Tag Archives: design

Moor, Moor, Moor

[N.B. I admit that the title of this piece is a rather bad pun on a classic disco song. I do not apologize.]

Today is the birthday of one of America’s first internationally famous authors, Washington Irving (1783-1859).  He is perhaps best known these days for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or “The Tale of Rip Van Winkle”, but back in his own day he was very much appreciated for his long travelogue-novel-essay collection, “Tales of the Alhambra”, published in 1827.  Irving’s love of Moorish design found its way into the imaginations of the well-to-do in this country, taking tangible form and affecting the American home and landscape.

Irving was already a well-known author when he arrived in the city of Granada in southern Spain in 1828, and moved into an apartment in the famous Alhambra palace, built by the Moors beginning in the 9th century.  His descriptions of its shaded courtyards with playing fountains, colorfully tiled walls and elaborately decorated plaster ceilings, led to sincere efforts to preserve and restore the Alhambra, after many centuries of general neglect.  However Irving also had an impact on Americans’ imagination, since children who read Irving’s stories of caliphs and princesses in Andalusian Spain, grew up to be the tastemakers of the Victorian and Gilded Ages.

Beginning in the 1850′s, and continuing right up through the 1930′s, American architects and designers produced all sorts of variations on a Moorish-themed building or room.  This was often not really Moorish, but more of a fanciful mixture of various Islamic and non-Islamic elements, without any attempt to perceive the differences between, say, Moroccan and Syrian styles.  In the Victorian period, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the great American industrialist, had a magnificent Moorish smoking room installed in his New York City mansion.  Although there was nothing particularly authentic about the result, if you were a Rockefeller, no one was going to correct you on the technical points.

Moorish design elements popped up everywhere over the next several decades, even in the White House, as Louis Comfort Tiffany designed Moorish rooms and decorative objects for wealthy and prominent clients.  Bizarrely enough, given the context, Jewish communities across the country began building exotic synagogues in a supposedly Moorish style, among the most famous being the magnificent Central Synagogue on 55th and Lex in Manhattan.  When movie theatres came into existence after the First World War, supposedly Moorish architecture design turned many of them into pleasure pavilions that could have come out of Washington Irving’s imagination.  Even the movie stars themselves were built bungalows and mansions in the Hollywood Hills that featured Moorish details.

At the tail end of this mania, one of the most spectacular of all Moorish home improvement efforts was Shangri La, the Hawaii vacation home which American tobacco heiress Doris Duke began building in 1937, after honeymooning in countries like Spain, Morocco, and Egypt.  Never mind, of course, that the “Shangri-La” from James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” was a Buddhist monastery located in the Himalayas.  Much had changed in the fifty years that separated John D. Rockefeller, Sr. from Doris Duke, but money had not.  And if Rockefeller’s generation had embraced the trend, Duke’s generation saw it out, with sunken marble bathtubs surrounded by geometric and floral tiles, with colored glass lanterns dangling from wrought iron chains along the ceiling.

Later in life, to his delight Washington Irving was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, a position he served in for five years.  Following his retirement from the post in 1847, he moved back home to his cottage called “Sunnyside”, in the Hudson River Valley.  The home was one of the most famous in America, considered second only to Mount Vernon in its influence on American design at the time.

In his retirement, Irving added a fanciful wing onto the house based on some of the Moorish architecture he had loved in Spain, but simplified for more Yankee surroundings.  After his death, the Irving family continued to live in the house until World War II, when it was sold to – of all people – John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of the man whose elaborate, Moorish smoking parlor is today preserved in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  It’s hard to imagine a more fitting completion of the circle that Irving himself began, with his first, written sketches of Moorish Spain.


Frontispiece for the 1851 edition of Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra"

Frontispiece for the 1851 edition of Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra”


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Art and Abercrombie: Lowered Standards for Abysmal Times

The headline, “Royal Academy woos new audience from the Abercrombie and Fitch generation” caught my eye in the Torygraph this morning.  In a move designed to attract younger audiences to its halls, the nearly 250-year-old British institution has decided to take a more ill-mannered approach to increasing patronage.  An upcoming exhibition will encourage visitors to lie down, touch works of art, and otherwise “interact” with the objects on display – all while drinking.  The chief executive of the Royal Academy noted that the wing where this bacchanal will take place is located “opposite Abercrombie and Fitch and I think it has the potential to attract a rather different and younger audience. And we’re programming this building in order to do just that.”

The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 by a group of men and women who successfully petitioned King George III for approval to create an institution dedicated to the study and promotion of art and design in Britain.  Charter members included the prominent 18th century painters Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and Benjamin West.  Its location on Piccadilly, then and now one of the most famous and fashionable streets in London, ensured that society would come and engage with the membership for exhibitions, lectures, and courses.

However in recent years the Royal Academy has increasingly seemed a bit senile, even downright hostile, with respect to the promotion of standards in art.  There is much artifice and little actual art in the types of shows it mounts.  Perhaps the most well-known example from recent years, the infamous “Sensation” exhibition which first opened in London in 1997 and subsequently traveled to New York back in 1999, featured an image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a collage of female genitalia and adorned with a piece of elephant poo.  One wonders at the selection process that determined this rather déclassé object was found to be worthy of examination, let alone exhibition.

Yet the shift away from the encouragement of actual artistic standards to the celebration of a kind of underdeveloped sense of self-worth is not only a critical aspect of the contemporary art world, at least as pushed by the Royal Academy in recent years, it is also reflected in that often most mundane of tasks, purchasing clothes.  The idea of reaching out to an audience of retail shoppers, and encouraging that audience to behave poorly on one’s premises, may at first seem rather odd for an art institution.  Yet if art was once meant to be inspirational, and is now mainly self-referential, then the aforementioned Abercrombie and Fitch is a perfect example of how a parallel lowering of standards has taken place in much of the rag trade.

The customer whom the once-venerable Abercrombie – founded in 1892 – originally hoped to draw in through its doors possessed some degree of education, leisure time, and disposable income.  They wanted to engage in deer hunting, fly fishing, and other outdoor activities, and sought out the very best clothing and equipment for doing so.  It is hard to imagine today, but the company that now sells fake gym jerseys originally fitted out the well-known and well-to-do among the American haute bourgeoisie with the kind of outdoor clothing that would have looked perfectly at home at Downtown Abbey.  U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt was a regular customer  for example, and the company outfitted Charles Lindbergh for his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.  The customer who shopped at Abercombie and Fitch back in its heyday expected that he was going to walk out of the shop properly dressed for any pursuit, and that if needed he could be educated by the staff on hand as to how to engage in that pursuit well.

Today, Abercrombie and Fitch markets its cheaply-made, Asian-import clothing to the young, and to those who want to pretend that they still are young.  There is something decidedly creepy about their shops, which so often seem to speak not to the individuality of the customer, but rather to the fantasies of the proprietor.  Their dark, poorly-lit stores are so heavily perfumed with an atmosphere and odor reminiscent of a high school locker room, that passers-by ought to be issued with gas masks so as not to be overcome by the fumes escaping from the premises.  The print ads, catalogs, and billboards the company creates sexually objectify unknown young models for the delectation of the public, who oftentimes are not actually wearing the clothes they are allegedly trying to sell.  Sometimes not even the models themselves are shown, but rather suggestively cropped images of their body parts are displayed.

Perhaps then the shift to recognize that the Abercrombie and Fitch customer of today is the art patron of tomorrow is a more shrewd move than it first appears.  The Royal Academy has long abandoned any real claim to being a true art academy, after all.  I have often observed in these pages that its celebrated Professor of Drawing, British artist Tracy Emin, cannot actually draw, for example.  And indeed, I am not the only one who thinks so, see, e.g. Harry Mount’s recent post.

If many of the prominent artists running things at the Royal Academy are not actually capable of producing good art, but are given a platform by which to spread their gospel of underachievement, it is hardly surprising that the customer base that institution would seek to draw upon consists of those incapable of understanding why hypersexualization of the young has an equally negative impact on the culture. There is a natural fit between the vapid and the vacuous here, rooted in another “v”: vanity.  Clearly there is no aspiration in either of these institutions, academy or shop, to better oneself in an attempt to rise above one’s more bestial impulses.  Rather, self-expression (whatever that is), baseness and incontinence are celebrated; diligence, modesty, and self-control are banished.

If this seems too sweeping a generalization with respect to either of these bodies, gentle reader, bear in mind that the real issue here is not whether I have been painting with too broad a brush, so to speak, in a single blog post.  Rather, we ought to be asking ourselves whether we have so whitewashed over these types of observations so as to not even bother to consider them.  The last few decades have shown us what the effects of a self-obsessed culture, which imposes few standards of any kind upon its members, will bring to the world at large.  Whether it is in the arts or in commerce, lowering our expectations and our standards has served not to make things better, but rather to encourage a general embrace of mediocrity at best, and the institutionalization of plain ignorance, at worst.


Entrance to Abercrombie and Fitch, across from the Royal Academy, London


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Bulldozing Mies van der Rohe

One of the most important architects of the 20th century, love him or hate him, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).  Mies built hugely influential structures in cities like Barcelona, Chicago, and New York which came to define modern architecture around the world.  Yet during his very long career, he only designed one project here in Washington: the Martin Luther King Public Library, located in downtown DC.  Now as the city calls for architects to help expand and re-design the building, it might be a good time to reflect on whether something that is unremarkable needs to be preserved, simply because of who might have been associated with it.

As much as DC likes to claim that the MLK Library is significant because it was designed by Mies, said factor is the only distinguishing feature of the building itself.  There is simply nothing special about this blocky structure, other than its association with this particular architect.  It is the same sort of mechanical, rusty, uninspiring space that was copied over and over again, and could just as easily be a hospital, or a field office of the Social Security Administration, as a public library.

While the exterior of the building is the usual mix of painted steel, smoky glass, and aggregate concrete, all leaking and crumbling away, the interior is just as boring and unremarkable.  Strips of fluorescent lighting run across the ceiling from one side to the other, leading the eye to feast upon either a blank wall, or the street outside, which you suddenly find yourself wishing to go back out to.  Throw in a few copies of Mies’ 1929 Barcelona chairs in the waiting area, and presto – instant architecture!

One of the problems with the school of thought which Mies helped develop, and which put such an indelible stamp on the landscape of cities around the world, is that it allows for little or nothing in the way of regionalism.  The goal of international uniformity at the expense of local cultural expression means that one could simply pick up this rather blah building in DC, plop it down in the middle of a city thousands of miles away, say Hamburg or Dehli, and it would not matter.  This mechanistic quality is a natural follow-on from the ideas of Mies’ contemporaries Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, particularly as exemplified in the latter’s famous characterization of the home as “a machine for living”.  In fact, such thought processes have now become an ingrained way of looking at the world, not only in architecture but in government’s view of its citizens, to the extent that no one dares to question it, or indeed why we should allow ourselves, our homes, or the public buildings which we pay for to be treated as such in the first place.

By contrast, a short distance away from today’s MLK library is the smaller, former central public library.  It was built at the turn of the previous century in the then-fashionable Beaux-Arts style, thanks to an enormous gift from industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and opened to the public in 1903.  It served as the city’s largest reading room until 1970, when the MLK Library was opened, and today houses the city’s historical society.

The old library is an elegant structure, with sweeping marble staircases and symmetrical wings.  It could have been expanded upon almost infinitely as the collection grew, through the use of sensitive additions.  It also fits within the general classical architecture that defines not only most of the major buildings and monuments of Washington, but also the very rational, 18th century layout of the city itself, situated in a large square where a number of important streets and avenues all meet.

Now of course, instead of being prominently placed, the city library is housed inside a boring building on a random street corner, which one could easily walk right past and be forgiven for ignoring, thinking it was just another ho-hum office block.  There are no plans to tear it down, and thus, whatever changes may be made, this public library will look pretty much just as soul-suckingly dull as the old one.  It will not become any the handsomer for all the alterations it is about to physically undergo, thanks to the desire to preserve and celebrate something which ought to have been bulldozed years ago.

To appreciate the work of an artist, one does not need to like everything that they made.  Raphael may be my favorite painter of the Italian High Renaissance, and his was a towering talent indeed.  Yet in all frankness, some of his later pictures in particular are decidedly messy, fussy, and unattractive.  Over time he may have become more accomplished as a dramatist and decorator, but in some cases he had begun to lose the sense of quiet emotion that made his earlier work so powerful, in the rush to get out commissioned pieces to clients.

Similarly, I love Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, with its combination of light, openness, and calm,  It is a clean, but inviting space, which invites the visitor to sit and relax.  It had a tremendous impact on the history of architecture, and we would be lucky to have something like it here in the Nation’s capital.

Yet DC’s lone claim to Mies fame strikes me as being little more than a derivative version of far superior work which he created elsewhere.  For here we see little more than the middling effort of a very famous and very busy man, who left to underlings the job of bringing his ideas into reality. In the end, it is a pity that public funds need to be expended on preserving and expanding upon a structure that has really nothing much at all to commend it.


The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library
Washington, D.C.

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Explaining the Google Doodle: Gaudí’s 161st Birthday

If you dropped by Google this morning you’ll have noticed that today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 161st birthday of the greatest of all Catalan architects, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926):


As he lived a very long, productive life, with a significant output of unique designs for both buildings and decorative art, a single blog post would not be sufficient for me to share all of the fascinating stories one could tell of this talented, deeply Catholic and proudly Catalan figure.  Indeed, his cause for sainthood is presently being considered by the Church, and there are volumes and volumes of material on his life which are being poured over in the Vatican even as I write this.

I thought it might be helpful for those unfamiliar with Gaudí’s work to learn a little bit about the elements of the Google Doodle itself, for your own further research and reading.  From left to right, the illustrations in the doodle represent the entrance to the Park Güell; the interior courtyard of the Casa Milà, more colloquially known as “La Pedrera”; part of tower decoration on the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia; one of the roof ventilators on the roof of La Pedrera; one of the roof ventilators from the Casa Batllo; and another roof ventilator from La Pedrera.  All of these structures are located in the city of Barcelona, as indeed nearly all of the master’s work is as well.  Let’s take each of these in turn, with an accompanying photograph so you can see where Google’s illustrator got his ideas.

The Park Güell was an urban development project which Gaudí undertook at the behest of his greatest patron, Count Eusebi Güell, who liked the then-new English concept of creating planned communities clustered around a common area containing a marketplace, gardens, and other amenities.  Although the project was never fully realized, it is now a public park with sweeping views of the city, and features some highly influential examples of Gaudí’s designs.  One element in particular, his serpentine bench covered in broken tiles, dishes, and glass, a technique known as “trencadis”, is still copied today by furniture designers, for example.


The next section of the Google Doodle, the interior courtyard of the Casa Milà, shows an apartment building on the Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona’s most fashionable street, designed by Gaudí for a wealthy widow.  The exterior of the building, with its curved walls and balconies which resemble dried seaweed, was ridiculed at the time for looking like an abandoned stone quarry or “pedrera”, and the name stuck.  There was originally supposed to be a giant bronze statue of Our Lady of the Rosary at the apex of the building, and a close observer will see the “Ave Maria” carved into the pinnacle where the sculpture was supposed to be placed, but for various reasons this was never completed.  The interior courtyard was a remarkable innovation for the period, creating an open atrium space to allow light and fresh air to penetrate into the interior of the structure, rather than taking up the entire footprint of the lot.


The Google Doodle then shows a detail from the Basilica of the Holy Family, or “Sagrada Familia”, which was the great project of the last part of Gaudí’s life.  It was dedicated by Pope Benedict XVI and raised to the level of a Minor Basilica in 2009, but construction on this massive structure is still ongoing and will likely take at least another couple of decades to complete.  When it is finished it will be the tallest church in the world.  The Sagrada Familia is such a complex structure with so many different elements, styles, etc., that it would be impossible to sum all of those components up here, but the section illustrated in the Doodle is part of the decoration on one of the lower bell towers, of which there are to be twelve representing the twelve Apostles; there are higher bell towers representing the Blessed Virgin, the Four Evangelists, and Jesus Christ to come.  Each of these “Apostle towers” range between 100-115 meters (328-377 feet) tall:


The following segment of the Google Doodle takes us back to La Pedrera, this time to the roof, which features numerous chimneys and ventilation shafts with strange shapes, reminiscent of the Cubist period in Modern Art exemplified by the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.  In fact, both this element and the last element of the Doodle represent just two of the many weird ventilation covers on the roof of the building, which in summer is now a popular venue for jazz concerts and cocktails:

La Pedrera Roof Barcelona

Finally, the green-tiled part of the Google Doodle which appears between the illustrations of the two ventilator shafts from La Pedrera is one of the finials from the Casa Batlló, another apartment building designed by Gaudí for a wealthy client on the Passeig de Gràcia.  This particular residential structure is probably my favorite of Gaudí’s secular works, for it is an embodiment in stone, concrete, tile, metal, and glass of the legend of St. George and the Dragon.  Among other features the facade of the building is covered in tiles shaped like reptilian scales in a rainbow of colors, with a kind of blue-green predominating, and the roof looks like the back of a dragon which has been pierced by St. George’s lance.  Whereas the roof ventilators of La Pedrera are very plain, those on the Casa Batlló are a collection of simple forms in really bright colors:


I hope these little snippets from the output of this unique architect make you want to learn more about him.  He is certainly a polemic figure in the world of architecture, and many people do not care for his work.  However if you approach these structures and designs with a combination of childlike wonder and an appreciation of how deeply Gaudí loved not only his Catholic faith, but also being a Catalan, and celebrating elements of Catalan history and Catholic culture in his work, you will at least be able to marvel at his innovations, even if it is not to your own taste.


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Scribbles from the Courtier

Taking a page from the multi-talented Margaret Perry over at 10kP, I felt it only fair to try to placate my readers with a few notes until I find a bit more time to write a proper blog post.  Looking at the last publication date I realize I have been remiss in writing, but when you do not write for a living – well, not this sort of material, anyway – often real life gets in the way of intellectual pursuits and ruminations.  Therefore please accept this small selection of thoughts until I have a chance to return to normal.

- One of the reasons things have been a bit out of the ordinary of late are the preparations for the upcoming wedding of a good friend.  There are many things that need doing, from the bachelor party to what happens while the couple are away on honeymoon, and this must all be completed in one’s spare time away from the office and other necessary obligations such as eating, sleeping, and attending church.  Some years ago, I rather unfortunately let down a friend of mine who was about to get married, and although our friendship had significantly faded by the time he married, it cam about through a combination of impossible circumstances which led to things ending badly between us.  So although I cannot repair the damage done there, this time I am making sure that I do things properly, hopefully with the maturity and thoughtfulness which I certainly lacked 15 years ago.

- It has been announced that there will be two – yes, TWO – Catholic New Media Conferences this year, sponsored by SQPN, the Star Quest Production Network.  For those who are unaware, for over a year now I have been a regular panelist on the “Catholic Weekend” show on the network, which is an often funny, occasionally serious, discussion of news and happenings of the week in the Catholic world.  This year’s U.S. conference will be held in Boston the weekend of October 19-20, and at least at the moment I plan to attend.  In addition, for the first time SQPN is holding a conference abroad, in Melbourne, Australia on the weekend of September 2-3.  I won’t be attending that one, but if you know of Catholics interested in new media and social media in Australia, I would encourage them to attend.

- Speaking of which, I did a major overhaul of my aggregate website, http://wbdnewton.com to try to make it more interesting, while still being a place to show what I have been working on.  Any feedback you can provide would be most gratefully appreciated.  I am still fidgeting around with some of the different photo choices.

- If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I am doing a series of humorous AVI’s – that’s Twitterspeak for “avatar” or “profile picture” – called “Superman at Home”, in which I don the famous suit and do rather mundane things.  For those of you who use Pinterest, you can now enjoy a gallery of these pictures for your re-pinning entertainment.  On the 1st of each month I change my Twitter avatar and pin a new picture to the Pinterest board, and so far we have seen Superman brushing his teeth, ironing his cape, and crushing his tax returns.  This all stems from my Halloween experience back in 2011, which I wrote about on this blog, though the outgrowth from that experience has turned into a great way to connect with people on social media.  So many of the things I write about on here tend to be rather heavy, and often get the comment that I was somehow intimidating when that certainly is not my intent in these pages, that I wanted to show that I do not take myself overly seriously.  I can and do laugh at myself all the time, and now you can too.


Detail of “Portrait of a Young Man with a Book” by Agnolo Bronzino  (c. 1525)
Private Collection


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