Repurposed Urbanism: New Uses for Old Technology in New York, DC

In a few weeks, I’m looking forward to finally seeing American artist Richard Estes’ masterpiece, “Telephone Booths”, which is in the permanent collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. This is one of the greatest examples of Photorealism, a genre developed back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s by American artists like Estes and Chuck Close, and one of the few movements in Modern Art where one can be genuinely dazzled by the technical skill of the artist. Sadly, scenes such as that painted by Estes in this work are no longer as common as they once were, because the phone booth has become obsolete. (If you’ve ever tried to find one so that you can change and spring into action, you know what I’m talking about.)

Interestingly though, phone booths are making something of a comeback in New York City of late. Long abandoned to the whims of vandals and street artists – though I repeat myself – these formerly ubiquitous sentinels of urbanism are finding new life as WiFi kiosks. When I was in New York two weeks ago, I noticed one directly outside my favorite pizza place in Murray Hill.

Yet even as they are repurposed, it is nevertheless stunning to learn that there are only four proper, glass phone booths left on the streets of Manhattan. It is impossible to imagine movies like “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” without these objects, yet now they have become as elusive as Fabergé eggs. Telephone booths, be they open or glass-enclosed, are what we might call “urban furniture”, which always changes when technology changes.

For example, there are no lamplighters patrolling America’s streets anymore, lighting gas street lamps at twilight and putting them out at dawn. Coming across a working gas streetlamp in most major cities today would be something exceedingly rare. An unusual variant of the gas lamp persisted for quite awhile in the Nation’s capital, however.

Here in DC, many of the thousands of former police and fire call boxes, which were first installed in the city around the time of the Civil War, did not require the assistance of lamplighters. They were permanently lit by gas lamps from within, so that the public could see to contact authorities in any weather, any time of day or night. Thus, even in the thick fog that sometimes rolls in off the Potomac in Winter, or the torrential downpours of our standard Summer, the lamps of these boxes would still be visible.

By the 1920’s, all of the call boxes had been converted to electric; by the 1960’s, thanks to acts of vandalism and the generally poor behavior and bad taste of the Baby Boomers, they began to be taken out of service. Today, many are being converted for use as historic district markers, or as permanent display stands for commissioned art. Here is a terrific history of both the boxes and the efforts to repurpose them for the benefit of the communities and visitors who come across them.

Like the phone booth, albeit in a more limited fashion, the call box served the purpose of communicating the need for aid. Today, the overwhelming majority of members of the public carry around individual devices which serve this purpose, and more. Yet while phone booths and call boxes allowed a certain degree of safety and communication to be shared among residents and visitors to particular neighborhoods, even with the degree of individual privacy afforded by the glass telephone booth, now these common spaces have been eliminated in favor of a kind of individual responsibility. I don’t have to share space or technology, let alone seek safety merely by being in proximity to anyone else, because I’m expected to carry my own device for that purpose.

What will be interesting to see in the future, after WiFi is replaced with the next big development in technology – Skynet, anyone? – is what will become of the repurposed phone booths, once they are no longer needed for this new purpose. Will they become community plant stands? Rentable spaces in which to conduct (legal) business transactions?

My guess is that, more likely than not, they will they finally be removed for scrap, the detritus of an earlier, seemingly more primitive, but in some ways infinitely better-connected society.


Telephone Booths by Richard Estes (1968)

What Lies Beneath: Technology Reveals Hidden Art Treasure

In a study published today in the journal Applied Physics A, scientists have revealed some fascinating discoveries concerning a work by the great Dutch artist Rembrandt von Riijn (1606-1669) – revealing a painting which has not seen the light of day for nearly 400 years.

Art researchers were long aware that underneath The Getty’s portrait, “An Old Man in Military Costume”, painted circa 1630-1631, another portrait existed. The image was first perceived in the 1960’s through x-rays of the panel, but until now only a ghostly idea of the appearance of the original painting was known. Forty years later, using a number of modern imaging techniques, scientists have been able to digitally reconstruct what remains of the original image, which is reproduced below.   

This is not the first time a Rembrandt has been perceived to lie beneath a Rembrandt. If you’ve seen – and if you’ve not, you should – the very interesting Frederick Wiseman documentary, “National Gallery”, about London’s finest art museum, you’ll recall that as a result of cleaning and study of Rembrandt’s equestrian portrait of Frederick Rihel (c. 1663), another painting by Rembrandt was discovered. Not only did the artist re-use the painting itself, but he incorporated a few elements of the first image into the image we see today. Strangely, this was possible even though in doing so, Rembrandt rotated the canvas 90 degrees, from a horizontal to a vertical orientation.

Rembrandt was not the only artist to use old paintings as the base for new ones. In addition to which, museums have been x-raying pictures for decades now, trying to understand their composition and oftentimes determine their authorship, through close examination against known examples by the same artist. Yet because of the possibilities offered by high resolution scanners and the like, more and more researchers are finding themselves having to reconsider what they thought they knew about artists whom they have spent their entire careers studying.

The first point to be made about this, quite naturally, is an easy one: ain’t modern times grand? Technology has advanced to the point where, without invasive techniques, scientists are able to go about their work without irreparably damaging what it is that they are studying. In archaeology for example, until comparatively recently the only way to tell whether anything was inside a tomb was by excavating it. Now, in one of the most intriguing theories in contemporary Egyptology, there is serious discussion about using ground-penetrating radar to determine whether Queen Nefertiti, purported mother of King Tut – i.e., the Pharaoh Tutankhamun  – is buried in a hitherto unknown sealed chamber next to his burial in the Valley of the Kings. This latest theory regarding the final resting place of the most famous of all Egyptian beauties, as it happens, only came to light through the use of modern technological analysis of the tomb, in combination with existing research on architecture of the period.

Now for those who are not particularly interested in art or archaeology, these advancements with regard to perceiving things which we cannot perceive with the naked eye can be of tremendous personal benefit. For example, if you have undergone a sonogram to examine the health of your unborn baby, you know that catching potential problems early can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of your health, as well as that of your child. Not to mention, of course, that you will be able to carry around a photographic still from the sonogram to show family and friends.

For those who *are* interested in the arts however, the use of technology to gain greater insight into the means and methods by which great works of art were created, and ancient buildings constructed, is only going to improve over time. One suspects that more museums and galleries are going to seek analysis of their paintings, to try to figure out what is sitting in front of them, covered by a thin veil of paint. Perhaps it will even be possible, one day, to remove the top layer of paint on a molecular level and transfer it to canvas, and for the curator to suddenly find himself the proud caretaker of not one, but two Old Master paintings.

Admittedly, that might be going a bit far, but who knows? Fifty years ago, no one knew that the Getty Rembrandt was painted over another Rembrandt. It took forty years to be able to “see” that earlier Rembrandt properly. We have no idea what the next forty or fifty years will bring.


Seen And Unseen: Drones Reveal Architectural Splendor

One of the most intriguing technological developments of recent years for the commercial market has been the drone, or more specifically, the micro Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). These tiny, light, HD camera-wielding flying machines are used to make all sorts of fun videos such as this one. Drones have proven to be a huge hit with backyard air traffic controlers, pranksters, and aspiring action movie directors around the world.

Yet with all their modern, gee-whiz capabilities, these machines also have the power to make us pause and wonder at the achievements of those who came before us, particularly when it comes to the centuries of magnificent art and architecture sponsored by the Church. A recent post on brought together eleven astounding videos of Christian monuments around the world, including Mont Sant Michel in Brittany, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, among others. Each was filmed, in whole or in part, using a drone, thereby bringing the viewer never before seen footage of these places. All eleven of these Catholic structures showcase the continuity and yet at the same time diversity of design in the Church across nearly a millennia in this sampling.

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat about either Utrecht or Canterbury Cathedrals, which are featured in the post linked to above, I would point out a few facts. Both cathedrals were designed and built by Catholics, for use by Catholics, long before they were later… appropriated by others. They were not torn down as so many others were. Thus, whatever may have befallen them on the inside, these two churches remain largely Catholic works of art on the outside.

Regardless, it must be said that the possibilities raised by drone technology are potentially endless, when it comes to the renovation and preservation of sacred art and architecture. Imagine, a parish needing an assessment of a leaky belfry could fly up a drone to shoot some video for potential contractors. A cathedral seeking to determine what shape the ceiling frescoes are in could film closeups of the surface for art experts located hundreds of miles away, without ever erecting a scaffold. Art researchers could take a look at carved ceiling bosses located high inside an ancient monastery chapel halfway around the world from the comfort of their own office.

Getting back to the point, such opportunities are wonderful moments to ask others to take another look at the Church they think they know. It is hard to watch the drone video of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for example, and not want to visit its many ornate stone spires. Who knows what thoughts or experiences may cross such a pilgrim’s path on the Camino?

Technology is certainly a means for us to imagine the future. Clearly it can also be a way for us to better understand the past. And in the sacred context, by revealing the hidden splendor of these places it can bring before our eyes imagery which corresponds to the vision of the Psalmist: “I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go up unto the House of the Lord.”