Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nochlin: Krautheimer Class

Linda Nochlin: "Yes Richard Krautheimer. Can you imagine anything better? He'd break a desk every time pounding. I could do it for you, I could reenact for you his lecture on the building of Saint Peters in Rome. It was one of the most thrilling lectures. We started like pilgrims. He did it as pilgrims would see it. You know crossing the bridge, the Gianicolo, then the street, the narrow winding streets. And these pilgrims had come a long long way. Narrow little streets cluttered with ancient buildings and poverty stricken dwellings and so on. And then suddenly you came to the end of it and the whole piazza suddenly opened out. That huge light filled space, and all of Saint Peters was before you. I mean it was like a vision. It was just fabulous. And then you know, you went in, and it was sensational. And he told us that Mussolini had torn down all those ancient obstructions on the spina which made it so dark and then made the opening so magical. And we all hated Mussolini."

"A transcript of a recorded conversation between Linda Nochlin and Molly Nesbit in New York City, Jan. 28, 2011," from Vassar College's 150 Year celebration.

Above: Richard Krautheimer at his desk, ca. 1938, Vassar Special Collections

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dream Neighborhood: News Coverage

The re-release of Dream Neighborhood has generated some interesting media coverage this last week. I find it amazing that I can sit in Philadelphia and experience the Greek response to the movie online. I'd like to share two postings with you. The first is what I would have liked to do, if I were in Athens right now, to walk through the Asyrmatou neighborhood and search for archaeological clues. Blogger Athensville has done this in, "Η Συνοικεία το Όνειρο Σήμερα" (July 12, 2011). Thanks to Athensville for transporting all the non-Athenians to the spaces of Asyrmatou 50 years later (photo left).

The second feature is a TV clipping from Greek television that chronicles the film's censorship, see here and here.

I began my ruminations on the shanty town of Asyrmatou by thinking about the houses of the Athenian Agora excavations. The film's debut took place at Radio City cinema and was attended by journalists, foreign dignitaries, and representatives of educational institutions. I am certain that member of the American School would have been present. This might also explain a review in the Herald Tribune, which reviewed the film positively. American archaeologists would have been acutely aware of the Asyrmatou neighborhood because they were excavating around the corner.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dream Neighborhood: Kite

The architectural character of modern Athens is a phenomenon of the 1960s. Intense urbanization after the German occupation and the Civil War, lax regulation, cheap labor, and a national industry of concrete brought about the city of apartment buildings that we know and love today. In the absence of monetary investment (national banks, no interest rates), modern Athenians invested in real estate. Greek prosperity was reflected predominantly in the ownership of one or more apartments and summer homes. The flip-side of this upward mobility was an architectural demarcating of classes. Lack of ownership and dependence on rents signified poverty (the typical scenario outlined by Engels as early as 1872 in "The Housing Question.")

The 1961 film Dream Neighborhood that I've been thinking about this last week offers a clear expression of the conflicts inherent in modernization (the concrete house), poverty (shanty towns), and the movement into the middle class (in the case of the film unsuccessful). The film is dramatized in the neighborhood of Asyrmaton, Plaka. The film ends with a suicide and a funeral procession (discussed here). Resurrection occurs at the last minutes, when a boy flies a kite over the Acropolis. The kite itself was designed to look like a child's image of reality. It features a couple in love (signified by hearts) and images of daily life. The upper right portion of the kite represents the process of construction. Although undoubtedly drawn by the set designer Tasos Zographos, it reflects the iconic aspirations of class.

The kite shows a crane building a concrete apartment building. Workers and material stand on the scaffolding. The image is particularly powerful because the construction of the kite is visible as a shadow behind the paper. The triangles of the kite's construction intersect the triangles of the projected architectural construction.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dream Neighborhood: Funerary Sequence

More notes on Athenian Film ArchaeologyThe closing sequence of the 1961 film Dream Neighborhood (Η συνοικία το όνειρο) is a powerful moment in Greek cinema (see here on YouTube). A funerary procession leads the viewer from the hills of Ano Petralona to the shanty town neighborhood that forms the film's sociological subject. The film deserves an entire essay for its architectural narrative. This post hopes to unpack some of the basic spatial maneuvers. The sketch plan above shows the three major architectural subjects in Athenian topography. The camera is placed somewhere on the hill and tracks the funerary party as they process along the hill (offering views to the Acropolis and the Philopapous Monument) and then down into the impoverished architecture where the characters live. I've made five quick sketches to trace the movement along this sequence, numbered 1-5 above.
1. A black mass moves along the hill, counterbalancing the white architecture of the Parthenon and the Propylaea. The black mass is made up of the funerary party, a group of 20-30 individuals wearing black. The funerary party represents the pains of poverty and the negativity of self-destruction. Although the characters in the movie are not certain of this, the viewer knows that the dead man committed suicide, falling from the very same rocks. A bush at the middle ground of the frame creates a point of reference. A shaded triangular area in the foreground contains physical detail. The funerary part will eventually enter that foreground area and we will start discerning the actors' identities. The Acropolis serves as a silent icon in the distance. The mass to its left, the Propylaea are both the gateways to the ancient monument, but also the intermediary gate for the camera's movement. In a filmic conceit, the mourners will enter from the Propylaea to the Acropolis.
2. The black mass of mourners moves left to right while the camera zooms closer. The mourning poor have now come to the middle-ground of the bush. As they grow larger, they engulf the Acropolis and make it disappear. I read this as a visual statement of erasure. In the filmic environment blackness is more than the opposite of white, but the absence of projection. It becomes a hole in the screen. The audience is engulfed in the meaningless darkness of the movie theater (or the open air theater). Blackness within the projected frame is an interior duplication of the exterior darkness of the filmic existential drama.3. The mourners continue to move left to right. The camera keeps them in the center of the frame by moving along with them. In the process, the Acropolis goes out of view and we focus to an area located northeast of the camera. The mourners have stopped riding on the landscape but are now engulfed by the limestone geology. We see the dead man's wife being supported by two elder females. Most importantly, we see the Monument of Philopappos as an architectural signifier in the distance. Only those familiar with Athenian topography get the funerary subtext of this scene. The Philopappos monument is a first-century CE mausoleum of a Hellenistic prince from Syria. Although it seems as a mere column in the distance, the monument has a circular facade that reminds us of the circular movement of both the camera and the funerary party. The monument depicts Philopappos as riding through the city on a chariot and could be read as a filmic moment of its own right in stone. The Syrian origin of Philopappos might also trigger contemporary connotations, the fact that the impoverished subjects of the movie were Asia Minor refugees from 1922. The residents of Asyrmatou were refugees from Antalya.
4. The camera has now focused on a triptych, the mourning widow physically propped up by two elder women. The widow stops over the precipice of the rock. She leans forward for a moment, suggesting that she would have flung herself from the hill if she were not supported by the mourners. This moment harks back to a similar shot where her husband alone committed suicide from the same spot. The religious references of this triad are pretty obvious.
5. Having overcome sorrow and death, the mourners descend down the precipitous hill along a set of steps half natural half man-made. The camera now shows new Athens in all its modern poverty. The mourners have traveled the history of old glorious Athens and have annihilated in their descent to a different place below. I read the juxtaposition of great monuments and impoverished city as more than just a dialectic statement or an ironic juxtaposition between the unreal myth of Athens and the real hell of its existence. Rather, the mourners have eaten up the ancient topography and have, thus, overcome it. Antiquity is a point of reference in the distance far less interesting than the haphazard modern village. The subject of the film, Asyrmatou neighborhood, was located below the hills of Philopappos and above Troon Street. See here for some views today.

The movie ends optimistically. Right as the mourners descend, a little boy ascends up the stairs with a kite, which he flies from the hill. The kite represents a resurrection. The final scene contains no ancient monuments. The architectural content of the resurrection is found within the kite itself which the camera stops to show in great detail. The kite is hand-drawn and shows a child's version of modern construction (subject to my next post)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Athenian Film Archaeology

A few summers ago, I was going through Alison Frantz's excavation notebooks in the Athenian Agora, preparing a paper for Betsey Robinson's Radcliffe seminar, "New Discoveries from Old Excavations." American excavations at the Athenian Agora began in 1932 and are surrounded by a mess of interesting political questions best explored by Niki Sakka, Yannis Hamilakis and Artemis Leontis.

In order to clear the site, the excavators had to demolish many houses dating to the 19th century. The American School archaeologists kept an amazing photographic record of those houses, partially because ancient spolia were incorporated in the walls and partially because the excavators had embraced the ethics of modern documentation. These houses would have certainly been torn down in the 1960s and replaced by concrete apartment blocks. Their demolition by American archaeologists in the 1930s is somewhat fortunate from a preservation perspective. The record of the houses before demolition is so good that we could reconstruct their architecture in great detail. Using reverse-perspective techniques, the photographs can be used to create a virtual 1930s environment.

Brainstorming about the visual documentation of pre-concrete Athens, I have been thinking of another project, exploiting 1960s Greek films as visual records of vernacular architecture. This would require the archaeology of the film, trying to locate all the on-site locations were the films were made. I started doing this analysis with Stella (1955) but I did not get very far. It's hard to do this kind of research remotely.

A controversial film from 1961 was re-released today on Greek movie theaters (see Ta Nea), Alekos Alexandrakis' Συνοικία το 'Ονειρο (Dream Neighborhood). The film was a neorealist representation of the shanty towns of Athens. It was shot on at Asyrmatou neighborhood (right under Philopappou Ηill and Petralona in Plaka). The government banned the film as communist propaganda as soon as it opened, hence its re-release today. Although seen by few, the film is best known for its soundtrack by Mikis Theodorakis, especially the song, Βρέχει στη φτωχογειτονιά (It's Raining in the Poor Neighborhood). See the last two parts of the film on YouTube here and here or the film in its entirety here.

In 1952, Finos Films released the earliest neorealist urban film, Frixos Eliadis' Νεκρή Πολιτεία (Dead City), which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. There is also Nikos Koundouros' 1954, Μαγική Πόλις (Magic City). During the 1950s and 1960s, Greek cinema flourished. Dozens of movies were filmed weekly and many were formulaic (poor meets rich, slap stick comedy, coming of age, unrequited love, etc.) Whatever their cinematic merit might be, however, the golden era of Greek film produced a golden record of architecture and urbanism.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Culture in Depression

If the economic shambles in Greece is wreaking havoc in people's personal lives (see recent article on Greek homelessness), imagine what it's doing to culture. The National Archaeological Museum frequented by every tourist is practically shut with only 6 out of the 64 spaces open to the public. The government can simply not pay its museum guards. See relevant article in yesterday's Kathimerini here. The visitors are up in arms aggressively confronting the remaining staff. " F... Greece! F... you Greeks!" yelled a Canadian tourist after paying a full ticket, see coverage here. In good nation-state fashion, culture in Greece is nationalized. If a bankrupt state cannot sustain its hundreds of archaeological sites it must seek alternatives. Small steps seem to be taken in reconsidering the interface between public and private domains. Stauros Benos (PASOK parliamentarian) is spearheading project DIAZOMA, seeking new functions and funds for ancient theaters. "Ancient theatres are the focus of our interest and our aim is to enhance them, to find funding and, wherever feasible, to include these monuments in our daily life." See official website here. The ancient theater of Delos is first inline for this rethinking of public functions, see here. Only a few years ago, the central council of archaeological monuments forbid Calvin Klein from using an ancient theater for a photo shoot. To mix commerce with the nation would have been too dangerous. That mentality is clearly being amended by economic pressures. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that Calvin Klein would want to do business with an ancient theater this summer if he can't even properly visit the archaeological museum.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States