupied more with battles than with larger strategies, which would perhaps necessitate a discussion of root causes.  Edward Luttwak, writing about Roger Knight's book on Napoleon in LRB, 18 December 2014,  likens levels of strategy to a building where each floor is dependent on the one below: operational strategies depend on technical levels of strategy, and tactical strategy depends on operational strategy – the ability to actually fight.  At the level of grand strategy where wars are fought between empires of alliances, there is an assumption that the supporting levels of strategy are all in place.  In fact it all has to be in place: Germany in WWI was powerful and skilful in battle (technical, operational and tactical levels) but was hitched to the declining Ottoman and Hapsburg empires pitted against the British, French, Japanese and Russian empires.  One might say these latter empires were declining as well, but were in an earlier and less debilitated stage of decline.  Or in Napoleon's case it wasn't the battle of Waterloo that ended his reign, rather (according to Luttwak) it was the ongoing presence of a vast array of opposing forces, from Sardinia to Sweden, Britain to Russia.

This, above, is allegedly Alexander at the battle of Issus in 333 BC against Darius of Persia.  The mosaic shows the base unit of a fighting force: the man, his armour, his sword and his horse: the elements of the technical strategy.  It was a decisive battle, fought near present day Mosul.  According to wikipedia Alexander had the smaller army but better tactics; his victory 'led to the fall of the Acaemenid Empire', or the First Persian Empire that had formed in the sixth century BC. One reason given is that the Persian empire by 333 was too large and too incoherent for efficient military support.  I'm sure there were other reasons, but the failure of a coalition of many nations is interesting in light of our present creation and de-creation of allies and axes.

Here is the full mosaic, below, Darius in a chariot anticipating the eventual conversion of cavalry to tanks. There is such a similarity between all these battle depictions, from Issus to Wounded Knee.  It is the horses, the horses.

The Battle of Issus, between Alexander the Great on horseback to the left, and Darius III in the chariot to the right, represented in a Pompeii mosaic dated 1st century BC – Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Monday
Jan122015

more cavalry

Mounted warriors pursue enemies. Illustration of Rashid-ad-Din's Gami' at-tawarih. Tabriz, first quarter of the fourteenth century. Water colours on paper. Original size: 17.5 cm x 25.8 cm. Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Orientabteilung, Diez A fol. 70, p. 59.

And we return to a depiction not unlike the ledger drawings.  Although the previous post's image from the 1371 Manual of Horsemanship and Military Practice shows the mounts bouncing towards each other like something from Thelwell, these horses are intent, flying flat out, gory scenes of death and dismemberment along the way.

My goodness, here is a forum all about historical martial arts – horses, armour, speed, distance and the length of your stirrups. This should explain it all, she said hopefully.

There is great interest in historic warfare and accurate re-enactments, and much debate about, among other countless details, such things as whether Parthian horses stirred up such clouds of dust that the Romans couldn't actually see where they were. Maybe.  'Chiron' (Lieutenant) says some would be making dust while others waited for their riders to restock their arrow quivers.  This level of logistical detail seems to go on for pages as discussion shifts from the gait used to get to the battle to whether all the horses arrived together or not; this is for an army that existed from 247 BC to 224 AD, in what is now Iran.  The Parthian empire covered pretty much all the middle east countries racked by war today, from Afghanistan to Georgia, Iraq to Turkey.  

The Art of War, from Sun Tzu, is a treatise on tactics and strategies that have changed little in the fifteen centuries since it was written.  Reading this and Clausewitz's early nineteenth century On War, one realises that war is a texture, layered but ultimately predictable as certain strategies reoccur throughout the centuries and appear, depressingly, in contemporary campaigns.  Politics change, as do the issues that prompt warfare, but the actual fighting is always aiming and killing, at various scales and speeds.

Friday
Jan092015

swords, horses, flowers

Cavalry Charge from 'Nihayat al-Sul' ('A Manual of Horsemanship and Military Practice'), 1371 (detail of 53088), Islamic School, (14th century) / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

Thursday
Jan082015

Cavalry

Winslow Homer. The War for the Union - Cavalry Charge, printed in Harper's Weekly 5 July 1862

There is that relationship between battle and horses that held up until the second world war, cavalry units converting to tank units after the first world war.  There are dreadful stories of horses requisitioned from all over Britain, family horses to milk float dobbins to percheron teams, for the Front, poor things.  Cavalry horses were supposedly a special kind, mythologised in War Horse, but were often just whatever horse was available that hadn't been killed in the previous battle.  One suspects PTSD for animals is not much considered, most of the references to PTSD are about the role of horses in rehabilitating PTSD veterans.  The BBC did a program on horses in WWI. It is tragic, their bravery.

Drawings and paintings of cavalry charges such as this one, just 6 years before the battle of Little Bighorn, differ greatly from the ledger drawings of the previous post.  Here it is all heroics and glory and a large number of blades swinging about in the air.  This wood etching by Winslow Homer for Harper's Weekly was the equivalent of the war photograph of today.  Of course being a drawing licence can be taken.  No blood gushes, it can only be imagined – all those sabres are landing somewhere.  Being a civil war, it was brother against brother; the 'enemy' was like you just wearing a different coloured jacket.  Does it have to happen?  

Some essential reading: James Meek reviews four books on the British Army in Afghanistan (London Review of Books, Vol. 36 No. 24 · 18 December 2014) – many things we did not hear: Basra was an underfunded defeat, the subsequent transfer to Afghanistan was both face-saving and under the aegis of the Americans, Helmand province where they were based had 150-year old active memories of the last British debacle on the Northwest Frontier, British performance was mostly defensive under near-constant fire from local groups.  This isn't quite how it was told sold to us.  I'm waiting for the equivalent analyses of the Canadian record in Khandahar. We didn't have the oppressive prestige of the British Army that had maintained the Empire and all that now-superseded stuff, but the situation in Khandahar province was most likely just as manipulated, just as treacherous.

Monday
Jan052015

Mniconjou: The Battle of Little Big Horn, 1876

The Battle of Little Bighorn An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

Unlike the linear arrays of a certain kind of depiction of war, battles and their aftermaths, this set of 26 drawings uses an entirely different narrative form.  The whole set is on an american tribes forum and charts the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.  There is an accompanying text by Mniconjou, a Lakota chief who was there.  Both the text and the drawings were recorded at the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1881, at the request of McChesney, an army doctor at Fort Bennet collecting material for a study of sign language.  Known as ledger drawings, as they were done in blank ledgers, often with ruled pages, columns and general accounting pencils, this set is on blank paper with an array of coloured pencils, which makes them unusual.

These drawings depict in terrible detail the wounds and mutilations on both sides  – horses die, heads and hands are chopped off – this is ghastly warfare.  But then all warfare is, and it reminds one that most of us, who have never been in a war, hear the statistics on deaths in Syria and never think that it is actually like these drawings.

The Battle of Little Bighorn An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881The US Army troops are undistinguishable: they have beards, blue trousers, black hats; their horses wear saddles.  The Lakota nation however is drawn in beautiful detain, the different war bonnets carefully counted, the shields inscribed with totems. The army is a homogenous unit; the Lakota are individuals, carrying their family histories with them.  And what of the horses.  They die as well, their saddles gone just as the army dead have lost their boots.

The previous post's paintings and drawings flatten the space of war into a representative frieze.  These ledger drawings are simultaneously profile and plan.  The top of the page is no less important than the middle or the bottom, all participants are equal in size – there is no re-scaling to fit any laws of perspective.  We have been taught that renaissance perspective gives a scene veracity: distance blurs, makes dim and small.  In these ledger drawings the veracity is more overwhelming, everything is foreground, everything is heroic, nothing is diminished for 'art'.  The frieze drawings gain their power in presenting the line of soldiers, or police, as a clear middle ground with no ameliorating fore or back grounds.  The ledger drawings present similar lines, but many of them and all in the same space of the page showing rank after rank of cavalry and warrior riding toward each other and clashing violently.

I've shown just three of the drawings here, the full set of 26 is both breathtaking and sobering: a tragedy drawing in careful detail.

The Battle of Little Bighorn An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

Saturday
Dec202014

panoplies of war

Robert Longo. Untitled (Ferguson) Diptych, 2014. Photograph: Petzel GallerAfter writing about Robert Longo's drawing of Ferguson, in the previous post, I kept thinking of another battle painting featured on Amanda Vickery's The Story of Woman and Art, Lady Butler's 1874 Calling the Roll.

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler. Calling the Roll After An Engagement, Crimea, 1874. The Royal Collection, London.And this led me to John Singer Sargent's Gassed, of 1918:

John Singer Sargent. Gassed, 1918. The Imperial War Museum, London

From the Civil Rights Movement:

Martin Spider, Troopers charging marchers at the Pettus Bridge, Civil Rights Voting March in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. Reproduced after: Steven Kasher, The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, New York 1996, 179And lastly, because by this time it seems so obvious, the frieze on the entablature of the Parthenon:

Entablature Frieze on the Parthenon, the Acropolis, Athens, Greece. 447-432 BCThere is something about the linear array of warriors that perhaps has its roots in the rendering of the endless wars – war as a permanent state of existence – between gods, states and cities of the eastern Mediterranean.  Sargent's Gassed is an oil painting, but acts visually as a bas-relief: little depth of field here, and what is in the background is a smaller repetition of the foreground. 

Lady Butler is known for a new sensitivity to the reality of war; conventional paintings of British heroism portrayed the heart of battles, all glory and snorting horses, rather than the ongoing grind of war.  The Roll Call showed British soldiers in a state of extreme and weary collapse, after the battle, not in the battle.  The Grenadier Guards are not shown in their full complement, but are crowded into a dark cluster of wounded spirit.  This was the ordinary, unheroic side of war, a depiction unusual for its time.  Now, I cannot find anywhere that says that Lady Butler actually saw a battle. Sargent was there, Longo wasn't, Martin Spider clearly held the camera.  The painting is not necessarily a witness, rather it supplies a narrative needed, politically, by certain groups at the time.  The nineteenth century British Army needed reform, mid-twentieth century America needed suffrage, The Great War needed an ending, early twentieth-century USA needs to re-examine the licence and the impunity given to its institutions of law and order. 

The Parthenon frieze aside as it is included here for its formal structure, in all of these artworks we see the backs of men, the artist is a viewer from a distance, not gassed, not beaten, not weary. The men do not pose for the artist, or as is the unspoken intention, they do not pose for us, thus they do not accuse.  That is left for the artist to do. 

There is a horizontal datum line through the heads in these pieces, above is an empty air, below all is struggling uncertainty. There is no perspective, and perhaps no perspective can possibly justify these scenes.  We are not asked to engage, the precision of the row exludes us, we are forced to simply gaze at the panoply, and this shocks us.  And it shocks us into muteness because the subjects can't or won't hear us. 

Thursday
Dec182014

Robert Longo: Untitled (Ferguson), 2014

Robert Longo. Untitled (Ferguson) Diptych, 2014. Photograph: Petzel Gallery

Robert Longo (Petzel shows his most recent work) has flirted around the edges of political art for a long time, forming a punk band when the Velvet Underground was a punk band, drawing from photographs figures seemingly in some sort of physical angst, an idea he claims from a still from Fassbinder's The American Soldier.  He redraws iconic abstract expressionist works – a photo of his studio shows a Motherwell on the wall. He did album covers; he has an assistant who actually does the details of his drawings – such is the contemporary art process: the artist thinks of the piece, the assistant realises it, the artist finishes it. He directed Johnny Mnemonic; he did a memorable photo shoot for Bottega Veneta. This is a post-70s New York Lou Reed manqué artistic career that appears to be political but perhaps is merely black and white.  And he is married to Barbara Sukowa.  

This 10' long charcoal drawing, Untitled (Ferguson), is redrawn from news coverage of the Ferguson riots.  It is beautiful in a way that black and white photography often is, as is charcoal.  Jonathan Jones in the Guardian is very taken with it, classifying it along with Warhol's silkscreened 'Birmingham Race Riot', 1964, taken from a news photo, Rauschenberg's Dante drawings and Richard Hamilton's Northern Ireland triptych, especially The State.  With Longo, the artist has stepped back somewhat from manipulating the image: this is a straight translation into charcoal from a digital image projected onto a ten-foot sheet of paper.  The process means that it is not a print, it is from the age of reproduction, it is not reproducible.

Jones feels that because Longo chose the image, that makes it significant art, much in the way that Duchamp chose everyday items from which he made art.  I'm not sure that this is a strategy that still holds, a century after Duchamp and the surrealists investigated it.  Longo, and all the rest of us, have a keen eye for the 'significant image'; we are not as graphically naïve as we were during the Civil Rights movement, or the Vietnam War.  The rise of photojournalism, war photographers, and the sheer volume of images of wars and riots and terrible incursions have trained us to read images of war aesthetically.  

Longo's Untitled (Ferguson) is terrifically forbidding and full of foreboding, sobering and monumental — a piece of art to mark the Ferguson travesty of justice and its aftermath, but first of all it is beautiful, romantic even, in its theatrical smokey lighting and its linear array of protagonists, as if the artist simply can't help aestheticising the smell of tear gas.  I suppose I've become cynical in the power of contemporary art to be really angry and this mise-en-scène is about as close as we will get.

Wednesday
Nov122014

Metropolis: postmodern watchlist 2014

Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas. Townhouse for Matt Sabatine, 110 East 64th Street, New York City, 1984. Metropolis Magazine, November 2014

Paul Makovsky and Michael Gotkin's 'Postmodern Watchlist', Metropolis Magazine, November 2014, discusses the historic preservation of postmodern buildings from the 1970s and early '80s and how the commission that designates landmark buildings hasn't a methodology for the kind of modifications and additions that both characterise postmodern buildings and are their fate.

The critique that divided 'building as object' from 'buildings as fabric' developed in the 1970s (Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York was about this very quality of combative individualism) where more and more buildings were suddenly realised to be part of a significant context. The buildings in the list waver between a genuine appreciation of historic methods and materials, and the semblance of such which was the thing that eventually made a mockery of architecture and architectural postmodernism: the keystone that was merely a keystone-shaped incision on the brick, or marble, or stucco rain screen.

The 60-year rule (that a style reaches its nadir at 60 and after that starts to gain historic currency), means that mid-70s architectural postmodernism, when the idea was at its newest and most exciting, won't be the subject of positive theoretical investigation until the 2030s.  I distinguish between architectural postmodernism and postmodernism in other disciplines as architects were distinctly vulnerable to image and style: slapping a pediment on a curtain wall tower was technically simple but theoretically complex.  But that kind of complex discussion was for the critics, who actually existed then, unlike now.

David Balzer's book, Curationism, points out how criticism has been supplanted by curatorial practice: the choosing of arrays of material, ideas, lists, that in their array begin, hopefully, to frame some sort of discussion.  This perhaps has to do with unstable critical positions, no longer is there the magisterial Pevsner, or a Peter Collins, or a Colin Rowe, historians that put architecture into linear continua.  Balzer and the reviewers of his book all cite the deep and lapidary access to unprocessable amounts of information today – we look to curators to process and chart paths for us through this democracy of material.  And it is precisely this democracy that obviates a 'central' critical position.  We are free to choose curators who aggregate images for us.

In the tricky postmodern era of the late 1970s and early 1980s there was no web, in fact there was no personal access to computers. Information came in books and magazines, journals and architects travelling the lecture circuit, showing their work, talking about their ideas.  They still do that, but I'm not sure why given that we can find it all somewhere on the web if we really look. Metropolis started in 1981, a wildly exciting monthly tabloid-sized architectural newspaper from New York, not much distributed outside major US cities, but if you went to New York and found a copy, holy cow, it was such a shot of adrenalin.  It was news from the centre of the earth.  I'm just not sure that kind of thing exists any more – that sense that there is a centre, or even a pulse.  Nonetheless, this was the climate that the postmodern Manhattan buildings, listed in the November 2014 Metropolis, grew up in.  These were buildings that 'curated' the city.  

Agrest and Gandelsonas's East 64th Street townhouse, above, was, quoting Diana Agrest, 'a hinge between two institutional buildings that had almost opposing styles—the Modernist Asia House by Philip Johnson and the Gothic Central Presbyterian Church.'  This is classic architectural postmodernism in the best sense: the obligation of any building to its context, the city and the history of architecture as a conversational act.  Architecture as a mediator.  

Where did that go?  I'm not sure, for although we now live in a socially and culturally mediated world where it is difficult to discern an original thought in the long curated lists of likes, most architecture remains out of sync with this role as a mediator.  It is still, more often than not, a declarative act, viz. the newly opened Museum of Human Rights which conducts a rather shouty debate with angry excluded communities.  

Or, perhaps it is the curators who assume we still want shouty debates, breaking news, cutting edges, heightened reactions, and, as always, the quiet side of the culture of architecture, such as the Agrest and Gandelsonas townhouse, is still seen as a minority interest. 

Tuesday
Nov112014

Armistice Day 2014

How different our lives, our countries, our world, would be had none of these hundreds of thousands of young men been killed. 

Wednesday
Sep032014

Andrew King: Trans Architecture

A rather beautiful, tiny little video for Andrew King's current lecture about his work.

And a full lecture here: Gerald Sheff Lecture Winter 2012 at McGill.

 

Wednesday
Aug202014

Eddie's Cafe

© Ed Freeman, 2014

Found a series of these Ed Freeman photographs of abandoned highway buildings in California.  Not quite real, the original background has been removed and replaced with a series of moody skies and deserts.  Clearly Eddie's Cafe is in a city, at 1208 Something Street, not in the middle of nowhere.  

In the past, I would spend the third week in August driving from the cool nights of the eastern slopes of the Rockies at 52° N to the obliterating heat of central Texas which never seemed to cool down at night from its late summer  daytime 100°F.  On the way I would pass dozens of places like Eddie's Cafe, truly in a desert with nothing before it or after it, no photoshop needed.  

Perhaps one of the reasons such cafes, gas stations and motels stand boarded up is one of distance and vehicles – my first trip to go teaching in the States was in my elderly 1957 Austin, top speed 50mph.  Compared to real cars and trucks whose tanks of gas would take them 500 miles, I didn't want to ever be more than 15 miles away from help.  It is something like the old placing of grain elevators every 6 miles along the railway tracks: a function of time and distance for horse drawn wagons delivering grain.  

But these long driving trips were beautiful — an America off the freeway, out of the cities, quiet, deserted. 

Friday
Aug082014

Charles Stankievech, The Soniferous Aether, 2013

35mm Film Installation
Duration: 10:18 Loop (this is a lower resolution edited trailer – just a taste)

from Stankievech's website:

The Soniferous Æther of The Land Beyond The Land Beyond is a 35mm film installation shot at the northernmost settlement on earth— ALERT Signals Intelligence Station— as part of a series of fieldworks looking at remote outpost architecture, military infrastructure and the embedded landscape. Shot using a computer controlled time‐lapse tracking camera during the winter months, the military spy outpost radiates within a shroud of continuous darkness under a star-pierced canopy harkening an abandoned space station.
He speaks about it as the first panelist in Air | Land | Sea with Charles Stankievech, Kara Uzelman and Cate Rimmer, part of Gallery Hop Vancouver co-presented by the Canadian Art Foundation and the Contemporary Art Society of Vancouver.  This is a tremendously interesting three presentations:
Saturday
Jul262014

Harry Partch, Barstow, 1941-55

This is from the era that Buckminster Fuller was busy with his domes and Jeffrey Burland Lindsay was manning Fuller's Research Institute in Montreal – 1948-53.  It seems to me, because I am doing all this investigation into Lindsay, that this was a particularly exciting, open and boundless era for experimental work. 

And yet, when Lindsay moved from Montreal to Los Angeles in 1953, it looked like this:

The 200 block of South Main Street, Los Angeles, 1952Harry Partch lived in Los Angeles, and later in Petaluma where Jeffrey Lindsay did a sun shelter out of a shallow space frame section of a dome: a magical telstar sort of thing on a pole.  There is such a disjunction between the visionary structural work and musical experimentation of the time (this piece for example, and John Cage's 4'33 which was composed in 1952), and street culture, which appears to be still lodged in the Depression with desperate hitchhikers stuck in Barstow.

'Barstow', from The Wayward, for two voices, surrogate kithara, chromelodeon, diamond marimba & boo (1941-1955).  The spoken parts are 'eight hitchhiker inscriptions from a highway railing at Barstow, California'.

Part of the YouTube description: In late 1939, [Partch] went on a hitchhiking trip to take photos in the Southwestern deserts of California and Arizona. In the tough little Mojave Desert junction town of Barstow, California, in February 1941 while waiting for a lift, he noticed the following inscription on a highway railing:

It's January 26. I'm freezing.

Ed Fitzgerald. Age 19. Five feet, ten inches.

Black hair, brown eyes.

Going home to Boston, Massachusetts.

It's 4:00, and I'm hungry and broke.

I wish I was dead.

But today I am a man.

Monday
Jul212014

Air Ocean World

 

Buckminster Fuller. Air Ocean World Dymaxion Map, 1946

part of Fuller's Dymaxion World Map Patent: click on the image to see the whole patent. The critical paragraph: 'It is an object of my invention to provide a sectional map of the world, or of a portion of its surface, which is so constructed that its parts can be assembled to give a truer over-all picture of areas, boundaries, directions and distances that is attainable with any type of plane surface map heretofore known.' Was this a mathematical/geometrical puzzle? One must always remember how interlaced Fuller's researches were with military problems. Fuller's Dymaxion 1946 cartography patent.  Oh these patents.  Such energy has been expended in mapping to render the three-dimension sphere on flat paper without distortion, or at least with understandable distortion.  We no longer understand such distortions but there is a lively discussion of the politics of map-making, several of which we had in On Site review 31: mapping | photography. The Dymaxion map is an icosahedron where to preserve the actual shape of the continents and oceans, bits are lost in the edges of each triangular excerpt.    

Dymaxion: dynamic, maximum and tension.  It was Fuller's mantra, but it is quite surprising how far his ideas spread: far beyond domes and living off the grid.  Most of his work in housing and cars was done before WWII, and little was financially viable.  After, he mostly wrote and lectured and this is where his influence sank deep into the postwar American art movement.  Black Mountain College also keeps reoccurring as a site where everyone met everyone else, John Cage especially.  1948-50 or so seems to have been a period of wide-open possibility where all disciplines were in intense conversation with each other. 

Jasper Johns. 'Map (Based on Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Air Ccean World), 1967. Hans Namuth and Judith Wechsler, 1990. Distributed by MoMA, Circulating Film Library. From the MoMA description: 'a portrait of the artist at work. The film begins in 1972 with Johns repainting Air Ocean World based on Buckminster Fuller's dymaxion Map. Johns work is traced over the next eighteen years. His Untitled, 1973, with its cross-hatching, flagstones, and anatomical parts become recurrent motifs, as Johns begins to imbed skulls and severed arms in them. The paintings become more personal as Johns gradually 'drops the reserve' in his recent series, 'The Seasons'. The film culminates with Johns working on the final state of the etching based on 'The Seasons'. There is no narration as such. Jasper Johns speaks at various points, John Cage reads Johns' statements, then rearranged through a computerized method based on the I Ching, curator Mark Rosenthal comments on several stages of Johns' work, and Christopher Ricks reads passages from Beckett's Foirades/Fizzles.'
In 1990, Hans Namuth and Judith Wechsler made a film about Jasper Johns: Jasper Johns: Take an Object.
It begins with Jasper Johns painting a huge dymaxion map (destined for Expo 67, now in Cologne's Museum Ludwig), Janis Joplin on in the background.  Then comes John Cage reading a selection of Johns' statements: 'art is either a complaint or an appeasement'.  One can see traces of the map that keeps occurring in the way patches of colour or marks or objects sit in some folded relationship on the canvas. But that aside, this is a truly rivetting film, and reminds me again of why Jasper Johns is so important.  

Tuesday
Jul082014

the world of patents

UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE 2,682,235 BUILDING CONSTRUCTION Richard Buckminster Fuller, Forest Hills, N. Y. Application December 12, 1951, Serial No. 261,168, p. 1.

Investigating the world of patents in conjunction with Buckminster Fuller's 1951 patent of the geodesic dome, which made him quite wealthy as he licensed the rights far and wide, I have discovered a) that patents only last 15 years and then are released to the public domain, and b) that there is a certain madness in the patent world.  
Evidently inventions must be novel, useful and not obvious.
Novel we get, not obvious means that it can't be a logical development of a previous patent, but useful?  This clearly is a wide and ambiguous quality.  

Many patents are genuine developments that advance medical technology, etc., but someone wants to put a clamp on the developments to make money from it.  Well and good, research and development costs.  Others seem to respond to some really annoying problem someone has in their daily life and god dammit they are going to solve this, patent it and make a fortune.  Such as the bird trap cat feeder, which catches sparrows and feeds them to cats. 

UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE 4,150,505 BIRD TRAP AND CAT FEEDER Leo O Voelker, Linn Kans 66953 Application August 8 1977, US1977000822683 p.1.Now, what world does this person live in?  Is there a personality type that easily loses perspective in the blinding light of their own genius?  What is wrong with sparrows that they should be so cruelly hunted – it is something like finding out that the Elizabethan delicacy, lark's tongues, required a thousand tongues to make a single serving.  Was Elizabethan England overrun with larks?  Was Kansas in the late 1970s visited by a plague of sparrows?  

Oh no, there is a large section of google references to sparrow control.  Evidently they are invasive, successful and displace little native birds.  This is one of the discussions we are having in the contributions to On Site 32: weak systems – successful invasions of the small and insidious.

Monday
Jun232014

Black Mountain College

A. Lawrence Kocher, Studies Building, Black Mountain College, Lake Eden, North Carolina. 1941

Black Mountain College, North Carolina, started an interdisciplinary summer arts school at Lake Eden in 1944 during a war, when things rarely start, and continued to throw artists, musicians, dancers and experimental types together through the 1950s.  One of these was Buckminster Fuller who had done his startling dymaxion work in the 1920s and 30s and by the late 1940s mostly taught, did workshops and mentored people.  One of these was Jeffrey Burland Lindsay, an engineer-industrial designer in Montreal who headed up the Buckminster Fuller Research Institute, a grand name which turns out to be Lindsay and Ted Pope in a small space on the Plateau.  One of the summers Fuller was at Black Mountain, Lindsay too was there: the practical fellow to Fuller's inspirational stuff.  They built a 48' geodesic dome in 1948, called by Elaine de Kooning the Supine Dome, as it failed, gracefully.  From the pictures it looks like they were building it out of ribbon.

One Black Mountain listing says 'the college played a formative role in the definition of an American aesthetic and identity in the arts during the 1950s and 1960s'.  It must have done, it appears to have been stacked with emigrés from the Bauhaus, plus Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Josef Albers; there were poets, there were painters, all was possible.  Students included Ray Johnson, Noland, Rauschenberg, Twombly, John Chamberlain — these are the ones I know, there are many others I don't know, but it was clearly seminal, formative, an essential part of American postwar modern art. 

The college was located on Lake Eden, planned in 1938 by Gropius and Breuer but development was suspended during WWII, and then after the war Lawrence Kocher took over the design of the main building. It was built by students and faculty from 1940-41, plus, for sustenance and extra cash, there was a farm and a mica mine.

This is a curious episode in American architectural history, one senses that money was tight, creativity and optimism high, materials were often found, the country itself was in the grip of a military-agricultural complex.  Kocher's austere, Gropius-influenced, minimal campus building, the stamp of which is in Frey's canvas house of the 1930s, and so similar to a wartime barracks, is also not unlike a North Carolina tobacco-drying shed: wood frame, clad in corrugated galvanised steel.  And it has aged like a tobacco-drying shed, leaving behind its bauhaus modernity and revealing its deeper connection to a local vernacular.

This series of images, taken in 2007 at the Lake Eden Campus of the Black Mountain College, focuses on the Studies Building. Designed in 1940 by A. Lawrence Kocher, the building was completed in 1941 and is the largest structure built by the college.

 

Friday
Jun202014

the Tarpon Inn and hurricanes

The Tarpon Inn in the 1940s. Although built and burned, re-built and destroyed by storms before this version, its basic and original form and function is a barracks. It presages the two storey motel with each room accessible from an outside walkway. Compared the the Tarpon Inn in its current palm-treed beauty, this view from the 1940s seems to indicate a more motel-like attitude to travel and lodging.

The Tarpon Inn, in Port Aransas on the south east Texas coast, was built in the 1920s specifically to resist hurricanes and the storm surges that had destroyed its earlier versions.  A forest of pine poles are set each in 16' of concrete and continue through two storeys to the roof. There is a post in each corner of each small room.  There are no inside corridors, you get to your room from the porch.  The lobby is papered with tarpon scales – discs about 1.5" across – each signed by the fisherman who caught it, including famous people who came for the sport, mostly in the 1920s and 30s when there was a lot of tarpon, Megalops atlanticus, in the Gulf.  

Tarpon scales from the 1920s-1940s in the Tarpon Inn lobby, 7000 of them supposedly. Tarpon are warm water ocean sport fish, 4-8' long and up to 250 lbs.  It is alleged that the tarpon has suffered a massive decline along the Gulf coastline since the 1950s because of loss of coastal 'nursery' marshes: mangrove marshes in Florida, a seawall across much of Mississippi that used to be marsh, and increased commercial fishing of menhaden, a tarpon food source. 

Why am I revisiting the Tarpon Inn after twenty years since I saw it?  Perhaps because it is an ecology of people, architecture, climate and weather that seemed so precise, and so gone.

The Tarpon Inn today. These images are taken from traveller's blogs; although the inn is on the Texas Historic Register of significant buildings and properties I wasn't able to find a survey of it. The Tarpon Inn operates as a rather beautiful boutique hotel these days, Port Aransas's gritty past all but erased.

Thursday
Jun192014

breakaway walls

Damage from Hurrican Ivan, 2004, in the southeastern USA where breakaway walls are necessary and mandated.

This structural detachment of structure and skin is very helpful in extreme weather: in hurricane-prone coastlines houses have breakaway walls which are ground level enclosed areas for parking or storage, where the enclosing walls will actually break away from the structure when hit by high winds and water.  The house is instantly piloteed, water and wind rush right under it.  Breakaway walls are bylaws in many areas, and there is a FEMA manual that outlines specifications. The principles appear to apply only to ground floors; the house itself is conventional construction where walls are meant to protect, not flee.  

Because of our northern climate, all our woodframe houses sit on basements that act like concrete boats: they resist frost heaving but in a flood fill up with water immediately.  And every time there is a tornado in a non-tornado zone such as happened in southern Ontario last week, the houses are deconstructed leaving piles of studs and shredded plywood.  In Places in the Heart, a 1980s movie set on the prairies during the Depression, a tornado was coming and Sally Field rushed about the house opening all the windows before taking the children into the storm cellar. The house was made as transparent to the wind as possible. A storm cellar is accessible from outside the house, no convenient basement stair, and so even if the house is blown apart, the cellar is a separate underground bunker.  This was in The Wizard of Oz, which we've forgotten.

In this new era of violent weather, our bulwarks against traditional weather where the worst that happens is that it gets very very cold — three weeks of -30, no problem, the houses are snug.  Our houses have always been built to resist — we feel the whole house ought to be a storm cellar — rather than to bend.  We are getting new weather, we are going to have to rethink it all. 

Wednesday
Jun182014

Albert Frey: cotton house, 1933

Albert Frey, Swiss, studied at ETH Winterthur, a critical point as technical schools taught construction and technology. He graduated in 1924.  What a time to be a young architect: he worked with LeCorbusier and Jeanneret in Paris from 1924-28 alongside Sert and Perriand, then moved to the States.  He joined Lawrence Kocher in New York and worked with him until 1935.  Kocher was also the managing editor of Architectural Record, a journal that promoted American modernism.
Frey worked on the Museum of Modern Art in 1937-9 and after this moved permanently to Palm Springs, falling, like so many European architects, for the freedom and space of the American south west.  

Two Frey and Kocher houses: the Aluminaire, a demountable house faced with aluminum panels, which was moved several times in its life, and a canvas cabin, both done in the early 1930s.  They did permanent houses, including one for Raymond Loewy, but these two are in the nature of workshop experiments.  
The canvas house, built for Kocher, consists of painted sail canvas stretched over a redwood frame, insulated with aluminum foil.  These details come from Joseph Rosa's book on Frey, but compared to the Aluminaire there appears to be little information on the canvas house. The images here are from a single website.

Frey and Kocher, canvas weekend house, 1933

However, in Popular Science, February 1933 the canvas house appears.  For 15¢ (20¢ in Canada) what an exuberant little publication this was: packed with ideas, inventions, the wonder of developing technologies and sheer curiosities — it shows a most positive and active engagement with newness that I just cannot see anywhere today. Here is a pdf of the Feb 1933 edition.

Popular Science, February 1933, p42

On p 42, just above identifying dogs by their nose prints, is 'Architect Designs Cotton Houses'.  The write up:  'Houses of cotton are proposed by Lawrence Kocher, noted architect, to solve the low-cost housing problem.  Models of two types, a $1,500 five-room home and a week-end house, have been designed.  A weatherproof exterior is provided by a roof and walls of fireproofed cotton ducking stretched over a wooden structural frame.  Inner walls are also of cotton.  Insulating material may be added to exclude heat and cold.  Since the canvas is flexible, it is adaptable to any shaped surface. '

This is the Villa Savoye for Depression-era America: inexpensive, democratic, inventive, flexible.