Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Jesse Vital's Lancaster Mural

The American urban landscape contains hand-painted images that are often drawn by unknown artists and illustrators. Lancaster is such a place. Benjamin Leech and I have noted the need to somehow document the city's vernacular heritage. One of my favorite Lancaster murals is at White's Auto Sales and Services located on 4 East McGovern Avenue. So, one day, I decided to walk into the automotive repair store and talk to the owner, who gave me the name of the artist who did the mural, Jesse Vital. The next step was astounding. Through some initial research, I learned that Jesse Vital is currently a successful illustrator for Hollywood. The mural was one of his earliest projects. He painted the mural in return for some auto work on a van he had just bought, which would become his ticket out to California.

The story was amazing enough that I had to talk to Jesse, who generously granted me a telephone interview on May 24, 2014. What follows is the transcription of that conversation. 

KK I wanted to get a bit of the history of the mural and the circumstances about your life in Lancaster. I’ve seen you are a pretty accomplished illustrator in the West Coast, and it’s exciting that you’ve had some time in our neck of the woods.

JV I’ll try to hit the major points. I was born in Lancaster and my dad, my family still lives there. I had moved around a little bit with my mom when I was a kid and wound up in art school in North Carolina, in the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then in Baltimore at Maryland Institute College of Art, I went there for a couple of years, too. At one point I just wound up moving to Lancaster, I didn’t really know what to do and that was around Y2K. I moved back to town, and I had a little bit of experience waiting tables, so I started to do that for a while. I was still pretty young, I’d say probably 23-24, and I had quite a fine art background. I did a lot of figurative work and painting, but it was more classical style than abstract.

KK I can see from your website that you’re pretty amazing realistic classical representation.

JV The website is reflective of the kind of commercial work that’s really popular out here in Hollywood, which is a very fast illustration, a lot of sketching. It’s very heavily figuratively based, so it suits me. It’s fast, it’s all done on the computer, it’s done with a screen tablet, so I draw right into the computer. It allows me to manipulate textures and brushes really fast. That style was something that was kind of new. At the when I was in Lancaster, I was doing a lot of oil painting and drawing, and I hadn’t done any illustration per se. When I was working at one of the restaurants, Symposium Restaurant actually, which is out on Columbia Avenue, I want to say. They needed a mural. They came to me because they knew I was an artist, and where like “will you do a mural in our new addition to the building?” So I took it on, and it was very, you know, it was kind of a big deal for me, but looking back it was like 1,000 dollars. You know, it was just fortuitous. Who else was going to do it?

KK Do you know if it’s still up?

JV I think it is. I wouldn’t testify to the quality because I really didn’t know what I was doing. I never had done this kind of thing before. So I was trying to scale up the painting I was doing to a mural. I really didn’t have any training on how to do murals or a good business model. I had no apprenticeship per se. So I just kind of jumped in because that’s the kind of person I am. So I did that one. I did a few others. From that I got quite known for doing murals because there was a small article in the paper, in the Life Style Section. It’s in the Lancaster Newspaper, I want to say it’s in the Sunday edition. I think I have the article if you need me to, I can scan it and send it off to you. I did a few projects. And I would always be working as a waiter. I also worked at Lancaster Galleries then for a little bit in the frame shop, and I was doing frame restoration with them. At the same time, I was also really into music, so I was playing a lot of gigs as a musician. And through my gigs as a musician, I got hooked up with this guy that was opening up a garage. He was like, “hey, I need somebody to help me create a logo and maybe a sign for my garage.” I guess, instead of him going to just a regular sign shop, he wanted something special, and I guess somebody told him that I could something a little special. I believe my friend Brett Stabley who is my dad’s friend hooked us up because he was a little bit older than me.

KK Is it the guy that’s there now because he is the one that gave me your name when I inquired?

JV This guy was named White, I can’t remember his first name. It was White’s, and it was his own personal garage. So, I said to him, “look,” this is the funny part of the story, I said “I just bought a Volkswagen bus, a 1976 Volkswagen Camper bus and it needed a lot of work.” I had actually bought a second Volkswagen bus that was in the process of being restored, so it had all the windows out, it was really just for parts. So I had these two buses, and I said, “I want to take the engine out of one and put it in the other, but I do not know how to do that. So if you guys can do that for me, I’ll do all your signage and your business cards and all your logo stuff.” And they were like, “OK.” So it was really a handshake deal. No official contract. It was just a trade, like a real down and dirty. I had the bus towed into his shop. I came up with some sketches. I said I want to paint a mural on the side of the building. Because he wanted to compete, there were a lot of car places in that area and he wanted his to stand out. And I said, you know, we should do something where we put the logo on the side of the building. And he kind of was like said, “OK, do whatever you want to do. Just do it.” There was no creative direction from him. He liked the sketches of the little logo I designed, which I had drawn by hand but scanned in the computer and finished off in the computer. So it had a real crisp graphic look to it. And then, what I did for the mural is, I printed it out and then I had a projector. I believe I borrowed a projector, and we projected it on to the wall and aligned it. Because I was so worried, I hadn’t done an outdoor mural, so I used Rust-Oleum paint, like in a can. I just bought the appropriate colors. Some of them I had to mix to get the colors right and I believe it held up pretty well because I think it’s still there.

KK Yeah. I don’t know how bright the original was but it looks very very clear.

JV I think it’s just. If it’s dulled anything, I think it’s just the white has maybe dulled just from dirt. I think that Rust-Oleum paint is pretty indestructible. I was very careful about it because it was more of a transfer. When I painted it on it was very precise. And then, he, I don’t know if it’s still there, but he had some signs out front, on the front side, above the garage doors which I painted. His logo that I designed across “White’s Automotive” and the phone number.

KK And the wrench, right?

JV Yeah, it has the wrench. Well the idea was that the wrench was just the simple logo and the other guy was the more complex logo. And again, I should emphasize, I had no idea what I was doing. This wasn’t something, you know, it wasn’t like you hired an advertising company and I was subcontracted. I was just trying to do what I thought was appropriate if I owned the garage. You know, this is what I would do. It was very simple. It was a learning experience because I had to learn how to use the computer to make art. It was one of the first times I had done that. Also, I think, around the same time, I did a mural on the side of the Alley Kat, which is I believe on Prince Street, or Duke Street, I can’t remember, it’s down there. It’s not far, in fact, I think I met the White guy from playing in the Alley Kat. I had painted some little cats on the doors in the Alley Kat, where there are these little cartoon cats are peeing. So, like the little cartoon cat man is peeing in the urinal and there is a little cartoon cat girl, she’s like a Siamese cat, and she’s sitting on the toilet. And they are fun and innocent, cute, little paintings because again, I knew the guys, and they were “well, what would you do?” And then they had that side of the wall and they wanted to just do something bigger and I painted the logo. But that logo on the Alley Kat I did not design. So the White’s one was much closer to my heart, I was personally invested in that one. And that’s one of the reasons why I was so anxious to actually have this interview because it was something that I really enjoyed doing.

KK …. Your mural is my favorite and I wanted to start with that one.

JV Yeah, I do know there is a woman who’s really known for it [Karen Hunt]. I can give you a little bit of background from what I knew from working because the art scene in Lancaster, if you were a struggling artist, was actually quite small, people that were handing out jobs to do, for example murals or a portrait. And I did a lot of informal portraits for people. For some reason I got known for painting a lot of people that had recently died. So, I did about half a dozen paintings from these old photographs of a dead grandmother or grandfather. But I knew a bunch of people that were struggling artists. One of the things that Lancaster has that not too many people know about is that there is a big sound stage company called Clair Brothers. And Clair Brothers, I believe are in the county, near the airport, I’ve never been there. But right next door is a separate company, kind of a sister company, a little bit smaller, it’s its own company, but I don’t remember the name of it, but they do stages, they do backdrops for the stages. [see Atomic Design] So Clair Brothers builds the stage, and they’ll build stages for Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stone because there is a lot of space up there, it’s wide open, they just make these mobile stages, the ones that they brake down and put in like ten tractor trailer trucks. Then the sister company will make the backdrops and they will paint the logo of the band or they’ll design something specific for the set piece; they work with the art director. And that company has, … they’re doing these large large paintings, I’d say, you know, 30 feet across some of them, no canvas, that they roll up. They also work a lot with MTV. And I knew a guy that used to work there, and he worked at the Lancaster Gallery with me. And he knew a woman that also used to work there. She did a lot of the murals around town because she learned how to do murals by painting these backdrops. And she did the one that’s, I want to say, I’m really bad with my street names. She did one around town that’s on the side of the building, it’s on basically, if you were at Franklin and Marshall and kind of drove down towards closer to town, to Queen Street, you might run by it. [West End, Karen Hunt]. When I was living there, there was a tiny little bird store. It’s on the side of a block of row houses and it’s a scene of row houses. And it’s one that the mayor, I think commissioned her, and the neighborhood got some funding together. I don’t remember her name, but if you were to contact Lancaster Galleries they definitely would now, because they are much more closer related to the art scene in Lancaster. That would actually be a good place to do some research, too, because a lot of artists go through there…. There is not a whole lot of money to be had in Lancaster, if you are an artist. You can pickup a mural, you can pickup certain things, it’s kind of like, a portrait here or there. I would make a little bit of money, but I don’t think I ever, you know, made enough to definitely do it fulltime. Now being a commercial artist in Hollywood, I moved out here in 2006, and I was lucky enough to break into the scene. There is a lot more availability for illustrators and artists working in entertainment, but what I know now about how things are done, if I were to go back to Lancaster, you have to sell to tourists. You can’t just do things that people are asking you to do, you basically have to be a businessman, if you want to be successful. That’s my opinion.

KK If I may ask, how did you, did you already have a job and then move to the West Coast?

JV Oh no. It was my dream to move out here. So I spent from 2000 to 2006 in Lancaster and the whole time I would tell everybody, “well, I’m moving to California next year.”

KK You had the bus, right?

JV I bought the bus to move to California, that was the whole point. But then as it turns out, I ended up moving right to the middle of Hollywood. And the more I researched it and talked to people that had had some history and some experience with California, they said, “well, if you are an artist, you have to move to Hollywood.” That was the thing I heard over and over again. I didn’t necessarily want to move to Hollywood, it’s not the nicest part of California, it’s not as beautiful as San Diego, or some of the other beach towns, or San Francisco, but it was actually a very good decision because there is a lot of opportunity for artists in this town in all kinds of respects. But there is so many jobs working in movies, special effects, storyboarding, commercials, a lot of storyboarding jobs. In fact, that’s what I was doing last night. All the stuff you se on TV, every commercial you see on TV, every action scene in every TV show. I knew artists that were storyboarding on Jonas Brothers. They would go to the Disney lot every day and just draw with the director, for the Jonas Brothers TV show, which is kind of like a very low ranked TV show. They still need storyboards, they still need to show everybody what they’re going to be shooting for the day. And then I worked mostly on advertising, so I do a lot of the movie poster stuff, which suits me really well, and it’s kid of like a dream come true because for a while I was very much interested in movie posters as a kid. The West Coast is an image place so drawing, art in general, visual things really suits this place. New York, I have a friend there that does storyboards, and he can find work working for advertising companies and stuff, but it is even harder. It’s harder than here, where I get sometimes four calls a day. I’ve been very busy, very busy….

KK Would you come to F&M and talk to our studio art students about your experiences?

JV Oh totally. I really want people to know that if you really strive and this is really your passion, you can preserver. There is a lot of opportunity. It’s different kind of opportunity. Like I said, if I were to be in Lancaster and that’s where I’d have to make it, I would be much more along the lines of Tom Hermansader, are you familiar with him? He would paint local scenes, like the square, or the opera house, and then he would sell them at the mall, you know. You basically create a commodity, a product, and then everybody in town would end up buying one for very cheap, you know, 20, 30, 40 dollars, just a print, a framed print. I worked with him just a little bit, but he did very well. He was very successful as an artist and he owns two Victorian mansions in Columbia that are just gorgeous, restored, beautiful homes. I mean, he owns two of them, that’s not bad for an artist.

KK Is he like a local Thomas Kinkade?

JV Yeah, basically a local Thomas Kinkade, Yeah, exactly, almost the same kind of feeling, too. You know, it’s art that makes you feel good about the place that you live. And that’s certainly an opportunity that is available to anybody, but a lot of people. I always like to stress the point that creative people can sometimes be incredibly uncreative when it comes to making money. [laugh] You have to basically take the creativity, the creative spirit, and apply it to every aspect of your life because otherwise you’re dead in the water. As soon as you get boxed in with your thinking, “oh, well, if I don’t get another mural, you know, then I’m gonna go broke; let’s give up being an artist.” That’s not how it works. Sometimes you have to take that portrait job or learn calligraphy, or do whatever the market wants or needs and right now, even in my career, which is quite lucrative and very successful at the moment, I constantly have to stay ahead of the game, otherwise I’ll just get bored. So even when you are successful, I fell like you still have to be creative. Constantly. I don’t even like to do the same thing for too long. As soon as it gets easy for me, I get kind of bored.

KK Great. This has been very interesting to hear your trajectory and make the connection with the mural that I see everyday and you probably haven’t seen in years.

JV You know, it’s funny, every time we go back, I try to drive by it, I love it. You picked the one that I am really truly, I feel like it’s my baby. I’m glad to know that someone is interested in Lancaster’s artistic heritage. I do suggest that you go by and talk to the people at Lancaster Gallery. They are very much in, they carry the flame, so to speak, and they are very community oriented, and they know everybody. If you needed a mural, they would tell you ten artists that you can call, you know? They are that type of company.

KK What do you think makes Lancaster so unique in its art scene, is it because of PCAD and Millersville? Is it because it’s close to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York?

JV I knew a lot of the guys. My mother was divorces when I was very young and one of her friends was an artist. I believe he went to Millersville. He was very very good and I knew that he was, ever since I was a little kid. He would bring me comic books that his friend illustrated, people like Timothy Truman, who lives in Lancaster. Now all these guys, all the best artists in town, the really good draftsmen, the really classically oriented guys, guys like the one I’m speaking of, Jeff Guide, they all eventually coalesced around PCAD and became teachers there. I believe in the 80s, from what I’ve heard, the art scene in the 80s in Lancaster was very good. As far as a small town goes, people had a lot of money, the rich people were buying a lot of original art, it was a sort of Renaissance in Lancaster. And then, PCAD kept it going, when that started up, and kept all these guys with food on their tables. And then lately, it’s had another rebirth because of the whole Queen Street scene. So, I think form what I understand, as far as being an artist in Lancaster, the best times were in the 80s because you could have an art show and you would sell most of your paintings. Now you’re lucky to sell a few. But some of the best artists, some of the really popular ones that have collectible stuff, and have a little fan base, they’ll still do very well. In Lancaster Galleries they would have art shows once a month, once every six weeks and about two or three times a year they would have somebody in that would just sell out. All their work was very lucrative and very collectible. But most of the time, they were just doing it because they were supporting the artist. You know, they would sell enough to break even to make up for the advertising. But Lancaster, I think, I can’t speak of it now because I left in 2006, but my feeling is that in general people like art, they want it, they seem to now maybe need permission, you know, whereas back in the 80s it was much more of a competitive thing. Oh, you know, how successful your office is and how nice your art is on the walls. Everybody kind of knew and it was like a game. I remember going into my dentist’s office and it had these beautiful paintings by David Brumbach, I believe is his name, beautiful watercolors, they were done in the 80s. It was just amazing, large, city scenes, rainy wet Lancaster streets, but beautifully painted and they were all originals. And I found out later that that was his dentist [laugh]. They were just traded. The dentist would spend a lot framing them, making them look really beautiful and it would create an atmosphere of affluence, you know. And I didn’t see that kind of work in the 2000s, but I’m sure it’s coming back, whereas you are creating that vibe of affluence by having really nice art. I would be happy to talk to the students, and make sure that they know that there are possibilities and opportunities out there. Like I said, you have to be creative and you have to be really really stubborn, and incredibly determined. It’s definitely there. It may not be there in the way that they imagined in their heads, because I know I had imagined this fantasy about being this famous artist when I was a kid. Believe me, I don’t know anybody that has that fantasy. The ones that are the most successful are the ones that just work, 24-7. I can tell you a few friends that haven’t had a vacation in several years, but they are very successful artists.

KK Good, I think I got enough to get me going. I will definitely keep in touch with you.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Mapping Greek Villages: Neda

I am returning to the villages of Greece, continuing with fieldwork on vernacular architecture. Earlier plans of reviving the Morea Project had been thwarted by the sad death of project director Fred Cooper. In 2010, I visited David Romano's Mount Lykaion Project to brainstorm ways of integrate our old data from the Morea Project with the new data from Parrhasian Heritage Park. The two projects geographically overlap. We prospected the village Neda as one of the villages to be connected with the new path system. Unfortunately, it was not one of the villages that the Morea Project mapped, so we don't have the benefit of archival data from the 1990s. On the Parrhasian Park, see here.

The broader agenda for the summer is to explore the Greek house through multiple case studies. We will reconstruct 19th-century houses torn down in Athens in the 1930s (but well recorded by the Agora excavations), we will survey the town of Lidoriki in Central Greece (part of the ongoing FandM Lidoriki), we will visit the first season of the Western Argolid Survey, and we will explore the digital archives of Ancient Corinth. I will be accompanied by my student Joel Naiman, who will be working on this material all summer as part of a Hackman Scholarship at F&M. 

Lots have changed since I last surveyed Greek villages. Maps are not secretly guarded by the Greek state as treasures of military security. The proliferation of satellite mapping by Bing or Google have made any attempt by nation-states to control information obsolete. But the availability of free and ample data can be misleading. One has the feeling that all is actually available, since village plans are discernible in those satellite images and the human cartographer is obsolete. Google and Bing maps create a challenge in our field methods. I have thought about how to incorporate them in the survey this summer. It seems to me that a blend of high and low tech skills is necessary. Bringing a satellite image into the field does not actually assist the brain in making decisions about urban or architectural value about what is important and what is not.

This summer, I will test the following method. Although we'll be bringing drones, kites, and high-tech visual instruments, I will be maintaining quality control through hand drawings. Before leaving for Greece, I have created simply hand-drawn maps based on what is visible on Google Earth. The process is time-consuming because it requires careful looking and keeping of measurements without any tool other than the eye. So, I've taken my iPad to my favorite cafe with an internet connection; I've signed onto Google Earth; and with an 11 x 24 in drawing pad, I have tried to produce a set of simple black-and-white plan showing visible structures. The process follows producing three different site-plans. 


The first drawing takes the outer-most zoom of the settlement and moving back-and-forth between "map" and "satellite" determines what Google considers to be the major streets and boundaries of the settlement. The limits of the settlement Google denotes in gray, and here I have translated them into steeples. This proves useful in dealing with large settlements (which Neda is not) in subdividing the total area in smaller units that can receive a numerical system. In Neda, for example, you can see a dozen zones. In larger villages (like Lidoriki) we have 50.


Google and Bing images have enough resolution that one can discern roofs and building shadows, enough so that one can discern structures. Sliding through and zooming in-and-out of the Google satellite image, one can start placing buildings on the map. I do this first with a pencil, so that I an erase mistakes. Once I am sure I have all the structures accounted for, I just darken them is. So, these will become the objects of study. With this drawing in hand, we will visit each building and collect specific information.


The final pass involves zooming further into Google and extracting finer information about the buildings, including how they relate to one another, roof types, etc.

So this is what I have prepared before the field. In a couple of weeks, I will join the Parrhasian Heritage Part team and see if this system works. There I will reunite with Mark Davison (Park Services) and David Romano (now at Arizona), who were my hosts two years ago. Wish us luck. I look forward to revisiting the house shown above that is one of the black fields in my drawings. The limited information from Google makes believe, however, that the house has greatly collapsed since 2010. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Argo and Bloomsbury Tents

The 21st edition of George Theotokas' Αργώ, recently reprinted by Estia has ugly typography and an even uglier cover (and why was it split into two volumes, I don't know). Gone is the beautiful font from the original (1936) edition. Van Pelt Library has a copy of the 3rd edition (1957), which I copied above.

Browsing through Richard Stone's Bloomsbury Portraits (1976; rev'D 1993), I was captivated by a set of drawings by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell from 1913. They document camping trips at Thetford Forest, Norfolk. The tents are no different from the type used by the French Expedition in Greece in 1829 (see here). Grant's painting (above) is in a private collection. It speaks of a social indeterminacy and a bohemian attempt for ecological immersion. It seems that friends set up tents even when visiting the house in Charleston. Bell's work (below) is a screen that folds into three, now at the Victoria and Albert. Unlike Grant's painting that looks at the trio from the outside, Bell populates the folding triangular space with erotic figures, bending, turning, exposing breasts, thighs, faces. The same year, Grant hang out with Picasso in Paris, where they discussed ripping wallpaper to use in collages. I find an interesting resonance between ripping the paper of 19th-century interiors while also exploring the thinness of tent dwelling.

Zirwat Chowdhoury (Reed College) and William Tronzo (UC San Diego) are chairing a panel on "The Tent: One of Architecture's Many Guises" at the next annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians (see here). The bohemian expansion into tent space ca. 1913 would make an interesting topic. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Andy Upright & Ann Klicka

At GO WEST! Craft Fest, I met two incredible craftsmen, the master Andy Upright and his apprentice Ann Klicka, who were illustrating the production of metalworks. The rhythmic beating of the molten iron on the anvil and a most interesting conversation made me realize the uniqueness of metalwork in the general spectrum of DIY craft revivals. It dawned on me that today's popular crafts, whether it be knitting, food, or vaudeville, exist in a zone of individual self-actualization. They fit comfortably into the edges of non-offensive and isolated social activities and they are rather shy of tackling the architectural environment. The art of the metalsmith, on the other hand, links other crafts together, it communicates and creates a material continuum. It has to bind stone (building structures) to wood (human softness), it intercedes between the mason and the carpenter. Stone is too hard and wood is too soft, making it extremely difficult to set wood into stone without a metal hinge. 

Andy Upright and Ann Klicka are excellent metal artists on their own right. Although raised in Minnesota and Massachusetts, respectively, their work made me celebrate the continuity of a Philadelphia tradition that goes back to Samuel Yellin. I remember the impact Yellin's workshop had on me when I visited it with my high school class. And Ann tells me that the Yellin Workshop is still managed by Clare Yellin, Samuel's grand-daughter but is not going as strong as it did during my high-school days.

When I picked up Andy's and Ann's cards, I thought of contacting them with ideas of historian-craftsman partnerships, like documenting Philadelphia's architectural iron. But first, I needed to do something appropriate with their actual cards. What you see above was my intuitive reaction to the magic they shared with an adoring audience at Go WEST! Craft Fest (including the undivided attention of two five-year old ones). Later that day, a craft beer specialist at The Local 44 Bottle Shop recommended a Gose, a crazily medieval beer that takes like salt and lemon and is still made in Leipzig. So, I had to remove the label from the bottle and paste it next to the metalwork Andy's and Ann's cards. Both experiences made me incredibly humbled to be living in a neighborhood where craft conversations are exerting a force of resistance.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Ruskin's Favorite Tomb

Followers of this blog may remember tracing one particular type of late-19th-century American funerary monument (Hand Monument, Hartman Monument, Brady Monument, etc.) This week, I was reading about World War I monuments in J. S. Curl's Death and Architecture (2002) and came across the origin of this funerary type in the chapter on medieval monuments. More exciting (but not surprising) was to learn that Ruskin was the figure who discovered this medieval type in the monument of Can Grande I della Scala in Verona (1355). In The Stones of Venice, he called it "the consummate form of the Gothic tomb"(Collected Works, vol. 11, p. 87).  See a beautiful drawing from John Ruskin's Teaching Collection at Oxford. A similar Scaliger Tomb, of San Signorio della Scala (1365), served as the model for Prince Albert's memorial at Kensington Gardens (1872) by G. G. Scott. The image above is from my notebook (and --clearly-- not Ruskin's).

Thursday, May 15, 2014

R7L17 Introductory

R7L17 is a guide to the Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture for seventeen-year old readers. The following annotations refer to Ruskin's "Introductory."  See earlier posts that explain the intentions.

The key argument in the Introduction is the need to have clear objectives. Making good judgments, argues Ruskin, is less a problem of execution but more a problem of defining clear goals. ,

[par. 01] This paragraph might be entitled "the right versus the possible." Ruskin introduces this work by referring back to a conversation he had some years ago, as if the conversation still plays out in his mind, and as if the conversation is now extended to us, who enter the scene. The conversation, interestingly enough, is not with a theologian or a philosopher, but with a painter, in fact, the best painter of his age. The interlocutor is distinguished simply for his ability to combine perfection in drawing (the formal qualities of line and composition) with "resplendence" in color. What is "resplendence." It's only the third line into 7L and we encounter an unfamiliar word. "Resplendence" means shining brilliantly. That this particular painter combines those two skills suggests that they are different and, in fact, difficult to combine. Indeed, formal composition, i.e. the making of form (lines, shapes, volumes) is quite different from the coloristic quality of the painted surface. If the former is rational and abstract, the latter is sensual and almost tactile. Good art for Ruskin needs both. It's not particularly important, but the artist that Ruskin is valorizing is William Mulready (1786-1863), a painter best known for his rural scenes. [LESSON: Show an image that illustrates the tensions between forma and color]
The moral of the conversation is encapsulated in Mulready's statement "Know what you have to do, and do it." This directive seems to simple to be useful. It is useful in as far as it points attention to the foreknowledge of what is right as a necessary prerequisite for a successful execution. Ruskin here develops an ethics of action hinged on clarifying objectives and executing on them. Failure comes less from the actuality that resists completion, but more from the inability to hold clear goals. This leads into Aphorism 1: "We may always know what is right; but not always what is possible." With the help of our conscience, our moral self, and our divine self, we can always ascertain what is right. In contrast, we might not always have the necessary data to assess what is possible. Since the possible is indeterminate, we should not use it as a guide. In other words, we should not base what we should do in what we perceive at that particular moment of time as doable. We are better off, basing our actions on what we know is right. Making decisions from the bottom up rather than the top down allows the muddled understanding of what is possible to interfere with the absolutely desirable. So, decide what is right first and execute regardless of the instrumental efficacy. [EXERCISE: Think of a good example in ethical judgement or political choice, where we make a decision made on efficacy; but then something changes and our initial calculation proves to be mistake; in contrast a choice base on principle does not waver or change]

[Par 02] Consideration of architecture need not be different from considerations of actions or politics because architecture is a "distinctively political art." This is an interesting assertion. Ruskin doesn't clarify what he means, but we can think of some possibilities. Since architecture is created by communal resources, then it should be considered a product of "the polity." 
Ruskin acknowledges that history has given us a confusing set of traditions regarding architecture. Those might have arisen from constricted situations. Ruskin wants to consider the basis of architecture without tradition. He starts with simple observations of opposites: imagination is different from technicalities; the soul is different from the body. Architecture's job is to unite those extremes, it balances the lower bodily parts of human existence with the simplicity and purity of the higher spiritual elements. If too much attention is given to considerations of material and construction, "the interference of the constructive," then architecture loses the purity and simplicity of its essential character. Ruskin accuses the architects of his time for giving materiality too much attention, obsessing over new material, and suggesting that material alone determines form. In this paragraph, Ruskin associates material/construction with the circumstantial constraints of moral action, hoping to place some primary essence in par with the pure moral right. In other words, just as we need an ethical "right" before we execute any action; we need an architectural "right" before we put it in a material form. The laws of architecture that we come up with will, thus, be pure of material contingencies. They will be universal and always applicable (like the absolutes of morality). The ethical rule "thou shall not kill" should not be contingent on the circumstances of the killing.

[Par 03] Against situational ethics. If we are looking for a universal law, it should not vary according to the kind of art we practice. Whatever holds true for painting should hold true for architecture or music. It should hold "for the horizon of man's action." Interesting how Ruskin uses a landscape metaphor -- the horizon (like "resplendent" color) -- to drive his point. Ruskin makes an interesting sub-point in this paragraph. Even though the situational principal takes its power from the universal, this does not mean that there is any loss, degeneration, or diminution. Principals are not quantitative units that are subdivided into domains; neither are they forces that lose force as they trickle down the metaphysical ladder. This is an important point for the following paragraph, where Ruskin will argue that every action, even menial actions (like the condition of slavery) can theoretically participate in universal redemption.

[Par 04] Finally, Ruskin tells us why he called his principals "Lamps" and not "laws" or "axioms" or "rules." A lamp illuminates us through the dark. A lamp also has potential energy; it can burn. Light cannot be distorted, it will always be light. Even if a light is faint, it is still a light; it has the potential to enlighten and to guide. What are the actual seven lamps? Ruskin hasn't listed them yet beyond the table of contents: 1. Sacrifice, 2. Truth, 3. Power, 4. Beauty, 5. Life, 6. Memory, 7. Obedience. Wow!!! This seems like a list of arbitrary concepts. Why these lamps and not others, and why seven (and not five or nine? Ruskin tells us that his list is not systematic or exhaustive. He chose seven because it was most "convenient" and not out of some master system. Ruskin does not claim to be some systematic philosopher. His lamps are not like laws of nature that could be tested with experiments. He even suggests that there could be more than seven. Thus, the enterprise of talking about lamps, is a process of talking about energy, and discovering about that energy through the process of reading and looking. In Ruskin' own admission, the arrangement is "arbitrary," so we could easily switch the order and the nomenclature is "illogical." Twentieth-century scholars have found Ruskin to be highly inconsistent himself, even between one work and another. 

[Par 05] Aphorism 2. Here Ruskin makes the important assertion that all practical laws are exponents of moral laws. In other words, what he had in mind about universal laws, was really all about moral laws. We know right away, that Ruskin must have a much richer notion of morality than a set of rules or laws, an explicit legislation. In the breath of "morality" he is really thinking aspirational "virtues" or the kind of things that spiritual beings possess. And the trickiest part of Ruskin's idea of virtue is that it cuts across all levels of existence from "the works of the hand" (things we make), "the movements of the frame" (what we do with our bodies), and "the action of the intellect" (what we think). Ruskin is not a philosopher, so he will not try to give us exhaustive and complicated arguments about the veracity of his claims. Let's just accept his notion of "fellowship," that what we do in the banal world of our bodies and actions may have some "fellowship," or friendly interaction with spiritual things, like God.

[Par 06] Ruskin will further deepen his notion of fellowship with the divine by showing the most unlikely actions or works can have virtue. This is a crazy idea, right? "the drawing of a line or utterance of a syllable" are capable of dignity. Ruskin thinks that a single sound (a syllable does not even make up a word) can have dignity. Similarly, a simple line that you draw on a white sheet (before it even makes a shape) can also be full of dignity. We'll have to do a couple of exercises in class to really capture this. Basically, Ruskin asserts here that there is no hierarchy or moral ladder. Intellectual pursuits at the top of the moral ladder are no different that banal physical things at the bottom of the moral ladder. Even the worst possible situation, slavery or drudgery, participates in the divine. 
For the time being, let's proceed to Ruskin's two quotations that show a further extreme of how something horrible can be in "fellowship" with virtue. Ruskin quotes George Herbert (1593-1633) and his poem "Elixir." Ruskin does not give us this information because he assumes we already know it. Elixir, in Ancient Greek, is a medical powder that literally dries out wounds. Metaphorically, it came to mean the cure for life, with alchemic connotation. The elixir is then a transformative ingredient. In this poem, Herbert argues that there is some ingredient that can transform the drudgery of labor (even of a slave) into a pleasurable thing. Hard work done for good ends becomes tolerable. Thus sweeping the room, the most brainless and demoralizing activity contains some fellowship with the divine.
The second reference in this paragraph is to John Knox (1514-1572). Knox was a leading figure of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church. You can find an image of Knox in the stained glass windows of the Lancaster Theological Seminary across the street. When the French attacked Saint Andrews in 1547, Knox was captured and forced to row in the galleys of the French ships. In this case, slave labor was drudgery but had divine ends.

[Par 07] In the last paragraph and Aphorism 3, Ruskin lights up some fire under us, awakening us to some highly immoral historical era. Keep in mind that Ruskin is writing from the perspective of modernity, witnessing the Industrial Revolution, seeing in front of his eyes the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of human beings in the factory. He is not sheltered in some suburban liberal arts college. He is at the heart of the inner city, at the heart of industrial production. He witnessed evil first hand (as we do when we watch The Wire, or House of Cards).
What is the crux of Aphrism 3? Ruskin basically tells us of two common alternatives that we can witness current even today. One alternative is to tackle the problem from a most theoretical perspective. We can just philosophize endlessly and argue ourselves through all the possibilities, kind of like what you are supposed to be doing in a liberal arts college, turning every "foundational" problem over and over, seeing all its facets through the comfortable distance of a privileged education. The second alternative is to just amuse ourselves, simply make the best of a bad situation by trying to have as much fun as we can. We can party hard and luxuriated in the material pleasure that modernity has made so easy for us. Both alternatives, the common solutions, are a problem for Ruskin. Both are avoidance strategies. The future is full of mystery and must be tackled through direct engagement. Whatever is happening today is exponentially getting worse, "like letting out of water."
Ruskin said a lot of things in the last seven paragraphs. Even if we are not convinced by anything he has said so far, we have at least been introduced to his style of writing and of making his points. To fully immerse in Ruskin's ideas, we will do the following three physical exercises.

EXERCISE 1. I have brought a bucket of water and 12 sponges. I want you to take one sponge and for five minutes to clean one particular part of the classroom. You cannot do this in groups or talk to each other. At the end of this menial activity, I will ask you to make two lists enumerating how this activity was 1) totally worthless, and 2) of some moral value. We will compare our lists and discuss how our action may have been virtuous.

EXERCISE 2. You have been handed a white piece of paper and a Sharpie. Make a line. We will put all our lines up on the wall and compare them. How could our lines have virtue? We can only figure this out if we tackle some actual lines and compare them to each other.

EXERCISE 3. In Par. 06, Ruskin tells us that elements in nature, "the snow, the vapour, and the stormy wind" are somehow magical. We will go outside for five minutes. You must disperse as far away from each other and try to capture one element (sound, sight, object) that is entirely natural, entirely created by nature. Try to capture it. We will return to class, and you'll be asked to explain how your natural observation possesses some kind of mystery, some kind of sense that goes beyond the physical explanation of nature (according to molecules, natural forces, chemical reactions)

Thursday, May 08, 2014

R7L17 Preliminaries

John Ruskin
Seven Lamps of Architecture

You have in your hands a paperback reprint of a book published in 1880. The book is light with a brown cover, it fits comfortably in your backpack, and at a price of $14.95 has not broken your wallet. The book's fonts and layout seems clearly antiquated, but the physical artifact does not. Although seemingly old, the book in your hands was published by Dover Books, a company founded in 1947 with the explicit purpose of making classic works from the 18th and 19th century available to American readers at a cheap price. Why did the publishers not change the format of the text to make it look more modern? After all, many 19th century books have been reprinted and they don't look weirdly old. Dover, instead, publishes a photographic facsimile of the  original editions in order to replicate the authentic experience that the original reader would have had. Since 1989, when this Dover facsimile was printed, new digital formats of old books have been made available. Google, for instance, has sought to scan every book in every library in the world. When copyright laws allow, they make that book available. If you go into Google Books right now, for instance, you'll find various PDF versions of the first edition available for free. The Kindle has free versions, as well. But in our seminar we want to replicate the intentional readership of this book, which would have been through a bound book.

The Dover book in your hand should trigger a couple of thoughts before you even set no reading it. First, you know it is a classic work tested through time. Second, you know that this classic ceased being published by a major house. And third, that someone in 1989 (when your Dover edition was first published) thought there existed a need to reprint the book. We will return on some of these issues of how a classic book that everyone read at a certain point in history becomes so undesirable that nobody buys it anymore. Its original publisher withdraws it from their catalog, but someone in the late 20th century reprints for a niche market of students and antiquarians.

Reading John Ruskin's Preface from February 25, 1880, we also realize that this is not the first but the second edition of the work. The first edition was published in 1848. The author tells us as a bit about the differences: he used a cheaper method of reproducing engravings, he removed some "pieces of rabid and utterly false Protestantism," and he added a few footnotes. The second edition was printed at the height of Ruskin's popularity at a lower cost, thanks to a cheaper way of printing drawings. We are thus privy to the work as most readers would have experienced it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

After understanding the physical history of the object in our hands, we flip through the pages to size up the character of this work. We note that the book is very different than most books we have read. First, it is organized around chapters that are called "lamps" rather than chapters. Second, full-page plates are interspersed in the text without captions, or any obvious suggestion of where they should fit in the text (there are no figure numbers). And third, the font seems to change in the middle of the text associated with subheadings that pop up on the side of the text called "aphorisms." What a curious book with an algorithmic structure of 7-14-33 that overlays what will be a linear reading sequence. Thus, the truth lies somewhere between seven lamps, 14 plates and 33 aphorisms. This structure offers alternative ways of reading the book. Should we read the aphorisms first? Three years before Ruskin's publication, Karl Marx experimented with aphoristic writing in Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and Friedrich Nietzsche perfected the form in Human, All Too Human (1878). There is obviously something at stake here beyond an organizational scheme. The fragmentary sequence of theses seemed to reflect some of modernity's expressive needs.

The time has come to figure the book out from the inside out rather than from the outside in. We start with the Introduction.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


R7L17 is a collaborative project hoping to bring John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture to a contemporary audience of young readers. Why would a 17-year old read the 7 Lamps? That's the argument that the project participants want to make.

The idea for the project came when I decided to use The Seven Lamps of Architecture as a primary text for my Freshman seminar in Fall 2014. Feeling proud of myself to immerse students in the classics of architectural theory, I soon realized how difficult the text is to contemporary readers (both young and old).  Most people know Ruskin through "The Nature of Gothic," which William Morris and the Arts and Crafts extracted from The Stones of Venice and spread like a gospel. Ruskin was so ubiquitous in the formation of the late 19th-century that most people understand him by simply following the cultural debates of the century.

The only way that I can assign Ruskin to my students with a clear conscience is if I prepare an annotated edition of the work. But I wanted to open up this question to other friends and colleagues who love Ruskin. My erudite art historians that love Ruskin themselves admit that they have never read a substantial body of his work, and most have not read The Seven Lamps cover to cover. Everybody gets Ruskin these days by never reading Ruskin, just by comprehending the cultural discussions of late-19th-century England in which he is already so pervasive. 

There is a trend in colleges these days to have reading groups, seminars, and conversations. The trend began with the Mellon Foundation, which about five years ago lavishly endowed such "Conversation" projects to any college that was willing to organize it. Ruskin would be horrified if he knew that people were getting monetary benefits for reading his Lamps. Having participated in Mellon Conversations, I'd like this project to be a little less institutionalized, more open-ended. So, this summer, I am embarking on a conversation with Ruskin and my friends hoping to produce a conversation. I can't quite make an argument of why anyone should participate in such an exercise without reading the book first.

Contributors will tackle the text over the next four months and individually submit a page-by-page commentary or general reflections. It can be as simple as brainstorming, explicating, free-associating, or offering a personal insight. At the end of the summer, I will collect all thoughts and commentaries and take the conversation further. I will also test those commentaries on my students and get their own feedback. 

John Ruskin is the single most important aesthetic theorist of 19th century Britain and the founder of American art education through his friend Charles Eliot Norton. His two great works on architecture, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848) and The Stones of Venice (1850), set in motion aestheticism, modernism, Arts and Crafts movement, socialist architectural discourse and new ways to relate art with life. When his writings were collected in the first decade of the 20th century, they filled 39 volumes, and became a fundamental source for Anglo-American intellectual life. In the first decades of the 21st century, however, Ruskin has disappeared from the curriculum. He seems to be read in graduate seminars in English aestheticism or architectural history, but has entirely disappeared from the undergraduate curriculum or general readership. Sadly, only three of his 39 volumes of writing even remain in print.

There are at least five reasons why Ruskin has disappeared from the general readership, 1) his Victorian prose is too wordy and difficult to understand, 2) his Christian and Socialist values are out of fashion, 3) his style of art appreciation has been supplanted by art history as social history, 4) his view of art is too moralistic, 5) his text is filled with antiquated cultural references that are no longer part of public culture, 6) formalist modernism has made historical conscience irrelevant to pure experience, 7) he is inconsistent and difficult to pin down.

When students stop reading Ruskin in the 21st century, they miss one of the most important cultural episodes in western culture. More importantly, they miss a way of looking at the world around them. Ruskin helps us make connections in contemporary cultural debates. I cannot just give the text to my students and expect them to make any sense of it. I must give them an annotated edition, which of course does not exist. Then, I realized that teaching, after all, is all about creating an annotating edition. So, this summer, I am embarking on a conversation with Ruskin and my friends of producing a commentary for the Seven Lamps. This reading group will tackle the text over the next four months and individually contribute a page-by-page commentary. It can be as simple as brainstorming, explicating, free-associating, or offering a personal insight. At the end of the summer, I will collect all thoughts and commentaries and take the conversation further. I will also test those commentaries on my students and get their own feedback.


This is what you have to do, if you are interested in joining the conversation. The objective is to read every one of the seven Lamps over the months of May-August. This means a Lamp for every two weeks.

I. The Lamp of Sacrifice (May 1-15)
II. The Lamp of Truth (May 15-30)
III. The Lamp of Power (June 1-15
IV. The Lamp of Beauty (June 15-30)
V. The Lamp of Life (July 1-15)
VI. The Lamp of Memory (July 15-30)
VII. The Lamp of Obedience (August 1-15)

If you're interested in participating, send me a note. I have no idea what the final outcome of this will be. I know that my commentary will be rather bookish and academic and it will actually be handed out to the students as a reading crutch.

Readers should use the Dover reprint of the text (which is the second, 1880 edition) first printed in 1989. It costs only $14.95. There are only two bookstores in a 100 mile radius of where I live that regularly carry it, Joseph Fox and Penn Book Center. They are currently out of stock, however, because my buddied have cleaned them out. I encourage you to order it through your local bookstore (that's what Ruskin would want you to do) or buy it from Amazon (that's what Ruskin would not want you to do).

My copy of the Seven Lamps is pictured above visiting a very Ruskinian place, Mercersburg Academy in central Pennsylvania. You see the capital of the mantle in the Edwards Room in Keil Hall, completed in 1900.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Louis Kahn's African-American Vernacular

Also posted on Society of Architectural Historians blog, March 26, 2014

When the telephone rang in my office at Franklin & Marshall College, I was surprised to learn that the caller on the other line was a resident of a Louis Kahn house and, most strikingly, a Louis Kahn house that has been largely forgotten. In 1942, Kahn, Oscar Storonov, and George Howe reconfigured the traditional row house to serve a community of African-American steel workers returning from World War II. Known to just a handful of architectural historians, Carver Court in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, had receded from public attention. And for that very reason, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia had placed it on its 2012 Endangered Properties List. Thanks to the stewardship of Ben Leech and the research of Allee Berger, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission determined Carver Court eligible for listing in the National Register of HIstoric Places in March 2013.

As the local architectural historian, I was invited to meet with civic and community leaders of Caln Township to brainstorm on the future of this housing complex and to strategize on celebrating its unique role in the history of African-American labor. Although I am not a Kahn expert, I had worked in Louis Kahn's archives as a student, and wanted to seize the moment that William Whitaker and Ben Marcus have set into motion with their spectacular new book, The Houses of Louis Kahn, and accompanying exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.

Carver Court is no ordinary house by virtue of its users, some of which are the original African-American steelworkers. Most of the better-known Kahn houses were commissioned by Philadelphia’s professional class and are located in the suburbs, while Carver Court engages Kahn’s early commitment to social and economic justice. If it were up to Kahn, Carver Court would not have been segregated. Race politics at this Pennsylvania mill town necessitated the residential division between black and white workers, even though both groups worked for the same Lukens Steel factory. The lynching of Zachariah Walker in 1911 underscored such ethnic tensions. Caln Township was initially settled by William Penn in 1714. Ironically, the white and black housing projects were separated by the Gardner-Beale farm, which had strong Quaker roots and served in the Underground Railroad. A farmhouse from 1811 survives and is now surrounded by Coatesville High School completed in 1968.
Louis Kahn was a housing activist as early as 1931, when he founded the Architecture Research Group. His partner, Oscar Storonov (and Alfred Kastner), had designed the first Modernist housing project in America, the Carl Mackley Houses for the hosiery workers union (1932). Kahn’s activism helped fight Philadelphia’s resistance to public housing and led into the foundation of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Carver Court is the greatest physical manifestation of Kahn’s labor union vernacular.
Coatesville is located half way between Philadelphia and Lancaster at the intersection of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line and the Brandywine River. Coatesville’s steel mills, that produced the beams for the World Trade Center, are of great historical significance and, like Kahn’s housing, continue to operate (under new global management). Carver Court’s remoteness from Philadelphia and the general economic decline of manufacturing have contributed in a slow forgetting of both Pennsylvania’s labor movement and Philadelphia’s architectural engagement. Six decades after its original completion, Carver Court asks some important questions. It is only one of five housing projects designed by Kahn, Storonov, and Howe, and it the single specimen of their African-American architecture. Carver Court has slipped the radar of preservationists and historians because it looks nondescript and lacks the telltale signs of high modernist distinction. Its ordinariness, however, is what makes it exemplary. Taking cues from Le Corbusier’s elevated piloti, Kahn invented a scheme of adoptive design that reinterpreted the traditional row house. His “ground-freed” housing form elevated living quarters to the second floor and left the first floor open to the owner’s specific interpretation. Rather than limiting what the owners did with their allotted housing unit, Kahn wanted the occupants to exercise some freedom in how to use the first floor. It could function as a garage, a workshop, or added living space. The architect’s agency could be supplemented by the occupant’s agency, giving the community a sense of ownership and design engagement. Thus, the very indeterminacy of Carver Court that makes it a specimen of democratic design has also caused its progressive neglect by scholarship.
The phone call from Carver Court and the meeting with Caln Township precipitated a series of questions on both the original significance of the monument as well as the pedagogical opportunities in its rediscovery. A call from a grassroots community generates a research opportunity beyond the obvious scholarly needs. Involving undergraduate students in the documentation of Carver Court’s story seems one of those rare opportunities to engage students with artifacts. First, it is astounding how much work remains to be done even on America’s most important modernist architect. Understanding the afterlife of Carver Court is one immediate challenge, but one of great potential in teaching what Delores Hayden called “the power of place.”

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Leonora Herman, Camac Street, 1924

The city is the big theme at the Phillips Museum this academic semester. Complementing the traveling show Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art, Art History major Ali Tufano has curated Art for Life's Sake: Perceptions of American Realities in the 20th Century. Tufano has brought out of the Phillips Museum's vaults a set of paintings, drawings, and photographs that have never been seen. The show includes a couple of relatively obscure female Impressionists that deserve our attention, Caroline Peart (1870-1962) and Leonora Herman (1888-1966). The latter is especially important for Franklin and Marshall College, as our studio building is named after her relative, Jacob Leon Herman (Class of 1916)

Featured in the exhibit is Leonora Herman's Camac Street, Philadelphia (1924), which opened the viewer into a remarkable historical street, as well as, to a series of questions regarding the role of the female artist in the city. This is the question that my colleague Linda Aleci raised in her lecture that compared Theresa Bernstein to Marguerite Zorach (recently curated at the Phillips Museum). For Aleci, Zorach had to leave New York City in order to create a more primordial and equitable domestic reality. It is much more difficult to answer that question for Leonora Herman since so little has been written about her life and works. In this scholarly vacuum, I try to re-inhabit Herman's painting in order to understand its contemporary urban context. I do this by a combination of observation and light research, using the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps that Penn State has recently digitized for the entire state of Pennsylvania. The relevant map is Philadelphia, vol. 2, (1916), sheet 143.

Camac Street is a North-South alleyway between 12th and 13th Streets in Center City Philadelphia. Like many such alleyways in the city, its prohibitive width has spared it from major automobile traffic and helped it retain its 19th-century charm. The block that Herman painted stretches between Spruce and Locust Streets and its best known for the innovative private clubs that it housed (and continues to house). Herman's painting focuses on the East side of the block. Built in 1825, a group of 12 row houses here were consolidated during the later 19th century into six private clubs, giving the block the name "The Little Street of Clubs." It is relevant for the artistic career of Herman because the block housed the Plastic Club, a women's fine arts club founded in 1897, to which Herman no doubt belonged. A little further down the blog, we find the oldest art club in the U.S., the Philadelphia Sketch Club, founded in 1860, but with membership limited to men. Both institutions continue to function today on the same spot. Herman's painting, therefore, should be seen as a celebration of artistic comradery and the new social roles offered to women, who would meet every Wednesday, attend a morning workshop, paint, and given the opportunity to exhibit works on a monthly show. At the Plastic Club, Herman would have interacted with leading women artists, such as Violet Oakley, who completed the murals of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg at the same time as Herman's Camac Street was painted. And we can also presume that the painting of Camac Street was once displayed at the Plastic Club on Camac Street. The hanging textiles that Herman painted across the alley way may also refer to the spirit of exhibition that was sanctioned here.

Using the 1916 Sanborn maps, we can get a little closer to the urban environment that forms Herman's subject matter. I have extracted the relevant information on the sketch (left). The centerpiece of Herman's painting in a distinctive white stucco building with round windows, illuminated by the afternoon light shining from the west on Manning Street. Originally a stable, 255 S. Camac Street is marked in the 1916 map as "Office." Soon after the end of World War I, in 1919, it was converted into a popular tea room, The Venture Inn, run by Blanche L. James. As the photo from the Free Library of Philadelphia shows (below), this cosy tea room also functioned as an art shop. Although I am not sure if this information was known when Herman painted Camac Street in 1924, the stable had been connected to the the underground railroad. In later years, urban myth developed that the stable was originally owned by the Barrymore family of actors, but that seems to have been fabricated. Today, the Venture Inn is a centerpiece of gay pride, housing Philadelphia's oldest operating gay bar and restaurant.

The second prominent building shown in Herman's painting is the two-story red brick at 252 S Camak St, that was restored in the 2000s into the Acanthus Office Building. When Herman painted it, the structure housed Le Coin d'Or, a private club devoted to French cuisine. The space once housed a leading French restaurant, Deux Cheminees that moved one block away, and ultimately closed in 2006. Next in line, in 247 S Camac, which continues to house the Plastic Club. Rising beyond it is 239 S Camac, which housed the Charlotte Cushman Club, named after a famous actress, and first female director of the Walnut Street Theater around the corner. Cushman's Lesbian history makes this an appropriate member of today's Gayborhood. The function of the Cushman Club was to offer residence to traveling female actresses passing through Philadelphia. Although not visible in Herman's painting, two more clubs continue northwards. The Poor Richard Club (241 S Camac) was founded in 1906 by members of the advertising industry. And finally the Sketch Club (235 S Camac) provided a meeting place for artists like Thomas Eakins and W. C. Wyeth.

Having performed this archaeological review of the spaces within the painting, the work begins to take up some additional significance. Some elements need further clarification. For instance, what are those fabrics hanging between the Coin d'Or club and the garage across the street? Do they resemble flags? Might this be a reference to armistice celebrations? Furthermore, we see a finial or sculpture rising out of the corner of the corner of a distant building. What exactly is that? It is not there today.

Herman's Camac Street is more than a recording of contemporary social realities. It has an artistic value of its own that needs to be brought into alignment with the depicted subject. The interplay of light and shadow, the bright post-Impressionist colors, even the modernistic shapes of the stucco'ed Venture Tea Room command our attention. With the archaeological information in place, we might be able to unpack this work further and evaluate the work of this female artist in the cultural practices of Philadelphia.

The image of the painting, courtesy of the Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin and Marshall College. For more historical images of Camac Street, see here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lively Archaeology

A rare occasion when T. S. Eliot brings up Corinth. Arguing for a relationship with antiquity that is so lively as to be as present as the present. This is a complicated but fundamental argument for a kind of modernism of cyclical time and a cosmic banal present (Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, H. D.)

"We need an eye which can see the past in its place with its definite differences from the present, and yet so lively that it shall be as present to us as the present."

Eliot is critiquing attempts to naturalize antiquity by making it seem close to us in sentiment or form. He is writing against Gilbert Murray's translation of Euripides, whose performance he just saw in the theater.

I read this 1920 plea for an ancient present while the little one was playing violin upstairs in the fabulous Green Tambourin (noted below).

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Slow Archaeology

Chanced coalition between three fragments picked up from the pavement of a Lancaster parking lot, beaten by ice, snow plows, wheels.

         A. Torn packaging of emergency Tylenols
         B. Transparent Blue pen cap lost its functional counterpart
         C. Sole insert once compressed by foot in shoe

While on the next page dwells the drawing of a five year old who got a hold of the notebook and couldn't resist making it hers.

Thinking of Bill Caraher's SLOW ARCHAEOLOGY.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

In the Valley of Big K

January 7, 2014, the coldest day in recorded history, train breaks down at 39°59'36.33"N 75°45'31.83"W, east of Coatesville  offering an intimate view of the valley of Big K.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Walking to Lancaster

Ben Leech has a habit of putting wild ideas in my head. Most recently, he suggested walking from Lancaster to Philadelphia. The distance of about 60 miles travels along one of the oldest roads in North America, the King's Highway. The year 2014 seems like a good year to walk the walk.

On the left you see my little study of King's Highway (in black) along the Pennsylvania Main Railroad line (in red) as mapped in 1855. I commute from Philadelphia to Lancaster, while Ben commutes from Lancaster to Philadelphia, sharing a common view along the red line. I have blogged before about this amazing Trainscape, that presents the most succinct navigation of America's social history in one hour. In a British context, Patrick Keiller entitled his collection of essays, The View from the Train: Cities and other Landscapes (2013), which gets to the heart of this vantage point.

Is a walking journey realistic? In my estimation, it would take 20 hours. Before committing to the whole stretch, I hope to complete it in seven pieces, by riding the train between stations. The segments would look something like this.

1.  Philadelphia-Ardmore, 2:00 hrs
2.  Ardmore-Paoli, 3:45 hours
3.  Paoli-Exton, 2:40 hours
4.  Exton-Downingtown, 1:45 hours
5.  Downingtown-Coatesville, 1:10 hours
6.  Coatesville-Parkesburg, 2:10 hours
7.  Parkesburg-Lancaster, 7:10 hours

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Man Who Put Me Next to Camels Was Some Friend of Mine

Next time I teach Lancaster Architecture, the syllabus will contain only the following text:


All texts readable in a 1923 photograph of Penn Square to be studied at greater detail in a reproduction along the north wall of Prince Street Cafe.

The seminar will naturally start at the cafe. The final exam will have a single question. What are the architectural implications of the Sailor at Penn Square?

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Overbrook Station

After open house at the International French School, I found myself at Overbrook Station, along the Pennsylvania Main Line. I usually see the station at 40 miles per hours, zipping along my train to Lancaster. With 15 mins of waiting, I had the treat to look closely at the beautiful carpentry of its shed. Constructed around 1860 it contains the hallmarks of its period, turning, tapering, picturesque compositions.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Podcasting Architecture

This week marks the anniversary of Swann's Way, the first installment of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Ira Glass, creator of This American Life, begins a marathon reading of the novel from a hotel room in Brooklyn. After constructing a replica of Proust's own room (left), Yale's French Department embarks on a similar marathon. With Proust, the modern self encountered a subjective re-awakening through architectural memory. Recent experiments in the medium of Podcasts genealogically connect with Proust's narrative stream, where, “I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then the memory—not yet of the place where I was, but of several of those where I had lived and where I might have been—would come to me like help from on high to pull me out of the void from which I could not have got out on my own.”

The soothing voices of radio theater have long disappeared from the airwaves, but a new medium, radio podcasts, have taken their place. The discipline of architectural history seems to have finally exerted some creative real estate in this medium. Radio nonfiction has became a dominant form of narrative, beginning with WBEZ's This American Life in 1995. Its creator, Ira Glass, went as far as to herald a new era when in 2007 he published The New Kings of Nonfiction. “We're living in an age of great nonfiction writing,” writes Glass, “in the same way that the 1920s and '30s were a golden age of American popular song. Giants walk among us. Cole Porters and George Gershwins and Duke Ellingtons of nonfiction storytelling. They're trying new things and doing pirouettes with the form. But nobody talks about it that way.” The success of such alternative voices morphed further into podcast radio shows, seriated online rather than the syndicated radio waves. July 2013 seems to have marked a watershed moment for podcasts, when Welcome to the NIght Vale became the most downloadable podcast from iTunes. Another marker of success came, when 99% Invisible, the premier architectural podcast, raised double the amounts it had pledged on Kickstarter for Season Four. With Proust and the podcast in mind, I review the podcasts that I have found to be most relevant to architectural history.

This is the most exciting podcast on architecture and design. It was created by Roman Mars in San Francisco and produced by KALW and the San Francisco American Institute of Architects. Roman Mars has been called the Ira Glass of architecture. Although he commands an increasing presence in the podcast universe, Mars is interested in the deflated, the historical detail and its traction daily life. In a recent interview in Mother Jones, he noted,  “I really wanted to focus on the everyday, even the mundane, and not the things that were shiny and new and exciting.” This month's fundraising success on Kickstarter means that the fourth season of 99% Invisible will be aired daily.

STUDIO 360Kurt Andersen's Studio 360, produced by WNYC in New York, is the oldest and most respected podcast on arts and culture with a Peabody Award under its belt. Although not devoted exclusively to architectural history, it often addresses issues of history and design. Its series, Design for the Real World and Redesigns, focus on issues of design, but the most useful series for architectural historians is the award-winning American Icons. So far, five episodes focus on architectural monuments: the Lincoln MemorialMonticelloFalling Water, the Vietnam Memorial andDisneyland. Typically about 45 minutes long, these episodes have been excellent for teaching.

Hosted by Frances Anderton, this KCRW production centers on architecture and design with a focus on the Los Angeles area. Anderton is a seasoned architectural journalist (The Architectural ReviewL.A. Architect) who has become the voice of design in southern California. (See an Anderton interview here.) DnA's perspective balances the other geographic anchors (New York, Chicago, and San Francisco).

The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., produces a different kind of podcast that distributes audio recordings of its programming. Typically based on lectures given at the museum, this podcast is exclusively dedicated to architectural history and is a MUST in the cadre of architecture listening. Two recent episodes by historian Elizabeth Hope Cushing and landscape architect Laurie Olin, for example, bring to the general audience the museum's symposium on Frederic Law Olmstead that took place on October 10.

Like the National Building Museum, the Architectural League of New York podcasts all of its events and makes them available to general readers.

AIA PODNETSimilarly, the American Institute of Architects aggregates podcasts that relate to practicing architecture. "Architecture Knowledge Review is a podcast series for design professionals, featuring interviews, discussions, and best practices by architects and other design professionals who are at the forefront of the profession."

One way to remain adrift with what Britain's cultural conversation is to listen to Arts and Ideas, a podcast that weekly aggregates the best interviews by BBC Radio 3's Night Waves. Literature, fine arts, theater, and music predominate, but there is a strong architectural presence. New buildings are discussed and old buildings are reconsidered. A recent favorite is the discussion of zoo architecture. Here one can also learn about new buildings, such as Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre. Based entirely on interviews and conversations, this is one of the most intellectually charged podcasts. What makes British journalism interesting is the tradition of correspondents pushing their interviewers critically, rather than simply asking polite questions. Night Wave's correspondents (Matthew Sweet, Philip Dodd, Rana Mitter, and Anne McElvoy) press their interviewers with a critical edge.

Hosted by Melvyn Bragg, In Our Times is another highlight of British cultural journalism. The podcast's premise is simple. Bragg chooses a topic every week and invites three notable academics to discuss it. The topics are broad and rarely target individual monuments. As in other programs on arts and culture, architectural coverage is episodic. Programs include Architecture and Power (with architectural historians Adrian Tinniswood, Gavin Stamp, and Gillian Darley),Archaeology and Imperialism, the Gothic, Architecture in the 20th Century, Modernist Utopias, John Ruskin, and the Baroque.  

Although most tangentially related to architectural history, Welcome to Night Vale is by far the most ambitious podcast. Narrated as a series of community announcements, Welcome to Night Vale transports the listener to an imaginary American town in the southwest. In its indeterminate subject, it touches on some fundamental issues of architecture and meaning. This podcast is impossible to describe, it must be experienced. In July 2013, it became the most downloaded podcast, surpassing the pioneering This American Life.

Given the rising number of podcasts and radio shows targeting architectural issues, it becomes increasingly apparent that certain other culture shows shy away from architecture. One of my favorite podcasts, Slate's CULTURE GABFEST, for instance, is pathetically poor on design. Similarly, the best Canadian culture show, Q,with Jian Ghomeshi, rarely tackles the built environment. Different productions have different strengths, and it makes no sense to DEMAND for venues greater architectural coverage. But it is disconcerting how certain articulations of cultural journalism do not see architecture in the same level as text or media creations. A different podcast genre is dedicated to traditional histories, such as Mike Duncan's THoR (The History of Rome) or Robin Pierson's HISTORY OF BYZANTIUM. These, too, spare little audio space for architecture. 

To conclude, architectural podcasts fit into four categories that, for convenience, we might categorize as: 1. Story Driven, 2. Interview Driven, 3. Lecture Driven, and 4. Fantastical. The Story-Driven podcasts (99% Invisible) experiment with the journalistic voice by pursuing a story or a theme from the ground (replicating the experimental journalism of This American Life). The Interview-Driven podcasts take their cue from the radio interview show (Fresh Air, Radio Times, etc.) but target architectural guests. Lecture-Driven podcasts are simple translations of a live event that is recorded and made available on the internet. These proliferate across museums and organizations and are typically the least interesting in form. Finally, the Fantastical podcasts (Welcome to Night Vale) open new grounds to speak about architectural experience in unexpected ways.

In an era of digital uncertainties, architectural historians worry that their subject matter resists the digital translation. Its very physicality and three-dimensionality precluded the digital flatness. Podcasts offer one avenue of dreamy materialization.

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States

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