Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Architecture Needs Urban Exploration


One day, when I was about 4 years old and living with my grandmother, I discovered the basement.  Steep, narrow, stairs wound down into a vast, black space.  Negotiating each stair required increasing bravery, the dark, much more.  Past an antique roll top desk and a disused coal bin that could have been a dungeon, a small shaft of dusty light fell from one of the few windows.  Just visible beyond was a braced trunk which, to my four year old eyes, looked exactly like a pirate’s treasure chest.  It even had a large and ornate padlock which came open with a gentle pull.  Within was a priceless treasure:  my uncle’s Army Air Force officer’s uniform from World War II replete with insignia.  I wore the Eisenhower jacket  with the sleeves rolled up and the service cap stuffed with newspaper for the remainder of the summer.

I mention it because it suggests something fundamental about being human.  I would go much further than T. S. Eliot: we are all explorers, from the beginning to the end.  In Autumn of last year I came across and read Bradley Garret’s “Explore Everything:  Place-Hacking the City.”  Garret’s chronicle of his and the London Consolidation Crew’s transgressive urban exploration of sites as dramatic and varied as the London Shard while under construction to all the disused London Tube stations to the Edinburgh Forth Railway Bridge can be read as a great adventure memoir, a sub-culture anthropological study, even as a kind of sub-culture tragedy suffused with a melancholy born of the futility of a brave group of misfits pursuing dangerous physical exploration to overcome social exclusion.  The photographs are phenomenal.

I was walking across Blackfriars Bridge and despairing of London’s skyline evolution one morning a few weeks ago when it occurred to me that the problem is that architects are being directed or are even choosing to design to the wrong values.  Height and presence alone, are finally static and boring.  Even complex curvilinear shapes, the creation of which I spent 20 years contributing to the mathematics thereof, are no better.  For some reason I’m reminded of Patton’s statement about the obsolescence of fixed-fortifications.  That’s part of the reason that Garrett’s exploration of the unfinished Shard is compelling whilst a visit to its observation levels now is more than anti-climactic.  In contrast, consider the walk to the top of St. Paul’s dome or even a lazy ride on the Eye.

Especially in a city with the history of London, but any place really, architects need to design buildings that make people want to explore them.  Structure and shape must dynamically reveal both mystery and meaning.  I doubt Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren and the other great architects of the 17th and 18th century had that in mind.  Certainly James of St. George was thinking of other things when he designed the superlative Welsh Edwardian castles.  But that is their effect.  We love visiting those castles, particularly on a day with changeable weather when there are few or no other visitors because they make us into explorers.  St. Paul’s, indeed all the great English cathedrals do that in part because of the tension between their dual role of historical commemoration and religious celebration.  Tension, geometric or cultural is essential.  We are dramatic creatures.  Fencing tonight.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

St. Crispin's Day


Then call we this the field of Agincourt,
Fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus.

Last night Lynn and I watched “Henry V” in honor of both Shakespeare and that most famous of English kings.  We had a difficult choice as we have 6 versions (Laurence Olivier, David Gwillim, Robert Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Jamie Parker, Tom Hiddleston) from which to choose.  I love them all; we’re fans.  We settled on Branagh as it was the one we’d seen least recently.
Branagh made the film when he was young but after years of experience with the RSC and in particular performance in the histories.  All that work and apparent passion paid off in originality and accessibility.  He had the courage and foresight to find the political drama in minor scenes often dismissed to comedy and find the honest feeling and humanity in the “low characters” who previously were so often turned into clowns.

My favorite scene in his version is in Act IV, Scene 7, when Henry and Fluellen (Ian Holm) embrace after the battle, weeping, obviously amazed they’re still alive.
FLUELLEN:  Your grandfather of famous memory, an't please your majesty, and your great-uncle Edward the Plack Prince of Wales, as I have read in the chronicles, fought a most prave pattle here in France.
KING HENRY V:  They did, Fluellen.
FLUELLEN:  Your majesty says very true: if your majesties is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which, your majesty know, to this hour is an honourable badge of the service; and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy's day.
KING HENRY V:   I wear it for a memorable honour; For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.

My favorite production, nevertheless remains, the Trevor Nunn production for the RSC, directed by Terry Hands with Alan Howard as Henry.  I’d seen the play a few times before and didn’t like it much, particularly compared to Henry IV, part 1.  It had always seemed, stagey, declamatory and lacking in drama.
Then I saw Alan Howard’s Henry.  I suspect he found his emotional center in the king’s fearful sense of personal guilt for his father’s usurpation expressed in Henry’s prayer before the battle.  Here was a very human Henry living on edge striving to balance devastating emotions and ferocious will.  Every time the French herald came to him the audience could see his terror and his heroism. Here was a Henry who could have lost the battle of Agincourt but didn’t because he won the battle to balance himself.  It seemed to me then, and still does, that Howard and Hands had seen more deeply into the heart of the play than any before and found a drama about the nature of courage.
I freely admit that there is much of that Henry in my characterization of "that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales" at Crecy.
I want to mention two books about the historical Henry that I highly recommend.  The first is Juliet Barker’s Agincourt who comes closer than anyone else I’ve read to a reasoned derivation of Henry’s character from his history.  Her insights about Shrewsbury, the horrible facial wound he suffered there and the consequences are particularly original.  The second is Ian Mortimer’s 1415: Henry V's Year of Glory  Mortimer’s book is a day by day chronicle of that year and everything that was transpiring in Europe, and how Henry was affected by and took advantage of those events.  Both books changed how I view the late medieval world and may dramatically change your perception as well.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On the Importance of Being Silly


I fenced last night, (footwork only as I have some sort of shoulder muscle pull) and this morning I’m awake late and feeling scattered and silly.  For example, I’m imagining say that Archimedes had invented and marketed smart phones and some subsequent texts and conversations, say betwixt Hippolyta and Theseus or betwixt Bohemund I and Anna Comnena or betwixt John Wycliffe and John Hus (the great Christian religious reformers who preceded Luther).

As I said, silly.  So in the spirit of Python (Monte) take it further, imagine text conversations not bound by concurrency, such as Churchill texting with Marlborough, his hero and ancestor, during the battle of Britain, or between the modern architect Frank Gehry and Filippo Brunelleschi, the designer and builder of the impossible dome of Florence Cathedral.  Or George S. Patton in the Ardennes in December of 1944 texting with George S. Patton at Thermopylae in September 480 BC.

Silly, absurd, but potentially interesting.  Tuesday afternoon, on the way to another fencing lesson, I listened to Terry Gross interviewing the actor Edward Norton on her program Fresh Air.  He said that in his youth he and his friends had made amateur Kung Fu and Spaghetti Westerns with a VHS camera using just the pause and rewind buttons to cut between scenes or capture retakes.  Then there was a moment of perfect wisdom, he stated that one of the great challenges in creating a great film or finding a great filmic performance in spite of all the expensive toys, schedule constraints and bureaucracy, is finding that wild, silly spirit you that made you want to try anything with an old VHS camera.  Dylan Thomas and Dan Jones in their famous pub flights of fancy understood the same thing.

I’m particularly fond of two of Edward Norton’s characterizations:  the leper king Baldwin in “Kingdom of Heaven” in which in spite of his silver mask he manages to find the perfect balance of frailty and heroism to evoke a certain kind of medieval ideal.  The second is his performance as Eisenheim in “The Illusionist.”  When he and his childhood love played by Jessica Biel are finally reunited in a coach he delivers a simple line with perfect, understated, romantic force.  “Hello, Sophie.”  And, because it’s so minimal, so perfectly set up dramatically, it’s as good as Bogart’s “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time"


As a consequence of my sui generous undergraduate education centered on Mathematics and English Literature the only novel I’ve ever read in the original Russian is Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.  Though last week was a traveling weekend I managed to finish reading it again, this time in translation.

My sense is that most people in the west, if they know Russian literature at all, know Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekov or Pasternak but at best may have heard of Lermontov which is a great shame.  A Hero of Our Time, his only novel, is at once a complex psychological portrait of an appealing, and disturbing character, a brilliant picaresque and a visceral travel novel.  Pechorin, the protagonist, is more complicated, self-aware and interesting than Pushkin’s Onegin.  He poses much more interesting questions about psychology, friendship and societal structure.  And he travels through finely rendered extraordinary landscapes.

He is also much more relevant today.  Pechorin is a 19th century Russian officer in the Caucasus, a region now bearing the weight of international strategy and politics once again.  More importantly, he is part of an imperial occupying force and experiences the ambivalence, ironies and danger that necessarily follow.  I found myself thinking about Phil Klay’s characters from Redeployment and how much they shared.  Lermontov’s expressive, clear and physical language foreshadowed Hemingway and they have much in common technically and aesthetically.

A big surprise for me was to discover how Lermontov had affected my own fiction.  As a Black Prince on Bloody Fields has merited some praise for how the character’s introspection is integrated with the action.  That came from Lermontov.

A Russian mini-series was made of the novel in 2006 and a central episode, Pechorin’s duel, is available on Youtube, .  It’s definitely worth a look.

Lermontov, a Russian military officer who had much in common with his protagonist, died in a duel when he was in his twenties, as did √Čvariste Galois.  A quote (my translation):

"Passions are just ideas at the moment of their birth."  - Lermontov

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Site Lines: Modern London and Medieval Bologna


Lately, whenever I look at the London skyline from anywhere an odd artifact from Palazzo d'Accursio off Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore comes to mind.  It was the kind of thing that was easy to forgo in favor of the early Renaissance art and more dramatic historical artifacts.  But it communicated something that could only be appreciated geometrically or visually.  It was a model of medieval Bologna, sometime around 1200-1300.  At that time, Bologna had around 180 independent towers.

They were built by bankers, guilds and the super-rich families of the age probably as one of the few practical means of protecting wealth which necessarily had a cumbersome, physical form.  The towers were square and utilitarian.  The few windows were arrow slits.  Indeed, in the ceiling of one of the colonnades that make the city such a pleasure to walk at any time of year, you can still see a crossbow bolt where it was shot into the ceiling.  It must have been interesting to do business then.

The city’s architecture was so crowded and complicated and interesting, I’m surprised it didn’t show up as a location for one of the versions of Assassin’s Creed.  Traversing the vertical labyrinth by leaping from tower to tower could have just the right blend of intellectual challenge and adrenalin for an exceptional computer game.

Needless to say, the site lines would have been terrible and it was an expensive and brute force solution to a problem tractable to more efficient and elegant social and political alternatives.  As the towers in London continue to rise, I fear for the extraordinary visual beauty of the city.

Few of Bologna’s towers survive.
Yet, I have to admit I have a passion for monumental, fortress architecture.  Here are two morning hike photos:  one of the town of Peille, France and one from the Four Corners in the southwest US.  It’s interesting to consider what common exigencies, caused them to make some similar choices and what role, if any, aesthetics played.
Nevertheless, medieval Bologna must have been beautiful from a distance on the right kind of day.