Tag Archives: design

Putting on the Big Pants

One of the continued problems with contemporary architecture is its tendency to vacillate almost exclusively between only two extremes: the banal and the kitsch.  On the banal end of things we have an endless parade of glass curtain walls and concrete/metal boxes, sometimes with facing in other materials, which are viewed as safe since they are interchangeable, irrespective of where they are built.  Pick up a contemporary K Street office building from Washington and plop it down in the middle of Stockholm or Singapore amidst other such boxes, and no one would find it strange.  These are the sorts of projects that city planners and landowners tend to like, since they can fill these spaces easily with businesses or residents.

On the other side of things we have attempts to look like something other than a box.  These projects may initially capture the imagination of those planning them, but upon completion strike viewers as ill-conceived or utterly impractical.  Frank Gehry’s now-iconic Guggenheim Bilbao is one example, since for all of its flash and acclaim, the building is leaking and falling apart.  Though my personal favorite has always been Philip Johnson’s dreadful AT&T building in New York, with its ridiculously amateurish, giant broken pediment roofline, that looks as though it was designed by a Looney Tunes matte artist for some sequence involving Bugs Bunny being chased across Manhattan by Elmer Fudd.

However sometimes the project does not even need to near completion, before people realize that there has been a terrible mistake somewhere.  Such is the case with a British-designed building currently under construction in the city of Suzhou, China, a structure known as the “Gate to the East”.  The massive project, which features a pair of skyscrapers connected at the top, is supposed to resemble a triumphal arch, symbolizing China’s arrival on the world stage.  Yet the more people look at it, the more it reminds them of a giant pair of long underpants.  It has caused some in China to (understandably) question why it is that their country seems to be commissioning and building more and more odd-looking buildings from Western architects.

Part of the reason for what we might call a “Wild West” architectural movement in the PRC is that China is one of the few places in the world at the moment which not only wants lots of new buildings, so that it can bulldoze the poor out of the sight of Western television crews, but also has the cash to pay for them.  For somewhat different reasons, the wealthy emirate of Dubai has been another locale for bizarre-looking building projects, such as a hotel shaped like an incomplete sailboat, or artificial islands laid out to look like a palm tree from space.  This has been driven by Dubai very sensibly thinking about what will happen when the oil runs out, so that at least there will be nice, shiny buildings for tourists to look at, as the country morphs into some sort of Koranic Las Vegas.

While China and Dubai are – at least compared to much of the rest of the world anyway – doing just fine economically, those who pour their funds into such experimental architecture ought to remember that much of what they are building is doomed for the scrap heap, thanks to poor design and a pernicious effort to try to make people like things which they simply cannot in good conscience accept as a good building.  Modern untested materials and methods combined with bizarre building shapes often become hated eyesores within less than a generation, even as more traditional construction fades into ruin in a sympathetic way.  Thus, the fact that so much of the formerly grand hotels, public buildings, and homes in places like Havana or Detroit for example, are still standing in a kind of spectacularly beautiful decline, is a tribute to the men who built them.  Meantime, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that the comparatively recent Boston City Hall and its courtyard, which looks like the setting for some sort of space-age auto-da-fe, is anything but a crumbling, hulking disaster which no one at present has the courage to tackle.

There is much to be said for trying new things in architecture, for by doing so we can create buildings that better serve their purpose.  Imagine how much more pleasant, for example, it is to be a patient in a hospital where all of the rooms receive plenty of fresh air and sunlight via modern methods of air circulation and an expansive use of glass, for those who cannot get out of bed or outside unassisted, and think about how much more hygienic a trip to the market is today than it was 50 or 100 years ago.  These are thanks to improvements in engineering and in architecture in understanding how to effectively use different materials and ways of looking at buildings.

Yet not everything that is new is necessarily better.  Simply because a starchitect tells us that a new building is the latest and greatest thing to appear on the planet since Mr. Obama does not mean that either statement is true.  And in the case of building a giant pair of pants, one cannot help but feel that if the Chinese wanted a triumphal arch, they ought simply to have built one.

The “Gate to the East” building, currently under construction
Suzhou, China


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Cuckoos from the Ashes

Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, Western culture developed a fixation on bringing ugliness out of the ruins of loveliness, at least when it comes to the rebuilding of churches destroyed in wars or natural disasters.  We can all point to some examples of how these shotgun weddings between prelate and architect in recent decades usually turned out to be an unhappy ones for the rest of us to behold.  So with a significant new church-building project beginning to take shape in Haiti, which will no doubt garner a great deal of international attention, one cannot help but wonder whether what will rise from the ashes of that country will be not a glorious phoenix, but rather a marauding cuckoo.

The reader is no doubt familiar with the mythological phoenix, a bird which sets itself on fire in order to produce an egg.  After this self-destruction, a magnificent offspring hatches and rises from the ashes, symbolizing new life coming from death.  This is one reason why the phoenix was adopted very early on in Christian iconography as a symbol which would remind the viewer of how Jesus rose from the dead.

Of course from ornithology we know that no species of bird actually comes into the world in this way, but we do know about the rather curious way that a cuckoo is hatched.  Many species of cuckoo lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, in what is known as parasitic brooding.  When the fledgling cuckoo hatches, it kills its adopted siblings in the nest, or the cuckoo’s “birth parents” will kill the other little birds for it.  [N.B.: Next time you smile at the charm of hearing the chirping of a cuckoo clock, you might think about that gentle bit of nature.]

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, international relief focused on caring for the physical needs of those who survived it.  Burying the dead, tending to the wounded, and feeding, clothing, and sheltering the survivors were of primary importance.  Infrastructure had to be rebuilt, services restored, and the like, in a desperately poor country which never really had much of these things to begin with.  At the same time however, the majority Catholic population of Haiti needed to have their spiritual needs attended to, since food rations and water alone do not provide hope for something beyond surviving the next 24 hours.

The losses to the Haitian Catholic community as a result of the earthquake were staggering.  Not only was the historic Cathedral in Port-au-Prince completely destroyed, along with many other churches, but so were the offices of the Archdiocese and the Apostolic Nunciature, i.e. the Vatican embassy.  Even more tragically, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, the Vicar-General of the Archdiocese, and dozens of seminarians were among those killed in the disaster.

More than two years have passed since the earthquake, and now an architectural competition is underway to submit designs for a new Cathedral in Port-au-Prince.  A look at the photographs displayed on the website for the competition reveals the extent of the devastation of the old building, and why it is almost certainly impossible to rebuild the cathedral to look as it was before the disaster.  According to the competition site, the destruction was made all the more complete by the theft of metal from the ruins of the Cathedral, including the zinc frames holding the few remaining stained glass windows that might otherwise have been preserved.

Part of me wishes that the place could be rebuilt, since it was such a lovely and appropriate building.  It was a very feminine, graceful church, mixing Victorian Neo-Gothic with some of the fantastical elements we see in contemporary French churches of the time, such as the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. And the pastel pink and white color scheme used both on the interior and exterior of the building spoke of its Caribbean heritage.

However this is not to be, and if recent examples are anything to go by, I am afraid the Haitian people had better prepare themselves for the arrival of a rather ugly hatching in their midst. For example, the once-majestic Coventry Cathedral in England, which was destroyed during World War II, was replaced with a dark, oppressive, brick and concrete monstrosity. The lavishly-decorated Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, which was also destroyed in World War II, received two utterly godless glass boxes which are locally referred to as the “lipstick case” and “powder box”, since they look like late 50′s/early 60′s accessories from a lady’s purse.

A recent example from this side of the pond is perhaps my personal favorite – if “favorite” is the right word for such horrors. Even before he used the excuse of damage from the 1994 Northridge Quake in California,  Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles had been trying to have the lovely old Cathedral of St. Vibiana demolished, so that he could build something more in keeping with his appallingly bad taste on the same site. After years of legal battles with the city, historic preservation groups, his own parishioners, and so on, the Archdiocese finally obtained land nearby, on which was built a monstrosity popularly known as the Taj Mahoney. The lovely old Cathedral was de-consecrated, and turned into a local community cultural center – which, by the way, is still standing just fine, thanks very much.

I will admit that I am, to some degree, rolling out the “jump to conclusions mat” with regard to this design competition for the new Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. After all, the submissions have not even been entered yet, let alone the three finalists selected. And once a winner is chosen, it will still take many years and many millions of dollars in fundraising to build the winning design.

That being said, it is important to keep in mind that churches are not structures which are built every day. They are first and foremost buildings whose purpose is to glorify God, and serve as a place to worship Him.  From a practical standpoint a cathedral, which is the church that serves as the seat of the local bishop, is a monumental undertaking, particularly when it is being built in a country’s capital. Cathedrals always feature prominently in both the religious and secular life of a city, not only in their primary role as the House of God, but also as venues for the Church to receive and meet with members of the local community and with civic authorities.

Before anything gets decided, those who make the final selection for this competition should keep in mind not only the past and the future of Haiti, but also the unique opportunity they have to build something beautiful and inspiring that will last for centuries. Anyone who looks at the three examples I gave in this post and concludes that the replacements were better than the originals should not be allowed anywhere near a voting slip in this matter.  A country like Haiti, which is so much in need of hope after unimaginable devastation and sadness, ought not to put its resources into building something that is trendy now, and then maligned less than a generation later. In looking to the future, I would challenge the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince to remember that over the past 2,000 years, time and again history has shown that the most glorious, lasting, and well-loved houses of worship are those which seek to put God first.

Cathedral of The Assumption, prior to the 2010 earthquake
Port-au-Prince, Haiti

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Preserving Our Unique Capital City

Over the past week here in the Nation’s Capital there has been a fair amount of chatter about the possibility of raising the building height restrictions which have kept the  Washington skyline relatively low to the horizon over the past century.  Among a number of other commentators, Harry Jaffe had an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner explaining why this was all about greed, and Josh Barro gave his own views in The Atlantic as to why New York is a much better city than Washington, in part because D.C. has such restrictive building codes, including the height restriction.  As it happens  I have written previously about why height restrictions in D.C. should not be loosened in any way.  To paraphrase the Emperor Charles V, when he saw what had been done to the Grand Mosque in the city of Córdoba after Spain had been reconquered from the Moors, people are seeking to build something here which might be found anywhere in the world, and in the process will destroy something truly unique.

The first issue we have to confront head-on is an architectural one.  The heart of the ongoing design problem of the vast majority of contemporary architecture is its bland disposability. People tend to focus on unique and interesting-looking modern buildings, such as The Gherkin in London, and forget that these are the exception, rather than the rule, in architecture today.  No matter how high you build a tall building, 99% of the time it is never going to be much more than a box of kleenex stood on end. Even worse, occasionally you get something like the laughably awful Sony Tower in New York, by the grossly-overrated architect Philip Johnson, who tried to differentiate his box of kleenex from the others by putting a giant broken pediment on top, and only ended up creating a rather expensive bit of kitsch.

This is not to say that all tall buildings are uniformly awful. Architects of the 1920′s and 1930′s for example, managed to produce some interesting and lovely ones, such as the Chrysler Building and the American Radiator Building in Manhattan. Yet again, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, particularly because the idea of integrated ornamentation that enlivens the skyline and makes us want to soar like a bird is a rare commodity these days. Either we get the steel and glass box in the colors du jour, or we get some half-hearted attempt at stretching out semi-traditional-looking architecture past the point of ridiculousness, like a Victorian shopfront wrung through a pasta roller.

As Mr. Jaffe points out in The Examiner, there is nothing to be gained by increasing building heights in the Nation’s Capital, apart from making money. Those of us who are not in one of the circles where such money will be made, but rather simply live in, work in, or visit this city, will suffer the consequences of higher rents and taxes, to begin with. Never mind the fact, by the way, that there is plenty of undeveloped or underdeveloped land all around the city where at the present time there are only unimportant one and two-story buildings waiting to be knocked down, and where new communities well-within the existing height restrictions could be built.

And with a precedent of adding two more stories to buildings in Washington, why should we stop there? Why not add five, or ten, or twenty? In other words, why can’t we just try to be like New York, as indeed Mr. Barro advocates in his article?

The point of course is that Washington is not New York – and thank goodness for that.  The real estate market is not always easy here, but on the other hand one does not to hire a real estate broker to try to snag an apartment at a ridiculously inflated price plus commission.  Nor does one have to settle for a dark railroad car apartment with no outside space, which looks out onto some alley on 7th Avenue.  Those of my readers who live in Washington know that it is not at all unreasonable to want and to get outdoor living space when one is house-hunting here – whether a balcony, terrace, patio, or even an entire back yard – which in Manhattan would be positively unheard of, unless one counts sitting on a fire escape “outdoor living”.

What makes the Nation’s Capital special is that when you look out across it, you see dozens of parks large and small, noble monuments to those who loved this country, and low, restrained buildings in various architectural styles such as Federal, Victorian, Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, International Modern, and so on.  We have hundreds and hundreds of magnificent, beautiful trees all over this city, lining our streets in ways which cities like New York could not even dream of attempting, now.  And with the trees in blossom during the past two months, in green leaf now, and with the autumn to follow, there is a vibrant, natural canopy over the entire town that makes it a wonderful place to walk, pause, and enjoy nature in ways which other cities, who have built too high, must concentrate only in a few central locations.

Anyone who has visited Manhattan for example knows that, as exciting a city as it is, at least for a few days, it is very easy to feel a sense of darkness, claustrophobia, and malaise within a very short period of time. Most of the gigantic buildings that make New York so lovely from a distance are actually rather oppressive up close. For every beautiful Chrysler Building there are dozens of unremarkable concrete boxes that provide no shelter to the passerby, block the sun and air, and are distinguished only by their dirt and ugliness.

Those cities which have tried to copy New York City, assuming without foundation that it sets the standard for how all cities ought to look, usually end up ruining much of their unique character in the process.  Take a look at whatever vista you can manage from street level in cities like Philadelphia or Shanghai, and compare them to photographs of what these places once looked like before they Manhattan-ized themselves, and you realize that there is an appalling sameness to all of these places now, which were once beautiful in their own way.

Moreover, the reasons why you have to fit so many people onto the island of Manhattan or other urban centers do not exist here in Washington.  The only industry in this city is the Federal government: there is no shipping, manufacturing, finance, publishing, entertainment, etc. to really speak of, certainly as compared to New York City.  Why do we need to make ourselves look like a city with which we have virtually nothing in common?

Even with large, grand buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, or glass office blocks along K Street, there is still a feeling of the small American town about this place.  You walk under the trees, rather than under giant buildings funneling dirt and debris through murky canyons and down into your eyes, your skin, and all over your clothes.  Anyone who has wiped their face with a white towel after stepping off the street in Manhattan knows exactly what I mean.

As I see it, Washington’s strength as a city is its relative smallness, and its human scale.  The tallest and most prominent buildings inside this oddly-shaped former parcel of Maryland are those which speak to the nobility of what man can achieve when he acts selflessly, rather than when he celebrates his own powers of acquisition.  I hope that Congress continues to see sense, and leave the Nation’s Capital the way it is.  Flawed it may be, but it remains uniquely beautiful.

View of tree-covered Washington from the National Cathedral


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Mondrian and You: How Art Shapes Your Life

Today is the birthday of the great Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).  His name may not be familiar to some of you, but chances are you will recognize his work, or imitations of it.  The occasion of his birthday gives us a good opportunity to look at how art can have a practical impact on your life, even if you are unaware of that fact.

Mondrian worked in various styles over his career, but he is most famous for his very simple, precise combinations of lines painted in black and white, with blocks of primary colors used here and there, which was part of a movement known as “De Stijl” (“The Style”, in Dutch), and what Mondrian himself called “Neoplasticism”.  He developed his grid format after World War I, and it exploded in popularity during the Jazz Age of the 1920′s and 1930′s.  While he was not alone in painting in this way, nor did he originate the movement which his work is classified as being a part of, today he is certainly the most well-known member of it.

The De Stijl movement was not just about creating abstract painting and sculpture however: it was viewed as being, to use a modern parlance, something of a lifestyle.  If artists such as Mondrian had only created works of art in order to express themselves in the form of high culture, to be placed on museum walls and in gallery display cabinets, then they would simply have been another among many isolated groups of creative thinkers on the long timeline of Western history.  Yet as is so often the case, art and real life commingled in some interesting, practical ways.

The members of the De Stijl movement, including Mondrian, thought that art and design ought not to be separated, but rather that they should work in harmony with one another.  Thus in an ideal situation, a painter like Mondrian could create canvases for a home which a De Stijl architect was building.  Another member of the movement would design furniture and practical objects for the house, while another would design book bindings, album covers, magazines, and so on, all of which would coordinate with “The Style”.

This way of thinking may seem a very modern and efficient way of doing things, but it was not unique.  Throughout Western history there are many instances of artists who created high culture objects such as paintings and sculptures, using architecture and design to try to achieve a unified whole, often by working with others who could make their concepts real.  Thus, the Renaissance master Raphael, about one of whose paintings I wrote on Monday, was not only an artist, but designed everything from villas to tapestries; Peter Paul Rubens, the great Dutch painter of the 17th century, did the same.  And Edward Burne-Jones, one of the preeminent English painters of the 19th century, also designed stained glass, books, and even theatre sets and costumes.  None of these men actually sat in the factory and wove a tapestry, laid brick, or leaded glass, but they worked with those who did so, to try to integrate their own aesthetics with the creation of places and objects that were in harmony with their artistic vision of how the world ought to be.

While they had a number of ideas about remaking the world in their own image, during their heyday the members of the De Stijl movement never really succeeded in fully integrating the artistic production of members like Mondrian with the practicalities of daily life in the form of  homes, furniture, and so on, apart from a small handful of completed projects.  Perhaps they were too cerebral, or too lacking in resources, to be able to convince people that they should be allowed to have control over things like manufacturing.  However, the legacy of Mondrian and his fellow Dutch modernists is, in a broad sense, something which you may very well be sitting in, as you read this blog post.

Shortly after the De Stijl artistic and design movement began in Holland, in neighboring Germany a parallel creative movement got underway.  Although somewhat different in their philosophies, both shared a utopian view of the future, an appreciation for machines and geometry, and a desire to create an integrated whole so as to transform society for what they hoped would be better, particularly after the horrors which all had witnessed during World War I.  When architect Walter Gropius set up his legendary design school called the “Bauhaus”  in 1919, some of the first instructors at the school were Dutch members of the De Stijl movement.  While Mondrian remained at work in Paris, painting his geometric canvases, some of his fellow members of “The Style” were working with their German colleagues to produce everything from apartment buildings and chairs, to forks, knives, and spoons.

When Hitler closed down the Bauhaus in 1933, and World War II broke out, that might have been the end of the story.  Except as it happens, many of the artists, architects, and designers of both the De Stijl and the Bauhaus movements fled to America, including Mondrian himself.  In the United States they found not only the practical resources necessary to be able to achieve their vision, but an audience eager and willing to receive it.  As a result, the influence on American art, architecture, and everyday objects, inspired by the work of people like Mondrian and others who were originally involved in these parallel European movements, is all around you.

The question of whether their work is any good, I will not broach in this particular blog post; there are many good things which came out of the influences of these movements, but there were also many negative things as well.  My point here is not to engage in a systematic, critical analysis of their work, but rather to show how something which some might think solely the purview of those who go to art museums and galleries, can have a tremendous, practical impact on everyday aspects of our lives.  So the next time you pick up a pen or a coffee cup decorated with clean, geometric designs in black and white, with a few blocks of red, yellow, and blue, perhaps you will think of the work of Piet Mondrian, and how the influence of art is much broader than just within the artistic community.

Lozenge Composition with Red, Gray, Blue, Yellow, and Black by Piet Mondrian (1924/5)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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Giving You a Piece of My Mind

One of the most important pieces of advice for those who engage in any kind of public communications practice is to know your audience. Whether you are giving a speech, writing a blog post, or tweeting a comment, having some idea of the knowledge possessed by your audience will help you to get your point across effectively. At the same time, we ought not to shy away from opening up the possibility for discussion in an area with which perhaps the members of our audience may not be familiar. There is a fine line to walk between engaging the listener/reader and having their eyes glaze over, but we have a duty not only to encourage a greater curiosity about the world in which we live, but also to have people stop and ask questions about why we are the way we are.

This was brought home to me yesterday in court when, in chatting with opposing counsel and the court reporter, I made reference to the great Japanese-American furniture designer Isamu Noguchi. This took place in the context of a discussion over what to do with the remaining remnants of the trunk of a fallen black walnut tree. The blank stares I received brought home to me that this audience was not aware of Noguchi’s work, but it also gave me a brief opportunity to explain it to them.  To my relief, an explanation of Noguchi’s method turned the lead balloon into something more buoyant.

Noguchi, for those of my readers who are unfamiliar with his work, wore many artistic hats, including that of sculptor and landscape architect.  However he is perhaps most famous in this country for his extraordinary furniture designs. While his work as a conventional sculptor leaves me unimpressed, his furniture concepts, beginning with the creation of the now-iconic “Noguchi Table” in 1939 for MoMA, then later collaboration with the legendary Herman Miller furniture company, and continuing on his own later in his career to combine furniture and sculpture using monumental materials, are oftentimes extraordinary examples of sensitivity to the natural form.

Particularly as he got older, Noguchi became more interesting as he moved away from the amoeba-like forms that defined the earlier period of his output, forms which were copied by so many lesser furniture companies that the idea eventually became rather diluted and somewhat kitsch. Later in life he began to use massive boulders, stones and ancient timbers to create seating, tables, and the like by paying attention to the natural formation of the material, with its strengths and weaknesses, cracks and fault lines, and working on a piece just to the point where he felt it was no longer in the rough, and yet still maintained its raw natural qualities. Earlier designers from the Art Nouveau period, such as Gaudí, would have greatly appreciated his thought process and output.

The idea here is not (necessarily) to have the reader form an opinion about the work of this particular designer, but to illustrate a point. If you have never heard of Noguchi before, now you have. I have given you a very basic, indeed perhaps overly simplistic, concept of his approach to design which is now resident in your head. Not to be too precious about it, but I have shared some of my knowledge with you, almost as if I had downloaded a copy of part of my brain into yours.

Consider the many implications and possibilities of what that means, and what a powerful thing it is to share your knowledge of things you are fascinated by with others. I have planted an idea in your head: will it germinate? Will you take the time to go read about Noguchi, Herman Miller, American mid-century art, and so on?

Now imagine that we are not talking about a Japanese-American designer and his appreciation of nature, but rather that we are talking about something at a higher level. If during a drinks party chat I tell you, an agnostic who is curious about why the Catholic Church believes what it does in the face of so many competing modern philosophies, briefly about the work of G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, what might the end result be? If we are sitting on a train and not going anywhere anytime soon, and you raise some points about American history and culture that seem misinformed, so I point you toward someone like Alexis de Tocqueville, is there the chance that you may look into his ideas and subsequently change your own? And what would happen then?

My fellow Catholics know that we must always remain aware of Christ’s command that we go teach all nations, as something we could be called to act upon at any moment. Sometimes, like the Apostle St. Philip when he met the Ethiopian court official on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza in Acts 8:26-40, we have one of those moments when a real opportunity for engaging in apologetics, or discussion of natural law, arises because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. However we do not necessarily need to go about looking for people on the road to Gaza, Emmaus, Rome, or anywhere else for that matter.  It is in how we live and interact with other people that we can provide such an opportunity.

If the people whom we meet professionally or socially find us to be interesting, well-rounded individuals, who want to educate ourselves about the world in which we live while at the same time maintaining the ideals and standards we believe in, we will naturally find ourselves in the kinds of teaching situations described above, even if we are not aware of it ourselves at the time. We do not know what little seed we will plant, that will later germinate into something grand and beautiful, as a result of sharing a bit of our own thinking with others.  The important point is to plant it, and hope that it takes root.  And like in Noguchi’s naturalistic designs, we can only hope that the beauty of Creation, which is ultimately a reflection of the beauty of God Himself, will come through.

The Noguchi Table

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