The Political Symbol We Need


On January 21, 2017, hundreds of post-Inauguration Day protests, rallies, and marches took place across the US and around the world. Largely organized by women and around “women’s issues” (which are not really only pertinent to women), the Women’s March on Washington and its related events served a smorgasbord of issues that were probably not all, entirely, to the taste of every participant–which did not keep them from coming out by the millions. Such is the nature of progressive politics in its sweeping gestures toward inclusion and diversity. Even so, the various marches were alike in several factors, including their overwhelming numbers, their overwhelmingly peaceful character, and their overwhelming pinkness. The latter was in part due to many artifacts in the crowds utilizing that color so long associated with all things feminine, but one item rose above the rest: the headwear that many of the participants wore. Simple in shape, the flat, boxy hat, when slipped over the head, reveals pointy “ears” that gives rise to its name: the pussyhat.

Given the success of the marches and ubiquity of the hats within them, the pussyhat may become one of the great examples of political headwear in the history of this sub-sub-sub-set of material culture history, which is a long one. Hats have enjoyed a rather rich association with politics through time, as their meanings might be casually hewn or (as in this case) intentionally sewn. Ancient Greeks recognized different tribes by their chapeaux, especially those who donned a pointy cone later called Phrygian caps, which were later embraced to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty during various eighteenth-century revolutions: Americans called it them Liberty Caps. In the early twentieth century, hats were intentionally wielded within the strive toward Turkey’s westernization during the establishment of the Republic when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk required men to wear European-style hats in replace of the fez that had been traditional for about a century, thinking that modern hats would modernize their wearers. Meanwhile, Americans popularized straw boaters, usually festooned with bunting and buttons, as the canonical rally and convention hat. Again in the 1960s, activists and revolutionaries countered the decorum of broad-brimmed hats by donning berets to conjure a militarist attitude, famously captured in the Guerrillero Heroico.

Hats have only gained prominence at political rallies–especially televised ones–in the most recent decades, as a way for individuals to draw media attention to themselves (and, of course, their party), and for organizers to indicate solidarity among a crowd. Such was certainly the case during the 2016 presidential election, when the platform of the candidate who ultimately won the Electoral College became closely identified with a red trucker hat bearing an ostensibly, but backwards-looking and nostalgic, patriotic slogan. Reaching a certain portion of the electorate that was clearly feeling left out of global change, its form identifies with traditional masculinity and blue-collar labor, while its color is associated with the American flag but, perhaps more to the point, is also the shade favored by bullfighter to enrage their prey and thus may likely pump up (if not help to flat-out enrage) rally attendees. The factory-made hat (sometimes labeled “made in the USA,” but not necessarily so and not entirely so) was a tremendously successful element of the campaign, yet as ill-fitting and foreign in its candidate’s wearing–one might argue–as are the values it symbolizes within his actual life experience.

How different, then, is the hat we saw amidst the crowds flowing through the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Boston and beyond on January 21: not a device shrewdly chosen and mass-produced to elicit common response among a crowd of followers, but the result of a totally grassroots campaign, like the rallies themselves. While the innocent (or out-of-touch) might see their shape as having some vaguely feline-feminine quality appropriate to a Women’s March, no one was calling these kittyhats; they of course were a direct response to one of the most degrading and disparaging comments to come out of the red-capped candidate’s mouth. In no way is the pussyhat’s hue a washed-out, weaker version of the candidate’s hats; in this context, pink is potentially more biologically referential than generically pretty–although it’s that, too (and, depending on the wearer, ironically so–or not).

hatsAlso unlike the uniformity of the manufactured red hats, the pussyhats reveal a variety of shades and patterns of pink, as diverse in their slightly different shapes, fabrics, and methods of fabrication (some real works of art by skilled knitters and others clearly a person’s first go at a sewing machines). This too is significant, for the making of these hats is as important as their wearing. The real gist is for them to be handmade–so much so, that knittters took pity on their non-needlework-able sisters and passed them around both through small social circles as well as through a well-organized online campaign (no doubt the need also drove some robust Etsy traffic).

The mass creation of hundreds of thousands of pussyhats in a relatively short time frame is a testament to both contemporary social media and age-old needlework technology. The two merge in what may be the biggest global act of Craftivism in history: a pointed use of handicraft for the cause of activism, oftentimes (maybe usually) from a feminist point of view and making use of crafts that have been traditionally associated with the feminine sphere. In the best Craftivist practice, the pussyhats accomplish both goals by merging the advocacy of voice and hand, while also bridging the divide between the personal and the global.

So the pink hat is at once an individual, unique artifact in the making and a communal event in the wearing, much as the marches themselves joined vast swaths of people from broad demographic representations. As a specifically feminist strategy they reclaim and repurpose a word that had been used to belittle and degrade while claiming and proclaiming a color that is a powerful, clashing counterpoint to last summer’s red hat and its regressive attitude. With varying levels of craft expertise, fiber, fabric, pattern and color, they announced diversity within overall unity, perfectly symbolizing the recognition of plurality’s strength within any movement–or society–that hopes to march forward.



patriotic clothing

the terrorists win.

Exhibiting one’s patriotism is noble when it’s done in good taste.  Activities that reveal one’s dedication to a nation’s principles and ideals and better angels are in really good taste.  This includes engaging in well-informed public discourse, practicing proper etiquette in the presence of the flag and festooning one’s house with bunting on national holidays.

Festooning one’s self with bunting on national holidays, however, is never a good idea.  It may be a habit elsewhere too, but is definitely a problem in the U S of A where, especially on Independence Day, all across the fruited plains, Americans indulge in bizarre costuming in the name of patriotism by mis-appropriating the flag in hideous garments.  America’s national holidays already teeter on the verge of caricature.  It’s not MoT‘s mission to get preachy about national pride, but we will humbly suggest that the triumvirate of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day ought not to be the days-off-work that define the start, peak, and end of summer, extolled as excuses to have a barbecue.  Of course you ought to have a barbecue–we’ll bring the brownies–, and it would be great if sometime during the day you did something to recognize the intended nature of the day, but it would also be wonderful if you’d not take part in patriotic-dressing-cum-flag-desecration.

It’s not that the American flag is an inviolate symbol, it’s just that its design is really not amenable to attractive clothing.  There’s a reason stars and two-tone striping don’t show up on a lot of your non-holiday-themed garments (unless you wear a certain kind of uniform).  The color combo of red, white and blue is very, very hard to pull off.  So use them wisely.  If you are compelled to decorate yourself like the flag, consider diminutive stars that may be mistaken as polka dots at a distance.  Choose stripes wisely; seersucker is not a bad option.  Flag pins may be required on politicians’ lapels, but giant star earrings are prohibited.  Finally, you can only choose two of the three colors from the flag.  (Alternately, forego the whole walking-flag thing and dress as your favorite Founding Father: this guy and this guy knew how to put together an outfit.)

These are the rules for flag dressing, which has very few exceptions.  You MAY wear flagoriffic clothes if:

1. you’re a little girl

2. you’re a crazy old man

3. you’re an athlete in uniform

4. you’re a superhero

5. you’re a pop star who is basically a cartoon image of a real person

(and then, if you’re going to do it, do it right)

6. we take that back

America is the home of the free and you are free to wear whatever God-awful clothing you like, but please, consider the tender sensibilities of people who have to look at you.  Honor the men and women who have died defending this country and its flag so it can wave proudly from sea to shining sea, not so you can Old Glorify your bottom or star-spangle your bosom.  Those colors may not run, but if we see them at the picnic, we may turn tail, and we’re taking our brownies with us.

Correction: these colors do indeed run, and jump, and also basically look awesome just poised for action.

epigram 2: on black granite in the kitchen


White, pink, beige or silver; just one to exclude:

Never choose black where you plan to fix food.

Black granite is a tough material.  In memorials or, maybe, CFO offices, yes.  Kitchens?  No.  White marble, yes (especially if you are fussy about pastry); pink formica, yes (if you can live up to it); other spotty granite, yes (if you are rollin in da scrilla); the beige family of Formica or Corian, oh I guess it’s practical (if you’re the rest of us); black granite: no, no, no.  It’s hard to keep clean and is not pretty or handsome at all, just kind of oppressive and creepy if you have to live with it, especially in the kitchen, where it will become an instant disaster if you so much as set a coffee spoon on it.  Really, really forget it if you have kids, unless you plan to keep them out of the kitchen until they leave for college.

Under only three conditions may you consider installing black granite in your kitchen: (1) you are bothered by having a mirror-less room that will not allow you to admire your reflection, (2) you have a house elf or other servant who will spend an hour after every use of the sink and/or range to clean up, or (3) you are a Grand Moff.

he prefers take-out, anyway

offices for architects

the dream of Space and Light, but mostly Space (but Light is good too).

The most important Design project that an Architect will ever undertake is the design of his Office.  Even more important than the House he will design for his Mother (the publication of which gives him the credibility to serve on Design Juries at Ivy League schools and also something “real” to include in his portfolio), the Office Space is a pure opportunity to achieve a full visualization of the essence of Architecture itself, whereupon in which and wheretofore he may indulge in the essence of himself, free from constraints of bowing to the pedestrian taste of a [insert withering exasperation] “client.”  It is the very self-made womb in which he creates his own reality, in which he completely exercises the translation of cogitation into praxis.  It is a space of reverence and, ideally, a La Pavoni Europiccola.

It is essential that the Architect design his office in a manner suitable to the sanctity of the activities that will take place in this Space.  Space, indeed, is the goal, for that is the Duty and Calling of the Architect: the creation of Space.  The Architect does not suffer those who foolishly wag their arms around in the air, asking, what’s all this: is this not space?  Such idiocy is not deserving of a response from the Architect.  It is not Space until the Architect says so.  It is not Space until the Architect articulates the enveloping membrane that separates one void from another, separates light from dark, and creates the potential for haptic experience and manipulations of illumination.  The Architect’s office, the sacred garbhagriha of design, uterine chamber of creativity, must be about, above all else, Creation of Space.  Space and Light.  Light comes second.  Space is first.

To give full unbridled rein to his sacred duty of creation, the Architect must suffer no bounds.  He dreams of Space and pursues it in cosmic purity and spatial freedom and holistically organic contexts that small minds call “nature.”  The power and magnitude of the Creative Act is so awesome that it may threaten the stability of the nonmanmade world, threaten its very existence.  The power of this ritual is best left to the wide-open reaches of uninhabited world.  Even in enclosed Space, the Architect perceives limitless boundaries; the Architect sees all, and requires little more than a creative dwelling-land like this:

or like this:

as long as there’s a cell phone signal.

Yet the bourgeoise capitalist society of materialism to which the Art of the Architect is enslaved demands a different experience, a coming to terms with “social settings” so that “business” with “other people” might be accomplished.  The Architect must sink to these unfortunate “realities,” mourning that the prophet has no honor in his own land; the poet is forever a stranger among lesser beings.  The Architect must sign a lease.

Fear not: the lease shall purchase the means to the desired end: a framework into which the Architect can pour his :Creativity:.  Finding the right tectonic assemblage promises the potentiality of juxtaposition between past and present, old and new, superstition and truth, proclaiming in the duality the hierarchy of the latter.  His Muse seeks the proper contextual setting for the propulsion of Creation by the Zeitgeist.

Thus, ideal Space will be discovered in extant structures that look like this:

or like this:

or like this:

Or other such “buildings,” similarly identified as possessing what is conventionally referred to as “beauty.”  But the Architect must remember that “beauty” or “grace” or “style” or “elegance” or “loveliness” or “exuberance” of this /historic/ architecture is a quaint nostalgic anamnesis: a lingering waft of the former self, the daydream of a youthful wonder in ornament, superfluity, and aesthetic excess that was thankfully corrected once he went to architecture school.  Now he understands them as mere tropes against which to examine, exercise, serve and celebrate the Muse.  Or was it the Zeitgeist?

The ideal workspace will be void anything that inspires such hopeless, inane longings after obsolete notions of “beauty” in favor of authentic recognition of the immediacy of the present.  It may be, like the photo at the top, an explication of clarity and precision, so perfect in its perfection that it is not yet encumbered by the regrettable necessities of desks, trash cans, water coolers or co-workers.  The Architect will celebrate this Space: awash in pristine whiteness: the precise and hygienic realization of the digital age: the battle hymn of solar reflectivity: /space/.

Alternately, the Space may be where the Architect evinces the nightmare of contemporaneity; the inherent gritty reality of nihilistic existent culture as manifest in the primeval industrial vernacular.  This is the way to go if the Architect has had to set up shop in his mom’s garage.

The Architect will be tested: he will need to reject petty, pedestrian queries like wouldn’t a few ferns brighten up the place? and the base coat looks great, when are you going to paint?  Nescient observers of pure spatiality cannot understand that the Mind needs /unencumbered/ Space to Create more Space.

Once the Architect has achieved the Dream of Space, he must struggle against the unfortunate and regrettable realities of “business” that require the scandalous annihilation of the Space, by inserting equipment and furniture.  The Architect must remember that typical nostalgic and bourgeoisie “furniture” is a tool of antiquated thinking about human “comfort” and workaday “function.”  Furniture should be chosen primarily as it relates to the Space.  Ideally, it is invisible, so as not to detract from the play of Light against Form, like this:

But unfortunately /people/, especially the “people” who may help pay the “bills,” like to sit. The Architect may attempt to cultivate an Asian aesthetic and invite “people” to sit on the floor.  This may not go over well.  In that case, The Architect must bow to the common and infantile desire for “comfort” and provide seating apparatus.  The ideal chair will make no statement other than don’t look at me, look at the Space!  Consider this near-perfect object:

It is excellently free of scale.  It may be a sofa.  It may be a business card holder.  It may house hidden compartments that reveal a mini-fridge.  Except for the vile shot of a most unfortunate “color,” it is ideal.

This is a better deployment of color:

Here, the black and white scheme is energized by the inclusion of shades of coal, ebony, chalk and snow.  It’s almost Baroque in its chromatic theatricality.  And, it serves the Function of repose in a way that minimizes overt understanding of Scale.  The problem with traditional furniture is its relationship with the human form.  As “bodies” have “scale,” they detract from the purity of Space, which should always be scale-free.  Architects hate the relative nature of the human body.

When its inclusion in a Design is unavoidable, “furniture” should be chosen for its sensory experiential possibilities.  The Architect does not invite a client to take a seat; the Architect invites a potential partner in Space-making to indulge in a phenomenological event.  Like this rather literal manifestation of the Industrial, which will engender an awareness of materiality and in turn overturn generic expectations of “comfort:”

Likewise, the seating apparatus might engender critique of balance, stability, and perhaps even gravity itself:

Better yet are elements that upset expectations concerning scale, balance, comfort, and even assumptions about “human dignity:”

Finally, another excellent element that is free from obvious scale, and offers the added advantage of trapping prospective  clients until they are released from its grasp:

This fournituresque exercise in biomimicry is potentially a bridge between the changing, mercurial, unscientific manner of “people” and the Architect’s requisite requirement for absolutes in the Space.  Ultimately, the Office Space is about control: it is the one small presence in the void, wherein the Architect can exile relativity and enthrone the absolute.   Architects dream of absolutes.  The Architect’s world is Absolute.  One day the sleepers will wake and join them in this waking dream.  //The Dream of Space//  And Light.  But mostly Space.

ode to St. Barbara: masonry walls

“Saint Barbara Crushing Her Infidel Father” by Domenico Ghirlandaio ca. 1473 (detail)

Although she was edged out of first place (by St.-Denis) for the honors of Best Martyr in a highly influential and absolutely definitive study (read the full account of My Favorite Martyr here), St. Barbara (d. 306; see full image detailed above here) is associated with more tangible elements that ought to draw one’s attentive devotion to her on a regular basis.  Because of her imprisonment in a great tower, artistic renderings of which are normally included in her portraits, she is associated with masonry, and properly named the patron saint of masons (initially stone masons, but claimed by brick masons too).

By further association, she has been identified also as the patron saint of architects.  Doubtless, architects would have preferred a saint with more apropos accoutrements (they’re still hoping historical research–conducted by someone else, of course–will reveal a martyr stabbed to death by his own trendy glasses).  The list of possibilities was quite short, since the architects’ martyr faces the tall order of out-martyring architects themselves.

Although designers and builders honored St. Barbara with their craft for centuries following her martyrdom, St. Barbara has been rarely honored in the more recent era.  To help remedy this sad state of affairs in some small way, and in honor of St. Barbara’s feast day, December 4, MoT presents the following  collection of images that capture Significant Achievement in Masonry: Walls We Have Loved, presented here as a pictorial prayer.

Praise be to thee, St. Barbara, favored of the Lord and exalted by Him,

For your manifold graces on masons—and even architects, too. 

Your grace knows no bounds.

Hallowed be thy memory among men and women,

Especially those who make buildings of brick and stone.

Philadelphia: Christ Church

Give us this day reverence for those who passed before us: intuitive minds and skilled hands

Barcelona: S. Pau de Camp

Who wrought timeless beauties from the brute geology of Creation.

Milan: Palazzo Castiglione

We pray for your continued blessing on them: those who worked in brick,

Newark DE: Gore Hall

Prague: Church of the Sacred Heart

those who worked in marble,


Beijing: Forbidden City

those who worked in granite,

Wilmington DE: Hagley

Chicago: May House

and stone we can’t name,

Granada: the Alhambra

Washington DC: DuPont Circle

and spiffy glazed masonry,

London: Debenham House

and sometimes all of them at once.

Surrey: Standen House

Bless the Romans, 

Rome: Baths of Caracalla

And the medieval masons,

Paris: S.-Denis

And the nineteenth century architects and builders,

Bishop Hill IL: Steeple Building

And even those few radical Modernists who dared to work in a traditional material.

Barcelona: German Pavilion

Bless those who could organize bricks like they were sewing a quilt,

London: All Saints, Margaret Street

and those who could spread mortar like it was butter,

New Orleans: somewhere in the French Quarter

and those who recognized mortar as a design element.

Philadelphia: UPenn campus

We ask your special blessing on those devotees of yours who really knew how to build a wall:


Florence: the dome


New Orleans: Taylor Library


Manchester: Midland Bank

and Pope.

Washington DC: National Gallery

We beseech your grace and your intercession, through which may we be spared the glare of glassy curtain walls.  Forgive us our double-skin facades.  Deliver us from concrete panels and lead us back to ashlar.

Norristown PA: county prison

May we ever be blessed by thermal mass, color and sculptural richness.

Barcelona: Gothic Quarter


Baltimore: Eutaw Baptist Church (portrait of the author)

il problema con Missoni per Target

Missoni for Target, 2011

Here’s the latest from Target’s marvelissimo designer collaborations: long-time Italian palazzo of coolness Missoni has turned those red bullseye stripes all zigzaggy with a molto-grande collection.  Buzz surrounding some 400 pieces of clothing and housewares, even a bicycle (how they missed the chance to do a Vespa tie-in is beyond us) was stoked for months leading up to the premiere.  Not since the inauguration of Prince Spaghetti Night had Italy been so well positioned to make a giant inroads into American culture.  They had no idea the havoc they were to bring down on the great Casa di Target, not to mention the scorn that has started to simmer here at MoT HQ.

Although Target has been able to whip up increasingly frenzied frenzies leading up to the launches for its designer tie-ins, the response for the Missoni collection was unparalleled, unprecedented, unpredicted. Demand for poly-blend sweaters and melamine plates bearing the bold and colorful prints emptied the brick-and-mortar stores within minutes and sank, which remained off-line most of the day.  Combine the insanity of Filene’s Running of the Brides with the nationwide scale of Black Friday, add a dash of Altamont and you come close to understanding the character of this on the now-infamous “Target Tuesday.”

MoT‘s Department of Retail Psychology is still trying to figure out what happened.  First of all, why the gigantesco demand?  Sure enough, Missoni prints elevate the normal stuff they have at Target into the most covet-worthy status of any garments sold in a big box.  We love  a good pattern, and we really love the mixy-matchy possibilities of stripey dresses and zigzag shoes, whirlido tights and floral head accessories all at once.  But swatch for swatch, the Missoni prints are not inherently cooler than, say, the Tucker and Liberty lines from 2010, both of which did well, but did not prompt governors to call out the National Guard to restore order and calm when legions of sleep-deprived, freaked-out middle-aged women could not even score a coffee mug or pair of socks on that fateful Tuesday morning.

Margherita il grande

So, what went wrong, and who’s to blame?  We won’t hold the success of advertising against Target, since that’s their business, and their success was truly tremendo.  The campaign itself was really pretty great.  Magazines were stuffed with the print versions of the commercials that aired frequently, sweeping viewers into a 60s-cool fashionista spy fantasy starring poster girl Margherita Missoni.  Few other choices could have persuaded those of us who eat sleep and breathe the Gospel of Ruskin to give a second look to geometric patterns.  Signora is more than a bella donna who looks good in a sweater dress: adorable to be sure, she’s also heiress to the family fortune, and apparently smart too–at least with the academic credentials to study philosophy at Columbia for a time.  All that beauty, privilege and brains in one place?  Please, enough, stop!

you want the prints. ALL of the prints . . .

We can’t blame Margherita, but remain suspicious about subliminal messages that may have been communicated while we were dazzled and possibly hypnotized by the abundance of patterns in those TV spots, forcing us to fork over our credit cards as the passport to this season’s Mambo Italiano.  Target’s juggernaut of an advertising campaign was impressive, to say the least; we only wish the planning had not stopped there.  Customer service was unable to keep up with demand, and that’s just not good manners.  Granted, there was plenty of bad consumer behavior to go around too, especially in the supremely overloaded hands of evil eBay hoarders.  Our message to you, Target: go ahead, whip your loyal shoppers into a frenzy, entice them with the allure of a “limited” collection, but then, really, come on.  You’re TARGET, you can stock more than three sweaters in a store.

but I don’t want another copyrighted character t-shirt . . .

A more essential bone we have to pick stems from a problem we keep seeing with these collaborations.  Target offers hundreds of choices for women, and usually a few dozen for their daughters, one or two things for a man they may need to dress–admirable accessories, to be sure. But what about those of us with Mini-Me’s who happen to be male?  Granted, the 8-15 age group (are we being generous by cutting it off there?) among boys tends to be a nadir of taste: it is the season of clay dice in art class and YuGiOh! on the television.  But that doesn’t mean all is lost, nor does it mean Target should ignore the switched-on moms and dads who like to have clothing options above and beyond advertisements for sports and video games on their male children.  More importantly, some of the boys want that option, too.  Some of our boys are cool science kids, poetry writers, budding politicians and world travelers, and just maybe they don’t want to look like a 48″ walking ad for Nike, Mario or Tony Hawk every day.  Some of our boys don’t even know who Tony Hawk is.  Would it kill you, Target, to churn out a few button-down shirts or sweaters for the cool boys in the crowd?  No, no it wouldn’t.

You know if Margherita were in charge, things would be different, and we would have been up at 6 AM spending the grocery money on zigzaggy cardigans and stripey jammie pants for the young dude staffers here at MoT.    Next collaboration, Target: enough with the same old little-girl rain boots, big-lady blouses and token ties for men that you roll out every freaking time.  Remember that old phrase you used to use, “Design for All”?  Live up to it.

Margherita knows: Niente per i ragazzi?  Come brutto!


smashing bad taste!

Although MoT is normally concerned with visual expressions of taste (architecture, gallery exhibitions, shoes), the occasional performance is worthy of note, especially when it attracts the attention of the global population (not to mention the occasional cephalopod mollusk).  Described as the “most popular sport in the world,” the “ballet of the masses,” the “game Americans pay a little attention to every four years,” soccer is deserving of such note since it appears that, to a certain degree, success in this sport hinges on the exercise of a certain kind of taste.  To be sure, the Hand of God, creative referee calls, omniscient octopi and even, dare we say it, talent, have their place.  But in addition (and appreciated to a much lesser extent), as the World Cup has shown: taste matters in soccer.

The taste we’re talking about here is not good taste; rather, the badder, the better is the rule in soccer.  Intentional bad taste appears to give successful teams a winning edge.  This has nothing to do with athletes’ on- or off-field behavior, or the antics of fans (although the horrifically annoying vuvuzela probably deserves some credit).  Our concern here is the gear that is worn by the players.

Portugal: this uniform gives me wings!

North Korea

Evidence from the 2010 World Cup reveals the effect that the choice of uniform (or “kit,” for those of  you who insist on calling the sport “football”) makes on the field (“pitch” to you).  Take, for example, the biggest blowout of the series: the Group G meeting of Portugal and North Korea.  Portugal’s players, in costumes that resemble Christmas ornaments with a squirt of mustard, completely overwhelmed the North Koreans, who made the mistake of wearing simple white with a splash of red, giving the chromatic advantage to the Portuguese before anyone was done tying up their shoes.  They never had a chance, and the 7-0 scores shows it.


It follows that those teams that display the greatest abuse of the color wheel with with the most garish, trippy uniforms have greater success over teams that tend toward the refined and subtle mingling of hues.  Just look at the historical record: judging by this crime against color worn by the Mexican team back in 1994 (shown to right), Los Aztecas should have worn the Cup; the only reason they did not take it home was the even more outrageous uniform donned by their competitions.  (No photo available due to aesthetics-sensitive web filtering software installed on MoT HQ computers.)

Another way for a team to color itself victorious is to select one single hard-to-wear shade and then go all out.  No country has dominated a hue as completely as the Netherlands in its command of oranje.  Orange is a tough shade to pull off in any quantity; eleven big Flying Dutchmen a l’Orange constitute an overwhelming wave that drowned out most of the competition.  Even Brazil, clad in an ungainly mix of green, yellow and blue could not withstand the Orange Onslaught.  The Dutch leave us Netherlerious.

Dutch treat: orange, right down to the cleats

Venus with the Venus

Wherefore this crime against chromatics, this terror on taste?  The root cause is probably the thing for which all these teams are competing: the World Cup itself, the trophy, which does not fare so well in an aesthetic match among its peers.  Shiny prizes are handed out all over the place to reward athleticism; while many are painfully uninspired ([American] football’s Heisman and Lombardi trophies are truly insipid), others are really quite impressive.  Witness the elegant Football Association Challenge Cup (yes, European football), the very cool Indian-inspired Calcutta Cup (warning: the number of excellent trophies developed for rugby may shock and awe viewers to this site) and (to left) the Venus Rosewater Dish (a functional piece, a tea tray for the ladies who win the singles championship at Wimbledon).


Once up on a time, FIFA had a handsome trophy (not the one to the left).  Designed for the 1930 World Cup by Abel Lafleur, an Ecole des Beaux-Arts graduate, the original Coupe du Monde was a small gold cup held aloft by Lafleur’s interpretation of the second-century B.C. Winged Victory of Samothrace standing on a blue base of lapis lazuli.  It was stolen in 1970 and replaced not by a replica of the original design but, inexplicably (except for the general level of taste witnessed in the early 1970s) by the design of Italian artist Silvio Gazzaniga (seen at left), whose inspiration was, apparently, a gold-plated softball nested in a jiffy pop.

the Dutch team in 1905

Perhaps soccer fans have Gazzaniga’s hideous doorstop to thank for the greater spirit, verve and excitement (such at it is, relatively speaking) of their game; it is true that the earlier teams were more demurely adorned, in keeping with their trophy, and they played a more gentlemanly game.  As the picture here shows, back in the day even the Dutch team wore simple togs of black and white.  The twenty-first-century teams that follow this sedate lead have proven no match for those of their more peacocky competitors.

Uruguay: Diego Forlán (right) might be an awesome striker, but he's killing his team with those coordinated headbands

Consider another team tromped by the new and improved, orange-clad Dutch.  Uruguay’s understated (one is tempted to even say pretty) blue, white, and black reveals the risk of the quiet colors (not to mention the hands-down best socks in the tournament).  Their final game in the 2010 Cup was against Germany, who had earlier learned the lesson: in the semi-finals against Spain, the Germans (to their peril) wore  hue-drained black and white uniforms that could not stand up to the colorific assault of Spain.  Germany v. Uruguay promised to be a meeting of the mild.  But Deutschland had learned its lesson: the Germans mach-ed schnell to the tailor and adopted a spätzle’s worth of zazz from the national flag: a little red at the collar, metallic gold for the numbers (we would have gone all out and suggested lamé shorts, had you asked.)  The result?  Win!

lesson learned: some German players literally cannot stand up to the visual mess of the Spanish uniform

USA v. Ghana 2010

The danger of the subtle soccer uniform has been proven time and time again in this World Cup.  MoT’s home team, the United States, was dressed far too old-school for such a young, scrappy team.  Their sharp uniforms, featuring the national colors asymetricallly and stylishly disposed without actually looking like Old Glory, couldn’t stand up against Ghana’s fruit salad-inspired uniforms.  (Next time, we recommend full Elvis jumpsuits, as designed by the guys at Marvel Comics.)

France: "home colours"

Likewise, behold the most extreme example of the dangers of simplicity.  France is the world’s most fashionable nation, hands down, and the chromoriffic simplicity of Les Bleus proves the point.  No team looked better, more put together, more majestic; and no team was so ready to self-destruct, victims of their own fashion-forwardness.  They went home disgraced, but looking haute all the way.

And in soccer, that is how the croissant crumbles, mon ami.

France: "away colours"

Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies

looking up

The project for a new building for the Spertus Institute challenged its architects with a number of requirements.  The near-century-old Institute required a multi-functioning building (including college classrooms, library, exhibition space, theatre, and so on) that would update its image with a “signature architectural statement,” all on a relatively tight budget and on a rather narrow site.  Add to that the fact that this particular skinny site was one of the very last open buildable slots in the Historic Michigan Boulevard District with architecturally significant neighbors designed by the likes of Holabird & Roche and Adler & Sullivan nearby.  And, the site is apparently in the path of migratory birds, to boot.

Spertus, with neighbors

The building designed by Krueck + Sexton Architects and opened in 2008 is, in many ways, a thoughtful and smart solution to this laundry list of requirements.  Construction came in under budget; the occupants appear to be pleased as punch with the facilities; the building’s bold style—in particular, its striking folded/unfolding, ultra-faceted all-glass curtain wall—attracts curious passersby and advertises Spertus’ presence in the neighborhood.  As a bonus, the building is silver LEED certified (and not the kind of LEED that makes a building “efficient” by leaving its occupants “uncomfortable;” on a cold January day in 2010, Spertus was very comfy inside). And, only one avian casualty has been noted since its completion.

On top of all that, architecture and popular press and Chicago institutions with awards to hand out are absolutely, wildly gaga for this building.  Whatever room it is that displays the prizes that Spertus has scooped up must glow with a brilliance matched in Chicagoland only by the glitter of Michael Jordan’s trophy-bedecked rec room, circa 1999: AIA IL, AIA Chicago, Chicago Landmarks and the Chicago Athenaeum have heaped honors on it; the Chicago Reader was so excited that it named Spertus the best building of the century (so, sorry, architects: no use trying for that one for nine more decades or so).  Critics have spilled loads of ink (real & virtual) to sing its praises (not surprisingly, this panting pack of enthusiasts is lead by Blair Kamin—the golden retriever of architectural criticism).

a facade so super-transparent, the curtain wall is trying to tear itself open

Although copious the accolades may be, deep they are not.  The critics’ panegyrics tend to reveal a surprising degree of similarity in their interpretation of the building.  First, the most attention-grabbing part of the design, its glassy curtain wall, is metaphor of the accessible, public nature of the institution; this “transparent” element easily transmits light, which is a central element within Jewish ceremony, as well as being an intellectual metaphor for Jewish intellectual traditions.  One might ask what living faith tradition does not desire an open and accessible image?  And does more glass, proportionally speaking as compared with the older structures in the neighborhood, equate with greater institutional “transparency?”

Critics would not be impressed by this unsophisticated question, and would also tut-tut any suggestion that the building is at all inappropriate in the midst of the traditional buildings that line Michigan Ave.  They point to the fact that the building’s swath of glass, arranged in angled facets, cleverly pays contextual homage to the neighbors, thusly: the wall’s 726 glass panes are, on average, the same general size of the windows on other Michigan Avenue buildings; its peeling front projects no more than the bays on Chicago School skyscrapers.  It is an achievement akin to the jeweler’s art, Mr. Kamin wrote in the May 2008 Architectural Record: “like a cut diamond” the Spertus Institute “fits seamlessly [into] Chicago’s downtown street wall.”

This is silly.  Of course it has seams: it is a patch between two extant buildings.  And rather than a “diamond-like” seamless mend, it is more like a sequined ribbon lacing up a corset—in which the thrill is never in the security and seamlessness of the lacing, but rather in the perilous possibility that it will come loose at any moment.

The lip service regarding Spertus’ contextual fit is an academic exercise, and clever justification, but it is unconvincing on the site.  Spertus sticks out like a big jagged thumb.  One might be forgiven for thinking  that Spertus looks like a particularly uptight glacier stuck in a stony cliff.  But one would not be excused for thinking so, were there a significant critic in the room; only the critics have the eyes to see.  Or perhaps, they have had the eyes to read, or the ears to hear, what the architects have dictated, for the architecture firm’s materials (including their website) seem to have set the talking points.  But their words lose some of their power when viewed within a broader scan of Kruek + Sexton’s portfolio, which is full of glassy buildings with unusual (or very usual, sometimes even dull) shapes—but that all mean different things, according to the architects.  A glass-clad speculative office building in Washington DC (1100 First Street; it looks a little bit like a Jawa Sandcrawler, but with less visual interest) speaks an “architectural language that . . . is timeless, enduring, and true to values of our nation’s capital;” meanwhile a project for a 1484-foot-tall Crystal Tower in Chicago (commissioned by Architectural Record as part of their “Futures to Come” series) now utilizes the Super-Glassy aesthetic as a “symbol of modernity.”  Office buildings (1730 Pennsylvania Ave.) and houses (the remarkably creatively titled Transparent House II, Gulf Coast) alike utilize glassy glassiness simply to maximize views, with no special attempt for metaphors or poetry.

So, which is it: easy visual accessibility from inside or from without?  A metaphor for Jewish intellectual culture?  Timeless national values?  Modern real estate?  Or is this a language that is so universally über-appropriate that it can mean all things to all people in all situations?  If that is the case, does it cease to mean anything in particular?  The possibility for multiple understandings in architectural design is not a bad thing—but it’s not a good thing to read the same monotonous unquestioned interpretation for the same building, with little to no variation, again and again.  And again.


Potential symbolism aside, the formal nature of this huge faceted wall is another thing.  More unconvincing than the argument that this building really fits its context—the talk of the “average sized windows” of the curtain wall being particularly silly—, it is the experience of the rest of the building, beyond the big wall, that is truly disappointing.  Kruek + Sexton are proudly cut of the Miesian/IIT cloth, which suggests adherence to big, bold, shining, relentless Modernist values—because if they’re not big, bold, shining and relentless, they’re not worth much. The achromatic interior announces the harshest kind of Modernist palette, forgetting that even LeCorbusier knew to break up the monotony of his “correct and magnificent [game] of forms assembled in the light” and shot a little color here and there in his work.  The white, white, white world of Kruek + Sexton is much more Logan’s Run than Villa Savoye.

gallery above, library far below, universal space in the middle

For all its nods to ultra-contemporary industry in the façade, on inspection the building as a whole fails some of the key tests of Modernism.  The building announces it is one thing on the exterior—a bold, sculptural, highly technical solution to a building problem–while its interior is highly orthodox, straightforward, even boring.  Krueck + Sexton may have done well to look a little beyond their hero Mies, to an earlier German, Bruno Taut, who knew how to sync the insides of a glassy gem of a building with its outsides.

The interior spaces are big and open, but are a huge aesthetic letdown after the façade, whose facets are referenced only one more time, and in a clunky way, by the plaster-clad butt end of the theatre that hangs into the tall lobby.  Most of the spaces are large, plain, and rectilinear, and have nothing of the crazy foldey-folds of the front wall.  There is a nice open stair, and views are open from one gallery space to the next above and down into the library.  But that’s not much sexy next to the va-va-voom of the front wall, which turns out to be just a big tease.

lobby: theatre to the right, just above the unavoidable shop

Thus Spertus does something a Modernist building is really not supposed to do: say one thing in one place, and be another thing somewhere else.  Some very old criticism seems appropriate here (differnet time, different place; oddly, same story):

The content of Crawford Manor’s implicit symbolism is what we call “heroic and original.”  Although the substance is conventional and ordinary, the image is heroic and original . . . .  We criticize Crawford Manor not for “dishonesty,” but for irrelevance today. . . .  When it cast out eclecticism, Modern architecture submerged symbolism.  Instead it promoted expressionism, concentrating on the expression of architectural elements themselves: on the expression of structure and function. . . .  Modern architecture’s expression has become a dry expressionism, empty and boring.  (Robert Venturi, Learning from Las Vegas, MIT: 1972, pages 101-103)

The really confusing thing about Spertus is that it conflates the Modernist heroic stance with Venturi’s theory of the decorated shed; but ultimately it is not really a satisfying experience of these theories or any other, for it is a regrettably inconsistent design.  Ultimately this is what is disappointing about this building: it looks exciting on the outside, but is really boring on the inside.  There is no great payoff beyond the curtain, and there really should be—not only because the façade suggests something bold and different, but because that is the only thing that would justify this building’s grandstanding cry for attention among its mature neighbors.

Michigan Ave., north of Spertus

Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies (

the shop, which offers a refreshing break from the earnestness of the building

in praise of consistent color stories: a birthday celebration for Scrumpy

Arrangement in Gray and White, No. 1: The Author's Pooch

Arrangement in Gray and White, No. 1: The Author's Pooch

In an ideal world each of us would enjoy a consistent color story every moment of the day: a palette of hues that coordinates everything (and I do mean everything), producing feelings of cosmic peace and emotional comfort. Yet, we who have been blessed with what I call chromatic hypersensitivity must contend, on an all-too-regular basis, with the jarring juxtaposition of other people’s color stories, or—the horror—their obliviousness to the existence of such succor to the challenges of daily life (we call these people, technically: hypochromes, or, commonly: people who wear beige).

Problem is, people will impose their own color choices on our hue-sensitive world. At work, I regularly see dozens of students who clearly have made no group effort to achieve a harmonious effect when they assemble before me in class. At home, I contend with thoughtless cookbook publishers who impose terrible choices of book-spine colors on my kitchen schema, not to mention a thoroughly unfortunate soda can design that goes with me everywhere and looks good nowhere. Granted, these items could be corrected with a little more industry on my part. But there are certain troubles one cannot so easily rectify as wrapping one’s home library in coordinating book covers, decanting one’s Diet Pepsi with Lime into a vessel that is not the color of chemically-generated lime flavor, or convincing one’s employer to adopt a policy that demands that all undergraduates don uniforms that match the paint on the lecture room walls. Easier to control, the selection of one’s spouse should be made very carefully to ensure chromatic concord (while avoiding matchy-match outfits, needless to say). One faces a greater challenge coordinating one’s children to, say, the sofa on which they spend so much time; but even this is not impossible for the dedicated parent. (If you struggle in this area, may I suggest directing this appeal to the child in question: “Poopsie-bunny, your stripes/tie-dye/sports team advertisement is/are giving mummy/daddy/your state-appointed guardian a migraine/apoplexy/blurred vision; perhaps if you could change into something more muted/dark/restrictive, I will find a wad of cash/pony/your father’s Lamborghini keys for you.”)

Although the people we live with can be a source of significant coloristic annoyance, it is not so for all creatures under the roof. Just as our four-legged companions are, sometimes, our most predictable and agreeable cohabitators, they can also serve the great goal of the truly harmonious color story—the dream of all tastefully civilized people. When my family was preparing to add a dog to our household earlier this year we considered many characteristics of different breeds, including temperament, activity level, maintenance demands and health expectations. These considerations, in light of our family situation, led us into contact with multiple rescue agencies for Pit Bulls and American Staffordshire Terriers, and ultimately to a love connection with our dog, Scrumpy.

Pictured above (and below), Scrumpy is a two-year-old, sixty-pound Blue Pit. She has white markings on her feet, chest and face, which stand out prominently against her silvery warm-gray fur. She is a beauty. She looks great on the carpet, by the furniture, with my wardrobe and in my car. I recognize that canine aesthetics are not prominent in most people’s adoption process (do I ever, when I witness some of our neighbors’ unfortunate matching of pet and house color–honestly, some of you need to keep that pooch in the back yard or paint the trim to keep the neighborhood from aesthetically going to the . . . never mind.). Some people select a guard dog that will actually rise from a recumbent position when danger (and not just the noise occasioned by living across the street from a grade school) is sensed. Some people choose an athletic dog that can run an agility course without knocking down the equipment. Some people opt for a smart dog that learns to fetch the paper and brew the coffee in the morning. Scrumpy is not one of those dogs. But she looks so, so pretty not doing all those things.

Not afraid to throw all her muscular weight behind proofs of her love, Scrumpy is as affectionate as she is striking. To celebrate Scrumpy’s aesthetic achievement, we will mark her birthday with a special menu featuring blackish and white dishes. So, even if my family shows up in chromatic disarray, the dog, and the table, will look great. Behold:

Birthday dinner for Scrumpy
What Scrumpy’s people will eat: Wild Mushroom & White Wine Risotto; Molten Chocolate Cake with Vanilla-Bean Ice Cream
What Scrumpy will eat: Canned Dog Chow on a bed of Last Night’s Basmati Rice; two Fiber-Formula Biscuits
What Scrumpy would rather eat: Loaf of Bread Stolen from the Kitchen Counter, Old Taco Found in a Gutter on Main Street, Dust-Bunny-Coated Oreo Excavated from under the Kitchen Stove, Cat Poo


Composition in Gray, White and Drool: Scrumpy and her Joie de Vivre