Sunday, April 29, 2012

Lancaster Screw: World as Studio

Edge city, where working class quarters ca. 1930 met linoleum headquarters of the world. The linoleum factory has all but left. Corporate headquarters converted to condos with employment services remaining in an office on the first floor. Multiple blocks of parking now serving the unemployed and impromptu activities. Illicit auto repair operations rise behind rented garages, not unusual considering that this spot was also the city's automobile service core with car dealerships still evident. At this parking lot, I picked up a beautiful screw with a tinted yellow handle.

"Today any location in the world is your studio" boasts LOWEL, the company that produced the screw. Once mounting some portable lighting equipment, my screw testifies to an ephemeral transformation of night into day that grows on the liminal spaces of the postindustrial landscape.


Location: 40°03'07.26"N, 76°18'44.94"W
Collection: April 18, 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

Kick Out the Jams Coincidence

I have figured out the meaning of the 45 RPM Spider fragment deposited on Sonic's grave, or at least, I have added another subtext. As it turns out, Rhino Records released an exclusive 45 RPM vinyl (only 6,800 copies) of MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" coupled by Afrika Bambaataa's cover of the song. See details here. Strangely enough, the release of this record occurred on the same day of my visit, April 21, celebrating Record Store Day. The vinyl's promotional literature and cover includes the iconic Spider. Hence it's entirely conceivable that the Spider fragment was deposited by an MC5 fan to celebrate the re-issue of this song. Just a hypothesis

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Broken Spider

The small offering over Sonic's grave is known as the Spider. It was designed by Thomas Hutchison for RCA in the 1960s. It served as a converter for 45 RPM records, a format invented by RCA in 1949 to replace the cumbersome 78 RPM. Most fittingly, the Spider deposited in Sonic's grave is broken. The original triskelion has lost one of its legs making the object's secret biography even more perplexing. Pervasive in the listening habits of North Americans, the Spider has become iconic of the era of singles. Actually, I didn't appreciate the magnitude of this iconography until I opened today's Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era on p. A12 and saw Walt Handelsman's tribute to Dick Clark, who died last week. Handelsman is a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist. The original tribute was published in Newsday (Apr. 19, 2012).
Like the Spider at Elmwood Cemetery, Handelsman Spider is also funerary in nature. The Spider here becomes iconic of Dick Clark's era of American Bandstand that was syndicated on ABC from 1957 to 1987. Interestingly enough for my readers of Punk Archaeology, American Bandstand began in Philadelphia and was recorded in the studios of WFIL on 46th and Market. Designed in 1947, the original building still stands in all its modern glory with a huge satellite antenna on its roof.

Sonic's MC5 appears at the very til end of the Dick Clarke era. It's rock n' roll at its best but contains the seeds of the demise of rock n' roll's mainstream. Thus, in its truncated form, Sonic's offering becomes difficult to recognize, a fragment that allows entry into melancholy while also asserting a reflexive imbalance. If the Spider is the generational litmus test for 1960s rock n' roll Top 40s mainstream, one must wonder what may have been the pilgrim's intentions by depositing a 45 Spider on Sonic's grave. MC5 was clearly shut out of American Bandstand. Their first album (Kick Out the Jams) was released in 1969 as an LP not a 45. The original record was pulled from the stores because it had the word "Motherfucker" on the album cover. Detroit's major department store refused to sell the record and Elektra dropped the MC5 from their contract as a result.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sonic Archaeology

Last weekend, I was in Detroit for the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians, organizing the panel "From Idea to Building: Ancient and Medieval Architectural Process." Another priority in my Detroit visit was to follow up some ideas on the Punk Archaeology project. I wanted to investigate the topographies of memory related to Fred "Sonic" Smith, founder of MC5, godfather of punk and late husband of Patti Smith. Visiting sites of memory is appropriate to Smith and her recent exhibit Camera Solo at the Wadsworth Athenaeum (and soon moving to Detroit). I have already blogged about Smith, Whitman and archaeology here.

Fred Smith died in 1994 from a heart attack at the age of 45. Patti Smith writes about the devastation of this event in her memoir Just Kids and discusses in the documentary Dream of Life. Sonic was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, and I wanted to visit the unique funerary monument that marks his grave. It comprises two vertical rock slabs inscribed with "Sonic" and "Frederick D. Smith. Musician XX Century." The monoliths are small and disappear among the grand nineteenth-century monuments. But they are powerful in their sublime physicality. 

As I began to sketch for myself the elements of the monument, I detected a scatter of offerings on the ground. Clearly, I was not the first pilgrim at Sonic's tomb. Trying not to disturb the surface, I located six objects: five coins and one blue plastic object, which seemed so familiar but which I couldn't immediately identify. I placed an image on Facebook with a question and my colleague, the philosopher David Merli, immediately identified it as a 45rpm converter. There is much to say about the site of Sonic's tomb. For the time being, I'll post these few documents, including the sketch of the finds.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Concrete Byzantium

In 1908, Henry C. Mercer wrote an essay “Where Concrete Stands for Concrete,” in Cement Age 6 (1908) pp. 9-20. Published in an engineering journal, the essay has been forgotten by scholarship. I would argue that it must be included in the anthologies of modern architectural theory. The essay tackles the perennial conflict between modern material (concrete) and medieval crafts (ceramic tiles). Rather than covering up the concrete with plaster or paneling, Mercer argues that the concrete should remain exposed. To hide concrete’s imperfections behind a false layer of false perfection was not only dishonest, but a lost aesthetic opportunity. By theorizing the aesthetic qualities of concrete, Mercer becomes a forefather of Brutalism, which blossomed half a century later. Rather than hiding the concrete, Mercer thought that it could be elevated into a nobler material if decorated by the similarly earthy medium of ceramic tiles. He recommended covering no more than 10% of the surface area with colored tiles. The essay is illustrated with an application of this strategy in a Philadelphia club house. Mercer’s idea was soon fulfilled in his Fonthill construction.

Equally important in Mercer’s solution to concrete is the choice of historical tiles that would complement the new form, namely Byzantine decorative patterns. These abstract Byzantine borders are placed on the critical edges of the interior space, such as capitals for the concrete piers, fireplaces, and are complemented by Gothic borders. My sketch is based on Fig. III “Column of Byzantine pattern in original plastered concrete supporting heavy ceiling.” I love the casualness by which an iron skillet is hung on the pier. Mercer replicated this arrangement in the Saloon of his house, whose electrical illumination I discussed in the earlier posting "Illuminating Byzantium". Here, too, an electrical light bulb adorns the exterior and tightens the conceptual depth of the installation.

In addition to its pioneering significance on the theories of form and function, Mercer emerges as an interesting spokesman for a Byzantinism radically different from the Byzantium that figures in Louis Comfort Tiffany work. This other and more famous figure of the American Arts-and-Crafts also experimented with the visual qualities of Byzantine surface and the optical effects of glass and mosaic. For Tiffany, however, Byzantium was not a 10% application, but a complete cover-up of every visible surface. If Mercer's Byzantium is about conflict and dialectic, Tiffany's Byzantium is about surface and illusion. If Mercer's Byzantium is haptic and embodied, Tiffany's Byzantium is optic and disembodied.

Tiffany's concrete column (ca. 1905) is exactly contemporary to Mercer's. Rather than exposing the cement, Tiffany covered it up with favrile-glass mosaic and topped it with a plaster capital. The column now resides at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but it used to stand in the Tiffany Studios showroom at Madison Avenue and 47th Street.

Hence another distinction between Mercer and Tiffany is one of exposure, or between Bucks County, Pennsylvania and Madison Avenue, New York. Mercer never reached the commercial success and visibility of Tiffany's.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Illuminating Byzantium

Henry C. Mercer is a central figure in the development of the American Arts & Crafts movement. He is doubly important as an archaeologist. He excavated native American sites, directed the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology, and began a field of vernacular tool studies. His life highlights the intimate connection between the epistemologies of archaeology and the arts as they were defined by Charles Norton, whose arts curriculum informed Mercer's rebellion.

Mercer is best known for his revival of Pennsylvania German pottery traditions at the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown. What is less known are his researches in Byzantine pottery. In the tradition of John Ruskin (via Norton), Byzantium was instrumental in the conception of the new aesthetics of handicraft, labor ethics, and the attention to process over product.

Last week, F&M art history majors, minors, and faculty visited Mercer’s architectural masterpiece, his concrete house Fonthill (1908-12). One of the many things that struck my attention during this visit is the incorporation of electrical illumination within the architecture. This is particularly evident in the Saloon room. The octagonal concrete piers are hollow. Electrical wiring travels through the cavity and then folds out at the height of the capital. The wiring then drips down the exterior of the column. Fastened to the concrete, the wiring concludes with a bare light bulb that illuminates the room about 7 ft above ground level. My sketch above tries to illustrate the arrangement.

The tiles, which are more Byzantine than Pennsylvania German in effect, are thus illuminated by modernity’s amenities. The simplicity of the electrical wiring that travels through the interior cavity and emerges out of the pier capitals is profound. As the piers are concrete masonry, the bare light bulb rests directly on the pier. It is easy to miss this architectural detail. For me, it exemplifies modernity’s illuminated Byzantium, where the rich aesthetic surfaces of glazed pottery reflects the shimmer of bare incandescent light bulbs. The nakedness of the light and the bareness of the concrete are surreal in their simplicity and their tactile emanations.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Peschke in the Philadelphia Inquirer

The rediscovery of Georg von Peschke has been magical. The Philadelphia Inquirer has called my show "excellent and enterprising." I couldn't be prouder. Now that we've put Peschke back on the map, I hope that other scholars will join in the profound questions that Peschke raises: transnational bohemia. the archaeology of Greek life, Byzantium and the vernacular, the interface of positivism with fantasy, etc. Artemis Leontis (University of Michigan) started the discussion last week in her lecture, "Greek Dress and the Embodied Archaeology of Eva Palmer Sikelianos."

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Acrocorinth 1920s

The Peschke show has forced me to revisit some canonical images of Greek landscapes and I have revisited one of the most important photographic publications on Greece, the Wasmuth volume on Greece, Hans Holdt and Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, Griechenland: Baukunst, Landschaft, Volksleben (Berlin, 1923). This volume constitutes a landmark in the history of visualizing Greece within the German tradition. The subtitle tickled me a bit because it corresponds closely to the thematic divisions that I have given to Peschke's ouevre in the show: Buildings, Landscapes, Folk Life.

Thrilled to find a copy of Griechenland in F&M's library, I sought out photographic analogs for Peschke's placement in the landscape. We know that Peschke used photography in his archaeological and artistic work, and must have been cognizant of the German photographic tradition of a decade earlier. I discovered, for instance, that Acrocorinth (1932) was painted at the same location as Griechenland, pl. 68. In designing the exhibit at F&M, I had placed this photo in proximity to the painting. Holdt's photo and Peschke's paintings, moreover, have proven to be invaluable documents in the on-going archaeological survey of Acrocorinth. I was thrilled that a bunch of archaeologists that were attending Masons at Work: Architecture and Construction in the Premodern World last weekend made it to the show at Bryn Mawr and will be able to use Peschke's paintings to reconstruct missing walls. Stay tuned for more on this topic.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Students Blog

A public blog has been an integral part of how I teach my history of architecture at Lancaster. Rather than submitting material on paper, students post a weekly progress report on their research. I have found this to be successful in two ways. The public nature of the blog means that the local community can take part in the conversation. On numerous occasions, experts from the community have engaged with the students. In one case, we discovered a previously unknown architect and private archival collections. The second reason why a blog works better than a paper is that students are able to share their primary sources and their insights. Knowing that the whole world is watching also raises the bar of accountability.

My seminar this semester is on The Master Builders of Lancaster. All the students have been researching a relatively unknown Lancaster architect C. Emlen Urban. Our class blog is here. For the first time in my teaching career, I have converted a student to blogging. John Hausladen, a senior at F&M, has just begun Artistry and Architecture where he posts his drawings of Victorian houses. I share with you John's drawing of the The Stiegerwalt House (1894-1896) by Urban at the top of this posting

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States