On Thursday, December 23, 1920, The New York Times reported on page 9:
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.
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.
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.
If they’re to continue bearing our consciousness through the restlessly changing universe, the forms of our knowledge will also have to change. The men of this image, for example, are enclosed in a form shaped for the knowledge of earth and water. Soon, but not yet, it will be reshaped for the knowledge of air.
But not yet because the men don’t yet have a new name for their old form. They are still bound to earth and water by the old name, and they haven’t realized yet that the form’s impending ascent into air has left the name’s primary referent behind and reduced what is left to metaphor.
The name is Gondola. On earth, Gondola signifies transit through narrow waterways in a city delimited by history and language. But when this gondola ascends through limit-disdaining air, the men it bears within will learn that it needs a new name. With that revelation, the renamed form will be changed. It will no longer be made of boat-wood and boat-rope and sailcloth, and so it will no longer have to be thought of as boat-shaped. The men in the image can’t yet speak the new form’s new name. They are still under tuition in the Venetian dialect of the old form, a dialect that includes the term gondola. But between the student Venetians and us an educational caption at the image’s front plane promises that the new name will, in time, be taught. If the men there on the other side of the caption won’t have time to learn it, at least we on our side have already been taught that it will be learned.
For now, too, the caption teaches us something we can say in our own language about the language of the men in their gondola. It has to do with the limited time available for them to learn in, it’s in history’s own aesthetic form, and in that form it repeats once more history’s own unchangingly fascinating witticism: Little do they know.
Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Ausbildung von Zeppelin-Mannschaften an dem Schulschiff Hansa.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-024d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Photoshopped. The caption translates as, “Training of zeppelin crews on the school ship Hansa.” Hansa’s period of service as a trainer (Wikipedia, “LZ 13 Hansa”) dates this photograph between early 1915 and August 1916.
With many thanks to the New York Public Library for its newly released collection of restriction-free digital images.
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
(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.”
Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, second edition, trans. John Goodman (1924; Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), .
“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/.