a walk on Brick Lane

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Brick Lane is not unique among the streets of the world in the fact that it bears the evidence of shifting demographics, but it is certainly a fantastically diverse and colorful example of the phenomenon.  Even a short walk along part of this long street, which runs mostly north-south-ish in London’s East End, passes through divergent communities and multiple layers of cultural archaeology.  And while it might be short in distance (say, 1/3 of a mile), this walk is long in experience and deep in delight.

Our walk began at Fournier Street, on the corner of which stands an appropriately bricky eighteenth-century building whose tenant list already reveals part of the history of the district.  The Brick Lane Mosque has been used as such since 1976, but was formerly a synagogue (from 1898), before that a church (used by Methodists since 1819), before that serving for a decade at a time as the headquarters of the “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews” and a Wesleyan chapel; originally it was built as La Neuve Eglise for French Huguenots in 1743.  To further complicate (and/or enrich) matters, its minaret (which lights up at night) was added in 2010, paid for by the Bishops Square development near Liverpool Street Station.

This section of the street is pretty much free of architectural monuments after the mosque, leaving one tempted to fall back on the old chestnut of describing the 3- and 4-story structures that line Brick Lane as “nondescript buildings.”  Maybe once upon a time these (mostly) 18th- and 19th- century blocks were unremarkable, but by 2014 they have achieved an impressive patina through use by layers of use through the centuries.  Not much reflects the earliest history of this road that is really, really old and gets its name from a brick factory that was built before the first Queen Elizabeth took the throne.  Successive groups of immigrants have moved to this part of the city, oftentimes to take over the silk and weaving shops that were prevalent through the nineteenth century, when the business dried up.  In the 1970s Bangladeshis became the predominant ethnic group in Brick Lane.  Their presence is evident in the street signs written in Bengali and lamp posts painted in the colors of the flag of Bangladesh, as well as the preponderance of curry shops along the street.

Perhaps like pizza being taken over by Americans from its Italian immigrants, curry rose in popularity along with the multiplication of Bangladeshi restaurants in Brick Lane, through the rest of London and wider in the country.  So popular did the immigrant cuisine–admittedly with some alterations–become, in 2001 British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in a speech to “celebrate Britishness” and its longtime multicultural character, claimed that “Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”  The acknowledgement of Bangladeshi culture as an integrated part of Britishness was made official by the renaming of the district as “Spitalfields and Banglatown,” also in 2001.

Recently, Brick Lane has continued to show signs of change as its character (and relatively cheap rents) have drawn the attention of artsy types.  Just off the path of our walk, the Rag Factory, a repurposed building housing studios, performance and exhibition spaces, is not far from the intersection of Brick Lane and Fashion Street (originally the Hugeuenot name “Fossan” Street, the word was later corrupted into “Fashion,” and recently became a magnet for designers).  Walking north, such establishments as the Cafe Mumbai, Mango Masala, Eastern Eye Balti, Bengal Village, the Curry Bazaar, and Cafe Bangla cede way to the Vibe Bar, the Laden Showroom, Rockit, Vintage, the Brick Lane Gallery, the venerable Beigel Bake.  What might seem like a rather abrupt transition between the Bangladeshis and the more recent settlers, around Woodseer Street, is visually bridged by a new scrim on many of those old buildings.  The once-plain walls along the path have been turned into a fantastic open-air street art gallery. The big crane by Belgian artist Roa is probably the most notable work in the gallery above, but we are partial to the portrait of local hero Charlie Burns (d. 2012) by Londoner Ben Slow–it’s beautiful, and painted to look like its fading away, along with Charlie’s Brick Lane.

Having started at the church-synagogue-mosque at the intersection with Fournier Street, the walk ends at a rather different, and rather new, cultural icon just below Bethnal Green Road.  Fika, named after the tradition of Swedish coffee break and opened some five or six years ago, is a bar and restaurant that is pretty serious about its Nordicness, featuring kladdkaka and gravadlax on the menu.  We might be just a few blocks north of the mosque, but it feels farther away.  Not as far as Stockholm is from Dhaka, the difference between the ends of this short walk is better measured in messier terms than mere miles.  The self-consciousness of cultural construction to the north is palpable, but maybe that’s been the case whenever a new wave has flowed down Brick Lane, going back to the Huguenots.  Regrettable neighborhood gentrification?  Maybe.  Expected urban evolution?  Undoubtedly.  It’s the natural way in these unnatural things that we call cities and that are, afterall, the artifacts of everyone who passes through them and takes the time to leave part of their story behind.


Tilda Swinton ‘Maybe’ Art



Having already performed the work in London and Rome (1995, 1996), Tilda Swinton brought her performance piece “The Maybe” to New York in March, 2013. It is exactly what it looks like: Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box, in the Museum of Modern Art.

People who think that museums are for paintings and sculptures–among them images of women but not the animate thing itself–may wonder, what is the point?

Is the title meant to state the fragile, uncertain nature of “art” by its identification with a simple adverb modified, incongruously, by an article adjective–making language just as flimsy as the ‘art’ it might describe?

Is it some kind of statement on fame and celebrity and access and voyeurism?

Is it just a crass marketing ploy, the blonde vampire in the transparent coffin, leading up to the release of a movie later this year?

Is it a statement on how not to nap: (1) in public, (2) in jeans and (3) with shoes?

Is Swinton a Tracey Emin fan and this performance is an homage–or rebuttal?–to the Unmade Bed, providing a tidy napper for the earlier, much messier, installation?

And do you need to go back to college and take that contemporary art class to get it?–to understand art, to know if it’s good or not?  Or even, anymore, to be able to identify art when you see it, especially if the sight of a very normal human activity, but performed by a famous person in a box in a gallery, challenges your understanding of “art”?


You only need to know: yes, Swinton sleeping in public (above) is art, while the guy doing the same thing, in a different context (below), is not.  Swinton’s nap is art and that guy’s nap is, instead, just shy of vagrancy, for the same reason this is art and this is not, and why this art and this is not.


Because: a stage, and a proclamation.

Because: modern, and Duchamp.

Now, while you have to say it’s art, you don’t have to say it’s good art.  Because: when the eons-old understanding of “art” was overturned by a French guy with a urinal, traditional judgement on “quality” was necessarily abandoned as well.  While one category of making and consuming was closed to a tight, small circle–one which has become mightily skilled at communicating its sense of superiority and keeping its trade secrets to itself–, another was opened up to a wider audience.  And it is only fair that if the naming makes the artist, the critique makes the critic.

Then again, no one every said that modern art is fair.


not art.

not art.

the image of International Women’s Day


Happy Women’s Day, Dear Women! (1964)

As its name suggests, International Women’s Day is, indeed, a global event.  Yet in spite of its reach–and age (almost a century old)–recognition of IWD in the US is almost nil.  In spite of efforts by various presidential administrations to turn up the volume on “women’s issues” during the month of March, acknowledgement of the month, and more precisely the day (March 8), are pretty much ignored.  This is not the case in nations with a long history of observing the date, including eastern European countries and Russia (where it began), Scandinavia, Australia, and recently in Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Cambodia, Angola (among dozens of others).  It’s notable that in the latter countries–none of them the picture of civil rights awesomeness–that IWD is an official national holiday, not just a day for potential local celebrations, which is the way it is observed, hit or miss, in many industrialized, democratic nations of the west, where it enjoys prominence neither on the national calendar nor in the national consciousness.



In the places where it is observed, the manner in which IWD is recognized has, and does, differ across time and geography, from a highly politicized event marked by marches and protests, to a holiday that prompts the gifting of flowers to ladies.  This variety of interpretations and manifestations is clear in the great variety of graphic art–much of it pretty wonderful–related to IWD.  Much of it runs in the vein of the image on the left, celebrating IWD as a kind of happy and feminine (rather than feminist) holiday.  Lots of flowers and ethnic frocks, images of women isolated in abstracted backgrounds: no context of work or even home life, no men to suggest father/husbands, no children to make this another mothers’ day.  These are lovely images, some of them more graphically superior than others.  (We like the clever figure eight in this card from 1970, suggesting a dance as well as the date of the holiday.)  Such an image is there to remind you, if you are not a woman, you’d better go buy some bouquets for someone who is.


which arm holds the cell phone?

Another common theme in the IWD posters, and Revolutionary art overall, is the elevation of women from traditional spheres of work in the home and recognition of the huge amounts of labor required of running a household.  The Russian image on the left shows a multi-limbed mom, each of her arms indicating the amount of time required of various tasks, leaving only 17 minutes per day to care for her child.  Surely what is required is for this femme-mill to be energized by winds of change, both to alleviate the drudgery of home labor (other graphic messages demonize “kitchen slavery” and encourage literacy among women) and focus her domestic tasks not solely on upkeep of the house, but instead on raising the next generation of Bolsheviks, as one of her contributions to the state.



These are pretty interesting images, but perhaps the most compelling posters are the ones with more overt political significance.  The Soviets have a great number of these, which is not surprising in consideration of the tradition of mass-produced Constructivist art following the Revolution.  Indeed, IWD was launched during those years and as a means to formally acknowledge women’s contributions to the Communist and Socialist movements.  Thus the posters are populated with Frauen waving flags of political change, bolcheviques commanding farm equipment in Ukraine and handling machinery in Soviet factories.  The posters reveal a blend of ideology and reality: women are valued contributors, and expected participants, in all aspects of society.

That is the overall message of International Women’s Day anywhere it is not just a strategy to boost flower sales–and not even to that low status does it reach in the US.  However, for that economic possibility alone, one might expect that the Land of Hallmark to elevate the date.  Think of it: not just the purchase of posies, but the mimosa brunches and gifts of jewelry and chocolates adding to the economy at this heightened season of potential male guilt wedged between the Superbowl and March Madness.  Yet good capitalists steer clear of this thing, probably unaware of the Socialist/Communist history of the holiday, all too wary of the potential of a movement that challenges the longstanding power structures in America: systems firmly rooted long before the advent of IWD in other countries.  The suffrage bill was still winding its slow and tortured way through Congress when the Soviets were calling on women to stand up with men to support and defend their country.  After contributing to the American war effort at a huge scale, helping to enhance the US as the industrial powerhouse it became at mid-century, middle-class female citizens were rewarded with one-way tickets out of offices and factories and into suburban tract housing.  Today, American women are like the windmill-woman above, but with less support from the state: maternity leave lags far behind Canada, Norway and Denmark (usual suspects) and even Mexico, South Africa and Pakistan (that hurts).  A study from 2006 shows that gender pay gap in the US (22.4%) and Canada (27.5%) keeps company with Botswana (23.3%), Madagascar (26.1%) and Singapore (27.3%); it’s not as bad as Kazakhstan (38.1%) but well behind the EU, Egypt, Iran, Mongolia, and Australia (all 14-20%).  Granted, numbers can be beguilingly straightforward, and never tell the full nuanced story–but their consistency certainly refutes the prevailing myths that suggest that the issue is irrelevant or even non-existent.

Overall the data confirms the continued economic and social discrimination against women in the US.  For that reason, IWD could be an important opportunity to raise awareness and prompt change. However, even among the most interested parties there seems to be a split opinion about how to go about making such progress.  Perhaps this is another curious and somewhat ironic manifestation of the general freedoms enjoyed in North America.  Witness the posters below, from British Columbia (left) and Québec: if the real IWD stood up, would she be revealed as a scarf-wearing radical, fist raised before some kind of rising sun motif, à la imperial Japan, leading the charge of eagles and helicopters? Or would she totter between a political rally and a shoe sale on psychedelic go-go boots?  In alternate decades, Russia and Eastern Europe have treated the day either as a celebration of feminine prettiness or female strength; the poster at the top achieves a certain middle-ground, with the pretty lady adjusting a headscarf whose pattern intermingles blossoms and leaves with the hammer and sickle.  L’état est la femme.  Considering the posters below, Canadians might want to work out which way they mean to go, and if it is possible to blend feminine softness with a feminist edge.

Their neighbors to the south might wake up and do something.  But that would take a different kind of political will in the US–where women comprise 18% of the House and 20% of the Senate, and a whopping seven women serve as state governors.  Fabulous as poster artists and local organizers might be, they cannot alone affect the means by which a holiday–Socialist in its roots–might be woven into the national calendar as a symbolic measure of women’s actual participation in American life.  That requires a recognition that Socialism is the enemy neither of capitalism nor democracy.  The New Deal, the Great Society, public education, food stamps, Social Security and Medicare are all pretty Socialist–and pretty American too.  Putting basic human rights aside, it’s also a very American trait to make the most of available resources to achieve economic advance–even when there is little social and political will to invest in other kinds of progress.  International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the wasted resources embodied by 51% of the global population, imagine a way forward to make the most of it and, finally, for heaven’s sake, pave the way to make it happen.

scratch pp.pptx

two recent views of International Women’s Day

Several images are from this interesting blog.

curiouser and curiouser: the new Barnes Foundation

fun signs: the single sign of life on the Parkway

A trip to the new Barnes is a curious excursion.  Because of the shady (if not downright nefarious) manner in which Alfred Barnes’ great collection of Post-Impressionist art was commandeered by the Philadelphia Art Mafia (see this post if you need a refresher), it already promises a slightly uncomfortable visit.  It’s hard not to feel a little wrong about enjoying the spoils of a robbery, which is maybe how the cheering Romans felt when watching a triumph.  But the Romans were really good at designing a splendid parade in a gorgeous setting that probably made people forget how nasty the instigating event really was.  That’s not the case at the Barnes, where the building fails to rise above the ugliness of the heist.  In fact it just exemplifies—maybe exacerbates—it.

galleries with Mr. Barnes’ “ensembles” (WHYY)

The most gracious part of the building is the sequence of galleries that follow the lines of Paul Cret’s original design for the collection as it was displayed in Merion and installed by Albert C. Barnes himself in 1925.  This is important since the Barnes isn’t just some rich person’s collection curated by some expert with an art history degree and lined up in chronological order.  The manner of its arrangement—the compositions of paintings in a group on a wall, often interspersed with metal objects and joined with furniture—is very particular to the personality of Barnes.  These “ensembles,” as he called them, record the way he thought about the collection; the visitor’s consideration of how, say, a Matisse painting, a German portrait, a Cézanne  landscape, a still-life, two hinges and a Pennsylvania Dutch chest work together is part of the intellectual riddle and aesthetic joy of viewing the collection.  It’s to the credit of the Barnes Foundation (or the judge that ordered them to do it) that the ensembles and rooms were replicated as closely as possible to Barnes’ original intent.

eyes to a building’s soul (we see torment)

But the fact that these galleries of Cret’s inspiration are stuffed into an unapologetically contemporary building is just strange.  It’s an odd experience to cross the threshold from the giant, modernist holding tank (where visitors line up and wait, wait, wait, in spite of timed tickets) to the relatively small, and lovely, galleries.  It’s a transfer from a cold, empty, lifeless space, to a compressed sequence of rooms teeming with people jockeying for the best view of the 100th naked Renoir lady in a bathtub, while the guard nudges you back from the tape border on the floor, lest you get too close to all that brushwork.  Odd as it is to step from the new building to the old galleries, this interior move is easier than witnessing the way they clash on the outside. The window sizes, proportions, detailing, and placement make all kinds of sense inside, but they look very strange from the street.  In particular, the sense of scale articulated by the wooden muntins is completely at odds with the abstract, scale-less quality of the building mass.

the shipping container that defied gravity

Even in purely contemporary terms this is not a great building.  It is basically two big stone boxes on the ground with a hovering box sheathed in glass or plastic or plexi or something in between them, with a tremendous cantilever to the west.  There’s no clear reason why this box has is expressed distinctly through the different materials and striking structure.  Also curious is the articulation of the façade, with different sizes of limestone slabs separated by joints of a mystery material.  The joints are not all the same width, possibly to allow for mistakes that the architects expect the masons to make.  We can’t think of any aesthetic or structural reason to justify this weirdness, so that’s our best guess.  Also, the limestone was sourced not in Pennsylvania, which might have been a nice boost to some struggling local economy, but rather from Israel, meaning it traveled 5,700 miles to get to Philadelphia.  (The fact that the Foundation is still seeking Platinum LEED certification, and could even get it, with this blunder, makes us see red, but that’s nothing new with LEED.)

Sometimes buildings raise questions that can be riddled out (say, a Flamboyant Gothic church).  Sometimes they can’t be, but the joy in thinking about what was going on in the architect’s gray matter makes the weirdness its own reward (like with a Borromini church).  At the Barnes Foundation, it’s just curious, and strange, and ultimately unsatisfactory. Our best guess is that time and time again the architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, challenged each other to spend through their giant budget as quickly as possible.  Their choices certainly weren’t made to serve art, to craft a singular museum, or to reveal anything about Philadelphia, so that’s as good a guess as anything.

the decent garden

The best of the non-Cret parts of the project is the landscape by Laurie Olin to the north and east of the building.  This is a slick modern garden, all right angles and interesting textures.  Its sensibility is in harmony with the building but it is generally more visually interesting, and pleasant to be in, as long as you don’t mind walking in very straight paths, and turning on perfect right angles. It is a memorial to Corb’s dictum that the modern man’s city is one of rationality and ninety-degree turns; cutting corners and winding paths are for uncivilized goat herders.  Near a good modern building, it might be a boring garden, but since the Barnes is not a good modern building, Olin’s garden looks pretty great.  And it ought to, since, even though this is the back of the building (in reference to the tradition of the city), it’s used as the front (according to the architects’ desire to stir things up?  challenge our preconceptions?  make it easier to access the Whole Foods parking lot when we need a snack?  Hard to say.).

Bank Barnes (ha, ha!)

It’s the south side of the building, along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the design really goes astray.  The building, already suffering from those odd windows, is landscaped with the charm of a bank barn in Indiana (actually, far less so.).  A stepped little hill runs down from the building and is separated by a strict line of trees that mark the edge of No Man’s Land along the Parkway.  There’s nothing on this side of the building that says, come on in and see some paintings (as long as you buy your tickets in advance, because they’re always all gone before we open).  At best, it says, go ahead and pitch the hay through these here windows and we’ll bring the cows in around the other side.  But what it really says is, these architects never learned that buildings that ignore pedestrians, contribute nothing to the street and expect no life to be there anyway make bad cities and are, themselves, bad.

plans for the BFP: PMA at top (photo credit)

Truthfully, the Parkway has never been a particularly good example of what it wants to be, which is a little piece of Paris, an elegant and lively boulevard. The Philadelphia planners got the formal part right, but loaded it with institutions of a single kind a little too far away from the street, without the shops and restaurants and density that would have made the thing work (Classical aesthetics, Modernist single-use zoning; again we say, well done, Philly).  Still, that stumbling plan is no excuse to contribute another bad example of bad planning to the Parkway.

Had the Foundation moved the Cret-designed Barnes building with its collection, and added a few attributes to liven up the sidewalk (the ubiquitous gift shop?  an outpost for Beiler’s Bakery, maybe?), that would have been a great start.  It’s appropriate that the gallery spaces are the most enjoyable part of the museum; it’s a shame that the rest of the project falls so far beneath the “copied” Cret interiors. It raises the obvious question: as long as they were recreating the interior Barnes experience, why not also build the original Cret building–all of it?  This would have made a lot of sense in its particular site, in between the Rodin museum (designed by Cret in 1928) and the Free Library (Horace Trumbauer, 1917).  It could have been a marvelous Classical trio to fill out one the country’s great attempts at White City planning.

Of all the curiosities attending the new Barnes, the greatest one is that it recreates the guts of the old Barnes, but sticks it in a boring husk that completely turns its back on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  In short, it looks very much like the Barnes Foundation does not want to be in Philadelphia at all—which is very curious, given the number of lawyers and briefs and filings and fights that were required to uproot the collection from Marion and deliver it to Parkway in the first place.

once upon a time: Barnes in Merion (Paul Philippe Cret, 1925; photo credit)

Gehry, Ike, and the Language of Memory

proposal for Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial by Frank Gehry

The construction of memorials is a tricky business that has only become more complicated in the last decades, especially in Washington.  Desires for inclusiveness of design and transparency of process, set within the quagmire of federal systems and on the always-contested landscape of the capital, ensures that the process, from inception to completion, will be a long, winding, difficult path.  All of those challenges make it harder, but even more important, that we get it right, especially when we consider what is at stake.  Memorials are, after all, the built manifestation of collective memory; that is their point, and it always has been.  Cultures around the world and through all epochs have left reminders of what was important, both to remind themselves and communicate to future generations.  These messages are carried through art and/or architecture, a means that is mutually understood by artist and audience, ideally in a manner (style, if you like) that is, even without the content, inspiring.

Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial falls short both in content and manner–in part because the two are so at odds with each other.  Gehry’s design, which has undergone at least one major revision, spreads a collection of objects across a rectangular four-acre urban park.  Rows of round piers line three of its sides and support metal screens that bear two-dimensional images of his childhood in Kansas.  At the center of the site, an empty space is flanked by skewed planes defined by thick stone slabs with inscriptions and stacked at angles.  Figural sculptures, representing his adult achievements, will stand in front of them.

now THAT’S a colonnade

In that description, we’ve tried to be as accurate as possible given the modernist language of Gehry’s design.  The traditional components articulate something, but the architectural elements do not say much, do they?  Piers, screens, planes.  They have a relationship to neither their immediate context on the National Mall nor any meaningful tradition of memorial design.  The problem with abstraction (well, one of its problems) is that it cannot fulfill the need for significance that people seek in architecture–that was and is the point of Modernism, after all, to break from the past, which makes it antithetical to the memorial function of remembering.  This is especially significant in a project that has as its primary function the communication of an idea.  With a little imagination (which most people have, even non-architect people, which architects sometimes forget), people will surmise their own meaning within the abstract forms, and this can lead to a world of problems.  Detractors have already latched onto Gehry’s metal screens as being evocative of concentration camp chain link fences (architects might be reminded instead of Gehry’s infamous debut with the material).  Other people understand this element to be symbolic of another metallic “cloth:” the Iron Curtain–probably not a desirable image in a memorial to a significant World War II figure.  Others still might be chilled by the formal similarity of the blocky elements to this earlier monument.  The tall–VERY tall (80′ high)–cylindrical piers have been denigrated as looking like missile silos but also described as “columns” in an effort to make them seem more at home among the tradition of Classical memorials all over the Mall.  (Perhaps the same motivation lead some supporters to refer to the metal screens, ridiculously, as “tapestries.”)  That is silly, since they more closely resemble upended culvert pipes than true columns (if you need a refresher, see Henry Bacon’s work above).  Even more absurd is the suggestion that Gehry’s design is a roofless classical temple, a notion that only illustrates how hollow are the arguments that Gehry’s architecture is at home in the Classical city.

These various attempts to stretch language into impossible meanings is distracting and unhelpful, but it also points to part of the trouble with this design.  Even its supporters scramble for language to describe what it is, which is an essential part of explaining what it is supposed to do.  And it reveals a key problem with this design, which is its desire to do two things.  On the one hand, it is a big expensive project by a name-brand architect who is famous for making up his own aesthetic (which, we think, he should absolutely be free to do when he serves his private clients).  On the other, it’s trying desperately to fit into two contexts that are famously consistent in their language: the federal capital, and the tradition of memorial design.  Gehry’s proposal can’t do either.

Union Station (Burnham, 1907)

Both Washington and its Classicism are flexible systems, but they have their limits.  For well over two centuries architects have been working in that particular language of architecture, exercising its consistency and legibility, but also its flexibility.  It’s the langauge of Thornton’s capitol and Walter’s dome, Cret’s library and Pope’s museum, countless other public edifices and private homes, not to mention all those memorials, the most famous (and beloved) of which are truly Classical.

Grant Memorial (Shrady & Casey, from 1902)

Because of those immediate physical (National Mall) and functional (memorial) contexts, designing memorials in a Classical vein is arguably the right thing to do, and thus the popularity of those that have followed this vast precedent–perhaps most recently and most successfully, the National World War II Memorial (in spite of criticism from the professional architectural community).  Here we are not just thinking about the architectural forms that make up a memorial.  Rather, we are considering the Classical manner of memorial-making, traditionally either a building to go into (Jefferson, Lincoln) or an object to look at and walk around (Washington, Grant).  One of the problems with contemporary memorials seems to be the foregone conclusion that a they must be big, and the unfortunate assumption (usually) that they cannot be traditional plazas, and with that, the preference for walk-through sculpture-garden-events (like the semi-successful memorial for the Korean War).  While enlarging the scale and budget of a project, these big landscapes do not inherently make the memorial more effective.  The Eisenhower Committee (and the countless other committees that will doubtless follow their lead) might learn something by considering the strength and impact of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.  Its three sculptural groups are positioned on piers and define a fine and simple open room.  They effectively communicate the character of fortitude and calm for which Grant was famous especially in the midst of battle, as portrayed in the evocative flanking groups of Cavalry Charge and Artillery on either side of the central equestrian figure.  The sculpture groups communicate their subject brilliantly, without any screens, scrims, pediments or colonnades.  The team of sculptor and architect understood how to utilize their site and the surrounding monuments to enhance their memorial, while their work contributed appropriately to its setting.  Eisenhower might, likewise, be better served by this traditional approach.

As much as we believe that function, meaning, symbolism, and appropriateness are best served with a Classical design, we’re willing cede that it’s not always the only and best thing to do.  Two cases-in-point come to mind.  The Astronaut Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center (1991) effectively melded a high-tech image into a somber monument that was meant to constantly scan the heavens (its mechanical failure is both regrettable and embarrassing); it told a story and fits is place.  Closer to home, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981) was not the first project that raised the issue of memorial langauge to the status of public debate, but it did so prominently and recently.  Without rehashing the complexities of arguments about that design, suffice it say, the image of a semi-subterranean, black angle with no recognizable imagery was shocking.  But in its muteness it accepts and maybe encourages different points of view, which is appropriate for that difficult war and its aftermath.  One of the problems of its legacy is that it suggests that the mute-modern approach is generally acceptable for memorials, rather than understanding its qualities in this specific social and political context.

national treasure, indeed!

Eisenhower is a different case altogether.  A two-term president, five-star general, and Allied commander in Europe during World War II are the hallmarks of a heroic figure who ought to be treated as such.  That is where Gehry’s language falls short on several counts.  Although it is not traditional, it is also not the identity-free architecture designed by an unknown architecture student in a competition for the Vietnam War.  It is a monument designed by one of the world’s best-known architects, and we bet you dollars to donuts that people visiting Washington in ten years will ask for directions to “the Gehry monument” rather than “the Ike memorial.”  Gehry is a name-brand architect; that is why he is sought after by clients around the world who want a wow-and-now image.  Selecting Gehry to design a building is like putting Nicolas Cage in your movie.  If you cast him, they will come.  The work of memorial designers, not the designers themselves, should attract attention and visitors; the designers should be invisible–possibly be made famous by a great design (or not, as was the case with unfortunate Shrady), or if already famous, practice in such a way that their ego is subsumed by the project (only Classical architecture geeks who visit Mr. Jefferson’s memorial are distracted by its Popeness), not chosen for already being famous and potentially outshining their subject.

Fred & Ginger (1996)

That is another reason why the Classical language is appropriate to memorial design: we read it as a style, generally; specialists can recognize differences across the decades and between practitioners, but that distinction does not matter in a style that is timeless, and is thus appropriate to communicate timeless values, like heroism.  Gehry’s work is the opposite of that–it is about the spectacle of the moment–, and it should be left alone to do so.  His highly sculptural buildings gain meaning (again, by people who seek for buildings to speak to them) only from other people; he does not engender them with anything.  Other people saw a dancing couple in his skyscraper in Prague (left); after proposing his design for a Guggenheim museum for  Abu Dhabi he spied a consonance between his work and the “domes and things . . . blocky shapes” of Ottoman mosques.  Gehry’s work doesn’t communicate anything more transcendent than the materials available to him at this moment in time; they will age and date and be eventually worn out.  The framework of this memorial will always evoke its decade, distracting from the figural elements that will continue to communicate, albeit in a setting that is hardly supportive of their mission.  Gehry’s idiom is not amenable to the figural additions that are tacked on like afterthoughts; they are post-it notes on a marker board.

In an attempt, perhaps, to put a lid on the controversy, as poobahs like to do, the commission’s “executive architect,” Daniel Feil (awarded a 2012 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture by the AIA–emphasis on the AIA rather than the Jefferson, to be sure), issued this meant-to-be-definitive statement:

Different people like different things.  But this is a design [Gehry’s] that is quite an extraordinary remembrance of President Eisenhower, and that will transform this plot of land.

This is neither an innocent nor a simple statement.  Its bookends are ultimately dismissive: (1) differences of opinion are simple matters of personal taste which aren’t worth talking about (except, we assume, among the professionals who know better), and (2) “transformation,” although it only means “change,” suggests the idea of improvement–highly arguable in this case.  (Construction of a Five Guys would be a really welcome transformation in this neighborhood, too.)  But then consider the stuffing: the design is “quite an extraordinary remembrance.”  Well yes, “extraordinary,” another word which is value-free, but meant to imply a positive idea.  It  simply means unusual, remarkable, sweeping: things that might be said of the design of the QE2 as well as the sinking of the Titanic.  More to the point, what “remembrance”?  The only remembering prompted by this memorial are the afterthought elements–the sculptures littered around and overwhelmed by the huge architectural forms.  They may communicate, but Gehry’s abstractions can only reflect what others see in them; they carry no memory.  They are the surface of the pond, not the well of wisdom.

Memoria is not just a root word taken from a dead language.  Memoria references a canon of rhetoric,  which is about the shaping and presentation of speech.  Memoria is about argument and inquiry; it is the recall of points within a debate.  That is where established languages of architecture are useful for memorial purposes.  We grow up with traditions that seep into our common understanding.  Whether or not a person can articulate the differences between each of the Orders, they usually recognize their general connection with institutions dedicated to the common good, and prevailing, positive values that have been commended since antiquity.  The fact that our institutions sometimes fail us is not a reason to reject this heritage; it is reason to demand that the institutions–and let’s be clear, we’re talking about people who are in charge of them–live up to their promise.  Arguments that these ideals are invalid are cynical at best, and nihilistic at worst.

The Gehry memorial should not be rejected because it is in a modernist style, or because it is too big, too expensive, or will be too hard to maintain.  It should be rejected because it fails to do its job to contribute to contemporary public discourse on its subject and will not share that understanding with future generations.  It communicates a trendy image that is destined to be outdated, which is not just disrespectful of its subject but an indictment of our public attitude toward history.  And if in that way it is indicative of the zeitgeist, it is the emblem of a people who have given up caring about and learning from their own legacy.

See the Memorial Commission website for best images of the proposal

Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (Henry Merwin Shrady & architect William Pearce Casey, 1902)

authoritative guide to careers in art and architecture education


if the glasses fit . . .

Schools of art and architecture are fascinating places, run by faculty and staff that ostensibly have so much in common, and who work for what are arguably common goals—and yet they display such distinct behavior, often apparently at odds with one another, although these tend to be kept relatively below the surface (or at least not at full boil) in the cause of collegiate collegiality.  But activities that are latent in the diverse petri dish of the average Art and Architecture School become more pronounced when members of each discipline travel to meet with their own kind.  With academic conference season upon us, MoT’s Department of Professional Anthropology has fanned out across the country to observe the annual rituals of professional groups dedicated to the teaching in art and architecture programs.

In their natural habitats, species display certain attributes of herd mentality; when observed and quantified, these behaviors may be helpful for your consideration.  This is a public service to our readership, not only to define such behaviors to increase awareness of the special qualities of these special creatures, but also as a service to those who may currently (or who aspire to) hold a position in one of these institutions.  The following will help you know if you made the right choice, and if not, if you need to modify your behavior–or your job.  Alternately, it may assist those contemplating a future in such a career, or aid therapy sessions for families that find themselves with a professor in their midst.

Although the following mechanism is presented in quiz format, it is not a quiz (neither is it “pirate guidelines”); it is a definitive tool, and you should plan your life according to its results.


How do you describe you tribe’s demographics?

A.  dudes who think we’re progressive for hiring, like, 25-33% girls (but seriously, we’re mostly dudes)

B.  gender is such a fluid concept!

C.  we’re mostly sensitive (some might say “delicate”) men and mannish women

D.  we plan to file a grievance for having been asked that question

E.  suits!

F.  why aren’t there more ladies around here?

What is your beverage of choice?

A.  green tea

B.  three shots of espresso, or shiraz in a juice glass

C.  latte

D.  macchiato—but they never make it right

E.  Scotch

F.  Folger’s or can of beer

What is your favorite scent?

A.  fear

B.  varnish

C.  old book

D.  skepticism

E.  hierarchy

F.  pine

What is your neckwear?

A.  demure scarf

B.  crazy scarf

C.  bowtie

D.  severe jewelry

E.  tie

F.  beard

What brings you to tears?

A.  light

B.  color

C.  seeing it in person

D.  you assume I weep just because I am a woman?  I’m calling the AAUW

E.  missed opportunity

F.  fire


What is the last thing you read?

A.  I didn’t really “read” so much as “look at the pictures”

B.  gallery wall text

C.  another call for papers/proposals/grants

D.  a critical essay published in an obscure journal

E.  results of my latest assessment project

F.  directions

What was the last thing you wrote?

A.  blog entry on a house designed by a classmate for his mom

B.  it more of a word-picture than, you know, “words”

C.  a 2,000-page manuscript that seven academic presses have turned down

D.  a scathing review of my office partner’s most recent publication

E.  it included words like “vision,” “analysis,” “projection,” and “ideate”

F.  it was in marker and taped to the wall

You believe education is:

A.  communicated by osmosis.

B.  a matter of inspiration and innate gifting.

C.  image-driven.

D.  image-driven and usually subject to outmoded expectations of gender politics and West-centric assumptions—except in my classes.

E.  a marketable product.

F.  best on an apprenticeship model.

You think distance learning

A. would destroy the sanctity of my sacred teaching space and the rituals I perform with my acolytes.

B.  is OK, if they already figured out how to do it in New York or Los Angeles.

C.  would push me over the edge.  I already adapted to PowerPoint, what more do you want from me???

D.  probably doesn’t work, but if it means I can do everything on-line and move from this crummy Midwestern campus town to Paris, sign me up.

E.  is a cash cow.  And by that I mean, it appears to be an opportunity for pedagogical innovation and delivery of measurable achievement goals that will have a beneficial result for student learning and university programming within the parameters of the university’s mission statement.

F.  is sort of limited by the length of my extension cord.


You packed

A.  every black knit pullover I own, and one charcoal sweater to add a punch of color.  And at the last minute.

B.  ironically.

C.  50 term papers that need to be graded before midterms are due.

D.  fabulous shoes—lots of them.

E.  actually, my wife does that for me.

F.  flannel (without irony).

What does your conference emphasize?

A.  method

B.  criticism

C.  content

D.  theory

E.  vision

F.  making

Your workshops focus on:

A.  computational strategies

B.  haptic experience

C.  varied interpretations of the built environment

D.  theory in past practice

E.  pie charts and tie tacks

F.  “work” and “shop”

Between conference sessions, you can be found

A.  at Starbucks, tapping my iPhone.

B.  behind the conference hotel, instagramming the garbage bins.

C.  down the block, taking photographs.

D.  outside, smoking and frowning.

E.  everywhere, networking.

F.  with everyone else, talking shop.

When a presenter makes a bold claim that challenges your field’s canon, your response is to:

A.  shrug it off; what’s a ‘canon,’ anyway?

B.  hug him

C.  roll my eyes and audibly sigh, then rip his argument to shreds–with friends at the hotel bar later

D. stand and applaud (if the claim supports my politics) or start a Twitter campaign to have his tenure revoked (if the claim challenges my politics)

E.  wonder if this will become a “best practice” by next year, in which case, I’d better call a meeting to revise the strategic plan

F.  warn him to be careful; he could lose a finger

My conference is held in:

A.  New York or Berlin

B.  New York or Los Angeles

C.  Charleston or Philadelphia

D.  New York or some place that is regrettably not New York

E.  Pebble Beach or Vail

F.  Franklin, IN or Bumble, ME

What happens during your absence from campus?

A.  ten students gain four additional hours on Facebook

B.  fifteen students make an impromptu field trip to Starbuck’s

C.  fifty students spend an extra hour in studio (checking Facebook)

D.  one hundred students sleep in

E.  no one notices

F.  everyone freaks out until I return

You know the routine.  Which ever letter you marked most frequently will reveal your proper place in the wild and wooly wacky world of Art and Architecture School.

A.  You are (or should be) an architectural design studio professor

B.  You are (or should be) an art studio professor

C.  You are (or should be) an architectural historian

D.  You are (or should be) an art historian

E.  You are (or should be) a university administrator

F.  You are (or should be) a woodshop supervisor

Do be a dear and let us know how much we’ve helped.

tastometer 2011

Alfred C. Barnes, when he was alive, and still able to forcibly beat the crap out of anyone who suggested dismantling his collection

Although taste can neither be judged on a perfect continuum (since so often events and objects evince both good and bad taste) nor be comfortable within delimiting factors of a ten-part end-of-year list, the turning of the calendar does seem an appropriate time to take pause, consider the year that has passed, and acknowledge special achievements in Taste: the good, the bad, and otherwise.  MoT‘s Department of Tastemetrics offers the following study of events of 2011, ranging from the Worst of Bad Taste to Tasty of the Tasty, recognizing that bad taste is sometimes enjoyable and good taste can be downright boring.

Rather than apply a simple numeric system to this slippery study, the Department instead adopts a system of word-pictures.  These Taste Indicator Determinant arBited Illustration Types (TIDBITs) have been assigned somewhat like the party election symbols used in India–not that those were judgmental, as MoT‘s are, but they are illustrative little morsels none the less.  Join us as we start at the scuzzy, slimy bottom:

Bunga-bunga?  Buh-bye!

The resignation of Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister of Italy finally took place on 16 November.  There’s nothing redeeming about this story; he was a schmucky guy who took advantage of everything and everyone.  Yuck.  TIDBIT: Flaming Bag of Poo

The celebration of “Architect Barbie” by people who should know better: it was bad enough that this crummy parody of a female professional was unleashed, it’s worse that there has been so much praise and excitement about it from professionals and academics.  Ugh, we’ve been through this enough and have submitted the Barbie Department here at MoT HQ to redundancy downsizing, so just read their now-historic report here.  TIDBIT: Cat Barf

A nut that was cracked wide open in an interview on ABC in February, Charlie Sheen’s simultaneous meltdown and reinvention was sad, overplayed and tedious, but somehow heroic, albeit in a deluded sort of way.  We include it here mostly to emphasize how much we hate Architect Barbie by making her the meat in a crap sandwich with Silvio & Charlie as the bread.  TIDBIT: A Crap Sandwich

one monstrosity OMA hasn’t managed to get built yet

There’s plenty of stupid spectacle architecture out there, both built and proposed (here’s an exemplary late entry), but the La Paille Dans L’Åil Du Voisin is the stupidest (watch the video if you have excess IQ points to spare).  TIDBIT: Whatever Tastes Like The Head of Michelangelo’s David With A Big Beam Rammed Through It

On July 3 the Barnes Foundation closed. What a travesty.  Readers unaware of what a slimy business the art world is (especially in Philadelphia, but not uniquely so), need to read up or see this good documentary.  Glimmer of hope: with this theft, more people will be able to see and enjoy the art at the center of the controversy.  But that’s the same kind of thin excuse that protects a lot art in European museums stolen by marauding armies.  This time the crime was perpetrated by very slick culture vultures, but the result is the same.  TIDBIT: Heirloom Tomato, Rotten and Worm-Eaten


A one-time favorite around HQ, Project Runway concluded season 9 by naming Anya the winner. Inconceivable!  Anya, who can make only one dress, for one climate, but sew no sleeves, and never heard the word “zipper.”  This, especially when the duo of Joshua (left) and Viktor were actual contenders, dripping with loads of talent and versatility and skill.  Although the award raises an interesting point–how essential is design education vs. natural talent?–it revealed the producer’s interest, finally, in favor of sizzle over steak.  TIDBIT: Beadazzled Crap Sandwich

Mixed blessings from England: someone newly hired at Mini somehow missed the memo that “mini” means “small,” and urged the developement of maxi-size minis.  The Mini Cooper “Countryman” (what does that even mean?) is weird, and dumb.  Problem: it was first advertised with this commercial, and the catch phrase cram it in the boot, that we really kind of like.  However, when MoT crams it, we cram it in a properly-scaled mini Mini boot, thank you very much.  A proper Mini is more than adequate for our needs, and we have stretched it to accomode, at one point, two of MoT‘s junior staffers toting backpacks, viola and cello, and a pitbull, for good measure, and did so while maintaining the spirit of Mini as encapsulated in the great commercial that celebrates the “Best Test Drive Ever, Period.”  (However, MoT‘s six-word “Best Test Drive Ever, Period.” would be described thusly: MrDarcy, Quadrilatero’d’Oro, Ringstrasse, Scone, Hogwarts, Siouxsie.)  But that’s just not happening in a Countryman.  TIDBIT: Poofy Scone, Oversized For American Market 

We needed a lie-down, too

MoT staffers have anticipated few movies for their artistic promise alone like they have Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.  What a visual treat it was . . . until we had to run out of the theatre due to severe nausea caused by over-indulgence of the shaky-cam.  Why, Lars, why?  We were ready for the cinematic version of German Romantic paintings, and instead were sickened by camerawork that would be too jerky for a Bourne installation.  TIDBIT: Sad Scone.  A Beautiful, Sad, Nearly-Vomiting Scone. 

There’s good taste, and bad taste, and then there’s excellent bad taste.  Hello, Honey Badger, the short film first posted to YouTube in January.  Nasty indeed, but humor that fresh and funny is something to celebrate.  TIDBIT: Steak ‘n Shake Chili Deluxe With Cheese Fries

the Lake Shore Drive “graveyard” in February

That leads to the mid-point of the Tastometer and the potentially taste-neutral matter of time and weather.  The latter was dealt a wallop near MoT HQ in February, when SnOwMaGeddon swept into the Chicago area.  It’s only weather if you notice it, and it’s only tasty if something cool happens because of it: behold Jim Cantore’s response to thundersnow!  (How this has not been autotuned is beyond our understanding.)  Also, all those abandoned cars on Lake Shore Drive became the subject matter of great Snowpocalypse photography.  TIDBIT: Flaming Baked Alaska

Likewise, dates tend to be  untasty.  But no day for years and years will live up to the graphic simplicity and regularity of 11 11 11; likewise, no date will ever emphasize one of cinema’s most tasty scenes, ever.  TIDBIT: Shark Sandwich.*

Launched in April, the architecture blog Philaphilia wins high marks in a similar vein as the Honey Badger, but for buildings (and so it’s better than studies of “nature”).  Philaphilia is remarkably active and consistent, has a very specific point of view, is historically spot-on and full of sage wisdom (a favorite bon mot: “don’t build buildings out of sidewalks.”)  That’s all we can quote here and keep our PG rating.  If you like your architectural criticism sprinkled with F-bombs, hearken ye to Philaphilia.  TIDBIT: Salty Caramel

The Tastometer begins to pick up now, with the very tasty news that the British Library now offers an e-classics app for the iPad, huzzah!  For a monthly fee (say, the cost of an Aztec cocoa, or two whoopie pies, or half a bottle of Essie nailpolish–all tasty things) one may access tens of thousands of books, scanned from the original, on an iPad.  With this service, Hermione’s beaded bag has nothing on your own Birken, virtually full of 30,000 nineteenth-century tomes.  Actual books are still better than their electronic versions, but since MoT‘s collecting habits in nineteenth-centry books are, alas, somewhat limited, we are grateful to the Brits.  Once again.    TIDBIT: Scone with Clotted Cream

MoT hearts books

With its new director, the Art institute of Chicago seems to be going gangbusters with exhibitions, but many of them have fallen flat.  Not so for our favorite of the year, a very small collection of printed materials arranged in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries in celebration of the citywide “Festival of the Architecture Book,” marking the 500th anniversary of the publication of the first illustrated architecture book.  “Design Inspiration: Nineteenth- Century American Builders’ Manuals and Pattern Books” was a wonderful show.  More, please!  TIDBIT: Chocolate Chip Cookie

A certain big box retailer scored big with another blockbuster designer collaboration with the storied house of Missoni for Target.  Fashionista Bargainistas saw zigzags . . . then saw red (more about that here), as stores were cleaned out and the Target.com website went kaput.  Several months later, very slow boats from China are still struggling to fill open orders.  TIDBIT: Bruschetta di Milano


The big and little screen made us happy, from the visually and intellectually stunning Cave of Forgotten Dreams to the local favorite Munger Road, also big Scandinavian “tummar-upp”  (well, that’s what Røger Ebertssen would say) for Trollhunter, which managed to blend aspects of The Blair Witch Project, Jaws, and Scandinavian myths together in an effective way that makes us eager for a sequel and a prequel to learn more about the stoic hero for whom the movie was named.  We applaud two humane shows in the midst of dreck on television: Parks and Recreation features characters who are actually genuinely likeable people, and The Walking Dead mixes up the good and the bad, and makes a person wonder every week which one they are.  TIDBIT: Zombie Waffles, with Lingonberries

Colin Firth, action hero

Was 2011 The Year of Firth? An Oscar, London Film Critics Circle, the European Film Award, and that was after raking in a few dozen similar trophies in the last months of 2010, all for The King’s Speech, which was released on dvd in April, and you bought it immediately, didn’t you?  And in June he was presented at the Queen’s Honours with the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).  (Bryan Ferry was also honored in that program, prompting our consideration that the whole event should have a special award for Tastiness.)  The year closes with the opening of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which also holds the promise of the action figures we most look forward to seeing under our Christmas tree.  TIDBIT: Scone With Clotted Cream *And* Jam.

Speaking of men we love, David McCullough published The Greater Journey, a book that celebrates some of America’s greatest architects, artists, writers, and others who aspired to greatness and pursued it in Paris.  Like all of Mr. McCllough’s books, it is an inspirational and wonderful tale.  We have long admired this fabulous historian who writes history that people actually want to read.  The fact that MoT‘s Chief of Literature Consumption met him at a book signing, where he was marvelously sweet, kind, supportive, personable, gave him the edge over Mr. Darcy.  (No, she still hasn’t washed the hand that he so warmly shook.)  TIDBIT: Boeuf Bourguignon


A dominant force in the Tastiverse this year was the final installment of the Harry Potter movies, the Deathly Hallows, Part II. Fine film it was, but that’s not why it ranks so high on this list: it’s just that the final installment finally gave a platform to Snape’s long suffering.  At last, Alan Rickman was able to let loose and reveal Snape’s heartbreakingly courageous lonesome lovelorn sacrificial self as a main pivot point for the whole story.  (Too bad the filmmakers crapped up the ending so bad, or this entry would have crept closer to the top of the list.)  TIDBIT: Flourless Chocolate Torte & Port

One of the tastiest events to blow into New York–a city that knows from taste–blew away all previous exhibition records at the Met: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, dominated the summer.  MoT‘s Department of Exhibition Critique worries that museums are not doing their job if a fashion designer can out-draw painters and sculptors who have made a more proven and lasting contrition to civilization, but even so, admit that it was an extraordinary and amazing show. It is a rare treat when an exhibition encapsulates the spirit of its subject without overwhelming it.  TIDBIT: Any Two Or Three of These Cakes

kiss me, Kate

Nearing the top of the list, it’s hard to deny that Britain had the corner on taste in 2011, for no event was more anticipated and drawn out and over-reported and yet still left us somehow unsatiated than the great fabulous Royal Wedding of April 29, for these four reasons: (1) Kate Middleton, (now Her Royal Highness Princess William Arthur Philip Louis, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn and Baroness Carrickfergus), not only looked great but has acted with admirable demureness through this whole crazy affair; (2) the beautiful sublimity of the gorgeous day was thrown comfortably and realistically off by the crazy hats, especially  Princess Beatrice’s Fascinator (don’t you feel better about what your embarrassing cousin wore to your wedding now?), and the peevishness of Princess Grumpsalot (left);  (3) it inspired one of our favorite websites of the year, Kate Middleton For The Win, and (4) it was a great excuse to get up early, make scones and finally figure out where in town we can source clotted cream.  TIDBIT: Just The Clotted Cream

Finally, what’s tastier than The Taste?  Well it’s the tasty readers of the Taste of course, a readership that has gone berserker in the last weeks of 2011 thanks, as far as MoT‘s  Electronic Media Research Team can tell, from a post from two years ago being circulated like gang busters.  MoT has now been read on at least four continents and translated into Chinese.  For that, 作者 sends a hearty 谢谢 to our new friends at renren.com, and also our friends at Google Translate, who allowed our Department of Poor Language Skills to put the Chinese back into English, to hilarious results.  Plenty of traffic was also prompted by the tweeting of tasty folks at Dwell.com and postings at Archinect.com, but we especially thank Artmagonline.wordpress.com, since they introduced our post on a page with Helena Bonham Carter, so now MoT and HBC are BFFs.  Glad to have you all along for the ride, please introduce yourselves to the faithful who have been around since our launch on Borromini’s birthday in 2009.  TIDBIT: You!  (Or Almond Bark)

Savage Beauty: McQueen, 2005

*that one is for you, MoT CFO

The Barbieriffic® Barbies® of the Museum Collection Barbie® Collection

What was “Starry Night” missing? A perfect pedi, duh!

MoT staff entered their adult years at a point of truce with Barbie®.  We’ve healed the childhood scarring of the Unachievable Barbie Figure®, and overcome the aesthetic damage wrought to our architectural sensibilities by Barbie’s Dream House®.  We went our way, Barbie® went hers.  Or so we thought.  Had Barbie® remained in her rightful place in her Stepford Wifesque alternate universe, we would never had said a word.  Then Architect Barbie® was foisted upon us, and we had no choice but to respond.  And now, what fresh hell is this?  It’s Museum Collection Barbie®, here to aggravate us in all new ways.

It’s one thing to do a stupid cartoonish interpretation of women in a profession which is historically unsupportive of its female minority as a glib marketing ploy dressed up as some kind of grrl-power actuator; it’s another thing to blaspheme three treasures of art history.  We are not amused.

“inspired by Leonardo da Vinci”

Museum Collection Barbie® is the brainchild of Mattel® designer Linda Kyaw®, whose career appears to be based on watering down and stealing (oops, we mean “adapting”) the work of actual artists.  This series of three dolls “inspired by” the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh and Gustav Klimt is the worst kind of re-heated schmuck.  What was the inspiration, besides some memo from a CEO hoping someone would breathe some life into this horrifyingly outdated brand?  According to the giddy writeup on “Barbie Collector,” Ms. Kyaw® “wanted to do something different.”  Well of course.  So where does “different” start?  We suppose, the difference is, instead of looking to dune buggies and malt shops for inspiration, she looked to “the most iconic paintings of all time.”  Well of course!  Oh wait, here’s the twist: “with an emphasis on fashion.”

That’s definitely what we also learned in Art History 101: art is about fashion, especially if a lady is in the picture, cuz ladies are there to wear pretty clothes.  Or, at least, maybe that’s what we would have learned if we had cut most of our Art History 101 classes to go to the mall.

If that was the case, we too might be more open to the fluffy treatment of, say, Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest creative and inventive minds ever in the history of the universe.  Speculation about the identity and meaning of his most famous and enigmatic portrait, commonly known as Mona Lisa (ostensibly the inspiration for ye olde damsel doll, but you be the judge), has prompted untold hours of conversation in graduate seminars and countless thesis pages.  But it poses only one question to Ms. Kyaw®: what’s she wearing on her legs?  That is the mystery posed by the Mona Lisa: no one knows what’s she’s wearing below the waist!  Could it be goucho pants?  A hot mini?  Capri pants?  Jeggings?  oh please let it be jeggings!!!  Alas, no, it’s just the big skirt of a big dress that makes Mona Lisa Barbie® appear to be all decked out to serve mead at the Renaissance Faire.  To the credit of painter Ei Fong, at least she is not made up as if she just got her free Urban Decay Makeover at Ulta, like most Barbies®.  But that’s the best we can say for her.  Come on: even Dan Brown‘s goofball treatment of Leonardo’s art is more intellectually stimulating than this.  Next!

“inspired by Vincent Van Gogh”

The second Museum Barbie® Barbie® actually did call for interpretation, since there is no pretty lady in Iconic Painting Number Two: Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night of 1889.  What’s the challenge for Ms. Kyaw® here?  It could have been an interesting study on the trope of the woman’s body as landscape, or something to do with an interpretation of Van Gogh’s stunning brushwork.  But no: it’s an effort to make this masterpiece of Post-Impressionism “trendy” and “to fuse the original painting with an edgy dynamic.”  Because nothing honors the memory of a tragic genius (and probable suicide who suffered epilepsy, delusions and various psychoses) like an edgy dynamic.  What form does this trendy edginess take?  Starry Night Barbie® gets a twirly circle skirt that swirls around, get it, like the swirly sky in the painting.  Get it?!?!?  And then that hard part again, with the legs sticking out under the place where the frame would have been.  Oh I know, swirly shoes!  And her Barbie Blonde® hair is all curly-swirly too!  And an inexplicable black crud crawls up her dress like sea weed or something?  Wait: a sea metaphor?  I thought we were looking at the sky?  Maybe that’s part of the edgy dynamic as well.  If Van Gogh was alive today, perhaps he’d take that knife that he used to whack off his left ear and gouge out his eyes to save himself from seeing this nightmare.  Oh that’s it, let’s call it Starry Nightmare!  Oh, you guyz, that’s so mean!

“inspired by Gustav Klimt”

And then there’s the third one, from just a few years after the Van Gogh, since apparently Barbie’s® Barbie Art History® knows nothing before the Renaissance, and the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries are like so boring, and then the greater part of the twentieth century would be just too hard to figure out!  😦  So here is Gustav Klimt’s first Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.  Thank goodness, another lady in a pretty dress.  Not only is she a pretty dress, it’s a sparkley dress, and she has a nutty hair-do that pretty much means the doll designs herself!  (That’s so awesome, since it must have been exhausting to work out that Starry Nightmare dress and shoes.)

Oh but here’s the weird thing, that Adele lady was a real lady.  A Jewish lady in Austria.  (Could this be the first Jewish Barbie®?  Who missed that marketing opportunity?)  This is where it gets a little weird if you bother to look into the actual, what’s the word, biography.  Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, maybe even eventually Katy Perry (oh you know she’s dreaming of it) sort of put themselves out there as characters that are amenable to the glamour-doll treatment.  But Adele isn’t like that.  Adele died young, in 1925, which means she at least didn’t have to witness the nastiness with the Nazis.  She died with the wish that her paintings (this and another portrait by Klimt, and three Klimt landscapes) would become available to the public, specifically the public in Vienna.  But her husband had to flee the Nazis, and like so much art during that period, ownership of Adele’s things was confused and contested, and it took significant work by lots of people for the rightful heirs to get their art back . . . so that they could take it to America, celebrate capitalism, and sell them for bajillions.  (Adele’s famous portrait went for $135 million, the highest price paid at that time for a single painting; it is on view in New York at the fabulous Neue Galerie; the others are in the hands of private collectors.)  Klimt’s Adele 1 is more than a fancy lady in a pretty golden dress.  It’s the centerpiece of a story of real artistry and political chaos, the rights an responsibilites of governments and individuals to the public, and as explained in this good article, “justice and redemption after the Holocaust” as well as “another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market.”

Setting aside the tragedy and sadness of its historical context, the story of Adele’s portrait is a story of ownership.  Ultimately, who owns art?  Who has rights to its inspiration? Where is the line between homage and plagiarism? Or respectful deference and cheap knock-off?  The three paintings featured here have withstood time, critics, war and changing tastes to emerge as major landmarks in western art.  Their reward: a broader audience than they were first created for, some of that gained through cheap reproductions on tote bags, t-shirts, coffee mugs.  At least, most of the time, such reproductions are relatively true to portraying the original, and one might hope, raise some cash to support the museum that houses the thing.  At best, they inspire contemporary artists to do something new, in that competitive spirit that has moved art along since Knossos.  At worst, they are bastardized into flagrant commercial enterprise with no redeeming value above and beyond pop culture, which has plenty of other shallow pools to drink from.  At the very worst, they glamorize a noble remnant of tragic history at the national and personal levels.  These dolls represent neither imaginative play nor clever collector activity.  If Barbie® is going to venture into the land of art history, she ought to get at least one of those things right.  But her art is lazy, and her history is shameful.

Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925)


Banqueting Room at the Brighton Pavilion (1815-22)

It’s a well-established historical fact that people who lived in the eighteenth century were nuts. A rosy reflection of the past may suggest that life at that time was one great well-manned episode of Masterpiece Theatre, replete with cravats, needlepoint, witty conversation and polished napkin rings.  Although Mr. & Miss Seventeen-Hundreds knew their way around a whist table, they are also the people who first systematically excavated Pompeii–in the very same decade that they stoked up the early blast furnaces; they overthrew kings and invented new countries; they peered deep into microscopes and sailed across oceans to unknown lands.  Their widely ranging activities lead to the brief, fizzy movement known as Chinoiserie, the first significant blending of Occidental and Oriental taste.  (And without taste, what does archaeology, industry, governance, science and commerce really matter?)

During this period, China was accessible primarily to merchants (who were very interested in the commercial possibilities of learning about Chinese manners and taste in order to exploit them for home markets) and missionaries (who were only interested in those lessons insofar as they might change/correct them).  Among the former, William Chambers, a merchant for the Swedish East India Company, saw even more potential in the ceramics and pagodas of Canton than did his professional brethren.  In the midst bargaining for spices and tea, Chambers was so inspired by his surroundings that he gave up his lucrative career and turned to architecture.  He built a reputation by serving up fabulous buildings in the Western tradition, but never lost his love for the East.  In London, significant royal work fell to him, from the massively civic and awesomely Neo-Classical Somerset House to the expansively recreational and fabulously Picturesque Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

The Pagoda, Kew (1762)

To ornament the gardens, Chambers cooked up an architectural banquet, including a domed “Temple of Aeolus” (ancient Greek ruler of the winds, associated with seafarers–interesting choice for the former merchant), as well as a “mosque” and something named after the Alhambra (both of these latter, sadly, long gone).  Rising above them all, a slender Chinese lookout tower still stands.  Called the Pagoda, this 163-foot tall structure bears striking resemblance to the tapering pagodas that Chambers had seen in China.  It cuts a rather dour figure these days, but two and a half centuries ago it was the stuff: originally the metal roof panels were painted in bright colors and provided perches for a swarm of eighty gilded dragons.  Eighty!  It’s another historical fact that the world needs more dragon ornaments on its buildings.

The Pagoda at Kew became one of the signature monuments Chinoiserie, the French term for “like Chinese, but just sort of” preferred among the international crowd that used it, for its more more elegant and sensual resonance than the English Chinesesqueish, the Italian Cinesetto, and definitely the German Chinesischesorientierenbegeistertlecken.  Chinoiserie blended motifs that were lightly lifted from Chinese traditions with a certain Rococo sensibility (which is sort of an oxymoron), and availed itself to further influences from mysterious parts of the globe.  As a frothy mix of exotic cultures, formed around a Western view of what the “non-West” looked like, it created a new style that ended up speaking not so much of the cultures from which it drew, but instead revealed the delight in the fantastic within the culture that built it up.  It has been said that Chinoiserie allowed Europeans to stay home and surround themselves in the artistry of a place to which it was unlikely they would or could ever travel; it is perhaps more true that they ornamented their lives with fanciful settings that could only be the result of their imaginations’ flights of fancy.

The Chinese House, Sanssouci, nr. Potsdam (1755)

Through its local fame and its publication in lush folios, the Pagoda at Kew became the most famous of a number of similar structures that sprang up across European gardens and villas in such countries as Belgium and Germany; even Italy got in on the act.  Fancy people built swanky pavilions in an extravagant style that was accepted as “Chinese” through the inclusion of tent-like roof forms or populating the joint with figures of people in hats shaped like woks. Usually these buildings were not of great functional consequence, but instead served as grandiose picnic shelters or places to convalesce after a grueling match of croquet.  Such is the case with the little structure here, on the estate at Sanssouci (from the French for “without care”).  The porch is ornamented with gilded andostensibly “Oriental” people seated beneath palm trees; dragons perch on the heads of windows; its interior features a brilliant 360-degree painting that includes more exotics, parrots and buddhas than you can shake a riding crop at.  The Chinese House sets a new standard for effervescent architecture.  If you shake this building, it will explode, covering you in a bubbly, sticky liquid that smells like candied ginger.

“Chinese Bedroom,” Claydon House, Buckinghamshire (1760s)

For those who liked to keep their exotic interest more, ahem, private, Chinoiserie was adaptable to a variety of intimate interior spaces.  In Buckinghamshire, the stern façade of Claydon (whose blind arch over the central Palladian motif makes the whole facade look like it is frowning) screens a “Chinese bedroom” from prying eyes.   Surely the glory of carver Luke Lightfoot (truly, that’s his name), the elaborate frosting of woodwork around the door, chimney and bed proscenium (excusez-moi?) is truly a wonder in its fantastic display of faces, figures, flora and fauna, all of it like some dreamy memory of China, but not China itself.

library ladder for Badminton House (1782)

Because it was usually seen in the realm of the ephemeral and private, and because it was so tied to the fickle tastes of a certain kind of consumer culture, lasting architectural examples of Chinoiserie are rare.  However, its legacy in the decorative arts is rich. Fabrics festooned with phoenixes and wallpapers bearing fantastical mountain landscapes abounded in private homes.  Certain furniture, and other objects used by Europeans that had no complement in China, posed a certain challenge to designers.  Oftentimes, curvaceous and otherwise Rococo chairs and settees would be tricked out in painting, marquetry or upholstery with Chinese motifs.  For more sober applications, say, an American university or an English library ladder (left), panels of fretwork provided a knowing, cool nod to la vogue pour Chinois among those reserved folk who liked to be in with the in crowd, but maybe not all in.

ice cream cooler (1805)

The adoption of Chinese motifs into European lifestyles lead to some interesting cultural clashes.  It might be one thing to store one’s potpourri in porcelain ware featuring a happy Buddha in a floral gown, since fragrances cheered Buddha: sandalwood incense burned at the temple is pretty much the same thing as lavender that scents a lady’s boudoir.  Less direct is the link between ice cream and China that would explain a Chinoiserie French ice cream cooler (left).  No doubt the Sèvres porcelain factory also produced Chinese-styled chocolate pots that also provided the European’s breakfast table appropriately exotic vessels to serve drinking chocolate, a new luxury from another part of the world.

Le Jardin chinois (1742)

In the fine arts, Chinoiserie was rarely a stand-alone approach to painting and sculpture, but it was adopted into a variety of arts produced for domestic display.  Table-top sculptures of mandarins and little temples fused Chinese themes into Rococo styling.  In one significant application of Chinoiseie in canvas painting, Francois Boucher, who never met a flirty scene he didn’t love, assimilated Chinese decor into his sweet Rococo visions of peasant sweethearts for fashionable French parlors.  The fact that “Asian Rustics” frolicking in a picturesque landscape (left) didn’t look much different from “European Rustics” frolicking in a picturesque landscape (here), beyond the costumes and the setting, did not bother anyone much.

another dragon!

Perhaps the apotheosis of Chinoiserie was achieved at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, where architect John Nash revealed that if inspiration from one exotic culture is good, inspiration from a half-dozen is better.  He freely adopted Indian, Arab, medieval, Chinese and other traditions in the conception of a particularly exuberant style.   How exuberant, you ask?  How about so many dragons, that the twenty-first century keepers of the Pavilion challenge kids to try and find all the dragons in the place (you can play along with the Dragon Quest by following this link).  Few other projects so encapsulate the West’s fascination with Eastern exoticism, as well as their unbridled joy at mixing varieties of motifs that had neither historical, geographic nor cultural relationship. This is seen in the very names given to the prevailing architectural style of the Royal Pavilion, which is as stylish as it gets.  Dazzled critics alternately called it Neo-Mughal, Indo-Saracenic and Hindu-Gothic.

And who could blame them for their confusion?  The Royal Pavilion reached a lofty height of conjoining disparate and vaguely recognizable vignettes into a wholly unprecedented concoction.  It is an architectural version of waking from a dream which makes no sense when the narrative is retold, but seemed so real in the dreaming. Such is Chinoiserie, even when its products do not look Chinese at all: the stunning Dunmore Pineapple (below) is often grouped under the umbrella of Chinoiserie, even though there is nothing specifically Chinese (or generally Asian for that matter) about a giant pineapple-shaped dome rising over a Palladian motif at the center of an otherwise simple limestone hothouse.  But more important than it not being Chinese, is the fact that it isn’t anything else identifiable, either.   Qu’est-ce que c’est?  Chinoiserie!

party pooper

The Royal Pavilion represents the last gasp of eighteenth-century fervor for exoticism that encompassed and fueled the West’s interest in Chinese design.  Such stratospheric flights of fancy were brought crashing down to earth by the weighty demands of aesthetic theory for shrewdly judged precedents that could contribute to cultural morality.  Architects like Nash and Chambers had become too rowdy, requiring the discipline of theory’s equivalent of a big wet blanket to set things straight again.  Cue Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who rattled on to the scene to hurl three mighty tomes through the diaphanous gauze of Chinoiserie taste.  He gave clearest voice to this change in attitude, sort of the first frost after a long warm summer, in a publication of 1843, in which he blamed architecture’s “Bable of confusion” on private judgment of architects who had strayed too far from home, both imaginatively and physically.  Depending on their itinerary, globe-trotting architects returned to their homelands thusly: “One breathes nothing but the Alhambra, another the Parthenon, a third is full of lotus cups and pyramids from the banks of the Nile, a fourth, from Rome, is all dome and basilica.”  (If you like that, it’s just a taste.  Few writers do indignant like Pugin.  Get more here.)

Ol’ Man Pugin shut down the party, threw everyone out of the house and chased all the kids off his lawn.  As his ideals spread, no self-respecting architect could possibly parlay an upward-turned roof or dragon ornament into anything suitable to modern European or American culture, for the nineteenth-century’s understanding of China at the time portrayed the country as possessing none of the virtues valued by modern Western society.

here be no dragons.

The eighteenth-century’s thrill in the extraordinary could not withstand the directives for architects to bow beneath the burden imposed by weighty historical theory.  Chinoiserie was pushed aside, making way for the nineteenth century’s Greek state capitols, Italianate society clubs, and Gothic churches.  Chinese design appeared rarely as a significant influence, resuscitated only in the early twentieth century in movie palaces, and more recently in a kind of revival that is pretty in a chilly way, and lacks the freewheeling verve of the original.

Although Chinoiserie enjoyed just a brief season, it offers a balmy alternative when one wearies of the chill that can arises around cold Modernism and stern Classicism.  Caught between the pull of technological advance and the weight of historical awareness, it may be well to follow the lead of those clever eighteenth-century people who refused to accept that there were only two choices, and instead went skipping into a sunny, hazy, weightless world of delight and fantasy inspired by the other side of the world.

The Dunmore Pineapple, Scotland (1761)