Friday, July 31, 2009

American Home Burials

If you think about it, funerary art and architecture make up a large chunk of our studies of ancient and medieval material culture. Whether churches, mausolea, tombstones, or statues, our surviving specimen of funerary treasures had a prominent public presence. Death and commemoration was dealt as a public endeavor and involved redemption, communal memory and visible inter-generational responsibility. But most of funerary practices took part in the private rather than the public realm. Thinking publicly about death in antiquity conforms to our own customs, which are higly sanitized and subcontracted to professional strangers. Incidentally, the professional strangers call their industry funeral "homes." A newspaper report on the rise of private burials in the United Sates offers a conceptual entryway into the private realms of the past. The medieval home was certainly a multi-functional realm lacking the modern divisions between private and public realms.

The average American funeral costs $6,000. Given the economic downturn of many households, some families are taking burial practices in their own hands bringing costs down to $300 but, more importnatly, enganging intimately with the life cycle. Katie Zamie of the New York Times reports on this phenomenon, in "Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative," (July 20, 2009). A few years earlier, Elisabeth Westrate's documentary "A Family Undertaking" explored this phenomenon on PBS (Point of View, Aug. 3, 2004). The funeral industry is naturally lobbying heavily against home burials; as a result, Oregon just passed a bill requiring professional certification. Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and New York already have laws that require funeral directors to handle the dead. But in all other states, the family can take over the preparation of the body and its burial. Consider, for example, what the state of Vermont says about the issue here. Paying close attention to home burials today might bring us closer to the actual practices of the past.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Merritt Parkway

As I prepare to leave Connecticut and return to Pennsylvania, I think of some of my favorite things in the state. One of them is the Merritt Parkway, a highway built in the Depression that links New York City with the prosperous Connecticut suburbs. The U.S. is full of roads, but only few manage to capture the artistic imagination. Route 1 (0ne of the oldest roads linking Florida to Maine) and Route 66 (linking Illinois to California) are perhaps the most celebrated of early highways. Other roads take poetic importance at a regional scale. The Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) that runs through Philadelphia, for example, inspired the song "Expressway to your Heart" (1967), an early hit for the Philadelphia Sound.

The Merritt, the Taconic, the Saw Mill, the Hutchinson, and the Palisades belong to a family of roads built around the 1930s and best known to New Yorker commuters. They are the earliest highways dealing with mass transport and they represent the zenith of American highway design, the generation preceding Eisenhower's interstate system (1950s). Architecturally, the Merritt is most interesting because of its bridges. Beginning in 1935, each bridge was individually designed by George Dunkelberger, an under-appreciated architect. Dunkelberger was born in Camden, N.J. and studied at Drexel University in Philadelphia. After serving in the Navy during World War I, he began a practice in Hartford, Conn., where he built mostly residential architecture. The company collapsed during the Great Depression, and Dunkelberger was forced to take a job with the Connecticut Highway Department as a draftsman in the cartography division in 1933. Two years later he was senior draftsman in the bridge division and took over the design of the Merritt. Collectively, Dunkelberger's 68 bridges are an encyclopedia of styles, most of the Art Deco and neoclassical, while a few were directly modelled on well-known architectural works, like Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, H. H. Richardson's Ames Lodge, or McKim, Mead and White's Memorial Bridge. As far as I know, Dunkelberger's work is the first example of stage-setting experiences from the vantage of the moving car at 35-40 mph. Some of the intended drama may be lost to us today as cars have dangerously sped up. The financial limitations of the Depression forced the engineers to shorten the ramps and tighten the parkway's course. At an increased 50-55 mph speed limit today, the road has become a thrilling race course for the aggressive New York commuters with SUVs and BMWs pushing 75-80 mph. But perhaps the Merritt was never idyllic. In Sophie's Choice, the novel I've been reading this summer (see here and here), William Styron has Nathan drive like a madman (80 mph) on this "arboreal" highway and be stopped by the police: "WELCOME TO CONNECTICUT/DRIVE SAFELY" (pp. 382-389).

Although not evident from behind the wheel, the Merritt's bridges are made of steel covered by concrete. Stone dressing was the preferred choice, but the Depression required cheaper solutions. All the Hutchinson Parkway bridges, on the other hand, are clad in stone, but the Hutch was conceived before the Depression and its developer, Robert Moses, was not in a financial pinch. The reinforced concrete of the Merritt was poured into plaster molds at a workshop in Long Island and brought to the site, where it was fastened to the metal structure. Dunkelberger devised brilliant ways to form the material, to play with the aggregate's texture and to avoid the discoloration caused by water. These days, it is almost impossible to slow down and pause on any individual bridge. They brilliantly pass above and highlight the landscape.

In the 1980s, architects like James Sterling theorized on the effects of the car in the scenography of architecture, leading to postmodernism (and lots of video art centered around Los Angeles). As far as I know, none of the 1980s theorists appreciated the work of Dunkelberger as the forefather of such experiments. The 1920s architectural avant-garde spoke of the car as a polemical vehicle; figures like Le Corbusier designed entire utopias around the highway (Obus A Project in Algiers, etc.) But those were mostly theoretical projects. Dunkelberger, an unassuming draftsman in Connecticut's Highway Department, approached the very same modern problem of speed in a concrete way. His eclecticism may have been anathema to the modernist avant-garde, but should appear as a prophet to the postmodernist drama. Sadly, he is forgotten. I have even heard people claiming that each bridge was designed by a different architect. Bruce Radde's The Merritt Parkway (New Haven, 1993) offers the authoritative coverage of the project. Radde's book has provided all the information in this posting. A further study, however, seems necessary with detailed analysis of all 68 bridges.

If you have never traveled on the Merritt, you can see visit its official website here. There is even a museum dedicated to its history here. The map above shows the parkway as proposed and was published in the Bridgeport Post (May 20, 1935).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

1930s Stucco Swirl

What you see here is not a piece of modern art but, rather, the exterior wall treatment of the house I discussed in 1930s Base Molding. The photo shows what was labeled "plaster" in the section drawing. As already mentioned, Tudor Revival houses did not simply recycle a medieval style but incorporated modern elements. The abstract swirls in stucco are one such element. The jazzy curves are sculptural and vibrant. Ultimately, they are the impromptu creations of an ordinary craftsman, the plasterer who finished both interior and exterior house walls. The sketch below imagines the craftsman's work .
The dimension, direction and physical qualities of the design were determined by the plasterer's body movement as he swirled his trowel (known as a "float") . In the 19th century, plaster decoration involved prescribed patterns and doctrinaire molds. The 1930s swirls, in contrast, required improvisation. The facade itself became a graphic record of the plasterer's dance across a vertical surface. Its qualities are modern in both style and execution because they are quite literally the embodiment of the craftsman's movement.
Formally speaking, such circular shapes were embraced by the avant-garde for their free-wheeling associations. Wassily Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay (above), Arshile Gorky and others had ushered spontaneous swirls into the fundamental palette of modernist art. The post-Cubist abstraction, moreover, trickled down to the visual mainstream through the ornamental treatment of Art Deco. I offer an example below from a 1930s wooden bar cabinet (belonging to my friend Kat in Los Angeles--see Kat's blog here).

The swirling stucco in Tudor Revival houses is the product of an interesting synthesis between building crafts, historicism and the popularization of high-design visual elements. The base molding discussed in the earlier postings is, in some ways, the frame that supports a stucco canvas.

Monday, July 27, 2009

1930s Base Molding: Part 2

In the previous DETAILS, I discussed the form of a 1930s molding and its extinction from the pool of available profiles. Here, I will discuss the molding's function because it illustrates a beautiful solution to a pragmatic challenge. Every building must deal with two critical issues, 1) how to sit on the ground, and 2) how to keep water out. A building's exterior cladding solves the second issue but also addresses the first issue. During the late 19th/early 20th centuries, concrete replaced stone as the foundation material for buildings in the U.S. The house under consideration sits on a concrete base. As mentioned yesterday, one of the favorite cladding surfaces for the Tudor Revival was stucco/plaster. Stucco is a great material because it requires no maintenance, unlike wood cladding (typical for New England) that needs to be repainted every 10 years. Thanks to its preparatory semi-liquid state, stucco also takes on some decorative patterns, typically swirls created on the spot by the plasterer. The stucco is physically attached to the structure through a metal mesh, which is then nailed to the wall's wooden studs. Stucco is slightly porous but ultimately prohibits moisture from penetrating into its thickness (usually 3/4").

When a wooden structure sits directly on a concrete base, a system has to be devised to keep the water from seeping into the horizontal juncture. With wooden cladding, the lowest board overlaps the concrete base. With plaster cladding, however, the plaster cannot be attached onto the concrete. Our 1930s base molding solves the problem. Note in the drawing above that the concrete base was poured with a slight notch, a kind of shelf into which a smaller wooden element is fitted. Above the shelf, sits the large structural base beam. The metal mesh, onto which the stucco is attached, extends 1 1/2" beyond and covers the wood sitting in the concrete shelf. Our nice molding is then nailed into the wood. Looking at the drawing, we understand why our molding is so wide. It serves as a base and a bottom seal for the stucco. Its exaggerated curve, moreover, takes the water away from the juncture and guides it gracefully over the concrete.

Our dramatic fascia molding solves a very specific problem. It is painted the same color as the plaster and gives the illusion of a seamless plastic extension of the wall. At the same time, it provides the facade with two simple lines that define a horizontal base datum. Seen on its own, it's a beautiful shape distilling some stylistic principles of the 1930s. It can stand alone to represent the decade's aesthetics, but it also speaks of a complicated resolution between ground (earth), industry (concrete), structure (wood), beauty (plaster) and sky (rain). That's not bad for a miniature piece of great intelligence.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

1930s Base Molding: Part 1

Today I start DETAILS, a new category of postings with two primary objectives, to record physical features of the architectural environment, and to discuss those details in some historical context. DETAILS will be different from other postings in that it will actually provide new data, as it were, from the street. I will try to complement the discussion with sketches or photographs. The drawings will be completely analog, quickly drawn by pen or pencil.

I start with the topic of a simple molding profile. Everyone involved with the study and maintenance of old houses confronts a disparity between original elements and available material. The former conform to the construction industry's standardization of a bygone age, the latter conform to the marketplace of Home Depot, Lowe's, and other more specialized vendors. My problem last week was to figure out how to replace parts of a base molding surrounding the exterior of a 1932 Tudor revival house.

Tudor houses are best known for their iconic elements inspired by medieval architectural forms, generally from the Tudor period in England (1485-1603): pitched roofs, half-timbering, picturesque volumes, dominant chimneys, rustic brickwork or plaster, arched openings. The style became especially popular in American suburban homes from the 1890s-1930s. Beyond their romantic historicism, Tudor houses often introduce subtle elements of modernism, such as the open plan and streamlined details.

Consider the left base molding below:
The profile is voluminous, the curves are sweeping, and there is exaggerated contrast between fat and thin components. The heavy concave protrusion is reminiscent of the torus cornice that emerged in medieval fortifications after the introduction of artillery (fortress walls were lowered and the masonry was thickened to sustain impact). In the Tudor revival house here, the torus molding transitions the plaster wall into the concrete base (more about this later).

The Tudor style had a slight revival in the 1950s, but it has eclipsed from the library of popular American styles. Other styles, like Colonial Revival, has endured. A glimpse through the molding offerings of today show a greater variety of ornate 18th/19th century options than anything from the 20th century. The molding on the right is the closest thing in size and shape to the Tudor profile. It's called "Colonial Colonial Accent" and can be found in most Lowe's (whose molding selection is much better than Home Depot's). One easily sees how the colonial molding is more ornate. Whereas the 1932 molding is one sweeping line, the colonial molding has three curve changes accentuated by junctures. The colonial molding has strong lines that create strong shadow lines. It's busy and overly-articulated.

So the question is not simply that history has stopped being relevant, but rather that certain phases of architectural history have been phased out. The colonial molding, I believe, has survived because it is ultra-ornamental and hence significantly different from modern details. Beyond its all-American associations, it has a stylistic premium. The more ornate something is, the more undeniably pre-modern, old, valuable, full of heritage and beauty.

Construction standards for interior and exterior moldings are driven by demand for new buildings. The molding section of any big lumber yard offers an interesting slice through America's contemporary aesthetics, which reflect the privileging of certain periods over others. I would love to see an architectural history PhD thesis that simply analyzes the molding stock of Lowe's and connects the present to the various pasts. Is it simply taste that drives the survival of the ornate past, or are there additional considerations?

At the end of the day, the two moldings shown above are barely distinguishable (especially since they're placed low enough on the house exterior). What I find interesting is that 21st-century choices have forces a Tudor house to get a new retrogressive make-over. Interestingly enough, however, the 1932 Tudor house is surrounded by 1930s Colonial. Most colonial-looking buildings in New England, belong to the Colonial Revival of the 1920s. Looking at a 1930s residential development in the East Coast, we see a potpourri of contemporary revival styles: Tudor, Colonial, Italianate, Neoclassicall, Gothic. The Tudor and the Colonial moldings were once contemporary.

I should finally add a few comments on the personal search for the profile. My search for this molding profile was not limited to the big department stores (Lowe's, Home Depot, Ace) but has taken me to some wonderful independently owned lumber yards, such as Shagbark in East Haddam, Conn. and Tague in Philadelphia, Penn. The latter has also published a molding catalog also available on-line. In my persistent lumber yard searches, I found a base cap form similar to my 1930s molding, but much smaller. Professionally milling the molding fresh was always an option but prohibitively expensive. Nevertheless, it is good to know that the craftsmanhship is still avaialbe. Who knows for how much longer? I considered milling the piece myself with a router. That idea did not go very far because I could not find a router bit large enough to create the gracious concave curve.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bulgur vs Rice

On June 25, I blogged on the publication of Vefa Alexiadou's cookbook, see Food: Avoiding the Acropolis Museum. Although I wish she had received a larger spread, I was excited to see Vefa making it into the New York Times food section, see Elaine Louie, "The Temporary Vegetarian" (June 22, 2009, p. D2). It was interesting to learn from Vefa how rice overtook bulgur wheat in 1950s Greece. Today, pilaf is a staple in Greek cooking. Although rice arrived in Greece during the Hellenistic period, it was regarded a luxury good used mainly for medicinal purposes. The Arabs brought its cultivation more widely in the Mediterranean after the 7th century. Rice production spread from Egypt to Spain and Italy. Teaching at Clemson University's Historic Preservation program at Charleston, I learned a lot about rice cultivation in North America and the esteemed Carolina Gold variety. Interestingly enough, Thomas Jefferson smuggled rice seeds from Italy's Piedmont (introduced here in the 15th c.) and genetically improved the Carolina variety, see Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen (Columbia, 1992). For the global history of rice, see Oxford Companion to Food (Alan Davidson, ed., 1999), pp. 662-665.

Going back to Greece, one of my earliest culinary memories is a large conical pile of pilaf on my father's plate, when he would return from work. Like the frequent consumption of meat, rice entered Greek cuisine as a product of economic prosperity. Vefa teaches us that rice was too expensive for ordinary consumption and bulgur was the more common alternative.
I had not idea that stuffed tomatoes, for example, were once stuffed with bulgur. When rice became cheap, it replaced bulgur precisely because of its prestige associations. Growing up in the 1970s, bulgur had almost disappeared from the lunch table. Bulgur and corn meal (bompota) were associated with the impoverished past and especially with the famine of war.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Magnetic Age

David Thomas, the singer of the legendary Cleveland punk band Pere Ubu has written one of the finest essays on rock music. Thomas takes two ballads, "The Wreck of Old 97" and "Dead Man's Curve," and constructs a narrative explaining the fundamentals of American music. It all has to do with the Magnetic Age that started in 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the microphone and culminated with Elvis Presley ("the Homer of the Inarticulate Age"). "The Wreck of Old 97" is a ballad inspired by the 1903 train wreck in Virginia (photo above). The earliest version of the song was recorded in 1924 and it has since been sang by everyone, including Woody Guthrie, Johny Cash and Hank Williams. "Dead Man's Curve" is a ballad written in 1964 by the rock duo Jan and Dean, who preceded the Beach Boys in creating surf music. The ballad describes another wreck, half a century later, taking place with a car. The technical heroism of the two songs corresponds to the technical craft (magnetic electronics) of recorded music, "a dialogue inside the blurred zone between soundscape and landscape." Thomas asserts that the Magnetic Age is another way of saying the American Age and it unites seemingly unrelated individuals like Edison and Elvis or Eisenhower and Kerouac.

Thomas is not simply retelling a generic version of America's love for speed, cars and trains but constructs a paradigm through which to interpret rock music. In the spirit of art critic Clement Greenberg, Thomas brings attention
to the materiality of the medium. Dan Graham (see Rock My Religion posting) placed punk's origins in the religious experiments of Protestant America. Thomas places punk's origins of the magnetic medium--the microphone, the vinyl record, the hi-fi system, the speakers, and the space inside our ears. I've been thinking a lot about the texture of dissonance and distortion that characterizes the project of punk archaeology. I have been listening to a lot of Sonic Youth lately--especially their brilliant new album, Eternal-- and I've been reading David Brownes' Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (2008). I've also just received a library copy of another interesting new book, David Sheppard's On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (2009). Eno is truly the glue between the Magnetic Age and punk. In 1977, Eno collaborated with David Bowie in the album Heroes, the final record of the Berlin trilogy. It includes the song "Sons of the Silent Age." I wonder if the Magnetic Age and the Silent Age are not but synonyms of the same mechanical predicament.

David Thomas' essay is called "Destiny in My Right Hand," and it appeared in The Rose & the Br
iar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, ed. Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (2005), pp. 161-174. The book contains 23 essays interpreting some of the most fundamental American ballads. The authors range from R. Crumb to Luc Sante and Sarah Vowell. While reading this book, it's mandatory to listen to a parallel CD with the songs under discussion. I've been reading The Rose & the Briar on-and-off since 2005 and just hit David Thomas's essay.

Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu are the inheritors of the Magnetic Age. David Thomas does not talk about punk in his essay, although he credits "Dead Man's Curve" with a dose of "punk snottiness." On the dissonant culmination of the Magnetic Age, see my earlier posting on Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. I have just listened to Thurston Moore's solo project Trees Outside the Academy (2007). The CD inner sleeve contains many pictures from Moore's youth. Among them, you see a teenage Moore strapped with headphones listening to Metal Machine Music (left). Now, in the 21st century, we should have witnessed the full demise of the Magnetic Age by the Digital Age. Nevertheless, old rockers like Sonic Youth, and even younger ones like Jack White (note his new band, Dead Weathers) remain purists in the Greenbergean sense. Craftsmanship of the Magnetic Age (i.e. the 8-track recorder) seems to have endured in the Digital Age, which might after all be a mere Post-Magnetic Age that claims an ironic self-referential stance to its predecessor.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Civilian Aviation Chaplains

A comment on my Church Logos posting (April 15, 2009) has taught me that the logo used in Charlotte's airport chapel (the kneeling figure) is actually the symbol of the International Association of Aviation Chaplains (IACAC). The first airport chapel opened at Boston's Logan airport in 1951. The IACAC convened in 1967 in Brussels as an official organization overseeing chapels throughout the world. IACAC's website includes a complete list.

The chapels in the United States number to 43: Albuquerque, Atlanta/Hartsfield, Boston/Logan, Brownwood Texas, Charlotte/Douglas, Chicago/Midway, Chicago/O'Hare, Chicago Waukegan, Cincinnati/North Kentucky, Cleveland/Hopkins, Corpus Christi, Dallas-Fort Worth, Dallas Love Field, Denver, Detroit Metropolitan, Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood, Houston/Intercontinental, Houston/Hobby, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Miami, Minneapolis/St Paul, Newark, New Orleans, New York/John F Kennedy, New York/LaGuardia, Orlando, Pasadena/Baltimore Washington, Phoenix/Sky Harbor, Pittsburgh, Raleigh Durham, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Francisco, San Jose, Sarasota, Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Seattle/Seatac, St Louis, Syracuse NY, Tampa, Washington DC-Dulles, Washington DC National. I am not sure if all chapels are easily accessible. I've searched in vain for a chapel in Albuquerque's airport, although it's listed.

As the IACAC logo indicates, the chaplaincy is interdenominational. An study of all the airport chapels should give interesting evidence of the accutrements of various religions expressed in each space. Most of the airport chapels I have visited have strong Christian iconographies, but there is commonly a prayer mat and a compass to direct towards Mecca for Muslim services.

See earlier Airport Chapel postings here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rock My Religion

One of Punk Archaeology seminal documents is "Rock My Religion," the 1984 video by Dan Graham. Although better known as a conceptual artist, Graham was ingrained in New York's punk and post-punk music scene. "Rock My Religion" makes a historical argument, attributing the origins of punk to the radical religious experiences of early Puritans like the shaking of the Shakers. Many have followed Graham's line of thinking. Generally speaking, punk as a movement has rejected the hippie ideal of communal idealism. Bypassing the 60s, however, some punks have aligned themselves with older vernacular forms like folk music. The LA punk legends X, for example, also had a parallel folk project, the Knitters. Billy Bragg is another example. Cowpunk, country punk, or folk punk are recent labels for an older tradition.

"Rock My Religion" is screened at.the retrospective exhibition Dan Graham: Beyond, originating at MoCA in Los Angeles and currently at the Whitney Museum in New York (June 25-October 11, 2009). The show will travel to Minneapolis, at the Walker Art Center (October 31, 2009-January 31, 2010). Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and the Feelies (recently reunited) performed special tributes during the exhibition (see video here). If you cannot make it to New York or Minneapolis, "Rock My Religion" can be previewed here. For the exhibit's catalog, see Bennett Simpson and Chrissie Isles eds. Dan Graham: Beyond (MIT, 2009). Graham's essays have been published in Rock My Religion: Writings and Project 1965-1990 (MIT 1994). One of my favorite Graham projects, "Homes for America" for Arts Magazine (1966-67) is a provocative series of photographs documenting the vernacular landscape of New Jersey. Suburban American architecture and punk rock provide inspiration for Graham's work that has never been successfully branded under a particular art movemnt. Graham is also known for a series of glass and mirror pavilions that link him more directly with the work of Robert Smithson and minimalism.

For reviews of the Graham exhbition at the Whitney, see Roberta Smith, "Bouncing Around a Visual Echo Chamber," NYT (July 3, 2009), pp. C19, 21, and Randy Kennedy, "A Round Peg," NYT (June 28, 2009) pp. AR 1, 24. Kennedy begins with a question that best typifies the difficulty of categorizing Graham: "Here's a good art-world quiz question, one that could stump many an astute insider: What do Sol LeWitt, Sonic Youth, Dean Martin, Mel Brooks, Mel Haggard, Hudson River School painting and midcentury New Jersey tract housing have in common? The answer, Dan Graham."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Athens, Brooklyn, Sophie's Choice

"The storm had washed Flatbush sparkling clean. Lightning had stuck somewhere nearby; there was a smell in the street of ozone, eclipsing even the fragrance of sauerkraut and bagels. My eyelids felt gritty. I blinked painfully in the blinding glare; after Sophie's dark memories and the Maple Court's crepuscular murk, the bourgeois blocks rimming Prospect Park seemed dazzling, ethereal, almost Mediterranean, like a flat leafy Athens." (Sophie's Choice, Modern Library edition, p. 351)

William Styron gets as close as anyone I know to aligning Greece with the American South in his classic work Sophie's Choice (1976). One of Styron's most interesting juxtapositions involves the extermination of Greece's Jews in the Holocaust and the rising conscience of the novel's hero. Generally, the novel explores a young southern writer's relationship with Sophie, a Polish concentration camp survivor. The two meet in Brooklyn in 1947. The novel develops through Sophie's confessions of her internment at Auschwitz, where, among other things, she witnessed the execution of Greek Jews.

As Slingo falls in love with Sophie, he considers the lack of parallels between their war experiences. Slingo gorged himself with bananas in order to satisfy the weight requirement for joining the Marine Corps in Raleigh, on the very day that Sophie entered the concentration camp, April Fool's Day, 1943 (p. 248). Working in the house of "her captor," Auschwitz director Rudolf Franz Hoss, Sophie witnessed 2,100 Jews from Athens and the Greek islands being gassed and creamted in October, 1943. Contemplating the "nexus of time," Stingo's realizes that his thoughts centered on a Duke-Tennessee football game, while the Greek Jews were exterminated (p. 252). The German officials were puzzled by the despicable physical state of the Jews arriving from Athens, with about 10% capable of work, rather than the usual 25-30% (p. 254).

In earlier postings (Brooklyn and Jewish Byzantium, Byzantium NOW) I considered the literary tradition of a "Byzantine" New York. In Sophie's Choice, Styron develops another etherial layer for Brooklyn, accumulated through the tragedy of Athens' exterminated Jews. The quote at the beginning makes the multivalency of geography clear. Auschwitz 1943 and Brooklyn 1947 come together through the experiences, memories, confessions and denials of the novel's characters.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Philadelphia Fragments in Baltimore

We finally got around to visiting Second Chance, one of the largest and most interesting architectural salvage stores located in Baltimore. I've been wanting to visit this non-profit organization after reading an interview by founder Mark Foster in 2005. The Philadelphia Civic Center had just been torn down to make room for UPenn's expanding medical campus. Built in 1931, the Convention Hall was a beautiful structure with Art Deco details. Among other things, it had a very Roman frieze running along its exterior. The structure had been abandoned for years with occasional graduation ceremonies taking place in its deteriorating halls. Back in the 1990s, it also served for concerts, and I vaguely remember a controversial shooting that took place after a rap event. This might have been the building's death blow. With the construction of a new Convention Center on 12th Street, the Civic Center on 34th Street became even less marketable for reuse. Preservationists tried to save the building without success.

A little before its demolition (see photos
here), Second Chance came in and stripped all the historical detailing. Much of it has already been sold, but some is still in view at Second Chance's warehouse, like the ticket booth (photo above). With all the development happening in Philadelphia since the financial crash, I'm surprised that nobody has bought this spectacular installation and reused it in one of the many new lobbies. For those that can't visit Baltimore, fragments from the Civic Center can be seen here. Second Chance also has parts of The Wire stage set, like the interior of the mayor's office.

This is how Second Chance works. It charges 25% more than other demolition companies to tear down a structure and save its salvageable pieces, which it then sells in its four warehouses.
In return, property owners get up to $250,000 in tax write-offs in addition to the moral joys of saving history. Most of the material in Second Chance is, actually, donated. The store also trains people in a variety of skills and certifies them with the ability to demolish historical structures without damaging the historical fabric. In short, Second Chance is more than just an inert operation. It recycles both history and physical resources in the depressed urban environment of Baltimore. The salesmen told us that Second Chance is actually moving (once again) from its current location. With all the discussion of sustainability, this is a noteworthy model.

Seeing the fragments of countless buildings was a thrilling experience and exercise in historical interpretation. It makes one think of earlier examples of architectural recycling in antiquity, the middle ages, and even the early modern period. Architectural salvage stores also have great potential for teaching history, archaeology and design. Unlike antique stores, they display utilitarian fragments that require imaginative skills as well as the understanding of how buildings are constructed. Next semester, I hope to include salvage visits in my architectural history class. Seeing a standing building, or even a museum interior installation is one thing, but seeing the guts of the building laid out on the floor is different. Although I cannot officially endorse such practices, dumpster diving and excursions to the city dump are highly educational endeavors. After all, the University of Arizona's archaeological program (the Tucson Garbage Project) is built on this very engagement with our own processes. See, William Rathje, Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (1992).

Here are the architectural salvage stores I have visited so far. They embody different business models, clienteles, and artifacts. I hope to visit many more.

Second Chance, 1645 Warner St., Baltimore, MD 21230
ReStore, 3016 E. Thompson St., Philadelphia, PA 19134
Irreplacable Artifacts, 428 Main St., Middletown, CT 06457
Underground Salvage, 56 E. Main St, Brevard, NC 28712
Building Character, 342 N. Queen St., Lancaster, PA 17603

Monday, July 13, 2009

Where to Be Buried: The Immigrant's Choice

During my last visit to Fernwood Cemetery in Philadelphia, I noticed a new memorial in the Greek-American section. My visits here are personal (upkeep of family grave) but also academic (analyzing diaspora material culture). See posting, Buried in Bottles (June 7, 2008). New monuments come with a dose of sadness as, in many cases, I know the deceased individuals, and I learn of their death at the cemetery. One recent burial that I noticed during my visit was Fotios Karalis, who died five months ago at the age of 86. The tomb's meticulous upkeep, the constant burning of the candle and the fresh flowers reflect the family's commitment to the upkeep of memory. The Karalis monument contains typical features found in Greek tombs, even when the options are constrained by the regulations of a historical Protestant cemetery. One source of tension seen frequently in Greek-American tombs is the Greek desire to fence off the human body to avoid stepping (a sign of desecration), which contradicts the idyllic park aesthetics that require the uniform coverage of grass. Any kind of enclosure is a nuisance to the cemetery authorities who must regularly mow the uniform lawn. The fence seen in the Karalis monument is a common compromise between cultural traditions, limiting enclosure to the concrete base of the future tombstone. The fence communicates the desire to protect the body without actually demarcating the body and violating cemetery rules.

Pictures on tombs tend to be portraits of the deceased. The Karalis monument is extraordinary in its visual images, namely two laminated photographs nailed on the cross. Both images show the deceased in his village in Greece. The lower photo (left) is framed by a vertical wooden post belonging to a porch in the village. The person who took the photo stands under the porch, shooting Karalis in the distance. Once nailed on the cross, the wooden post captured in the photograph runs parallel to the wooden post. The real wood (of the cross) and the wood from Greece (holding up the house) reverberate with each other. The pins that hold the image of Karalis on the cross also reverberate with the image of Christ on the cross represented in an icon. The photograph surface is plastic. They have been laminated to protect the image from the rain. A close up of the laminated surface shows specks of grass, thrown up on the image from the mechanical mowers cutting the cemetery's lawn. Grass from the ground has invaded the vertical image giving it, at the same, time a three dimensional texture and dimension of reality. Such art-historical readings were not certainly not intentional. The haphazard juxtapositions between real and unreal, present and past, here (Philadelphia) and there (Greece) animate the monument as a work of cultural production.

The inclusion of photos from the deceased individual's homeland is on its own interesting. The Greek American immigration narrative expressed in songs and attitudes inlcudes a yearning to be buried in Greece. Such a return of the body brings closure to the immigrant journey. Being buried away from the extended family also translates to a fear of not being remembered ritually. Burial in the "xenitia" (foreign land) means that the tomb will be forgotten among strangers. The extended family will not be able to perform the continuous rituals of commemoration, the trisagions, the continuous lighting of the candle and the visual upkeep. Most Greek immigrants of Karalis' generation faced a powerful dilemma. If they were buried in the U.S., their tomb could be visited by their immediate loved ones (spouses, children) but not by the extended kin. With geographical mobility in the U.S., the next generation might not even be anywhere close to the city that the deceased was buried. Burial back in the village of birth in Greece, nevertheless, guarantees a locus of visitation, a point of origin. After all, you would be buried next to your parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins. The photographs in the Karalis tomb resolve the dilemma in an interesting way. Although physically buried in the U.S., the photos on his tomb have transported him back to his village. The photos, in other words, facilitated that final journey home. Karalis is at both places.

My family is a good example of the geographical tensions of immigration. Like many immigrants, my father wished to be buried in Greece. Greek-American funeral homes, interestingly enough, do this frequently and have mastered all the bureaucratic steps along the way. It's not an easy matter to transport a corpse across international boundaries. For instance, the corpse has to be embalmed, a practice not common in Greece, and placed in a special metal coffin that is sealed and airtight. The special transport coffins are larger than the typical coffin used in Greece and, therefore, cannot fit in the pre-existing tombs. Commonly in Greece, the bones of the ancestors are interred and the new deceased is buried in the same location. When my father's coffin arrived, we had to excavate a new burial large enough to accomodate the high tech coffin. Having been embalmed, moreover, means that my father's body will probably never be interred because the body will take decades to decompose. But these are gorey details. The important conflict is that he is buried with his relatives (most importantly with his parents) but his immediate family can only visit him whenever they go to Greece, about once every two years.

My mother, on the other, hand was so patriotic towards her adopted country that she wanted to be buried in Philadelphia. Even though neither my sister or I live in Philadelphia, we still manage to visit her grave about once a month and perform the regular upkeep. My mother is the first member of our family to be buried in the U.S., so she has no family kin next to her. She's buried in the Greek-American section, but she is surrounded by strangers. My mother's family is from Athens and everyone has been buried in a family mausoleum. By choosing to be buried in the U.S., my mother is the first family member of many generations to be missing from the mausoleum in Athens.

This geographical choice of burial is not only complex but difficult to communicate. Consider the difference between my father and mother. Since we were little children, my father would take us to his village cemetery and involve us in the rituals of visiting the ancestors. After each annual visit, he would remind us that one day his bones would rest next to his parents, suggesting indirectly that one day, it will be us (my sister and I) visiting him. So when he died unexpectedly from a heart attack, there was no question about what his wishes regarding country of burial. My mother, on the other hand, had never expressed any choice to either her children or her siblings. When it was obvious that her cancer was terminal, we were placed in the rather sad position of having to ask her directly. Her choice to be buried in Philadelphia upset the rest of the family back in Greece. Not only had the immigration deprived them of their family member, but they couldn't even express their final farewell.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Architecture and the Civil Rights Movement

I've often wondered why architecture has played such a minor role in the Civil Rights movement. Traditionally, architecture has been a vehicle of hegemony, owned and controlled by dominant norms and organizations. Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (2008) takes us away from the South, where Civil Rights stories are often told, and examines the lesser known eruptions of resistance north of Jim Crow. Surgrue teaches American history at UPenn. His earlier Origins of the Urban Crisis (2005) focuses on Detroit's urban history and his co-edited New Suburban History (2006) introduces the complexities of American suburbanization.

Sweet Land of Liberty is a humongous encyclopedic work (543 pages of text) dealing with every aspect of the Civil Rights movement from Martin Luther King's student days at Chester, PA (when he was refused food at a dinner in Maple Shade, NJ), to the welfare rights activism of Roxanne Jones. The book was of great interest to me in discussing the spaces and architectural settings of resistance. Anyone interested in architecture's contribution to resistance movements has lots to learn. Sugre explores the spaces of restaurants (130-142), movie theaters (138-142), jazz clubs (264), public beaches (154-159), schools (163-199), and most importantly houses (200-250).

Chapter 7, "No Right More Elemental" deals with the central battle ground over housing. America's suburbanization in the model of Levittown (earliest one completed in 1958) created mechanisms to exclude African Americans from the suburbs, whether through private covenants or federal housing policies. This story is well known; in my history of housing class, I teach it through Gwendolyn Wright's Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America (1981). What we learn from Sugrue is the organized resistance against Levittowns. Beginning in 1953, for instance, an American Friends Service Committee was formed and held secret meetings to crack Levittown's exclusionism. The ogranization had Quaker roots and included African-American and Jewish members. Sugrue also tells the story of William and Daisy Myers, the first black family to move into Levittown (220-228). Even more fascinating is Conccord Park, an interracial suburb developed by Morris Milgram in the white suburbs of Philadelphia (230-237). See Milgram obituary (NYT June 26, 2007). Milgram also developed Greenbelt Knoll, in Northeast Philadelphia, an experimental community of 19 houses designed by Robert Bishop and Margaret Duncan. Sugrue does not discuss the particulars of the architecture, but Harris Steinberg (dir. of Penn Praxis) and others have noted the involvement of Louis Kahn in the designs.

In 1953, African Americans from North Philadelphia started to migrate to the white affluent neighborhood of Mount Airy, where they met intense resistance from block-busting and real-estate agents. The historic West Mount Airy Neighbors association formed in 1959 to organize the battle that concluded with one of the most segregated neighborhoods in America. Thomas Sugrue is not just a teacher and scholar but a committed activist. In 1996, he took over the directorship of the West Mount Airy Neighbors and worked with the Fund for Open Society, created by Morris Milgram. Nathaniel Popkin's, "The Vital Thread of Tom Sugrue," Pennsylvania Gazette (June 2009), pp. 32-37, gives a full portrait of Sugrue's pursuits in both academia and the neighborhood.

Sweet Land of Liberty opens a door into urban history and the Civil Rights movement that can inspire other specialists of space, politics and architecture. In addition to documenting a unique historical period, Sugrue also gives inspiration for political engagement. I quote Sugrue's advice:

“One of the main issues we struggle with,” Sugrue explains, “is that often our vision is really small. We can’t solve the problems of the city by gussying up storefronts. I love and am a member of the grassroots, but ultimately they have the will but not the capacity. One take-away from [Sweet Land of Liberty] is that far-reaching gains in Civil Rights require people to organize locally but form a broader coalition, providing a longer reach. But we tend to think real small.” On the other hand, he says, “It’s the small things that matter” to people in city neighborhoods. He means that a meaningful understanding can only come from close observation. “One of the most interesting features of the urban landscape is going to places in the day and night. I don’t play golf or tennis, but I do go out and explore, ride the buses and subways. So, for example, at night the street changes. In some places it becomes marked. Women, especially, feel trapped. They’re made to feel they can’t go out.”
(Pennsylvania Gazette interview)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Food Architecture before Agriculture

One of the most interesting chapters in Mesolithic archaeology is the Early Natufian period (ca. 12,500-10,800 BCE) when humans stopped being hunter gatherers and settled down for the first time. Human settlement is integrally connected to the domestication of cereals in the Neolithic period. The agricultural revolution is the single most important event in the history of mankind. Another agricultural revolution occurred in the 1970s, when we began to alter the genetic make-up of food itself. My favorite article on the latter is John Seabrook, "Sowing for Apocalypse," New Yorker (August 27, 2007).

David Mithen's book After the Ice Age: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC (2003) is my favorite
introduction to prehistoric archaeology. Mithen writes the following about the domestication of grain: "Recall that the principal difference is the brittleness of the [grain's] ear -- the wild strains spontaneously fall apart when ripe, scattering their seed on the ground while the domestic strains remain intact, 'waiting for the harvester'." (p. 37) Although sedentary, the Natufians were eating wild grain. In his coverage of Early Natufian culture, Mithen discusses the site of Ain Mallaha excavated in 1954, where we have evidence for decorated sickles and stone mortars. In one tomb, a puppy was also buried affectionately embraced by an old woman.

What makes the Natufian people complicated is that they returned to nomadism during the Late Natufian period, possibly due to a climatic drought; this was at the end of the Ice Age when weather was highly unstable. It was not until the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period (ca. 9000 BCE) that permanent settlement was tried again and the agricultural revolution took off the ground in the Fertile Crescent. This is of particular importance to architectural historians because agriculture is a prerequisite for fixed settlement. Agriculture, in other words, presupposes the formation of states and permanent dwellings.

An excavation by
Ian Kuijt and Bill Finlayson has produced fascinating new evidence for the existence of granaries in an Early Natufian period before the actual domestication of cereal. The excavation at Dhra' (near the Dead Sea) was published last week,"Evidence for Food Storage and Predomestication: Granaries 11,000 Years Ago in the Jordan Valley," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Early Edition, June 22, 2009). It was considered ground-breaking enough to be announced in the Economist a few days later (June 27, 2009, p. 86). Kuijt and Finlayson have unearthed the earliest known granaries located between houses and areas of vegetable processing. The granaries are circular (3 m diameter, 3 m height) and they stored wild forms of grain. They had elevated floors (to protect the grain from rodents) and holes for air circulation.

I look forward to including Dhra' in my survey of architectural history next semester at Franklin and Marshall. The granary fits well with the discussion of Catal Huyuk,the Neolithic settlement (excavated by Ian Hodder) that I cover in the first week of class. Lancaster has a wonderful community of locavores and food activists
. Members of F&M's art history department are leaders in community action and I'll be honored to join them this Fall. Lancaster County has some beautiful old silos, the descendents of the Natufian granaries. On the topic of food and architecture, I should briefly note a 2007 book, The Architect, the Cook and Good Taste published in Basel, Germany. Petra Hagen and Rolf Toyka have collected an eclectic set of essays. Although in English, the book is a German project and was not widely distributed in the U.S. It's worth requesting through Interlibrary Loan. I thank my student Katherine Chabla for recommending the book during our seminar on domestic architecture.

The abandonment of settlements and the return to nomadism during the Late Natufian period resonates with the recent phenomenon of eco-migration, the displacement of peoples as a result of global warming. The International Organization for Migration predicts that by 2050, some 200 million will become migrant in search of water. The United Nations University, CARE and Columbia University have produced a new study on eco-migration,
"In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Displacement and Migration." In the same issue reporting the Dhra' excavations, the Economist also published an article discussing this grave global problem, "A New (Under) Class of Travellers" (June 27, 2009, pp. 67-68). Sadly, the Natufians are becoming relevant today.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States