The Blue Raccoon

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Parade As It Goes By
Not Comcastic

[Image via]
A few days ago I met an actress and production designer, probably a decade younger than me, who has never owned a television. Friends of ours raised their children without the box--or Christmas. Another friend of mine recalled that as a girl, the television was covered by a sheet and turning on the device meant having to uncover the screen.

I'm meeting more of these people who have either chosen to go without--much like a smoker who decides to quit cold turkey--or even undergo periodic media fasts.

The average U.S. household has at the very least three televisions. Heck, they even make refrigerators with one embedded in the door. They come in the back of car seats. I cannot rail too much about electric soma. Our household meets the national average. But in terms of actual viewing, there is far less than more than what's estimated as the average -- more than eight hours a day. The Partner-in-Art may keep a movie channel on while she's working, but like many of us, she's not actually "watching."

Me, I get caught up in Discovery and History channel programs. And the news. But, with whatever seriousness with which we engage television, this is all entertainment. The television is part of our attention and what we do in lieu of something else more productive. Nowadays, between television and online surfing, many folks in the U.S. spend more time consuming media than sleeping. We are distracting ourselves dreamless.

Once upon a time, a meditating-yoga-posing writing friend of mine suggested that most people would say that focused meditation, as the yogis do, is crazy. Yet they'll stare at an appliance with moving images for hours. Would you watch a toaster for that long? Television blocks our selves from ourselves.

The convention of the Kurt Vonnegut story Harrison Bergeron has people given implants that emit distracting noises that interrupt their thought processes. People who exhibit remarkable talent or intellectual prowess are given restrictions by the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, a humorless woman who shoots a ballerina on live television. Nuff said.

On Broadway these days there's The Farnsworth Invention. I'd like to see it; one of my favorite writers, Aaron Sorkin, created the script and Hank Azaria is David Sarnoff and Jimmi Simpson as Farnsworth (pictured). The reviews have been so-so. I wouldn't care. It's Broadway. [Image via NPR, Joan Marcus]

Philo Farnsworth didn't intend for television to turn into what it has. I first encountered him in an excellent novel, Carter Beats The Devil, about an historic 1920s illusionist who navigates a "a magical -- and sometimes dangerous -- world, where illusion is everything, and everything is illusory" wherein Farnsworth thinks his invention may inspire world peace.

After all, he observes, how can you kill a man when you can watch what he's eating for breakfast? How far we've traveled where I can sit in my breakfast nook and watch U.S. tanks roll across the Iraq desert, as I did during the Second Gulf War, while eating brunch. And the total voyeurism--voluntary and otherwise--of the Internet further twists the concept.

So while shoveling the cat boxes and performing household chores this past Sunday, I had on Flags Of Our Fathers, which I'd wanted to see. This examination of the circumstances surrounding the iconic photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima (in fact, the second one), and the celebrity that accompanied the men captured in the picture (not all of whom were recognized at the time), which did a big number on their heads and subsequent lives.

The film stakes ground between the genuine heroism of soldiers asked to make the ultimate sacrifices when fine jingling words seem quite distant indeed, and the propaganda and opportunism that war breeds. The story compiles tragedies, piled upon tragedies. You do understand better why the U.S. in the end dropped its atomic bombs: to end the slaughter, stop the drain on the treasury (and demonstrate to the Soviets that we had a bigger stick).

Anyway, as compelling as Flags is, the advertising that came toward the end was even more interesting. Not quite fnords, I guess, but for me, wont to extrapolate from slender tendrils of information, curious. After the film's conclusion, a trailer for Breach came on. This concerns the famous spy case of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent convicted of selling secrets to the Soviet Union--for years. After this came a trailer for Baghdad Hospital: Inside The Red Zone, an HBO documentary shot by a physician working in some of the worst conditions imaginable, as doctors try patching together residents of Baghdad after the bombs have blown up and the snipers have done their gruesome work.

So, we go from war horror/celebrity propaganda/obscurity and alcoholism to James Bond-religion deluded/traitor/outed to busted nation/wrecked people/stuff we don't see otherwise on television.

We never see the whole story of war or even politics; we wouldn't want to and most couldn't bear to watch, and there are always those who either work the system, or think they can, and cause their comeuppance. Problem is, that never comes soon enough -- if at all-- while billions are spent and millions of people are damaged and die. And the great names that today inspire respect, fear or loathing, in the end, are like that stranded statue of Ozymandias.

That said, we cannot resign ourselves to mundanity -- and yet many of are willing to do just that.

I think, too, of the recent passing of political events, in this world where "illusion is everything, and everything illusory." The recent endorsement of Barack Obama's candidacy by Caroline Kennedy and Sen. Ted Kennedy comes across as political theater designed to capture the spirit of Kennedy's high flown rhetoric, but deflect the realities of his record.

Kennedy was a conflicted and contradictory man and a great president, but one whose full legacy is forever impossible to determine because the course was cut short. Kennedy, who due to injuries sustained during World War II while in battle in the Pacific used pain-killing drugs and was at times in need of a backbrace, nonetheless projected an image of virile vitality.

Kennedy sent "advisors" to Vietnam and meddled with the Diem government when he should've stayed out, and then there's Cuba. Of course, he also stared down Khruschev and the world didn't end in October 1962.

[Adlai Stevenson shows aerial photos of Cuban missiles to the United Nations in November 1962., via Wikipedia]

Kennedy was a womanizer, but he also took up the cause of civil rights, inaugurated the space program and inspired a generation of young people to commit to national service. These combined overshadow the legacy of any of the presidents from the past 30 years.

But why does Obama need to have the mantle of a false U.S. "Camelot" placed upon him? Under 40 voters won't care, or not much, and the over 40 voters are looking more for somebody who doesn't have Clintonian baggage and can stand on their on two feet and look you straight in the eye and tell you the truth.

Or am I fantasizing? This is a world of illusion in which we are all co-conspirators. As Aaron Sorkin's famous phrase was put in the mouth of Jack Nicholson, "You can't handle the truth." What we should demand is not "leadership" but "citizenship." We should want someone who'll let democracy work as intended, not by imposing a top-down counterfeit version. What Obama (or Hillary) should've been doing is coming into town meetings and taking notes from the audience. He would listen, more than talk, and try to form some kind of consensus from what he heard to devise policies, rather than running an obstacle course set by opponents, and by accepting what is tantamount to bribes from special interests--just like everybody else does.

The people are supposed to be the leaders of politicians, not the reverse. Waiting for one to receive a public anointment is a bad sign, if you ask me. And it's our damn fault. But if you're Barack Obama, and you want to be president in the current regime of U.S. politics, you can't very well decline with a gracious speech. You smile, wave and let the cameras roll. And hope that your contradictions and conflicts don't make too much noise in the next coming weeks and months. And you know that's going to happen, sooner or later, no matter what. Best to have what armor you can find, in Camelot.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

The Size of a Baby Hippo
Wiliam Gibson's take on the consumers of mass culture

From novelist William Gibson's Idoru; the pop culture trends analyst Kathy Torrance is explaining to Colin Laney, a potential hire for her Slitscan celebrity monitoring firm, the metaphorical characteristics of the company's end users.

"Which is best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally, I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes, and makes them sting. It has no mouth, Laney, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections."

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Triumph of the Neurotic Simplifiers
The zero-sum game of U.S. politics claims yet another victim

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who as the billion-eyed audience may recall has been a subject in posts past, (shown here with his partner-in-life Elizabeth, via the now Flying Dutchman Kucinich website), isn't part of the Presidential Beauty Pageant anymore.

He was turned off by the mainstream media because he couldn't afford to haul their pampered behinds around on buses. Kucinich got shut out of debates since he couldn't get the attention he deserved, and due to his lack of access to airplay, he couldn't participate in the roulette style methodology of politics posing as democratic politics in this country.

Just turn off the money machines. Television should participate in democracy, rather than sell underarm deoderant, and give time to candidates during election cycles--half our a piece--like infomercials. They must air a certain percentage of commerials with a lottery as to who gets on when. Take the need to raise such staggering amounts to run, and you'll get a better grade of candidate. Simple. Except then people of the nation don't want better candidates, otherwise they would've taken decisive action a long time ago to make that happen.

We are content to bumble along with a parade of meritocratic milquetoast mediocres long as their views reflect what around somewhat less than half the country says it thinks is important. This isn't republican democracy as it should be; this is more like a psychological disorder.

I suppose I knew the day of Kucinich's announcement was coming, I just didn't want it now. But a man has to know when to cut his losses. And he wants to keep his Congressional seat. People may have wanted his message, but he couldn't reach enough of them who would've otherwise cared.

So, welcome to the John McCain presidency, a foundering economy and unending war and rumors of war, here, there and everywhere, and a consistent refusal to face the deficit music. Anybody who seeks even to approach the hard cold truths is labeled a kook, or ignored. Ron Paul has his cult following. Mike Gravel sunk without a trace. Kucinich, with his pocket Constitution and wild and woolly ideas about, well, peace, didn't get his message through. But I'm not even sure enough people, who could make the difference, wanted to hear what he was saying.

Hillary is unelectable. Obama could possibly give McCain a run for his money; but in the end, the people of the United States are too scared and the conservative political structures too powerful to allow him an election, or if he manages, a term of office that isn't fraught with constant political and personal attacks that will neuter his effectiveness.

But my guess is that the pallid McCain will be the White House's next occupant, because he's old, not really a maverick anymore if he ever was, and few people really want the paradigm shift that is so needed. And perhaps that is well. McCain will inherit a rasher of shit from Bush, and McCain will go down with James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover as men who failed in a crisis.

Those in the field who have a seat in Congress--Kucinich, Paul, Obama and Clinton--should go back and do what they're supposed to do. Provide the balance to an executive that is bloated like a summer tick, swollen on other people's blood, and inflated further by arrogance and delusions of grandeur.

They've all failed. Every single last one of them. Some have tried to restrain the curtain that's falling over us all, but they aren't getting enough assistance. Nobody wants to believe that the ship can, in fact, sink if the management is insufficient enough wrap the vessel around an iceberg.

The Republicans seek to bribe the citizenry with $300 a piece, and underwrite the stupidity of those who enrolled in ARMs, and thus we're all culpable in the downfall, yet no one is taking the blame. From Enron to the Bush administration's shilly shallying about whatever torture is, and the 935 lies told to get us in the sucking sands of Iraq, to the sub prime mortgage lenders--and their buyers--it's all just rock and roll, right? None of this seems to matter to anybody.

And I'm told by those who wish to hope, that, hey, it's still early, and maybe Hillary (who at this point seems to me assured the coronation, er, I mean nomination) can win the Presidency. I just don't have enough confidence in the U.S. electorate, which seems at best bewildered and at worst deluded, in making a choice that isn't a pallid white guy. We are a Coke v. Pepsi country, after all.

How heartless the rightists can get is evidenced by the bloviating John Gibson of Fixed Noise, cracking wise on the day of Heath Ledger's death, and the nutjobs who say they'll picket the actor's funeral because he dared to make a film where he portrayed a gay sheep herder (not a freaking cowboy, as everybody says).

These people say the respect life. They don't. They respect nothing and nobody.

As Norman F. Cantor, the great Medieval historian wrote, emphasis mine:

"The study of medieval history teaches us that civilization is the result of a complex interpenetration of spirit and power of moral and material resources; that this delicate compromise is not easy to maintain, that its preservation requires mature intelligence, sophisticated moderation, and constant vigilance; and that the enemies of civilisation, apart from the uncomprehending primitives, are the socially irresponsible zealots and the neurotic simplifiers."

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

More Notes About Art & Architecture
"Lost & Found" at Sol Cooper conclusion; Teresita Fernandez and Cece Cole at Reynolds Gallery; Rachel Flynn and The People's Masterplan and the Rage of the Élites.

"Lost and Found" broadside that demonstrates how these unique women also have variable approaches to their names, though she's Kathryn Purvis, not Catherine. Sol's people must've not heard the correct spelling through his Bluetooth headset.

This image by Amie Oliver captures work by all the participating Lost & Found artists; (left) Kate Duffy's The Night Has Only Grown Darker; Duffy's Untitled, 2008; Aimee Joyaux's Untitled S; Susann Whittier's kinetic Bird's Eye; and off to the right, Kathryn Purvis' Untitled I-IV.

All images via Amie Oliver.

Kate Duffy's The Night Only Grows Darker, which has the best title this side of a film noir classic, is comprised of a shipping crate, with acrylic, ink and enamel. In person, the piece has a quality of Japanese print (the water) and early wood block art--I'm thinking of those tombstone shapes--and the vocabulary of what's become called outsider art.

This is Amie's Deconstruction, with conte crayon, acrylic and wood puzzle parts she found in the alley behind our house. Or did I pick up the pieces some time ago? I don't remember. Together we find some curious finds.
Her Lost & Found work was so new, I'd not even seen the constructions, and was as surprised by them as a number of the visitors were. In a way, she's returned to a style of layering and texturing of materials that she was using when I first became acquainted with her work lo now some 12 years ago, but with revived energy and color. Plus, I always like that hat on her.

Susann Whittier's Bird's Eye is one of the exhibition's more intriguing pieces. This is a moving sculpture made of plaster, doll eyes, springs, wood and a motor that turns this surreal Ferris wheel as the lids of the eyes open as the proceed around and close as they return up. Visitors stood before Bird's Eye with a mixture of fascination and amusement. It's reminiscent of something out of Bunuel and The Twilight Zone.

Aimee Joyaux provided a quiet tour-de-force here with Steel Bouquet I-III placed upon big, old timbers. These look like dried flowers but are made of lead pipe, stell, copper, encaustic and oil. The shadows create twins for the arrangements.

This is Untitled IX in the delightful series Kathryn Purvis contributed to this exhibition. The elements are an oxidation-fired ceramic, seahorse, crystallized rock. The shapes remind me of both dogwood blossoms and doubloons, or other coins found in shipwrecks at the ocean's bottom.

And though not part of the exhibition, but participating in the general atmosphere in Petersburg that night, were the High Street Low Lifes that play old-time folk and rag-time pop music of a century ago, mixed with their interpretations of more contemporary music, and their own, too. This is plinky-plunky-kazooey fun that you'd otherwise need to hear on scratchy 75s on a windup Victrola.

They scrunched into a recessed entranceway next to the gallery and held forth. Their Libertarian nature is on display.

Here they are, from You Tube.

• Teresita Fernández and CeCe Cole
at Reynolds Gallery

The work of Teresita Fernández (VCU MFA, 1992) has received great praise from august sources far beyond this little speck of the Interwebs. All's need saying: "MacArthur 'Genius' Grant recipient in 2005" and "Profile in Vogue, April 2007." She's of Cuban heritage, grew up in Miami, lives in Brooklyn and is turning the notion of landscape inside out.

Viewing her cool but not cold abstract works at the Reynolds Gallery I was reminded of the JMW Turner exhibition I saw in D.C. not long ago. Turner made the mold, busted the mold to pieces, and became "the first Impressionist." Fernández is taking another leap, using unusual materials and bringing aspects of the outdoor environment into the gallery, and as part of larger installations. The pinhole photographs/drawings are where her heart shows best.

Upstairs is the work of Louisiana-born CeCe Cole. Some of the pieces were conceived or completed during a recent residency in Berlin. Back in 2005, CeCe created (in this humble scribe's view) one of the more accessible and enjoyable experiences at VCU's Solvent Space at Plant Zero. That was an installation. The current show at Reynolds is paintings and other makings, "tamed in frames" as she said. Cole's work is sometimes almost theatrical, where Fernández is if not restrained, then informed by the tension between showing and telling.

Rachel Flynn lets the people have their say--
and it annoys those who don't think the people know
a damn thing about any damn thing.

The cover girl for this past week's Style Weekly is Rachel O'Dwyer Flynn. Amy Biegelsen provides glimpses into the character of Richmond's Director of Community Development, and of late, the most sensible yet visionary member of the city administration. [The headline, "In Like Flynn" gives into a journalistic need to make a clever pun; fact is, Flynn's plan isn't finalized, must meet approval of grumpy developers and hostile City Council members, and won't be as an easy accomplishment as Erroll Flynn's infamous seductions.]

Some credit should be extended to the Governor-Mayor for bringing Fynn to the Holy City from Lynchburg, and, so far, allowing her to make an impact such hasn't been seen, heard or felt from the office she holds in a quite a long while. She's come upon the rocks of politics in Richmond, and whether she'll be able or guided around the dangerous outcroppings, or lost at sea and allowed to drown, remains to be seen.

The RVA-blogosphere is rife with views about her efforts, you can read about them at Urban Richmond, Buttermilk & Molasses and River City Rapids, among others. So I'm coming along with me-too-ism.

And, billion-eyed audience, I am weary. I wish my resignation was not so because this is a tacit expression of victory for those in this city who would lord their power over us plebes. I am reminded of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky's parable in The Brothers Karamazov. If you've never taken the opportunity to at least read this section of the Great Novel, you should.

Jesus returns and arrives in Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs miracles, gets arrested and tossed in a dungeon. There, he is lectured/hectored by the agéd Inquisitor who instructs Jesus that miracles give people false hopes. They--the masses-- don't know what to do with freedom because they aren't smart enough to make up their own minds. The burden of the Church [i.e. authority] is making those decisions for the people's own good. Though they are led to death and destruction, they die happy in their ignorance.

This arrangement commits the rulers to a lonesome and miserable job, but somebody has to impose order for the betterment of humanity. Dostoevsky's Inquisitor is a cross between a nihilist, who doesn't believe in anything, and a proto-neo-conservative, who prefers lies and deceptions fed to the greater public, in order to maintain order.

Seque to this section of the Flynn article, and the comment follows a quote from the Master Plan draft exhorting for the preservation and rehabilitation of the Medical College of Virginia West Hospital. Emphasis mine.

"That kind of language troubles Bob Mills, an architect and chair of the planning commission, the body that must approve the plan before sending it to City Council.

“I have been getting my ears chewed on this thing,” he says. The plan is good, he says,
but visionary to the point of being unrealistic. “This is not Rachel Flynn’s master plan. This is the planning commission and the city of Richmond’s plan. She’s the staff. It won’t go anywhere unless the planning commission votes on it.”

Part of the problem, Mills says, is that
not all of the voices in the community were heard in the planning sessions.

Clearly the people who have participated are the standard 200 or 300 people interested in this stuff,” Mills says. He says the city’s plan “doesn’t have a place getting into the business of VCU and [the state],” whose buildings are within the city, but not controlled by city government."

I am grown tired of such mishigas from this gentleman and those of his ilk because...because somehow they are the self-appointed experts on the best way to direct the city's development. God forbid that the people choose for themselves. Though Alexander Hamilton may not have actually remarked during a dinner conversation, "Your people, sir, is nothing but a great beast," the attitude is implicit in statements by kill-joy developers. Those folks just want to pocket a profit without recongition of posterity or legacy. Richmond to them is no different from Sheboygan or Kalamazoo.

I'll never forget a meeting a few years ago at the VCU conference hall--a former Unitarian church-- there at Harrison and Floyd. Must've been more than 12 years ago and I was on some panel and in my evangelical form and some idiot in a suit and tie representing the institution castigated me and Ed Slipek Jr. saying that nobody cared about these buildings except for us. In sum, what VCU's planners thought should go up was the right choice because nobody really cares what buildings look like, nor their effect on the surrounding built environment. I don't think this person even believed what he was saying; but if he spoke his own conscience, then he didn't deserve any facilities planning position at a university which is the largest custodian of antique buildings in the entire city.

These self-aggrandizers obey the golden rule: they have the gold so they make the rule. Their positions make them impervious to argument or reason that opposes their febrile preposterous ruinous designs. They consider themselves in the unassailable right, and we--the 200 or 300 of the regular suspects as the above quote describes us--are wrong, even if we aren't.

During my tenure as a journalist I have interviewed many newcomer and longtimer Richmonders and without exception, when asked why they've moved here or stayed, the answer is architecture, arts and history. They prefer Richmond over other places because of what is not, instead of what these élites would muck it up into becoming.

What may the élites offer in rebuttal except demolition and failure? What have they wrought since 1948, when the first Master Plan passed? The Biblical description of the sins of the fathers passed to the last generation is more than evident in Richmond. And these are just the mere highlights of the botched, bungled and bollixed planning of the city's elites for the past half-century.

• Richmond inaugurated the first practical trolley system in 1888 but made the mistake of ceding ownership to the utility that ran them, which was then deprived of ownership by federal anti-trust legislation during the 1930s, and the system was sold off to investor portfolios distant from Richmond.

Then the city surrendered to greater cultural trends because the region was mired within internecine and provincial distractions of race, class and petty sectionalism. Richmond stacked and burned the surviving trolley cars in a Wagnerian pyre in 1949. What's tragic is that the Greater Metropolitan could've enjoyed transit-directed development instead of the reverse from which the Richmond region is suffering now. Between Jim Crow and the abolition of the streetcars, I cannot think of more colossal errors committed by the city's so-called fathers.

In a city fond of commemoration, one should realize that 2008 would be Richmond transit system's 120th anniversary. How there'd have been speeches, parades of bunting covered cars--old and new--and media attention from around the world. But no. Just when modernization and expansion of the transit was needed, Richmond junked the entire thing.

The law which snapped the trolley service from Virginia Power, now Dominion, was repealed in 2006. Dominion could undertake sponsorship of a demonstration project in central Richmond, and further justify their rate increases.

• The interwar period which should've been a crucial time of Richmond's 20th century development was instead stymied and sidetracked by the blinkerd arch-conservatism of Mayor J. Fulmer Bright, who sought to spend no money at all, and left any planning to engineers whose aesthetic consisted of a bulldozer and making our streets one way.
Hence, Richmond didn't sit down to serious planning until 1948. Harlan Barthaolmew's document emphasized that the city couldn't engage in a rush to compete with the expanding suburbs, but needed to concentrate on strengthening its neighborhoods, making parks and green spaces, and repairing the bridges and roads. Blatant misinterpretation and outright dismissal of the plan by later city administrators bequeathed to Richmond a bollixed, botched and bungled central city.

• The so-called Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike link of I-95 cut across Shockoe and destroyed the center of Jackson Ward. This was despite two public referendums that insisted the highway get swung out east and around the city. The Richmond Elites got the whole thing shoved into the General Assembly that formed a supra-government "authority" that let the in-aesthetic engineers put their highways to hell right through Richmond's midsection, where people of the time didn't want them.

• The sequel was the so-called Downtown Expressway, also opposed by the residents, and deferred instead an "authority." This cut a swath through white working class Oregon Hill and wiped out playgrounds and baseball fields and a post office, South of Cary.

Between them both, the Big Ditch and the I-95 spillway, more buildings were destroyed than in the Evacuation Fire of 1865, 10 percent of the black population was displaced, five of the locks from the Kanawha Canal were obliterated and the central city was cut off from the James River. The city has fought the bad feng shui karma ever since.

This idiotic idea--dated even when implemented-- was designed to encourage suburbanites into central Richmond, and was proven wrong-headed soon enough. Fewer county residents work in Richmond every year and less bother to come into the city at all, for fear crack-addled zombies will lerch out of the scary alleyways and snatch their children. The only method we've enrouaged for transit in Richmond is roads and cars and parking lots, as though we were building Los Angeles-on-the-James.

• During the 1970s, a Vietnam era "bomb the village to save it" attitude prevailed in a black majority City Council that one would've thought should've known better. Jackson Ward was deprived of an actual Sixth Street market--and given a goofy mall. The Marriott corporation wanted to put its hotel on the river, but the city subsidized them to Broad Street. The Project One building and the Coliseum were all part of this plan. The same people who chose to build the Sixth Street Festival Marketplace decided on its demolition in the exact manner that the project was realized in the first place: without consent of the governed.

The vaunted "bridge over Broad Street" that was to knit together the racial divide of the city--and a feature that had grown on the community over time--was taken down, too. I suppose that that symbolism means that our city's racial schism is healed, and that we all are converted into a sublime state of universal brotherhood and sisterhood.

In Fulton during the 1970s, a community with buildings that combined Oregon and Church Hills, down at the heels then, but capable of a renewal with strategic rehabilitation and demolition, was wiped off the map in the cause of "urban renewal." If such an event had occurred in Roumania, there'd have been petitions to the United Nations for redress.

The expansion of Virginia Commonwealth University has brought an enormous boon of culture and activity to Richmond. Absent the profound contributions of VCU, Richmond would be a far duller place, and not much of a city at all. VCU is a principality unto itself, like the Vatican in Rome. The university maintains more antique structures than anybody. And maintains some better than others, as see the plight of the School of Social Work, here.

Little known are the efforts of an heroic figure, Lou Saksen. Capital improvements at VCU in the 1970s were under Saksen's purview. His leadership saved much of the landmark architecture associated with VCU; from the Putney Houses and Old First Baptist in Court End/MCV campus to the old Unitarian Meeting House at Harrison and Floyd, and almost all of West Franklin Street and the City Auditorium on Cary Street.

The recent undertakings in Monroe Ward follow along with the theme Saksen started; though to this observer's eye, the new business building on Belvidere looks like a downmarket University of Richmond building. But I digress.

Saksen told me years ago when I interviewed him:

"[Preservation and rehabilitation] had to be sound fiscally, in order to get support for it. I did do a pretty exhaustive survey. Older houses much more cost effective, than putting up new buildings. These were solid masonary buildings, solid heat loss and gain. Put in modern glazing but using the old frames or replicas of them. The cost of using old builidings as office space was about half the operating cost of new buildings; two dollars a square foot as to four dollars a squre foot.

When I first went down to the State [government spending offices], they weren’t all that interested. But in the long run, it was saving money and costs for buying property that made my argument.

We went--I was also part of--bought down in Oregon Hill area. Got to save the old City Auditorium. One of the things I tried to stress, you have to put the proper function into these old buildings. You couldn’t put classrooms into each building because it wouldn’t have suited them. We had enough functional needs that some buildings were paticularly well-suited to than others."

Lou Saksen's work prevented VCU from resettling to suburban Chesterfield County to about where Brandermill is today--a move that was front page news in the late 1960s. (Even then, an effective transit system could've compensated for the dispersal of campuses. Ah, well; there is much to be said for density).

Though the Valley of VCU along Broad Street without question improved a moribund stretch between Shafer and Lombardy streets, the contemporary buildings there aren't memorable or remarkable.

The most underwhelming of the set is the one that should make the greatest impression: the VCU School of the Arts. That building houses one of the nation's preeminent arts education institutions. [Image via Wikepedia]. Instead the place squats at a prominent prospect at a "T" intersection and doesn't look much different from any other of the nearby 1990s designs.

When I think of School of the Arts, I see a visionary place like that created by Charles Rennie MacIntosh for the Glasgow School of the Arts [image via] MacIntosh, by the way, wasn't heralded in his hometown until after his death. That's how ahead of the curve he was--which is what you want in an arts school.

The mumblemouthed excuse that VCU is state supported isn't an adequate explanation for what was allowed to go up there. U.Va is a state school, as is the College of William and Mary. And their architectural legacy is quite immense! Yes, those campuses were begun many years ago, and one had Thomas Jefferson for an architect. However, if VCU had had vision, its newer buildings could've been forward-thinking yet timeless. As the junior among others in the Virginia sorority the statement VCU's architecture should make is that of reaching into the future, without eclipsing the existing built environment. This hasn't happened.

Instead, throughout the 1980s and 1990s VCU administration became beguiled by the siren song of Business and Engineering and chose to construct monuments to mammoth egos. And can anybody tell me the purpose for those balconies on the Belvidere side of the School of Engineering?

The School of Engineering is why the plan for a School of the Arts utilizing a pre-existing early 20th century brick high rise structure was abandoned and delayed for two years, which yielded the above presented VCU School of the Arts. And to this day, the Anderson Gallery puts up national-level exhibitions without the aide of a freight elevator.

Organic developments that may not need bricks and mortar--like Curated Culture's First Fridays-- get grudging acknowledgment after they've been up and running for a while. Most of Richmond's notable cultural developments during the past 30 years have occurred not because the City wrote a check, but individuals with energy and a desire to better their corner of the world proved cantankerous enough to endure whatever difficulties were placed before them. But this takes a great deal of energy and commitment. Money and lawyers are often stronger, and expend less effort.

Guess those who administrate or attend the gallery openings, the concerts and theaters, and fill the restaurants and coffeeshops before and afterward are the same 300 or so of the people who always show up at these things. Funny how nothing is said about the dozen or so people-- some of whom are involved with institutions of higher learning-- whose boundless arrogance guides them to say that their asssessments are better than all of ours combined.

These developers, businesspeople and engineers have for the past half century sought to drag Richmond toward an imitation of Atlanta or Charlotte--cities that obliterated almost their entire city districts possessing historic and aesthetic value. These cities are also arranged in a different government situation, wherein cities are not separated from the counties in which they sit. Those cities may also annex. Here in Virginia, cities are suspect and reviled, and operated as money machines for government and crony capitalists.

Why instead has not Richmond followed the path of Charleston, Savannah or pre-Katrina New Orleans? These are cities to which Richmond has more in common that Charlotte, for goodness sake, in terms of lineage and character. And again, people don't come here because they want Richmond to be like everyplace else along the I-95 corridor. As it stands now, the two most distinctive architectural feature visible from cars flinging themselves down the arterial chute are the tower of Main Street Station--which was almost torn down to make way for that same portion of the engineer-placed highway--and the MCV West Hospital Deco ziggurat, now imperilled by a VCU that has forgotten Lou Saksen's legacy.

Yes, as I've noted before, the Richmond skyline that has arisen in the past 35-40 years has not one articulation of the bold, beautiful or the breathtaking but rather examples of the bollixed, botched and bungled. Apply an imaginary eraser to the recent buildings, high power lines and uncharacteristic street lights, then ignore the vast and inexcusable parking lots, to see revealed an exquisite diadem of a city.

Richmond has for generations manifested a curious maladjustment. Structural steel framework high rise offices starting going up on East Main Street in the first decade of the 20th century, with poor to non-existent zoning regulations, all in an effort to keep up with other cities with which Richmond perceived itself in competition. A lack of any long-range planning during the first decades of the 20th century, and an over dependence on engineers, not architects or planners, bequeathed to Richmond a generic ugliness that threatened to consume its beauty.

Thus, the European-style walking city got junked by the 1920s and the mass transit that would've benefitted what evolved was ripped out, paved over or burnt up by 1949. We've been abused and misused ever since. We need to reclaim what remains, before all that which worthwhile is without ceremony carted off in the backs of dump trucks.

Democracy begins in Richmond. Not in Baghdad.

• Firehouse Theatre Project's Festival of New American Plays

Speaking of which, this was the final night of the Festival of New American Plays at the Firehouse Theatre. The votes were tallied at the end of this evening, and Richard Willett's
Tiny Bubbles proved the audience favorite. Both playwrights receive a cash prize.

The other play in rotation was Boston writer Jon Busch's
Pet Shop Days. The piece was directed by Billy Christopher Maupin who, (cribbing from his description a bit), led Tony Foley (recently seen in Theatre IV's production of A Christmas Story as the adult Ralphie), Melissa Johnston-Price (a frequent Firehouse actor, last seen there in Spinning Into Butter); John Moon (a Firehouse alum, too, who also just finished directing TheatreIV's touring production of Buffalo Soldier - which is the only live production ever played at the Pentagon ), Jacob Pennington, Steve Freitas (currently rehearsing for the tour of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and Audrey Snyder (seen recently in Stuart Little and the two cabarets for First Fridays at the Empire).

Any play that gives props to Esperanto is a good one, for me. Though the "hippie chick" could've been a bit more quirky.

Busch's play is in a rich tradition ranging from
The Cradle Will Rock to The Shop Around The Corner/You've Got Mail to Clerks. (Heck, the play is even set in New Jersey)

What if Jay and Silent Bob helped run an independent pet store and wanted to prevent its corporate eviction? Some punk attitude and an escaped python mixed with an effort reminiscent of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies: "Hey, let's put on a show!" Except this happens offstage at a VFW hall and the music is punk and nothing good comes of the attempt.

Freitas embodied the clueless coiled anger of a frustrated small town punker while Jacob Pennington gave the right notes to a misfit kid who has worked at a pet store for the past five years because he both knows about animals and enjoys the job. He's applied to Cornell to begin veterinarian studies. John Moon was Mr. Shaw who has run his store as he's seen fit, though perhaps his business model needed tweaking; Foley represents the Man-agement as a former anti-establishment type turned corporate; Snyder is the "hippie chick" turned children's book author who is visiting the small New Jersey town of her adolescence; and Johnston-Price had the somewhat thankless task of being the Heavy in this play.

Given the rant some paragraphs above about the price of posterity and legacy this play resonated with me. On one level, it's about sprawl overwhelming the identity of a town. Just a few years ago, our very own Ashland tried standing up to Wal-Mart, but a lame duck Council there voted to allow the giant retailer entrance. This was documented in the film Store Wars.

Back in 1998, I gave a speech similar to the one that the character Pete gives to save Mr. Shaw's store. And, in the Firehouse's case, a theater miracle occurred. So the unexpected can happen.

The Festival is done for 2008. You can make submissions for 2009, per Firehouse requirements. Thanks to all those who made this year's festival happen, from the volunteer readers to actors and directors, to the fine audiences that came out on some chilled nights for a night of raw theater.

They weren't the usual 300 or so who come out for these things.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

The Shows Go On:
Firehouse, Sol Cooper, Library of Virginia

The Puzzling Harry Kollatz: "No Resist'ance" by Amie Oliver, conte crayon, acrylic, wood puzzle. Image by Amie O.
Yesterday night I attended the opening performance of the Firehouse Theatre Project's Festival of New American Plays, which you can read about here. Thank you Style Weekly and Mary Burruss. Go theater art!

These are staged readings of two plays chosen from some 200 submissions to the Firehouse from a nationwide call for entries. I was one of several readers who this summer sussed through piles of these playscripts-- I wasn't fortunate to have read either of the two up for public view this weekend. Here, audiences become critics during after-show talk backs with the directors and performers. For previous years, we've had the playwrights available, too, but for various reasons that vital part didn't work out this time. [The Firehouse wants and needs an underwriting sponsor for this signature event, this way the playwrights could be brought in without any loss to their wallet or time -- anyone out there listening?]

Staged readings can be some of the more intriguing theater you'll experience. When done well what you're really seeing is an open rehearsal. Actors have scripts in hands (though this group was on the verge of not needing them) and there is minimal movement and suggested sets and props. What we're focusing on is the text and the meanings. You are making discoveries in the work often at the same time as the performers.

First up was Richard Willett's Tiny Bubbles. The ebullient title doesn't convey the underlying seriousness in this snap crackle pop piece. I enjoyed the characters and the wit of the writing. In brief, two gay roommates, one an imbiber of gin martinis and the other trying to get off the sauce. But that's just the surface of a piece that examines the delusions and illusions we keep in order to function; the difficulty of altering personal behavior and the challenge confronted by actual change. Plus, there's loads of movie trivia and though I got bellylaughs out of some of the inside cinema references, a few in the under-40 audience received the essence of the meaning, but not the intention. Such is the plesaure and frustration of ....getting old --and storing up a lifetime of arcane popular culture knowledge.

The cast was well-directed by Christopher Shorr, who is no stranger to these sorts of things, and he chose his actors well. The actors are Kirk Morton, known to Swift Creek Mill Playhouse and Triangle Players audiences, who became the gin-swilling Danny McKenna; Shon Stacy, also a Triangle alum, who is Danny's roomie Kirk Wesson; Jeanie Rule (active here, and last seen on the Firehouse stage in the out-of-New York try-out of Bill C. Davis' Austin's Bridge) who made a convincing Reverend Mother in a recurring dream of Danny's; and Abigail, played with delight and poignancy by Jen Hines-Hall, of whom I hope to see more; and Adam Mincks who portrayed three roles including a hip Rat Pack-like bartender in another one of Danny's repeating visions.

Despite the raw January weather, there was a good crowd--and an engaged one--and about half stayed for the talk back following. A good time. Warning: if you're trying to curb your martinis, either do or do not see this show. You'll either want one soon as possible, or not ever again.

Jamgochian, Interrupted

For the billion-eyed audience that got left on a cliff-hanger regarding the Neverbuilt Virginia exhibit, I continue. Image above is of Haigh Jamgochian's proposed and never constructed Spiral Tower, first for downtown Richmond where this structure would've been a landmark building the likes of which the skyline here doesn't possess, then later for Chippenham Parkway and Jahnke Road, which would've been interesting, too. Amie snagged this picture.

We left off with the also unbuilt Treehouse apartments or condos, that led to the Markel Building. Jamgochian's first mushroom-style achitectural proposal, designed with the idea that the Markel brothers were willing to write a check of with six figures, remains a wonderful design. Thing was, as often happens in architecture, the clients chose instead to back off their first price--perhaps they got skittish--and within weeks Hike had to reconfigure the entire thing.

The image here is from CoredesatChikai's photos.

He says he was inspired by a baked potato wrapped in aluminum foil that was served to him at an architect's conference at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I can imagine his thoughts soaring as the steam rose. His radical re-realization gave to Richmond the Birthday Cake/Jiffy Pop/Flintstones-Jetsons/UFO Markel Building, now the Enterprise Center, and landmarked by Henrico County.

[Amie and I attended the landmarking event and it was like a scene out of Fellini; including a Marine color guard with bagpipes marching out of a mist and over the hillside and dale in front of the building, and because a slight mist had started, black umbrellas popped up; and Jamgochian sharing the podium with the surviving engineers and electricians who assisted him in the construction of his remarkable building]

Hike used a giant role of aluminum foil mounted on a flatbed truck to wrap his building and, he told me some years ago, with a 43 cents of nails bought from Pleasant's Hardware, bashed the metal and hammered the stuff into place. Hike says this was to give it greater tensile strength; but the years since 1966 have added other dents and holes, some patched with cartoon-like bandaids.

The building sits upon boulder-textured concrete stilts--again taking into consideration Jordan's Branch Creek that flooded in heavy rain. Before the Markel was hemmed in by lesser buildings--allowed to lax zoning--the building sat in green field as though interstellar pilots chose to land there. The curving interior corridors remind me of those depicted in the

The Markel was completed the year both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible premiered, and Lost In Space (whose Jupiter II the Markel bears passing resemblance) was already on. This was at the height of UFO sightings and media attention to space exploration. James Bond and Matt Helm were also popular film protagonists. The building has always looked to me like the headquarters either of the secret good-buy espionage agents, or the mad scientist who wants to take over the world, both popular themes in Cold War/Space Race period culture.

Jamgochian enjoyed international publicity following the Markel building, then one day his phone rang and on the other end was Howard Hughes. Not the multi-millionaire, but a Richmond used car king who fashioned himself as "Mad Mad Dapper Dan" and hawked his wares using the catch-phrase, "I'd give'em away but my wife won't let me." He was fastidious about his appearance and possessed a great head of slick black hair that during his life went from dark to grey, but like Gibraltar, never changed. Growing up in Richmond his visage regarded me from city buses and I thought he looked like cross between Tennessee Ernie Ford and Ernie Kovacs. He also enjoyed living large and playing poker.

Once Hike recovered from the shock of his non-call from the un-Howard Hughes, the car dealer said he wanted something "out of this world" for his wife Ruby and their three daughters. The architect spoke before he thought, replying, "How about like the Gemini shot, something in space?" Dapper loved the idea--but now Hike had to deliver. What he came up with for Cherokee Road, and a splendid vista of the river, was the Half Moon House.

Dapper's clientele tended toward the... genteel, and, so I was told by some old time Richmonders at the Library of Virginia opening, he would sell cars and also reposses them--garnering a certain enmity from former patrons. His house for that reason was set way off the road without trees around, because he wanted clear lines of sight. The architect sheathed the house in crumpled copper that would with years of oxidation turn green like moss on river rocks.

The startling shape refers also to car fins and cat eye signal lights. The roof overhanging the river-facing glass wall, as critic Ed Slipek Jr. pointed out, resembled the smile of a persuasive used car salesman. It could also be interpreted as the front grille of one of those bi, chrome-covered automotive behemoths that cheap gas and U.S. steel made possible. Jamgochian's design afforded privacy from the outside and for the kidney-shaped pool on a step-down terrace.

The house seemed larger than its 3,834 square feet and 11 rooms.

A large open entertaining area, fronting the river and pool, comprised part of the ultimate Spage Age Bachelor’s Pad, perhaps more hip than Dapper ever could've been. In old pictures, one can almost hear the martini glasses clinking and Dean Martin on the Zenith console.

Alas, however, the Half Moon has gone into full eclipse. About two years ago, following deliberate demolition by neglect, Chesterfield County allowed this singular house to be destroyed and replaced by someone's ego project.

This image, (and others I'll put up soon) was taken a few months before the Half Moon was obliterated. Here's terrace, with sweeping roof overhang, windows, and steps leading to the pool. Then, the damaged interior, stripped of its sleek neo-retro appointments, and the terrace with the pool.

Dapper got such a great view of the river because of his having ripped out a screen of trees. A-hem. At least he didn't build some brick-facaded Colonial Revival or Tuderbethan scheit on steroids that hurts the eyes to look at because the "designers" are trying to please clients who want the house to resemble another authentic structure that is older and added onto. They say imiatation is flattery, but in terms of architecture around Richmond, it's instead proved fatuous. What we have girding the city along the shoals of the cul-de-sac archipelagoes are, to borrow a phrase from our novelist James Branch Cabell, perjuries against architecture.

One of the worst things to happen to Richmond's built environment was the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, 50 miles east; and crass interpretations of Modernism. One infected the sensibilities of the city so that those of means, and those who wanted to live and work in buildings that resembled the class a few rungs above, decided to imulate Williamsburg's restored taverns and public buildings.

Richmond and its vicinity thus has strip malls anchored by stores that look like an oversized Capitol Building and office parks with too-big versions of the Wythe House and the Raleigh Tavern. Richmond rejected the contemporary but also embraced the concept in the characteristic muddle-headed manner for which the city is known. These recreations of the Colonial era are post modern tributes; they aren't the things, but about the things they are supposed to represent, and therefore mean nothing except, well, comfort of recognition as opposed to the shock of the new.

One of the greatest examples of this in midtown is the giant replica of the Williamsburg Inn that became the Ethyl neé NewMarket Corporation's international headquarters.

The building was alledged to have been built to honor the Benjamin Latrobe-inspired mansion built for Colonel Robert Gamble, the Grey Castle [see Historic Virginia Homes and Churches by Robert Alexander Lancaster, image, via Google Books] This insult added to the injury of the demolition of the astonishing Pratt's Castle, which next to the State Capitol, was perhaps the most photographed piece of architecture in Richmond and outlived the Gamble house by several decades.

Pratt's, built around 1853 by an eccentric photographer/architect/landscape designer, had undergone some depredations, fire being one, but could've been rescued. Preservationist urging for the uniques building's salvation got the blunt response of: you want the place so bad, you ante up for the removal to somewhere else. This is a building, by the way, from the tower of which the burnt district of Richmond was recorded by photographic panorama in April 1865.

Ethyl stated there'd be an historic marker and note made of the castle's presence/absence, but this the firm failed to accomplish. Ethyl was foremost in preserving the vestiges of Tredegar Iron Works, though the company also filled in the Intermediate Turning Basin of the James River Kanawha Canal, and held up renovations of the canal while down stream Reynolds Metals restored the few locks adjoining its property.

Fact is, having given tours of the city, out of town visitors think Ethyl's big white house is the Governor's Mansion or the Capitol. May as well.

During the unfortunate 1960s-1970s came Modernism and the plans to make Richmond Brasilia-on-the-James. The Library of Viriginia exhibit gives us glimpses of the utter horrors planned for the Capitol, including moving the entire seat of government to near western Henrico County. You just have to see it to believe. Out of this wrong headed urban renewal mishigas came our waffle iron of a City Hall, the Coliseum and the wind-swept plaza around the perimeter, and the Project One office building.

Jamgochian offered his first Markel Building idea for a new City Hall in 1969, thinking the undulant, open mushroom could be used as the formal and reception areas, with a tower behind, like the United Nations Secretariat. That went nowhere, either.

After the Half Moon House came no second act for Jamgochian. I did the first profile of him in years in the mid-1990s and included him and the Markel in a play, The Persistence of Memory, about the 1966 attempt to place a Salvador Dalí statue on Monument Avenue. A that time, traffic engineers wanted to shunt the statues aside, and make the avenue four lanes. Another bullet dodged.

So it was wonderful to see Hike, still with a full head of white hair, though in a wheelchair and recuperating from recent surgery. He still flirts with women and gets a gleam in his eye talking about his various ideas. When I asked him about the spiral building's unique fire escapes--tubes wrapped around the building--and how people would stop at the bottom he explained that the tubes took a dip, like a child's water slide, that would ease the acceleration. "You'd just walk out," he said, grinning. Hike received bad burns in a house fire years ago and this made him quite conscious of getting trapped in a high rise. [Amie O. image from exhibit]

I speculated to one of those at the opening of the exhibition that wherever the Spiral Tower had been built in Richmond, that today there'd be ultimate sports competitions for charity to see who could gain the greatest acceleration when sliding through the escape tunnels. I could see the posters in my head: "DO THE TUBE." The demonstration would show up on late night news cast clips. There'd be regular winners who'd need to figure out ways to go faster. And they'd interview Hike, surrounded by pretty girls in their Tube Speed Suits and he'd be smiling, and laughing, delighted.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Art, Architecture and Assorted

The artists of Lost and Found at Sol Cooper in Petersburg, Va., (l to r), Susann Whittier; Aimee Joyaux; Amie Oliver; Kate Duffy and Kathryn Purvis.

Greetings, Interwebs denizens. I want to direct you to these exhibitions and events that, if you are within the range of my voice, you are duty bound, nay, compelled to attend by a geas now given you through electrical-chemical means. You can thank James Branch Cabell for laying on me the geas of geas.

The Lost and Found exhibit at the Sol Cooper Gallery in Petersburg, Va., that you can see and read about here and here. My partner-in-art-for-life Amie Oliver has work in this show by five women artists in this fine new space, 306 N. Sycamore St. This is exquisite, triumphant, emotional and furtive work derived from found objects. You must see this show. And you will. Because having read this, you got a geas whammy laid on you.

You also must see Never Built Virginia at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St..

And, beginning tomorrow at 7:30, at the Firehouse Theater, 1609 W. Broad St., the Sixth Festival of New American Plays. The theater of now means you. Come out and see staged readings of two finalists from a nationwide contribution of works. See both, cast your vote, and on Sunday the winner is revealed.

I'll address all three in this first of two posts.

First, to the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St., and the thought-provoking Never Built Virginia presentation of architectural drawings, plans and models of structures that weren't constructed. The reasons are varied: commissioning groups for whatever reason or another went with other designs, money fell through, or, in some cases, clearer heads prevailed. The show is up through May 31. You live or work in Richmond, no excuses are valid aside from kidnapping or commitment to an iron lung.

There is a particular (and peculiar) Richmond angle to this. A story. Architect Haigh Jamgochian--of whom more to come--was in the 1970s part of a competition to create the Unitarian Church on Blandford Avenue. His design involved imaginative cantileverage that made the structure seem lighter-than-air. During his conversation with the church's building committee Jamgochian wore somewhat tight pants of the time. He made what he thought was a good pitch and days then weeks went by and nothing. He rung up a friend of his in the congregation to ask what was going on with the Unitarians and the reply was, "They liked your building ideas, Hike, but you weren't wearing a belt."

That, billion-eyed audience, is about all you need to know about how buildings arose during the latter 20th century in Richmond, Virginia. Perhaps, this is the way it has always been.

I've noted elsewhere on this blog that a nighttime stroll along Mayo's Bridge persuaded me that the city would've been better served in terms of aesthetics had not the Commission of Architectural Review allowed any high rise constructions after about 1970. Or if by some magic wand fiat, none would've gone up on Main Street but rather on Broad, after about 1900. Indeed, that so many buildings went up during the 1910s that gave permission for the many that followed is a predicament of the city's downtown aesthetic. A cultural crime was committeed when structures obscured Thomas Jefferson's Capitol building. We have a city now lorded over by plastic and glass ziggurats for lawyers, insurance agents and the machinery of state and federal government -- little of which has anything to do with Jefferson's ideals (though a case could be made that Jefferson himself couldn't live up to Jefferson's ideals...another discussion for another post).

I'd rather we have have nothing more than seven stories in the immediate center city, and a ban on motor vehicles, making Richmond a more humane place. The most notable taller buildings in center Richmond were built prior to the 1930s, or by Minoru Yamasaki, who created the Federal Reserve Bank buildng here in 1977 as a warm up for the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. [Image via]

Otherwise, the skyline of Richmond is a mundane display of monuments to the lowest bidder combind with poor judgment. Not a single building is breathtaking, beautiful or bold. They are representations of architects trying to please cheap clients who don't know a damn thing about art or architecure, and furthermore, didn't give a fig.

This image, via Rvablogs, shows my fair city looking like...almost anyplace else. The distinguishing differences are the arches of Mayo's Bridge at the far right, and the bosky James River isles. Just one of those aspects was built by man, and that part got finished in 1913.

A dooming to the mundane need not have been.

Hike's Highrises

Haigh Jamgochian
(b. August 29, 1924) is the son of Armenian immigrants who while serving in the Marines during World War II devised a way to slap down barbed wire and a Plexiglass sheet to trace the courses on wall-mounted shipboard maps. His parents owned a restaurant on Robinson Street for which he designed cantilevered tables and chairs that made cleaning under them easier, such as you see in fast food restaurants everywhere today. He never got patents on any of these things; he made them as necessity arose.

His first building, he once told me, accommodated his rooster pet, Tuff Row. The house involved bridges where upon food could be placed and Tuff Row could take his exercise, too. Jamgochian attended Dartmouth and Virginia Tech and, in his youth, seemed poised to make his mark in the world. He did, in his way, but he was living in Richmond.

The Markel Building, Haigh Jamgochian, 1966. From Martin Bromirski.

One building stands in this world as designed by Jamgochian, and that's a near accident. The twin brothers who ran what is now an international high risk insurance firm first heard of Jamgochian because of a project that failed.

Jamgohian's rendering for the "Tree House," intended for Franklin Street
around 1964.

The Markels wanted a signature building and they thought they'd found their man. Jamgochian had undegone a public battle to build the partment building pictured above amid the historic antebellum buildngs on Franklin Street. The city voted him down. Jamgochian's sister Vicky to this day expresses disdain for the city's then-and first-female mayor, Eleanor Sheppard, who said if he did it there, then everyone would want to; and the woman who lived across the street who claimed she was disturbed by the design as the branches seemed to her like accusatory fingers pointing at her.

Hike told me that he owned this narrow piece of land where an ordinary brownstone sat (and is there today). He was proud of his design of pneumatic tubes for mail delivery and how he'd be able to go to the bottom and collect his rent checks. What he'd not counted on was that his proposed building would've gone next to the Kent-Valentine House, headquarters then and now of the Garden Club of Virginia.

Perhaps the building might've been better, say, on the city's riverfront, where tenants would've paid high dollars to live in units that allowed total views. But Jamgochian didn't own land there. Today, a developer could take a place in history by reviving the structure for placement along the James. God knows such a dramatic building would look better than the uninpsired stuff that's gone up along both river banks the past 30 years. Notable exceptions are the former James River Corporation offices below the bluffs of Hollywood Cemetery, and the Virginia Eye Institute -- but that jaunty nautical style building is out by the Huguenot Bridge and beyond the scope of this discussion.

The publicity attained by Jamgochian's effort to erect the "Tree House" attracted the Markels who wanted to give the Richmond architect his dream project. The Library of Virginia exhibit includes a gorgeous model of his first, all-expenses-paid plan. The site was just west of Willow Lawn, in a developing close-in section of Henrico County. The small property was on marshy land fed by Jordan's Branch Creek. Inspired by the terrain, Jamgochian designed a mushroom style building with four pods centered around a courtyard, with the creek running through the middle. This was "green" before the color was part of our political-environmental vocabulary.

When I asked him if there wouldn't have been humidity issues he gave a wry smile, "All buildings have humidity. And all buildings leak."

Part II: The Flinstone/Jetsons/Birthday Cake/Jiffy Pop Building; The Half Moon and then...

Susann Whittier's version of a wing back chair..."Ascension," part of Lost & Found at Sol Coooper...image by Amie Oliver

Hope members of the billion-eyed audience may have similar wings attached who must be out in the wintry mix descending on us. Travel safe and don't forget your mittens.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Titaniac: Observations about the movie about the night the great ship went down

Shoes of a Titanic passenger in the debris field, via NOAA from 2004.

During the holly daze as a present to myself I counted out sheakles and purchased the double disc DVD of James Cameron's Titanic. One of the more exciting parts of this for me was listening to commentary by two Titaniacs who were able, God love'em, to turn pro, artist Ken Marschall and writer Don Lynch.

But because I'm a nerd--who listens to the DVD commentaries anyway?--I was quite surprised that the awe-struck duo didn't--near as I can tell--breathe a syllable about the heroic departure of the ship from Southampton that in Cameron's film--and most treatments--leaves out the anxious moments during which the Titanic's massive drag yanked the moorings of the liner New York to the breaking point. Their snapping sounded to Second Class passenger and schoolteacher Lawrence Beesley almost like gunshots.

What Cameron's film portrays, thanks to CGI and James Horner's swelling and sweeping score, is a grand inauguration of the "ship of dreams." The New York near-miss would've been a speed bump in the narrative that portrays the triumphal departure of the Titanic accompanied by an escort of dolphins.

The New York incident, however, was filmed as it happened by Seattle motion picture director William H. Harbeck, more of whom anon. Lynch writes in his and Marschall's Titanic: An Illustrated History, "On a first-class section of the boat deck, William Thompson Sloper of New Britain, Connecticut, heard several people agree that the near-collision was an ominous start for the maiden voyage. By the time the Titanic was under way again and proceeding down the river, the ship was buzzing with talk of the New York incident, and what it might imply about the maneuverability of this huge new breed of ocean liners."

Yes, the sets were astonishing--I got chills when I saw the film the first time, and, well, still kind of do now. But I'm a dork who admires others even more geeky. Lynch and Marschall make intriguing points about how the recreation of the disaster in a strange way pointed to real understanding of the ship's sinking. For example, perhaps one reason the lifeboats were let down with so few people is that the crew might've observed the davits bending or wobbling in such a way that they were unnerved more than they already were--though no eyewitness testimony can validate that supposition.

Second, how in the staged foundering that provided a kind of controlled experiment for these wreck historians (and I wish one of them had said that!), the Grand Staircase became unmoored and would've broken off--which is what Lynch and other researchers surmise happened in the actual event. The structure seems to have ripped loose and floated out of the hole left after water smashed the skylight dome that crowned the stairwell.

One of the '97 film's true breathtaking delights is Cameron's exquisite evocation of bustling Southampton and the arrival of passengers and loading of baggage and freight (including William Carter's Renault--though again--whether it was the entire car or the kit for assembly isn't quite known--but without the vehicle, we don't get the um, famous hand-slapping-the-sweaty-window scene).

But I wonder about those stewards sent to find the runaway stowaway Jack and socialite-in-training Rose, whom he's kind of kidnapped. They get slammed by water and, it's supposed, killed becasue they were doing their jobs and happened to be in the way of disaster. Also, an inaccuracy in the film are the flashlight torches those guys are carrying, and, later, Fifth Officer Lowe in his lifeboat. Those devices wouldn't get invented for another seven or eight years.

A few days ago, in one of those serendipitous transits between interests and cable television's need to air anything and everything all day and night long, I came across the made-for-television Titanic.

The best special effect in the film is Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Below, with Peter Gallagher, via

The tele-film was a product of a mixed marriage; rushed into its 1996 production to catch the wave of Cameron's bigger film and based loosely on the 1979 miniseries S.O.S. Titanic (directed by Billy Hale who also lensed 1988's The Murder of Mary Phagan, here in Richmond, that used me as a rude mechanical--I met, among others, Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher--and Gallagher is in 1996 Titanic. For my money, Phagan is the best film ever made in Richmond and included a cast worth millions--not including me. )

The varied lineage of Titanic films is not the subject of this post, though the 1958 A Night To Remember remains the best filmed account of the sinking in terms of getting its facts straight and without a contrived and hackneyed shipboard Romeo and Juliet through line. Cameron's film goes to incredible lengths in providing an accurate account of how one felt to be aboard the vast vessel, yet the framing story, while enjoyable, was tried-and-true. That probably had something to do with the getting the thing produced and into theaters, too.

I give a wholehearted admission to appreciating a drenched and courageous Kate Winslet clambering hand-over-hand along pipes, with an ax, in her frantic attempt to save the life of that scofflaw Jack Dawson. Images via

He's handcuffed in the sergeant-at-arms' office by the vile Lovejoy (David Warner -- who played the much less vile and quite real school teacher Lawrence Beesley in the 1979 version).

Better than Jack deserves....

Kate, as Rose, displaying how she's strong enough to be a woman....

No, billion-eyed audience, there are far better plot devices to tell a Titanic-themed story that use the facts to the advantage and could give the audience a thrill-ride, too.

There were more than a dozen newlywed couples on the ship that night, for example. That's a holiday to remember and a life of cracks, "Yeah, for my honeymoon he took me on a shipwreck."

But two quite compelling aspects of the real Titanic story are the presence of a jeweled copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayam and 10,000 feet of exposed movie film shot by philandering freelance cinematographer William H. Harbeck whom the White Star Line seems to have hired to shoot the liner's maiden voyage.

Instead of an invented "Heart of the Ocean" diamond (a plot device perhaps appropriated from the Nazi-era propaganda film Titanic) a very real search by salvager Brock Lovett for the lost Rubáiyát would've provided a worthy MacGuffin, though the film would've had to explain why the jeweled copy of the book of sensuous poetry was important and rare.

Though not priceless even by today's standards, retrieval of the volume from the wreck would make the book worth much more to a museum or an ambitious private collector. The Titanic Rubiáyát was purchased at auction using by Philadelphia bibliophile Henry Widener, under an alias, for what would amount today as more than $2,000. Expensive and desirable, yes; priceless, no.

Still the rich metaphorical aspects of the Rubáiyát--the emphasis on live for today because the single certainty in life is death--lends itself to a story that itself has become a metaphor about arrogance and over-reliance on technology.

Or--what if somehow somebody managed to sneak off with the book, and ever since this historic Rubáiyát circulated in the antiquities black market, until someone a bit more altruistic learns of an upcoming sale and tries to interrupt the exchange and get the book into a museum or library of rare texts. Now, there's a movie for you.

The Harbeck maiden voyage movie is also intriguing. Though the chances of the metal film cannisters surviving is remote--pressure would've crushed them--what if--for the sake of a plot--they were somehow preserved in a freak air pocket. This is nitrate film, and so it wouldn't have been exposed to any heat all these years at the bottom of the cold North Atlantic. For our purposes, doesn't matter how they managed to survive, just that they did,

Recovery of any or all of these reels would constitute one of the most significant retrievals in cinema. The successful rehabilitation of Harbekc's films would exceed the excitement generated by the discovery of the Mitchell & Kenyon movies.

The plot would set up a dynamic between scholars, salvagers, lawyers and insurance agents and other unsavory underworld types and Titanic geeks. Taking the notion further, if some of the film had gotten to dry land--whether in 1912 or from the recent dives to the wreck--and was already circulating under the radar, a hunt plot is born. Our Heroine gets hired by somebody mysterious to find the cannisters and bring them, literally, to light. Then we're off to a galloping start.

By the way, for all your Titanic-related curioisities you need to drop into the Encyclopedia Titanica. The breadth and depth of this site, established in 1996, is amazing.

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