Monthly Archives: May 2012

Gabion Gazing

Admittedly, I have a fascination for gabion baskets. Can’t explain it, but there it is. There is something so arslocii about them. It is the unlikely pairing of a rectangular cage and collected rocks, used mostly for retaining-wall structures or anti-erosion control, and also for enabling water runoff to occur more naturally around manmade obstructions. And, yes, all those engineering issues need solutions – but amazingly, here is a visually interesting one.

So. back to the arslocii bit: this sometimes artful arrangement of metal grid in geometric skeletal form filled with natural, rounded stones; the container holds the shape revealing the shapes within. Caged nature is not what I see but rather nature being put on display. Whatever the meaning, the objects are both found and created, natural and unnatural.

I started seeing these alongside roadways cut through mountains. I am opposed to the cuts made but I am cheered by the striking appearance of minimal-meets-environmental artforms. I have also spied them used as barriers on misengineered highway projects that dead-end abruptly – many of those have been hit and “contoured” in unusual ways. Mostly I have seen them stacked, pyramid-style, like a Sol Lewitt sculpture, only filled-in with an Andy Goldsworthy structure.

Gabions were used in medieval times for military fortifications; they were cylindrical wicker woven cages that were filled with dirt, perhaps similar today to cellular confinement systems or geocells, used to control erosion and stabilize soil. 

The metal version of the sack gabion was invented in 1893 in Italy by the Maccaferri family to repair a dam destroyed by flooding. The family then patented the box-type gabion that is made today. These mass-produced berms have variety to them because the basket frames vary in material: either rigid re-bar or cyclone fence caging. And the fillings can vary by shape, size, color – river stones are particularly nice.

As another side to this affinity, I am also attuned to anything gabion-like. This remarkable fence, a clever and artful combination of metal grid and cross-section slices of trees is put together just like the outer layer of a gabion, except that it is linear as opposed to solid, and it moves like an extended folding screen through the landscape.

And, just as wonderful are these extremely clever and referential “columns” that were used as sculptural elements for a garden-design theme at the Philadelphia Flower Show by Temple University Ambler campus’ horticulture department. Not only are they natural, they are fanciful and beautiful – and such variety! But, see how they encompass the original idea of portable protection during military maneuvers, their references to structural gabions and, also, the limitless use of textures and colors of natural materials. Cool, indeed.

Apparently, I am not alone when it comes to gabions and their potential for design statements. Next time you find yourself on a more-recently-engineered highway, look for them along the roadside. They can be an unexpected glimpse of arslocii in the fast lane.


Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Life, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Random

Up Against the Wall

What sort of ego – or utter lack of it – causes someone to create a haunting bit of art and not sign it, or give any indication as to who made it? And what sort of reticence, or shyness, or insecurity – or, perhaps, even contempt – would make one create a public space, redolent of an irresistible and memorable placeness, that nearly everybody cannot find and few will see?

As all eyes in this city (and, it seems, of the entire art world) are on the reopening in new digs of the renowned and yet famously odd Barnes Foundation, and as most articles written about the event mention the collection’s idiosyncratically masterpiece-festooned walls (the inestimable pieces displayed as if merely web-page thumbnails) – as this is going on, our minds wandered to a quieter place, just across town, where other walls make their own odd magic, outdoors and mostly, as good sleight of hand always is, out of sight.

It is down an alleyway that you must go, or, more likely, stumble upon, accidentally – a cobblestoned byway you would probably not even think to walk down as you ambled near the Philadelphia waterfront. And, even if you did happen to let chance and curiosity rule your wandering, sans tourist map, if you didn’t happen to turn and look in the right direction at the right time, or were distracted by a couple of cute Colonial-era buildings or their facelifted and gentrified neighbors, you could easily miss this odd and wondrous spot, which we spotlighted (ALERT: shameless promotion ahead) in our book Hip and Hidden Philadelphia.

What you will see – if you are lucky – and resembling a found-object assemblage, is part of a complex of old commercial buildings dating back to 1759 and continuously occupied by a metal manufacturer/distributor for three centuries until some of the buildings became residences and artists studios, in 1986. But, during that time – possibly in the 1960s and ‘70s – someone looked at this inset area, this car-park opening begging to be a courtyard, and had a vision as to how to make a space into a place. He or she began applying stone and terra cotta and cast concrete reliefs & sculptural decorative pieces all over the bare, stuccoed facade – architectural design elements rescued from demolished office and theater buildings around town and attached there, with no knowable philosophy or reason behind it except a pure attempt at creating a placeness-filled mews, redolent of history and misty-past endeavors. The space feels as if you’ve come upon, or, after passing through some time-travel portal, awakened in an ancient amphitheater, or place of the gods, and that yours will not be the only surprise visitation. Though in no way museum-like, it has something about it – a something of having been saved, yet of something appropriated and removed – of the feel that one experiences in the presence of the Elgin Marbles. 

So many of the applied items look to be about music and/or theater; they could be (or we would like to imagine them being) relics and remnants, heroic or celebratory portraits of the now-unknown performers of their day (whatever or whenever that “day” might have been, if indeed there was ever such a what or when), or the deities overseeing creative invention among humans. There are also quite a few lion heads, giving the place an aura of power, and of kings. Mixed among the faces are moldings, wall caps, and many other figurative pieces  – the effect being like entering an old mask shop that has amassed an antique collection of bygone importance. It is, we imagine, what it must have been like to be the first modern archeologists to uncover Pompeii.

But this is the vision of someone who must have known that this would not be seen by many, but who felt compelled to do this, and in the process created a placeness unique to this city, a cloistered place, knowing but compelled by instinct, captivating for its purity of purpose and its gift to the unsuspecting.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, good walls make good arslocii.

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Parking Place

Old cities are being suffocated by cars. And I am not just talking about the huge volume of traffic flow. When a city such as ours – built in the 18th century for horses and carriages, and which then expanded, in the 19th century, with modern public conveyances like trolleys, an elevated line, subway and trains – has its 21st-century residents hell-bent on having a four-wheeled vehicle per capita … well, where are they all supposed to go? America is big, but cities have limits. Especially old cities. For a time, in the 20th century in this city, there was a belief that the resident of each house had an unofficial ownership of the space right in front of his/her property, for the purpose of parking. At that time, there was usually just one car per household. Now, it is per adult.

Certainly, for an 18th-century rowhouse, nothing but a Smart car would fit across its breadth. But, even for 19th-century rowhouses, most cars are longer than the distance between party walls. And if you put four to six people of driving age in one rowhouse … well, their four to six cars will take up the entire block. It is a mathematical thing and a spatial thing. And, usually, a rental thing.

What’s a neighborhood to do, especially those permanent residents who leave for work and return in the evening to find no parking spaces on their entire block, possibly for several blocks? Students, sometimes six to a house, have had their vehicles parked most of the day, since they have only one class to go to, and a big SUV to get them to and from it. The scarcity of street parking was making it difficult for homeowners to live here, the curbside space was bursting at the seams. Finally, someone in our neighborhood did something about it: permit parking.

Recently, I awoke to the sound of drilling, and within an hour or two, there was a fence-post-like array of street signage up and down our three contiguous blocks, on the curb-parking side. “2 HR Parking 8 am – 6:30 pm, Mon thru Fri, Except Permit Parking 15.” Additionally, “No Stopping Anytime” signs were placed at a certain distance from the corners. This is a so-full-up area that every conceivable space is used, including sidewalks, if they are not cordoned off in some manner. I look out my windows now, and through the trees I view full-frontal red, white and green signs. And they are large. The funny thing is, though, that most of the difficult parking is at night, not between 8 am and 6:30 pm. But maybe the idea is that the hour or so at the tail end of the “controlled time” is enough to give the permanent residents a chance at a space, if they move quickly. Although, if someone was clever, they could begin parking their non-permitted car at 4:30 pm and be good to go for the night.

My straight-across-the-street neighbor came home one night, after the signs were installed, and said, “Yippee, I can park right in front of my house again!” I asked if he had obtained a permit and he said that he had, and that it cost only $35. Many of the students renting on our street have out-of-state plates and I wonder if they can obtain a permit. Maybe that is the point. Otherwise, it is just a small reminder that they don’t control these blocks. To me, this is more of the theater of city life. I and a few of the residents on our side of the street have driveways – a luxury item in these mean streets. So, the advent of permit parking doesn’t affect us one way or the other. Obviously, it pissed off a number of residents enough to make them happy to pay for the likelihood of a parking space.

Suddenly, a few months into this, someone came out and changed the signs to, “2 HR Parking, 7 pm – 7 am, Mon thru Sun.” Obviously somebody figured out the uselessness of the original timeframe.

I can’t say I enjoy looking at all the signage, nor do I enjoy looking at all the cars lined up nose to butt with about four inches between, resembling metallic sausage links. From space, the parked cars solidly lining the steep hilly streets must look like multicolored guardrails, or some sort of low-cost version of housing.

So, where is the placeness of neighborhoods if they become parking lots? You might think that any new housing that appears would have to confront and solve the problem of parking, or, at least, not contribute to it. Somehow on our street, three new houses were built on a lot big enough for one and, yes, they have garages. Unfortunately, the garages are not big enough for the new owners’ cars. So the result is that there are now seven additional cars seeking spaces. And the space required for the seven cars is, by measurement, greater than the space that the three houses inhabit. And so it goes. 

Where does it end? In New York City there are these parking elevators that stack cars up several stories high in a confined area, maximizing air-space parking on a small footprint of land. Also in NYC, there are high-end apartment buildings with indoor parking – right on your own floor! Here’s a thought: When the cities get maxed out, hire big-wheeler auto-transport trucks to carry muliple vehicles around and around, circling through the city streets until they are called or texted to bring the car to your door. A new kind of carryout. The streets would be clear but the diesel fumes would kill everyone, so there would be no need for cars anymore. And no need for permit parking in residential neighborhoods – since there would be no residents.

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The Harmonious Breath

We all have experienced moments, in locations, at events that have happily converged, leaving a profound effect on our consciousness. These aren’t usually the predictable sorts, such as rote observances; the calendar-year celebrations that are repeated rituals, touchstones that reinforce who we are and who we connect with. What I am talking about are the more unexpected happenings that surprise us, sometimes rendering us breathless. And leaving us desirous of them happening again.

These confluences, these special combinations of space and time – a place, a state of mind, the weather, nature and, sometimes, dollops of human-generated creativity – are brought together as momentary and ephemeral circumstances that can cause us to glimpse something out of the ordinary, pressing our noses to the glass between us and another realm of well-being. That’s what makes them so special. Really unduplicatable. And perfect. Instances like these can come out of nowhere or can occur within the context of a planned circumstance, but are still unpredictable things – “aha” moments that are surprising in their impact, unforeseen. We do not control these occurrences. We yearn for them but can’t generate them. We are lucky if we recognize them. And they can’t be recreated because, mostly, they are not of our making.

In this blog, we try to describe such instances of awareness, openness, being in the moment; e.g., sunlight glancing off wind-borne glitter, the meaningful placement of art in nature, magical discoveries of abandoned places, the interaction of architecture and its site, sounds that transport us to another place or keep us stupefied in this one. Our attempt is to be in tune with all that surrounds us. Open to the possibilities. Looking for the moments.

So, when the potential for such a convergence presents itself, we try to be there so that we are in a place of possibility. This time it was in a place that is full of seekers – Kripalu, a center for yoga and integrative health, nestled into a majestic site within the Berkshires. The workshop that spoke to us was “Zen and the Art of Harmonica Yoga,” and it proved to be an exhilarating mix of mindfulness, breath work and music. Imagining that this could be a recipe for placeness, we were hopeful.

Most of us don’t breathe – not well anyway – either because of vanity (holding in those abs), or fear, or hesitation, or the inhibitory power of stress. And, anyway, why would we want to breathe deeply in most of the environments we inhabit? It can be counter-productive. The mindfulness was meant to be used as a coping strategy, learning to be aware of our indicator lights that trigger anger and stress, and being able to control them, mostly with our breathing and, ultimately, by creating sound and music.

So, these elements of breathing and mindfulness can be coalesced into the act of  playing the harmonica – a seemingly small creation in the pantheon of musical instruments: the mouth harp. The breaths can be a little heady, the sounds can be soft and soothing, or bluesy-raspy. You can find your inner rhythm and clear your mind. Oxygenation and notes produced. Sometimes you become aware of your own voice. Other times you feel the combined energy of playing with others, a cacophony of breaths made resounding. In, out, in, out, in, out, in. I hear the beats in my head, the sounds in my ears, a quickening pulse, beautiful noise. Long in-breath, I feel dizzy. I am not used to this quantity of oxygen in my lungs. The other time I felt this way was when I went with a few people to an oxygen bar – I left floating. But that was delivered via a plastic tube; this is self-generated. Headier stuff.

I am not even all that good at harmonica playing, but I am getting better at breathing. I am in the moment, thinking about a moment past, of my first breath – the one that brought me consciousness. But this time it is different because I am aware of it and I can savor it. This time, this breath is not just reflex or survival instinct; it is spiritual, cosmic, poetic. In this setting, it is communal, contemplative, soulful … and necessary. It is experiential. That’s me floating overhead, playing notes, making sounds that come from my diaphragm. The harmonious place of life and sound. The zen and art of harmonica yoga. Arslocii.

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Ignorance is Bliss

We who wish to make art, many of us, and who are serious about it and dedicated to the dream, have come at it from essentially the same direction – a direction shaped and codified through the centuries, ever since humans began creating representations of things, or making things that exceeded mere functionality and displayed an “added value” of some sort that appealed to something greater than utility. That direction was either a formal or a catch-as-catch-can student or apprentice training, during which one learned how to perform one’s task, to have the basics drummed into him, then to do the work over and over until one attained a certain mastery of skills. If one wanted to be a painter, say, it would include the grunt tasks of mixing paints and cleaning brushes and stretching canvases, and acquiring a second-nature knowledge of tools and how they are best used, and the nature and properties of mediums to be painted with and on, and so much more. If one were to be a writer, the novice would need to know grammar, and punctuation, and have a good vocabulary, and know how to put words together, and then paragraphs, and how to get as close as possible to putting down on paper what is in your head, and to do so in your own voice. Beyond the mechanical skills, one also needed to be taught the ineffable wisdoms – of perspective, proportion, color, metaphor, assonance, consonance, repetition, rhythm, symmetry, syncopation, harmony, juxtaposition, and so on – all these to modify and enhance and, in the hands of good craftsmen, to personalize.

But the problem with becoming knowledgeable, to the point that these abilities and acquired bits of information become as much a part of your life as breathing, is that too many get mired there, stuck in that place of skill and knowing. For them, the knowing is sufficient – more than sufficient: the knowing, and the doing resulting in replicable, polished, admirable and talented end-products, were the endpoints, the pinnacle. That to have it down is to have “made it.” For many, this is enough, this is the point, like breaking a horse so that it will respond to your slightest knee prompt. And one can make a fine living, and receive the accolades of fans, and also experience some self-satisfaction, by arriving at this level of doing – the attainment of the level of craftsman, of tradesman, of technician.

But, in some sort of ironic twist, to be an artist, a true artist, one must know all that needs to be known about how to do what one does … and then one must venture into areas where one does not know anything, and, by using the skills now inherent in him, must wade into the unknown and grasp it.

This is most perfectly articulated, in a recent documentary about Charles and Ray Eames, by Richard Saul Wurman. In speaking about the multifaceted achievements of Charles Eames – from chair design to filmmaking to exhibition design – and how, in a sense, he might be considered the epitome of a true artist, Wurman said: “You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire. [Eames] was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject, and the journey of him not knowing to knowing was his work.”

Nice work if you can get it.

To know every step, no matter how skillfully you stroll, is to follow paths and create ruts. To start with the knowledge of how to walk, then to set off in a way that will challenge you to overcome your ignorance, redefine your way of walking to suit the terrain, and arrive at a place that the journey compelled you to find – that is the making of art.

The place where art resides is the place furnished with your knowledge but fueled by your not knowing and your wanting to learn, to do not what is merely acceptable but creatively unexpected, and yet inevitable, to embrace the challenge even if you have never met that challenge before, and to use the old to form the new, and use the new to remake yourself. The outcome will not always be successful – Eames had his failures, and his reliance on the chair that he helped design in many ways limited him (though financially supported him) – but, then, it needn’t be. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Art is not the place you are now, but the next one. You get to it with a sense of direction but no map. And where you end up is where you were meant to be.

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