Saturday, June 20, 2009

My Philadelphia: Joyce, Kalfus, Saffron

I revel in the first few pages of Ulysses, tracing Stephen Dedalus's and stately, plump Buck Mulligan's ascents/descents in Martello Tower. The structure belongs to a series of defenses built to withstand a Napoleonic invasion, and it currently houses a Joyce museum. Last weekend, I surveyed a 15th century tower in Boeotia, so towers are on my mind. Mulligan wipes the sacramental shaving razor on Stephen's noserag and sees a snotgreen art color reflected in the snotgreen sea (the Homeric wine-dark). At one moment, Mulligan leaves the parapet and descends the stair; his song disappears in the bowels of the structure. Stephen, alone now, watches the sea, "Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from stairhead seaward where he gazed." The morning's slivers of light make the sea resonate with w's, "wavewhite, wedded words shimmering on the dim tide," and Stephen enters a reverie over his mother's recent deathbed. As we have already learned, Stephen refused to kneel at his mother's deathbed, declaring his rejection of Catholic rite and dishonoring his mother. In the guilt-induced reverie, Stephen sees the objects of his mother's youth, "her secrets: objects in the locked drawer," toys and projected memories--birdcage, pantomime, featherfans, dancecards powdered with musk, amber beads. The juxtaposition of architectural vantage (in-out, up-down Martello Tower), the landscape (the snotgreen sea) and objects (mother's secret toys) make Ulysses a most instructive exercise in archaeology, leaving aside the literary density (Hamlet, Odyssey, Yeats).

As Stephen leans over the parapet and sees "the mailboat clearing the harbourmouth," I hear my own mailwoman at the door. Examining the contents of my mailbox, I find the new issue of DWELL magazine, to which I subscribed last year but now read with disinterest. I practically jumped out of my seat when I saw this issues special feature on Philadelphia, an interview by Ken Kalfus (left). For most of the last six years, I had been living in Clemson, South Carolina, where I taught architectural history. Before that, Philadelphia was home, to which I returned to take care of a sickly mother (but unlike Stephen, I knelt). Inga Saffron's Skyline Online became my remote link to the Philadelphia skyline, my guide through architectural changes and controversies. Incidentally, I learned of Saffron only after seeing a reading of Ulysses at the Rosenbach Bloomsday celebrations a few years ago.

Last academic year, my college adviser gave a lecture at Clemson University and over dinner he noted the lack of Philadelphia literature. I had just started blogging and posted some thoughts. In Philadelphia Literature Question Mark, I projected a Philadelphia Ulysses on Kalfus and Saffron. Returning to DWELL's article "Ken Kalfus's Philadelphia" (July/August 2009, pp. 70-76), I marvel at Kalfus' brillian
t suggestion, to post Ulysses on the PECO Building. The Philadelphia Electric Company Building is a 1970 Miesian skyscraper with a twist, a scrolling text at its top floors. For 35-some-years, the PECO Building was the only skyscraper towering over the Schuylkill River. It's an attractive black box with quotations of the celebrated PSFS Building (with its stationary text). I love its textual directives that change every night. It manifests a confidence in architectural minimalism and, no less, in the irrefutable power of words. The skyscraper announced facts. In 2005, the PECO Building lost its directive prominence when Cesar Pelli's Cira Centre rose on the other side of the River (a lovely building, the only Pelli project I admire). Unlike its modernist neighbor, this postmodernist signboard lacks prescriptive content. Every night it changes its skin by projecting different light compositions. The message is graphically vague and targeted, perhaps, to Richard Florida's creative class.

Kalfus' Ulyssean appreciation of Philadelphia runs through the DWELL interview; it includes an iconoclastic disregard for the PSFS landmark, a transient appreciation of 30th Street Station (Louis Kahn encouraged all his clients to come to Philadelphia only by train), and also a rare nod to Van Pelt Library (left). Very few people would admit this in public, but Van Pelt is a magical place. For me, it's the place where I discovered Ulysses. As Kalfus points out, it is open stacks and open to the public. Penn's library is one of the largest in the United States (ranking fourth, if I remember correctly). Known as "the book barn," Van Pelt has been criticized as generically modern. Designed in 1962 by the same firm of the PECO Building (Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larson), it provides an expansive open interior, a rational city of books. One of my favorite activities used to be losing myself, like a flaneur, in its pastel-colored metal shelves and discovering unexpected pieces of knowledge. I have friends who cultivated entire love affairs in the building. Back in the 1980s, when Van Pelt had a smoking section, the greatest cultural exchange between smoking Eurotrash (like myself) and American sophisticates (or wannabe's on both accounts) took place. As much as the university tries to keep up with Barnes & Noble, Marks' cafe will never replicate the ad hoc environment of the old smoking section.

I left Philadelphia in 2003, when I joined Clemson's faculty. Sporadic maternal visits, funerals, weddings and baptisms supplemented with the imaginative reflections of Kalfus/Saffron have turned my Dublin into a place more thought-provoking than when I had left it. The PECO Building could be Martello Tower. The very moment I received DWELL in the mail, Saffron commented on my blog posting. How more magical could blogging be? In September, I'll be returning to the Philadelphia area, starting a new academic position at Franklin and Marshall. The prodigal son is thrilled to return physically and intellectually. Joyce, Kalfus and Saffron have added to the city in innumerable ways. I cannot wait to discover Lancaster, rediscover Philadelphia and explore intersections between architecture, archaeology, literature and journalism. I have great hopes in Franklin and Marshall's Philadelphia Alumni Writers House, which I thoroughly enjoyed during my interview.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States