Sunday, November 17, 2019

The function of freedom is to free someone else

This quotation by the late Toni Morrison raises the question: How has architecture freed people? How successful has the freedom of structural expression architects enjoy today (within footprint, building programme, socioeconomic and environmental limitations, of course) been at freeing those it's designed to serve? Architecture encloses people, to be sure; that's its primary function. But can free expression in architectural design free the product's users as well as its creator's imagination?

South Side Turn Verein, Indianapolis, Indiana (1900, Vonnegut & Bohn).
The first step in such an endeavor is, of course, to minimize the walls inside. Free, open, unobstructed space means free use and free arrangement for free movement of people. Like the wide, high, sunny gym at the New York Turn Verein I did gymnastics in as a kid, in a space similar to the 1900 South Side Turn Verein in Indianapolis...

Interior of TWA Terminal, JFK International Airport, New York, 2015.
Photo by Bogframe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
...or the swoops, swirls and soars of the arched, curved, vaulted reception area of Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at New York's JFK International Airport, in its sculptural conveyance of the upward bound of the takeoff and the freedom of flight in the firmament passengers are about to experience, hence their freedom to "roam if you want to, roam around the world," in the words of the B-52's...

Apple Computer Retail Store, Fifth Avenue, New York City. Photo by Ed Uthman, MD, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
...or the glass cube membrane of the Apple Store in New York, where obstruction-free transparency freed users not only from the shadow of walls, the claustrophobia of low ceilings, and the obstruction of columns, but also the influence of...Donald Trump. 

Yes, from 1998 to 2003 our present Prez co-owned with Conseco of Indianapolis the 1968 General Motors building (co-designed by Edward Durell Stone, famous for the Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art) the cube sits on the grounds of. Trump filled in the sunken court there to create a free, open plaza—which may have been one of the few good things he did for this planet, for architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable had castigated the court in her review of the building. However, he also emblazoned his name in big brass letters in two prominent places on the building so it would be crystal-clear who was boss of the block. 

But after Trump relinquished his stranglehold on that structure, Apple reopened the court to let in the sun and surrounds as a skylight to the store, an open invitation to freely peruse its products, and an architectural symbol of how Apple software frees us to explore the world without flying TWA.

Pierce Boston, 188 Brookline Ave., Fenway, Boston.
Photo by LittleT889, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In (or on) the open pool court at the crown of Pierce Boston in the Fenway, the sky is the ceiling, the sun is the lighting, and the windowed walls are the buffers. Here, freedom in design bridges the gap between inside and outside most thoroughly to create an inoutside, an outinside, or a Third Dimension that frees us from convention...

...that is, the convention of the roof over our heads that has been architecture's primary goal since primeval homo sapiens first sought the shelter from the elements that trees couldn't provide when natural caves and cantilevers weren't handy. By piercing the sky, Pierce Boston shows that the sky's the limit on the architect's freedom to think outside the box (by losing the lid, that is) and our freedom to breathe in the world around us. In that way architecture channels us to the world rather than shelters us from it.

But the question remains: in all of these examples, are we truly free, or do we merely feel free? Even when architecture reaches beyond the box, aren't we still, in Paul McCartney's words, "stuck inside these four walls"? After all, that is architecture's primary function, no?

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Saturday, November 16, 2019

A gondola in Boston?

Vew of HarbourFront, Singapore, and a Singapore Cable Car. Photo by SGTOSA, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Roosevelt Island Tramway passing by Queensboro Bridge tower.
Photo by Timothy Vogel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The very idea of a gondola coming to Boston's Seaport District terrifies me, even though I've ridden them before, in Switzerland long ago, and in New York, when I took the Roosevelt Island Tramway and emerged on the isle and back on the main one without a scratch, owing to the city's repute as "a tribute to the American engineer," in Frank Lloyd Wright's words. 

But the late Toni Morrison's notion, "If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it" does mitigate the fear of the cable snapping without notice, of a train suddenly jumping the rail, or of an airplane falling under a terrorist's jurisdiction and careening into a skyscraper. Of course, you do surrender to the air big-time in an aircraft when you let go of your heebie-jeebies and trust the plane to the man (or woman) who wears the wings once its enveloping enclosure and the cushion-comfiness of your recliner convince you of your safety.
Which was one reason why gondolas have fascinated me since my cousin Teddy brought me this toy cable-car as a souvenir of his then-hometown of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, Germany. Since that's a ski resort, gondolas are mainstream there, as solidly enclosed alternatives to the precariousness of T-bar chairlifts.
And the roominess of the Rigi cable-car captivated me as well. I'd peer in, eye it all around from its mopboarded floor to its oversized tinted windows to its ceiling-light fixture (actually an attachment screw for its rig), and exclaim, "Hey, it's great in there!" as if I were wishing to soar above the mountains or cityscapes and gawk at the doll-like delights below while safe in the metallic armor of my "room," just like in a plane.
An inbound Main Line El (Orange Line) train passes over the Charlestown Bridge in 1967.
Photo by David Wilson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Yet somehow a gondola in Boston doesn't feel quite right to me. And I don't think it would be welcome here, perhaps regarded as a reincarnation of the Orange Line El that ran through Charlestown, the South End and Roxbury and the Green Line El along Causeway Street (and don't forget the Central Artery), giving us vertigo, airsickness, barf-bag hankerings, or similar fear-of-flying conditions, until we breathed sighs of relief that the elevated railways were cut down, opening the skies to the city once again. So Boston's Els are not missed at all today, because of the horrendous urban blight their underbellies caused underneath, and because a sky-train would be as unthinkable a place for a derailment to occur as the Seaport's Fort Point Channel waters would be an unimaginable location for a gondola to snap a cable or stall in midair, with as much of a "way out" as Flight 93 on 9/11 had.
Green Line along Causeway Street at North Station before demolition in 2004.

So why would a gondola fly, if an el doesn't anymore? 
Orange Line leaving Dudley Station, Roxbury, 1970s.
And riding the Orange Line El to my ninth-grade Work/Study at Brookline's Museum of Transportation was hair-raising enough for me. There being no guard rail on the track until we arrived at the relief of each station enclosure, I was frightened that it could jump the rail without a moment's notice (no wonder it always slowed down before lurching the track-curve that led it into the old Dudley Square Station). Of course, the only way for me to keep my sanity up there in the air was to surrender to it—and, yes, I could ride it, bolstered by the assurance that no derailment had occurred on that line since around 1914...
Dudley Station, Roxbury, c.1911. well as the reassuring structure of Dudley Station itself, providing temporarily safe-and-sound housing for the passengers as they disembarked in the slate-roofed, copper-clad cast-iron shelters before the train took to the guardrail-less rails again, pushing us back into paranoid look-out-below mode, forcing us to erect our prayer-palms, finger our rosaries, and swish the sign of the cross across our thoraces until the safety and security of the subway brought us our salvation.
Elevated Orange Line heading through Roxbury in the 1970s.
Want a gondola now, Bostonians?

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Monday, August 12, 2019

Summer Camp III: The Governor's glamor

My choir's next summer camp, by special arrangement with The Governor's Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts (then called Governor Dummer Academy—the reason for the rechristening needs no gloss), gave us not only the independence we needed to manifest our choral ascension, but also a quaint, well-manicured New England village to revel in for a few weeks.

Chosen for its five-mile proximity to our conductor Thomas Murray's home in Newburyport, the Academy replaced the rustic ramble of Trinity Church Camp and the army-barracks arrangement of Camp Duncan with the exurban elitism of the North Shore. Trinity's building-to-building trek heedless of the wind and weather remained, but was elevated to a more erudite level, as if we were going to a glitterati boarding school rather than a ramshackle summer camp. And, to a degree, we were. The refinement of the architecture reflected the sophistication of our music education under Mr. Murray's organ digits and drill-sergeant chops.

Moody House (18th century), The Governor's Academy, Byfield, Mass.
Little Red Schoolhouse, 1763, reconstructed 1938 by William Graves Perry
The campus encompassed every Georgian/Colonial style and feature imaginable—roof gable, sash window, oculus, cornice, fieldstone, brickwork, clapboard—all artfully applied through the ages since the Academy's founding in 1763 at Gov. William Dummer's bequest with the erection of the Little Red Schoolhouse. (This, by the way, is a 1938 reconstruction by William Graves Perry, architect of the Colonial Williamsburg restoration. And how fitting, given the Academy's predilection for the past in most of its architecture.)
Mason Cottage (1912-1915, George Champney, bequeathed by Ida Mason)
This is the Cottage (unfortunately razed in 1997 for a math/science complex), our sleeping quarters, giving our chambers Cape-Colonial suburban domesticity with its high-pitched gambrel, pedimented porch, and dignified dormers. Our rooms, too, were a far cry from Trinity's graffiti-begrimed bunks, being as squeaky-clean as well-kempt motel lodgings—provided, of course, that we aced inspection.

This path led to our dining hall. As its colonial propriety suggests, it was a cut above Trinity's pine-plank mess hall in refinement—in setting, if not bill of fare, save for our end-of-summer banquet, when a debate over steak vs. fried clams as our parting repast heated up the hall. (I chose steak, amid boos from the clamdigger crowd. It was an even split, until Counselor Donny cast the tiebreaker: "Steak.")
Chapel interior, The Governor's Academy, c.1965.
The neocolonial Brahminism also reflected the refined musical tastes going into Mr. Murray's choral selections, including:
Chapel, The Governor's Academy, c.1965.
The rest elude me, but this brought our pops tour era to a full finis, save for a few "fun" numbers he threw in to keep a smattering of the Bretton Woods spirit alive:
  • "The Musical Trust" by Joseph W. Clokey (stepfather of Gumby clayboy creator Art Clokey), a 1925 ballad about a flautist, a tuba-player, and a drum-and-cymbal combo who can't make money on their own so they form a band. (This incorporated snatches from familiar American tunes including "Turkey in the Straw," "Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay," "The Stars and Stripes Forever," "Dixieland," "How Dry I Am," "Jingle Bells," "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" and "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." An interesting way for Mr. Murray to sandwich a whole pops program into one number so he could leave ample room for his blessed canticles.)
  • He considered Allan Sherman's "No One's Perfect," based on Cornell University's alma mater "Far Above Cayuga's Waters," but shelved it for some reason. (Too bad; it would have brought the house down as a P.D.Q. Bach-esque satire on the "sloppy singing" he'd kvetch about in our rehearsals.)
And our concert-tour radius was as restricted as our repertoire, confined to churches in North Shore towns such as Newburyport and Rockport.
Newburyport, Massachusetts, featuring the Meetinghouse of the First Religious Society (Unitarian), built 1801
Rockport, Massachusetts, featuring the First Congregational Church, built 1805
Yes, the landlocked hill-and-dale arboriculture and craggy escarpments of the White Mountains of New Hampshire gave way to the salt-sea sparkle and rocky shorelines of the North Shore of Massachusetts, while ritzy resorts yielded to pearly-white historic churches as concert venues, reflected in our almost-all-sacred songfest.

Middle Road, Rockport, Mass. Photo by Robert Linsdell, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Our concert engagement in Rockport later took us on a tour of the town's intimate narrow lanes of gabled, Cape-shingled cottages to what was my musical peak experience that summer. In one of those lowly lodges, a girl sang Erlkönig ("The Erl-King") by Franz Schubert and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe more radiantly than I'd been led to expect by her rumpled T-shirt and shorts, which were almost as ill-kempt as the house's weathered facade. Yet that song proved to be more of a challenge to the accompanist, who stumbled through the piano part's rapid triplets while the singer's radiant mezzo-soprano glided effortlessly through the ether. A very memorable way to transcend the rugged (architecture, clothing, keyboard musicianship) to achieve the sublime in song.
We ourselves did that in a concert at Adelynrood Retreat and Conference Center in Byfield, a marriage of Cape, Craftsman, Medieval Revival and Shingle styles that elevated the rusticity and simplicity of Rockport's cottages to a lofty ecclesiastical level in a way that was simultaneously homey and high-church.
Which was what the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross presumably intended when they founded Adelynrood (combining namesake Adelyn Howard's name with "rood," meaning "cross") in 1915 for their confirmation of their faith in Christ and their application of it to such pressing world issues as race and labor relations, poverty, justice for immigrants, environmentalism, and abolition of the death penalty.

This living-room setting, cozied by half-timbering and exposed rafters for a medieval fireside effect, provided an intimate atmosphere for our concert.

So my summers of '75 and '76 were adventures in architecture more than music, in line with Mr. Murray's vision for an eruditely cultured society. He orchestrated our odyssey according to his personal tastes in music and design, with as few kowtows to the mainstream as he could get away with. Which was the polar opposite of the roughing it I was in for in my final camp in the summer of '77—the Yawgoog Scout Reservation in Rockville, Rhode Island.

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Sunday, August 4, 2019

Summer Camp II: Trinity's trials

Chapel, Trinity Church Camp, Bow Lake, Strafford, New Hampshire.
Bow Lake, New Hampshire. Photo by LakePhotos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Trinity Church Camp on beautiful Bow Lake in Strafford, New Hampshire, was notable for its plain Craftsman wood architecture built strictly to serve its diverse purposes—one structure per function, unlike the all-under-one-roof design of Camp Duncan in Bethlehem, N.H. (see previous post). 

This, of course, meant more nature to trudge through rain or shine for meals, chapel, assemblies, Canteen purchases, the bathroom [tagged "the Buglights" for special orange lightbulbs that attracted vermin away from the latrines], the evening outdoor prayer, and—ugh—visits to Nurse Dirty Gerty at the infirmary to treat that sunburn that singed you on the beach trip because somebody'd copped your Coppertone.

But all buildings were uniform in their rudimentary Craftsman construction for optimum sturdiness, simplicity and sincerity: exposed rafters to emphasize the roof structure, shiplap or clapboard siding to use wood to best sealant advantage, exposed knotty-pine interiors to celebrate the source of the building materials. Yes, unlike the grandiose resort hotels us Bretton Woods Boy Singers sang at the previous summer, architecture did not upstage nature at Trinity Church Camp, but deferred to it in its restraint, bringing us closer to nature's nurturing and healing powers.

Cabins at Trinity Church Camp.
The cabins, sporting hipped roofs with projecting eaves to shelter the screened, unglazed windows from rain and sun, housed 8-10 boys each and were nature-named. Mine was the Owl, left rear. Others included the Beaver, the Panther, the Wolf, the Loon, the Hawk...

...and the Eagle—though that was not the equivalent of an Eagle Scout in rank and merit, especially not during morning inspection: the Loon always took top honors, until the Beaver beat them by applying more of the lodge-building industry of their namesake water-rodent to their spic-and-spanning.

Photo courtesy of
But what no bird or beast could scrub away was, as these images suggest, the graffiti that slathered the walls and bunkbeds with memes of Trinitarians eager to ink, pencil, carve or spraypaint their names and years in the annals of camp lore and yore, sometimes unwillingly: "Keith Cook wet this mattress, July 27-August 10, 1974." (So much for the Buglights.) 

Friends Camp, Holliston, Mass.
And how inconsistent this was with the clean "white knight" image our evening camp song (sung to the tune of O Tannenbaum) tried to instill in our young minds:
Galahad our patriot knight,
Shown in spotless armor bright
So that we who bear his name
Guard our lives from blot or blame
And raise the voice of manly praise,
Of knightly deeds and ancient days,
And pledge we now ourselves to be
True knights in Christian chivalry. 
At least the graffiti and the knotty pine shared a common trait: the primitive design anarchy of nature and boyhood.

But that didn't mean, as this image also conveys, that we were entirely bereft of modern perks. Each cabin had a single lightbulb—which, in the Owl, happened to hover over my bunk, setting me up for mockery when it flickered on and off to signal Lights Out: "Todd, stop fooling with the lights!"

This may be the old Aardvark cabin, where senior campers and counselors-in-training resided, closer to the central fields to keep full vigil on the kids. The simple, functional framework still stands out, the porch being the next step of luxury befitting the elders.

Here was the camp's highest level of luxury: the Director's Lodge, boasting a full-house treatment of double-hung windows, flood-resistant foundations, and that gleaming hardwood floor, throw-rug, comfy chair and stone fireplace I greened with envy for whenever I peered inside. The trouble was, at Camp Duncan the previous year we all got a piece of that echelon of comfort. Now the grownups got it all, while we rank-and-filers had to rough it all the way.

Speaking of which, when our PA system boomed, "All campers and staff please report to the Knoll," we eagerly ranked-and-filed in line to get into the Dining Hall, whose level horizontality counterbalanced the Knoll's slope to reassure us of the nourishment that would keep us level-headed...
...except when a food-flinging got us sent to the flagpole in time to miss dessert. The Dining Hall's knotty-pine paneling expressed the camp's roughing-it spirit, contrasted with the elegance of generations of swimming award plaques—which I didn't have a shot at, in light of a counselor's comment, "That crawl needs a lot of work!"
I did, however, win laurels on Tournament Day, acing a broad-jumping contest on the sandy strip by the Boat House. (I also won aqua-shuffling—running into the lake, touching the dock, dashing back to shore—and came in second in a relay race.) The Boat House, the kick-start of all Bow Lake boatings and the changing quarters for our daily swims (and rare skinny-dips), ranked second in domestic dignity to the Director's Lodge.

But the Boat House's classic New England shutters, gable, clapboards and bracket-like rafters left greenhorn campers clueless about what went on inside if you went up to the Counselors' Room without prior authorization: you got a Pink Belly. They'd pin your arms and legs to the floor, lift up your shirt-front, slap your belly until it reddened, and rub Ben-Gay on it to erase the pain. This was most embarrassing when you went to your swims or Buglights showers all red on your midriff, a telltale sign of your camp rules infraction. And if you went up there a second time without a pass, you'd get a PBW: a Pink Belly followed by a Wedgie. (But those mortifications were minuscule compared to my turning red when a kid pitched my skivvies out onto the Boat House's launching ramp and I ran out there in my birthday suit to fetch them, becoming an instant target of derisive cackles from the campers.)
The building that best détented our discords under the towering trees of Trinity was Cleaves Hall. Its country-church charm recalled many regional styles: Puritan, Quaker, Shaker, Craftsman, and even Contemporary, owing to the open-concept auditorium-stage space its façade expressed and its rafter framework created.

Pettijohn Chapel, Camp Crossley YMCA, North Webster, Indiana.
It looked roughly like this inside. Knotty pine predominated here as well, now symbolizing the unpredictable fun and variety of the talent shows, which ranged from magic acts to comedy sketches to a piano performance of Ernest Gold's theme from Exodus to a lip-sync of Sha Na Na's remake of the Earls' "Remember Then" by Dean Buckley and the Greaseheads... recorder renderings by Yours Truly, which I reprised at our St. Paul's Choir concert here. Yes, to counterbalance the clown shows, we gave our sole concert at Cleaves. Our repertoire reprised "Think Summer" and several sacred numbers including Christmas carols (yes, in the summertime), due to the more classically refined preferences of our new conductor, who "just couldn't get into" pop music but consented to "Think Summer" as a bow to choir tradition. (That, by the way, was renowned organist Thomas Murray, who recently retired as University Organist and Professor of Music at Yale University.) 

Teddy Bar sign, Tempe, Arizona, courtesy of Flickr
No, we didn't tour that year. The choir's and camp's agendas often came to loggerheads, particularly when the PA proclamation "All members of St. Paul's Choir please report to Cleaves Hall" disrupted the fun-and-games I was enjoying on Aardvark Day, forcing me to give away the "point" money I'd just won in a putt-putt tourney. 

But that sacrifice had its advantages: a good concert, and just compensation for that rehearsal with a timeless summer treat: chocolate-coated vanilla ice-cream "Teddy Bars" like the one on the right, only without the peanuts and fudge and with a wrapper sporting a jolly Teddy Bear image and a slogan, "One Taste Better." Which it was, save for a few choristers who couldn't stay away from Aardvark Day, thus had to "do without their ice cream," in the words of our assistant director.

But ice cream couldn't sweeten up our sour grapes about not having the private turf we had enjoyed for the past 63 years. Now it was clear that it didn't behoove us to shack up with another camp family and get lost in the building-to-building shuffle. We needed to stake our claim to our own camp to truly flourish as a touring chorus.

Pointe Trinity Estates, Bow Lake, Strafford, N.H. Photo courtesy of Trulia.
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's International Realty
So next year, luxury was to be ours again at The Governor's Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Besides, Trinity Church Camp was on the brink of closing down, too. Its site is now anchored by Pointe Trinity Estates, a luxury gated community, and last I heard, the sole remaining "Aardvark" cabin is used for storage on one of the properties, and may be all gone by now for all I know.

At least one of Pointe Trinity's homebuilders seemed to 'remember then'...

To be continued... 

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