I have lots of snow shoveling to do and some last minute Christmas shopping, so that's all from me for this year. See you in 2010.
Happy holidays, everyone, and thanks for reading.
This was an annus horribilis. In a lot of ways, my year mirrored broader conditions: It started in anxiety and ended in a slow economic recovery, but it will be a long time before life starts to feel normal again.
I wish I could say that I read a novel or saw a movie that captured the year's strangeness, its sense that things were changing, but not changing enough. This year saw the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the only people thriving are the wrong ones: Goldman Sachs, Sarah Palin, and the Yankees.
What I remember most clearly about 2009 isn't a film or a novel or a building, but an event. This summer the Iranian (near) revolution was by far the most compelling read of the year. I followed the events primarily through Twitter, especially Persiankiwi, which offered vivid and dramatic first-hand accounts of the uprising. I followed Persiankiwi as they reported the daily mass protests in the streets and the nightly allah akbars called out from the rooftops of Tehran. Opposition groups claim at least 72 people have been killed in the uprising, which is showing sign of re-intensifying. Persiankiwi, though, has fallen silent, and it's hard not to fear the worst. They've not posted since June 24, when they signed off, apparently forever, with the chilling message, "Allah - you are the creator of all and all must return to you - Allah Akbar."
The uprising in Iran was important for the same reasons Michel Foucault found the earlier Iranian revolution so compelling. The early stages of the 1978-79 revolution, before the ayatollahs swooped in and clamped down on the energies they released, demonstrated that genuine revolt was still possible, and that there were conditions under which people would risk death to resist. The demands of the Tehran students were touchingly modest: they simply wanted a free and fair election. Compared to their uprising, the tea party protesters and the health care forum shouters in the US seemed self-indulgent, ignorant, even cowardly.
Fortunately, the viciously aggrieved Right has problems of its own. They can believe whatever lunatic bullshit they want, but political power in this country still flows from the center out, and as the 2008 election demonstrated, the political center has moved away from the paranoid rustics that put George W. Bush into power. Contemporary conservative discourse seems all the more empty because we have a president with a literary mind, the first since Kennedy. After closely examining Barack Obama's Nobel acceptance speech, George Packer branded him "the negative-capability President," which I took to be a complement.
Oddly enough, despite having a literary president (supposedly Obama read Netherland), this hasn't been a very good year for American literature--or film, for that matter. First of all, everyone seemed too pre-occupied with speculation about how we will read in the future to pay much attention to what was actually available to read now. Personally, I seemed to keep choosing the wrong book to read. James Lasdun's short story collection It's Beginning to Hurt was perhaps the best fiction I read this year, but his diffident men were stuck in existential crises we should have left behind by now. I paged through a bunch of other novels without being particularly gripped by any of them. A few movies were vivid in the theater, but they didn't stay with me once I left it. In the Loop and Up were in this category. Music? I liked some Ida Marie songs.
Maybe 2009 was simply a bad year for solitary pursuits. I enjoyed myself most in bright daylight in public space. The Burnham pavilions by Zaha Hadid and Ben van Berkel weren't perfect, but they were imaginative. Renzo Piano and the Art Institute's modern art curators got 99% of the details right in the Modern Wing. (Read about my visit here, here, and here.) All three of these buildings succeeded because they framed the past in new and compelling ways. Their missions were to arrest the past, to keep it from disappearing into a swirl of digits. In these building Modernism is a framing device in Baudelaire's sense of capturing the fleeting and the contingent and making them into art. The past has to be held steady long enough for us to contemplate it, but without clouding it with nostalgia. That's the only way we're ever going to find normality again.
I'm spending most of my extremely scarce free time Christmas shopping on the web and reading over best of 2009 lists. This year there are the bonus best of the decade lists, too. I've always liked the year-end lists, and I'll have my own in a day or two, but the decade lists I find less interesting.
One exception comes from Treehugger, which has a long slideshow documenting the trends in architecture through the 2000s. As you can imagine, the list is green-heavy, but then again, so was the decade. Here is my own take on the Treehugger list. I've picked up on some of their themes, and added some of my own.
Green gets beautiful: Only a couple of years ago people were complaining that green architecture and design was uniformly ugly. Now that's true only most of the time. The best evidence that sustainability and good design go together is Renzo Piano's San Francisco Academy of Science (completed 2008), perhaps the first great green building in the United States. Another major project to keep an eye on is Zaha Hadid's vast Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park complex in Seoul. Hadid's trademark whooshes sprawl all over the place; this time she's pasted on green roofs. The effect looks something like a hybrid car made by Ferrari: the technology is there, but ironically. Speaking of hybrid cars, the third generation Prius, an icon of green technology, still has soybean style.
Pre-fab still isn't fabulous: Dwell magazine caused a stir in the mid-2000s with a series of articles on pre-fab houses. The concept presented some exciting propositions. It transformed a déclassé building method into something cool in a geeky, mildly anti-bourgeois way. Economies of scale meant that the dream of affordable modern house design could finally be realized. Architects could make a fortune churning out variations of the same design elements without having to rethink every structure. Alas, Daniel Liebskind got hold of the concept and promptly killed it (above left). Plus, the economies of scale never materialized. As my wife and I discovered, pre-fab is only cost effective when you're building 100 houses. A single pre-fab can be more expensive than a custom-built house. (See also shipping container buildings.)
Modernism moves east: If Surrealism was the last artistic movement that thought it could change the world, Dubai and China are the last places that still believe in Modernism as a daring, visionary form of national aspiration. Sure, the Burj Dubai is excessive, but at least it aspires to heroicism. Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, another building with heroic aspirations, probably would have seemed excessive had it been built. Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid and Herzog and de Meuron's Bird's Nest stadium are superb buildings, and more aesthetically daring than any project currently underway or planned in the US or Europe.
The rise and fall of great public architecture in the US: There are still major public public architecture projects underway in Dallas and Miami, but they're the last guests at the party. The so-called Bilbao Effect, in which one sexy museum can transform a post-industrial city with an eroding tax base into Florence under the di Medicis, proved to be remarkably durable, but it couldn't last forever. The starchitect system that developed to serve the Bilbao effect may or may not be dead as well. Gehry himself is struggling to land commissions. Locally, Jeanne Gang's recently completed Aqua Tower, a condo building festooned with curvy balconies, looks like the end of an era.
The generic city of the developed world has morphed into bike town: The simultaneous collapse of the shopping mall and the residential real estate market means two crucial engines driving the generic city have lost steam--and in the case of the shopping mall, may face extinction. Meanwhile, sustainable design and New Urbanist urban planning have joined forces to fill the vacuum. The most visible sign of a deeper change in how American think about their cities and suburbs is the rise in bike riding. The trend started in 2007 and continues unabated. Of course, commuting by bike in most places that aren't Portland, Oregon is only slightly less unusual than commuting by rickshaw, but keep an eye on the bike racks in your town over the next few years.
The generic city of the developing world has morphed into the dysfunctional megacity: Not so long ago people paid to worry about the developing world fretted about global cultural standardization. The fear was that every city on the globe would turn into either a cartoon version of its previous self or a monotonous expanse of anonymous buildings--beige as far as the eye can see. Now the dominant urban planning problem is providing basic city services to the millions who migrate to urban centers around the world. Some Americans may worry about being overwhelmed by immigrants, but the pressures on our borders are only a small sample of the migratory patterns occurring across the developing world. Generic cities, as Rem Koolhaas defined them, are self-organizing, but the teeming hypermasses of the twenty-first century seem less and less likely to assume benign forms. Widespread environmental degradation adds to the urgency to problems that seemed largely conceptual a decade ago.
Stuart Heritage at the Guardian film blog has an excellent entry on why there's no sequel to The Golden Compass sequel. Heritage notes that when the film was released in 2007, "it looked to have all the right ingredients" for a Lord of the Rings-style franchise: "moppet actors, spectacular battles, a sexy baddie, Ian McKellen, snow. But no sequels were made. Why?"
Golden Compass star Sam Elliot blames the Catholic Church for killing off the prospects for a sequel. Not only did Rome object, Fox News's Bill O'Reilly cited the film as part of his annual "war on Christmas" bloviation fest.
Heritage has his doubts, however. He points out that "Cardinal Francis Arinze started huffing about legal action when The Da Vinci Code was released, and that got a sequel in which loads of Catholics run around on fire." Furthermore, The Golden Compass got a tepid 42% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes. "It looks as if people were too busy despairing at the film's long, impenetrable voiceovers about dust to notice that it was apparently waging a war on Christmas," Heritage writes.
Cheers to Heritage for seeing through Elliot's claims and doing some digging for an alternative explanation. The power and influence of loudmouthed conservatives--especially on Fox--is vastly overrated, and too often the media sustains the illusion of their power. The Catholic Church couldn't stop Harry Potter, and Fox couldn't stop Barack Obama. Beck, Limbaugh and their gang couldn't even stop John McCain.
Here's a sampling of ideas floated this week, most of them bad.
Start your own war: Wired's Chris Anderson has started a DYI drone project using Google Sketch Up. You can even hire a Chinese company to make your drone so you amuse yourself by flying it over the volatile region of your choice. South Waziristan is always good for a few laughs.
Someone gave a Caravaggio to the Mafia, which let rats gnaw on it until the painting had to be burned. Tony Soprano never would have let that happen, I'm pretty sure.
As if jazz didn't have enough problems: Now people are calling the police when a song isn't sufficiently jazz-like. (Jazzish? Jazz worthy?)
Peter Zumthor is kicking around some ideas for the LACMA. Presumably he won't propose leveling the museum campus, like Rem Koolhaas once did.
Chicago mayor Richard Daley is still seething over losing the 2016 Olympics to Rio. He has a point: if the IOC already knows where it wants to place the Olympics, it should just come out and say so, sparing cities like Chicago a lot of grief.
And finally, if the Kindle isn't expensive enough for you, here's what's coming soon to a credit card near you: Buy short stories on iTunes for $4 each, create a playlist to read on a $800 Apple tablet.
During the Cold War the West regarded communism like it was a conspiracy of microbes. The eventual communist takeover of the world was masterminded by a cabal of dour fanatics in Moscow, but it also had a life of its own, infecting the messier parts of the world--and the US if it weren't disinfected of Volvo owners and other radicals. At the time communism seemed difficult to contain because it was conceived by Karl Marx as the next dialectical step in world history. One day all the big factories of the West would suddenly fall into the hands of the workers, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It didn't help that the last dialectical step in socio-economic history was the advent of capitalism in the 18th century, the age of snuff and knee britches, suggesting that we were overdue for a massive change in how we make and buy goods.
Communism is pretty much dead now, with only two genuinely communist states left, North Korea and Cuba. Marx would have been surprised that communism lingered longest in agrarian societies. Poland and Czechoslovakia threw off communism with hardly a second thought, while in China and Vietnam the old hierarchies remain, but in the background, demanding attention only once a week or so, like Presbyterians. Meanwhile, American paranoia has come to feed off of Islamic fundamentalism, which is irrational and vicious in ways the Soviet bloc never was. On the other hand, Islamic fundamentalism thrives in unstable societies, rather than in conditions of economic and political inequality. American conservatives have always felt more comfortable tidying things up than spreading the wealth.
David Priestland’s The Red Flag: A History of Communism traces this history in great detail. He covers all the usual suspects--Marx and Engels, Trotsky, Ho and the like. He also looks at the intellectual and cultural side of Marxism, discussing major artists and thinkers as Bertolt Brecht and Sergei Eisenstein. He mentions Walter Benjamin exactly once (alongside Herbert Marcuse, interestingly). Priestland had to draw the line someplace, I guess, and Benjamin was an unorthodox Marxist, to say the least. Still, the subject of Benjamin and the Frankfurt School (also mentioned only in passing) touches upon a highly complex subject: the influence of Marxist thought on philosophy, sociology, economics, and critical studies. Marx has made something of a minor comeback among economists now that the Great Recession has revealed some major cracks in the capitalist foundation. In the rest of the disciplines, Marxist terms still appear here and there--I use them occasionally--but very few people conduct purely Marxist critiques of cultural phenomenon nowadays. Marxism, like deconstruction, has been so thoroughly integrated into critical discourse that it's impossible to separate it out.
Priestland largely neglects this line of historical development, which is understandable but unfortunate. Marx is like Freud in the sense that they made possible a new way of talking about human behavior. Regardless of what you think of them, they reshaped the discourse of their fields. In the case of Marx, he remains important in that we still don't have any other way to talk about what comes after capitalism. There's no real way to see capitalism from the outside except through the terms Marx left us. As someone recently said, these days it's okay to question the existence of God but not the right of capitalism to exist.
As far as Marxism as a political system, Priestland is as comprehensive as anyone but a specialist would want. He places the origin of communism in German Romanticism and its concern for human authenticity. Early capitalism was turning everyone into narrow specialists and therefore, in the view of the Romantics, into partial humans. Priestland explains why Russians were so attracted to Marx: They thought communism would make them more European. Priestland is also unsparing in his details of the brutality and violence spawn by communism. He even captures the peculiar brand of black humor the system bred. Mao once cheerfully brushed aside the death and destruction caused by the Cultural Revolution by explaining, “It’s a mistake when good people beat up on good people, though it may clear up some misunderstandings, as they might otherwise not have got to know each other in the first place.”
Every cinephile's dream is to have an instantly accessible digital library where one could log in and download anything from Abbott and Costello to Bela Tarr. In fact, such a digital library already exists and it's available to anyone who doesn't mind exposing oneself to federal prosecution. All you have to do is download an eMule client, originally developed by a guy who goes by the name Merkur, which, I believe, is German for "massive malware infection," and chances are you'll find a copy of the latest Thomas Ciulei, no questions asked. The world of BitTorrent is even wider and richer, though the risks are the same and the copies aren't legal, either. The situation is much like the ’60s and ’70s, when 16mm film collectors were effectively forced underground by the studios and the FBI. Then as now, it’s dangerous to like movies too much.
The inherent frustrations and dangers of the cinephile's primary challenge--gaining access to primary texts--were why Milos Stehlik and Nicole Dreiske founded Facets Multi-Media in 1975 on a then-derelict stretch of Fullerton Avenue in Chicago. My own film education started just down the street at DePaul University, where Facets films were regularly screened. I would also trek down to Facets for screenings and, somewhat later, to rent films. In the late 1980s video rental stores were rare, and they had a crummy selection and they generally treated you like you were going to steal the movie.
Facets had its annoyances as well, but their selection was unparalleled. The clerks weren't terribly attentive or helpful; they always seemed like they were expecting Gene Siskel or Steven Soderbergh to walk in the door any minute, and they couldn't be bothered with a DePaul student trying to find a Yugoslavian film that wasn't already rented out.
Fortunately, Facets now has a much more user-friendly rental system. Forty-two thousand of their 65,000 films are available to rent by mail in an arrangement that's much better than Netflix. Their rarest films, some of them one-of-a-kind copies, are accessible only in their Cinémathèque. You have to do some work to find the screenings, though. Facets has always been low key about promotion; their off-the-beaten-track location means they're used to people coming, largely unbidden, to them.
Over the year enough people have risked parking tickets to sample perhaps the best commercially-available film collection in the United States to keep Facets afloat, if not thriving. The digitization of cinema, along with the proliferation of distribution channels (legal and illegal), has cut into Facets' audience and threatened its business. Plenty of people get up in arms when book archives are threatened, but only the devotees worry about the disappearance of film archives. If Facets goes out of business--Milos Stehlik, still its director, insists they can survive, but he admits they're in financial trouble--there's no guarantee its priceless film collection will remain accessible.
Yes, you can stream 8 1/2 to your iMac with your Netflix account, and you don't have to worry about a clerk snickering as he mails you a copy of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but the Facets Patron Circle Membership is cheaper and they have DVDs you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else, like Benjamin Christensen's creepy Haxan (1922; still above), a silent film that influenced the makers of The Blair Witch Project. Facets one of the last places where it's still possible to get a sense of the infinite possibilities of the medium. It is, as Roger Ebert has said, “a temple to great cinema."
Conventional wisdom in Hollywood says that you couldn't market a film that appeals only to girls. Sure, Hollywood will on occasion produce a film unambiguously directed at girls. Agnieszka Holland's superb The Secret Garden (1993) was one noteworthy instance. And, of course, there's the whole Disney princess series, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) through The Little Mermaid (1989) and beyond. But Hollywood has never invested in high-concept, non-animated, girl-centered films on the scale of the Star Wars saga, Star Trek, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There's never been a franchise for girls who have outgrown Disney's pert narcissists.
Until now. The number one film in America right now is New Moon, the second film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's four-part Twilight series. The hero of the series is a teenaged vampire named Edward Cullen, who is as smooth-skinned and chaste as a Disney princess. Edward is a younger version of the kinds of slacker boyfriends played by Michael Cera, before they start talking in fitful mumbles and dress like they're in the Strokes.
Edward has been the target of much derision by the uninitiated, which is to say boys. Meyer has to walk down the trail blazed by Ann Rice, who turned vampires into gothic performance artists, sexually aggressive and thoughtful monsters with a dandyish streak. Meyer's Edward, by contrast, wears khakis and smoldering expressions as if he's trying to remember his locker combination. Unfortunately for the Twi-Hards who have to defend him, it probably won't help to point out that Bram Stoker's original Dracula was also very odd.
The Twilight series has been attacked by the Lord of the Star Trek Wars fanboy mob, a much more powerful interest group, and not just because of their greater numbers. Twi-Hards congregate in Ugg-booted mobs, so you know to stay out of their corner of the multiplex, but the fanboys will cut off your network access if you cross them. Twi-Hards and the objects of their devotion also get no respect from the media or from literary critics. Twi-Hards are invariably described as "shrieking" in newspaper accounts, while critics lament Meyer's sub-literary prose style and feckless plots. In both written and filmed versions the Twilight stories are structured like the breaks between high school classes: five minutes of intense microdramas followed by long periods of languor.
At least some of these criticisms figure to be rectified with the film adaptation of third installment, Eclipse, which will be directed by horror film vet David Slade. Horror films also have primitive plots, but Slade will at least speed things up a bit. Edward will no doubt become more Nosferatu and less Joe Jonas. Eclipse will be harder-edged than its predecessors and less a Pop Tart version of J-Horror. However, recast as a more conventional horror film, Twilight won't simply become more boy-friendly; it will tamer in another sense: less likely to stir threatening female passions.
Across the world buildings under construction are stalled and existing buildings are being torn down to make way for, well, nothing else. And, as always, buildings in Detroit are sprouting trees.
Evidently, the financial troubles faced by government-backed developer Dubai World aren't as serious as first reported, but the company filed for bankruptcy anyway. Among the projects imperiled is Waterfront City, the Rem Koolhaas-designed generic city in Dubai's harbor. About 30% of the dirt has already been moved to create the city, which will be twice the size of Hong Kong. However, several developers have suspended their Waterfront City projects, and the rest of the massive project may be sold off to pay the bills of Nakheel, a Dubai World subsidiary.
Other Dubai projects in serious trouble include the 80-story twirling towers development, once proposed for Chicago and now under some sort of stealth construction at an undisclosed location in Dubai. There are the usual financial troubles along with differences of opinion between the financial backers, who aren't related to Dubai World, and the architect/developer David Fisher, a megalomanic who wants to keep the tower's location a secret in order to surprise everyone. The biggest surprise would be if the building is completed at all.
Meanwhile, closer to home, the Chicago Spire saga continues. On October 9 architect Santiago Calatrava came to Chicago to declare the project wasn't dead, even though cranes have been stilled since June. Three days later the Spire's sales office was evicted for nonpayment of rent. Now the Spire developer is trying to convince local unions to lend money to fund the project. The tactic isn't as desperate as it sounds: unions financed the construction of Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City, completed in 1964 and considered at the time to be a highly risky project. In any case, so far the unions haven't agreed to sign anywhere.
Failing to land the 2016 Olympics hasn't stopped the city from demolishing four Walter Gropius-designed buildings at Michael Reese Hospital: The Friend Convalescent Home, the Laundry Building, the Serum Center and now the Power Plant. Three more are scheduled for demolition, while the final building will undergo some sort of obscure evaluation, the end result of which will probably be demolition. The Gropius buildings are located on land designated to be athletes' housing for the Olympics, but no new use for the land has emerged.
And finally, a little box designed by another great Modernist architect was demolished last week. The design of the "Test Cell" has been attributed to Mies van der Rohe as part of the IIT campus, although Mies's grandson believes Mies handed off the design work to a junior architect. In any case, the building is gone, making way for a new train station.
Architect Renzo Piano talks to Abitare, the Italian design magazine. The interview is a design version of the Paris Review Writers at Work series in that Piano suggests that different working methods arise out of different conceptions of architecture as a design practice. Piano contrasts his working methods with dreamy architects like Frank Gehry, who "initially favours his mental imagination," and Jean Nuovel, "who lies down on his bed and starts to concoct something." Piano regards himself as a builder, an assembler of pieces, a kind of "pirate" who steals elements from other buildings and assembles them into a coherent whole. He likens his approach to the writer Italo Calvino, an obsessive note taker who immersed himself in daily experience, like a good architect should. Calvino began "stealing from daily life" because he "never believed in the idea of a wild creative impulse." Piano concurs, adding, "As a good Genovese and a Virgo, this method stays with you for your whole life."
In addition to his hands-on approach to design, Piano has a strong chthonic impulse. He regards buildings as three-dimensional objects that rise out of nature (or are embedded into cities, another metaphor he uses). He says, "Architecture can be seen as a way of lifting enormous structures from the land in order to create space for the unpredictable flows and movements of daily life." His IBM Traveling Pavilion, pictured above in Rome in 1986, expresses this impulse.
If buildings are rooted in place--an ideal being challenged by younger, more avant-garde architects--they should also express something deep within a culture. Piano tells the story of taking his 10-year-old son to a museum exhibit of Viking ships in Oslo. He says,
Looking at them you realise that the way that they are designed, which seems so strange, is not only connected to practical issues to do with sailing, but also to something else. When you build something there is a moment when you realise that it is not enough just to deal with the technical questions and that you need to add something extra – a dream, a desire, an imagine, something which represents you.
Viking ships pushed the ancient technology of sail-aided rowboats to its limits. But their non-functional design features expressed a shared cultural attitude about nature and death. As stout as their ships were, the Vikings didn't dare to cross the seas without a little magic built into their boats.
For Piano great architecture combines "a response to needs and a response to dreams." This belief leads him to defend his Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, which has been criticized for being too blandly functional, as "a powerful visual machine, carefully planned in every detail in order to perform this function to the highest level." Here I have to agree with Piano: the Modern Wing is a sublime machine. All of his best work can be seen this way.
One-Way Street [Einbahnstrasse, 1928] was Walter Benjamin's first effort to break out of the narrow confines of the academy and apply the techniques of literary studies to life as it is currently lived. For Benjamin criticism encompasses the ordinary objects of life, the literary texts of the time, films in current release, and the fleeting concerns of the public sphere. Following Benjamin's lead, this blog is concerned with the political content of the aesthetic and representations of the political in the media. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, "He who cannot take sides should keep silent."