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December 14, 2007


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Researching a biography of the burlesque star Lili St. Cyr, Kelly DiNardo learns that Lili was a serious heroin user. Kelly blogs here.

* So what is rockabilly? Hey, here's a dynamite example.

* Preserve your favorite snowflake forever.

* Jen Jordan recalls the early days of commercial hard drives. Now we're on the verge of terabyte thumb drives.

* Curious Expeditions takes a look at some castles built by self-taught builders.

* Barbara Fisher tries "minimally processed" organic milk and loves it.

* Philip Murphy celebrates some sizzling Frenchwomen.

* Their parents apparently didn't tell them not to play with their food. (Link thanks to Charlton Griffin.)

* In a heroic posting, Mencius tries to separate out the quack economists from the real economists.

* Get your upscale sex toys here. My favorite is a spanking paddle "ethically made by a fair trade project in India with wood from a substainable source." Despite my giggles, I do find this a beautiful and seductive site. (NSFW, of course.)

* I like a girl with a great big Bible.

* Glenn Abel pays tribute to the subtle and refined low-budget horror impresario Val Lewton.

* Thanks to Dave Lull, who points out a good Steven D. Ealy review of a book about Michael Oakeshott, my favorite philosopher.

* Dave also points out a Terry Teachout blogposting about John Silber's new anti-starchitecture book. Is the tide finally starting to turn against the starchitects? Here's a video interview with Terry.

* You can listen to a lot of interviews with cultureworld figures here. I especially enjoyed the merry-spirited playwright Alan Ayckbourn and the Zen-Rabbi-troubador Leonard Cohen. The Howard Hodgkin talk is a letdown, though.

* Culturebargain: The respectable press loathed Joel Schumacher's Angry-White-Man revenge melodrama "Falling Down," starring Michael Douglas. I found it very satisfying: irreverent and exciting, and with a hard-to-resist instinct for the jugular. Amazon is selling the DVD of the film for $5.49.

* MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about Alberto Cavalcanti's brilliant 1947 British gangster movie "They Made Me a Fugitive."



posted by Michael at December 14, 2007


Philip Murphy made me laugh with:

She's hot. I know that sounds sexist, but she's so hot she's making me sexist.

An insight for women into the nature of masculine sexuality.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 15, 2007 2:31 PM

What's that figure that that study turned up? Women think about sex twice a day, while men think about it every 15 seconds? Something like that? Rings true to me!

Hey, was anyone else as k-o'd by the Gordon Terry rockabilly performance as I was? What a confident, energized and appealing performer he was. He was hot for a few years -- was even offered a job as a movie Tarzan he was considered so hunky. But for some reason the solo career didn't work out, and he wound up spending most of his life playing fiddle at the Grand Ol' Opry. Sadly, he died just a year or two ago in his early 70s. It's amazing how many firecracker-good performers the world is full of.

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on December 15, 2007 2:54 PM

I hadn't heard about the John Silber's book, "Architecture of the Absurd: How 'Genius' Disfigured a Practical Art." Thanks for bringing it up!

I didn't get a chance to comment on the recent Hilton Kramer / Tom Wolfe thread, but I had wanted to say that it appears to me that Wolfe isn't really criticising "modern" architecture per se in "From Bauhaus to Our House" as much as he is criticising the pretentious, self-centered, anti-capitalistic mumbo-jumbo IDEOLOGY of just one sub-species of modern architecture -- i.e., "compound-approved, orthodox modernism." I say this because, even though Wolfe may personally prefer more traditional architecture, in "From Bauhaus to Our House" he nevertheless seems to have sympathetic words for NON-ORTHODOX "modernists" (whose work didn't subscribe to orthodox modernist doctrine) like Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff, Edward Durell Stone, Morris Lapidus, and John Portman (i.e., the outcasts and apostates).

Therefore, it seems to me that the title of John Silber's book, "Architecture of the Absurd: How 'Genius' Disfigured a Practical Art," could also serve as a good (but less playful) title to Tom Wolfe's book.

- - - - - -

In the (publisher's?) book description on the Amazon website, it mentions that John Silber does admire some [orthodox] modern architecture. (So do I.) But it appears that in his book Silber gives Santiago Calatrava an undeserved (in my opinion), free pass. From what I can see, Calatrava's work, like the planned PATH train station in lower Manhattan (i.e., an anti-urban airport terminal or world's fair pavilion in Lower Manhattan), is just as bad as the others. Calatrava is just a better engineer and talks a better line. (I've seen Calatrava speak at a community board meeting, and he also seems to be a genuinely nice person -- hard to disllike on a personal basis.)

But it seems to me that his work in Lower Manhattan fits the bill just as much as the other "starchitects":

". . . John Silber dares to peek behind the curtain of 'genius' architects and expose[s] their willful disdain for . . . their budgets, and the people who live or work inside their creations . . . . Absurdist architects have been shelted by the academy, encouraged by critics, and commissioned by CEOs and trustees. They stamp the world with meaningless monstrosities, jusify them with fanciful theories, and command outgrageious "genius fees' for their trouble."

- - - - - -

Speaking of letting modernists off-the-hook, a few weeks ago, I attended a symposium about Nathan Glazer's book on modern architecture, "From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City." I've only skimmed the book, and it's apparently a collection of mostly previously published essays which loosely deal with modern architecture and urbansim -- rather than an integrated, sustained analysis / attack on modernism. However at this symposium Glazer read excerpts and elaborated a bit on his ideas, and it seemed to me that he too is letting some modernists off the hook undeservedly.

If I understood Glazer correctly, he seemed to be saying that, unfortunately, the anti-urbanism of [orthodox] modernism is largely a byproduct of today's economic climate -- that today's big cities, more or less, just require big, tall anti-urban buildings that, for instance, "can't" provide for a variety of street-level stores, etc.

However, as I pointed out to him in the question and answer period, there are actually quite a few large, tall buildings / developments in New York City that are not the least bit anti-urban and, indeed, have plenty of street-level retail (e.g., Rockefeller Center, Lexington Ave. in the low 40s, etc.). I don't know how clear I was in my off-the-cuff comments, but I also tried to say that it seems to me that it's largely the ideology of [orthodox] modernism (i.e., the "need" for a succeessful new building to be a stand-out as a sculptural object -- as "art" -- rather than just a handsome urban building) that is the problem, not large-scaled building per se.

Prof. Glazer very graciously admitted that he hadn't considered Rockefeller Center and Lexington Avenue and would think about my comments.

Although [orthodox] modern architecture isn't, in my opinion, the sole culprit (Beaux Arts architecture and the City Beautiful movement can sometimes be just as bad), [orthodox] modernism does seem to have a unique affinity for anti-urbanism. Thus, my suggested title for his book would have been, "From a Style, to a Cause, to an Urban Plague."

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 15, 2007 4:09 PM

Benjamin, can you talk a bit more about your dislike for Calatrava work? I've heard similar opinions from architects. One recent - by an Israeli architect/professor of architecture; he preferred Calatrava to Niemeyer whose creations he considers warm, human-scaled and even romantic. I find Niemeyer utterly repellent, an example of those doctrinaire marxists you mentioned. [To think the man turned a 100 now! And there are people who believe in Just God!]

Can you explain what specifically you don't like in Calatrava's PATH project?

Posted by: Tatyana on December 15, 2007 6:07 PM

Ah, sorry, forgot to supply the link to the recent Niemeyer's building..

Posted by: Tatyana on December 15, 2007 6:09 PM


Thanks for the question. Basically, it's not so much that I dislike Calatrava's work per se, but like the work of most "starchitects," even when it works, however superficially, on an aesthetic level, it's just not good CITY architecture -- it really belongs at an airport or on a world's fair grounds, etc.

For instance, compare Calatrava's train terminal with Grand Central Terminal.

1) Calatrava's free form building is building that is more suited to an airport or world's fair -- in fact it very closely resembles one of his first celebrated works a train terminal at an airport in France or Spain.

Grand Central, in contrast, is a building that is the essence of "urbane."

2) While airport or world's fair type buildings can, on occassion, work as "foreground" buildings in a city, Calatrava's terminal stands apart from its surroundings in a "bad" way; it screams for attention; and fights, rather than complements, the surrounding area -- an area that is already chock-a-block with wonderful iconic NEW YORK-style structures (e.g., St. Paul's Chapel and graveyard is diagonally across the street).

In contrast, Grand Central Terminal -- while still a foreground building -- complements rather than fights its surroundings.

3) The Calatrava terminal stands aloff from its surroundings -- e.g., it has no street level stores to "mar" its architecture.

Grand Central Terminal, in contrast, both stands apart and blends seamlessly with the surrounding city -- stores (beneath a viaduct!) along 42nd St., porte cochere (now arcaded sidewalk cafe) along Vanderbilt Ave., etc.

4) The Calatrava terminal is a single use structure that devitalizes the city.

In contrast, Grand Central Terminal has many other businesses hidden inside its wonderfully complex structure. For instance, there are (or at least were) two full sized tennis courts (and a tennis club) above the waiting room!!! The seemingly blank corners of the structure actually have offices that can be reached by walking on glass catwalks through those large triple-arched windows.

5) Calatrava's terminal appears to be dysfunctional -- all built around a "grand" concept of a flying dove or folded hands, glass walls and a center seam that will open in hot weather.

How safe is all that glass during this age of terrorism?; who is going to clean all that glass?; how much will this cost?; how much is it going to cost to air-condition this greenhouse of a building?; how beautiful will it be at night?; how effective is an open seam going to be in New York summers, especially when the problem is often not the heat, but the humidity?

Contrast this with Grand Central Terminal, where the windows -- and basically the building is a glass box -- are easy to clean; where the opaque roof and high ceilings made the building cool even before they installed air conditioning.

6) Then there is the cost. It's unbelievably enormous. (I don't have the figures handy, but even some experienced hands can't believe how much it is going to cost. To be fair to Calatrava, there MUST be some non-terminal costs being figured in there -- it's just too astronomimcally high to be believed.

Grand Central Terminal in contrast was part of a development scheme where the terminal basically paid for itself (since the terminal spreads out below the surrounding office buildings, which basically paid for the construction of the terminal. So the terminal made sense as one-low structure in a setting of taller buildings. (It was also built to accomodate a small skyscraper some day, if the railroad chose to go that route.)

If I remember correctly, these are the basics of my criticism. I wrote much more at length for the EIS statement -- which may, or may not, be on line somewhere.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 15, 2007 7:33 PM

Thank you for this extended answer. I'll study it in detail; in a meanwhile - few quick notes.
From what I know of design/bid/estimates process (and I've been practicing now for about 15 years in NY),
a) contractor often over-estimates the project, allowing for for mishaps with the trades; in State and Federal projects (I think this one qualifies since 1.9bln are coming from the feds) there is a cap on declared contractor's profit; the GCs tend to walk around it b overestimating labor/materials costs.
b) from what I read on the net, only one contractor (Phoenix Co) is mentioned; I conclude either the bid process is already finished, or the PA had selected them out of their preferred list. In any case, appears that they have based their estimates of budget overrun on "old set of drawings" - if I only had as much dollars as I heard that excuse before!
c) Your maintenance concerns are the most valid ones - but that's actually where I would rather trust Calatrava, with his engineering background, than regular architectural firms. Other buildings he designed don't have HV/AC or other engineering problems - when the client listens to him and allows him to instruct the contractors accordingly.
d)Aesthetics is the most subjective issue, of course. I rather think the new building will look fantastic in its location, surrounded by all those glassy reflective boxes. I'm sure when all those towers were being built concern over St. Pail was also voiced - but the contrast actually works better for it now. I think if it was surrounded by buildings of pseudo classic form, it'd be lost entirely. Also, there is that imposing Federal Art Deco building (don't know what is it there now), right next to it - that's what is making a live fabric of the cities, the contrast of buildings as remnants of their times.
e)That tennis club in Grand Central - as far as I remember from TV documentary and OHNY tour, it appeared out of necessity, when owners couldn't rent out the space to any usual tenants; I don't think Grand Central was designed with athletic institutions in mind. I might be mistaken, of course. And why do you think the interior spaces in Calatrava's station aren't designed well? Did you see the floor plans or a space program? If anything, contemporary buildings are better suited for their intended use - I formed this opinion while participating in redesign of 1029' Brooklyn Courthouse building (currently Criminal).

However, as a general observation, I agree with you that architects have a tendency to overestimate architectural consistency/details/concept versus users' convenience. [That's why god created interior designers to fight for the end user - but that's an aside and part of unrelated professional battles].

Thanks again for your comment.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 15, 2007 8:57 PM

1929'Brooklyn Courthouse, of course. Sorry for that (and other) typos. I was too sleepy to preview!

Posted by: Tat on December 16, 2007 11:08 AM

Thanks Tatyana -- interesting comments. (I'm behind on so many projects, so please excuse the somewhat rushed answers.)

A & B) Regarding costs.

I really didn't have time to get into it yesterday (I was typing from a PC at a library which was about to close) -- but I think the astronomical costs are a result of two things:

1) Charging basic infrastructure costs of refilling the "bathtub" to the terminal project, rather than some general fund. This seems to have been at least partially the case also with the costs associated with the memorial. Yes the memorial is stupidly designed (with waterfalls subject to slight breezes and freezing temperatures, etc.) and thus very expensive, but also a lot of the cost assigned to the memorial seemed to be basic infrastructure costs that would be assigned to any memorial -- even a plain, painted plywood sign. I suspect the same is true of the train terminal -- so for PART of the astronomical cost I'm inclined to give them a break.

2) The Calatrava terminal is basically a showpiece that will (I believe) involve totally rebuilding the existing track and passenger arrangements, etc. My guess is that part of the astronomical costs involve totally rebuilding and rearranging the existing underground infrastructure to provide for this showpiece. If this is true, I believe this is a legitimate criticism.

The two previous train termianls on the site worked very well and there is no need to build a "showpiece" that i) doesn't work as well as the previous two did (in my opinion) and ii) involves very expensive (and "unnecessary") rebuilding of infrastructure.

The very concept of a stand alone "showpiece" rail terminal is a bad idea in my opinion. The immediate area already has "showpieces" (and will have more, e.g., the memorial) that should be complemented and not competed with. Building a stand-alone showpiece on this site (a one-story world's fair pavilion) means taller and more massive buildings will have to be built on other sites to make up for the cost.

So not only does it add more costs (changing the tracks, etc.), it also takes away from revenue -- all to build an "icon" in an area that is already surfeited with icons and uniquely New York.

C) Maintenance costs. First, I should have been clearer, its not just maintenance, but use. I forgot to mention that it seems to me that with so much of the structure being (at least before its redesign -- which I haven't seen) a "greenhouse," there could also be problems with glare.

Part of my thoughts regarding both use (e.g., glare) and maintenance have to do with the original Pennsylvania Station -- which I think may be one of most overrated buildings of all time (and I believe it shows that Beaux Arts "starchitects" could at times be just as bad as [orthodox] modern ones).

Look at pictures of Penn Station when it was brand new. Already the "grand" concept of a glass train shed is being marred by the painting in of the lower glass panels in order to reduce the glare.

Also, look at pictures of Penn Station in use, years later, and note how filthy (cigarette smoke stains?, general city soot?, pigeon droppings?,etc.) the glass (and columns) appear to be.

Grand Central Terminal, in contrast, looked pretty good even when it was filthy. Some designs / aesthetic concepts just wear soot and grime better than others! And I suspect these are designs where the architect and client are more concerned with function than with creating just an iconic showpiece.

D) In my rush yesterday, I don't think I explained myself well. Later on it occurred to me that I forgot to make one of my main points -- or didn't make it clearly. A foreground building, even a free form one like the Calatrava building, can work in a city if it is in the right location: bascially surrounded by plain or boring buildings, especially those having little open space.

For instance, although Gothic isn't thought of as free form, it is free form relative to classical. Thus, free form Trinity Church and St. Pat's look great in large part because they are surrounded by relatively plain, bulky buildings. Same for the NYPL and GCT. Even the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum benefit somewhat from this kind of arrangement. Now think if all the above mentioned buildings were all on adjacent blocks, lined up in a row -- it wouldn't be a city anymore, it would be a world's fair grounds (or Lower Manhattan of the future)!

One of the basic problems with the Calatrava terminal is that people (even those who should know better) are saying we "need" an iconic building downtown -- which is absurd. Downtown already has probably more iconic buildings per acre than any other business district on the face of the earth (e.g., St. Paul's, Woolworth Building, ATT Building, City Hall, Trinity Church, the American Stock Exchange, the New York Stock Exchange, U.S. Customs House, Battery Clinto, the Brooklyn Bridge, Chase Manhattan Plaza, etc.). And that's before the other new "iconic" structures being planned for the area are built -- i.e., the Fulton Street (world's fair) station; the Gehry (world's fair) arts center; the 9/11 (world'sfair) museum; etc.

Lower-Manhattan ALREADY is a spectacular place -- and like no other place on earth -- and all these buildings are trying to transform it into a suburban world's fair grounds transforming or one of the instant cities to be found in Asia or the mid-East. (And it seems that many of the people touting this changeover are often the very same people who loudly decry globalization, chain stores, and the loss of local identiy!)

E) Tennis club. Again, I made my point badly. Not only wasn't the tennis club designed to be a tennis club, before it was a tennis club it was a TV studio where a number of famous early TV shows (CBS network) were done (e.g., "I Remember Mama," "You Are There," etc.). And before that it was an art gallery, I believe.

The use isn't so much the point here as the fact that pre-[orthodox] modern architects and clients focused less on "pristine" (no commerce) showpieces than on intensive, multi-use structures (that gladly accommodated commerce). And these multi-use structures worked well not only in spite of their multi-use set-up but because they were intensive, multi-use structures. (Especially true for train terminals.) In contrast, [orthodox] modern architects focus on sculptural objects that are showpieces and a) they often don't work well, even in terms of basic functions, and b) they certainly don't work well as intensive, complex parts of a city. (They are de-vitalizers, black-holes.)

(Also compare showpiece mono-use Lincoln Center theaters with such multi-use, complex theaters as the old Met (which actually included stores and, I believe, a small apartment house!), Carnegie Hall (apartments, studios, stores -- and eventually even an art movie theater and greasy spoon diner); the Paramount Theater (skyscraper office building with iconic top -- see Superman comics); Radio City Music Hall (office building).

Some of these buildings are visual landmarks (Paramount Theater building), some are not. But they all are multi-use, complex structures that not only work just as well, or better, than mono-use structures, but urbanistically speaking work much better as well.

So aside from its aesthetic glory, Grand Central Terminal (which included offices, art gallery, art school, movie theater, shops, including those along 42nd St., etc.) also works better as a train facility and urban landmark. One of its major glories as a railroad station (aside from ease of use, and beauty) has been its complexity, interest and excitement.

By the way, I should mention that the original designs for the Calatrava terminal have been somewhat redone in part to address security issues, cost issues and, I believe, maintenance issues. But it still seems to me that the project and the very "showpiece" concept are wrong from the get go.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 16, 2007 6:05 PM

It occurs to me that I have only seen the one Cavalcanti movie: Dead of Night. It's enough, however, to make one a fan. I'll look for the others.

From the same period: Green for Danger. The movie is a ripper, yet, in an era before anyone thought of English police-dramas as possible "vehicles", it produced what has to be one of the greatest screen performances. Blowhards, do not depart this life without seeing Alastair Sim in Green for Danger!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 16, 2007 10:59 PM

Robert -- Tks for the rec, wasn't aware of the film at all. I just put it at the top of my Netflix queue.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 16, 2007 11:58 PM

This post inspired me to view "Falling Down," which I had never seen before, and I found it really quite good. Not only an effective melodrama but I found the parallelism between the two principal characters (Douglas and Duvall) quite interesting.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on December 22, 2007 11:28 PM

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