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As We Are


It’s next time again.

Great Art can stop the clock. It creates a rupture in time that you can remember all your life. This is one test of great Art, do you remember it? Assuming you do – what is it about the Art or the setting or the experience that stops your internal clock and drives an unforgettable stake into the shifting sands of your memory?

The Venice Biennale of Art provides many opportunities for this. Nothing like Venice to nourish a hunger for beauty and also explore the current state of Contemporary Art. Finding the time to think about Art for a few days is a great luxury and something I don’t do often enough.

Dreamy portrait of Anaïs Nin paired with an etching by Picasso of one of his favorite themes.

Anaïs Nin, in Seduction of the Minotaur said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

Maybe this is the reason I was not as dazzled as I usually am by this year’s Biennale. The art was probably just as great as it always is but, perhaps I was distracted or just not ready for it. I found about ten of the installations really memorable but, for the rest, I didn’t seem to be in the mood. I instead, became infatuated with some very old Classical Art seen in three remarkable venues. Despite this art being ancient and somewhat familiar, its astonishingly modern presentation (and the sophistication of the ideas that went along with it) seemed breathtakingly new to me.

Okwui Enwezor, Director of the 2015 Venice Biennale pictured here with scholar/philosopher Walter Benjamin

Okwui Enwezor, Director of the 2015 Venice Biennale pictured here with scholar/philosopher Walter Benjamin. Photo of Enwezor by Giorgio Zucchiatti courtesy Artnet

The Director of this year’s Biennale is Okwui Enwezor. He is also the Director of an important contemporary non-collecting museum (The Haus der Kunst) in Munich, and the adjunct curator of the International Center of Photography in New York. He titled this year’s Biennale “All the World’s Futures.” There was a healthy dose of politics in his approach and those politics extended to daily (performance art) readings from the works of Karl Marx. Readings from the original Das Capital had almost a religious connotation to it. This seems fitting since Marx felt the worship of capital (commodity fetishism) was analogous to the “misty realm of religion.” I always like to read the Director’s philosophical statements about their theme for the Biennale and Enwezor’s was fascinating. Turns out, most of what I really enjoyed about it, were the extensively quoted ideas from a man named Walter Benjamin. I will always be grateful to Mr. Enwezor for turning me on to the ideas of Walter Benjamin.

What a find! Benjamin was (no surprise) a Marxist but he writes about Marxism in an experiential way with fabulous insights into Art. This is probably because he had a doctorate in German Romanticism and laced his ideas of Marxist theory with evocative strains of Jewish Mysticism, The Kabbalah, Baudelaire, Kant, and Nietzsche. He wrote movingly about Capital as Religion in 1921. On top of this are brilliant insights into the nature and purpose of Art. Hang in there with me for a moment and you’ll see what I mean.

Walter Benjamin's passport photo. His works are filled with ideas that coincided with the art on this trip with unsettling clarity.

Walter Benjamin’s passport photo.

Benjamin totally grabbed me with one of my favorite topics: time. I love Science Fiction books and movies that involve time travel. The nature of time also figures prominently into my love of Eastern religions. For Benjamin, he sees two types of time. Everyday time that he calls “Homogenous Time” and a much more exciting “ruptured” time he calls “Messianic Time.” Think of it this way – what a clock measures second by second is Homogenous Time. Every second is like every other. It is quantifiable and you can sell it because it is what he calls “fundamentally empty.”

The other kind of time is much more special. You have had wonderful moments of Messianic Time in your life. These are the powerfully intense timeless moments you will never forget. If you are lucky, you can dip into these moments and remember them at will. They are not bound by the everyday. They are not boring. Often, these are the moments that make life worth living. Benjamin connects Messianic Time to timeless moments of historical revolution. His Jetztzeit (literally “now time”) is defined by the Oxford reference as: “time at a standstill, poised, filled with energy, and ready to take what Benjamin called the ‘tiger’s leap’ into the future.” Benjamin scholar Andrew Robinson describes Messianic Time as something “the artist or revolutionary blasts free from the ceaseless flow in which it would otherwise be trapped.” He says Benjamin sees “the messianic moment as a stop-chord on a runaway train. History is awakened with a slap born of long-contained frustration, not a kiss.”

I hope I am not trivializing the concept, and I am certainly no expert on Walter Benjamin, but I think he would also believe that ruptures in time can apply to Art.

The Venice Biennale holds the promise of such experiences in every installation. It is a tall order to expect a rupture in time by walking into an Art pavilion and even though “you had to be there” let me give you an example or two.

Over two hundred miles of red yarn and over 50,000 keys in artist Chiharu Shiota's hands create a sublime time-stopping moment at the 2015 Venice Biennale

Over two hundred miles of red yarn and over 50,000 keys in artist Chiharu Shiota’s hands create a sublime time-stopping moment at the 2015 Venice Biennale

You walk into a clean well lighted space with 400 kilometers (250 miles) of red yarn strung through 50 thousand keys. These drip from the ceiling in an impossibly complicated network that stops you dead in your tracks. Buried in this dense red spiders web of yarn and keys are a couple of old rotting boats. How did this possibly happen? It happened with 10 people stringing keys on yarn ten hours a day for two months.

Keys, for the artist, and hopefully for the viewer, hold a sense of mystery and of value.  She uses them as a metaphor to unlock memory.

Keys, for the artist, and hopefully for the viewer, hold a sense of mystery and of value. She uses them as a metaphor to unlock memory. Photo by Sunhi Mang courtesy The Japan Foundation

The artist, Chiharu Shiota, who now lives in Berlin says, “ Visitors may feel as if walking around an ocean of memory. The keys are connected to each other by thousands of red strings. Keys are everyday objects that protect valuable things and by coming into contact with people’s warmth on a daily basis, the keys accumulate a web of memories that coexist within us.”

Elegantly hung high def monitors placed on end illuminate the Singapore pavilion's "Sea State" by artist Charles Lim Yi Yong

Elegantly hung high def monitors placed on end illuminate the Singapore pavilion’s “Sea State” by artist Charles Lim Yi Yong

Another example, with a totally different feeling is the spare and elegant and very high tech installation called Sea State by Charles Lim Yi Yong for Singapore. Elegant high definition monitors play high quality video of ships. Some of these monitors are on their sides so they create a disorientation of form. A giant 15 foot tall buoy covered in carbuncles looms over the space. Undersea video on a giant high quality monitor completes the illusion. The project looks at land masses disappearing, ecological issues, and the rapid ways in which Singapore is changing. It is also fundamentally about water. The artist says, “In the West, I think they tend to see the sea as sublime, as a space that is an obstacle, a place where you find god, and there are many good reasons for it. One good reason is that when you fall in the water, you normally have only 15 minutes to live before you get hypothermia, so Europeans build up all these narratives of the sea being dangerous.

Barnacle encrusted buoy from Sea State towers over the installation and creates a disorienting juxtaposition of scale

Barnacle encrusted buoy from Sea State towers over the installation and creates a disorienting juxtaposition of scale

But my relationship with water is very different. In Singapore and in a lot of equatorial regions, the temperature of the sea is the same as your internal body temperature. It’s similar to your blood in a sense. When there is a storm that comes, sailors and fishermen fill their boat with water and immerse their bodies in water, because the sea water is warmer than the air temperature during a storm. So this work also opens up new ways of looking at water.”

As arresting, elegant and memorable as these and many other installations by contemporary artists were, it was art from very long ago that I will remember the most from this trip. I should clarify these installations of Classical art were not a part of the Enwezor’s Biennale. They connected so deeply with Benjamin’s ideas only because this is what was on my mind.

The astounding "Boxer of Quirinal." An impossibly rare Hellenistic bronze from 330 B.C. His palpable presence filled the gallery at the Palazzo Strozzi's exhibition and stole the show.

The astounding “Boxer of Quirinal.” An impossibly rare Hellenistic bronze from 330 B.C. His palpable presence filled the gallery at the Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition and stole the show. Photo from the Museo Nazionale Romano by Livioandronico2013

To prove that great Art creates a rupture in time look no further than this haunting figure from 320 B.C. I met him inside the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence where he became the impossible to forget hero of a magnificent show they did on Hellenistic Bronzes. Many of these bronzes were recent finds from shipwrecks or excavations that arrested the ravages of time.

The Boxer sits patiently in the excavation site in this rare photo from 1885
The Boxer sits patiently in the excavation site in this rare photo from 1885

The Boxer at Rest, now in the Museo Nationale Romano, was not buried at sea but instead literally buried and brought back from the dead in 1885 during excavations in Rome near the baths of Constantine.

The Boxer on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The Boxer on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Press Office

Seán Hemingway, Curator, Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum in NY (where the boxer visited in 2013) writes, “His broken nose and cauliflower ears are common conditions of boxers, probably the result of previous fights, but the way he is breathing through his mouth and the bloody cuts to his ears and face make clear the damage inflicted by his most recent opponent. The muscles of his arms and legs are tense as though, despite the exhaustion of competition, he is ready to spring up and face the next combatant.”

I could not help but stand next to him and gaze into his eyes. His expression so haunting. I felt him thinking thoughts from so many thousands of years ago. In the disturbing silence of stopped time a voice in my head said, “You talkin’ to me? What’re you looking at?”

Leave it to Walter Benjamin to put his finger directly on another very contemporary (and classical) idea. What is it about a work of Art is unique and cannot be duplicated? One of Benjamin’s most famous essays is The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He writes eloquently about film, photography and Art and ponders what the difference is between a unique work of Art (sometimes in a particular place) and a representation or replica of a work of art created by increasingly sophisticated technology?

I find this fascinating. Most of our interactions with art are now from photographs and reproductions. The original piece, Benjamin claims, has what he calls an “aura” that cannot be duplicated. I think digital reproduction and high definition would certainly have blown Benjamin’s mind but I bet he would say the same thing today. Seeing a work of art, even on film, is not the same as seeing it in the flesh. The difference is a fascinating and subtle thing to explore.

A glass case displays small, rare fragments of bronzes from Olympia in Greece to open the Serial Classic show at the Prada Foundation in Milan. These are the originals, everything else in the show is a copy. A glass case displays small, rare fragments of bronzes from Olympia in Greece to open the Serial Classic show at the Prada Foundation in Milan. These are the originals everything else in the show is a copy.

And so they did at the first exhibition of the PRADA Foundation in Milan. The exhibition Serial Classic begins with tiny fragments of ancient bronzes from ancient Olympia – fingers, eyes, feet, hands, genitals, eyelashes and ears. One of the curators, Salvatore Settis, explains, “Scholars estimate between 1,000 and 3,000 bronze statues were on display in Olympia alone. … [but] metal in the Middle Ages was worth more than the works of art. As a result, the artistic heritage of antiquity has been almost entirely lost, and no more than 2 percent remains. Today, scarcely one hundred more or less complete Greek bronzes survive, almost all of which were rediscovered in the past 120 years, often pulled up from the sea millennia after having sunk along with the ships that carried them.

Installation view of "Serial Classic" at the PRADA Foundation in Milan. Their new building complex was designed by Renzo Piano

Installation view of “Serial Classic” at the PRADA Foundation in Milan. Their new building complex was designed by Renzo Piano. Photo courtesy Fondazione PRADA

“But, the Romans developed a passion for Greek art and had many copies made of Greek statues which, thanks to their sheer numbers survived better than the original prototypes. The copies give us an idea of what the lost originals looked like, because they were the product of a mechanical, serial process of reproduction. It is in these copies that we can rediscover traces of the originals by great master sculptors (Phidias, Myron, Polyclitus, Praxiteles) mentioned in Greek and Roman sources.”

Leave it to the PRADA Foundation to create perhaps the most elegant display of Classical sculpture ever to be put on exhibition.

Leave it to the PRADA Foundation to create perhaps the most elegant display of Classical sculpture ever to be put on exhibition. Photo courtesy Fondazione PRADA

How perfect is this concept for PRADA that makes its money from the “serial” reproduction of designer originals? Walter Benjamin would have adored this show. Think of it. “reproductions” from the first century B.C.! Leave it to PRADA not to cheap out on more recent copies. The copies they displayed (on the most exquisite lucite platforms ever devised by man) were often “the real deal” from the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Herculanium, The Louvre and other great museums and institutions too numerous to mention.

Installation view of exhibition Portable Classic. Note the painting showing a family proudly displaying the Classical Sculpture they have collected. Photo by: Atilio Mercanzano, courtesy Fondazione PRADA
Installation view of exhibition Portable Classic. Note the painting showing a family proudly displaying the Classical sculpture they have collected. Photo by: Atilio Mercanzano, courtesy Fondazione PRADA

As if this were not enough, the PRADA Foundation in Venice did a companion show called Portable Classic. This show was all about the collecting of copies of great Classical artistic works from antiquity. Again, the ideas of Walter Benjamin filled me with coincidental wonder. Consider his comments about collecting as quoted and distilled by Andrew Robinson writing for Ceasefire. (It is primarily due to Robinson’s distillations and explanations of Benjamin’s ideas that I found such meaning in Benjamin’s ideas.) Robinson explains, “In the article ‘Unpacking my Library’, Benjamin discusses the relationship of a collector to objects which are collected. Crucially, collecting is about liberating objects from their status as commodities or as instrumental objects for use. Instead, the collector places objects in a kind of magical arrangement. Collecting is thus a way of renewing the world. An object acquired for the collection is ‘reborn’ into it. The collector feels responsible towards the objects, rather than the reverse. Further, the collector comes to life in the objects. A collection exists between order (the arrangement of objects) and disorder (the passion for collecting). It is a passionate phenomenon. Collecting creates a mood of anticipation, and always carry memories from the moments of acquisition.”

The centerpiece of the Portable Classic exhibition at the PRADA Foundation inside the Palazzo Corner in Venice. The timeless form of the colossal Farnese Hercules reproduced in throughout time. One size does not fit all.

The centerpiece of the Portable Classic exhibition at the PRADA Foundation inside the Palazzo Corner in Venice. The timeless form of the colossal Farnese Hercules reproduced in throughout time. One size does not fit all.

The centerpiece of the Portable Classic exhibition was a line of reproductions of the famous colossal Farnese Hercules (now in the famous Archeological Museum in Naples) dating from the third century A.D., signed by Glykon from an original by Lysippos made in the fourth century B.C.

I started at the small end and felt as if I was paging through history in giant clumps of time. I knew they were not in chronological order but it was fascinating to see how this image was interpreted and re-interpreted over the ages. The statues seemed like bookmarks in time. Imagine my surprise when I finally got to what I thought was the actual Farnese Hercules and discovered it too was a copy – a giant sized epoxy replica created only last year!

This photograph from the early days of still photography haunted Walter Benjamin who saw impending tragedy in the face of the photographer's bride.


This photograph from the early days of still photography haunted Walter Benjamin who saw impending tragedy in the face of the photographer’s bride.

Finally, Benjamin also has much to say about another love of mine (and probably yours) photography.  Not surprising that he would love the way photographs stop time. In his essay, A Short History of Photography, he writes about an early “daguerreotype” self portrait/wedding photo shot by the French photographer, Karl Dauthendey. Benjamin knows that Dauthendey found his wife’s bloody body after she had slit her wrists and therefore filled with the Jetzzeit of the moment, frozen by the new invention of the camera, he muses, “One comes upon the the picture of Dauthendey… from around the time of his wedding, seen with the wife whom one day shortly after the birth of their sixth child he found in the bedroom of his Moscow house with arteries slashed. She is seen beside him here, he holds her; her glance, however, goes past him, directed into an unhealthy distance. If one concentrated long enough on this picture one would recognize how sharply the opposites touch here. This most exact technique [photography] can give the presentation a magical value that a painted picture can never again possess for us. All the artistic preparations of the photographer and all the design in the positioning of his model to the contrary, the viewer feels an irresistible compulsion to seek the tiny spark of accident, the here and now.  In such a picture, that spark has, as it were, burned through the person in the image with reality, finding the indiscernible place in the condition of that long past minute where the future is nesting.”

But, ultimately, as we all do, Benjamin sees what he wants to see. It turns out the woman in the photograph is Dauthendey’s second wife. It was his first wife that committed suicide. The death wish he sees is just a projection of Benjamin’s mind, fueled by incomplete facts. Benjamin was moved by the story and the photograph somehow touched a nerve within his own experience. “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Tragically, years later in Spain, Benjamin would also commit suicide so as not to be returned to Nazi persecution in Germany.

As I think about his ideas and I remember the great art I saw on this trip, I am grateful to have such vivid memories, ungoverned by time, that I will never forget.

Until next time, I remain your,

Tommaso

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3 Responses to “As We Are”

  1. Such wonder — now I must read Walter Benjamin. Wish I could have experienced the art that you did there. I think probably the most important mind-opening experience with art that I have ever had was when I saw the David in Florence, in the flesh, so to speak. I had seen countless pictures and several replicas. But standing with that statue — time stopped, and I was sure I saw it actually breathing. That was when I realized the magic of the real thing and not the copy, and that there must be some sort of life in the creation, life that is also of and from the artist. The artist is still living inside that stone.

  2. Dear Tommaso,
    Again, you stagger me with your insights, and especially the issue of time being stopped, through the insight of Walter Benjamin, and his biographer Andrew Robinson. In our memories, stopping time, at very significant moments– and you say “not with a kiss”! Benjamin would have seen Der Rosenkavalier, possibly under the baton of Mahler, in Vienna, and understood the issue of stopping time WITH a kiss; which was what happens in Sophie, the young woman being presented with the symbolic silver rose, by a dashing cavalier, all in silver. The music by Richard Strauss has this shimmering violin time-stopping light aria, and sweeps us off our feet in that “I fell in love the first moment I saw you” way. Later in the opera, there is a marvelous aria by the older woman, Marie Therese, who is so aware of passing time, fading beauty, the loss of the lovely romance with the young count, as he falls in love with Sophie. “Time, it is a mysterious thing…” she sings. It has a bit of minor melody and a scurrying against the meter, and the anxiety of a woman who is remembering her youth, the golden optimism of youth; and as she looks in the mirror, and turns away, you feel all the heaviness and sadness, of loss, of a woman moving into middle age and beyond. She says she thinks she will go to the chapel and pray. She will go in her carriage for a ride, to amuse herself. But it is not what she would really WANT before. Even the waning of desire is somehow contained in her song. This is the most exquisite opera about time and love, that I know. It also has been a timepiece in my life. The young man I loved at 17 was gay, so our relationship was not to become a love-affair, but we were friends for almost 50 years. He died on 10/10 of pancreatic cancer. He used to sing baritone, and he sang in the SF chorus. Kevin gave me a silver rose, and the recording of Der Rosenkavalier, for my 25th birthday. We went together over the years, to different productions, and each time were held in that timeless memory of Sophie and the silver rose. The final trio is a heart wrenching thing, where the young count stands between the two women he loves, and has to choose, or understand what he is choosing and why. It is the most amazing and powerful trio of absolutely stunning melody, rising and rising to heartbreak. Kevin’s friend will play the last trio at the memorial for him which is this month. My mind is full of the moments we shared, the German high romanticism— probably Kevin, who lived 15 years in Heidelberg, knew all the writings of Walter Benjamin first-hand. His name is familiar to me, but I didn’t know why. In the years in which he was writing Rilke was also writing poetry, and in the 30s Martin Buber, an orthodox Jewish philosopher, presented “I and Thou” which is also very important in this issue of what is real to each of us as a person, and where do we intersect with the Divine. Henri Bergson also was writing about time. It is amazing to me, this coincidence in your presenting these thoughts, as you witnessed this beautiful presentation of the classical sculptures. That boxer is breathtaking! And the kneeling woman in marble. I love the photo of the painting of the family who were the collectors, and the statue off to the side slightly! It made me remember the book “The Hare with Amber Eyes” which perfectly dove-tails with what you say about collecting– it is about a family collection of Netsuke, the tiny Japanese carvings which came to an uncle around the time of the impressionists painting in Paris, when Japonisme was so “au courant” Then the collection was sent to Vienna for a wedding present, and it went through the horrors of the extermination of the Jews in Vienna, and was saved in the apron pocket of the humble housekeeper. After the war, the collection is serendipitously and joyfully brought back to Japan! I highly recommend this book— it is an amazing touchstone of the issues of collecting, of loving the collection, of understanding how a collection is part of one’s memories and life, how it occupies our emotional landscape and private space and time. And also, how it carries so much of the anthropology of the time in which it was made! The last thing I want to say is that I have been listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, whose voice still astounds and blesses me. Since Kevin’s death, listening to her has been the way to deal with the heartache of loss. It is through you, and your friend Charles, that I found her. But yesterday I got a recording of French songs by Anne Sophie von Otter. She is a miracle of a voice. Time-stopping indeed! Her singing of songs by Faure and Poulenc are exquisite. They bring me back to that year I was 20, in Vienna, listening in my opera workshop class to singers who came to sing to us, in the intimacy of a classroom with a piano, played by our professor Herr Stofsky, astonishing music which was like smoke, it was so ephemeral.
    When you speak of photography, and show us that photo of Benjamin and his passport, and I think of the heartbreak that the extermination of Jews was proceeding inexorably, devastatingly, across Europe, and included some of the best minds and best creative voices of that time, I just want to sob. When I look at the eyes of that wife, looking away into the middle distance, with a face of both softness and determination, I think of Auschwitz and Dachau. I am glad you gave us that boxer, because his injuries and his physical intensity make him so vivid, all these centuries later. He is not erasable! THANK YOU again, for a reflection I will come back to, and which brims with other references for me– like Anais Nin, who was one of the people I really loved to read when I was in my early 20s. One hopes that we become even more ourselves, as we contemplate these memories, these loves, the passions of our lives. THANK YOU!

  3. Thank you so much Tom for another great blog. I haven’t been in Venice for many years, however, thanks to your pictures and comments, seeing in in the screen is a window to your world. I was fortunate to see the Ancient sculptures at the Getty, and I was particularly impressed by the beauty and power of the “Boxer of Quirinal”. The pictures of the “Serial Classic” and “Portable Classic” shows were amiazing…Thank you so much for sharing!

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Light Moves


View of Frank Gehry’s newest building, the Louis Vuitton Fondation, an Art Museum and Performing Arts Center in Paris.

It’s next time again.

“I like Art that starts fights in bars!”

So said the late great Peter Lewis. (Billionaire, Insurance Industry Legend, Former Chairman of the Guggenheim, Art Collector, Provocateur, Patron and Former Client.)

Mr. Lewis was quoting somebody else but he liked the effect of the quote. He used it all the time when he had to defend contemporary art from folks who felt the art crawl up under their skin and give them an annoying irritation they couldn’t quite scratch. Mr. Lewis died about a year ago but, he would be proud to know his legacy of the critical support of controversial artists lives on. The case can be made that, if not for Peter Lewis’ unflinching and long term support, the career of one of architecture’s major stars would have been forever dimmed. The artist/architect is Frank Gehry and his latest building in Paris has to be seen to be believed.

Frank Gehry and his patron the late Peter B. Lewis. The two became friends over a ten year architectural odyssey that Peter later described as “just a lot of foreplay.” The story is told in the documentary, A Constructive Madness.” photo by Chris Stephens, The Plain Dealer.

This gets personal for me because Peter Lewis hired me to document the construction of the house he wanted Frank to build for him. The house never got built but the film got made. The film’s title is a mouthful – A Constructive Madness – Wherein Frank Gehry and Peter Lewis Spend a Fortune and a Decade, End up with Nothing and Change the World. The mouthful comes out mellifluously when Jeremy Irons says it. He narrates the one hour documentary that won Best Documentary in the Montreal Fine Art Film Festival in 2004.

There seems to be two camps. You either love Frank Gehry or you hate him. Why is that?


Fondation Louis Vuitton by Frank Gehry seen in the green landscape of the Bois de Boulogne park in Paris. Copyright Fondation Louis Vuitton/Louis-Marie Dauzat.

To coincide with the opening of a stunning new Gehry Building in Paris (the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a contemporary art center in the Bois de Boulogne) the Pompidou museum decided to do a retrospective on Frank Gehry – his first in Europe. The curators pulled this together in only eight months. They needed material about the Lewis House and contacted me to see the TELOS documentary, which I’m happy to say, they adored. The exhibition is the best overview of Gehry I have seen. Some of my enthusiasm for it was prejudiced because the assistant curator was kind enough to give me a tour. Her enthusiasm, articulate insight and her unabashed praise for A Constructive Madness, no doubt contributed to my pleasure of seeing such a well done show. The exhibition is elegant. The lighting is perfection. The curators did a sensational job of cherry picking significant models and drawings from Frank’s remarkable (and massive) archive.

The Pompidou catalogue of the Gehry exhibition was sold out and is now in its second printing. The elegant background cover image is Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

The exhibition has been an unexpected wild success. 2,500 visitors a day! The catalog sold out and is in an urgent second printing. Parisians are hungry for information about Frank Gehry and this superb exhibition is feeding their appetite. There is the allure of controversy surrounding Frank and some people like to be informed. The show called simply Frank Gehry ran through January 25, 2015, but if you missed it in Paris, don’t despair. It travels to Los Angeles and will be shown in an excitingly expanded version at LACMA from September 13, 2015–January 3, 2016. I met with one of the curators there last week and we hope to screen the TELOS Lewis/Gehry documentaries there during the exhibition’s run.

One effective criticism of Gehry that came up as TELOS created a second film on Gehry for Peter Lewis and Princeton University, is that the impact of his buildings depends totally upon their incongruity. You gasp when you see a Gehry building  because it stands out from the crowd of the other (normal) buildings in the neighborhood. The critic, Demetri Porphryios (a proud architectural traditionalist) to further amplify his point said, “Imagine a city of Frank Gehry buildings – it doesn’t work at all!” Point taken. However, there seems to be more of a visceral negative reaction to Frank’s buildings by some people and I don’t think standing out from the Architectural crowd is why.

Frank did not make things easier for himself the other day at a press conference in Spain. He was fresh off a plane to receive the Prince of Asturias Prize, an award from the Spanish government for his work on the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. According to Stephen Burgen who attended the press conference in Barcelona and wrote up the story for The Guardian, the first question from a reporter was related to the criticism above, “Aren’t your buildings just all about being a spectacle?”

Frank Gehry in a happy moment (before a tense press conference) as he receives the Prince of Asturius Prize for his work on the wildly successful Bilbao Museum. photo by José Luis Cereijido

Frank responded by giving the reporter the middle finger. Burgen reports there was a long silence in the room and then a reporter asked another question about “Would emblematic buildings such as his continue to be part of modern cities?” Gehry then said, “Let me tell you one thing, In this world we are living in, 98% of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it. Once in a while, however, a group of people do something special. Very few, but God, leave us alone. We are dedicated to our work. I don’t ask for work … I work with clients who respect the art of architecture. Therefore, please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.”

The lead for Burgen’s story was this:
Frank Gehry has described 98% of modern architecture as “shit” and given a journalist the middle finger salute at a press conference.

Allow me to defend Frank’s rudeness. Did he mean (as Burgen implies in his lead) that all of modern architecture is shit (except we assume for Gehry’s own work)? I don’t think so. I think he meant that 98% of what gets built, what we see every day – the car dealerships and McDonalds, and crappy sprawling office complexes is not great architecture and that only 2% of what gets built really advances the profession in a meaningful way.

Benjamin Genocchio jumps on the pile writing for Artnet in a screaming for attention headline: As a Museum, Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris Sucks

Critic Geoff Manugh from Gizmodo does the same thing: Frank Gehry is Still the World’s Worst Living Architect

I suppose since Gehry’s architecture is startling (some would say outrageous) the press and the media feels they can rise to his heights by also being outrageous – but the one thing is nothing like the other. It is a far greater accomplishment to build outrageous buildings than to vilify them. Can a critic really think that there are no worse architects in the world than Frank Gehry? Has he ever dined at a Burger King?

I enthusiastically agree with a commentator named sevensixfive on the Archinect Blog who writes in response to Manugh’s tirade in a post called, Reasonable critique or typical Gizmodo link bait?: “Gehry is, for various reasons, everybody’s favorite strawarchitect. … It’s lazy and boring to go after these people, and it just makes everybody look bad. From the cranky tenured old school studio critic who hates computers and thinks this work is everything wrong with ‘kids these days’, to the conservative New Urbanist practitioner who thinks CNC mills (computer driven machines) should only be used to make styrofoam cornices, to the alienated member of the public who thinks anything that looks different or new is a personal attack on his intellectual capacity, to the lazy student who’s always talking about ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ because they don’t want to draw a diagram … I could go on, all of these people are endlessly bitching about Frank Gehry (and they’re all coming out of the woodwork in the comment sections), we don’t need to hear this crap from people like Geoff, too.”

Gehry pushes peoples buttons. Here is a sampling of reader comments from The Guardian about his new building for Louis Vuitton:

“Gehry’s buildings don’t work, they leak, interiors are impossible to navigate … he is just another example of displayed vanity … when the building reverts to the City of Paris in 50 + years what good will it be?”

“Improv jazz is fine in the studio, or club, or at home. It’s fine in an underpass, as you walk past. Whatever your inspiration, architecture is, well, permanent! Whatever Gehry once represented, he is no longer the groovy hippy but megalomaniac and corporate. He’s the Apple and Starbucks. Worse, like Hadid, and others, he’s the flimsy plaything of global wealth.”

For those who love Paris and Parisian architecture comes more criticism.

“…French art and history [is] under threat, … the useless…monstrous…barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture, which will just disappear before this stupefying folly.”

But this is old news. Written in 1889 in Les Temps and signed by leading architects, artists and writers in protest of Paris’ newest building, the Eiffel Tower. They were equally belligerent. It is fun to look back at their hostility in these comments taken from La Tour Eiffel’s website:                       .
“this high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney” (Maupassant), “a half-built factory pipe, a carcass waiting to be fleshed out with freestone or brick, a funnel-shaped grill, a hole-riddled suppository” (Joris-Karl Huysmans).

The famous LV logo cast in aluminum marks the front entrance of Paris’ latest art center. For the opening, the exhibitions inside rightly take a lesser role and the building itself, like the eye catching packaging of a luxury product, becomes paramount. Later on, as the new Director and Curators find their stride, what’s inside the packaging (the Art) will move to center stage.

Gehry’s new building for the Fondation Louis Vuitton may or may not be a lasting success but many feel as I do that it is his best creation in a long and distinguished list of architectural triumphs. One well credentialed friend who knows first hand about funding and building contemporary museums said with genuine awe in his voice, “I think I just saw the eighth wonder of the world!”

For his new LV Fondation, Gehry uses cascading water to reflect and dramatically place the building. The light moving on the water is a visual metaphor for flow of ideas inherent in his architecture. Comparisons to sailing ships with billowing sails abound. Click here to watch a short VIDEO The easiest and fastest way to convey the building was through this iPhone video I shot during my visit. Hardly professional but it matched what everyone else was doing. It is almost impossible to visit this building and not want to take its picture and share with your friends. As you walk around, everyone has a smile on their face and their iPhone or camera out to depict and share.

It is almost impossible to visit this building and not grab a picture with your phone or camera. I was inspired to shoot a little souvenir video with my iPhone that will give you a nice overview of the building.

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the NYT and Vanity Fair, who appears in the Lewis House film and makes a crucial comment about it being the “laboratory” for many of Gehry’s projects, wholeheartedly shares in the wonderment.

“Your first instinct, when you see an extraordinary new building that looks like nothing you have ever seen before, is to try to understand it by connecting it to what you know. And so Frank Gehry’s new Fondation Louis Vuitton, in Paris, looks like sails, and it looks like a boat, and it looks like a whale, and it looks like a crystal palace that is in the middle of an explosion…But none of these comparisons matter in the slightest. They’re all correct as far as they go, but they are really only ways of postponing coming to terms with the fact that this building is a whole new thing, a new work of monumental public architecture that is not precisely like anything that anyone, including Frank Gehry, has done before.”

Having seen the building, read much of the criticism, toured the recent exhibition, and made two films on Gehry’s architecture, one thing is clear to me. The visceral, and polarized attitudes about Gehry’s buildings come less from the unusual forms and more from the ideas inherent in the structure. Can a building be both useful (unlike most other works of art), and also (like really good art) be about ideas? If so, what ideas are at the core of Gehry’s architecture? In interviews, he suggests his buildings try to capture the speed and motion of modern life. He tries to capture the spontaneous and the gestural. He told me, “I trust the way I draw and I want to have that feeling represented in the finished building.”

I had to smile seeing the criticism above about Improv Jazz being inappropriate for something as permanent as a building. Miles Davis is a permanent influence in my life. Without the music of Miles Davis my life would be sadly diminished. Knowing what I do about Frank, I think he would love to capture the feeling of Improv Jazz in his architecture. His architecture is all about the expression of transient experience frozen in form. It is very hard to do. It was impossible to do before materials and construction and design techniques caught up with such ideas (but this is a very old story in the history of Architecture).

Great buildings reflect us and change us. I think that is why Gehry either delights or affronts. Some people experience a Gehry building and like those reflections of our crazy modern life and welcome the changes. Others, when they look at Gehry (or Gustave Eiffel) see ugliness and the changes these architectures represent make them queasy (and angry).

Architecture in Renaissance architect Palladio’s time was harmonious, symmetrical and based upon Humanist ideas that encompassed Aristotelean virtues. Frank’s architecture is also a product of its time and times have changed. For architecture today we can add asymmetry, dissonance, new materials, spontaneity and frenetic motion into the mix. It’s like comparing Vivaldi to John Coltrane.

A year or so after his death I’m very sorry Peter Lewis is no longer able to enjoy and approve of these strong reactions to his friend Frank. I was gratified for him when the position we postulated with some trepidation in the Lewis House documentary – that the decade long project was in many ways a laboratory for Gehry’s experimentation – was taken by the brilliant young curator at the Pompidou to be an established set of historic facts.

It is a common thing for Architects to claim that great buildings arise from great clients. Having the richest man in France support your work is in itself an architectural coup. Photo courtesy LV Fondation

To examine whether or not Gehry’s latest masterpiece is a success I suppose you need to say, “For whom?”

For the client, Bernard Arnault, (the richest man in France) he got a museum that people are flocking to and talking about and that he intends to donate to the city of Paris. According to published reports he also got an incredible bargain. The free standing building, which is about 41,410 square feet, reportedly cost $150 million dollars. This seems impossible. To put this in perspective the recent renovation of the Cleveland Museum of Art is over $300 million, The Boston Museum’s American wing was $500 million. The new Islamic Art pavilion at the Louvre (30,000 square feet) was $130 million. There is a discrepancy here that I cannot explain.

For Frank Gehry, I would have to go back to a definition of excellence that Peter Lewis liked to use to motivate his employees. He thought the definition of excellence was simply “doing better than you did before.” Frank will always be measured by his success in Bilbao. I think I’m on very solid ground to say his latest building in Paris surpasses what he did in Bilbao with the glittering transparency of glass and water. I know Peter Lewis would have been proud.

Until next time with much love,
Tommaso

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Magnificently Constructed Irony


The concrete “Monolith” from the Chilean Pavilion at the 2014 Biennale of Architecture, a prefabricated almost primordial symbol of Modern Architecture. Photo by Nico Saleh courtesy of Architecture Daily, © Nico Saleh, All Rights Reserved.

It’s next time again.

A wise film distributor once told me, “You bring your own baggage to a film.” By this, she meant we all have a point of view and there are all sorts of things in our own backgrounds. Therefore, a film never really starts from zero, the memories and life you have lived also effect your experience.

Such was the case for me in viewing the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture in which there was a lot of film. It is certainly one of the premiere architecture exhibitions in the world and they have been getting more and more interesting but, for me this year, director Rem Koolhaas (despite the frequent use of film to make his points) scored a “must see” with only one of his three themes.

Three themes? Why do you need three and why didn’t they resonate more meaningfully with each other? Most likely the same thing that sinks a lot of movies and other creative projects – decisions by committee. In the Arsenale, the giant, dramatic indoor exhibition venue where Venetians built boats in the 15th century, most of the space was given over to something called MondItalia, a blatant committee pleasing promotion for the host country. Let me rant a bit here and then we’ll get back to the good stuff.

Director of the 2014 Venice Biennale of Architecture, Rem Koolhaas, in front of the glittering Swarovski marquee entrance to MondItalia (ItalianWorld), a visually cluttered, blatantly promotional cultural overview of the host country. Given the sophistication of Italian culture it should have been a thrill. Photo © by Gilbert McCarragher, all rights reserved.

MondItalia was designed to give due credit to the Theatre, Dance and Cinema Biennales. Venice has had over a hundred years of international impact and wild tourism success with its famous Art Biennale so, the Venetians decided to also tackle Architecture, Dance, Theatre, and Cinema. The ostensible tie in was that all these other art forms require Architecture (get it?) so this could be fertile territory to explore. Fair enough. I’m not really qualified to talk about the way the other disciplines were presented but, as a filmmaker, I was appalled at the way they treated one of the greatest cinematic traditions in the world.

Think about what could have been done! There was a small section on Cinecitta, the massive studio complex in Rome where Fellini made many of his legendary films. La Dolce Vita! La Strada! 8 1/2! Satyricon! Some of the most iconic and significant masterworks of cinematic history. What a great excuse to show some imagination with the display. This is Cinecitta! The legendary “City of Cinema.” You couldn’t ask for a more intensely visual creative opportunity.  I should be interested in this, right!? So what do they do? They show a model with tacky (hip?) cardboard cutouts and little army men on a site map. It was completely banal. No zip at all. Given the potential this was truly shameful.

82 clips playing on screens supposedly showing architecture does not, in my view, give a very satisfying representation of Italy’s colossal contributions to cinematic history. Where was the focus? Where was the drama? Where were the ideas? Photo from Domus Italia, courtesy OMA © OMA, All Rights Reserved.

All along the Arsenale’s lengthy promenade, screens hung at various heights showed clips of 82 films, shown simultaneously. The conflicting audio created an irritating ambiance of noise and the aggregated visual statement was a disaster. I wanted to cry seeing all that hard work reduced to such meaningless clutter. Almost all of the projectors were working, so this gets a nod, but to reduce the masters of Italian Cinema; Fellini, Rossellini, Bertolucci, Antonioni for gosh sakes, to a deadly dull series of clips (presumably featuring architecture) completely missed the point. Where was the curation? Where was the insight? Where was the focus? Where in the world was the drama? It reminded me of the back pages of a High School yearbook where the lazy untrained editors grab any photograph lying around and paste them all together into a messy photo montage that is supposed to be charming and representative. It isn’t charming. It’s just a mess. I was furious and ready to throw a hothead Marcello Mastroianni-style Italian fit. Being there was completely frustrating and irritating and reading about such nonsense must also feel like a big waste of your time.

The cutaway ceiling from the Central Pavilion introduced you to the “Fundamentals” theme. A brilliant visual metaphor for the inner workings of architecture and the complexities architects must face.

The second theme was based on a new book and looked at the architect’s “Fundamental” palate. This theme was in the Central Pavilion over at the Giardini (Garden) section. This part was turned over to the Harvard School of Design for realization. The opening room gave you a great feeling of good things to come (we can dream can’t we?). The room presented the concept of “Ceiling.” They constructed a typical polystyrene drop ceiling in a tall central space and filled it with all the HVAC ducts and electrical and service equipment necessary for modern buildings. You sort of gasped as you looked “behind the curtain” at all this complex silver tubing and systems for which Architects need to spec, plan, install and provide maintenance. Then, in a feat of true artistry, the exhibition designers pulled your attention to the  fully restored intricately painted dome ceiling from 1909. Genius! Aesthetically gorgeous and the striking visuals spoke loudly and clearly about the practical and visual concerns of architects past, present and future.

I’m sorry to say it went quickly downhill from there. The next room was such an outrageous ripoff I returned to the land of the disappointed and furious.

As with any film or building, context is vital (back to the baggage). You probably heard about the stunningly crafted film done by Christian Marclay called The Clock. This was a highlight of the 2011 Art Biennale and deservedly won the Golden Lion for Best Artwork. Marclay’s film is a clock. If you watch the film at ten in the morning, all the clips are from ten in the morning. As you watch, time passes and this unfolds in real time and on the screen. If you watched for half an hour the clips all show cinematic clocks now reading 10:30. Art Daily said, “Spanning the range of timepieces, from clock towers to wristwatches and from buzzing alarm clocks to the occasional cuckoo, The Clock draws attention to time as a multifaceted protagonist of cinematic narrative. With virtuosic skill, the artist has excerpted each of these moments from their original contexts and edited them together to form a 24-hour montage, which unfolds in real time. … ‘an abundant, magnificent work’ (The Financial Times) ‘relentless and compelling’ (The Guardian) and ‘utterly transfixing’ (The Huffington Post).

In a feat of disgustingly unoriginal thievery the Architecture exhibition designers just said, “I have good idea, lets do our own version of The Clock but instead of being about time we can make it about Architecture!” (Groan) So, they edited together a bunch of clips that featured stairways, doors, towers and anything with windows or walls.  Maybe others enjoyed it but my enormous respect for Christian Marclay made the baggage I was lugging around a very heavy burden. I was jumping up and down furious and this experience soured any objective investigation of the rest of the exhibition (Door, Window, Corridor, Floor, Wall, Toilet, Roof etc.) none of which, for me, had the impact or imagination of the first room (Ceiling).

The horizontal elevator robot (seen in the distance) seems like a pretty cool technology that is designed to move stuff around and avoid people and obstacles. Too bad it did not work. Photo by John Hill/World-Architects © John Hill, All Rights Reserved.

My favorite moment in this “Fundamentals” exhibition occurred as a British architect attempted to explain to a frustrated group of official on-site curators why the flat floor robot horizontal elevator was not working properly. This would have made a great film. Let me describe the scene. The atmosphere is tense. (It matched my pissed off mood.) See now the robot looking like a shamed puppy surrounded by a scolding group of adults with their hands on their hips and their voices raised in anger. Cut to medium shot featuring the architect. He explains slowly, carefully, and firmly (in a tone of voice that is irritatingly patronizing and stresses with each syllable that this fiasco is not his fault) “You see, the robot’s wheels cannot find proper contact with the floor because the floor is not level! You can’t expect this expensive, highly designed, intricate system to work if it does not have a level surface. The floor is not level.” Cut to close up of the robot’s wheel spinning helplessly in the air. Cut back to closeups of everyone shaking their heads and frowning. Cut to architect smugly shrugging. Fade to black.

If I did not know better, I would think we had slipped over into performance art. The robot lost its grip on reality and would mindlessly and violently slam itself into the walls when any one of its wheels became disconnected from the floor. In that tiny gap, between the ungrounded wheel and the off-kilter floor, is the entire yawning disconnect between design and reality. Reality is messy. The old Italian floor is not a laboratory. Society doesn’t always function the way you predict. Which brings me quite seamlessly to the third theme of the 2014 Architecture Biennale: Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014.

This year’s director, Rem Koolhaaus explains: “For the first time, the national pavilions are invited to respond to a single theme…65 countries – in the Giardini, at the Arsenale and elsewhere in the city – examine key moments from a century of modernization. Together, the presentations start to reveal how diverse material cultures and political environments transformed a generic modernity into a specific one.”

I need to unpack a bit to explain why this theme was so meaningful to me. I’m working on two film projects directly related to this concept. The first is a 100 year history of The Cleveland Foundation for the PBS Station in Cleveland. 1914 to 2014 is exactly the time frame I’m supposed to cover and the purpose of the Foundation has modernity and all of its associated issues written all over it. How can we help the future city to function better?

The second project is a film about Modernism for the General Services Administration, (the largest landlord in the world).  The GSA is renovating the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building and we are putting the innovative design solution of a glass, double wall construction concept, into the larger context of modernism in general. Absorbing Modernism 1914 – 2014? Bring it on!

Two concrete cows at the foot of the steps of the British Pavilion act as temple guardians for the brilliant, jam packed with ideas, exhibition: A Clockwork Jerusalem. Photo copyright Cristiano Corte for the British Council © Cristiano Corte, All Rights Reserved.

See me now, gravel scrunching underfoot, striding down the ally of trees in the Giardini straight to the temple-like steps of the British Pavilion. Two black and white concrete cows, part of a famous late 1970’s art project, have been brought in from Britain’s Central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre to guard these steps. Themselves part of an attempt to reconcile the British countryside with modernization, they look forlorn and weary of their iconic status.

At the top of the steps is an enthusiastic bunch of architecture students who have been brought in to run the exhibition. They offer a very chipper good morning and since there are no other visitors I request a tour and am instantly obliged by two intelligent well spoken young guides who provide a brilliant overview of A Clockwork Jeruselem.

A mound of earth becomes your first vantage point to witness A Clockwork Jerusalem. Mounds abound in Urban Regeneration projects and the exhibition references one of the first of its kind at London’s Boundry Estate and the nearby Arnold Circus built on top of the rubble of the torn down slum. This is the first modern housing project created in 1890. Photo by David Levene for the Guardian, © All Rights Reserved.

The Financial Times article linked here will give you your own in-depth well-written overview: The British Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale by Edwin Heathcote

A Clockwork Jerusalem, with its implied mash-up of William Blake’s strange visionary poem and Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian version of London modern [looks at] the British picturesque and utopian influence in modernism.”

Was there ever a more sinister and damning look at modernism than Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange? To pair this with poetic prophet William Blake is brilliant. Blake’s poem was set to stirring music in 1918 and has become sort of a national anthem. The lines “Dark satanic mills” and “Chariots of fire” and “England’s green and pleasant land” have themselves become iconic expressions of the struggle to find balance between quality of life and industrial progress.

Sir John Soane’s Rotunda of the Bank of England in Ruins, painting by Joseph Gandy, 1789. The painting evokes Shelly’s sonnet Ozymandias, “Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!”

One of the highlights for me of this complex, fascinating and imaginative exhibition was a painting by Joeseph Gandy of architect John Soanes Bank of England depicted as a ruin. Soanes’ architecture of the Bank of Britain turned London into Rome. This painting projected you into the future. It was a cinematic painting that told a story straight out of a Sci Fi film about a time machine.

Ancient Rome comes to Cleveland, Ohio in the form of the Pantheon-based, Cleveland Trust Building constructed in 1911. Now a “ruin”, the building is soon to be re-purposed as a downtown grocery store. Photo courtesy Cleveland State University archives.

The Gandy painting was particularly evocative because of my own baggage of just having filmed a similarly domed “ruined” bank for the Cleveland Foundation documentary. The Roman temple of the Pantheon-like Cleveland Trust Building (built in 1911) figures centrally in our story and this bank, which has lain unused and forgotten for many years, is now being “re-purposed” as a high end downtown grocery store. The marble floored lobby under the massive Tiffany stained glass dome will now become an eating arcade. Being there brought the often theoretical Historic Preservation v.s. Modern Use debate into vivid reality. These thoughts flitted through my brain as I looked at the tiny silk stockinged and waist coated figures in Gandy’s painting poking at the ruins of Bank of Britain with their walking sticks. One felt the passage of time and it all fit together with the William Blake poetic theme, And did those feet in Ancient Time . . .

The poem is surreal and inspiring. Seeing the devastation of the modern city, Blake encourages us (and perhaps a battalion of young architects?) to go to war against urban ugliness:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

He might well have added: my sharpened pencil, my slide rule, my new materials like tempered glass and stainless steel and reinforced concrete. And off they went, full of what the Clockwork Orange hooligans would call guddiwuts and skolliwoll (guts and school) to war against slum and squalor. Like any crusade, (and this cannot be overstated), they went into the war of urban regeneration with only the best intentions.

Inherent in Koolhaas’ challenge, as modernism sweeps the planet, are many questions about the wisdom of this crusade.


Modern Architecture is lampooned in the 1958 farce by Jacques Tati. This film, which won an Oscar for best foreign film, was effectively used in the French Pavilion to question the viability of Modernism. The film created an indelible dent in the sleek brand of French ultra moderne.

The French pavilion next door, in Modernity: Promise or Menace? asked pretty much the same question four different ways. They started with humor (and film again) by looking at the ultra moderne Villa Arpel, the architectural star of Jaques Tati’s, Mon Oncle. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1958. Watch the funny well done trailer here. Villa Arpel is filled with all the impractical cliches of modern style (uncomfortable furniture, leaking roofs, mysterious appliances) and turns modern architecture into an indelible farce.

From there the French pavilion examined: Jean Prouvé: Constructive Imagination or Utopia? Prefabrication: Economy of Scale or Monotony? and finally, The Large Housing Schemes: Happy Heterotopias or Places of Reclusion? For me, the entire pavilion seemed to ask, with that ironic French shrug, “If you’re so smart, what went wrong?”

Such good questions. The answers are complicated. Housing project + bad design + cheap materials = inevitable slum is not the full equation but it does usually help to factor in that profound little gap.

Somewhere along the way, Modernism itself gets yoked to Communism and many of the most effective projects in the Biennale looked at this unsettling marriage. Inherent in both is profound idealism and abject failure. The failure of modernism in the communist world might be described best by the acronym used to describe why and how people (meaning spies) can betray their countries: MICE. Money, Ideology, Compromise and Ego. Take your pick and if you want to raise any modern architect’s hackles just watch their face as you equate the idealistic promise of Modernism to Worker Housing. “Worker Housing” says it all; cheap, unlivable, dystopian, sterile, monotonous, oppressive, blighted, oh my god – what were you thinking?!

The Korean Pavillion won The Golden Lion, the Biennale’s top prize. This giant ink and watercolor illustration, “Construction of May Day Stadium”, 1988, by Ji Dong-seok glamorized the promise of what Modern Architecture might do. From the exhibition Utopian Tours curated by Nick Bonner.

The idealism of Modern Architecture was clearly evident in the Korean Pavilion, that won the Golden Lion. One room was dedicated to the sort of propaganda messages that reminded me of Bollywood movie posters. Gorgeously illustrated and dripping with irony, the most effective of these combined architecture with utopian Communist visions of a better world.

The Chilean Pavilion (that won the Silver Lion) also combined architecture and politics. In homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001, the exhibition was titled, Monolith Controversies. In the center of the space, dramatically lit (you could almost hear tympani and trumpets announce its presence) was “The Monolith” itself, a gigantic piece of reinforced mass produced pre-fab concrete in all its brutal glory. This was not a Hollywood prop it was an important historical artifact. In 1972, its wet cement (sort of like a sidewalk on Hollywood Blvd. in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater) was signed by socialist reformer Salvadore Allende, the 29th President of Chile. Next to his signature he wrote, “Thank you Soviet and Chilean comrades.”

Salvadore Allende signs the wet concrete of “The Monolith” in 1972. The product of a joint venture between his government and the Soviet Union. This concrete panel symbolized a new modernist future for Chile. Photo by Nolberto Salinas González, © All Rights Reserved.

Why all the glorification? This was it! This was the future! It was sort of like the original prototype “lego.” The panel was the first product of a Soviet/Chilean joint venture, a Russian built cement factory that would churn out thousands upon thousands of these literal building blocks to construct Chile’s new modernist skyline.

A full scale replica of Mrs. Silvia Guitiérrez’s apartment, furnished with 514 of her possessions, shows how Socialist prefab concrete industrial standardization becomes personalized.

In the exhibition, this sublime future was put on view for all to see (and judge) because in order to view “The Monolith” you had to first walk through Mrs. Guitiérrez’s apartment to get there. Jammed with tchotchkes and doilies, Mrs. Guitiérrez had done everything she possibly could to make her tiny cement bunker a humane place to live. The Chilean exhibition told this fascinating story with film and multimedia, well-lit models, drama and magnificent carefully constructed irony.

Architecture exhibitions carry a heavy load. The projects are complex and have many moving parts which need to be explained. This takes time and demands patient attention from the viewer. The profession itself has a hard time explaining to a broader public what it is they actually do, (hence the attraction of something simple like Door, Window, Floor). But, it can be effectively done and as a great architect (Piet van Dijk) once taught me, “You can complain about budget and time and the site all you want but great architecture is about transcending the limitations.” And so it was in the Chilean Pavilion and even more so in the German Pavilion.

For me, the German Pavilion made perhaps the clearest and most optimistic statement about the promise of Modernism. Best of all, they communicated in a loud, powerful and clear architectural voice without speaking a word. They created sublime space and let you experience it for yourself.

The Chancellor’s bulletproof 1980’s vintage Mercedes waits patiently outside the German Pavilion adding an understated artistic flourish to a smart and beguiling installation.

The permanent German Pavilion is an “imposing and muscular” Nazi era construct designed in 1938 by Ernst Haiger. Outside, impudently parked right in front with a sort of diplomatic immunity, (and you have to remember, this is Venice where there are very few cars), there is a vintage Mercedes (that you find out later belonged to Helmut Kohl). You wonder, “What’s going on? Is someone important inside?” You walk up the steps and as you cross the threshold you are magically transported into a modernist triumph of the chancellor of Germany’s private residence. Read more about the project here in a well done article by Dezeen Magazine

“German architects and curators Alex Lehnerer and Savva Ciriacidis have reconstructed parts of the Kanzlerbungalow (Chancellor’s Bungalow) in Bonn – a building completed in 1964 by architect Sep Ruf that was home to the German chancellor up until 1999.”

The curators describe their project like they are pitching a film.

“We were hunting for a ‘political building’ that, aside from its physical reality, could be seen as a communicative medium charged with meaning…Our idea began as a one-liner: We’ll ‘remake’ the Kanzlerbungalow and ‘cross-cut’ it with the German Pavilion in Venice. We like seemingly simple premises: the precise details of a high-concept notion deepen it, helping it to become richer and more complicated, create contradictions, and ultimately turn the one-liner into an entire story.”

The interior space of the installation was cleverly described by Oliver Wainright in the Guardian as “A California Case Study house stuffed inside a Nazi HQ. …’You will find out more about me if you look at this house than if you watch me deliver a political speech,’ said the chancellor who commissioned it, Ludwig Erhard.”

This interior is everything you want from Modernism. Clarity. Simplicity. Perfect proportions. New materials but contrasted with familiar tactile brick and wood. Great light. Elegance. Sophistication. An interior any architect would love, brilliantly executed with taste and serenity.

I finally got to put down my baggage. I felt at home.

Until next time with much love, I remain, your,

Tommaso

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The Art of Seduction


Jasmina Cibic’s installation in the 55th Venice Biennale features two well-made films about art, architecture and the interaction between them. Photo by Pete Moss courtesy of the artist and Galerija Škuc, © Jasmina Cibic, All Rights Reserved.

It’s next time again.

I don’t know about you, but I like art that thrills me. This does not have to happen all at once. It does not have to shock. It does not have to hit me over the head. But I like art that is enticing. I like art that mysteriously attracts my attention. I like it when the first impression contains a little tingle of anticipation, almost like a barely perceptible whiff of expensive perfume. All of sudden, and often you don’t really know why, your senses are put on high alert and some part of you feels as though something wonderful is about to happen. I like it when, under scrutiny, one good thing in the art leads to another. Perhaps I like it the most when, the more I find out about it, the more I like it.

This begs the question, “What turns you on about Art?” What do you like and why do you like it? I realize this sounds like a great pickup line so, if you’re ready and are feeling a bit adventurous, let’s get out of here and go someplace fun. I know a place I think you’ll like.

The Venice Biennale is an orgy of art. There is too much to see. You need to damp down your senses. If you love art, you have to pace yourself because your perceptions can quickly be overwhelmed. There is so much eye candy it inevitably turns into a binge. After a while you stumble along feeling bloated and dissipated. This was particularly true this year since the exhibition contained twice the number of artists as in years past; over 150 artists from 88 countries. Instead of trying to cover them all, I thought I would focus your attention on just one.

My most satisfying experience of the Biennale was not unexpected. The retro girl with the camera photo was sent out in a press release over a month ago. I had been looking forward to seeing what the artist had done. There is something about this photograph that is very intriguing and innocently sexy. Perhaps it is the tan gloves, or the teased hair, or more likely the vintage camera, but I look at this picture and I sense a back story and want to find out more. I am delighted to report I did.

The installation for the Slovenian Republic is one of the Biennale’s outlying collatoral exhibitions. It is located at the end of a narrow alley in an unusual gallery space that used to be a private home. Photo by Matevž Paternoster courtesy of the artist and Galerija Škuc, © Jasmina Cibic, All Rights Reserved.

The Slovenian pavilion of Jasmina Cibic (even her name is charming) is titled, “For Our Economy & Culture.” It is located in a gallery space in a narrow alley near the Palazzo Grassi. This space is unusual in Venice because it has huge floor to ceiling windows next to the front door. This sort of modernity is rare. From the outside, what you saw through the windows was so banal it betrayed nothing of the fascinating installation inside. All you saw was a grouping of oil paintings depicting flowers.

An opening performance at the Slovenian Pavilion featured uniformed performers in fabric made from the same design as the unusual wallpaper and curtains. Performers: Primož Bezjak, Gregor Luštek. Photo by Matevž Paternoster courtesy of the artist and Galerija Škuc, © Jasmina Cibic, All Rights Reserved.

These were not of the sort of photographically-detailed Dutch still life paintings on black backgrounds that stop your heart with their drama and realism. Rather, they were old fashioned boring flower paintings you would see at a garage sale or in a fusty British bed and breakfast. There was nothing interesting about them. Even though my senses were on high alert, she tricked me with those boring paintings. The fact that they were hanging on a wallpapered wall in the foyer made them float away in your peripheral vision. Anxious to step further inside, I walked right by them (as perhaps visitors were supposed to do) without giving them a second thought. More on their significance in a minute.

Unlike every other small outlying pavilion I had been in that day, the girl minding the installation greeted me with a beckoning smile and seemed actually happy to see me. Her welcoming face was all the more pleasant to see after the grumpy, hungover, scowls I had received all morning. I complimented her manners and her attitude and she said in a British accent that she hated being treated poorly in art galleries and then quickly apologized for the fact that while the film downstairs was working fine, the one upstairs was sadly not working at this time. I mumbled, “Maybe I can help” sort of like Sean Connery in the Michael Crichton film, Rising Sun. On prearranged cue, when his co-star Wesley Snipes gives the signal, Connery steps forward and says, “Perhaps I can be of assistance.” She eagerly escorted me upstairs and I felt quite the hero of the moment about to rescue pretty docents in distress.

Upstairs, an attractive girl in a black dress greeted me with wide beseeching eyes, as her colleague explained I was there to help. Their attitude was refreshing. They really cared. They knew thousands of hours by many people went into the installation and the fact that it was not working was offensive to their professionalism. The technical set up was thankfully simple. A little Mac mini computer fed a small projector and a small DVD player that was being used to route audio to some wireless headphones. Not intimidating if I left the projector alone. First step was to re-boot the mac mini and in spite of the fact that the girl in the black dress said she had done that a couple of times, for once I had the magic touch. The reboot put the video back up on the screen where it belonged. The audio, however, was still not working. We moved the viewing bench over so I could get up high enough to work on the audio and after about ten minutes I finally figured out the problem. From their grateful reaction you would have thought I’d split the atom.

Anxious to repay me, the girl in the black dress offered coffee and I gratefully accepted and sat down to watch a film I had been looking forward to seeing for months. It did not disappoint.

Production still from “Framing the Space.” Katarina Stegnar plays the journalist “Linda” and Grega Zorc plays the “real life” Architect, Vinko Glanz. A trailer is available for you to see here.   Photo by Pete Moss courtesy of the artist and Galerija Škuc, © Jasmina Cibic, All Rights Reserved.

The upstairs film is more intimate than the one below. The film begins in a small boat on a placid lake and then becomes a walking tour of an elegant government house surrounded by a forest and garden. The film consists of a dialog between  a journalist, and one of the architects you saw in the film downstairs. They discuss art and architecture and the proper roles for both in official buildings. She probes with intelligent questions. He gives thoughtful answers peppered with political meaning. There is a flirtatious subtext but it is hidden under a façade of formality and professional duty. The film is both thoughtful and amusing. By the time it is over you feel happy and relaxed but your mind is hungry to find out more.

Production still from “Framing the Space.” Director of Photography Mark Carey and the entire production team deserves enormous credit for producing such high quality films. Their craftsmanship and talent was evident throughout both films in the installation. Photo by Pete Moss courtesy of the artist and Galerija Škuc, © Jasmina Cibic, All Rights Reserved.

After thoroughly enjoying the upstairs video, I went down to watch the one downstairs. The British girl sat next to me on the bench and then went into a fascinating explanation of the entire installation. She just poured forth information. There was something almost pent up about her explanation. She had clearly done her homework and now had a receptive ear.

Installation art has an itinerary just like a building. There is usually a sequence of experiences and it is most engaging when these build seductively from one to the next. In Jasmina’s installation, the first room held the boring oil paintings and then you parted wispy elegant curtains to get into the room with the first film. There is a nice bench for you to sit on (covered in the same wallpaper) and this is sort of built into the wall. The film is high quality and the sound is good. You come into the film mid-scene. A group of architects and art historians are having a friendly but passionate argument about choosing appropriate artwork for an official government building. Their clothes and manner indicate the scene is happening in the past. They speak in English but it is formal and a bit stilted. Turns out all the dialog is taken verbatim from an official 1957 meeting transcript from the archives of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. When you find this out you have a bit of an “aha moment.” The politics of their opinionated discussion starts to overwhelm the aesthetics. The film becomes even more charming because now it is laced with historic context and irony.

The downstairs film doesn’t really have a plot. The discussion just goes on and on like every other bureaucratic meeting you ever attended. When you have had enough you climb the nearby stairs. Every surface is covered in the wallpaper. At first you don’t even notice but upon closer examination you see that the understated grey pattern is made out of bugs.

The wallpaper design depicts a special and unique beetle found in a Slovenian cave in the late 1930s. The discoverer was allowed to name the species and decided on the provocative name: Anophthalmus Hitleri. The bug was named for a man he greatly admired, Adolph Hitler! Once a species is officially named, it can’t be changed.

The specially designed wallpaper features custom drawn illustrations of a unique species of beetle discovered in a cave in Slovenia in 1937. The scientist who discovered the species was allowed to pick the name. He called the insect, Anophthalmus Hitleri, after a man he greatly admired, Adolf Hitler. Wallpaper design by the artist. Inset color illustrations by Sandra Doyle and Tanza Croutch. Courtesy of the artist and Galerija Škuc, © Jasmina Cibic, All Rights Reserved.

I also learned, with extraordinary attention to detail, Jasmina Cibic had commissioned scientific illustrators to draw the Hitler beetle. More than thirty entomological artists were given the commissions but they could not work from previous illustrations. They had to work in a purely scientific way. These drawings were then combined into the wallpaper pattern that was also reproduced on the sheer draperies. Every surface in the installation except the floor and the ceiling was covered in this pattern. After you know this, what was once innocuous, now feels foreboding. Your perception has been transformed and now it feels as though the spirit of Hitler permeates the atmosphere and infests the space.

This begs the question, and I would love to hear your opinions, how much should you have to know before you can properly experience the art? I think the answer is, “not much.” The challenge for the artist is to first attract your attention and then lure you into an investigation. If you have to read a manifesto before you become intrigued, then probably the art is not working for you. The process works best when it is less like doing homework and more like dancing the tango.

Production still from “Framing the Space.” Actress Katarina Stegnar poses next to a framed illustration of the “Hitler Beetle.” Often so-called video art is poorly made. This was clearly not the case in this installation. The high production value is evident in every frame. Photo by Pete Moss courtesy of the artist and Galerija Škuc, © Jasmina Cibic, All Rights Reserved.

Anxious to further repay me for helping to fix the installation, the British girl gifted me with a heavy roll of the wallpaper and a catalog of the installation. She also explained the oil paintings in the foyer are actually from the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia! They were removed from people’s offices and loaned to the exhibition. The irony is, this is what the people in both films are arguing about. What art should be included in an official building to properly represent the country’s culture? How should this art be displayed? Brilliant questions for a Biennale. To discover these humdrum paintings of flowers were officially chosen, sanctioned, and displayed in the Slovenian Parliament building transformed them into a very droll expression of “our history and culture.”

It no big stretch to apply the word seduction to this project. Jasmina is a very smart and enticing artist. She set her installation in a former residence and transformed the space into a bedroom. You part long, elegant sheer curtains to enter these rooms. They are dark and restful. The pillow talk is intellectual but some of us like it like that.

Why does some art beckon you with a come hither smile and whisper, “find out more about me,” and other art give you the cold shoulder? This is about more than accessibility. It’s about experience and meaning. Seduction is fun. So is good art. It is fine to pretend that it is all about the journey, but if you fundamentally do not care about your destination, the stress of travel seems to last forever and it is hard for you to forget your trip may be pointless. If you think your time is valuable, it seems stupid to waste it by going somewhere boring. The trip (like seduction) is so much more exciting when it is filled with the anticipation of someplace (or someone) fascinating.

Production still from “The Fruits of our Land” shot inside the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia. Artist/Director Jasmina Cibic is on the far right. Photo by Pete Moss courtesy of the artist and Galerija Škuc, © Jasmina Cibic, All Rights Reserved.

It is clear Jasmina Cibic seduced me. I loved it. But this raises the question of what are the artist’s goals and what are your goals as you look at art? I’m looking for an experience. I’m looking for interaction with the artist and a shared journey. Many artists are not interested in this sort of byplay and this does not make them bad, it just makes them more difficult to appreciate. I’m interested in art because I’m interested in beauty, but obviously art is more than a beauty contest. I don’t know how you feel or what you are looking for, but I have found another way I evaluate art, and its effects. I learned this insight from an interview with the Landscape Architect, Peter Walker. He said he strives for art that will “live in memory.” I find this idea very useful and apply it to all sorts of experiences.

For example, I also had the chance to see an exhibition on filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni at the Palazzo Diamante, in his hometown of Ferrara. I won’t go into all the details except to say many people find his films difficult because they don’t really have traditional plots. He said he is not particularly interested in telling stories with “beginnings, middles and ends.” This makes him really difficult for many people, especially Americans, who grew up with television. When you stop and think about it, almost everything you see on TV, and especially the commercials, are all about beginnings, middles and ends.

Michelangelo Antonioni is a cinematic master of seduction. Shown here with the breathtaking Monica Vitti.

I wanted more information about Antonioni, so I got on the web. In the comments section of many websites, people said, “I didn’t really like this film at all. It was really slow and pretty boring and I couldn’t really figure out what was going on but then I found myself thinking about the film days later so I went back and watched it again. It is really good! Now it is one of my favorite movies.” I’m not sure we can ask a whole lot more from an artist. I can’t wait to go back and experience the Jasmina Cibic installation again. She is vividly living in my memory and because her art is multi-layered and complex she, like Antonioni, has seduced me in ways that are not superficial.

In the context of the 55th Venice Biennale, one other really important thing needs to be said about seduction. It can quickly lead to obsession.

This spiral tower of an unbuilt building was a symbol for the entire exhibition. The model was carefully constructed over a period of three years in the mid 1950’s by folk artist Marino Auriti. Auriti’s obsession was to design “an entirely new concept in museums, designed to hold all the works of man in whatever field, discoveries made and those which may follow . . . everything from the wheel to the satellite.”

Obsession is a major theme of this Biennale. The young curator of the 55th Biennale is Maximiliano Gioni (39). He titled the 55th Venice Biennale, The Encyclopedic Palace Here is how he described his theme:

“…throughout history, artists, writers, scientists and self-proclaimed prophets have pursued the impossible dream of universal knowledge. The representation of the invisible is a central theme of the show, illustrated by painters and mystics of the early 20th century and by young contemporary artists.

In the spaces of the Arsenale the exhibition is organized as progression from natural to artificial forms, loosely following the typical layout of cabinets of curiosities: here, the exhibition composes a catalog of encyclopedias and exceptions that leads the viewer from studies of nature to reflections on the role of images in contemporary digital culture. Following the personal cosmologies, the exhibition examines the role of images, the functions of the imagination, and the realms of the imaginary, and in so doing questions what room is left for dreams, visions, and hallucinations in an era besieged by external images.”

I had the chance to walk around Venice with a charming and sophisticated poet on this trip and he provided a drop dead insight, “I’m bored with art that is obsessive.” By this, he implied the idea that art should contain more than just obsession. He went on to say that artists sometimes develop a highly personal language and the more obsessive they become this language can become something only they can hear. His brilliant observation became a “lens” through which I saw all the art in the show that played with this theme. Yes, there is no question, when you look at a lot of this art you are blown away by all the hard work and sometimes you are blown away by all the somewhat creepy obsessive compulsive behavior. Sometimes as you look at a collection of 5,000 whatchamacallits you feel as though only a psychologist would be really interested in all this evidence of mental illness.

R. Crumb’s Genesis project illustrates the Bible with his signature comic style but something in the intensity and focus of the project plumbs the depths of artistic obsession.

When you first see all the carefully framed and hung panels of R. Crumb’s Illustrated Bible filling a gigantic room and then you examine one of the pages and see all of it’s amazing pen and ink detail, it is hard not to be blown away by all the hard work. It is hugely impressive. With many of the other artists’ obsessive private journeys, you just shake your head and moan.

One thing is obvious. The borderlines between seduction and obsession and compulsion and repulsion and art and genius and mental illness are often exceedingly thin. These boundaries, like the intimate art of seduction itself, are also extremely personal.

Until next time with much love I remain your,

Tommaso

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Exploring Common Ground


The Russian Pavilion, at this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, harnessed curiosity to transform a large collection of ordinary archival photographs into something magical.

It’s next time again.

Your work requires you to interact with others. Everyone negotiates in their work in one way or another. What works for you? What secrets have you learned that help you get your ideas across? How do you listen, react and then move forward, especially if you and your colleagues do not see eye to eye? How has your success benefited from your ability to negotiate? Can an architect’s process be of any practical use to the rest of us?

There are many parallels between the careers of architects and filmmakers. Both typically require someone else to fund their projects, both ping pong back and forth between periods of intense solitary concentration and then periods of energetic collaboration, both move from project to project often balancing the demands of several simultaneous engagements, both have the challenges of trying to execute a creative vision that sometimes only they themselves can see. There are also similarities of process. Both often work on long term projects, both have similar phases of “production” and both of their processes require creativity and creative collaboration throughout the lifetime of an evolving final product. It is this concept of creative collaboration that has been on my mind the past several months and part of the reason is the work and approach of architect, David Chipperfield.

The head of Nefertiti has a new home inside Chipperfield’s renovated Neues Museum in Berlin. The twelve year project is a triumph of diplomacy. Photo Copyright © 2012, Candida Höfer, Neues Museum Berlin IX 2009, 180 x 138 cm – 71 x 54.5 in., C-print, gerahmt – framed, courtesy of Johnen Galerie, Berlin.

David Chipperfield recently completed a twelve year project in Berlin. His Neues Museum, is perhaps best known as the new home of a single breathtaking object – the head of Nefertiti. This world famous artifact is sort of a “must see” in Berlin, and has been for many years. On a recent trip to Berlin, we ran in to see her, proudly ensconced in her elegant new room, and what everyone says is completely true. “One of the most admired, and most copied, images from ancient Egypt, and the star exhibit used to market Berlin’s museums.” What is equally true is that her new showplace is one of the most fascinating and effective museum projects in the world. Candida Höfer took evocative fine art photographs of the renovation. See her project shown last Spring at Johnen Galerie in Berlin.

Chipperfield had a (literally) monumental task in Berlin. Many Germans enjoy the virtues of being strong-minded and demanding. I can’t imagine the bureaucratic obstacles he had to climb. But he is incredibly articulate and insightful when it comes to describing one of the hidden aspects of his success with the Neues Museum. This was a project that he had been working on for fully half of his 25 years as an architect. The secret of his success? In a word, he credits, “diplomacy.”

There is a team of people from our office who worked on this for ten years–they were present throughout and got incredible experience, … but especially in the political, the idea of collaboration, not as a process of compromise, but as something fundamental to the realization of ideas. The Neues Museum could not have been realized without first of all making the atmosphere in which we could conduct the conversations. There was a sort of diplomacy that was part of this, but not diplomacy in a decorative way, but diplomacy in terms of how you explain ideas to people and how you hold on to those ideas but, at the same time, how you take on board other opinions, and how you include different aspects. So I think that was our achievement more than anything else.”

Wow! I think this should become an entire course-long semester offered to every architecture school in the country.

Every two years, the world’s best architects come to Venice to showcase their latest projects. This year the theme was particularly fascinating.

Chipperfield was also the curator of this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice. These shows have been getting better and better and this year, in no small measure because of Mr. Chipperfield’s contributions, it was the best I’ve ever seen. Walking through the Arsenale, the gigantic shipbuilding warehouses in Venice that are the home to part of both the Art and the Architecture Biennales, I was struck by the heavy burden Architecture exhibits must support in such a venue. Architectural projects are really complicated. They don’t lend themselves to the six second rule, (this being the average amount of time most visitors spend in front of an artwork in a museum). Before getting to some of the highlights of this year’s Architecture Biennale, Chipperfield’s fascinating theme of “Common Ground” deserves a closer look.

My process as a filmmaker has greatly improved because of my association with architects. At the beginning of my career, one architect explained that just as his clients did not really understand, and did not really care all that much about how he designed their buildings, most of my clients do not care about how I made the films they commissioned. Clients want to know how they fit in. So, he suggested I make a chart defining my process that highlighted the important intersections with my clients.

Another architect pointed out rich patrons can sometimes be a challenge but often their projects have a better chance of being truly great. He felt it was much more difficult to get good ideas through a committee. He said committees, by design, usually embrace the status quo.

I’ve written about Frank Gehry’s impact upon my process on the Vision section of my website, but that only scratches the surface of the countless things I have had the privilege to learn from him over the years. Another major insight he instilled in me is his enthusiastic enjoyment of the process itself. Easy to do when the project is going great. Tough to remember when you are slogging through the obstacles. When you are building something, it is easy to only focus upon the finished work and ignore the enjoyment of the present task at hand. If you are only living for the final ribbon cutting, you are missing most of your life. What is needed is passion throughout. I also felt this same charming attribute in Chipperfield’s writings and I believe this exuberance shows in their finished buildings.

David Chipperfield and his recently renovated Neues Museum, in Berlin. The trials and tribulations of this project gave him new strategies to “get things done” that are valuable to the rest of us.

Chipperfield adds a new twist to the crucial impact of positive architect/client collaboration. Could the tools of the diplomat; mutual respect, deathless charm, tact, optimism, etc. be employed to build better buildings (or make better movies)? “Architecture doesn’t just happen, it is a coincidence of forces, a conspiracy of requirements, expectations, regulations and, hopefully, visions. It requires collaboration and its success is subject to the quality of that collaboration … If we accept this then we must also accept that good architecture is not just dependent on genius nor can it only be achieved only through confrontation and despite circumstances. Individual talent and creativity depend on and contribute to a rich and complex culture of shared affinities, references and predicaments that give validity to and meaning, not only to architecture but to its place in society.”

Such was his vision for the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture. As I walked from exhibit to exhibit I searched for the theme of “Common Ground” and often it was there. This theme is complex, rich and fascinating. There is much more here than “diplomacy.” Here are a few of the projects with particularly interesting ideas.

Peter Markli, a Swiss architect, created this room with Steve Roth. Elegant, elongated, ectomorphic statues blend perfectly with the giant columns in the Arsenale. One of these statues was actually a Giacommetti (but I am not sure which one).  

Peter Markli’s elegant room felt like a gallery of sophisticated sculpture (probably because it was). The sculptor, Hans Josephsohn had just died. He was 92. I subsequently read that one of these sculptures was a Giocometti. What impressed me most was the lighting. The light fixtures were up high out of your line of sight. They were aimed at the old brick walls and dimmed up and down to change the mood as you looked at the figures and thought about how the human form and the columns connected to each other. The relationship of the human form to building design is one of the very first principles of architecture. Vitruvius was perhaps the first to discuss this in his essays about proportion. He felt architectural symmetry and proportion should be consonant with the proportions of a well shaped man. In this case, the form had become elongated, elegant and ectomorphic. With the moody lighting it was if the human body had slowly petrified, dissolving into brick columns that had been in this room since the fifteenth century; Common Ground indeed.

The Architectural firm, FAT, called their truly stunning exhibition an, “Architectural Dopplegängers Research Cluster.” The project was organized by Ines Weizman and provides maybe the most unselfconscious, fun and articulate riff on the theme of Common Ground.

For whatever reason, copying is usually considered to be a bad thing for an architect or an artist. It was refreshing to find copying glorified in a very imaginative exhibit by the folks at FAT, who are based in Britain. They have a beguiling sense of humor and they make their case in a very no nonsense, almost blasé manner. “To FAT, the rhetoric of architectural influence and affinity might be reduced to an apparently banal concept: copying. Instead FAT’s installation reveals copying to be a rich terrain The centrepiece of their exhibition is a large-scale cast of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, a building from the Veneto that could claim to be the most copied building in architectural history, spawning homages and rip-offs across the globe. FAT’s Museum of Copying also recognizes that copying threatens the mythology of recent architectural production, based on ideas of an author’s originality and individual genius. FAT and their collaborators are relaxed about copying: the sources are out there to plunder, and architecture has always done so in the most direct ways.”

Film has its common ground just like Architecture. The Spaghetti Western is the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained.

How does all this apply to making movies? The connections are uncanny. In a recent interview Quentin Tarantino described how he learned a very important cinematic lesson from the Spaghetti Western. Tarantino’s sound tracks are always a knockout. He uses music like a character in the story and he does it brilliantly. Fascinating to hear where he learned how to do this. “Let me just say this just for the record: You can’t really do a Spaghetti Western anymore. Spaghetti Westerns were a thing of their time. But one of the big influences that Spaghetti Westerns have had over me cinematically is how they used music and how they bring it to the forefront. There is a part of me that likes to go in from time to time for those big operatic effects. It’s like we’re telling the story and setting everything up, and then there’s the equivalent of what in a musical would be a big dance number or a big musical sequence. I think I did learn that from Italian movies.” I just love this insight and I use it in my own work. I did not pick this up, however, from the Spaghetti Western. I learned it from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.



The Zaha Hadid section of the Architecture Biennale is always a visual treat. By suspending her models in the space you not only felt as though you were looking at gorgeous spaceships but you also were more able to imagine yourself in front of her buildings.

Zaha Hadid’s firm always makes a powerful statement at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. This year, developmental models based on the work of German architect, Frei Otto, helped to explain a few of the inspirations for her fluid structural forms.

Zaha Hadid’s installation had particular resonance for me because of the climatic sequence in a documentary TELOS did about Frank Gehry. In this sequence, Gehry explained how he made computer models of the folds of waxed red velvet fabric to create one of his most arresting designs. He was not, and is not alone in this investigation. Frei Otto, (who did a beautiful roof structure for a major pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo and the roof of the Munich Olympic arena in 1972), uses interconnected triangles to create flowing forms much like the rounded (Geodesic) domes of Buckminster Fuller.  Hadid’s firm explains, “In our installation and exhibition at the Biennale we want to show that – apart from the dialogue with the work of contemporary competitors that existed all along – our recent work connects to a rather different historical strand of research. The more our design research and work evolved on the basis of algorithmic form generation, the more we learned to appreciate the work of pioneers like Frei Otto who had achieved the most elegant designs on the basis of material-structural form-finding processes. From Frei Otto we learned how the richness, organic coherence and fluidity of the forms and spaces we desire could emerge rationally from an intricate balance of forces. We expanded Frei Otto’s method to include environmental as well as structural logics, and we moved from material to computational simulations.” Chipperfield’s theme gave refreshing license for architects to quote each others inspirations.

Toshiko Mori’s exhibit was full of Architectural quotations from the masters. 

Toshiko Mori gave you insight into details most people never truly see. For lovers of architectural details this homage to the masters was a delight.

The creation of architectural space has a boundary. Every architect wrestles with the issue of how you get from the outside to the inside. Toshiko Mori decided to focus on this intersection in a celebration of architectural details that most of us overlook. These window details are as iconic and memorable for architects as Kubrick’s use of Richard Strauss in 2001, is for filmmakers.  “We have framed each detail as a totem – an object carrying an abstract spirit of its own, an animistic character that echoes the personality and signature of an architect. By isolating details and presenting them at half scale, one starts to inhabit this menageries of architectural ideas as one detail starts to speak to another; they echo each others history, precedents and references.”

The Chinese Pavilion is in a building at the Arsenele that was used to store diesel fuel for giant ships. The oil smell is gone but the gigantic rusting tanks remain. China uses this space for both the Art and the Architecture Biennales and what they do in it is made all the more visually arresting because of the dramatic character of the space itself. 


This year, in the China Pavilion, Shao Weiping created a “glow worm” of floating acrylic resin panels with interesting computer circuitry visible on the surface. LED lights embedded in the top of the discs gave this floating spine a mysteriously changing glow. 

Rendering of interior atrium of the Phoenix International Media Center in Beijing. Image courtesy of BIAD_UFo

The China exhibition continued on the theme of how a repeated form can create a new structure. Instead of intersecting triangles, this time the “seed form” is a naturalistic looking ovoid disc that reminded me of the thin leaves of a Lunaria Money Plant. By stacking these discs, or suspending them in space, new forms are created from the repeated pattern. The “Mobius Strip” inspired Phoenix International Media Center in Beijing is one of the building forms that can be created from such repetition. Five artists and architects were represented in the China Pavilion and their curator, Fang Zhenning, found expressive common ground between them all.

One room in the main pavilion of the Biennale was devoted to architectural models by students from all over the world. The title: 40,000 Hours. 


Young architects are a major audience for the entire exhibition. This impressive display of their work is a tribute to their tenacity. 

One of the problems with a show on Architecture is you really do not have enough time or the attention span to properly explore each exhibit. This was never more true than in the overwhelming 40,000 Hours room of architectural models from students. These models were cherry-picked from all over the world. Each of them is a time vampire of love and attention. The quality of the work was impressive. Each model was a little jewel and yet you did not have the energy to appreciate them one by one. They became a collective statement of effort. “This collection of models built by students from architecture schools across the world is both a tribute to their work and a depiction of the extraordinary labour undertaken in those institutions. The title of the room is a rough guess at the amount of hours taken to produce the models and the presentation is intended to evoke a natural resource, a groundswell of imaginative proposition by young architects. The presentation of the models is deliberately anonymous: each one is made of the same material and is about the same size. And while every model was built by an individual student the intention is to foreground the power and potential of the collective effort.”

The Piranesi Variations provided Common Ground for three prestigious architectural groups to explore. Each of them presented their own re-visioning of Piranesi’s plan (done in 1762) for Campo Marzo in Rome. the participants included: Eisenman Architects, students from Yale University, Jeffrey Kipnis with his colleagues and students of the Ohio State University, and Belgian architecture practice, Dogma.

This is a famous and recognizable detail from Piranesi’s etching. It became one clue to orient yourself as you looked at the complicated and imaginative variations.

The detail shown above comes alive in 3D as it turns into a animalistic head with an arching neck in The Field of Dreams. Soda straws create a cloud effect around another one of the building forms.

Common Ground was never better expressed than in a fascinating four part exhibit based on the Campo Marzo etchings of Piranesi. Jeffery Kipnis, the Architectural Theoretician, with whom we collaborated on the documentary, A Constructive Madness (about the creative process of Frank Gehry) was one of the prestigious faculty who created this visionary capriccio.  The tongue in cheek title (one of Jeffery’s trademarks) says it all: A Field of Dreams. IV: Variation: A Field of Dreams, Wherein the Erotics – the Passions, Perversions, and Spectacles of Ancient Rome – so Perfectly Frozen by Piranesi’s Etchings are Reanimated as a Morality Play for Contempoary Architecture. (Dedicated to Le Corbusier and John Hejduk)

An interactive garden brought high quality and soothing music into the landscape. A very literal and innovative interpretation of Common Ground.

Round speakers, disguised as garden statuary, dotted the landscape in this interactive musical garden. The railing is part of the sophisticated sensor apparatus that modulated the performance.

A very popular and fun exhibit combined landscape design with modern and very well-done music. This acoustic garden was interactive. Special sensors examined not only the number of people in the vicinity but also the weather. The composition was modified to take into account all these factors. In lesser hands this would have felt gimmicky. Instead, it was refreshing and joyful. It was impossible not to smile as you walked over the grassy mounds and, like a great soundtrack, the experience was perfectly blended.

Graffiti on the Men’s Room wall reminded you of the market pressures facing young architects as they try to find jobs in a depressed economy.

Architects are often in competition with each other. We are used to the large egos and the “star-chitect” nature of the field. Venice itself reminds you of an earlier time when the architect was anonymous and adhered to commonly agreed to principles revered by a profession grounded in the traditions of the guild. Chipperfield’s theme resonated with these ideas but not in an old fashioned way. Had I not seen and enjoyed his success in Berlin, I am not sure I would have appreciated the profundity of his theme. Thanks to his success in Berlin with the Neues Museum, his next project will be a renovation of the iconic and “untouchable” Mies Van der Rohe, Neue Nationalgalerie museum. This project, also in Berlin, was Meis’ last work and was designed in 1968. It now looks shabby and is in dire need of attention. Chipperfield’s techniques of diplomacy work. They have broad and important relevance to many other fields because they establish perhaps the most valuable aspect of a client relationship – trust.

Until next time with much love,

Tommaso


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Idea Factory


Roger Vivier, the inventor of the stiletto heel, created this architectural masterpiece of a shoe in the mid 1960s. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource NY (CNW Group/Bata Shoe Museum).

It’s next time again.

If you work in the creative arts and people like your work, sooner or later someone will ask, “Where do you get all these amazing ideas?” The question is usually well meaning and superficial but the answers can sometimes be profound. In an on-camera interview with one of the greatest shoe designers that ever lived we got an answer that had a truly profound effect on my life. Roger Vivier was Christian Dior’s shoe designer. He invented the platform sole (for Marlene Dietrich) and the stiletto heel. His answer was as elegant as his designs. He said, “I go to a museum to be inspired. I walk around and sometimes an idea will occur and sometimes not.” And then he dropped the other shoe. “Creativity is a gift of observation.” That simple phrase has supported me for my entire career. I take inspiration from it at least once a week.

Who doesn’t want more creative thinking in their lives? The words, “I have an idea!” always seem to take a boring meeting up a notch. If your business depends upon good ideas you have probably found interesting ways to cultivate your creativity. I’d be so interested to hear about your most effective techniques. This topic leads in all sorts of interesting directions. How does creativity really work? How does art cross-pollinate between cultures? How does art advance? How do ideas morph and develop as they move through society in different eras? These ideas even connect to the “usefulness”of art and its ability to inspire in all walks of life.

George Lois, a legend in the advertising world, created his famous 1968 Esquire cover of Muhammed Ali through inspirations from weekly visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Saint Sebastian that inspired Mr. Lois was painted by Botticini but it is no longer on public view at the Met. The one pictured above is by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1614, oil on canvas, 200×120cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany.

One of the great things about watching Mad Men is the glimpse you get into the creative process of advertising. George Lois is sometimes described as one of the “original” Mad Men. This is a characterization he doesn’t like very much, but I’m sure he approves of the recent attention he has received because of the show. I came across his work and ideas and was so impressed by his weekly habit of visiting the Metropolitan Museum.

“To constantly inspire breakthrough conceptual thinking I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art religiously every Sunday.” Lois goes on to say, “Lou Dorfman, design chief for CBS radio and leader the CBS television network for over 40 years once said, ‘In reality creativity is the ability to reach inside yourself and drag forth from your very soul an idea.’ However, nothing comes from nothing. You must continuously feed the inner beast that sparks and inspires. I contend the DNA of talent is stored within the great museums of the world. Museums are custodians of epiphanies and these epiphanies enter the central nervous system and the deep recesses of the mind.”

The Crucifixion of St. Paul by Caravaggio is a terrifying painting depicting the hard work of murder. Martin Scorcese is one of many filmmakers who adore Caravaggio and it is not only because of the painter’s masterful command of light and shadow. Painting by Caravaggio, c. 1601, oil on canvas, 230cm x 175cm, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

For the reasons articulated so well by George Lois, I find Art History to be one of the most pleasurable and practical uses of my time. One of the best books I have ever read about Art History is Andrew Graham-Dixon’s new biography of Caravaggio, Caravaggio – A Life Sacred & Profane.  Graham-Dixon describes Caravaggio’s work as “proto-cinematographic.” I found myself totally captivated by the amazingly dramatic story of Caravaggio’s life; his own search for creative inspiration (which Graham-Dixon describes with riveting clarity) and Caravaggio’s enormous impact on his contemporaries and followers. To give one brief example, Graham-Dixon describes how a Caravaggio painting completely “takes over a room.” Even if surrounded in a museum by other masterworks; there is something about Caravaggio’s sensuality and drama that keeps grabbing for your attention. Just like the entrance of a truly great actor, it is really hard to look at anything else when a Caravaggio comes on to the stage. Martin Scorsese provides additional insight as to why this is so.

A young and energetic Martin Scorsese directs Robert DiNiro in Raging Bull. Photo credit: United International Pictures


Scorsese is an enormously cultured and sophisticated filmmaker. It is no surprise his remarks about his study of Caravaggio are as insightful as his invaluable observations about the history of Cinema. A video of his conversation about Caravaggio with Andrew Graham-Dixon can be found here: Scorsese on Caravaggio. He draws inspiration from his many cultural interests. I loved it that he forced his crew to listen to one of his favorite Bach recordings as they shot one of the best sequences in his film, The Aviator. Scorsese knew he wanted that particular piece (and specific performance by Eugene Ormandy) for the soundtrack which would be used for pacing the scene in the editing suite. But, he decided the energy of the music would somehow inspire not only the actors, but also the crew, the mood and the entire cinematic chemistry if he had it playing on set during the filming. If creativity is a gift of observation, Martin Scorsese must sleep with one eye open.

He learned about Caravaggio from his collaborator Paul Schrader when they were working on Mean Streets. Schrader felt the paintings would speak to Scorsese. The intense and violent mood of some of the paintings is quoted in much of the filmmaker’s subsequent work. Scorsese points out when you look at a Caravaggio you are injected into the middle of the scene. What a great observation! I just love this idea. If you are going to paint a crucifixion there are all sorts of ways to do it. But look again at how Caravaggio did it! You are confronted with all the messy details. Bam! You are smack dab in the middle of a murder and you don’t know exactly how you got there and how you are going to get out of it but you can’t take your eyes off the violence. Sounds just like a Scorsese movie doesn’t it?

Michael Fassbender draws inspiration for his performance in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus from an unlikely source – Peter O’Toole’s legendary portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia. Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox

Another extraordinarily smart and cultured filmmaker is Ridley Scott. His summer blockbuster Prometheus is packed with cultural references. I won’t spoil the moment for those of you who have not seen the film, but the way in which Scott quotes David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and in particular the acting genius of Peter O’Toole, is both brilliant and charming. Prometheus is a violent sci-fi futuristic horror movie but a beguiling Chopin étude haunts the score. The dominant visual impact of the film comes from Scott’s almost visceral collaboration with the painter H. R. Giger. Giger is a swiss artist, born in 1940, whose work is eerie, seductive and repulsive all at the same time. Ridley Scott made Giger world famous by using his creepy imagery as the powerful art direction for Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien. The devastating final act of Prometheus is like a “Vulcan mind meld” with Giger’s brain. It hit me like a ton of bricks. The realization of Giger’s world through some sort of viscous and viral collaboration with Ridley Scott who spread the contagion to all of his crew; the craftsmen, the lighting technicians, the set designers, the CGI wizards – all of them infected and transformed by a mood which started with one guy and paint brush, is truly a testament to the power of good idea and the creative tenacity to take it as far as it possibly could go.

H. R. Giger painted this portrait of his muse, Li. The sadness and torment of the portrait is all the more unsettling when you learn that she later committed suicide. Image courtesy Museum HR Giger, Château St. Germain, 1663 Gruyères, France.

While it is fun to examine the seeds of inspiration sown by art in the making of great films and other other creative disciplines, do these ideas find any purchase in the business world? One of my really smart attorney friends told me about his creative process. He is in the business of good ideas. After all, people are coming to him for his advice. He said he learns as much as he can about the case and then he lives with it a bit. He said, “It is always there, just in the back of your mind.” And then, in due course, he said things just mentally fall into place. He did not mention art specifically but he describes an unforced organic Eureka moment that is not necessarily the result of direct concentration upon the matter at hand. I somehow knew exactly what he meant. I find this process fascinating. “Chance favors the prepared mind” (see Sarah’s comment below) is another way of looking at it, and I think this is what an active, positive Museum experience can bring to the mechanics of the creative process. You observe – actively. You learn. You investigate whatever strikes your mood. You look at great Art and Film and listen to great music and in those moments of appreciation (after the homework is done on the particular problem) and suddenly there it is! A solution – a really good solution. A solution that is grounded in preparation and soars to transcend the limitations of the situation blocking the insight. It is a complete joy when this happens and I think the atmosphere created by great Art is conducive to the nurturing and the constructive exploitation of these moments.

Jean Cocteau, the French poet, said of his painter friend, Christian Bérard, “He could pluck naked beauty from the thin air in which she resides.” I could not help but think of that quote as I read more about George Lois’ creative process.

He writes, “Creativity is not created – it is there for us to find. It is an act of discovery. Great advertising comes down to the big idea, but I never create the ideas that characterize my work. I discovered them – snared from the air as they float by me. Michelangelo said that a sculpture is imprisoned in a block of marble and only a great sculptor can set it free. Sounds mystical, perhaps, but after doing the requisite homework to understand the product, its competitors, etc., ideas and advertising are ignited by the sparks and sounds of an understanding of 7000 years of the history of mankind.”

He goes on to say, “Plato defined “idea” (EIDOS) as a mental image. I don’t create that mental image in my head. I somehow see it in my minds eye, floating by me, and I reach out and grab it. So if you’re trying to achieve greatness in any creative industry, go out into the world and sail the ocean blue and live a life of discovery.”

Until next time with much love,

Tomasso


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