Modern life



An article in today’s New York Times on classroom chairs reminded me of my schooldays. As far as I remember, we had wooden desks with a built in bench seats, attached to the floor. The desk-top, usually carved with a chronicle of interesting graffiti, was sometimes hinged with a storage space beneath that we never used. We didn’t used the hole in the top, which was made to hold an ink-well, either. The desks were sturdy and not particularly comfortable—they weren’t intended to be. The Times piece is full of fluff about how different classroom chairs might improve learning, although the author allows that New York City’s Model 114 stacking chair has its defenders. “But is some quarters, the chair and others like it are seen as stubborn holdovers from before the age of ergonomics, when American schools’ main job was to turn out upright citizens, and rote learning was the student’s lot.” Since most people agree that American education has declined precipitously since the Age of Rote Learning, I wonder if a “stubborn holdover” is really so bad.

Boiling Water

Yanagi Tea Kettle 2

Every morning I boil water for making tea or coffee (I alternate). What starts my day is the most perfect kettle I have ever used. It is the work of Sori Yanagi (1915-2011), a Japanese product designer probably best remembered for his molded plywood Butterfly Stool. Yanagi studied architecture, but the kettle is decidedly not architectural—no purist Platonic forms, no postmodern irony, no gimmicky whistles. It is just a kettle: handle, spout, lid. Yet this perfectly balanced and shaped everyday object provides a feeling of well-being every time I use it—or even glance at it. In some ways, the deceptively simple kettle, half a million of which are sold annually in Japan, is a distillation of Yanagi’s design philosophy: he was 79 when he designed it.

The DD Virus

Comcast Center

Last week, after lunch at a bistro on Rittenhouse Square, I dropped in at the Comcast Center to look at the huge video screen—a digital mural—in the lobby. I had written about the screen two years ago, finding it captivating, and since the content regularly changes, I thought it would be fun to see it again. I watched for a while and found my attention wandering. The material seemed less creative, less witty and sophisticated, more predictable. Apart from an interminable clip of close-ups of baseball players in action, the segments seemed shorter, too. Then it dawned on me. The Comcast wall had succumbed to the DD virus. It had been Dumbed Down.


DD is a pernicious modern malady that, sooner or later, seems to affect everything. The New York Times has certainly caught the bug; Arts & Leisure now means less art and more leisure. The PBS News Hour, once challenging with Robert McNeil, Jim Lehrer, and the redoubtable Charlayne Hunter-Gault, has become flabby and predictable. Masterpiece Theater, home to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and “Brideshead Revisited” now broadcasts bromides like “Downton Abbey.” As for architecture, can one really imagine that a Louis Kahn—or a Robert Venturi—would be able to break through today?


Speaking Ill

One should not speak ill of the dead, it is said. Yet in a week fill with encomiums for Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) and Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) it is hard to hold back. When I started listening to jazz, in the late 1950s, the Dave Brubeck Quartet was already famous—or at least as famous as jazz musicians got at that time. I loved Paul Desmond, and Joe Morello could do no wrong (I was a drummer), but I never warmed to Brubeck himself. Me and my friends much preferred Ahmad Jamal, Monk, and Bill Evans.

Nor was I ever an admirer of Oscar Niemeyer. His curvy, rather simplistic one-note architecture never appealed to me. Nor did his authoritarian ideas about city planning. Robert Hughes called the city of Brasilia“a Carioca parody of La Ville Radieuse.” And so it is, a dystopian parody, “an expensive and ugly testimony to the fact that, when men think in terms of abstract space rather than real place, of single rather than multiple meanings, and of political aspirations instead of human needs, they tend to produce miles of jerry-built nowhere.”


Simply Ike

The final review of Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., has been postponed yet again and the project seems more and more likely to be shelved. In a recent letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye, John S. D. Eisenhower, the President’s son, raises an issue that has nothing to do with the quality of Gehry’s design (which I have supported), nor with the over-wrought classical-modernist debate. Why couldn’t the memorial simply be “a green open space with a statue in the middle” he asks? Good question. Ever since the FDR Memorial spread over more than seven acres, memorial sponsors have felt the need to appropriate large sites, and then fill them up with water basins, fountains, figures, walls, and reams of quotations. The lackluster Korean War Memorial occupies over two acres, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial uses three acres, Martin Luther King Jr.’s overblown memorial sits on four acres, and the memorial to World War II consumes no less than seven. John Eisenhower’s suggestion of turning the four acres of the  proposed Eisenhower memorial into a green square with a single statue of the President would reverse this trend. The challenge would be to find a modern sculptor who is up to the task of creating not merely a depiction of the president-general, but a work that captures his somewhat elusive mixture of modesty, shrewdness, and grit. The moving statue of Eleanor Roosevelt by Penelope Jencks in Riverside Park is one model. The memorial to Winston Churchill in Parliament Square in Westminster is another. Ivor Roberts-Jones’s bronze is twelve-feet tall and stands on a plain granite block inscribed with one word—CHURCHILL. The Eisenhower memorial could say simply IKE.