serveimageI’ve been watching Civilisation, the 1969 BBC television series, on YouTube. It’s a refreshing experience, and a reminder of how much the documentary film form has been influenced—I almost wrote infected—by Ken Burns. Instead of a revolving door of talking “expert” heads Civilisation makes do with a single presenter. There are no voice-overs pushing a narrative along, no actors dramatizing, no staged sequences, instead we have the wise (and rather dapper) Kenneth Clark to guide us. The 13-part series is subtitled “A Personal View,” and that is one of its strengths. Clark, an art historian, wrote as well as narrated, and the text is frankly opinionated, without an attempt at even-handedness or objectivity—like the best art criticism. (Civilisation set the stage for a series of similar single point-of-view documentaries by Alastair Cooke, Jacob Bronowski, Robert Hughes, and John Berger.) The direction, by Michael Gill, is wonderfully slow. There are long sequences without dialogue—although always with contemporaneous music. Instead of jumping from one subject to another the camera lingers, long and lovingly on works of art, so that we have time to contemplate, to absorb, and to think. Refreshing, too, is the absence of the political correctness that has come to characterize so much public television.


serveimageWriting a history of seating raises the problem of nomenclature. Take the couch, for example. The Greeks and the Romans dined on couches, which were really more like beds, which may be why the word derives from the French coucher, to lie down, although to complicate matters the French don’t call a couch a couche, but rather a canapé. (You can use that word in English, if you want to be fancy.) Midwesterners used to call couches davenports, after the Massachusetts company that manufactured them. When I was growing up in Canada, we called a couch a chesterfield, a Britishism which has since gone out of fashion. The term is said to have derived from the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, who commissioned a heavily tufted leather couch in the eighteenth century. Couch or sofa? Sofa is a Turkish word, so is ottoman, although the latter is now commonly used to refer to a footstool. Couch seems to have prevailed; we say “casting couch” and “couch potato,” and psychiatrists have couches, not sofas. Sofas seem to be more domestic, which may be why a couch that converts into a bed is called a sleeper sofa or a sofa bed. Go figure.


serveimageThese days, urban buildings are playing just one penny-whistle tune: glass, glass, glass. It’s as if there were a material shortage and we had run out of everything else. I don’t miss exposed concrete, but what about limestone and brick, terra cotta and granite? But no, architecture has been reduced to one material—even spandrels and soffits are glass. What explains this phenomenon? Well, of course it’s cheap. The engineer figures out the structure, and the architect wraps it in a glass skin. And the helpful glass manufacturers work out the details for you. It’s also easier to design. No more worrying about junctions between materials, no more textures or finishes, no more colors, no more studying shadowing effects. Just wrap it up and it’s ready to go. Nor do you have to worry about energy—all-glass buildings are as green as you want. Houston, Boston, London, Dubai—it doesn’t matter. It used to be that cities had distinctive architectural characters, derived from different materials, different climates, different tastes. No more. It’s just all glass, all the time.


18-hepplewhiteIn connection with the publication of Now I Sit Me Down I’ve been touring around giving talks and readings. A common question from the audience is “What is your favorite chair?” I think that the implied question is often “What is your favorite chair design?” but I prefer to answer it literally. I believe that what makes a chair a “favorite” is not the way it looks, or the notoriety of its designer, but rather what it is used for. For me, and I suspect for many people, a favorite chair is the one you sit in to relax at the end of the day. In my case it’s my reading chair. When writing is done, it’s where I read for pleasure, or sometimes re-read what I’ve written that day. Sitting in my chair I gain a different perspective from when I’m working at my desk. What is my reading chair? It’s a wing chair. Not an antique, but manufactured maybe thirty years ago by Hickory Chair, based on an eighteenth-century model from Tidewater Virginia. It’s not much different than the chair that George Hepplewhite included in his Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (above). That was published in 1788. It’s hard to improve on a good thing.


P1000214I went to see the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. The building isn’t open to the public yet so I could only see the exterior. Yet because of its location on the National Mall this is one building whose exterior appearance is key. It’s the last structure on the north side of the Mall, down the hill from the Washington Monument. From a distance, the museum has a nice scale and an evocative form. The corona shape has always seemed symbolically right to me, recalling both traditional Yoruba tribal art and a Brancusi sculpture. The boxy glass penthouse introduces a mundane element that doesn’t really enhance the corona, but it disappears as you get closer. Close-up, the corona shape turns out to be insubstantial—a metal shroud—which is a bit of a letdown. Moreover, the patterned screen that is meant to recall Charleston and New Orleans ironwork, instead looks like the world’s largest ventilating grille. Its flimsiness is emphasized by the contrast with the handsome stone-clad canopy over the entrance, and the irregular cut-outs that form viewing windows. The skin was originally to be bronze, but when this proved expensive—and extremely heavy—painted aluminum was substituted. Unfortunately, it  sparkles in the sun, and its brass-like finish lacks the gravitas of dark, moody bronze. Indeed, the effect is cheerfully commercial, not what we expect in a national museum. Does bronze-coated aluminum become dull with time like the real thing? I certainly hope so.