Family Trip

March 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

ImageJust got back from a trip with O, Judy & Debbie (not pictured above). We had a fabulous time, more on this later.

Later… much later. I’ve been back almost 2 weeks. The jet lag has been rough and the memories are already fading. Luckily Owen did a great job of cataloguing our daily activities.

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Frontispiece from Description de l’Egypte

March 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

NapoleonsEgypt

Iconic Iconoclasm: British Suffragettes, Erased de Kooning & The Buddhas of Bamiyan

March 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Last night I got to go to sit in on an awesome lecture delivered by Barry Flood, as a part of the CSDS golden jubilee series. Among other ‘moments’ Barry Flood situated practices of iconoclasm within the dizzying context of pre-reformation Europe— a time that saw an expansion of Europe’s horizons in the form of the exploration of Africa, the discovery of the Americas and deepening relationships with the ‘Middle East’ &c.

All of this talk of iconoclasm got me to thinking about the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which I presented to students  when I wanted them to think more critically about the ‘moral outrage’ of UNESCO. Apparently Barry has already written about this, coming to the same conclusions about suffering populations vs ‘threatened monuments’  and the so-called transcendant importance of ‘world heritage’—though this was only one of many arguments in this short and amazingly constructed paper. I think the next time I teach a non-Western course I will include a section with this article, along with the introduction from Arjun Appadurai’s edited collection The Social Life of Things, both of which are helping me develop a more complex position relative to iconoclasm. When I showed the Buddhas of Bamiyan to my students, I couldn’t stop them from thinking about the need to protect the Buddhas, and I was really searching for ways to think of iconoclasm not as a negative act, but rather as an act of creation that we should think of as part of an aesthetic regime. Conversely I was trying my hardest to get them to think of preservation as an act of violence (a view articulated by Appadurai). Granted, this is a very difficult position to take, but it struck me that not a one of my students could even imagine these possibilities. This of course was not their fault, but my own, as I wasn’t able to really flesh out my argument in a convincing way.

In any case, while professor Flood was delivering his lecture, I couldn’t help but think of the only valorized example of destruction that I could pull from my limited memory—Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning” — in which erasure is an act of abstraction/creation. In this case abstraction—being the valorized visual language of modernity signifies the very height of ‘enlightened’ thinking. This piece very powerfully announces itself as an intellectual work.  Here, Rauschenberg attempts to criticize art as commodity fetish, but he utterly fails in this respect as his erasure is today an incredibly valuable relic, or icon as it were. It would be really interesting to find out how much it is insured for. In any case, Flood provokes us to think of the Bamiyan Buddha within the same epistemic frame as the de Kooning—not the frame of an “eternal or recurring medievalism” but as a criticism of a fetishized and commodified object. That is to say the Buddhas don’t exist only as relics of a distant and historical time, but also operate in the globalized present—in the form of widely circulated images—a currency that illustrates the relationship between cultural and financial capital and of tourism dollars that might have been. These forms of currency  allow us to view that part of the world as collectively ‘ours’. Flood stops short of condoning the Taliban’s actions, but still he makes us think. He doesn’t use the de Kooning cum Rauschenberg to illustrate his point (which he mentioned to me, after his lecture was an example that he usually turns to), instead he offers what I think is in the end a far more poignant example. Flood recounts the vandalism in 1914 of the Rokeby Venus by suffragette Mary Richardson, who slashed Velázquez’s masterpiece 9 times with a meat cleaver in order to protest the arrest of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. In the words of Richardson:

 “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.”

Venus

Indeed, Ms. Richardson has a point, a very sharp one indeed (ahem). She was sentenced to six months in prison, the maximum sentence one could receive for vandalizing an artwork. The painting as photographed above is far more affecting than the painting in its repaired state. Annoyingly I found out that Mary Richardson was a fascist, the head in fact of the women’s section of the BUF (British Union of Fascists). Apparently many of the early British suffragettes turned to fascism. That doesn’t however—at least for me—change the validity of her point. At least Emma Pankhurst, to whom the vandalism is dedicated has a solid legacy to lean on…

But to turn again to UNESCO and the violence of preservation… When listening to Barry, I was thinking about how ironic it was that the Qutb complex just recently received UNESCO World Heritage status, considering the fact that the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was one of the motivating events behind UNESCO’s ‘protective’ activities. It is ironic because if anything it can be called an ‘iconic’ example of iconoclasm, the mosque at the Qutb complex would be it.

Smith’s Folly: The British Crown on the Qutb

March 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

The British Crown on the Qutb

Barry Flood described it as “Strawberry Hill Gothic” it is elsewhere described as a Bengali style chhatri… though honestly it looks more like a Rajasthani chhatri, but what do I know? Funnily enough it could be any of the above, or conversely none of the above—the Gothic having been influenced by ‘Moorish’ or ‘Saracenic’ architecture in the first place and the British Indo-Saracenic being an ill defined ‘style’ that combined elements of Classical, Gothic and South Asian architecture. That is to say it would be difficult to describe it whether you attributed the style to an academically correct interpretation of the British Gothic—a style that had travelled steadily through time and space, slowly accruing  influence and finally appearing as ‘custom’ in the British Isles OR if you described it as a Soane-ish syncretism (a mish mash of architectural styles pulled together from Britain’s expansive and diverse empire). In any case the Smith folly was seen by many as a distasteful addition to the Qutb Minar, which after its completion by Feroz Shah in the 14th century suffered a bunch of damage as the result of lightning strikes and a strong earthquake in 1803. The British Raj, unhappy with the appearance of an unfinished Minar commissioned Major Robert Smith (architect of Kashmiri Gate and St. John’s Church) to design a new topper—which he referred to as a ‘conjectural restoration’. It was from the get go a controversial design, and on account of its apparent distastefulness  it was removed by Lord Hardinge in 1832. Today the Qutb is topped by a lightning rod (which absorbs potential damage by lighting to the Minar itself).

This inability to trace the architectural provenance of Smith’s funny toppper weirdly enough reminded me of Reyner Banham’s “New Brutalism” article that he wrote for the Architectural Review in December of 1955.

Introduce an observer into any field of forces, influences or communications and that field becomes distorted. It is common opinion that Das Kapital has played old harry with capitalism, so that Marxists can hardly recognize it when they see it, and the wide-spread diffusion of Freud’s ideas has wrought such havoc with clinical psychology that any intelligent patient can make a nervous wreck of his analyst. What has been the influence of contemporary architectural historians on the history of contemporary architecture?

They have created the idea of a Modern Movement—this was known even before Basil Taylor took up arms against false historicism—and beyond that they have offered a rough classification of the ‘isms’ which are the thumb-print of Modernity into two main types: One, like Cubism, is a label, a recognition tag, applied by critics and historians to a body of work which appears to have certain consistent principles running through it; the other, like Futurism, is a banner, a slogan, a policy consciously adopted by a group of artists, whatever the apparent similarity or dissimilarity of their products….

Is Art-History to blame for this? Not in any obvious way, but in practically every other way. One cannot begin to study the New Brutalism without realizing how deeply New Art-History (the ‘New,’ by the way, Banham writes elsewhere can be traced to Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism) has bitten into progressive English architectural thought.

Now, when Samuel Swinton Jacob was assembling his Jeypore Portfolio of Architectural Details  between the years of 1890 and 1913 the disciplines of Architecture History and Architecture were not yet separate entities. There were no ‘-isms’ or movements—only styles identified, though maintaining the ‘purity’ of those styles never seemed to be a concern—the details in the portfolio were never presented as organic or harmonic wholes but as a collection of interchangeable parts. And perhaps, excepting the fact that the Portfolio took advantage of modern reproduction techniques architectural ‘composition’ has always carried on in this manner… only appearing as organic wholes because they are, in fact whole. ANYHOW the Portfolio wasn’t a means of studying for its own sake, but rather assembled as a sourcebook for new architecture. That is to say we can’t speak of ‘influence’ here because the disciplines at this point were one and the same. Jacob’s architectural work was the direct result of his academic interests just as it was for Julien Guadet, though Guadet’s ‘rational’ systematization of architectural principles  in his Eléments et Théories de l’Architecture would be totally other to Jacob’s sourcebook for architectural assemblage.  My larger point is… HOW do we read a building… now that history’s caught up with production… now that we live within a moment of superior historical consciousness (I would take ‘superior’ very lightly here)??? Why do origins, provenances, epistemes matter in this context?

The Heritage Industry

March 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

A recent article published in the Hindu and a comment by Kavita Singh, who teaches at JNU got me thinking about conservation, restoration, ‘heritage’, and tourism in India.

The Mason’s Hand: Iconoclasm & the Spolia at the Qutb complex

March 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

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Owen and I had a wonderful morning with Barry Flood (IFA) & Sunil Kumar (DU)—two of the foremost experts on the Qutb. Kavita Singh (JNU) came along on the tour and had some very insightful comments and questions. It was an amazing day, I learned so much about the whole complex. One of the things that makes the Qutb so special is that it is truly an architecture of conquest—constructed out of the ruins of at least 27 Hindu and Jain temples. Some descriptions claim that there were some columns that were actually ‘placed’ in-situ… though I doubt that that is actually the case. The galleries surrounding the main courtyard (what was the original mosque) is supported by frankenstein columns composed out of parts of Hindu spolia—capitals and bases and shafts are placed in random order… though there was was always a capital on top and a base at the bottom. I can’t even begin to imagine what the masons had to do to make sure each of the columns were all the exact same height.

Anyway, one of the fascinating things that Barry pointed out yesterday morning was some evidence of the mason’s  hand—found not in the elaborate and remarkably uniform vegetal and calligraphic carvings of the new masonry on the impressive sandstone screen on the West side of the complex (West is the direction of prayer in India, which lies East of Mecca). This evidence lay not in acts of creation, but in acts of destruction. Above are two photos of two defaced pairs of caryatids. The defacement of the caryatids on the spolia were each destroyed in different ways. Some faces were either violently chipped off as in the capital above, or carefully chiseled off as in the capital below. That is to say… there was some directive to destroy evidence of the anthropomorphic, there however weren’t directions on how to do it. This is very different from the ‘directions’ given to the masons who attempted to erase evidence of their hands in order to create the astonishingly beautiful unity of the sandstone ashlar (rubble fill) mihrab and the screens that make up the Western wall. Barry and most other experts on the subject assume that many if not most of the masons  that built this screen covered in ‘Islamic’ motifs were Hindu, and thus unable to read the calligraphy they were carving into the stones . This decorative unity was achieved, no doubt by some sort of mathematical process of scaling up . Thus, the Hindu carvers didn’t need to understand what they were carving. This is, by the way still a contested point, as it is possible that Qutbu-d-Din Aibak imported masons along with him when he came charging in from Ghazni. Anyway the whole complex, but particularly that space contains this incredible dialog between the pullulating variety of the galleries of spolia on the North, East and South sides of the mosque and the organic and geometric patterns carved into the screen on the West.

Interestingly enough, Barry’s inquisitive eyes helped me to see new things as well. Behind the Western screen there is another gallery, which might be a part of a temple that existed on the site. Here there were some of the more carefully defaced caryatids, next to some clearly newer capitals, that take on a sort of form that looks not unlike an abstracted version of the defaced capital. I snapped a photo of this below, though it’s difficult to see because of the water damage on the defaced caryatid.

Capitals

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Chandigarh

March 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Met up with Thomas Kosbau of ORE & Eric Bunge of NArchitects to visit Chandigarh. I’ll write more about this soon. It was awesome… and the students were especially great, but sadly didn’t get to see the Assembly Hall or the tower of shadows as congress was in session.

Many parts of Chandigarh are in a state of decay—as evidenced by the strangely poetic assemblage of trash in the last photo (on the roof of the Secretariat). By the time that Corbusier began to design Chandigarh’s capitol complex he was already considering what his buildings would look like in perpetuity, having fully embraced béton brut (unfinished concrete). Having already witnessed the effects of weather on his earlier rendered work, Corbusier realized before Nikolaus Pevsner’s critique that white would not be the color of modernism. See Pevsner “Time and Le Corbusier” in Architectural Review, March 1959, p. 159-165.

 

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