The Greatest Photomural Ever Sold

Instead of jumping to the first search result, Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” button should go to something tangentially related but certifiably awesome and probably better than what you were looking for in the first place. For the first datapoint in fitting that algorithm, I submit this post from The Bowery Boys about the “World’s Greatest Photo-Mural,’ as proclaimed by the New York Herald upon the dedication on December 14, 1941 [!] of the Defense Bonds Mural in Grand Central Terminal, New York City, USA.
At 96×118 feet, and covering the entire eastern wall of the station’s Great Hall, it was certainly the world’s largest photomural to date. [Only an Axis appeaser would point out that it’s actually six photomural elements installed in a larger, non-photographic composition.]
The mural was created by the Farm Security Administration’s Information Division, the legendary New Deal documentary photography propaganda unit run by Roy [no relation to Ted] Stryker. The three main photocollaged panels depicted what America was defending: Our* Land, Our* Children, and Our* Industry. [* Offer apparently not valid for non-white Americans, as the NAACP pointed out in protest letters to the FSA.]
Classic racial exclusion notwithstanding, I was most amazed that a giant war bonds photomural in Grand Central Station was the government’s instant response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. And I was also wrong. According to a contemporary report in Time Magazine, the FSA photo staff spent three months designing and fabricating the massive photomural. Which should be evidence enough for the conspiracy theorists who suspected that Stryker and his puppet FDR had been planning to get the US into war all along. But it turns out the Treasury Department had already begun its defense bond campaign in 1940, and that the government marketing masters at the FSA had already been enlisted in Treasury’s bond-selling campaigns.
Which seems odd, that a Depression-era tenant farmer resettlement program would morph into a historically ambitious documentary project for rural America, and then into a war bond marketer, before becoming the military propaganda operation for D-Day. Odd until you hear Stryker’s longtime assistant Helen Wool describe Stryker’s vision of the FSA’s photographic mission in a 1964 interview for the Smithsonian:

[I]n that drastic difference he still stuck to the same type of basic idea, that America is America and that’s all there was to it. We had psychological warfare films, and we had displays, and we had defense bond things, and everything else. But, underneath it he was selling America as it should be sold. [emphasis added because, obviously]

So what does the 3-months making of the world’s largest photomural entail? Fortunately, the snap-happy photographers at FSA like Edwin Rosskam and Marion Post Wolcott documented the process, in a group of 53-70 images now at the Library of Congress:

Continue reading “The Greatest Photomural Ever Sold”

Ant Farm 20:20 Kohoutek Letterpress

I’ve been deep in the commercial letterpress lately, and neglecting my Ant Farm. Fortunately, Mondo Blogo is there to bring me back in line, with this awesome poster the Farmers made for 20:20 Vision, their show at CAMH.
20:20 featured a Dollhouse of the Future named Kohoutek, after a comet that was supposed to crash into the earth or something, sending hippies into an apocalyptic panic, but it missed, bumming everyone out. In Kohoutek’s Living Room of the Future, naked Barbies lounge around on biomorphic sofas watching a live data feed from SkyLab, seemingly unaware that they’re being raised as food for the comet-surviving ants.
According to a review in Architectural Forum, there were 20:20 t-shirts as well as posters for sale. I’m dispatching my army of Houston vintage pickers forthwith.
And even though Houston was the first place Ant Farm unveiled their plans for the Dolphin Embassy, I think my favorite part is there at the bottom:
“Funds granted by the National Endowment for the Arts… A Govt. Agency”
ant farm: sex, drugs, rock & roll, cars, dolphins & architecture [mondo-blogo, thanks andy]
Previously: Cue the Dolphin Embassy []

Two Degrees Of Project Echo: Les Levine’s Slipcover

Holy smokes, people, just watch how these things turn out. In April, I spotted this photo at MoMA; it was in the second floor hallway just past the cafe, with no caption, and a date: 1970. I spent a few weeks trying to search up the name of the artist who made this remarkable, undulating acrylic structure in the Garden, to no avail [MoMA’s records didn’t have any more info about the photo.] I looked through the archive of shows, trying to match it, nothing.
Look at that thing, though, it’s like an ur-Dan Graham. an ur-Greg Lynn, for that matter. A more permanent Ant Farm inflatable. Suddenly, it occurred to me to ask John Perrault, who’s probably forgotten more than I’ll ever know about postwar art in New York. Sure enough, he nailed it: Les Levine. Star Garden, but 1967, not 1970.
Turns out 1967 was a great year for Levine–actually, looking through his works at the Center for Contemporary Canadian Art, a lot of years were great years for Levine. The Silver Environment (1961), vacuum-formed mirrored plastic? fabric? The perceptually disorienting acrylic bubble structures like Star Garden or Supercube Environment (1968)?
Disposables (1968) [above], a pop-minimalist grid of vacuum-molds of household objects, sold cheap and meant to be thrown away when their moment is over? Wow, Levine’s Restaurant (1968), New York’s only Canadian Restaurant, operated as a artist project, like Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food or Allan Ruppersburg’s Al’s Cafe, only earlier? Is that really TV test pattern print clothing there in 1978?
And then there’s Slipcover, a 1967 installation at the Architectural League [image via], which ran concurrently with Star Garden: three rooms covered in sheets of mirrored Mylar, where the space is constantly in flux because of the giant Mylar balloons inflating and deflating. The NY Times article shows Levine working on a balloon while one Linda Schjeldahl seals the edges of the Mylar wallcovering. Schjeldahl, Schjeldahl, where have I heard that name before?
Of course! The University of North Dakota’s archives of Gilmore Schjeldahl, founder of the Sheldahl Company!

The Company was the primary contractor for the Echo II Program. There are also files which contain information about the Echo I and II satellite balloons, as well as samples of Echo I and Echo II skins, and a file containing information about an art exhibition by artist Les Levine in 1967, at the Architectural League in New York City, which featured rooms made of Sheldahl’s Mylar laminates.

Billy Kluver, whose company Bell Labs operated the Project Echo satelloons, introduced Andy Warhol to Mylar and helped him make his 1966 Silver Clouds.
Meanwhile, the manufacturer of those satelloons supplied the same Mylar for Les Levine’s 1967 Slipcovers. Who had some help installing from his friend Linda Schjeldahl, the daughter-in-law of the company’s founder. A friend who, like her husband, Peter, was somewhat involved in the New York art world at that point.

Cue The Dolphin Embassy


The architecture and art collective Ant Farm first proposed The Dolphin Embassy in Esquire magazine in 1974. When they ended up meeting the owner of the Dolphinarium in Australia a couple of years later, they worked it up into a full-fledged proposal, which got funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and a show at SFMOMA.

Basically, the idea morphed from an underwater building into an open, mobile laboratory craft [above] to facilitate human-dolphin interaction in the wild. [spatial agency has images of both early designs.] First, they would deploy the awesome power of video technology to create a common language with the dolphins. Then…

Here’s Ant Farmer Doug Michels talking about the project with Connie Lewallen in the catalogue for the 2004 retrospective at Berkeley Art Museum:

The next year and a half for me [from 1977-8] was filled with trying to make the Dolphin Embassy real. There was a lot of time spent with both captive and wild dolphins and researching dolphins, a lot of design time on the boat, and a lot of public relations time communicating the dolphin idea to Australia. Putting it in historical context, we were feeling pretty confident about accomplishing things. The House of the Century had been built, Media Burn had been done, The Eternal Frame–these large-scale productions. Cracking the dolphin communication code, well, how hard could that be?! (Laughs.)
doug_michels_dolphin_tv.jpgCONNIE: Why didn’t the Dolphin Embassy get built?
DOUG: Eventually, it became clear that it was a gigantic project beyond the scale we could accomplish with the funds we had raised. While we didn’t solve cetacean communication during our mission in Australia, the Dolphin Embassy experience provided a deeper view into the mysteries of Delphic civilization.

A few months ago Andrea Grover posted this great 1976 photo of a TV-toting Michels having a diplomatic summit of some kind with his dolphin counterpart. Not sure what they discussed.

From the disbanding of Ant Farm in 1977 up until his unexpected death in 2003, Michels kept developing the Dolphin Embassy concept. By 1987, it was retitled Bluestar, a joint dolphin-human-compatible space colony with a 250-ft diameter sphere of water “ultrasonically stabilized” within a wall of space-made glass. My merely 100-ft satelloon bows in awe at the thought.

Anyway, I’m reminded of all this now because, with the iPad and all, it may be time to dust off those Dolphin Embassy blueprints.

Speak Dolphin press release at Orange Crate Art [mleddy via boingboing]
Doug Michels, Dolphin Lover []

The Pneumatic Nomadic Campus

Domes, inflatables, World Expos, Buckminster Fuller, every once in a while around here, it feels like I’m just blogging about whatever artist Steve Roden blogged about three years ago.
The Antioch Bubble is one of those times. [Though, to my credit, I was within range in Feb. 2008]
After its main Ohio campus was shut down by a student strike, Antioch College began establishing satellite campuses around the country. The school’s hands-on, experiential learning approach lent itself to the development of a giant, one-acre bubble structure in Columbia, Maryland to house administration, classes, and other student activities. There were domes and other bubbles inside the 32,000 sf Bubble.
Considering they’re mostly used for tennis courts and sports stadiums now, it’s interesting to how politically polarized this inflatable structure concept had once been. Ant Farm was promoting inflatable lounges for naked hippies at Altamont at the same time the USIA was building a giant, balloon-roofed pavilion for the Osaka World Expo. And at the center of a master-planned real estate development of a city, Activist/architect Rurik Eckstrom was ranting against evil corporations from his Ford Foundation-funded dome.
The Antioch Bubble was contemporaneous with it all; there was a full model and 1,000sf mockup in the bag by 1971, and the real thing started going up in the Fall of 1972. An early Nor’easter flattened it in November of ’73. Design and construction were overseen by Ekstrom, an architecture professor at UMD, and a team of 15 students.
It’s still blowing my mind a little bit that such a radical-sounding guy as Eckstrom could be spearheading a truly experimental program to rebuild America’s schools, and with widespread institutional support. And at the same time that Popular Science is announcing the Glorious Inflatable Future has arrived, and we’ll all soon be living in Goodyear houses. PopSci called it “Antioch’s one-acre Pneumatic Nomadic Campus,” and touted its inexpensive portability.
From a NY Times article on May 26, 1973 [interior photo above], it appears a bit of the educational/collaborative value of the project was lost in a rushed to complete in time to host the National Conference on Air Structures in Education, which sounds like an event created to tap a funding source:

[Student/designer/participant Mike Krinsky] said he came here in January because he thought Antioch and the bubble project might help him learn to become a “competent activist.” He said he had become, instead, a poorly paid day laborer. “I’m leaving right now feeling I’ve been used.”

An important lesson for the interns of the future.
On the bright side, when Roden posted about Antioch in 2007, there was almost nothing online about it, or about Ekstrom. That has now changed. Factory School is building an archive of historical material and first-person accounts of the Bubble, which is being helped along by the likes of Google Books.
And the DC area may see another Pneumatic Event Space yet. If the Hirshhorn’s DS+R courtyard-filling donut bubble comes to fruition, the inflatable future may yet be upon us.

[2o22 update] While the fate of Factory School’s update is unclear, I did just receive an amazing first-person account of The Bubble from Richard Benjamin:

I worked and semi officially lived in The Bubble for about a year. It was great experience. The basic idea was sound, improvisation is what kept it up. The building was fairly (tolerably?) comfortable in Spring and Fall, scaldingly hot in summer, and numbingly cold in winter. The Bubble had heating and AC, both proved a bit inadequate if memory serves…but neither were used much due to huge spikes in energy costs not anticipated by the builders. The building didn’t require a lot electric power to stay inflated…if the wind blew in the right direction you could turn off the fans. You just opened an airlock on windward side and that produced enough pressure to keep the building inflated-with a bit more sway and sag than normal.
Climbing along the main roof cables was a lot of fun. The building rocked up and down in the slightest breeze. We did a lot of climbing because the thin skin required constant patching. You sat of an inflatable mattress to make  repairs…quite high above the ground, but you didn’t notice unless you were over the clear skin sections. If you fell through it would likely kill you. Nobody fell…not for lack of trying. The Bubble was located near an outdoor music venue, and music goers would not infrequently wander over to have a look. The more inebriated would decide to climb up one of the main cables.  Sometimes wearing high heels. When they encountered the clear sections and realized they were maybe three stories off the ground, they would freeze in place. A rescue team with an air mattress would be sent topside to shove them to safety.
A couple of years after the Bubble went down in a fading hurricane,  I went to Syracuse University to get Ph.D. in biology. Syracuse had a brand new stadium with an air supported dome. I’d sit high in the cheap seats and think “yeah, I had a part in making this fad possible.”

Epic. Thank you for your service.

Event Architecture [airform archive]
Learning from Antioch – Columbia [ at the internet archive, rip]

Microarchitecture On, Only Two Days Left!

Estuaire is the three-time biennale in beta for the Nantes region. This year, the second incarnation includes I.C.I., Instant Carnet Island, a habitable, riverfront collection of micro-architecture which is for rent–EUR10/person/night, bring your sleeping bag–and for sale.
Several of the structures have been put on French eBay. Available items include both Antonin Sorel’s L’étoile de l’amour [above, left], which is several puns at once on L’étoile de la mort [the Death Star, though in Star Wars ep. IV, it was actually called l’Etoile Noire]; and Damien Chivialle’s ark for “amoreux hedonistes” [above, right]; but not, alas, Ant Farm’s time capsule/video lounge recreation of their Media Van [above, center], which could probably teach the kiddies a thing or two about hedonistes, amiright?
There are less than two full days left, and so far, with only one 16-seat picnic table by the Dutch design firm 24h Living meeting the reserve, the whole thing seems destined to be a primarily conceptual exercise.
Unless people start bidding now!
The Flake House [above, currently EUR2310] by the Paris architects OLGGA is pretty rustic-slick, about as practical as a folly can get; and Dre Wapenaar’s Treetent [current bid: EUR2000] is a classic. But I think I’d take Spanish artist Alicia Framis’s Billboard House [top] first. The opening bid is just EUR1000 [including breakdown and loading, but not shipping or reassembly].
Originally conceived for the Land project Rirkrit Tiravanija organizes in Thailand, Billboard House consists of just three billboards and a raised floor. It threads the utopian needle very nicely. It’s unprecious and low-tech, a totally plausible-seeming affordable housing solution–for folks living the Thai, along the side of the road, do all your cooking and socializing and hygienic activities outdoors lifestyle.
Estuaire 2009 | Instant Carnet Island runs through Aug 16 [ via thingsmagazine]
check out Estuaire09’s items on eBay France, auctions end July 31 Paris time []
Billboardhousethailand (2000) []
update: in the end, everything had at least one bid, but only two of 24h Living’s three tables sold.

Giant Satelloon-Shaped Downtown Megastructures I Haven’t Known But Loved

Downtown Megastructures, originally uploaded by sokaris73.

I can’t find any details online about this “Downtown Megastructures” image by Klaus Pinter and his colleagues in the Austrian architecture collaborative Haus-Rucker beyond what sokaris73 put in the flickr caption: it dates to 1971, and was apparently included in a 2000-1 show, “Radical Architecture,” which traveled from Dusseldorf and Koln to Villeurbanne.
MoMA showed a similar-looking 1971 gouache/photo collage last year, though, in Andres Lepik’s “Dreamland: Architectural Experiments since the 1970s”. Titled Palmtree Island (Oasis), it’s a dome island [an Uptown Megastructure?] super-imposed on Nervi’s 1963 bus terminal at the George Washington Bridge.
Seems the 60’s and 70’s love affair with inflatable architecture was not just contained to America and the nude Stones fans at Ant Farm. In 1968, the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris showed “Structures Gonflables,” a giant show of blow-up design and architecture. Not big enough, though, if this photo of a dirigible blimp being stuffed into the museum is any indication:
Coming at this balloon genre from the NASA point of view–not to mention the corporate and government world’s fair pavilions point of view–it’s beyond ironic that inflatable megastructures were often considered embodiments of anti-establishment, countercultural ideology. The Architectural League had a traveling exhibition on the subject in 1998, “The Inflatable Moment: Pneumatics and Protest in ’68,” which Metropolis Magazine wrote about at the time. Good stuff.