Plumb Lines

August 31, 2009

Monday Movie Still: 8 1/2

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 4:49 pm

I know almost nothing about Fellini, but I’ll make an uninformed pronouncement anyhow: 8 1/2 is surely one of his most visually entrancing films. Almost any frame at random could be chosen for its elegance, but I found this one particularly interesting:


There’s nothing extraordinary about the composition of this frame, though its symmetry and straightforwardness are certainly significant. The protagonist of the film, seated on the left, is a film director played by Marcello Mastroianni, and a stand-in for Fellini himself. The character typically responds obliquely, obtusely, and deceitfully to everyone around him. His wife accuses him throughout the film of lying both on film and in person, and the character seems to wonder if the medium itself must necessarily tell falsehoods. Occasionally bizarre camerawork and flights of surrealism make the viewer ask the same question (do watch that clip, and this one too, if you can).

The character arranges a meeting with a Cardinal (exactly why is never explained — it is suggested that he might want to ask him questions about the role of the prelate in his next film), and when he finally sits down to talk to him, the camera frames the conversation unobliquely, even naively. I can’t interpret what this framing says about Fellini’s famously complicated relationship to Catholicism, but it does neatly invoke how differently the character acts with the Cardinal than with everyone else. Losing his easy disdain for those around him — typical of the artist and the celebrity — he approaches the Cardinal with a schoolboy’s nervousness (this is very well acted by Mastroianni, whose feet and posture  in this still convey exactly the right tone). At the same time, the camera abandons its own deceits and ruses and presents the scene as simply as it possibly can.

David Schaengold


August 27, 2009

For the New York Times…

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 11:20 am

it’s always 1950, the past is always something to be swept away, and California always represents the future. In a petulant and parochial jab at the Grey Lady’s hometown, Nicolai Ourousoff writes:

The country’s creative energy shifted westward, to Los Angeles, whose vibrant mix of urban grit and nature, abundance of relatively cheap land and lack of confining historical traditions allowed architects to experiment with a freedom that had become virtually impossible in New York.

Confining historical traditions? Does the Times really still think that a rich architectural history is an obstacle to innovation?

As the architectural triumphs of Barcelona, Paris, and London in the last few decades show, and indeed, as every major architect seems to know nowadays, innovation is only possible against a background, and the richer that background the more fruitful the innovation. Many of the best works of recent years bear explicit reference to architectural tradition, like Foster’s new Reichstag dome. Even more radical recent works have been successful precisely because they are situated among buildings built a long time ago, like Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center.

David Schaengold

August 25, 2009

The World of Sight is a Prison-House

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:46 am

Megan McArdle and Tyler Cowen both seem to think that aside from the pretty pre-war buildings, what distinguishes Europe and the United States is difference in policy regimes.

You might want to live somewhere just for the sake of its buildings, of course (or not live somewhere: I could never live in the western United States, just on account of its buildings). Buildings are the most immediate physical determinant of the way we conduct the daily business of leaving for the office, meeting friends, recuperating from illnesses, etc.

Update: If this is Denver’s “Urban Design Masterpiece,” the western United States is even worse off than I thought.

David Schaengold

August 13, 2009

Joe Carter is on to Something . . .

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 4:44 pm

“In America, capitalism = Big Business = “too big to fail” = bailouts = increased government involvement in business.”

Matthew Schmitz

August 12, 2009

Play the Building

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 5:25 pm

David Byrne demonstrates:

Does anyone know of any structures designed with the resonances of various parts in mind? How many buildings have been built to be played? Could one create a building that was an organic record of a single melody, let alone something like the B Minor Mass?

(via Utne)

-Matthew Schmitz

Is the Pope “Green”?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:32 pm

I wonder what David has to say about Samuel Gregg’s comments on the treatment of environmentalism in the recent papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate:

The text is replete with warnings about real and potential environmental degradation. Yet it also makes points impossible to reconcile with much contemporary environmental thinking.

Benedict insists that people are intrinsically more valuable than nature — a point disputed by some green-leaning philosophers. Nor should we be shocked to discover that Benedict describes positions that question humanity’s innate superiority to the natural world as facilitating “attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism.”

-Matthew Schmitz

August 11, 2009

The Academy of the Overrated

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 9:12 pm

At last, a courageous stand against Mozart. It’s high time we reassessed his status as a member of the great troika that includes Beethoven and Bach. Of course the Mass in c minor is spine-chilling, Symphony #25 is flesh-crinkling, the art songs are as perfect in their way as Schubert’s and do something anatomically unnameable, etc., but not a small portion of his work is mechanical and ostentatious. This music is not played often, understandably, but Bach and Beethoven wrote nothing comparably pedestrian. Bring back the three B’s!

-David Schaengold

August 10, 2009

Girl Talk and the Dialogic Imagination

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 9:31 pm

There has been a lot of uncertainty at how to characterize the music of Girl Talk, the Pittsburgh DJ who has distinguished himself by creating a dizzying and insanely danceable puree from the top-40 hits of the past 3o years.

If Mikhail Bakhtin had been a Pitchfork review writer, he might have  described Girl Talk’s music as an instance of dialogic imagination. A little Googling has revealed that I am not the first to think of this connection:

Feed the Animals is an aesthetic arrangement of disparate, often contradictory elements into something resembling a coherent whole. And one way to think of this contrast is to turn to Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and his distinction between monologic and dialogic writing. To Bakhtin, a dialogic novel was one that, instead of attempting to maintain a singular ‘monologic’ voice throughout a work, aimed to arrange a number of different perspectives and ideologies into an aesthetic whole, allowing the tension or dialogue between the differing views to remain unresolved. Bakhtin’s most common way of demonstrating this difference was to contrast Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Tolstoy, he argued, maintained one dominant voice and perspective through the use on overarching narrator and, as such, a singular perspective shone through by the time the plot resolved. Bakhtin argued that Dostoevsky, on the other the hand, arranged a number of different voices and deliberately left them unresolved, and was thus the superior, more sophisticated writer. It’s a point worth considering: what is more ‘realistic’ (and poignant) than irreconcilable differences remaining irreconcilable?

So in my little analogy, the all-samples Feed the Animals is clearly the dialogic novel – it is the aesthetic organisation of a set of contrasting sources. As in a dialogic novel, it is not simply enough to have disparate elements; instead, it is the arrangment of the different perspectives into a coherent – if not necessarily cohesive – whole that makes the work… ‘work’. There is no overarching perspective that dominates in the novel, as there is no overarching generic or lyric theme that runs through Feed the Animals. Rather, the satisfaction for me comes precisely from the ‘irreconcilable’ being put together in a way that feels right, in a manner that works both with and against the very differences that are put into play.

Matthew Schmitz

August 9, 2009

America’s Ancient Urbanism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 8:14 pm


Crunchy types are often cast as primitivists who oppose  halmarks of modern life like mobility and individualism. Anything short of an ideology of instant mobility and personal displacement is unrealistic and backward-looking.

The ironic element of such claims is that America’s mobile culture — best expressed in its love for automobiles — drew no small part of its justification from a romanticized view of American Indians living as mobile hunter-gatherers in a state of nature that would have to pass away before it could be rebuilt in rubber and steel in the form of the Pontiac and the Thunderbird.

Of course, some American Indians were nomadic, but far fewer than we think today. Note especially this fascinating article on a great city that flourished in America and was once larger than London. The apparent barbarism of this early American city will prevent it from becoming the basis for the crunchy’s own idealized past, but it serves as a reminder of how much cultural work is done by the simple and obvious falsehood that individual mobility is somehow a “natural” state.

-Matthew Schmitz

August 5, 2009

The Downfall of Bricks and Mortar?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 10:26 am

No, not by earthquakes, but by the Internet. I started thinking about this recently after an uneventful trip to the local mall. First I looked at the prices on the Internet, but I figured that with shipping I’d be better off buying from the store. Plus we would have the merchandise right away and would finally own our own sheets. This wasn’t the case, though.

After a 30 minute drive, eight mile drive through Baltimore’s sprawl I arrived at the mall. It took maybe half an hour to wander around the department store and find the bedding and kitchenwares for which I was shopping. Then I had to get ahold of a clerk for a final item and go through the hassle of check-out. All that only to find out that each item was $2-4 more than the Internet sale prices on the store’s website. So with the higher prices and state and local sales taxes I ended up paying about $8 more, in addition to spending an hour on the road and 45 minutes in the store. Lastly, I still had to purchase a few items from the Internet anyway because the store didn’t have some things in stock.

I knew what I wanted, and if I had used the Internet I could have checked out in five minutes and waited just a few days to get it. Instead I wasted time, fuel, and money going to the actual location. The Internet is far more convenient— there’s no way around that. I have never liked malls, and this adventure confirms why. People try to sell you things you don’t want; they are crowded, confusing, and far away from urban centers. Besides, one can price-compare and get reviews on the Internet, whereas bricks-and-mortar locations only have pushy sales people.

As the American public becomes more comfortable with buying on-line, will there be a need for malls anymore? The Amazon model is more efficient in every way for consumer and business, save for getting the item immediately. Given the recent decline in commercial real estate the era of the mall and big-box stores may be coming to a close. The unsightly, poorly located architectural black holes would vanish, and with the the over-development that tarnishes our countryside, creating a much more scenic suburban environment.

Michael E. van Landingham

August 4, 2009

The Quake-Proof Architecture of Ancient Japan

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 9:19 pm

pagodaThe Economist has an article on why so few Japanese pagodas have been destroyed in the country’s frequent earthquakes:

What has mystified scholars over the ages is how these tall, wooden buildings cope so well with the earthquakes and typhoons that plague Japan. Many have been struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Others have been torched by marauding warlords. Fire was a perennial hazard in Japan when wood and paper buildings were the norm. But, remarkably, only two of the country’s hundreds of wooden pagodas have collapsed over the past 1,400 years as a result of violent shaking.

The answer:

…why don’t they topple over at the first tremor? For two reasons. First, as the structure begins to sway, the heavy-tiled roof covering the extended eaves of each storey acts like the long pole with weights on the ends that a tightrope walker uses to steady himself. In both, the large “radius of gyration” means the shaking has a lot of inbuilt inertia to overcome.

Second, as the loosely stacked storeys slide to and fro—with each consecutive floor moving in the opposite direction to the one above and below—they collide internally with the trunk-like shinbashira dangling through the central well of the building. With each collision, they dump more of their kinetic energy into the massive column—trying vainly to make it swing like a pendulum … How clever of those Japanese craftsmen to figure it all out 14 centuries ago.

(via Utne)

-Matthew Schmitz

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