Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Canonical View

Arthur and Kate Tode (Kahop) made a honeymoon video in 1939 with tremendous value for reconstructing the vernacular streetscape of Athens between World War II. In the previous posting, I discussed their vantage point and visual coverage. The Tode's vantage point towards the urban fabric had become the canonical perspective. Every visitor that climbed the Acropolis in the 1930s was directed to the same observation post from which they visually consumed the modern metropolis. The view was disseminated globally through the personal snap shots that each tourist brought home, as well as, with more official media of mail order periodicals.

The National Geographic Magazine canonized this Athenian vantage point in October 1930 with the photograph above in an article on Vergil's Roman geography, written by Georgetown University's president. Interestingly enough, the caption foreshadows the tension that would emerge between American archaeologists and the modern city when the American School would start digging in the Agora a year later. The caption reads, "After seeing the Temple of Athena Victory, the Propylaea, the Erechtheum with its lovely Caryatid Porch, and the Parthenon, visitors to the Acropolis are conducted to this lookout point above the modern city. In Vergil's day the main city was around to the left, where American archaeologists are soon to tear down scores of homes in order to excavate the ancient market place." W. Coleman Nevils, "The Perennial Geographer," The National Geographic Magazine 58, no. 4 (Oct. 1930), p. 452.

I would like to use the photo above and the Tode film previously to stage a photographic investigation of Athens' architecture in the 1930s. The exercise would, on the one hand, help understand 1930s urban topography, but could also stage a reflexive inquiry on the construction of distant visions. When the photo students visit this very spot in July, we could even stage a rephotographing campaign.

Film Archaeology: 1939 Athens

Thanks to Facebook (Jan Sanders via Stavros Oikonomidis), I stumbled on an intoxicating film of Athens. It was shot by Arthur and Kate Tode (Kahop) on April 25, 1939 during their Mediterranean honeymoon. The original reel resides at the Archives of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (see here). The Tode film is the earliest color panorama of modern Athens that I have seen. It has an uncanny quality with Athenian residents visible in the streets of Plaka. Athens was one of the most beautiful cities of Europe in the 30s and this film can help us reconstruct its historical character. I am envisioning a collective project of film archaeology, where a group of people use online resources and deconstruct each frame. With a combination of freeze-frame sketches and maps, we could produce a powerful visual inventory of Athenian vernacular.

I spent a good hour playing the first 17 secs, over and over again, trying to pick up topographical clues that would reveal the real locations. This is what I have come up with. The camera is set on the northeast corner of the Acropolis next to the flag (lat/long 37°58'18.65"N, 23°43'41.19"W). The axis of the camera is aligned with Epiharmou Street in Plaka and pans over Anaphiotika and Plaka. I reconstruct the vantage with the aid of Google Earth (below). The dome and bell tower visible on the foreground belongs to Agios Nikolaos Rangavas. The line of sight down Epiharmou Street is terminated by an Ottoman period house owned by George Finlay. The street turns West as Scholiou Street. The next parallel street line is Adrianou. As the camera pans out, we see grand buildings along Vasilisis Sofias and Lykavitos rising in the distance. The video represents a 20 degree angle from the Acropolis to Lykaviots and covers the NW sliver of the city. The camera also makes a slight norther turn towards Tourkovounia. Using contemporary plans of Athens, it should be possible to create a database of every building represented. Archaeologists of early modernity could go out into the streets and spot-check the urban fabric. I suspect that the majority of the vernacular architecture seen in the video exist no more. Anyone want to join me in an experiment of video archaeology? If you enjoyed this filmic inquiry, make sure to visit earlier postings on the archaeology of Athenian modernity here, here and here.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Liquid Altar

The Drinker block discussed earlier was discovered at the ancient Asclepeion on the South slopes of the Acropolis in Athens. Excavated by the Greek Archaeological Society in 1877, the few surviving Byzantine walls were removed soon after excavation ("ταύτην μελετώμεν να διαλύσωμεν"). Recognizing the ethics of archaeological documentation, however, the Archaeological Society left a small record of the architecture, hiring M. Mitsakis to produce a site plan ("Η Εταιρία έχει το καθήκον όταν προσεχώς συντελέση την ανασκαφήν, να δημοσιεύση και σχεδιογράφημα του κτίσματος ακριβές."). Above, I have extracted some of the crucial elements to visualize the architectural dialectics of caves and water.

The ancient cave (marked "A") from which water sprang, was converted into a Christian altar. The excavators discovered frescoes along the lining of the cave, but could not make up the subject matter. An upright stone placed on the altar ledge (left) marked the religious character of the cave. The pseudo-Kufic decoration on the upper border helps us date the installation to the Middle-Late Byzantine period. Other sculptural fragments published by Xyngopoulos testify to the occupation of the site. Adjacent to the sacred water cave was an ancient stoa. In the Byzantine period, the ruined foundations of the stoa were used to create a new building (marked in dark lines above) that included a square room ("D") on the east end. Most intriguing in Mitsakis' drawing are the three semi-circular lines signifying the existence of a church with three consecutive phases of alteration.

Completing the water narrative of the site, note the channel ("C") that carried the water from the cave under the church floors into a cistern ("F"). Remembering the drinker graffiti representing the thirst-quenching experience of water, we may extend the vessel cavity into the water cave. The cave-altar becomes a cavity to be inhabited. The water would then exit the cavity through piping (the neck) and be recollected below the body of the church into the cistern.

The sacral metaphors of water are well known in the Byzantine scholarship and found numerous architectural expressions. The waters in the crypt of Saint Demetrius in Thessaloniki or in the crypt of Saint Andrew in Patras are two of the first examples that come to mind. The Byzantine installations on the South Slopes of the Acropolis should be remembered as additional evidence for the spatial articulation of the phenomenology of liquids.

The sketch plan above is based on M. Mitsakis drawing appearing in Praktika (1878). The altar stone is based on a drawing by Josef Strzygowski published by Andreas Xyngopoulos in "Χριστιανικόν Ασκληπείον" Archaiologike Ephemeris (1915), p. 62, fig. 14. It measures 0.95 x 0.34 m.

For those interested in the fine details of the cave, here is the eye-witness report given by Ioannis Phillipos in his Jan. 9, 1877, report: "Ολίγον δε κατωτέρω η πέτρα είναι ορθίως τετμημένη επί μέτρα 25 περίπου προς δυσμάς και υπ'αυτήν κατωτάτω εφανερώθη εν σπήλαιον κωνικού σχήματος τα έσω, με είσοδον κτιστήν, τους τοίχους του δ'εσώθεν έχον επίχριστους και εζωγραφημένους με εικόνας χριστιανικάς, δυσδιαγνώστους διά την εκ του χρόνου φθοράν. Εν αυτώ κατά τον κάτω γύρον αποστάζει εκ της πέτρας και ύδωρ, το οποίον κύκλω περιλαμβάνεται εκ μαρμαρίνω ευρίπω και διοχετεύεται ύστερον έξω διά τας μετ' ολίγον μνημονευθησομένας εκκλησίας μέχρις ου καταπίπτει εις εν φρεατοειδές κτιστόν όρυγμα." Praktika (1877) pp. 17-17.

My rough translation: "A little below, the rock is cut for about 25 meters to the West. Under the rock, we found a cave with a conical interior shape. Its entrance was built with masonry. In the interior, the wall were plastered and were painted with Christian scenes, but it was difficult to discern the subject due to deterioration. Under the lower circle, water drips from the rock. The water is collected by a circular marble feature and is then routed outside of the cave through pipes. The pipes continue under the ancient stoa and under the churches (to be discussed below) depositing the water in a built cistern."

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Drinker

Architectural block (0.84 x 0.38 x 0.07 m), Byzantine, South Slopes, Acropolis, Athens. Kourelis sketch, based on photo (Xyngopoulos, 1924)

Scratched roughly on a piece of masonry, a figure drinks with one hand while fanning with the other. The block was excavated in 1877 at the Sanctuary of Asclepius on the South Slopes of the Acropolis in Athens. It was published in 1924 as a personification of August. The Byzantine remains of the Asclepeion have been forgotten by scholarship. The site contained no less than three consecutive churches, a cave altar dripping with water, frescoes, burials, and lots of sculptural fragments from the Middle and Late Byzantine periods. I will discuss the architecture in the next posting.

The block of the drinking figure is striking in its graphic convention of depicting the interior of the vessel with a sectional diagram. The drawing, thus, communicates what is invisible, the interior container of the liquid as it is depleted through the mouth of the drinker. It helps us clarify the spatial experience of drinking. The neck of the vessel and our mouths are two extended thresholds that transfer water from one invisible interior (the vessel) to another (our belly). The figure raises a vessel to his mouth. He will soon swallow its contents capturing that moment of satisfaction offered by the exchange in a hot summer month. Drawing the vessel in section, thus, clarifies the spatial nature of thirst. It doesn't simply represent what drinking looks like, but it tries to encapsulates the essence of drinking as a spatial experience. The cavity that holds water before it enters the body is terminated by a kind of lip in the interior of the vessel. The hand clasps the diaphragm of the vessel and commands its release. The diagramatic depiction of the vessel may also lead the viewer into other bodily associations of the womb and female genitalia.

The carver scratched a phenomenological experience through a complicated system of graphic abstraction. Liquid transfers through interiorities. If we look at the architectural setting of the Byzantine Asclepeion (in the next posting), we will see that the transfer of water takes over the entire spatial expression of the complex. In other words, this small depiction is a moment in a larger phenomenological experience originating from the origins of water in the dripping cave.

Briefly, I summarize the paper trail from this excavation. The Asclepeion was excavated by the Greek Archaeological Society in 1877. The Byzantine remains were discussed by Philippos Ioannou, in Praktika (1877), 17-20. M. Mitsakis, an architectural intern at the Polytechneion, surveyed the Byzantine walls before they were demolished, publishing his plan in Praktika (1878). A quarter century later, Andreas Xyngopoulos published the Byzantine sculpture from the site, "Χριστιανικόν Ασκληπείον," Archaiologike Ephemeris (1915), pp. 52-71, but did not include the drinker. Andreas Xyngopoulos devoted a separate article on the drinker in the debut issue of the journal of the Society of Byzantine Studies, "Βυζαντινή παράστασις μηνός," Epeteris Etaireias Vyzantinon Spoudon 1 (1924), pp. 180-188. In this essay, Xyngopoulos argues that the image above belongs to a tradition of month personifications, specifically August. Accordingly, the seated August quenches his thirst with wine and cools himself with a fan. In addition to iconographic comparanda, Xyngopoulos quotes a relevant passage from the 15th-century novel Lyvistros and Rodamni.

"Είδα τον Αύγουστον απ'αυτόν, τέτοιον και κείνον φίλε, να ένε από κάυματα έμψυχος εις την όψιν. να στέκεη τάλα εις λουτρόν λουσμένος, κτενισμένος. να ένε εκ τα κάυμα έδιψος. και εις το έναν τον χέριν κούπαν εκράτει με κρασί και έπινεν δια την θέρμην και εις το άλλον του εβάσταζεν χαρτί μετά γραμμάτων και το έγραφεν. φίλε μου, άκουσε να το μάθης τους κάψει η θέρμη του λουτρού, τους φλέξει και διψήσουν, κατάψυχον ας πίνουσι οίνον, μην τ' αθετούσιν."

The novel was translated into English by Gavin G. Bates, Three Modern Greek Romances (New York, 1995). I will get the English translation next time I visit the Penn library.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hart Crane: Legend

Grading exams and papers at the end of the academic semester offers one the unstructured freedom to pepper the mechanical with a few breaks of inspiration. During the last week of classes, Art & Art History students presented their thesis proposals. This is my favorite academic event of the year because it's one of the rare instances where my department sits for an hour and a half and collectively discusses issues of great intellectual substance with the students. It's the closest that we get to a salon culture. Discussion over Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury Group, T.S. Eliot and flowers rekindled earlier poetic discussions with Kevin Brady, the greatest fan of Wallace Stevens I have ever met. Kevin's interests had been further inflamed by his current proximity to Stevens' birthplace, Reading, Pa.

The opportunity to procrastinate in the midst of grading, also brings me back to a book that I half-started to read during the semester by another great fan of Wallace Stevens, Harold Bloom. In The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (2011), Bloom returns to the poetic lineage that he has been studying all of his life, the tradition of the sublime. This Longinian tradition includes Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Yeats, Stevens and Crane. Although I have been terribly interested in the theorists of the sublime (Burke, Pater, Freud), I must confess that I have never read Bloom's late poetic tradition. Too enamored by the difficult coldness of Eliot, Pound and Williams, I have missed Stevens and Crane. I had read Brooklyn Bridge years ago, but only for the academic purpose of reconstructing American modernism.

This morning, I brought my pile of blue books to a neighborhood cafe, but made the mistake of sneaking in my bag a brand new copy of, Hart Crane: Complete Poems & Selected Letters (Library of America, 2006). The first poem, "Legend" compelled the drawing above. The blue books had to wait.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Prospecting Coatesville

The drawing on the left is just a quick look at the exterior of Lancaster's Pennsylvania Station showing two courses of marble revetment, the limestone base molding and the system of brickwork. The Pennsylvania Main Line to Lancaster stops at one of PA's most important steel-mill towns, Coatesville. The steel beams of the World Trade Center, for instance, were manufactured here. The quick sketch on the right tries to map the dynamic microcosm of Coatesville that developed at the intersection of the Brandywine River and the Main Line railroad. There is Lukens Steel, the 19th-c grid town with its cottage row houses, and a conspicuous suburbia that developed around Rt. 30. Coatesville contains one of Modern Architecture's forgotten landmarks, Carver Court, a housing project designed by Louis Kahn, Oscar Storonov and George Howe in 1940. The complex seems to be still standing, but I haven't explored it yet. It would be interesting to compare Carver Court with the "Pennsylvania House" that Howe designed with Wharton Esherick the same year for 1939 World's Fair in New York.

Friday, December 16, 2011

J. Harry Hartman

Quick stroll through Lancaster cemetery before the rain broke out. Picked out one funerary monument, vaguely related to the steeple type discussed previously. First, I was tempted to sketch the grave of Frederick Rauch, F&M's first president and co-founder of Mercersburg Theology. This is the only grave I've ever seen to reflect on Hegel. But I held back. Instead, I admired the 1881 tomb of J. Harry Hartman who died at the age of 18. J. Harry's father, Samuel, became well known in the pharmaceutical industry as the creator of PE-RU-NA, a potion that cured catarrh. Dr. Samuel died in 1918 and was buried next to his son, as did J. Harry's mother in 1930. Below the statue and above the inscribed plaque, there is a circle with J. Harry's monogram. It's not the most readable of monograms, but it combines "H" and "J" and "h" in an ingenious way.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Steeple Cross Grave Monuments

One of my favorite grave monument types incorporates a plinth, a plain cross, compressed columns at the corners and a massive steeple. So far, I have found three examples of this monument and it's likely that they were produced by the same company: Harrington Monument (left) in Woodland Cemetery, Hand Monument (right) in Laurel Hill Cemetery, and another example at Old Cathedral Cemetery on 48th and Lancaster Ave., Philadelphia. I am assuming some Frank Furness influence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Eliot's Houses

Clearly not in the spirit of the Holidays, but T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" helps me wrap up my "House-Home-Hood" capstone seminar.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Romanesque & Gothic

Last two study sheets for my History of Architecture class

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Nuts and Bolts (Lancaster Object 007)

SPS 10, found in Lancaster parking lot @ 40°03'7.39"N, 76°18'42.72"W
SF07 Penn USA, found in Philadelphia street @ 39°57'11.07"N, 75°11'41.65"W

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States