Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dada City (Zürich)

Cambridge, September 17, 2013

Sometimes, a peculiar historic circumstance turns a city into an outsized point of convergence.

In his memoirs, the German artist Hans Richter recalls his arrival to Zürich in September of 1916.  The city was island of peace smack in the middle of WWI Europe.  Almost two years earlier, as they were about to be mobilized, Richter and two of his Berlin friends had made an unlikely date to meet in neutral Zürich, at the Café de la Terrasse.  Entering the café, he not only found his two friends, but also sitting at a table nearby, Tristan Tzara, Marcel and Georges Janco, the trio of Romanians among the Dada group.  Dada was centered at the Cabaret Voltaire, only a five-minute walk.  There Richter met the other early figures of avant-garde movement: Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings (whom Richter already knew from the Café des Western back home,) Richard Huelsenbeck and Hans Arp.  Across the street lived Vladimir Lenin, barely more than a year before the Soviet Revolution.  Just around the corner was the studio of the pioneering choreographer and dance theorist Rudolf von Laban.  Sophie Tauber and Mary Wigman were among the young dancers in Laban's studio.  James Joyce was often sitting at a table of the Cafe Odeón, near the Terrasse.  Perhaps having a conversation with Ezra Pound...

By the way, Tom Stoppard's 1974 play "Travesties" wonderfully captures this ebullient Zurich of WWI.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dada City (Paris)

Cambridge, September 15, 2013

The short history of Dada--the legendary anti-art artistic movement of the early 20th century--was inextricably linked to a few European cities, from its origin in the calm of neutral Zurich during WWI, to the explosive Berlin of the Weimar Republic, all the way to avant-garde Paris, where the movement found its demise amidst the intellectual and personal fights of its leading figures.

By the time René Clair completed his film "Entr'acte" in 1924, Dada had run its course, and the movie itself can be seen as document of both the art "wars" of the period and the death and burial of the movement.  Yes, complete with casket and funerary procession (a swan song if you wish, even if, in characteristic Dada fashion, it had to be a bearded and bespectacled swan.)

The movie followed an outline written by Francis Picabia and incorporated, I'm sure, a number of spur-of-the-moment episodes (after all, this was Picabia's "instantanéisme" phase.)  What binds the pieces together is the city, Paris, that appears throughout the movie in different circumstances, sometimes as sets, others as background, and even independently of the action.  The movie includes highly recognizable icons, like the Grand Palais, the Eiffel Tower, Garnier's Opera or Place de la Concorde, as well as anonymous urban elements and spaces, such as the characteristic rooftops in the first part of the movie or the equally characteristic tree-lined boulevards in the second.  The images appear fragmentary, cut, mirrored, distorted, turned sideways or upside down, superimposed, in slow or fast motion, in reverse, and manipulated in all sorts of ways, producing a new way to represent, and ultimately understand the city.

(A link to "Entr'acte": http://www.ubu.com/film/clair_entracte.html) 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Comparative Urbanism

Cambridge, September 10, 2013

"The Charles River, embraced by a body of light on either side, looked tame.  I couldn't help comparing it to the archaic Golden Horn, that was lake, river and sea all at once."  ("Many and Many a Year Ago" by Selçuk Altun, 2009)

The last time I was in Istanbul, one afternoon we arranged to meet with my friend Elizabeth Grossman in front of Robinson Crusoe, a wonderful bookstore on Istiklal Street.  When I got there (I'm afraid a little late as often,) Elizabeth greeted me with a benevolent smile and a book in her hand.  She said that the story in the novel went between Istanbul and Buenos Aires, and that she couldn't help buying it for me.  And yes, the book has wonderful comparisons between the two unlikely cities, like when Kemal, the narrator, is in "Once", a traditionally Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires and finds it remarkably similar to Istanbul's Balat, also a neighborhood with a strong Jewish history, both with "those miniature synagogues."

But there were other cities and more wonderful comparisons.  Toward the end of the novel, Kemal brings his fiancée to Boston for eye surgery, and from high up on a hotel room near MGH, he describes the Charles River in such a way made me feel less alone in my longstanding puzzlement over the strange urban geography of both the Charles and the Golden Horn.  Just look at the two aerials side by side!

(By the way, this also reinforces my "theory" that we only know one city, the one we are from, and we simply extrapolate when we try to understand all other cities.)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Superimposing Maps

Cambridge, September 5, 2013

Over time cities change, expand (shrinking is more rare,) level hills, fill in coastlines, introduce major urban elements--roads, parks and railways,--develop new street patterns and transform in all sorts of ways.  Superimposing maps from different historic periods allow us to see the transformation and understand the origin and evolution of the city.

In his 1882 "Memorial History of Boston", the librarian and historian Justin Winsor published a map of Boston as it was in 1880 with the outline and topography of the original Shawmut Peninsula on top.  In about 250 years, the city had completely reshaped its geography, turning what was virtually an island with an irregular perimeter and number of hills, into a regular and rather level urban mass almost three times its original area.  You can see how Charles Bulfinch filled the Mill Cove with his brilliant triangle and Quincy Market established a pattern of long and narrow blocks progressively pushing out on what was the Town Cove.  Atlantic Avenue and Charles Street created straight polygonal edges to the east and west respectively.  The thin neck connecting the peninsula to the mainland was greatly extended on both sides with the block pattern of the South End with Washington Street as its backbone.  And, of course, the largest of all the expansions, Back Bay to the southwest filling the Receiving Basin on the Charles River.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Urban Bestiary (5)

Cambridge, September 3, 2013

If King Kong was a product of the Great Depression, Godzilla embodied the worst nightmares of the post-WWII nuclear age.  The original movie was released in 1954, not a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the very same year of the disastrous US detonation of a hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll.

In the movie, Godzilla emerges from the sea as a prehistoric creature mutated into an enormous monster due to an underwater nuclear test gone wrong.  The name of the monster combines the Japanese words for gorilla and whale, a typical trope of ancient mythical beast, and the analogies extend to local legends involving the sacrifice of young virgins.  The story follows the giant lizard-like animal along its path from the shores of the fictional Odo Island in southern Japan all the way to Tokyo.  And that's where the fun begins.

The city prepares for the monster with a 50,000-volt defensive line strung along Tokyo Bay on 40-foot high-towers.  Although the electric barrier is no match for the melting power of Godzilla's atomic breath, this memorable image may count as the first mega-project of the Japanese Metabolists and, at the risk of sounding completely ridiculous, maybe even as a precedent for Kenzo Tange's 1960 legendary proposal for Tokyo Bay.

(Before you begin to dismiss all this as the nonsense that it is, let me remind you that the circulation lines in Tange's project were also meant to hover about 40 meters above the water and that the buildings would have had roughly the same height as Godzilla... and long tails.)