Saturday, June 30, 2012

How do we like Ike? Let me count the ways...

Yet another controversy is brewing over a proposed monument in Washington D.C. Last year there was the tumult over the Martin Luther King Memorial when it opened on the southwestern edge of the National Mall. The gargantuan likeness in stone of the civil rights leader was not the work of an American sculptor, but outsourced to China, much to the chagrin of detractors who, correctly I believe, felt that the commission should have gone to someone slightly more local.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt monument a few steps away caused a stir when advocates supporting the rights of the disabled, objected to the focal point of the monument, a statue of the 32nd president whose cape partially obscurs the wheel chair in which he is sitting. The problem was solved by adding a second statue where FDR's wheelchair was in the open for all to see.

Before that, the World War II Memorial just west of the Washington Monument was roundly criticized for its location, blocking the previously unobstructed view between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monuments. The mother of all monumental battles took place in the 1980s when a controversial design by an undergraduate architecture student at Yale won the competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. You can read about those two monuments (and others) here.

The truth is, none of the monuments in our nation's capital were built without controversy including the two most famous, those dedicated to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington respectively. So it should come as no surprise that the latest projected monument, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, would also stir up a fuss. What is surprising is the fact that the most vociferous critics of the planned memorial, are none other than the family of the general and president.

A closed competition was held with 44 entries being solicited by the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. The Commission selected the entry of Frank Gehry, arguably this country's most prominent architect. As has been the current trend in monument design since the Korean War Memorial in the 1990s, Gehry's monument is expansive and didactic; the design covers many aspects of the life of Eisenhower, going all the way back to his boyhood in Kansas.  A statue of the young Ike seated on a plank was to be the centerpiece of the memorial. Eisenhower's family felt the man who was at the helm of the command of Allied Forces during World War II and the 34th President of the United States would better be served remembered in those capacities, rather than as a barefoot farm boy in Kansas. The architect agreed to shift the focus of his monument to the adult Ike. Other changes have been requested and for his part, Gehry has been uncharacteristically amenable to the changes in the design.

Nonetheless, the good feeling from the architect has done little to dissuade detractors who oppose the current design for many reasons. There is you may have guessed, a blog devoted to the subject. It's title: "The Truth About the Eisenhower Memorial" leaves little to the imagination as to where the sympathies of its authors lie.

From that site, here are two letters from the Eisenhower family that enumerate their objections to Gehry's design.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Here's a post criticizing the memorial on philosophical and design grounds from Howard Blackson, a design and urban affairs specialist who is a contributor to the PlaceShakers blog.

On the flip side of the coin, here is a New York Times OpEd piece written by Witold Rybczynski who serves on the United States Commission of Fine Arts (one of the bodies that approved Gehry's design). Rybczynski makes a valid point that the monument will suffer if too many voices have their say about the final design. I agree wholeheartedly. One need only go a few blocks away from the site of the proposed monument to view the mess that is the WWII Memorial to see the effects of compromise, the inevitable result of "too many cooks in the kitchen." When it comes to a public memorial, perhaps we'd all be better off with a benevolent art czar/dictator hand picking an artist who is granted carte blanche in the design and execution of the project. The WWII Memorial proved that design by committee is rarely successful.

But I have a far more radical idea. Why not just can the whole idea?

Don't get me wrong, I think Dwight Eisenhower is among the most important Americans of the Twentieth Century. If anyone deserves a monument in the District of Columbia, (anyone who doesn't already have one that is), it is he. No my problem isn't with the subject, it's with the monuments. Something unsettling happened after the creation of the Vietnam Memorial in the 1980s. That particular monument evoked a public response that was remarkable. Since then there has been an explosion of proposals for monuments on the National Mall, each one attempting to replicate the scope, power and impact of "The Wall". So far all of them have failed to come close.

Part of the problem is that designers of the new monuments failed to take a cue from successful monuments of the past, namely that less is more. What evokes Washington D.C. and the memories of their subjects more than the utter simplicity of the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial?

The power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial also lies in its simplicity. Stone slabs cut into the ground bear the names of the 58,000 fallen American servicemen and women. Its straightforward design inspires visitors, loved ones and strangers alike, to leave personal mementoes at the foot of the Wall, and take rubbings of the inscribed names. Most of the visitors today to The Wall have no direct connection at all, many of them are school groups on their ritual tour of Washington. They may be going through the motions but many can't help being moved, the vast ocean of names of the dead is too overwhelming. I have little doubt that the Vietnam Memorial, like its neighbor the Lincoln Memorial, will continue to evoke great passion long after the generation that inspired it is long gone.

It's a fallacy to believe that the impact of the Wall can ever be duplicated given the unique nature of the War in Vietnam. That hasn't stopped the deluge of proposals for new memorials, all conceived with the conceit: "if such and such a group can have a monument to their cause, why can't we?"  Every successive design has engaged in a battle of one upmanship, each one trying to be more inclusive, more educational, more moving, than the one that came before.

In that regard, Gehry's proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial takes the cake. In addition to the statue of Ike the barefoot farm boy on a plank, Gehry's design includes massive, eighty foot columns which support "tapestries" of woven steel which would depict leafless trees inspired by those found in the Kansas landscape. Gehry sees himself first and foremost as an artist, and in that role he feels it absolutely necessary to create something new and visionary, something that reflects the society in which we live. I'm not entirely sure what his feeling is about Dwight Eisenhower, but he's left us with plenty of comments about himself and his work, including this:
Life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.
I'm sure that when and if Gehry's design is built, it will be a knock your socks off kind of experience. It would also occupy enough space to contain the Washington and Jefferson Monuments as well as the Lincoln Memorial put together, with room to spare. Impressive as all that sounds, I'm still not so sure how enlightening it will be about its subject. Also, my guess is that "chaotic, dangerous and surprising" are not exactly the attributes the Eisenhower family had in mind when they set about lobbying for a monument to their ancestor. Perhaps they had the strange notion that the monument was intended to honor the general, not the architect.

This all reminds me an old children's book my wife dug up called "Millions of Cats." The story goes something like this:

A little old man and woman lived together in a nice old cottage, but they were very lonely. One day the man set out to get a cat for his wife to help keep her company. He found a field filled with cats of all shapes and sizes, but couldn't decide which one to take home as each cat was prettier than the one that came before it. So he took them all. When the man came home with literally millions of cats following him, his wife said: "How are we ever going to find room for all these cats?" The man scratched his head and told his wife she was right. He went out to tell the cats about his dilemma and asked them to decide amongst themselves who was the prettiest. Well cats being cats, they quarreled, each one claiming to be the prettiest of all. The argument got ugly and the man decided he'd best go inside and let the felines sort it out. The noise of the cat fight was deafening but eventually it stopped. The man and woman were shocked to see that all the cats had vanished except for a scrawny little one that was cowering in the bushes. "What happened?" said the old man to the emaciated kitty. "Well... " said the little cat, "all the other cats kept fighting and fighting over which one was the prettiest and eventually they just ate each other up." "And how come you didn't get eaten up?" said the old man. "Oh I'm just a homely little cat, when you asked who was the prettiest, I didn't say anything. So nobody bothered about me." And the little old man and woman took the cat into their home, fed, took care of and loved him, and eventually he became the prettiest of all the millions of cats.

So what's the moral of the story?

Just listen to the Eisenhower family and build the General a nice old fashioned statue on top of a pedestal, and everyone will live happly ever after.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The days will be getting shorter...

...were the words my father used to say like clockwork every June 21st, the first day of day of summer. It was almost as if he were saying: "don't ever get too happy, it will all end soon enough."

In my many childless adult years, summer never meant much to me, it was mostly a time to try to stay cool. I'll never forget the summer of 1995 when Chicagoans dropped by the score because of the record heat. I actually had friends in Europe contact me to see if I was still alive. On perhaps the hottest day of that year, I finally decided to install an air conditioner from an old apartment once shared with my ex-wife. The unit fit perfectly in the narrow windows of the old place, but took some serious finagling to fit into the much wider windows of the new place. After several sweat filled hours of building supports and baffles to get the thing to fit, I finally sat down to reap the benefits of my work. I plugged the thing in, turned it on, and it immediately blew a fuse, the contraption drew too much power from the circuits of the new place. The rest of that day was spent in a theater watching bad movies.

All that changed since my boy was born eleven years ago. Now summer means a break from the routine of the rest of the year. No more worrying about school nights and getting the kids to bed early. No lunches to make in the morning, except my own. It's the time of year when things slow down and there's precious time to take a welcome account of life outside of work. 

In recent years I've discovered that there's nothing more beautiful than a summer evening, especially the smell of a cool summer breeze, lightning bugs, the beautiful light and long shadows cast by the 8 o'clock sun, trips to Dairy Star to get ice cream, going to the beach with the kids, going up to Wisconsin for a brief getaway, the sound of cicadas, and most of all of course, baseball. This is the time of the year when the all too short Little League seasons are beginning to draw to a close. Playoffs will be starting in a few weeks and then it will be over for the majority of kids who will go on their vacations and relax for the rest of their summer. Other kids who are lucky enough to make the traveling teams will get to keep playing in tournaments, and the really lucky (and talented) ones will get to go to the Little League World Series in the fall.

My son just tried out for one of those teams. Neither he nor I want the season to end in mid-July. Baseball has brought the two of us together more than anything else. While my wife was pregnant with him, I dreamed of the day when I'd be playing catch with my son. It's the quintessential American father-son activity; although I don't know of any, no doubt there are Norman Rockwell paintings devoted to the subject. My European dad and I never played catch with a baseball, but did plenty of the equivalent with a soccer ball. As I haven't been able to pass along the love of soccer to my own son, baseball is the bridge between a grandfather and the grandson he only knew for one year.

Regardless of his making the team, my boy and I will continue to play catch in the park, and work on his pitching, fielding and hitting skills (as well as mine), for as long as it's still reasonably warm and light outside after I get home from work. However this time of year and my father's annual pronouncement always remind me of the fact that this wonderful time of my life won't last forever. When he began Little League a few years ago, my friends with older children told me to cherish these days, which I do. My boy will soon be a teenager, and if he does manage to maintain his love of baseball, he'll no doubt be more interested in playing it with his friends than with his old man. The wonderful yet melancholy cycle of life goes on.

That's why I'm doing everything in my power do delay the inevitable.  I'm trying to get my five year old daughter to fall in love with the game.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The death and life of the bookstore

Krochs and Brentanos, Stuart Brent, Bookman's Alley, Prairie Avenue Bookshop, Crown Books, B. Dalton, Borders, and now Mr. Paperback. It doesn't take a genius to realize that these are tough times for the book business as independents and big chain book stores are shutting their doors at an alarming rate.

It's not difficult to see why, given all the diversions of our lives; the trend away from reading, the easy access of on-line information and on-line shopping, and the advent of the e-book.

Still there's nothing better than the intimacy of reading words printed on wood pulp, and bound together with book cloth and board. Some of my most cherished possessions are the books on my shelves, objects that withstood the test of time, which guided and inspired me along the intellectual journeys of my life. I've shed some of the books I've owned over my life, but few of them. On my bookshelves I still can find countless novels, some read, some not, math and science textbooks from high school and college, several books on foreign languages I studied at one time or other (never successfully), books on obsolete computer languages, and a book on how to build a harpsichord. One simply never knows when they may come in handy. Perhaps the most cherished are the ones I read to my children once upon a time. These volumes represent chapters of my life, and I'm not ready to let go of them, maybe I never will.

It's' hard to make the comparison with words floating around in cyber-space and arranged on an LCD monitor, although I'm glad they're there.

The bookstore my family usually visits is a big national chain that sells coffee and more and more bric-a-brac every day. Yet as my children are becoming passionate readers, they too appreciate the concept of the bookstore as a destination.

Here's an article from the blog Gaper's Block on that very subject with perhaps some good news for all of us who bemoan the possible loss of a wonderful part of our lives.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The list of love

The internet has made us all list crazy and I'm just as susceptible to checking out the latest goofy list as the next guy. Huffington Post Destinations recently had a piece about a list that was compiled by a dating site called Miss Travel, whose mission in life appears to be matching lonely, wealthy men with attractive women who in HP's words; want to explore exciting destinations but lack the means.

Since I'm neither an attractive woman nor a wealthy man, until now this site has slipped under my radar.

Anyway, according to HuffPost, more than 20,000 trips across the United States have been either taken or planned through the site, and Miss Travel has put together a list of the twenty top destinations for these romantic getaways.

You probably can guess that some of the destinations, as well as some omissions are shall I say, surprising.

Typical for lists such as these, this one starts at the bottom and works its way to the top. Perhaps the biggest surprise on the list, the 20th most popular destination for wealthy men and attractive women of limited means according to Miss Travel is, drum roll please, Cleveland, Ohio. Getting past the burning river jokes and its unfortunate moniker; "The Mistake on the Lake", Cleveland is still a pretty cool city with lots going for it. I just never thought of Cleveland as particularly romantic, maybe I missed something. Granted, according to Miss Travel anywaythere are 19 more popular romantic getaways in the States, but there are lots of places in the United States that are less romantic than Cleveland. Who would have thought?

Take Niagara Falls for example. Niagara Falls used to be THE destination for honeymooners back in the day, my parents in fact went there on their honeymoon. Of course that was over 50 years ago and times have changed. Niagara Falls sadly didn't make the cut.

Number 19 on the list is Sedona, Arizona. With its spectacular red sandstone rocks glistening in the late afternoon sun, Sedona is truly one of the loveliest places imaginable. Had it not been so darn complicated, my wife and I would have gotten married in the Chapel of the Holy Cross, built high into the rocks overlooking the glorious Central Arizona landscape. If that weren't enough, Sedona is the Harmonic Convergence and Crystal Capital of the world making it essentially the Vatican for New Age spirituality. I'm surprised it didn't finish much higher on the list.

Thinking about Sedona made me think of another goto place in Arizona that along with Niagara Falls, is one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, The Grand Canyon. Alas like Niagara Falls, The Grand Canyon didn't make the list.

The list is heavily weighted toward large cities. Other than Sedona, the only other places on the list with populations of under 150,000 are Santa Barbara, and Napa Vally, CA. Apparently if you're going on a trip with a complete stranger, there's comfort in big numbers.

Sun Belt cities are well represented on the list but not as much as I would expect. Florida alone has three, Tampa (number 18), Orlando (number 8), and Miami (number 3). Texas has two cities that I wouldn't consider at all romantic, Dallas (number 12) and Houston (number 17), while Austin which constantly rates as one of the hippest cities in America, didn't make the list. I guess sipping a Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Vally (number 11) is more romantic that throwing back a PBR in Austin. I was amazed that other large Sun Belt cities like Atlanta, Santa Fe, Phoenix and Tucson were also shut out of the list.

California, not surprisingly is the state with the greatest number of romantic places. In addition to Napa Valley and Santa Barbara (number 9), were San Diego (number 13), Los Angeles (number 7) and San Francisco which would be number one on my list of romantic American cities, but on this list finished only in fourth place.

I must say that my faith in the human race was restored as Chicago, which lost its claim to being this nation's second city (in population) years ago to LA, beat out Tinseltown, coming in at number 5.

So what is the number one romantic destination according to Miss Travel? Well I would have guessed New York City, and would have been wrong.

New York City finished second to, ahem, Las Vegas.

So much for my faith in the human race.

Here's the entire list, this time from top to bottom:
  1. Las Vegas
  2. New York City
  3. Miami
  4. San Francisco
  5. Chicago
  6. Honolulu
  7. Los Angeles
  8. Orlando
  9. Santa Barbara
  10. Washington D.C.
  11. Napa Valley
  12. Dallas
  13. San Diego
  14. Boston
  15. New Orleans
  16. Philadelphia
  17. Houston
  18. Tampa
  19. Sedona
  20. Cleveland

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City

Here's the story of a unique work of Modern architecture, a house in Kansas City demolished to make way for a development of "Victorian style McMansions."

The demolition of the house reminds me of an experience I had in 2005 on the other end of Missouri in St. Louis. At that time they were building a new ballpark to replace the old Busch Stadium next door. The original Busch was built as part of a major urban renewal project in the sixties, which included Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch, just beyond the stadium. The old ballpark formed a distinctive ensemble with the Arch and at 40 years of age, still looked distinctly modern, while the new stadium was built in a style that reminded me of old Comiskey Park in Chicago which was built in 1910 and demolished in 1990. It was like a time warp, hard to tell which building was going up, and which was about to come down.

The lack of regard for Modernism has been a hot topic in Chicago over the past few years with the demolition, or impending demolition of several significant works of Modern architecture. Preservationists already lost these battles: the Michael Reese Hospital campus on the near south side which included Chicago's only building by Walter Gropius, a Mies van der Rohe service building at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and a splendid Holabird and Root storefront on State Street. The ongoing battle to save Northwestern Memorial Hospital's old Prentice Women's Hospital designed by Bertrand Goldberg, is currently at the forefront of preservation battles in this city.

Modernism may not suit everyone's tastes. It's not particularly warm and cuddly, but it does speak to a definite period in history which is quickly fading from memory. There is such little regard for the tastes and architecture of the fairly recent past, it makes one wonder if nearly all of it will have to disappear before buildings of that era will receive the landmark status enjoyed by structures built earlier. It would be a shame if all we had to remember it were old sitcoms, and nostalgic dramas like Mad Men.