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December 12, 2003


Dear Friedrich --

* Tyler Cowen turns up definitive proof that the presence of beautiful women makes men act like asses, here. Interesting to learn that the presence of a handsome guy doesn't make women lose nearly so much of their reason.

* The economist Friedrich Hayek spent decades squaring off against large-scale planners and centralizers; he saw virtue in distributed knowledge and decentered decision-making. If chaos and complexity theory make your head buzz, and if the thoughts of Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs make intuitive sense to you, you'll probably groove on Hayek too. My (rather quirky) choice for best Hayek book to start with is "The Fatal Conceit," buyable here. But the curious can get a fast and free taste of Hayek's thinking by reading this Thomas Hazlett interview with Hayek for Reason, here.

* S.Y. Affolee (here) turned up this mindbending Flash production here. Load it, use your keyboard's arrow keys, and pretend you're one of the Blue Angels.

* A short but heartfelt tribute to the cultureblogosphere's best linker, Plep (here), who, day after day, makes amazing finds. What could be a more worthwhile and helpful way to use the Web? An essential site for culture fans, and a sensational ongoing performance that doesn't get nearly the applause it deserves.

* In the NYTimes, William Hamilton writes that Sotheby's is having a hard time finding buyers for Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House here. The minimum bid is $4.5 million and no one has come up with anything more than $3.5 million. I'm not surprised: the glass shoebox of a house has always been a hard one to live in, and it's prone to being flooded. A 1997 flood led to a $10 million renovation -- yet the modernist take on the house is that it's a "brilliant response to the landscape." Ah, modernism, eh? One sensible statement comes from Christopher Robling of the Landmarks Preservation Council: "Honestly," he says, "I think that modern architecture is an acquired taste." Yes, and it's one that can be un-acquired too. Our own posting about the Farnsworth is here.

* Steve Sailer's review of Jonathan Tilove's new book about contemporary African-American life, "Along Martin Luther King," is informative and moving, here.

* Visitors who were interested or exasperated by the discussion of AIDS that cropped up a few postings ago may well find this Rian Malan piece about AIDS in Africa interesting, or maybe exasperating, too. Malan writes that he suspects that the figures that have been given for the number of the infected in Africa are extremely exaggerated. It's here.

* Graham Lester, who has been reading Trollope and Dickens, makes sensible and persuasive cases for both of them, here.

* JW Hastings (here) confesses that he likes a lot of commercial country music. A commenter on JW's posting links to the website of WDVX here, and calls it the best alt-country radio station in the world. I've only been listening to their webcast for a few hours now, but I'm already a believer: tons of wonderfully eccentric, despairing, romantic, defiant, sly, regional stuff.

* Foolhardy George Hunka has set to work writing a play. He writes here about what it is he finds addictive about the theater, and here about how to get adults back in the habit of going to the theater. George is supersmart, of course, but he's also very funny, if in a grim way.

* Why isn't there a stock market for movies -- a place where filmmakers propose projects, and anyone with a few grand can pick, choose, and perhaps invest? The Economist discusses an interesting development in the finances of showbiz (here).

* The funniest commentary I've seen on the latest sexed-up Abercrombie and Fitch catalog comes from Evan Kirchhoff here.

* Polly Frost doesn't blog often enough, but when she does she's one of the freshest and most responsive writers about movies I know of. She recently put up a posting about George Clooney's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (here), and another about the French cult-sex/horror director Jean Rollin (here).

* Felix Salmon finds the WTC-memorial proposals and the Democratic presidential candidates equally uninspiring, here.

* Is there something in the nature of Islam that makes Muslims in the west likely to be crime-prone? Beats me, of course, but Jim Miller (here and here) and Michelle Malkin (here) think there may be something to the idea. Both Jim and Michelle supply lots of links.

* Another life-can-be-really-awful bulletin: did you realize that over 70,000 people in Zimbabwe were killed or tortured by their own government last year? Samantha Power, interviewed for the Atlantic Online (here), explains how bad things have gotten under the monster Mugabe, and how they got that way.

* Yahmdallah has posted another of his hilarious tales of dating misadventures here.

* Will Wilkinson wonders why Americans seem so eager to spend long hours working, here. "If offered the choice between a 40 hour/week job paying $60,000, and a 20 hour/week job paying $30,000, I would without hesitation choose the latter," he writes. "I'd much prefer to have an extra thousand hours per year in which to read, write, think, create, or whatever, than an extra 30 grand." That's my kind of homo economicus.

* Brian Micklethwait is thinking about snow sculptures, here.

* I'm just catching up with the terrific 20 Questions feature over at Crescat Sententia. Here's one Will Baude did with Tyler Cowen; here's one with Stuart Buck.

* Peter Brimelow is enthusiastic about "Mexifornia," Victor Davis Hanson's book about the immigration mess, here. Fun quote: "In the last three decades, Hanson reports, his close-knit hometown has been literally overwhelmed by illegal immigration. It has tripled in size and is now, he says, 'somewhere between 60 and 90 percent Hispanic'—hard to tell because so many are illegal and transient ... The public school he attended is now 95 percent Mexican." There's a transcript of a Hanson speech on immigration here.

* You can zoom in tight on this wonderful Vuillard painting, here. I love the simple/sophisticated way he handles paint -- and, thanks to Flash, I can get a closer look at this work than, given museum regulations and my middle-aged eyes, I could if I were looking at it live.

* Bryan Appleyard (here) wonders what the hell modernism is all about, and comes up with some useful hunches. "But what is modernism?", asks Appleyard. "It is, I think, the attempt to re-imagine the world in the absence of God."

* Alice Bachini doesn't think pornography's so bad, here. "I think the idea that all pornography exploits all women is entirely silly and wrong," she writes. "It's a shame conservatives are so resistant to progress in the sphere of sexual politics and social change, otherwise I would call myself one."

* Business Week runs an excerpt from Paul Ormerod's interesting and heterodox "Butterfly Economics" (here) that gives the flavor of Ormerod's thinking about money, chaos and unpredictability.

* Sony Classics has cut Ewan MacGregor's frontal-nudity scene from the American theatrical release of "Young Adam" (here), and Ewan isn't pleased. More Ewan, in a droll and casually profane mood, here. As an acting-teacher friend of mine likes to say, "The problem isn't getting actors to take their clothes off, it's getting them to keep their clothes on."

* I enjoyed this Tom Shone conversation with the dark-eyed actress Rachel Weisz here. British actresses can be such a sexy combo of soul and finesse, articulateness and earthiness. Check out how Weisz apologizes for arriving late.

* A lovely 1841 nude by the Danish painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, "Woman in Front of a Mirror," can be seen here. Never heard of Eckersberg before, have you? But what a knockout of an image -- pristine, contemplative, sensual, quietly transporting. Eckersberg studied with David but didn't have the temperament for history painting himself. "Heroic artists like Michelangelo or Picasso or Jacques-Louis David could conjure up gods and heroes and mythological worlds that might temporarily distract us from reality, stir our emotions and elevate us into a higher realm. But it is the ability of more circumscribed artists like Eckersberg to slow our systems and to show us reality as we may not have paused to consider it before," writes Michael Kimmelman in a helpful piece for the NYTimes (here). There's a show of Eckersberg's work on display at the National Gallery, here.

* The Englishman Gavin Lambert is one of those gay Hollywood figures who seems to have known everyone. He's also a terrific and perceptive writer: I've read and enjoyed his collection of LA-set short stories "The Slide Area" (buyable here), his book of interviews with the director George Cukor "On Cukor" (buyable here), and his biography of the lesbian star of stage and screen Alla Nazimova, "Nazimova" (buyable here); he has a biography of Natalie Wood due out next month. Here's a q&a with Lambert about Nazimova -- a snapshot look at some exotic theater-and-movie history.



posted by Michael at December 12, 2003


You left out the link to Brian Appleyard...

Posted by: James Russell on December 13, 2003 12:28 AM

Thanks for the catch, fixed.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2003 12:32 AM

I have to compliment you on your taste in neoclassical paintings. About 10 years ago the L. A. Times ran a black and white picture of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg's "Woman in Front of a Mirror." I cut it out and taped the picture in one of my sketchbooks. It's still there.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 13, 2003 1:42 AM

Why, thankyou! :)

Posted by: plep von plep on December 13, 2003 1:48 AM

Michael, are you disappointed that your schadenfreude lasted only 24 hours? The Farnsworth House sold for $7.5 million, all of it donated by a group of preservationists some 350 strong.

Posted by: Felix on December 13, 2003 7:29 AM

Dang! And I was so enjoying thinking that Mies had gone out of vogue. I wonder how the Times' William Hamilton feels. Good for the purchasers, though I wonder what they'll do about the damn flooding.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2003 8:44 AM

Sorry, but if the house just underwent a $10 Million renovation, and it sold for $7.5 Million...I think Mies IS out of vogue!

Posted by: annette on December 13, 2003 9:14 AM

Yeah, I don't understand modernist finances either. Plus there was only one bidder -- why'd they go a penny above the $4.5 mill that was demanded as a starting point? I can see that I've got no future as an art dealer ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2003 11:42 AM

Michael, I wasn't the least bit surprsied that you used the Farnsworth story as an excuse to take another swat at modernism, but I was surprised to see how sloppy your reading is. You wrote that Hamilton's piece indicated "that Sotheby's is having a hard time finding buyers for Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House," which is not at all what the article claimed. The article indicated only that the preservationists were having difficulty raising sufficient funds. The Hamilton article indicated no lack of potential buyers.

Not that Hamilton's piece, even if read correctly, would give you only the facts. Hamilton was off by a factor of 10 in the amount that Palumbo has spent on renovations. Over the 30-some years that Palumbo owned the Farnsworth house he spent (according to Maritz Vandenberg's book) approximately $1,000,000 on renovations, most of that in the last 7 years. By the way, he bought the house from Dr. Farnsworth for $120,000 in 1972. Palumbo should net from the auction somewhere around $6.7 million. Modernist finances seem to work out fairly well, don't they Michael?

The Vogel article in today's times is also misleading. There was only one other bidder at the end of the auction, but there were two additional bidders, both of who dropped out once the price reached $5 million dollars.

The Farnsworth is a stunningly beautiful house that Palumbo enjoyed for 30 years. Dr. Farnsworth, cruelly jilted in romance by Mies, claimed to hate the house, yet spent a great deal of time in her weekend retreat during the 20 years she owned it. Belittle the Farnsworth and Mies all you want, but I'm thrilled that the house will be open to the public, and I plan to visit it again with my family as soon as tours begin.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on December 13, 2003 1:09 PM

Mike -- Pleased to learn that you like the Farnsworth, and thanks for correcting the figure Hamilton gave for the cost of the renovation. He was off by a factor of ten? I wonder if his editors should hear about that.

I marvel a bit at your tone, though. Does it offend you so much that anyone should acknowledge that the Farnsworth has never functioned terribly well as a house, and that it hasn't proved to be much of a model for housing generally?

But why should it irk you? It doesn't do an artform any good to clamp down on open discussion. And surely taking such questions as utility and comfort seriously can only help architecture. Perhaps in building the Farnsworth, Mies made some blunders. Why resent discussion of that?

If Mies and Dr. Farnsworth built a glass box in the midst of an isolated wet meadow, what do I care? But that people who pretend to know best about architecture wouldn't want there to be open discussion of the building's utility or suitability, let alone of the experience of actually trying to make use of the thing ... Well, that strikes me as silly.

But maybe you have a sense of the tide of opinion turning against modernism (etc), and that's what makes you a bit snappish?

Another quote from the Hamilton article:

Public response to the preservationists' plea has not produced the war chest expected, which preservationists leading the effort attributed to a lack of sympathy for the Modernist style. 'Honestly, I think that modern architecture is an acquired taste,' said Christopher Robling, who is involved with the Landmarks Preservation Council. More puzzling has been the lack of support from the architectural community itself, which stands to lose a monument that Charles Jencks, an architect and historian, characterized in a radio interview on Tuesday as tantamount to the Pyramids. We do not have major donors among architects,' said Jayne Thompson, who is involved with the preservation effort.

I've got no firsthand knowledge to call on where this is concerned -- god only knows what the real reasons behind Dr. Farnsworth's dislike of the house were. But her public fury about the house is part of modernist-architecture legend. Though, as Mike points out, she did wind up making some use of the house -- happily or not, I don't know. Here's a page that tells a bit of that story. It also includes the fun fact that FLW hated the house too, whose style he compared to communism.

And the house evidently has been a pain to keep up. A passage from the webpage:

First of all, the building had bugs. Real ones. At night, the illuminated glass house turned into a lantern, drawing swarms of mosquitos and moths. Dr. Farnsworth hired Chicago architect William E. Dunlap to design bronze-framed screens that would fold out of sight when not needed. The next owner, Lord Peter Palumbo, removed the screens and installed air conditioning -- which also helped with the building's ventilation problems. But some problems have proved to be unresolvable. The steel columns rust. They frequently need sanding and painting. Autumn leaves stain the limestone decks. They must be scrubbed and bleached every two weeks. The house sits near a stream. Severe flooding has caused serious damage.
Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2003 2:01 PM

Ah, just turned up a webpage that tells the story of the Farnsworth much more completely. It's here. I urge visitors to give it a read, and I'd love to know how many think that this is the kind of history they'd love to have with their house.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2003 2:09 PM

Michael, sorry if my tone offended. I thought I'd detected a similar tone in your posts, and thought I'd engage in some--as I saw it--good natured jousting.

Do I have a sense of the tide of opinion turning against modernism, and is this what makes me snappish? The tide of opinion turned against modernism many years ago. If anything it's probably turning back toward modernism a bit, which I suspect, if I'm right, is greatly to your dismay.

Should there be an open discussion of the house's utility and sustainability? Sure. It's a little hard to do that, though. We get these stories about how unlivable Dr. Farnsworth found the house, but could her stories have been exaggerated? In her memoirs, she wrote, "The alienation which I feel today must have had its beginnings on that shady river bank [near which the house was sited] all too soon abandoned by the herons which flew away to seek their lost seclusion farther upstream." Franz Schulze in his monograph on the house wrote, "Farnsworth's implicit identification of her sorry state with the flight of the herons was touched with poetic license. She did not, in fact, seek her own seclusion elsewhere, but remained in the house for nearly two decades, at one point even striking an uncompromisingly proprietary position toward it." Farsworth, from all accounts, was a brilliant doctor, highly cultured, but also, as Schulze notes from the testimony of friends, "a fiesty soul who did not shrink from a fight." Could her insistent testimony about the unlivability of her house--which, we must remember, was not intended as a full-time residence but a weekend retreat--have been blown up as result of her not giving up her fight with Mies, which she had, in court, already lost? Who can say for sure? But we do know that for two decades she continued to reside in this house and sold it only upon her decision to move to Italy. Was her decision to remain in her house also a result of her stubborn fiestiness, a desire to subdue the damned thing? Or was the house, which from the outset was clearly designed to be more a model of minimalist beauty than of comfort, really not that damned unlivable after all? I'm not sure how we can know.

Peter Palumbo for thirty years lived with it, with a few modifications that advances in technology have made more easily accessible, as it was intended: a spiritual and periodic retreat.

What of the greatest trouble that has plagued the house, flooding? Local records and citizens' testimony were consulted in an attempt to establish the highest level that the Fox River had reached in the previous 100 years, and Mies raised the house another two feet above that. Sadly, that proved not enough, especially with the effects that development have had on water runoff. Should Mies be blamed? Sure, to some extent. Should "modernism"? I'm not sure why. Would any other architect or developer have done better given the site the client desired for her house? I don't know, but I kind of doubt it.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on December 13, 2003 6:09 PM

Mike -- Thanks for the extra info. You're quite the Farnsworth buff, and Dr. Farnsworth sounds like quite the character in her own right. And apologies if I mistook your tone. Fun to swap impressions and compare tastes.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2003 6:40 PM

I like the writers that you've linked to in this entry. As I've said before, you have an excellent website. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Aakash Raut on December 13, 2003 10:01 PM


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