The Grid-Sphere Satellite And The Doomsday Stone

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Last year I picked up this extraordinary photograph, and then didn’t have immediate results researching it, so I put it away until now. Then, wow.
NASA launched the first Project Echo communications satelloon in 1960 to much fanfare, but the 100-foot diameter inflated Mylar sphere’s actual performance as a reflective signal relay fell short of predictions. Echo IA launched in 1960 and stayed aloft and visible from earth until 1966, but it partially deflated within a few weeks, which weakened its reflectivity. And the drag of such a large object decayed its orbital speed in ways that made it an unreliable relay.
Soon after Echo II’s launch in 1964 by NASA and Bell Labs, the US Air Force began pursuing a next-generation technology with one of its leading military contractors, Goodyear Aerospace: the grid sphere.
The grid sphere satellite was designed, near as I can tell, by Goodyear Aerospace engineer Howard Barrett. The 30-food diameter sphere of rigidized, laminated aluminum wire was embedded in a UV-sensitive plastic, which would photolyze, or disintegrate, after inflating in space, leaving the open grid sphere intact. The sphere was calculated to produce a backscatter reflection signal more than 5x as powerful as the Mylar solid sphere three times its diameter, and would be immune to its puncture, deflation, and solar radiation drag effects.
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image via National Museum of the US Air Force
I’ve found mention of both 2-foot and 14-foot diameter grid sphere models, and another image of this 30-foot test inflation. Good gravy, did they really just inflate it using that tiny, leaf blower thing? I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that when it launched in 1966 from Vandenburg AFB on an Atlas rocket, the grid sphere satellite became the second-most beautiful object ever put into space. Between July 13, 1966 and May 24, 1968, when Echo IA burned up in the atmosphere, there were two satelloons and this open grid sphere, all orbiting the earth together, in Minimalism’s awesomest group show.
Which would be cool enough on its own. And then Andy Beach sends me this.
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It’s Nicholas Mangan’s 2008 photo of Ed Grothus’s Doomsday Stone. Grothus was the atomic technician-turned-anti-nuclear peace activist-and-retail-icon who ran The Black Hole, the legendary military/scientific surplus store in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Grothus died in 2009 without being able to realize his decades-in-the-making Doomsday Stones memorial, a set of massive black granite obelisks carved with warnings in 15 languages about the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
The obelisks I’d heard about, but not this insanely awesome 1-meter, 1.5-ton, black granite sphere, which rests alongside them in a shipping container in Grothus’s backyard. Mangan:

In late 2007 Ed went to the Art in Public Places board in Los Alamos to offer them his monuments for public display. They rejected them stating that ‘they couldn’t think of anywhere in Los Alamos where they would fit in’. They backed up their rejection by claiming that Ed was not an ‘Artist’ according to their set of definitions and requirements.

There is something about a prophet in his own country here. Grothus’s Doomsday Stones are art in every sense of the word, and his work is an artistic practice of the highest kind, and should be recognized as such.
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Large Red Sphere, Walter de Maria, 2010, permanent installation at Kunstareal, Munich, image: e-flux
The self-proclaimed art world ignores Grothus at the peril of its own credibility and relevance. If it’s just a matter of the research not being done, let’s get on it. If we need to inflate the critical balloon to give Grothus’s reputation the structure it is obviously meant to have, let’s start blowing. From his quixotic minimalist megalomania in the desert [Heizer, Turrell, De Maria] to his performative taunts in high Catholic regalia [Klein], to his fantastical historical dumpsterdiving [Dion], Grothus is Los Alamos’ own Simon Rodia. It’s just a question of how long it’ll take everyone to realize it.

Great Minds Think Alike, But Only Some Of Us Write For The New Yorker

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I didn’t read it earlier, and I have to read it now, obviously, now that it’s finally been published in the US. But I wonder if my first short film may be an inadvertent adaptation of Geoff Dyer’s 1994 essay on World War I and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, France.
The Millions has a nice interview with him about it:

TM: You write in the book, “The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory, but the way memory has determined – and continues to determine – the meaning of the war.” Can you describe the meaning of the war?
GD: Always in the book I’m just trying to articulate impressions of it. It’s certainly not a history book. I always have faith in this idea that if I remain honest and open about my own confusion, the blurriness of my impressions – it’s not because I’m short-witted or stupid – the chances are those feelings will be shared by other people. And I just had this very distinct sense of the First World War as being something rather buried in its own memory. There’s so much discussion, as the war is going on, about how it will be remembered, or if it will be forgotten. So right from the start it just seems preoccupied with how it will be remembered. The other crucial thing is that distinction I make with the Robert Capa pictures of D-Day, where it all seems to hang in the balance and there’s a great sense of immediacy. With the First World War there’s no immediacy to it. It comes buried in so many layers of myth and memory.

Hmm, actually, maybe not. Or maybe the opposite. In 2001-2, I was looking at what a place of horrible destruction was like when there was no one left who did remember it. The difference between remembering and knowing, perhaps. Or the past and the experience of the present.
Also, Spiral Jetty first re-emerged in 1994, not 1999. I’d have thought the New Yorker would’ve caught that.
The Millions Interview | Geoff Dyer on the London Riots, the Great War, and the Gray Lady [themillions.com]
The Missing of the Somme (Vintage) [amazon]

Rauschenberg Currents Event

Robert Rauschenberg’s massive 1970 silk screen edition, Currents sure is hard to miss. And not just because it’s 18 meters long.
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MoMA’s copy from the edition [of just six] has been wrapped around the corner of the second floor galleries for a while now. Which may have helped coax Peter Freeman into bringing out another of the screenprints last week for Art Basel.
But it’s also at the end of the Rauschenberg’s segment in Emile de Antonio’s documentary, Painters Painting [above], which I rewatched recently. Bob unfurls it with a slightly soused, earnestly glib voiceover about how, even though there’s so much information packed into a daily newspaper, most people don’t read it. But if someone spends $15,000 on the info, the artist can get him to pay attention. Or at least not wrap the fish in it and throw it out.
Which is ironic, I guess, because I’ve found that the size and visual uniformity has caused me to stroll by Currents without ever even slowing down. I register it as reworked newspaper content, on a giant roll, just like the real newspaper itself–but I don’t slow down to look closely. I mean, really, at that scale, how much of my time does Rauschenberg really think he’s gonna get?
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So maybe it was because I’d just run into Richard Serra moments before in the atrium, or because I came at the work head-on this time, instead of from the side. But I’d never noticed, for example, that there is a news photo of a frontloader bringing a massive fir tree trunk to the Pasadena Art Museum for Serra’s 1970 work, Sawing: Base Plate Template (Twelve Fir Trees)
Above it and to the right, I’d swear that row of tract houses is a Dan Graham photo.
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And hey, there’s a story about construction progress on Expo 70 in Osaka, where E.A.T., the collaborative Rauschenberg founded with Billy Kluver, was creating the Pepsi Pavilion, and where Rauschenberg was still thinking he’d show his own work, a plexiglass cubeful of bubbling drillers’ mud called Mud-Muse, which he’d developed with Teledyne for LACMA’s Art & Technology show and the US Pavilion.
If I can spot these now-obvious contemporary art references in Currents, what else must be lurking in there? Was incorporating other artists’ images Rauschenberg’s way of tipping his hat to artists and work he liked, or was he assimilating and subsuming it in his own, sprawling scroll? Was he engaging in a dialogue with the Conceptual and post-minimalist kids coming up or putting them in their place? Or trying to put himself in theirs?
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The most intriguing references now, though, turn out to be a little trickier. There are multiple instances of diagrams showing hands throwing the OK sign which remind me of nothing so much as the sign language woodblocks used in the prints at Jasper Johns’ latest show at Marks.
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Shrinky Dink 4, 2011, intaglio print, image via
I remember thinking immediately of Rauschenberg when I saw the mirrored newspaper transfer appearing in the upper left of this Johns drawing, Untitled, 2010.
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Rauschenberg began using the technique in the mid-60s, and it’s all over Currents. Remind me again how long MoMA’s had their print on view?

What I Looked At: Sol Lewitt Structures


I finally made it down to City Hall Park to see the Public Art Fund’s installation of Sol Lewitt structures. Which, first or now, you must watch the discussion of working with Lewitt at the New School. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
OK.
So along with the general admiration and pleasure of seeing so many Lewitts, the first thing I think is: picturesque.
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Double Modular Cube, 1969
Lewitt introduced human proportions into these modules, which may somehow account for why it feels like an idyllically sited pavilion or garden folly. But it’s definitely activating something in the landscape, too.
Then there is Complex Forms, 1987:
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Which, I know, I know, every algorithmically-generated polygon around here gets tied to Dutch Camo Landscapes. But:

For the Complex Forms, the artist drafted a two-dimensional polygon and placed dots at various locations within it. As the form is projected into three dimensions, those interior points are elevated into space at different heights. The elevated points dictate the seams of the object’s multi-faceted surface.

So these things turn out to be topographies “projected” from two dimensions into three. Maps. So it is not a stretch.
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The way I found the Dutch Camo Landscapes in the first place was through architecture. They were 2D patterns generated from photos of 3D structures, which read as 3D structures themselves. As camo deployed against aerial surveillance, I’ve also imagined them as crystalline structures or surfaces, topographies, installed above whatever site is being obscured.
It’s to the point that last fall, I actually went to the Noordeinde Paleis [above] in The Hague, not *really* expecting, but kind of hoping, to see it sitting, safe from terror or whatever, under a giant, polychrome, polygonal tent. It was not. I’ll add that to my project list, though. [note to self: call Queen Beatrix.]
It also reminds me, even more explicitly, of Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis’ 1958 Philips Pavilion in Brussels, which, as these two models I found displayed shoved into a corner at ARCAM in Amsterdam one night show, was similarly constructed from 2-dimensional curves and points projected into space.
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“The Complex Forms introduce irregularity into Lewitt’s work,” we are told, “which is further explored, for example,” in the Splotches. Which, again, two-dimensional drawing projected into structure via formulas for generating color and height. I can really dig these things, except–I didn’t photograph it, didn’t want to be a crank, but holy crap, I can’t stop staring at that seam.
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Splotch 15 [with giant $#)%ing seam], 2005
It was not like this when it was exhibited on the Met’s roof garden in 2005, was it?
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No, I do not think it was. What gives?
The next thing is how lush and classical City Hall Park is. Since this incarnation dates from 1999, I guess historicist is the right word. I don’t remember noticing this as acutely as I do now.
Maybe because so many Lewitts are installed along the park’s radial axis, lined up with that replica fountain just so.
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In his opening remarks at the New School, Nicholas Baume described the Public Art Fund’s program as “looking back at radical practices dating from the 1960s and registering their contemporary resonance.” He goes on to cite the appeal of seeing “the interesting juxtaposition of natural landscape [sic], New York City skyscrapers, and the architectural and decorative elements of the park,” which “provide a fascinating and rich context.” But now this installation, I get less sense of juxtaposition, and more assimilation. Radial historicism: 1. Radical practice: 0.
As I’m walking around, trying to figure out how to process this situation, I suddenly looked at the Complex Structures head-on, i.e., the “wrong” way.
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And it turns out to be radially symmetrical itself. A mirror image. And I remember writing about laughing at first at Chinese tourists who didn’t “get” the Iwo Jima Memorial, and who posed for photos at the head of the statue, only to realize they didn’t have the same LIFE Magazine photo-mediated historical context as Americans.
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Connecticut veterans at the front of the Iwo Jima Memorial, image: ct.gov
Which, suddenly, Lewitt’s practice of projecting a 2D image into a 3D structure has an entirely new, complicated legacy which I’ve never seen addressed before, but maybe this City Hall Park is a good place to start.

The Free Speech Movement Monument Was Censored.

In 1989, a group of veteran activists organized the Berkeley Art Project to create a monument marking the 25th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. Mark Brest van Kempen’s conceptual proposal won the elaborate national competition and dialogue. It is a 6-inch diameter circle of earth surrounded by a granite circle that reads, “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.”
Remarkably, the Berkeley University administration only accepted the monument on the condition that any reference at all to the Free Speech Movement be stricken from the work and any surrounding publicity.
A podcast I’d never heard of but really like now, 99% Invisible, has the story of the Free Speech Monument, and an interview with the artist.

For added perspective, check out the 1992 statement by FSM leader Michael Rossman, who opposed the selection of a conceptualist monument–until Berkeley’s president added to its conceptual power by censoring it:

If this story be remembered as part of the work, it will stand for the ages, or until a censorious jackhammer erases it from the Plaza. A century hence, our descendants may read the truth written in stone: What happened here in 1964 was so significant and so deeply contested that nearly thirty years later the university administration still would not permit faculty and students to honor its name, but instead insisted on censoring their political expression. In this perversely perfect monument to the FSM, they may read a larger truth applying far beyond the campus: that the issues opened in that conflict and era, of civil liberties and rights, had still not been resolved, but continued deeply contested.

The Invisible Monument To Free Speech [99percentinvisible.org via someone awesome I can’t remember who, but probably Geoff Manaugh, since he’s the subject of the previous episode]
The Berkeley Art Project, by Michael Rossman [mrossman.org]

Andrea Bowers On The Political Landscape

Thomas Lawson’s 2010 interview with Andrea Bowers is like five kinds of great. It concerns the works in her show at Susan Vielmetter in Los Angeles, “The Political Landscape.” Bowers’ story of making a video piece about activist and Bush-era public land auction-saboteur Tim deChristoph has some nice critiques of the Earth Art Boys. And it’s surprising how surprising so many of the reactions were to her immigration- and border-related drawings.
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But I can’t not post a bit of the discussion of the centerpiece of the show. Titled No Olvidado – Not Forgotten, the 10-foot-high, 23-panel mural/drawing contains the names of several thousand people known to have died crossing the Mexican-US border:

AB: Yes, it’s a hundred-foot drawing.
TL: And it is set up as a memorial, it’s a very grand piece. Let’s talk about it. Since it is monumental, it presumably required a different way of working?
AB: Right. I worked with a graphic designer and several assistants. It resulted from a conversation with an activist, Enrique Morones. He founded an organization called Border Angels. They started off in I think ’86, providing water and blankets to people crossing the border.
TL: And many die in the attempt–are they killed out there in the desert, or do they die from exposure and thirst?
AB: It’s both, but in many cases nobody knows. A lot of people die from dehydration or temperature, but there are also people who are killed. So Enrique collects names of anyone who dies migrating from Mexico to America. He actually has about ten thousand names. He finally admitted that the group of names he provided to me, a list of four or five thousand, is only up to the year 2000.
I’ve always been making memorials in one way or another, but memorials that I thought would never be made, or memorials that were kind of impossible to make. I’m fascinated by the Vietnam Memorial in DC, and how listing names functions in general. An important part of what I do concerns this documentary-type collection of information.

A Story about Civil Disobedience and Landscape: Interview with Andrea Bowers [eastofborneo.org]

Linked Hybrid: Steven Holl Rebuilds The World Trade Center In Beijing

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So Dan Hill’s posted another of his typically incisive analysis of an urban situation. This time it’s his extended and engrossing account of visiting Linked Hybrid, the massive urban development in Beijing, designed by Steven Holl Architects, which was just opening at the time [late 2009].
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above and top via cityofsound
After being repeatedly shooed away by gun-toting guards from what Holl had pitched as “an open and porous public space,” Hill found his way in, and eventually ended up in the marketing office where there’s this poster of–what to call it without sounding utterly inappropriate? A bombshell? A landmine? A plane flying into a tower?:

More incredibly again, the adjacent wall features another poster of exaggerated Hybrid-like building on an urban skyline, under the phrase:
“Let citizens all over the world gather under the banner of the United States with the spirit of freedom.”
What can this possibly mean in this context? The absorption of the brand of ‘starchitecture’ is easy to see in a culture shifting through the gears of consumer culture, but of the brand of the United States?

That’s no moon. It’s the proposal for Memorial Square, the World Trade Center site put forward in 2002 by Holl, Charles Gwathmey, Richard Meier, and Peter Eisenman, or as they called themselves at the time, the Dream Team.
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Memorial Square, 2002, “Dream Team,” image via renewnyc.org
At the time–the day after the unveiling, actually, at a screening of my short film, Souvenir (November 2001), which was followed by Etienne Sauret’s incredible documentary short, The First 24 Hours–I recognized the form the Dream Team was proposing as a gargantuan evocation of the fragments of the World Trade Center’s facade.
They denied the reference, even as they awkwardly argued and edited around it on the Charlie Rose Show. But I think it’s self-evident. Anyone wanting to argue otherwise to me should read those two posts and the links within first. Then I’ll tell you my story about asking Eisenman about it face-to-face.
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What’s fascinating now, though, in rewatching that Charlie Rose episode, is not the Dream Team proposal’s basis in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, but its multiple similarities to Holl’s Linked Hybrid.
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Holl and Meier especially discussed the Memorial Square proposal as primarily a public space, one which is entered from the city by “multiple portals.” Holl even calls the structure a “hybrid.”
While the Team took great pains to deny the proposal had any “signature” style, I would speculate otherwise. The overall concept of structure capturing “a moment” in history and memory comes from Eisenman’s proposal [above] for Herbert Muschamp’s WTC charette.
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Meanwhile, the form is Holl’s, as is the idea that its entire surface would glow at night on one face. The rendering resembles nothing so much as the skyscraper cousin to Holl’s residence for the Swiss ambassador to Washington.
Dan Hill makes a persuasive critique of the simultaneous successes of Linked Hybrid as a structure and its failure as the open urban experience Holl envisioned. And it’s tempting to take comfort from afar and tut-tut the clunky shortcomings of Chinese modernization. But
are the urban and sociological failures of Linked Hybrid really any better or worse than the manipulated politicized mess that Daniel Libeskind’s World Trade Center plan has wrought?
I think the more sobering path is to recognize the remarkable extent to which Holl succeeded in realizing his Dream Team’s proposal for downtown Manhattan in Beijing–and to acknowledge that, there but for the grace of George Pataki go we.
Linked Hybrid’s marketers invite “citizens all over the world [to] gather under the banner of the United States with the spirit of freedom.” But on this day, when citizens all over the world gather to protest the continued imprisonment of Ai Weiwei, the co-creator [with Swiss architects Herzog & deMeuron] of the China’s most famous public building, the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, can we really say “our” public sphere is superior, or even free?
Architecturally speaking, at least, we are all New Yorkers now, and Beijingers, too.

[2018 UPDATE: In 2018 The New York Times reports that five women who worked with Meier, either at his firm or as a contractor, have come forward to say the architect made aggressive and unwanted sexual advances and propositions to them. The report also makes painfully clear that Meier’s behavior was widely known for a long time, and that his colleagues and partners did basically nothing to stop it beyond occasionally warning young employees to not find themselves alone with him. This update has been added to every post on greg.org pertaining to Meier or his work.]

Observations On/From Towers

Last May, while solving the problem of Gettysburg and reuniting the opposing forces of History–Civil War battlefield aficionados seeking to “restore” the “hallowed ground” of Cemetery Ridge and the modernists and historical preservationists who wish to stop them from demolishing Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama building–I myself was smitten by the archival/architectural awesomeness of the steel observation tower [below], which was built by the War Department in 1895 on the [equally hallowed, I’m sure] Confederate line.
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[My idea, of course, is to adapt Neutra’s ramp-centered structure into a disabled/wheelchair-accessible observation platform, an accommodation which is sorely lacking in the current Park Service program for the site, and then to integrate a museum/memorial to the tens of thousands of soldiers wounded–and disabled–in the battle. We’re so quick to memorialize those who were lost, while forgetting or ignoring those who survived, and have to grapple for the rest of their lives with the effects of war.]
Anyway, two added pieces of information:
While I have not been able to find much in the way of history or documentation for the 1895 towers [there used to be five; now there are 2.5], I have discovered two accounts of a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge in July 1922, on the occasion of the 59th anniversary of the battle. On July 2 President Warren G. Harding and his wife observed a rehearsal re-enactment by 5,000 marines and veterans from an observation tower [since removed] on Cemetery Ridge itself.
[Bonus architectural note: The President and Mrs. Harding were quartered at the Marine camp in what the New York Times called, “a temporary White House of canvas and wood. The structure is equipped with elaborately fitted sleeping rooms, baths, electric lights and even has a front porch.” A search for photos has already begun. update: and may be over. Is this it, from the LOC?]
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Another account, dated July 4th, after the Hardings had departed, comes from Mrs Helen Longstreet, the widow of the Commander of the Confederate forces at Gettysburg. It’s not clear, but I like to imagine that she observed the re-enactment–“staged today with marvelous accuracy in every detail, exactly as I have heard General Longstreet describe it hundreds of times”–from the still-extant observation tower on the field:

As the twilight of this calm July day deepened into dusk I overtook one of “Longstreet’s boys,” a one-armed veteran, trudging wearily “up Emmitsburg Road.”
“Where did you lose your arm?” I inquired. He answered: “In Pickett’s charge; and it was powerful hard to lose my arm and be whipped, too; and what was the use of it?”
Someone standing near pointed to the Observation Tower and said: “Do you see the flag that floats up there? The stars on its blue field are all the brighter, its red stripe all the deeper, its white stripe all the purer, because you left an arm in front of Cemetery Hill in Pickett’s charge. That was the use of it. That was the good of it.”
And so the tread of marching armies and the roar of cannon over the Summer lands of Pennsylvania call the American people to express the value of the titanic struggles of the ’60s in deeper love and pride of country.

And the other thing, holy moley, have you seen the observation tower built by the Graz/Munich-based landscape design firm Terrain in a nature preserve along the Mur River in Styria, Austria?? 27.5 meters high, double rectangular spiral of black steel and tension rods, plus aluminum staircases.
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Not that I thought anyone might be wavering on the architectural merits of observation towers or anything, just, wow.
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[images: just two of many at Abitare]

Cretto Street View

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Christopher Knight took the occasion of an Alberto Burri retrospective in Santa Monica to tweet about Cretto, the artist’s absolutely incredible 20-acre memorial/earthwork, in which the earthquake ruins of the Sicilian town of Gibellina were encased in a grid of concrete. I’d mentioned Cretto in 2006, including a basic Google Map image.
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Well, Street View has come to Gibellina. At some point, I suspect no one will marvel at the idea of using your laptop to drive around the backroads of Sicily, or to dive into geotagged photos of remote land artworks. But that point is not yet. The Street View images in particular have a great, desaturated feel that makes me imagine I’m right there for the ribboncutting. The future and the past is now.
Cretto, Alberto Burri/Ruins of Gibellina [google maps]
Related: finding Double Negative has never been easier

Some Pointers, Or What To Do With Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama Center?

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The Park Service’s stated goal for Gettysburg is the “rehabilitation” of the battlefield to its 1863 condition by removing modern structures like Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama Center [designed, it should have been noted a long time ago, with Robert Alexander] and the visitors center next to it [already gone] which are built on “hallowed ground.” Which is not quite so simple.
In Gettysburg: memory, market and an American shrine, his 2003 history of the ongoing cultural battle over the site and its meaning, Jim Weeks looked at the controversy over the Park Service plan to create a big, new privately operated visitor center/museum offsite. This wasn’t “Disneyfication,” it was, in the words of John Latscher, the Gettysburg superintendent who spearheaded the deal, “re-sanctifying” the battlefield. [emphasis added on the tiny but powerful rhetorical device that automatically transforms anyone who disagrees into John Wilkes Booth.]
The rehabilitation/re-sanctification plan to remove post-1863 structures does have some loopholes: anything in the middle of the battlefield but on private land across the street, as long as it serves popcorn chicken and/or deliciously dark chocolate pies for a limited time only; the 1392 or 1600 markers and monuments placed by “the veterans themselves,” or whomever; and the three remaining observation towers the War Department built.
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Let me go on record that, should it ever be threatened with demolition, I will email every architect and journalist I know to save the observation tower on West Confederate Avenue; that thing is a freaking masterpiece. Let’s get that out there right now, because I don’t find much information or discussion about it at all. [Here’s another of the three, dated 1895, the year the War Dept took charge of the Memorial Park, which is super-short. It looks like there were structural problems, and it was chopped in 1960. Note that it wasn’t torn down completely; I think I’ll come back to that in a minute.]
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What do you get for your steep, 6-7 story climb up the steel cage? A great view, of course. But also understanding. Context. Orientation. It’s the place where people tell stories of troop movements and battle strategies. There is much pointing. All across a vast landscape like this, we saw people orienting themselves, spotting landmarks, and telling stories. They were mapping the action and the meaning, translating history onto the site in front of them.
Weeks’ book notes that observation points have been a popular and vital feature of visitors’ experience at Gettysburg from very early on. Some are natural spots, like the promontories of Little Round Top and the Copse of Trees at Cemetery Ridge. Some were built, like Round Top Park, the War Dept. towers [there used to be five], the Pennsylvania State Monument–and the Cyclorama Center. The biggest observation tower, built on private land, was seized and destroyed in 2000 after an intermittent, 26-year legal battle. Weeks draws the connection between the dioramas and orientation maps, the cycloramas–almost all of which had their origins in commercial/entertainment enterprises–and the site itself; arguably, facilitating this mental transition from representation to site was the major justification for placing the Cyclorama so close to its focal point, the top of Cemetery Ridge, in the first place.
One common feature of these observation points is the orienting device: arrows pointing toward key sites or events. Here is the welded steel plate on the War Dept tower:
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Which was the third one I noticed, after [1] the compass mark handcarved into the granite floor and [2] the incredible cast bronze plaques on the parapets of the Pennsylvania State Monument. [Which, by the way, is a gigantic Beaux Art mess, a Columbia Exposition knockoff whose looming, continued presence exposes the whole idea of re-creating the 1863 battlefield to be little more than conceptual cover fire to advance a subjective set of pre-determined alteration strategies.]
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These arrows, on these structures, point, I believe, to a possible future for Neutra’s Cyclorama: restore and reconfigure it as an observation and orientation platform for Cemetery Ridge. Neutra already included an observation platform and ramp [see house industries’ photo below]; adapting the empty rotunda for observation would hew close to the building’s original function on its original site, while minimizing the loss of Neutra’s and Alexander’s key design elements.
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Then there’s precedent: the Park Service’s stated strategy of 1863 rehabilitation nevertheless preserves several post-1863 observation structures, including the unassailable Pennsylvania Monument and three of the five towers apparently installed by the War Department at the founding of the Memorial Park. One is apparently historical and/or functional enough to preserve even after being truncated to just one story up–roughly the same height as the Cyclorama’s existing deck.
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A Cyclorama Observation Platform would also offer something completely unique: accessibility. All other observation spots we saw involved stairs, curbs, or uneven wooded trails. [The Pennsylvania Monument’s vantage point is reached by a single, awesomely treacherous spiral staircase lined with stamped bronze paneling that’d do a SoHo loft ceiling proud.] Much of the battlefield itself–and thus the monuments scattered across it–quickly becomes inaccessible to disabled or wheelchair-using visitors.
An entirely ramp-based observation structure would enhance the battlefield experience for millions of visitors who would otherwise be confined to their cars. [Oh, look! Neutra’s already got two ramps built right in! image above: houseindustries.com]
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In fact, a speculative observation platform proposal has already been floated. The Boston-based architecture firm CUBE design + research used Neutra’s Cyclorama Center to illustrate a range of alternatives to strict historical preservation. One idea [above]: turning the Cyclorama as “informant” and “information hub,” by making strategic, view-framing cuts in the rotunda. It’s a pretty radical alteration, the kind of thing that keeps traditional preservationists up at night. And as proposed/rendered, I think many of Cube’s solutions go way too far. But they’re spurring discussion, not answering an RFP, and in that, they succeed.
Piercing Neutra’s rotunda in places might still work, perhaps in combination with another of CUBE’s suggestions, to place the Park Service’s historic electric relief map in the building. Or perhaps a large-scale relief map could be made for blind visitors to gauge the scale and detail of the terrain. In either case, a multi-sensory narrative program could be devised that integrates such artifacts with views out of the building onto the actual battlefield. [Something like the light and sound effects on the new Cyclorama installation, which seem to be state-of-whatever-art-these-sorts-of-things-are.]
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Another possibility just came to me this morning: the 2006 proposal Olafur Eliasson made for the Hirshhorn Museum, a similarly love-to-hate, modernist concrete barrel on a major civic site. Eliasson proposed wrapping Gordon Bunshaft’s building with a suspended glass walkway that afforded sprawling views of the National Mall, something akin to the exterior escalator tubes at the Pompidou. [images: from the bookshelf-straining insanity that is Taschen’s Studio Olafur Eliasson: An Encyclopedia.]
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Maybe an information-filled ramp could spiral up the inside of Neutra’s rotunda–a history of the wounded, perhaps, and their heroism and their tales of endurance and remembrance–and then let visitors out to wind their way down the outside, where they could then descend along the original ramp onto the battlefield itself. At least as far as their wheelchairs can take them.
The Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation claim the current battlefield rehabilitation plan provides great “environmental benefits,” even as the courts find they have failed to undertake the basic impact studies required by law.
Worse than this, though, is the active, and ongoing denial of the equality of us all–by denying equal access to key parts of the battlefield experience, such as observation platforms–on the very battleground of freedom made sacred by the sacrifices of life. And limb.
Next: Observations from/on Towers and The Wound Dresser, set in stone, rest stops on the journey Toward a Cyclorama-shaped Gettysburg Memorial to The Wounded

‘The Largest Collection Of Outdoor Sculpture In The World’

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The significance of the battle at Gettysburg was seized upon almost immediately, both for the vast scale of the casualties, but also because of the strategic and symbolic importance in the North of repelling the Confederate incursion. Dealing with overwhelming death, destruction, and injury immediately overwhelmed the town, and thousands of visitors streamed in to find and help family members.
Efforts to memorialize the battle and secure the battlefield also began immediately. Lincoln’s address just four months later was, after all, at the dedication of the National Solders Cemetery on a fought-over piece of land. Within weeks, historian John Bachelder began interviewing officers and attempting to pinpoint key movements and events leading up to and following the battle. And after the war, he prepared a comprehensive, if unreconciled, report of thousands of interviews and onsite surveys with survivors. Land acquisition also kicked in immediately, and a Gettysburg Battle Memorial Association was quickly formed. Because of its proximity and well-developed transportation, Gettysburg quickly became a popular tourist destination.
Memorials were placed on the battlefield to mark the sites of action engaged by individual regiments in the 1870s, but the pace picked up in the 1880s, as the 25th anniversary of the battle approached. As Wikipedia has it, survivors of the battle returned to the land to remember their individual and collective experiences, and to mark their significant events–battles, movements, victories, deaths–on the site itself:

For the Union side, virtually every regiment, battery, brigade, division, and corps has a monument, generally placed in the portion of the battlefield where that unit made the greatest contribution (as judged by the veterans themselves). Most regiments also have boundary markers placed to show their positions in defensive lines or in the starting lines for their assaults. The placements are not always definitive, due to sometimes faulty memories of the veterans or to the problems resulting from attempts to represent multiple days of battle fought on the same ground, most notably Cemetery Ridge.

When the site was transferred to the War Department, over 1,600 bronze markers were erected, based on the official history of the battle [not Bachelder’s].
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The non-profit Gettysburg Foundation calls it “The largest collection of outdoor sculpture in the world.” But it’s even more than that. All these structures, sculptures, and monuments fill the landscape and connote a previous generation’s specific strategy of remembrance. And each, no matter how subjective, seemingly incidental, or retrospectively problematic, now bears the weight of that generation’s history.
Even a fence. At some point in the past, a section [reportedly a quarter of the original size] of the Copse of Trees which was Gen. Lee’s chosen focal point for the Confederate attack was rendered sacred, like a home cemetery, and fenced off from public access. The generic 19th century wrought iron fence, damaged by a fallen tree, but set for restoration, is visible behind this c.1880s War Dept. plaque for the Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry:

The position of this regiment in line of battle
is marked by its monument
235 yards due south.
It charged up to this point and attacked Pickett’s
division in flank as his troops were coming
over the stonewall.

The battlefield sprouted other structures alongside these markers and memorials. In 1884, at the height of the Cycloramas’ popularity, the railroad laid tracks across the field of Pickett’s Charge to its new Round Top Park, an entertainment center on Little Round Top. A casino was added in 1913, the year the Boston Cyclorama came to Gettysburg in time for the Great Reunion, a conciliatory event that brought over 50,000 Civil War veterans together at Gettysburg. The veterans from all states re-enacted Pickett’s Charge, which ended with the exchange of handshakes and speeches. [It wasn’t until 1939, after the 75th anniversary, that the amusement park’s structures, and the tracks themselves, were removed.]
After WWII, Pres. Eisenhower’s development of the interstate highway system was coupled with the National Park Service’s Mission 66, a 10-year strategic plan to increase the accessibility of its sites to cars, and to provide high-quality interpretive services for its increasing throngs of visitors. Eisenhower took particular interest in Gettysburg where, while president, he decided to purchase his first home, a farm, precisely because it was built on battlefield ground. He retired to the house in 1959; it is now a presidential memorial within the expanded Military Park.
Thus is the victory of World War II, and the postwar boom, and our modern entertainment experience culture inextricably intertwined with the memorial to the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. And now we have a brief movie lesson by Morgan Freeman, and an economy where the only jobs in town that don’t involve wearing a hoop skirt are selling Civil War Orange Fudge at the Gettysburg Outlet Mall. But as the railroads and casinos and dance halls–and the Cyclorama itself–show, this spectacle- and souvenir-centered culture is not a transformation or desecration, only an upgrade in technology.
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Cyclorama Center rendering, Richard Neutra, via mission66.com
But Mission 66 was too much of a good thing. The Park Service has long strained under its visitor volume; some structures were outgrown, others left to decay because of deferred maintenance. Many, like Neutra’s Cyclorama, were built in a mid-century modernist idiom, which preservationists have been slow to preserve, and which the Park Service [currently] hates. According to Mission 66 architectural historian Christine Madrid, the Park Service considers the modernist structures “a post-war mistake.” And they bridle, not only at their historical significance, but at the very notion that the Park Service is not the author and custodian of history, but just the biggest of its many actors.
Next: The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Battlefield

On Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama Center, Or Gettysburg Memorial: The Making Of

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We just got back from a weekend trip to Gettysburg, PA, and I was not quite prepared to be so fascinated by it. Gettysburg the town was attacked the Confederate Army in the Civil War partly because of its symbolic value [as a Northern target], but also because so many roads converged there. It turned out several of the meandering paths I’m interested in converged there, too.
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Without knowing exactly where it was, I was interested in seeing the closed Cyclorama Center, designed in 1962 by Richard Neutra. In 2008, after relocating the Cyclorama itself–one of four extraordinary 359-ft long panoramic paintings made in the 1880s by Paul Philippoteaux [three remain]–to a new Visitors Center, the National Park Service began trying to demolish Neutra’s Cyclorama Building. Neutra’s son Dion and other preservationists are contesting this plan in court.
Well, it turns out the Cyclorama’s right on Cemetery Ridge, near the Confederate Army’s key attack on the center of the Union line. Which turns out to make sense, because that site was the focal point Philippoteaux chose for the paintings. This Cyclorama was on display in Boston for many years, until it was relocated to Gettysburg the town in 1913. The Park Service bought it, restored it, and then re-sited it to the very site it depicted, in time for the 100th anniversary of the battle.
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The Park Service’s reasons against keeping the Cyclorama Building are partly logistical–it couldn’t accommodate the current number of visitors and cars; partly technological–the state of the Cyclorama art now involves multimedia light and sound elements, as well as 3D dioramas, which were apparently present in Boston, but not in subsequent installations. But its main argument is curatorial–it’s now considered inappropriate to place such interpretive structures directly on the site itself. The contemporary building thus thwarts their attempt to restore the battlefield to its pastoral, pre-1863 condition.
The first argument is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t preclude the NPS from adapting the building to some kind of other, lower-impact use. The second argument is true, too, and I’d guess that they feel they’re getting the most out of their Cyclorama Experience now. Plus they now get to charge $10.50 for a ticket.
It’s the third argument that turned out to be so confounding and complicated, because the battlefield is literally jammed with markers and structures, not just monuments and memorials, that have been put there by successive generations as part of the remembering and memorializing process. The Cyclorama and its building are among the most important chapters in the post-war history of Gettysburg, and the Park Service’s plan to destroy the building would be highly questionable even if it hadn’t been designed by one of the country’s most well-known modernist architects.
Just about a month ago, a federal judge found that the Park Service had failed to study or consider the impact of demolishing Neutra’s building, which they had lobbied to keep off the National Register of Historic Places.
I think I’ll be breaking this up over several posts.
Next: ‘The largest collection of outdoor sculpture in the world’

Ashes To Ashes, Toast To Toast

So I was watching Marie Lorenz’ video, Capsized, on WNYC’s Culture Blog, like I was told to do.
And not just because she had co-curated Invisible Graffiti Magnet Show inside those Richard Serra torqued spiral segments stored along the Bronx waterfront, I clicked through to see photos from Lorenz’ less harrowing journeys down the Tiber in her handmade boat.
Including Tiber River III, where she and a colleague from the American Academy look into the Protestant cemetery at Keats’ grave.
Which contains the epitaph that ends, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water,” which prompts Lorenz to wonder what it means.

“I’m not really sure.” said Margaret. “Something about spirituality maybe, or the eternal nature of art. Its just good writing.” She said.

Well, the last one out of three, sure, but. So I looked it up.
And the full inscription overexplains it a bit:

This Grave
contains all that was Mortal,
of a
YOUNG ENGLISH POET,
Who,
on his Death Bed,
in the Bitterness of his Heart,
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies,
Desired
these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone:
“Here lies One
Whose Name was writ in Water.”
th
Feb 24 1821

Which makes wonder if Keats was murdered by his editor.
No, The Phrases Finder entry from 2003 tells me that Keats, 25, whose tuberculosis was not, in fact, getting better on his winter trip to Italy, and whose pursuit of true love was thwarted by his poverty, composed the last bit, at least, as a reference to a line from a Jacobean tragicomedy called “Philaster, or Love Lies-Ableeding,”: “All your better deeds/ Shall be in water writ.”
Which is spiritual in an “All we are is dust in the wind,” sort of way, I guess.
But then the Google Ad next to this epitaph is from an outfit called westmemorials.com:
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She was everything to you
Mark her history
with something more
than a gray toaster-shaped
memorial.

Which, Bread of Life and all, maybe is something about spirituality, but really, it’s just good writing.

On Remembering Ross Laycock

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I’ve thought about similar situations before, so when I saw the mention in the NY Times article about all the dela Cruz’s Felix Gonzalez-Torreses I realized I was surprised at how infrequently I hear or see Felix’s partner mentioned by his full name. Turns out yesterday was the first time the Times has called him Ross Laycock, not just Ross, in the nearly twenty years since he died of AIDS-related illness.
This, despite Ross’s integral, intimate role in so much of Gonzalez-Torres’s work. Despite? Or because of? It’s partly the nature of Felix’s work, but Ross is most widely encountered [by people who didn’t meet him during his life, obviously] as an abstraction, a figure, a reflection, an absence, even, in the art work itself.
Remembering that there was far more to Ross than Felix’s artistic gestures, no matter how poignant, could convey, I Googled around a bit, and found my way to Nick Dobbing, who had been thinking very similar things for far more personal reasons.
Dobbing knew Laycock before Ross was famous, and posted a Christmas snapshot of him:

One can find pictures of Felix online easily enough, but (to my knowledge) none of Ross. I have often wondered, when people read about Ross, who is remembered mainly for being Felix’s lover, who do they think he was?
So I scanned this from an old snapshot and put it up, as a memorial.
It’s one of my most popular photographs, often revealed to others through Google searches, so I wonder if others are looking for a photograph of Ross.

Felix used several photos of Laycock in his works. Untitled (Ross and Harry) is a 1991 puzzle edition with the same dog:
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Recent Photos | Ross Laycock [wovenland.ca via flickr]

Share Your Bed

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I’ve steered way clear of architect’s Michael Jackson Monument Competition because–hello, in what universe does that decision actually require any explanation? Because.
Anyway, after seeing the winners, I just have to raise a single, ungloved–and as yet unmittened, hold that thought–hand in apology and salute. They’re kind of hilariously fantastic. Kottke is all tight between the winner [a nice copyright play] and second place [the perpetual desert disco dance floor powered by a gold-plated windmill].
Me, I find the third place entry, by an architecture student named James at the University of Utah, to be borderline brilliant. Its title, “Share Your Bed,” comes from testimony Jackson gave during his trial for child molestation: “Why can’t you share your bed? The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone. It’s very charming. It’s very sweet. It’s what the whole world should do.”
The jurors liked the “almost cheeky minimalism” and transformation of “an ordinary domestic object,” apparently forgetting that these are both now standard-issue for memorials [c.f Oklahoma City bombing=chairs, Pentagon = benches]. For his part, James cites the “dialectic manner Michael lived life by,” where “Innocence clashes with social ideals.” I’d rank not molesting children a bit higher than an “ideal,” but he’s right that the bed is a potent site and symbol of personal/political, private/public paradox.
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Beginning in April and running through the end of 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon conducted bed-ins as peace protests in hotels around the world. First was their honeymoon bed in Amsterdam, where the press converged, expecting to see the couple have sex. Instead, they were talking about peace all day. In bed. “Give Peace A Chance” was recorded in bed at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal that June.
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And of course, there’s Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ classic billboards showing a couple’s–his and his partner Ross’s–unmade bed, which were installed across New York City in 1991. Either way, not artists or works I’d have ever thought to associate with Michael Jackson.
Whoops, I almost forgot. Huge shoutouts to etoile’s King of Pop In Orbit, the plan to launch Jackson’s shiny, gold coffin into space, which I have to love for obvious shiny-objects-in-space reasons–and to CUP’s The Michael Jackson Mitten Jamboree, for which the whole world knits themselves a pair of MJ mittens. Again, explanation is neither needed or possible.