So new, so new!

On Thursday, December 23, 1920, The New York Times reported on page 9:

Olympic arrival lede

The article was headed “Olympic’s Notables See Gain in Europe,” and among the disembarking notables its reporter interviewed was New York’s Assistant District Attorney Owen W. Bohan, on his way home from having assisted in Italy in a prosecution for murder. A photographer from the Bain News Agency was also on hand.

On the other side of the Atlantic, earlier in 1920, the architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret had caused himself to be made over as a theory apparatus named Le Corbusier. Throughout that year, that apparatus outputted a series of polemics in a journal named L’Esprit nouveau. In 1923, it collected the articles into a book and called the book Vers une architecture. The title implied that architecture was something that lay ahead, something yet to be achieved. Much of the material that supplied the book’s thesis and body of examples was marine architecture — specifically, the architecture of the great four-stacker ocean liners whose creators were now teaching — if architects would only listen! — that steel could be a system of the human body like muscle and bone. “So old, so old!” cried the apparatus as it contemplated the time when pre-metallic humans lived in caves of stone.

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Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, trans. John Goodman (Getty Research Institute, 2007), page 154.

And so, on a December day in 1920, another apparatus sailed up the bay into icy New York: a cylindrical construction built of linen and starch. At its apex, the construction displayed a triumphal decoration shaped like a head. The head looked human, but because the apparatus was made of cloth, the construction was only an idol. The cloth could have been woven in a cave, and one of its purposes as an idol was to represent to its cave-bound worshiper that there is a reality beyond representation. It is waiting to be seen. It is in the light, outside.

And yes: outside on December 22, 1920, looming behind the notable, not wrapped like him in cloth but warm from its own source below decks, there stood a cylinder of steel.

Bohan aiN

Perhaps the steel thing was only another idol, a transitional object erecting itself to mark the evolutionary passage from soft cloth to hard metal to a pure idea standing at the end of change. If it was, we probably don’t have to worry about our own soft mortal selves. There will be more idols to come, interposing their comforting representations between us and the moment when our hearts stop beating and desire ends. Le Corbusier himself was famously annoyed when the tenants of his buildings insisted on filling them with comfortable furniture. But for the quarter-century that began in about 1920, many people took Corbusian steel itself to be the idea, and worshiped it with temples and blood sacrifice.

Image source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014711873/. Photoshopped.

Toward the end, a new way of reading the word “light”

In New York, one cold morning as the long nineteenth century drew to its close, the front page of the New York Sun bustled with news of the continuing revolution in transportation. Off the coast of Massachusetts, said the Sun, the passenger liner Roma, carrying 500 souls, had been driven by a gale onto the rocks of an island called No Man’s Land, where it was stranded for four hours before being safely refloated. In Florida, Lieutenant J. M. Murray of the Naval Aviation Corps had been killed when his airplane nose-dived into Pensacola Bay. This was the naval station’s first fatal air accident. On the other hand, in California Silas Christofferson had flown from Bakersfield to Los Angeles, reaching an altitude of 7000 feet and effecting history’s first crossing of the Sierras by air. And at the bottom of the page, a one-sentence story datelined London declared: “It is announced that the new Cunard liner Aquitania will sail from this side on her maiden voyage to New York on May 30.”

The page was dated February 17, 1914. Just one more decade afterward, with the long nineteenth century definitively in the past, Le Corbusier would claim the Aquitania as a paradigm for his pedagogy of twentieth-century space.

No people are on view in these images. For Le Corbusier, the people always were secondary to the geometry. But as of 1914 the Sun was still following journalism’s chatty nineteenth-century convention of humanizing events by giving them
names —

(Who, exactly, was Silas Christofferson? No, reader, you don’t know either. But as soon as it crossed your mind that you don’t know, you realized that you live now by means of a sensibility from which the nineteenth century’s ways of perceiving and reacting have departed. Only in the artificial nineteenth century imagined by the twentieth-century ironist P. G. Wodehouse could Jeeves praise Bertie’s new shirts by observing in the spirit of Le Corbusier that the monograms would come in handy if Bertie should forget his name.)

— and this front page had one more chatty story to tell.

At about 7:15 on the night of February 16, said the story, a train on Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue elevated line derailed at 138th Street and sideswiped a car on the adjacent track, sending it over the side of the trestle with one end hanging from the rails and the other down on the street in a pile of snow. The car was empty except for its motorman, John Becker, and he wasn’t hurt. But the nineteenth-century conventions of journalism insisted on completing the anecdote by furnishing the named and extricated Motorman Becker with a quip to say, and so to the immortal record Motorman Becker was then said to have said:

“Well, here I am. Guess I’ll go get my dinner.”

To enlarge the quip and try to imagine it as an oration, click it. The click won’t get you far, though, because this nineteenth-century front page is all text, no pictures.

But the long nineteenth century also brought perception the gifts of a camera and a tripod and a frying pan filled with powdered magnesium. In the right hands, these turned out to make it possible to understand in the dark. And so, at the end of this particular century of development, readers began seeing their reading matter in a new way: without words.

Here, for instance, is the wordless version of the anecdote of Motorman Becker. Right at the start, its language is distanced from reading by the effect of translation — in this case, translation from text to chiaroscuro, with the surprise effect of a suddenly vertical railroad car finding its balancing irony in the surprise effect of a suddenly illuminated night. Imagining Motorman Becker locked in his dark cabin in the image’s interior, we on the image’s exterior are locked in a frame full of brilliant reflections. If we do any reflecting of our own there, it won’t be in words. We may think of words later, sitting at (for instance) a typewriter in a newspaper’s city room, but here and now we can have nothing in mind except light and dark, in silence. The Sun story is full of excited conversations in the crowd and the noise of the Eighth Avenue streetcar that eventually hauled the El car back down to horizontal, and because we’re now reading the sound-words in sound-words of our own, the sounds continue. But as you begin seeing your way into this oblong of black, the story is light and dark (seen), and silence (not heard), and nothing else.

In scenes like these, filled with nothing else in a way that isn’t available to text, frying pans loaded with new light began helping readers at the end of the long nineteenth century to draw a dark line around a moment of time and say, “Forever after, anything outside this frame will be named The End.”

Sources:

Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, second edition, trans. John Goodman (1924; Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), [154].

“Elevated car falls to street 2/16/14.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002699891/. Photoshopped.

The New York Sun from 1914 is online at the Library of Congress’s Historic American Newspapers collection, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.

Allegorical monument to late capitalism

For the past several years the Donald Trump of Japan, a billionaire named Genshiro Kawamoto, has been buying multimillion-dollar houses in an oceanfront neighborhood of Honolulu. Once he has bought a house he partially demolishes it, then abandons its ruins. From time to time during this period he has descended on Honolulu, proclaimed his intention of building a museum on his consolidated property, and then returned to Japan. Meanwhile, nothing has grown on his shore beside Hawaii’s rich sea except an expanding ring of blight.

Now, however, the museum appears to be under construction. Click on the images to see it, rising tall and enigmatic in the distance —

perhaps a fountain where Godzillas may drink deep.

A letter to English 434: yes, literature thinks of itself as architecture

In the classical era, Horace ends his Odes with a vaunt: Exegi monumentum aere perennius, “I have built a monument whose bronze is everlasting.” Centuries later, the romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson ends his “Nature” with the same metaphor of construction:

Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line by line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.

Sometimes, too, literature and architecture have been erected side by side, in a way that’s explicitly interchangeable. That was the case with the stained glass windows of medieval churches, whose illustrations of sacred literature were called “the books of the poor.” With poetic economy, Milton’s Penseroso calls them “storied windows.” The interchangeability is fully reversible, too: building as book, book as building. Click this example to enlarge it for detail.

What you see here on the title page of the first edition of the King James Bible (1611) is a literature which asks us to live in it as if it were a building. The building is specifically a church: a church whose storied stones have been shaped into a work of literature. Unifying the building’s decorative detail is a single visual metaphor depicting the text as a church portal open to the words calling out to us from within, from just behind this page: a text reading itself out to us as “The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New.”

Flanking the door are Moses and Aaron, the two lawgivers of the Old Testament. On their paper page, the two men are to be read as architectural ornaments made of stone, each one in a niche under a bracket which holds up a frieze of the tents and coats of arms of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Above that storied rooftop detail is unwalled heaven, with its two lights, sun and moon, and the source of illumination expressing itself in Hebrew letters as the Name of God. Below that undepictable utterance, the story of the Trinity is incarnated for us to experience with the senses as a pair of picture stories: an image of the Holy Ghost as a dove and an image of the Son as the sacrificial Lamb of God. Around the Lamb sit the Twelve Apostles, each one telling his story of himself with the help of an iconic attribute, and in the corners of the image sit the Four Evangelists, writing. Each of the writers has a story-telling iconic companion, too: Matthew with his angel, Mark with his lion, Luke with his ox, and John with his eagle. And finally, at the bottom, on the stairs, is the Eucharistic image of the pelican, whose story is a legend of a mother who feeds her young with her own blood.

English majors, remember big-talking Laertes in Hamlet referring to himself with characteristic bluster as “the kind life-rendering pelican.” Remember too that Shakespeare is exactly contemporary with this picture guidebook to the architecture of heaven. And one more time: the stairs depicted in the guidebook lead up to a door. The door opens to show us that it is the tenor of a religious metaphor. The vehicle of the metaphor, the image that communicates the tenor to us, is architectural. So yes: it probably does matter that we’re learning about modernist literature this semester inside a building which derives from modernism but gets its own defining metaphors all wrong.