Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The great divide

Conversing with a New York taxi driver is rare and the long, friendly talk we had with a female driver was a first. It was remarkable enough for the Celt to mention this – not like him to state the obvious – for, it turns out, there are only 150 female taxi drivers out of 40,000 in New York city. She heard our accents, we heard hers (native New Yorker) and we chatted comfortably until we got to our Midtown hotel. This is what I love – soundbites, as it were, of people, often at work, going about their lives – no grandstanding politicians or priests for me. The Celt tells me I'll talk to anyone, any time, about anything, and, seemingly, there's a hierarchy: dogs; babies; waiters; bartenders; taxi drivers, and the poor person sitting next to me wherever I might be. Who knew?

In the hangar-like waiting room of the New York City Clerk's Office last week I talked a little with a partially-limbed man (a veteran, I think, though I did not ask) in a wheelchair waiting with his handsome partner to get married. The twinkle in his eye is what drew me to him – a twinkle, flirtatious and unexpected, that carried all the happiness he felt and which reflected mine, for I too was getting married to my own handsome man.

Sitting next to us was a ninety-one-year-old man waiting for the license to marry his fifty-four-year-old partner (together twenty years or more), making acerbic comments, in an accent that reminded me of old recordings of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, about Associate Justice Scalia. And as I listened to his patrician tones and looked around at the combinations, gay and straight, it occurred to me again that love is not blind, for all we would believe it so. No respecter of persons, Eros, and not for nothing did the Greeks portray the godlet as a capricious youth.

I was back in Atlanta, last Friday, congratulating our waiter on his newly-married status, with the Celt at my side on the banquette, his Negroni to hand. With us was my prof, patiently sipping her G&T, waiting to give us her gift (a fifty-year-old, white and blue, Meissen dish). She nodded as a very short skirt momentarily loomed tableside, and asked the Celt if she'd ever told him about when the mini-skirt first arrived in Atlanta. The waiter moved on and I listened up. Seemingly, when the mini-skirt made its Atlanta debut, it was not universally accepted as a garment a decent woman might wear. Thus one lunchtime at Rich's department store, one lady was heard to remark to her friend when a mini-skirt came into view "Oh, well. It at least covers the Great Divide."

There were many Great Divides that day in the City Clerk's waiting room – and not just those barely hidden by Spandex. A poor man's dollar, if you'll overlook a phrase from A Coalminer's Daughter, was much in evidence, and I had a lot of time to think how applicable it is in interior design – it is something I'd like to return to in future posts about timelessness.

The first book, Great Houses of London, is a handsome book and looks well on the coffee table – or on the knee when, early on those newly-married mornings, clutching a coffee cup, one realizes one has acquired not only a husband and new responsibilities, but also, officially, a mother-in-law with excellent taste in books – plus friends with a stated desire to organize a "bridal" shower. an OMG moment, if ever there was one.

".... Whether designing Sting’s London townhouse or residences for power brokers and social leaders in New York City, Palm Beach, or the Hamptons, Shelton and Mindel invoke their passion for constructing unified environments, where the elements of design and construction become more than the sum of their parts—they become comprehensive works of art. Shelton and Mindel’s luminous aesthetic is the centerpiece of this monograph. With stunning photography of their most important residential projects, each project delves deep into the modernist roots and philosophy of this exceptional design duo, and in turn the pinnacle of architecture and design today."

Shelton, Mindel &Associates: Architecture and Design is one of those books I bought in a "must-have" moment and, despite it being an impulsive purchase, I remain glad I did. In the Amazon blurb above the most telling phrase to me is "luminous aesthetic" – for light enlivens every page. On the other hand, there is a faded-in-the-sun look to many of the rooms but the powerful integration of architecture, space and light cannot be denied. Not a coffee table book, but it does look splendid on a Barcelona table.

The third book, not a recommendation as I have not yet bought it or read it in depth, intrigues me not so much for the aesthetic but more for its connection with thoughts and reactions I've had over the past years about the constant harping on people like Chanel, Wallis Windsor and her husband, Diana Miftord, et al without ever mentioning the connections to fascist regimes. Those bloggers might argue that it doesn't matter, that noone cares and they may well be right. Nonetheless, for a number of us there are no grey areas, the matter is black and white.

Could I call what I want to write a philosophical rumination on art and politics, good and evil as does the blurb below about this book? Certainly, but not necessarily so grandiloquently.

Albert Speer: Architecture 1932-1942 

"Architect Léon Krier asks, “Can a war criminal be a great artist?” Speer, Adolf Hitler's architect of choice, happens to be responsible for one of the boldest architectural and urban oeuvres of modern times.

First published in 1985 to an acute and critical reception, Albert Speer: Architecture 1932-1942 is a lucid, wide-ranging study of an important neoclassical architect. Yet is is simultaneously much more: a philosophical rumination on art and politics, good and evil. With aid from a new introduction by influential American architect Robert A. M. Stern, Krier candidly confronts the great difficulty of disentangling the architecture and urbanism of Albert Speer from its political intentions.

Krier bases his study on interviews with Speer just before his death. The projects presented center on his plan for Berlin, an unprecedented modernization of the city intended to be the capital of Europe."

Oh, I really didn't think I'd enjoy myself despite but the concert by these talented musicians was one of the best evenings of my life. 


  1. Very generous flush of comment. I do not find it possible to "disentangle" grandiosity from Speer's extreme vulgarities of scale and imperviousness to proportion. For this appreciation, no resort is necessary to whatever politics he may have imbibed, or to his simultaneous careerism on the back of genocidal slave labor. The problem is not one of what Speer thought, or (for this purpose) what he wrought of the world in his daily life. The problem is his deformity as an architect. The book expands his indictment into lesser orders of his conduct, but no revisionism can redeem even them.

    Hurray to "godlet," by the way.

    1. Laurent, thank you.

      I have ordered the Speer book mainly because I want to read what Léon Krier has to say and to evaluate the architecture for myself .... and what a swamp this all is.

    2. I missed that you were susceptible to that blurb, and I wouldn't have guessed that you had not evaluated that architecture - in either case, I would not have remarked.

  2. Replies
    1. donna baker, thank you.

      There'll be more in connection with this subject.

  3. " Nonetheless, for a number of us there are no grey areas, the matter is black and white."

    Now I know why I love your writing so much. It is filled with conviction. Those who look the other way have either never understood history, perhaps as we now so often see in our government run schools, have never been taught history or perhaps so young that they really don't care. Either way, I see Coco quoted so often on design blogs that you would think she was design's Oracle of Delphi.
    As to the brooding Duke and his Common wife whose "great divide" was traversed by many, I can only opine that he did your countrymen a supreme favor by abdicating, and for that I am sure you are eternally grateful.

    1. Anonymous, thank you.

      I wrote a post a long time ago about the house "Temple de Gloire" Diana Mitford lived in but decided not to post. I shall revisit it.

      As to the abdication – yes, you are right. The best thing he did for the country was to allow his brother to take the throne and after the King, the present queen.

    2. I have to admit that I was rather taken in by a recent blog post on Diana and the Temple de Gloire until the paragraph that stated she had been wed at Joseph Goebbels' house. That unfortunate and yet enlightening bit of information rather shut down my interest to read further. That's not to say that the author made a mistake in the revelation, but it hit a nerve with me that left me bereft of curiosity to read further.

  4. Always love to hear a well-informed critique of books on my ever expanding amazon wish list. Unfortunately these are 3 books that I'll want to keep on the list (and on my shelves at some point).
    Thank you as well for the music recommendation, I'm always looking for something new as I'm afraid I find myself listening to the same things over and over again while working at my desk or relaxing at home.

    1. ArchitectDesign, thank you.

      If I had to choose one of the three it would be the Shelton-Mindel book. Great Houses of London is a much-appreciated gift from my mother-in-law and the one about Speer is more complicated to explain why I want it.

      I hope you're doing well.

  5. Thanks for the undercover tip about Caravan Palace. Their music and dancing is ab fab!!! I must have "Panic" to listen to. Definitely music to get your toe tapping.

  6. Fifteen years ago, when (well, to me, at least) eBay was new, my number-one search was for photographs of rooms: not reproductions of photos of rooms from magazines (although I collected those too, especially rooms from the 1920s through the 1940s) but actual photographs, on the theory that the history of interiors covers a lot more territory than those relatively few projects that ever made it past the basilisk eye of NYC editors. Flared-out Box Brownie sepia snaps of farmhouse kitchens & Kodachrome slides of cocktail parties in Art Deco houses in Peoria went for nothing on eBay, and as primary source materials, they filled in the gaps missing from published design history.

    Anyway, I was always looking for pictures, and the bigger the picture, the better it was. One day, in maybe 1998 or 1999, my regular search started turning up deluxe, large-format prints of handsome Stripped-Classic rooms, the kind of rooms--corridors, stairways, dining rooms, grand salons--that Paul Cret or Walter Dorwin Teague might have done in the years just before the NY World's Fair. That, at least was my initial assumption, since most of the items didn't come with much description. Not that they needed much: the big rooms, wherever they were--an ocean liner? a city hall?--were gorgeous.

    But as the descriptions began getting longer and more detailed--they had started out vague, almost coy--I put the pieces together: all this stuff was loot, contraband--WWII booty--liberated, probably, in the last days of the war, and the photos for sale on eBay (along with, when I looked at the seller's other items--paperweights, lamp bases, small sculptures, medals, & in at least one lot, white velvet yardage embroidered with red swastikas) must have been smuggled out of the bomb-damaged Nazi headquarters and hidden away in somebody's attic for half a century.


  7. ...continued

    Unlike the snapshots of farmhouse kitchens on which I was often the only bidder, the final stop before the dump, these oversized, beautifully printed & mounted photos were going for big bucks, but still, considering their historic value, for much less than they might have. I would have liked to have a few of the photographs for reference--objectively speaking, the spaces were impressive & elegant--but with their sooty edges and water stains, they still seemed to me to carry the stink of their dark origins, and I ended up not bidding on any of them after all. But I would have lost out on them anyway, because suddenly, the bidding took off and the things went for astronomical amounts, and probably not to people like me, just looking for visual references, or to someplace like the Library of Congress--and I assumed a place like that would have people constantly sifting through the dross on eBay for treasures--but to collectors (I inferred) with much a darker interest than my own. I could be wrong, of course, about the other bidders' suspected motives, but even though I didn't bid on any of the pieces, I felt a little bit tainted myself, for having even thought about it.

    And then, suddenly, totally, all that stuff disappeared off eBay, not in the way that it would have had it had all been sold off, but as though it had all been yanked off the table--and the table itself gotten rid of. I couldn't even find any record of this stuff in eBay's "Sold" listings, when, after telling somebody else about it, I was challenged to provide some proof of it all. It simply wasn't there anymore. I was accused of making things up, or perhaps, more generously, of imagining it. I still don't know the whole story.

    Anyway, in the last few months, I've seen some vintage views of some of those rooms online, but they're scanned from halftone plates from regular design books of the period, not from individually-mounted photos out of water-stained vellum portfolios. The former are simple visual artifacts, the latter, some sort of beautiful-but-ghastly souvenir. And I always wonder: who's wearing white gloves as he gently--reverently--handles those precious relics today? Could we spot him if we saw him?