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  1. Over-Theorized Design
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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Over-Theorized Design
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- One of the more interesting studies of automotive styling is this 1988 book by C. Edson Armi. One chapter dealt with an interview with a stylist whose name was not familiar to me -- Bill Porter of General Motors. Apparently Poster is respected in his industry. He was responsible for the early 1970s Pontiac Firebird and the 1985 Buick Electra and was involved in other designs during his career. A fairly recent article dealing in part with Porter is here. Unfinished rendering by Bill Porter Below is material from the book. In his search for a unique direction derived from an American tradition, Porter developed [General Motors styling Vice President Harley] Earl's orthographic and highlight system to create a new system of "power bulges" based on conic sections. He was searching for "fullness that is muscular" .... Porter sought to expand Harley Earl's curvilinear vocabulary in complicated new directions. [This for the Firebird, in contrast to the prevailing Bill Mitchell hard-edge styling formula for GM cars.] [p. 95] Porter created his own dynamic movement by implying a single monocoque shell but by varying the conic sections infinitely. This play-off he describes as "unity-yet-difference" between the upper and lower body sections. On the one hand, "the curvature of the very leading edge of the roof just above the windshield, if continued forward, would not flow down to become the windshield surface but would arc out over it, forming an imaginary bubble that would reconnect with the cowl surface." On the other hand, the "bubble" suggests independent variation within itself: "The curved cone" of the roof " gets wider and wider as it goes back, until it curves down and passes alongside the rear window, where it flattens way out until it curves down to fuse with the lower. Think of it sort of as a thin shell that, while structural, is like a cape unfurling. It is as if the cape were held by the front edge and unfurls to the rear, imparting a subliminal sense of something having been affected by motion." Porter also speaks about stretching the monocoque into the lower by means of barely perceptively changing curved sections that he extended through the front and rear fenders. He intended for the radii changes to be simultaneously subtle and repetition -- to be as much felt as understood ... [pp. 95-6] Car designers are almost always car crazy, in a positive sense, but very few who reach the top have any awareness of the other arts. Not only is Porter aware of the history of modern design and of the place of cars in it, but he also talks about his designs with the vocabulary usually reserved for painting, sculpture, and architecture. Porter earned a degree in painting from the University of Louisville.... [p. 255] He searches for added visual complexity, having discovered during the sixties "a richer vocabulary' based on subtly changing conic sections. Especially important to him are the aesthetics of... posted by Donald at December 19, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Role of the Art Museum is ...?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- What is an art museum for? The potential answers to that question can be framed in terms of, among other things, comprehensiveness and specialization. The notion behind being comprehensive is that the museum should serve its home area by providing examples of many kinds of art from many places and eras. From this, the public in general and art students in particular can view a large variety of works of art in person, rather than vicariously via photographic images of the original objects. For example, such images never quite convey the nature of brushwork in paintings; it's very helpful to see the original painting if one wishes a good understanding of it. Specialization is a concept bearing a twinge of elitism, snobbery and competitive triumphalism. (These can be good things, despite their bad reputation in common usage. It depends on the circumstances.) The result for a museum taking this path is that it can claim a "world-class collection of Ming Dynasty vases," "the largest assemblage of paintings by Vermeer" or some other bragging right. A prime example of a specialized museum is New York's Museum of Modern Art. Buffalo's Albert-Knox Art Gallery has been in the news because it is deaccessioning parts of its collection to raise money to buy contemporary art. I think this is okay, but only where there are plenty of other decent art museums nearby. This is the case in New York, London, Paris and even smaller places such as San Francisco. If yours is the main museum in town, I'm not so sure it's wise to specialize. Consider the Honolulu Academy of Arts, housed in a fine old building designed by noted architect Bertram Goodhue. Honolulu was a pretty small place until 30 or 40 years ago. There is an art museum operated by the state, but not a lot else. Plus, the Academy has art classes as part of its program. The result is that the Academy displays a small, but pretty comprehensive assortment of paintings. As best I can tell, none of the Western ones fall into the Masterpiece category. But they do offer the student and the interested viewer a useful spectrum of original works. When I visited the museum earlier this month, I noted paintings by the following artists: Raeburn, Thomas Lawrence, Romney, Boucher, Gauguin, Bonnard, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Redon, Delacroix, Courbet, Pissarro, Monet, Picasso and Braque. There were others, but I failed to jot down their names -- there might have been a Modigliani, for instance. A small museum doing a nice job. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 18, 2009 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Night Club Echo
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Remember night clubs? Those fancy watering holes and dining troughs where celebrities gathered to rub elbows with one another and, perhaps of more importance to their careers, elbows of newspaper gossip columnists such as Walter Winchell. Oh. You don't remember night clubs. Or that Winchell fellow, either. That's the curse of being young. I remember Winchell's radio show from my childhood. Night clubs? I never went to any, though I certainly heard about them via radio, TV, the newspapers and movies -- the latter in the 1930s-early 50s would sometimes concoct über night clubs on sound stages where glamor was shown, big bands blasted, dancers cavorted and movie plots were occasionally advanced when all the rest didn't get in the way. One night club I experienced in a very tenuous way was New York's famous Stork Club. I hiked around Manhattan a lot back in 1962-63 when I was in the Army and had a weekend pass. The Stork was on a side street east of Fifth Avenue and had a discreet entrance announcing itself to a world that already knew perfectly well where it was. In short, I occasionally walked past the Stork Club, but never dreamed of trying to enter. Blowhards reader Richard Wheeler has a closer connection to the Stork Club, as he indicates here: * * * * * The Stork Club, Manhattan's premier watering hole from the thirties into the sixties, is an American legend. No other night club has even come close to matching its glamour and excitement. It was the place to see celebrities, and not just the movie variety either. One could just as easily spot John O'Hara or Ernest Hemingway there as Humphrey Bogart or Greer Garson. The club was the topic of a dour social history by Ralph Blumenthal of The New York Times, who devoted himself to focusing on its roots as a speakeasy and its troubles with labor unions and its snobby exclusion of various people. What was utterly missing in Blumenthal's accounts was any sense of the sheer joy it evoked in its patrons, or a sense of its glamour. Sherman Billingsley's night club was the place to go for a great time, to dance or drink or socialize or have fun. It was the most glamorous spot in the nation; the place where Walter Winchell would broadcast from Table 50 in the Cub Room, beginning each program with his usual "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea." My sister-in-law, Shermane Billingsley, along with her family, has created a splendid cultural and historical website that catches the actual excitement and joy and fame of the Stork Club. It will be a curiosity to the young; but to others it will bring back the magic. It can be found here. * * * * * Wow. We have really interesting readers here. Thank you very much for your account, Richard. And be sure to check out the... posted by Donald at December 17, 2009 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Boilerplate Adventures
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards-- I've thumbed through it at bookstores, been intrigued by the concept, but still haven't come around to plunking down the cash for a book titled Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel. It's a richly illustrated fiction piece about a robot soldier created in the late 19th century called Boilerplate. Boilerplate serves in a number of conflicts, including Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill, and disappears on the Western Front shortly before the armistice is signed, ending the Great War. To me, the most intriguing aspect of the book noticed during my thumb-throughs was how well the book's creators inserted images of Boilerplate in various historical photos and illustrations -- that robot blends into each scene beautifully, regardless of the style of the original image. I notice that reviews in the Amazon link above were quite positive (aside from one fellow who failed to get the joke). Have any of you purchased / read through Boilerplate? Your reactions, please. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 16, 2009 | perma-link | (2) comments

New Planes, Alternative Lives
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The Boeing 787 transport flew for the first time yesterday. The only publicly announced problem with the flight of the innovative jet was that it was shorter than planned due to the lousy weather here on Puget Sound. I didn't see it fly because I was at work 40-plus miles south of where it was doing its preliminary stuff. But on my commute home I did see it on the tarmac at its Boeing Field destination (it took off from Paine Field near Everett, where it was built). I didn't see it this morning because it seems to have been moved to a hangar. Thanks to their increasing complexity and cost, new aircraft designs are a lot more scarce than they were from the time of the Wright Brothers through the 1950s. However, growing up in Seattle, I got to see a few prototypes tooling around the local skies. I missed the XB-29 (which eventually crashed while on a landing approach) as well as the Stratocruiser (these because I was too young to understand the significance of what I saw flying) and the XB-47 (which spent much of its testing period across the Cascades at the Moses Lake airfield). But I did witness the YB-52 flying low near our house, flaps and landing gear deployed, apparently on a long, low approach to its Boeing Field home. I also saw the prototype 707 and the initial 747 aircraft in the air. Which leads me to fantasize how great it would have been to have been a boy living in the western Los Angeles area sometime around 1937-1952 when Lockheed, North American, Douglas, Northrop, Vultee, Ryan, Consolidated and perhaps a few other aircraft firms in Southern California were cranking out prototype after prototype. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 16, 2009 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cruisin' Large
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- USS Alaska That's a battleship in the photo above, right? No, actually. World War 2 marked the beginning of the missile age, but it took a while before navies could fully adjust to them along with concurrent developments in electronics and computation. The result is that I no longer have a clear picture of the spectrum of naval combat vessels aside from aircraft carriers and submarines (yes, I could get off my duff and research the matter). Things were simpler in the era of the two world wars when heavy guns, torpedoes and, eventually, bombs comprised the main offensive weaponry. For instance, fighting ships could be classified by rank in terms of firepower and defensive armor. Setting aside aircraft carriers, battleships were biggest in terms of displacement tonnage, had the thickest armor and the largest guns -- shell diameters ranged from around 12 inches to slightly more than 18 inches for first-line ships in the period 1912-1945. Next were battle cruisers which essentially were battleships with less armor and therefore greater speed; armament was similar. Then came cruisers, a kind of intermediate class, followed by comparatively small, fast destroyers. Being an Army guy with a lot of interest in military aviation, for many years I didn't pay a lot of attention to naval vessels other than battleships and carriers. I knew what destroyers looked like and regarded cruisers as a kind of morph between them and battleships. Actually, that's not a bad approximation because cruisers were definitely larger than destroyers and often didn't look much like battleships. That's not the whole story. By the time of World War 2, the U.S. Navy had ordered cruiser classes of large vessels that looked rather battleship-like. They had only about a third of a battleship's displacement (very roughly 10-15,000 tons versus 30-45,000), but they were nearly as long as battleships. They were proportionally narrower, having a higher fineness ratio to attain faster speeds than (most) battleships. Cruisers were divided into two classes -- heavy and light. The distinction had to do with armament. A heavy cruiser had 8-inch guns whereas a light cruiser's main guns were 6-inchers. Effectiveness was a matter of debate in naval circles. Eight-inch guns obviously packed more punch. But they fired at a significantly slower rate. Advocates of light cruisers held that a light cruiser could smother a heavy cruiser with its fire. There are many other interesting cruiser issues, especially that of the mission of that class of ship. Since this is an arts & culture blog, let's instead focus on appearance. That ship pictured above is one of a class of two that served in World War 2. It's almost a battle cruiser. Some observers claim them to be battle cruisers and the Navy used a different designator for them: Light cruisers in Navy-speak are CLs, heavy cruisers are CAs and the Alaska class are CB -- for "cruiser, battle?" Even though the Alaskas are large ships, their main guns were... posted by Donald at December 15, 2009 | perma-link | (10) comments

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sporting Sports Figures' Names
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I see it often enough, but there was lots and lots and lots of it around when I was in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. Of course I'm referring to guys (and some gals too) who wear a team jersey with a player's number and last name on the back -- just like their sports hero wears on the field. I said "field" because it's football season and that's the sport being sported. Come to think of it, at a University of Washington game in October, some fans were honoring their favorite players in the same manner. Why this strong a degree of public identification? I'm having trouble here because this team jersey thing didn't exist when I was in college and for quite a few years later. At best we might wear a sweatshirt with team colors to a game, but even that was fairly rare. Mind you, I do understand hero worship. I've done it myself when I was young and idealistic (think youthful enthusiasm for John F. Kennedy). But that was mostly for political figures. While I recognized the importance of, say, the quarterback to my college team's success, I'm not sure I would have tried to quasi-impersonate him by wearing part of his uniform even if they sold such garments back in those days. I clearly need help in this matter. Is there an anthropologist in the house? A psychologist, too. Later, Donald ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention that most of the Las Vegas team jersey wearers were over 30. And most of the rest were their children.... posted by Donald at December 13, 2009 | perma-link | (8) comments