Sunday, 31 May 2009

Kaffeklatsch Books/addendum to "Prince Charles Bashing"

How did Modernism end in such a mess that we have to lean on the Prince of Wales to bail us out? When I asked Kevin Roche how it happened that the blue collar German socialists Mies and Gropius ended up being graphikers for the Fortune 500, he sighed that it was a long story but insisted that both men were decent men and great architects.

I was reminded of how in 1968 when the students of the Art School at Ulm (the lineal antecedent of the first Bauhaus at Dessau) pleaded with Gropius, there as an honored guest at the school's anniversary, to throw his weight against the city fathers' recent decision to close the school. He dismissed them brutally with the bromide "Art has nothing to do with politics".

Like Hitler closing the Bauhaus in Berlin? We can understand, if not condone, the flight from serious politics of a man harassed out of his country by the Nazi thugs. Although recent studies suggest that Mies was only too willing to get along with the Nazis when he succeeded Hannes Meyer as director of the school.

Perhaps the place to start understanding why Mies and Gropius neutered themselves politically when they fled West to America is to look at the life of the Swiss Huguenot from Basel Hannes Meyer (1889-1954) on whom a marvelously instructive centennial exhibition and catalog (Ernst & Sohn, 1000 Berlin 31, 98 DM) has been jointly organized by the Bauhaus-Archiv/Berlin and the Deutsches Architektur Museum/Frankfurt.

(It is showing between 21 March and 20 May at the Museum fur Gestaltung/Zurich. If the A.I.A. doesn't negotiate for an English translation and an Anglophone traveling exhibition, it's missing a marvelous opportunity to explain the morass of Modernism.)

Meyer was much more than a mere designer. He was an assiduous student and teacher. He went, for example, for several years to England to study the Garden City movement that turned Lewis Mumford on to the need for comprehensive planning to make modern city life civilized.

And early on he created such a precinct in Basel. You get the impression that Meyer was the kind of architect Kevin Roche called for when he said the first requirement of good architecture is learning to listen to the client. Meyer's openness to the needs of the society reminded me of the MOMA show on Mies in which his early competition entry for a skyscraper on Friederichstrasse in Berlin ran over the edges of the sidewalk.

Heh, if something's got to give, why not the pedestrians? Meyer went East after he quit the Bauhaus (Mies succeeded him as director) to found an architecture and planning school in Moscow. After six years in the U.S.S.R. (1930-36), he spent three years in Geneva working on a cooperative for children project.

After traveling in Mexico and the U.S. in 1938, he settled in Mexico to direct a school of architecture and planning for the progressive president Cardenas. He returned to Switzerland in 1949 and died there. As the exhibition and catalog suggests he became something of a man without a homeland.

His idealism overreached political realities. Like another Swiss Bauhauser, Johannes Itten (who despaired at tempering the engineering mentality of Mies and Gropius with his humanistic ideals), Meyer simply fell through the cracks of historical memory. It's probably closer to the truth to allege that Mies and Gropius couldn't deal with the heat of Itten's and Meyer's more humanistic ideals and simply repressed their recollections.

That is why Itten and Meyer are so relatively unknown in U.S. architectural education. That's an intellectual scandal that should end right now, especially since the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna did a similar retrieval of Itten with a fine catalog in 1988. We need to know how and why the humanistic and political dimensions of the Bauhaus visitation evanesced so "mysteriously" and Itten and Meyer are the missing bodies.

I must also make another pitch for"Les Architectes de la Liberte"(Ecole nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts, 1989,290 FF.) to establish the prehistory of Bauhaus architectural idealism. It was most instructive in Frankfurt to find an extension of the French Revolution experience in an exhibition parallel to the Meyer show on "Revolution and Architecture" with examples from Germany and Italy in the heady time between 1789 and 1848.

There was a pervasive spirit of the Enlightenment throughout European architectural circles, and only competing nationalistic scholarly traditions and our tendency towards amnesia have kept us from such knowledge.

We need such knowledge to vaccinate us against the contemporamania of contemporary American architectural criticism. Take, for example, Beverly Russell's "Architecture and Design, 1970-1990/New Ideas in America"(Harry Abrams, 100 Fifth Avenue, NY 10011). Ms.Russell did not want to risk imposing her ideas on the witless reader so she convened a panel of twelve ("carefully chosen so that no one design style or tendency--e.g., Modern, Post-Modern, Post-Industrial, Deconstructivism--would predominate", p.15) to palaver for a day into a tape recorder (20,000 words worth).

"It was a day that yielded a rich kaleidoscope of design history and wisdom. But the most interesting aspect of the experience was that these participants were insistent upon constantly juxtaposing the environmental design disciplines with the social and political context of the time." Like, presumably, the following great breakthrough in our common consciousness: "The growing design-conscious society--resulting from affluent living, the two-income family, environmental issues, the preservation movement, and the feminist revolution--has transformed architecture from a remote and specialized profession into an everyday topic, even turning some architects into superstars who take their place next to Elizabeth Taylor in People magazine." P.17.

And, I might add, even turning some readers' stomachs. The book proper begins with the demolition of world class architect Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis on July 15, 1972, but ludicrously misanalyzes the causes of that architectural and sociological disaster--namely, racism and business exploitation. There are housing projects from the 1920s in Amsterdam with similar aims and higher architectural standards that did not have to be blown up because the Dutch are not racist and have social democratic ideals that humanize the housing market.

Then the book goes on to flatter the foolishness of Robert Venturi who made a name for himself by apotheosizing the ugly and the banal in Las Vegas and gone on to skim millions from the upper middle class gewgaw racket of PoMo bed sheets and dinner table fixings that are, you guessed, ugly and banal. How do you deal with an architectural community that is so helplessly and hopelessly lost. When its "thinkers" are glib charlatans?

Well, we might begin with the first (and in some ways, still the finest) careless rapture in American architectural history, the Greek Revival. Here we're in luck because Roger G. Kennedy's magisterial "Greek Revival America" (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, Inc., 1949) is both visually luminous (All hail to photographers John M. Hall, Jack Kotz, Robert Lautman, and Mark Zeek--they make you want to get onto the next Greyhound and savor their shots in situ) and intellectually stimulating.

I have an esoteric theory that Nicholas Biddle Greeked up Andalusia on the Delaware as a reaction to Andrew Jackson's blipping his Second Bank of the United States as the federal depository, thus unleashing the WASP preemptive cultural strike against Jacksonian Democracy that rattles our politics (and especially Philadelphia's) to this day.

I bring this forward because my theory is as believable as Kennedy's! Don't let anybody's theory keep you from possessing our Greek Revival history when idealistic Americans worked together to express their common high hopes for our fledgling country with an architecture worthy of its aspirations. The trouble with the PoMo's and Decon's is that they have no ideals outside of making names for themselves and making a lot of money. Fooey, ptui.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Higher Goofy in American Architecture

The rubric Higher Goofy I coined to apprehend (if not comprehend) certain loose architectural muses such as Robert (Learn from Lost Vulgars) Venturi and Michael (I can destroy this Portland park) Graves. I was wrong. They should be filed under Lower Googy, along with Charles (How do you like my Plaza d'Italia, New Orleans?) Moore. Scenographic schmoozers, all three. Rather than architects.

If Louis Kahn defined the greatest art of all as the making of noble spaces, I would argue this Terrible Trinity debases the art by creating work that results in the making of noble noises.

This brilliant flash of insight knocked me off my Greyhound horse in Albuquerque, New Mexico where the University of New Mexico's art gallery is currently honoring its occasional lecturer and permanent nearby resident, one Bart Prince. With a name like a cartoon character, this guy has got to be good. And is. Look at his so-called Submarine House shown among his work being hung at the Museum. He lives there. It's full of the minute particulars William Blake argues must be there if someone wants to do him good. The pilotis are the right scale. The fenestration is spacey without looking like bad sci fi sets. The thing rests comfortably among its foliage. The cast iron gate shows that real artists have been at work.

The question becomes,"Who the hell is Bart Prince?" Ha, you thought all along the architecture magazines were valid and reliable guides to the universe of contemporary building, didn't you? Wrong, Manhattan breath.

There are terrae incognitae allover the place in their defective mapping. Does it help if I tell you his mentor was Bruce Goff? Not a hell of a lot, eh? Because, except for a recent retro at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (to celebrate the opening of the Japanese Pavilion there) he too is an underknown Okie of AmArch. I'm sorry to say I don't like his Japanese Pavilion. I'll take my shoji screens plain, not gussied up. And compared, say,with Frank Gehry's marvelously fishy fish restaurant in Kobe, Japan, the JP in LA is a loser.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't know about him. He may not always do the Wrighteous stuff, but he's too good to be eclipsed by fast talking schmoozers like the Terrible Trinity of Post-Modernism.

And I'll tell you another Higher Goof we better not lose sight of, the Viennese irregular, Frederick Kiesler. Luckily for our mental health, the Whitney is right now compensating a whit for its projected abuse by expansion of its Marcel Breuer home with a luminous gloss on the troubled career of Kiesler. It shows how he took his Otto Wagnerian tutoring and added to it De Stijl and Russian Constructivist tendencies for a really fresh and feisty synthesis.

His Gallery for Contemporary Art for Peggy Guggenheim is still a joy to wander through. (There's a mockup of it in the show.) And a guy who thinks art museums ought to be abolished can't be all bad. It was his apercu long before the Museum Building Boom diverted yuor attention from our deteriorating common environment that it doesn't profit a culture like ours to build ourselves Better Mansions for Art whilst the streets become uninhabitable.

Heretofore I had only known his Endless House, a funky enough Utopian scheme. But I didn't know that, like the social humanist Bertrand Goldberg, he early in his careeer tried to get mass produced housing of high design quality into the matrix of American architecture. That both Goldberg and Kiesler's dreams came acropper is less an indictment of them than of the sickening cabal between successful architects and the racist, elitist construction industry and unions.

Pruitt Igoe and Miami Overton in flames are instances that are belatedly teaching us the high cost of such architectural isolationisms. And unlike a much lesser artist like Jean Arp, Kiesler's biomorphism leads to usable furniture that still pleases my eye (and butt). Boy, have we got a lot of revising to do in the history of modernism. Get up to the Whitney before April 12, or indict yourself for your own culpable ignorance.

And tell Manhattan museumizers to get off their provincial duffs and let us learn about the likes of Goff and Prince. How dare they immerse themselves in their own provincialism. And us in the process. I'm reminded that Texas lit great Larry McMurtry's favorite T shirt reads "Minor Regional Novelist."

That's the same guy who reviewed Woody Allen's "Manhattan" in the Red Cloud, Nebraska daily as a "minor regional masterpiece". Nice shot, Larry.

Friday, 29 May 2009


"Nattie" Birnbaum's droll posthumous Valentine to his beloved "Googie" makes George Burns' Gracie: A Love Story (G. P. Putnam's,$16.95) a beguiling read, the kind of summer stuff you can lay down every time the comic verbally puffs on his stogie (a signal to the audience that something funny has just happened). His stage name Burns alludes to a New York coal company as more marquee worthy than his natal monicker. The George he nipped from his brother Izzy, who found it more assimilationist as well.

He and Googie (he coined it to allay her midnight wakeup fears) surely must have managed the most successful interethnic marriage in American show biz history. I was astonished to learn that Gracie grew up in the San Francisco Richmond working class district a few blocks from where I boarded with a Chinese landlady in 1984.

I can see in retrospect why my Fitzpatrick clan was so inordinately fond of her. Her Irish Catholic success in the entertainment industry pre-figured Kennedy's arrival in politics a generation later. That and because her dumb Dora persona was so perennially funny and easy to comprehend. When the historians talk about Depression radio being a psychic band aid, they must have had George and Gracie, Goodman and Jane Ace, and Fibber McGee and Molly in mind.

Yet how innocent and simple were their comedic strategies. The overstuffed closet, the Easy Aces malapropism, and Gracie's silly sense. When she went to the Los Angeles General Hospital in a skit, she demanded to see the General, and when they wouldn't allow her to go to the top with her complaint, she then insisted on at least seeing Private Ward.

And her missing brother became a shtick that allowed her to seed her zany radio schedule on every other network program. I must say "classic" radio reads better than it plays--I find myself tuning out in disappointment at WCAU's replays when the Phillies are rained out.

Once you get the hang of the formula, it goes pretty slow. Unlike, say, swing band golden oldies from the same era. Goodman, Shaw, Miller, and Dorsey don't date at all to my ear. Yet these entertainers were both appealing to the same median audience.

Her candidacy in 1940 for the Surprise Party completely eluded my thirteen year old mind. Thousands met at her whistle stops from L.A. to Omaha, in spite of the fact that she was so neurotic about its possibilities that she almost backed out before she saw the moiling crowd behind the train at their first stop in Riverside.

Given her terrible affliction of migraine headaches, it appears clear that what Nattie lacked in comedic talent he made up for his his nurturing of her muse and nursing of her body and mind. It's a mark of Nattie's generous spirit and entrepreneurial shrewdness that when it became evident she was no good as a straight man in their first vaudeville act that he flipped and became her straight person.

In fact, the subtext of the memoir is the way the couple and their peers used the seats of their pants to see how you "did" radio, then movies, and finally, hardest of all, for a comedienne without broad sight gags, television. The way they tried to come to terms with the phenomenon of the studio audience and how to manage laughter, live, nonexistent, or canned is a fascinating episode in the evolution of pop culture genres. They knew they had it whipped when, prodded by a sponsor to offer free audience tickets to paying vaudeville customers, the fans paid for the vaudeville, skipped the show, and came to watch radio.

Reading this book doesn't deepen my hunch that Burns was a man who made a little talent go a long, long way. Much. I wonder how many of his fans come forty years later to be reminded of Gracie. A bunch, I'll bet.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Go Go Glasgow

For a start, Glasgow doesn't rhyme with cow. It goes with go, as in go go. This year, the Cinderella of Scottish cities beat out its tony sibling to the East, a.k.a. Edinborough, to emerge from its chrysallis for the year 1990 as the Council of Europe's City of the Year. And don't think Glaswegians aren't exulting in their temporary T.K.O. of the Svelte E. They're also trying very hard to kill the city's old image as a dreary blue collar pit.

It hasn't been that for two decades (during my first visit in 1965, it was already popping culturally), but scuzzy images don't die or fade away; they persist to the frustration and consternation of the city fathers stuck with a bad rep. Indeed, the passport control officer at Dover Dock asked me why I was visiting Britain.

And when I replied,"To write articles about Glasgow's day in the sun," he growled (in accents I have recognized as Belfastian ever since meeting and revering Seamus Heaney), "You've got your work cut out for you, mister." Au contraire, that lout from Northern Ireland was decades behind in his homework, talking rot about one of the loveliest cities in Europe.

Even though my overnight train from London/Euston was three hours late (winter storms had wiped out the track from Carlisle to Glasgow), I resumed my love affair with this once gritty city that's always had its eye on the real nitty as soon as I entered the refurbed Central Station. Some cretins under the rubric urban planners had suggested that the marvelous wooden shop fronts inside the station be swept away (presumably to "improve" it into something like the man's urinal modern London's Euston now is).

Their ignorant counsel, happily, did not prevail, and after being saluted by bright banners hanging from the delicious nineteenth glass and iron train shed, I entered the main waiting hall where modern amenities had to subordinate themselves to the High Victorian wooden interiors. Yummy. I decided to wipe the cobwebs out of my overnighted eyes by washing up and having what the Brits (whoops, Scots) call a full breakfast. As in full of that dry toast in little filing stands that butters up so wonderfully. And full of bangers. And the thick bacon that approaches ham in size but remains bacon crispy.

The U.K. chefs still don't know how to do eggs over lightly, but I excused them this venial sin (passing up the fried tomato as well) as I read the morning papers, The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald and Evening News. Not only were they full of news about the Year of Gracea, but they also had dreamt up marvelous schemes to involve the locals in the hoopla laid on for the outsiders.

I headed for the tourist bureau where I was received by no less an informant than the music critic of the Evening News. (Kenneth Walton used to be the head of the Scottish Music Association's publicity apparatus, his profession as an organist not being lucrative enough to sustain him and his wife, who is a cellist).

He prepared a cultural CARE packet for me, stood by while I bought two marvelous black Charles Rennie Macintosh T-shirts, then insisted I look with him at G's latest architectural marvel, Prince's Square (he flinched when I inadvertently called it Prince's Street the main drag of a conurbation forty miles away which begins with the letter "E" but shall remain nameless.) Prince's Square, a brilliant Neo-Macintosh shopping and lolling precinct that used to be an eyesore is a metaphor for the transfiguration of the city from workshop to Yuppieland.

Then on to the Scottish Civic Trust (something like our National Trust for Historic Preservation) where the managing directress, one Sadie Douglas put her considerable matronly enthusiasm behind explaining how the city got to be so sweet from having been so sour for so long.

Glasgow has a history of getting itself up from the mat of economic knockout to start swinging successfully in a new direction. It used to be the tobacco capital of Europe--until our Revolution wiped out the Virginia sources of its wealth. (The old tobacco wharfs in High Street are at this very moment in the latest stages of condofication.) Then Cotton was King in Glasgow until our Civil War wiped out that wealth machine. It was then that it turned to shipbuilding with a flourish. Most of the great ocean liners we nostalgically revere are products of its marine engineers--the Queen Mary and the QEII, for a start.

When Taiwan and Korea and Singapore blitzed that business, Glaswegians didn't whimper. They moved on to what they're up to now, a high tech service and financial center with plenty of culture and entertainment to attract the money bearing tourist. One thing that impressed me most about Ms. Douglas's presentation was her insistence that the rehabbing go far beyond the downtown--to the most distant, dismal neighborhood.

And that is why the Scottish Civic Trust amenities award this year has a neighborhood section. "It's no good to have the downtown showy if most of the people live in surroundings that are depressing and dehumanizing." She also touted the recently retired head of the Park District. He refused to capitulate to the grafitti goons. "If they spray five times, we'll paint them over a sixth. Six, a seventh."

The amazing result was that after each graffiti obliteration campaign, the next wave was smaller and weaker, until now there is none. This no nonsense scot also had a thing about forkliftable plats of flowers changing with the season for the central square.

His peers in city government laughed at his quixotic foolishness. "Those slobs will either pick the flowers or throw trash on them," they sneered. He repeated his formula,"If they mess them up five times, I'll replace them a sixth time." Well, the Parks Commissioner was right. Nobody messes with his posies because everyone has learned to love to smell the roses--when they're waiting for a bus, or simply hanging out.

So go go to Glasgow this year especially, but any old time from now on will do. There's art, music, theatre, pop entertainment all year long. There are accommodations from youth hostels on up to five star hotels. And it's easier and easier to get there. It has its own airport now. Go. Go.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Byte the Broccoli

It's been a funny week. Call it the vegetating of our polity. On the one hand, President Bush has reaffirmed that great American principle: Every boy can grow up to turn down the veggies his mother forced him to eat. Meanwhile out in the Wilder West pro-choice forces threatened to eat no more potatoes if Idaho governor Cecil Andrus signed the bill severely limited abortions.

Is this puerile politics, or what? Make that infantile, and try to guess how low our political discourse can slide once you get on the slippery slope of letting TV sound bytes determine the intellectual level.

I remember well the first time I noticed how leaving it to George was going to amBush our politics. It was during the 1984 election that I ran into humungous crowds as I was getting my passport out of my safe deposit box at the Chinatown branch of the San Francisco Federal Savings and Loan. "What's up?" I asked as the crowd thickened.

"Vice-President Bush is after the Oriental vote," was the explanation. So I decided to do my own little sound byte, without benefit of television. The night before he had lost the TV debate to Geraldine Ferraro but had tried to compensate with his contemptible "We kicked a little ass" comment.

He had been forced to admit in the media that he was less than chivalrous in this ploy to depreppie his image. I wondered if he had been only media contrite so I hollered out as he passed me, "Going to kick a little more ass in San Francisco today, Mr. Vice President?" With that maddeningly crooked Alfred E. Newman smile flickering across his suddenly enlivened face, he concurred, "RIGHT ON!"

Right off, Mr. Sound Byter. Right off the high road of Lincolnian debate. And right down the slippery slope that made the 1988 election campaign such a disgusting disgrace. Bush then threw the Willie Horton racial innuendo into the campaign and to show how serious a man he was about patriotism got himself video-ed visiting flag factories in New Jersey. And to show what a macho Marlboro man he was he chomped pork rinds, his junk food of choice.

That is not the most pathetic aspect of this media malarkey. That the media immediately succumbed to a broccoli feeding frenzy shows how little we can depend on them to maintain a reasonably literate politics. "If it moves, they'll byte it" seems to be the extent of their intelligence as they deepen our despond in the dismal swamp of media imagery.

We are the laughing stock of the civilized world. We cheer Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel for their high seriousness at joint sessions of the national legislature then happily return to the playpen of our own politics. I think William Pfaff of the International Herald Tribune has the right idea: the only way out of this morass is not more political cheesecake but a total ban on bought for TV advertising.

We're the only Western country that doesn't provide free TV in support of the political process, and look where our greediness has got us--shorter and shorter attention spans in the electorate, and cruder and cruder appeals to what we laughingly call their mentality.

Presidential puerility is not the only problem. Single issue politics predisposes every sliver of the electorate to push their only simpleminded agendas in the same fatuous way. "Ban potatoes" shout the pro-choice forces in Idaho. "Tear off that fur coat" clamor the animal rightists in Atlantic City. "Get your rosaries off my ovaries" is the Christmas message of ACT UP lowerers of the level of political discourse at St. Patrick's Cathedral. How low can we all go?

The answer seems clear: there is no depths to which televidiot byte seekers will not stoop. We're in the Playpen Era of American politics. The tough question is how do we get out? Not easily, and not quickly. The infantilization of the electorate has been going on apace since Consumerism shifted into high gear after World War II. Our media system has only one obsession.

MOVE MORE GOODS TO MORE PEOPLE. This was not a conspiracy to make Disney level infants of the median American. It just turned out that way. We didn't expect fast food franchising to destroy the American family dinner either. It just has. And feminists and their friends didn't expect that day care crisis that looms over us either. In the bad old days, grandma and grandpa helped care for a family's children. Now they're either stacked in a Miami condo or strung out on crack in a ghetto.

The potentially tragic outcome of sound byte politics is that it offers no alternatives to our many impasses in community life in contemporary America. It's a politics of incumbency. Don't rock my boat; I've got to get reelected; I'll do anything on the medium of mediocrity to ensure survival. If the cost becomes astronomical, just pay of the PAC's and move on to the next sound byte.

No serious polity would ever get suckered into covering a Presidential aversion to a veggie. That Bush lives from byte to byte is truly sad and a sorry portent for the future of our politics. But that our media go along with his every tick and shtick is truly contemptible. For if the media loose their moxie, who will blow the whistle on the next and worst fatuity?

The infantilization of American politics, alas, accelerates. What media Popeye will finally make us eat our spinach? Ted Turner? (Heh, Fonda, be a plain Jane and don't rattle our last best hope for sanity in media coverage of politics.) Let's hope that CNN spells FINIS to the politics of vegetables.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Top Ten Spots in Weimar

Based on my first ten months of exploring Weimar, here are ten places I say you shouldn't miss:

1. The Ilmschlosscen Restaurant in Oberweimar--a half hour saunter to the southern end of the Ilm River Park. The Bauhaus artists threw their last party there before moving in a huff to Dessau. (The conservative state officials--it was the first to turn Nazi--and the "degenerate" artists didn't get along!) Don't miss their party invitation on the wall of memorabilia--a lottery for five marks, in which the prizes were prints by Klee, Feininger, Kandisky "and others". Some lottery!

2. The Main Cemetery. It's full of interesting memorials, and a Russian Orthodox Church for Maria Pavlovna, one of the duke's wives. Especially interesting is the Walter Gropius-designed Memorial for the Fallen of March l920--killed by the right wing militants in the Kapp Putsch.

3. Villa Pappeln. A Henry van de Velde Villa, just south of the Hilton Hotel off Belvidere Allee. His Jugendstil Buildings for the art schools that preceded the Bauhaus are among the visual glories of this town.

4. The City Library on Steubenstrasse near Wielandplatz. They have a new jazz club in the spookily neogothic cellar. Along with the C1 Club on Carl-August-Allee and the ACC on Bergplatz, the best venu for good pop music.

5. Abraxas, next to the InterCity Hotel, is a shop with brilliantly designed clothes. Pricey, but delicious. And it costs nothing to coo over their excellence. (They like that almost as much as customers.)

6. The Theater Cafe next to the DNT. They offer a mixed grill in which a super hot stone is your table stove as you do your own mixing.

7. Faustina, the new cafe in the Goethe Museum. German-American painter Christoph Hodgson has spoofed Goethe-Mania with sly visual digs like putting the Goethe-Schiller Archive atop a Tower of Babel far out to sea.

8. Schloss Belvedere. It has the best view of the Ilm River Valley (heh, that's what a Duke did, took first picks). Now commoners like me exult over coffee in their terrace cafe. Don't miss the new Music Building by Thomas Valentiner. I love the way you can't see into their practice rooms, but musicians can see out.

9. The Bratwurst Grill behind the InterCity Hotel at the Glockerei Restaurant. Your mouth hasn't lived until it has slurped one of their 2.6 DM lunches. There are other good wursters out there, on Marktplatz. But the Glockerei is best, and I've got the extra pounds to prove it.

10. By the time you've read this, I will have discovered other pleasures. So this is to remind you to follow your nose and your eyes to find special places on your own.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Weimar Faces its Past

Weimar: This smallest (60,000) of European Cultural Capitals opened its year long festival with a flourish--in the history laden German National Theater, where 80 years ago their forefathers designed and enacted into law the first German constitution. The expensive rehabbing of the historic structure is glorious, and the foyers are garnished with fascinating photos of players doing Mephito or Doctor Faust from over a century of performances.

The ceremonies stressed how important a frank confronting of all of German history was to an ever more productive future. (Bus line 6 goes from Buchenwald in the North to Gemelroda in the South, where German-American artist Lyonel Feininger has made his favorite little church world famous.)

Weimar's struggling with its complex history was evident in the long struggle (officially decided the day before the inauguration) of what the dominant plaza --formerly Adolf Hitlerplatz followed by Karl Marxplatz--was to be named. 74 different names competed for acceptance as factions vied to memorialize their favorites. The city fathers finally chose Weimarplatz, to settle the dust for good.

Meanwhile, a group of disgruntled locals have just announced an elaborate sequence of street theatre events called "Weimar Remembers", to begin on April Fool's Day and continue for 99 days--to keep the visiting public from concluding that only Goethe and Schiller matter in the city's history.

The contentiously named plaza is an architecturally ugly legacy from the days of Nazism and the DDR. One scheme proposed demolishing this "Gauform" ("gau" was the term for a local political jurisdiction, followed by the East German "bezirke"), and Bauhaus University students entered a competition to propose alternatives to the Gauforum.

None of the entries dazzled the eye of this architectural buff, and besides there's precious little money left for grandiose alternatives. (Local, state, and federal revenues in the amount of almost a billion Deutschmarks have left all accessible budgets bare.) The official reason for Weimar getting this European honor was the coming 250th birthday of Goethe--August 28, but the real reason for such a concerted effort was to give the country in general and East Germans in particular confidence that the disastrous results of over a half century of Nazism and Communism could be overcome. Living here for almost a year now, I'm impressed by the high seriousness of their efforts.

Deep thinkers have been hee-heeing at the inevitable stumbles such outsized aims brought so very small a place: on opening day, President Roman Herzog's security detail kept Dr. Rolf Bothe, director of the city's museums, from taking his last minute seat. Two days before, the director of the Lucas Cranach Gallery on Market Square declared bankruptcy--she blamed the innumerable construction sites on stopping her usual stream of customers.

Media publicity forced the government to give her a reprieve. The Goethe Museum won't open until May, along with the new Congress Hall. And the splendidly rehabbed main train station was two months late in opening. (Deutsche Bahn has installed a brilliant exhibition on the boom in new train station construction at one end of the station's main hall--at the other end is the Times Square Internet Cafe!)

By far the most interesting exhibition is in the former Gauforum, "Wege nach Weimar" (Paths Toward Weimar), which illustrates with political posters, newspaper and magazine illustrations,and historic photos, those crucial 180 or so days that the new legislators hammered out their agenda for a Social Democratic Germany. They had moved down from Berlin, three hours by train away, for fear of the mobs in the streets. Weimar was easier to defend.

Also not to be missed is a black and white photo exhibition in the new Schiller House galleries, "The Myth of Weimar," by fiftyish Ute Klophaus, who started out shooting student art happenings (she is a favorite of artist Joseph Beuys). Her photo book on the Slovakian city of Kosice caught the eye of Weimar's planners to great effect. Her eye is omnivorous: famous local Goethe/Schiller icons cheek by jowl with the staircase leading to Buchenwald cellar crematoria and the infamous entrance gate logo "Jeden Das Seine", the translated Latin motto of the Prussian kings. The catalog is a must have from the "Salve" Shop on Schillerstrasse or in the Main Train Station. "Salve" was classicist Goethe's rather cool "Howdy".

There's more controversy over the Neues Museum, the first contemporary art museum in Weimar. Cologne collector Paul Maens' choices tend to be quirkily avant-garde. One of the first "pieces" is a Dadaist canister of the artist's shit, certified as authentic in four languages. Ha Ha. There are two powerful Anselm Kiefer's, but too too much young American (Keith Haring) hijinks. It was so off-turning to me that when I came to the back gallery, a restored series of eight nineteenth murals on the Ithaca legend, I almost began to regret the "triumph" of modernism.

All is not lost in that magnificently transformed old museum: in the basement is one of the most satisfying shops I have ever seen. ManuFACTUM is a mail order firm which sells well designed objects of every kind, and this is its first effort to merchandise inside a museum. (It's the Bauhaus ideal finally come true--affordable, well-designed objects for the masses.) And it has a comfortable cafe.

And while on that subject, kitty korner from the New Museum, across Rathenauplatz is the Thuringia Design Center. Its visionary director, Hans-Joachim Gundelach, has set himself the goal of reviving Thuringia's badly battered manufacturing industry through well publicized good design competitions. I have seen more great exhibitions of furniture, advertising, architecture and design there this year than the Museum of Modern Art in New York puts on in a similar period.

Similarly, on Bergplatz, across from the Castle is the ACC Restaurant and Galleries. 32 year old Frank Most (he won the Weimar Culture Prize last year for his inspired leadership) is a legendary figure. This Ossie couldn't face more than a year of engineering study. He came to Weimar, took possession of a wreck of a building, and with volunteer help at first created a complex of cultural activities that is the leading edge of Weimar's artistic future.

Incidentally, when I was leading a Slovenian TV crew there, their TV reporter asked me if I didn't find "Germans" too cold and bureaucratic. I told her of my epiphany on an Icelandair flight from Luxembourg shortly after President Reagan and Kohl stumbled in an SS cemetery in Bitburg. Behind me were three generations of Germans--the grandfather was clearly a Wehrmacht relic, his fortyish son a kind of sour civil servant, but the seventeen year old daughter indistinguishable in her fluent English and hip demeanor from any American girl.

Just as I finished this anecdote, we ran into an ACC factotum and asked him where we could get permission to film their current exhibition. He assumed a mock solemnity and replied that they required four weeks advance notice so it was out of the question filming now. The reporter looked at me crushed until I explained he was joking--he was, in fact, mocking the very stereotype she had dragged along. I left her happy as a clam, deep in a discussion with the curator whose work she was about to report on. And the ACC Cafe has the cheapest, tastiest special lunches and dinners in Weimar.

But don't think Weimar 99 is just a bunch of excellent exhibitions. It's a town that's a pleasure to saunter through. The first thing you should do at the main train station is to pick up at the Salve Shop "Walking Through Time in Weimar", a map of 25 places where you can really begin to capture the spirit of the place. "Text and image, audio tapes and documentary film reconstruct people and events from German and European history within a setting composed from original experience and memory."

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Scandinavia and All that Jazz

It all started by a lucky accident last January taking the ferry from Trondheim to Bergen, Norway. The NordKapp was the newest ship in the Coastal Ferry Fleet, a veritable wonder of nautical engineering garnished with some of the tastiest art I've ever seen outside of a museum. But for some reason its ship's radio couldn't trigger my son Michael's FAX in St. Paul.

So the purser advised me to get off the ship at the next stop, Molde, and cross the parking lot to the Hotel Alexandra where I could send a FAX. Bingo! "How much will that be?" I asked the clerk at the registration desk. "Nothing, sir. It's on the house." My, my, I thought to myself. These Norwegians are nice folk.

Then my eye caught sight of a folder advertising the 20th running of the Molde International Jazz Festival, opening on July l3. I vowed to myself to pay back their generosity by attending. (In my hurry to get back to the ship, however, I made the booboo of not writing down the date in my pocket calendar.) So come July I arrived in Molde (courtesy of an El Cheapo Scandinavian Air Pass via Paris-Copenhagen-Oslo-Molde) on the fourth, not the thirteenth, of July. When I checked into the Hotel Alexandra, needless to say they said "Huh?" The festival didn't start for ten days! GULP.

But I love Norway, so this was a minor frustration: it gave me ten days to research my book on what Americans could learn about democratic egalitarianism from the Scandiknaves. That night, for example, there was a concert of Russian sacred and folk music at a little church just outside of town. Their singing was a glory, the chorus being composed of some of the leading opera singers in Moscow.

But even more interesting was the young man in charge--he had given himself the assignment of encouraging better cultural relations between Russia and the Scandinavian countries. (He got his current best idea nearly freezing to death at the jazz festival he had organized in Novosibirsk: a series of jazz festivals in cities where the temperature never rises about zero degrees Centigrade in February.)

Then, wandering around the town of 23,000 to satisfy my passion for good architecture, right smack on the waterfront was a brand new soccer stadium seating 15,000 fans. 15,000 in a town of 23,000! I tracked down the architect Kjell Kosberg, and set up an appointment for Monday. But I had never been to a soccer game in my life.

So Sunday I sat in the press box and asked simple questions to the journalists covering the game. "Man, what those guys do with their feet!" I amazed. And what a story. The richest man in Norway left Molde at age seventeen with $1,500 borrowed from a plumber friend. His high school advisor warned him as he left he wouldn't amount to a damn. Ha. He made a fortune in Seattle fishing for pollock. This stadium was his gift to his home town. (That teacher slinks around town in a disguise these days.)

And being a Jugendstil fanatic, I heard that a nearby town, Alesund, nearly burned down in 1904 when a hurricane blew a blubber factory fire into a conflagration destroying 800 buildings in the center of town. Bright young architects from all over Europe flocked there to rebuild it in the then hip new style of Jugendstil--what we call Art Nouveau and the Spaniards call Modernismo.

As I settled into the ferry, I asked the deck hand if I had time to get off and buy a ice lolly. I thought he said,"Yup". As I ripped the paper off my orange Calippo, I saw an empty space where the ship had been. YIKES. Off it steamed in the far receding distance. With all of my worldly goods. Some quick shore to ship phone calls secured my luggage in the ship's kitchen, and I spent the next three hours checking out the art galleries and a ship training school in the harbor.

When I took the next ferry, I discovered that there was no connecting bus for three hours. Damn. I stuck out my thumb for the first time in 50 years and lucked out with a neat Swedish family in a van, who delivered me to the Atlantica Hotel after an hour of savoury ScanTalk and mutual photograph taking.

Alesund is a marvel, quite apart from its world class repertoire of Jugendstil builldings. It was celebrating it 150th anniversary as a town (70,000) by building three structures--a stadium for the hooligans, an art gallery for the boomers, and an aquarium for families with kids.

With dumb Irish luck, I stumbled across the Aquarium architect who took me under his wing, explaining why he did this and that, then drove me back into town to the restaurant/observatory on the highest viewpoint over the whole archipelago. What an introduction. Including pointing out the bunker the Nazis had ordered a local builder to construct on that high vantage point. He did build it--upside-down useless--to the understandable frustration of the German authorities. The builder also had the wit to disappear before they discovered his hoax.

I also trained down to Lillehammer where my best informant on Scandinavian trends is Oli Mathison, the Olympic reporter for the local daily. He took me up to the Olympic Museum which I had been too busy to see while covering the games in 1994.

Weary but happy as a clam I went back to Molde and began by watching Santana open the festival with an aural earthquake. Best on the bill were the Jazz Legends, led by trumpeter Jon Faddis. Meanwhile, there was no room for me in the Hotel Alexandra, which is booked up months in advance, so they put me up in a school dorm, a short walk from the center of town. Apart from their annual Rose Festival the jazz fest is their biggest deal and the whole town is wall to wall eating, drinking, and listening. I've never had so enjoyable a jazz festival in a lifetime of attending.

Then it was off to Copenhagen for several days. I stay there in a marvelous hotel called the CabInn, the hobby of a mechanical engineer who wanted to design the perfect small hotel. The festival center was a fifteen minute walk away, where there are non-stop free performances. I have never seen such diverse audiences--old people (I mean doddering old) and young whippersnappers, whole families, visitors from all over Europe.

Denmark is proud of its Radio Big Band which for twenty-five years has subsidized a group of local and international jazz artists with a good salary and three months off with pay to play with small groups to keep their muses on fire. And way out on the edge of town at the Park Hotel two guys in love with Stan Getz played his best hits with tender love. And Frank Timberi led the Woody Herman band in golden oldies at the Copenhagen Jazz Club. What a week.

Then it was off to Pori Finland for a week of joyous noise, using the Baltic Air Pass to make flying cheaper--Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-Pori. I spent the first night at the HQ hotel, but had to bunk the rest of the festival at a B&B about fifteen minutes by bus from the waterfront where the festival is held. The serendipity in Pori was meeting the guru of the affair, Ken Christian, a black trumpet player from my home town of Philadelphia!

He was playing a club in Paris when two shy Finns came up to him during a break and asked him if he'd like to start a jazz festival in Pori. What is it? Where is it? You could say he liked it because he's just given his home in Jersey City to his daughter and has moved permanently with his kiddie lit book writing wife to the coast town on the Baltic.

I missed the festival in Oslo this year--I had to be back in Philly for my son Tim's birthday--but my girl and I did get to hear one of the country's leading piano players, 70 year old Ivar Eskilden at his night club. He started out as a cabin boy on Norwegian ships working New York, where he got into aural orbit visiting the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. Soon he graduated to playing piano on the steamships.

I also missed the Stockholm Jazz Festival because I was too busy covering it as the Cultural Capital of Europe. I did visit the most famous jazz club in Europe though--just behind the Central Train Station, the Fasching, where a fine quartet was playing. The piano playing leader had a Polish name as did his tenor player so I assumed the group was from Poland. No way. The piano player was from Chapel Hill, N.C.--married a Swede. The tenor man was from Boston. He too had married a Swede. Something about blondes that appeals to jazz performers, I guess.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Meeting the Midas of Muck

Ten years ago I was in Essen to see Ute Eskilden's ground-breaking exhibition on German women photographers of the 1920's at the Folkwang Museum. I had known the work of three of those artists--she had amassed 53! I was in such a state of euphoria from these epiphanies that I reacted to a small newspaper ad for an inaugural exhibition in nearby Oberhausen--in a gasometer.

It was called "Fire and Flame" and turned out to be a brilliant visual history of the industrialization of the Ruhr Valley. I have since told anyone who would listen when I leafed with them through the catalog,"Das Feuer und die Flamme", that it was the most original and illuminating exhibition I had ever seen in fifty years of museum hooverings. At the time I didn't know it was part of a decade long effort to save the Ruhr Valley from its past mistakes.

Today I returned to the largest gasometer in Europe to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude inaugurate "The Wall", 13,000 oil barrels painted yellow, red, blue, and other assorted lesser shades, astride the interior which had been garnished as well with two complementary exhibitions on the history and evolution of their shows covering the Reichstag and their umbrella deployments in Japan and California.

I use the term deployment advisedly because what I learned from their mini-museum in the Oberhausen gasometer was that their projects are really 5% art and 95% logistics. The young woman who has run their shop since the Reichstag show (characteristically they fund their expensive performances by selling Christo's drawings) explained that this superficially Odd Couple are actually a perfect match--she confesses she can't draw at all, even though they met in art school in Paris in 1958, and he concedes that he can't keep track of anything. Together, they have worked their quirky temporary miracles, time after time. He muses; she manages.

This go is unique in that for the first time they have a "sponsor" picking up the multi-million dollar tab--the IBA, a consortium of Ruhr Valley institutions and individuals who for ten years have been "saving" the relics of deindustrialization by finding new uses for old buildings--the gasometer is merely the biggest and most unusual.

But listen to the guru of the Ruhr, 62-year-old Karl Ganser, a scientist from Munich with an ecological vision: "The aim of the IBA, held in one of the oldest and most important industrial regions of Europe, is to preserve such disused production facilities as a testimony to the technology of industrial architecture. And to give them a new function. Unlike previous IBAs this exhibition does not focus on architecture and town planning, but tackles a much broader programme--no less than the cultural, ecological, social and economic restructuring of an entire region. The scope of the IBA includes over 100 projects in 17 towns and many companies in the area between Duisburg and Dortmund. Not only industrial buildings are included in the programme, but also a 70-kilometers long stretch of industrial wasteland, 300 square kilometers in area,which was redesigned in accordance with ecological and aesthetic criteria. A basic principle at the heart of the philosophy behind the IBA is the realization that long-term economic viability must go hand-in-hand with a responsible approach to the environment." (The Wall, Gasometer, Oberhausen 1999, 13,000 Oil Barrels, Photos Wolfgange Volz, Taschen Verlag, Hohenzollernring 53, D-50672 Koeln, p. 6).

Thus speaketh the Midas of Muck. For six hours yesterday, two bus loads of cynical, seen-everything journalists were driven to several of those 100 projects--and their astonishments were palpable.

A fan of the Odd Couple since 1976 when, teaching in Northern California, I watched their "Running Fence" drift lazily across Sonoma and Marin counties in an almost 40 mile march to the Pacific, I was eager to watch them "at work". Part of their process in an enthusiastic interaction with their "customers". They both risked terminal index finger cramp autographing color photos and catalogs for the media mob. And they happily led fleets of TV cameras around the show, giving nutritious sound bites about their aims and accomplishments.

When I asked Jeanne-Claude which of their projects were their favorites, she tartly replied:"A mother and a father can't play favorites with their children; they love them all equally;" and after a well-timed pause, worthy of a Jack Benny she added,"but I can tell you which project we find most interesting--our next one."

"The Wall" fits Karl Ganser's program beautifully: Oil is a powerful metaphor for the ambivalent results of industrialization, especially after the Oil Crisis of the 1970's. But Christo had been interested in oil barrel imagery as far back as l958 when he barricaded a Paris street with a stack of them, and in 1961 he directed a larger deployment in Cologne Harbor. So when the IBA called, he was willing and able.

Not all of the IBA aesthetic choices appeal to my increasingly derriere-garde sensibility. The humungous Richard Serra monolith on a mountain of slag merely adds to my sense of industrial desolation--made preposterously pretentious by its unflattering and unintended juxtaposition with a brilliant red bridge left over from a great flower exposition at the foot of the mountain.

And Dan Flavin's dinky neon fritterings in a former power station look simply silly in their shticky decoration of the huge, splendidly sculptural transformers. German culture is increasingly and uncritically obeisant to American arty hip hop.It's a strange outcome of their defeat in World War II, I think. They'll get over it, as they regain self-confidence without the old Prussian arrogance. But this is just gratuitous nitpicking on my part.

I recently took my German girl friend on an Easter visit to Philadelphia, where I live when I'm not in Weimar. My house is in the Far Northeast, the last part of the city to be developed, mainly since World War II. To get to Center City where all the tourist teases are, you take the Frankford El--through some of the most depressing deindustrialized parts of a city that peaked in population in 1950 (2 millions, now down to 1.5, but with a Metro population of 4.5 millions, since the educated and affluent have moved to the suburbs).

Unlike the Midas of Muck, our City Fathers have concentrated on reviving the Center where the suburban affluent work and sometimes have the courage to play. For the deindustrialized sectors in North and West Philly, their effective mandate has been to let it rot. Now my German friend is an Ossie, from Halle (Saale), so she knows desolation: the former DDR is still afflicted with the heritage of Russian looting and lassitude about keeping things up. But even with such "preparation" she was dumbstruck. My reaction to the Midas of Muck's domain is that I never really had access to images of such alternatives before. The IBA's decade of renewing the Ruhr has proven to me that there are viable options for evading the desolation of deindustrialization.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are by no means raving ideologues. But with wit and irony they too show ways out of the wasteland. "The Wall" is a delightful testament to the Faulknerian hope that mankind will not only endure but possibly prevail as well.

You have until October to sample this glorious caper. (As Oberhausen's fire chief confided to me at the vernissage, after that it becomes impossible to heat the huge interior of the gasometer.) A stunning complementary exhibition at the Schloss Oberhausen is the proper way to prepare yourself for "The Wall".

Take the 122 bus from Platform C outside the Main Train Station. (I stayed overnight at the Ibis Hotel in Dusseldorf's Main Train Station. It's 130 DM--cheaper (79 DM ) weekends, and a twenty-five minute train ride to Oberhausen.) The Gasometer is a delicious leafy ten minute saunter from the Schloss.

The cheapest way to get there from London is VLM from London City Airport to Moenchengladbach (290.54 DM return). Take the #10 bus to the Main Train Station, a free sixteen-minute ride with a plane ticket. There the S-Bahn leaves for Dusseldorf twice an hour, for a thirty-minute ride to the Hauptbahnhof. You save money if you buy a ticket straight through to Oberhausen.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Weimar: Much More than Goethe

Weimar: It's a sheer fluke that I'm spending this year (1999) in Weimar when it's the Cultural Capital of Europe. At the press opening of Stockholm's tenure as the EuroCapital, a snooty art critic from Berlin sneered that he didn't see how a run-down East German "village" (60,000 at last count) could follow the Swedish capital.

My siding with Underdogs, as well as a longtime interest as an architecture buff interested in the Bauhaus, prompted me to make a detour back to Philadelphia via Weimar. I figured I'd at least get a tasty visit to Berlin (now competing neck and neck with Barcelona as my favorite city in the world) out of it.

The twenty minute walk from the main train station to the city "center" made the Berlin critic's putdown look like an understatement. What a mess. What wasn't being renovated looked about to collapse. Still the glorious Jugendstil Deutsche Bank where the press center was piqued my interest further.

Luckily I fell into the capital hands of Andreas Schneider, a thirtyish former radio broadcaster who immediately understood my curiosity. He took me for an introductory walk (reversing the itinerary of my arrival). He showed me the Cranach House in the marketplace, the National Theatre where the so-called Weimar Republic's constitution had been written in 1919, the Goethe Cafe, and a whole neighborhood of buildings on nearby Goetheplatz undergoing rehab, and across from which is the new Congress Center opening in May.

We dropped in the Bauhaus Museum with a small but choice selection of artifacts from the entire history of that institution--plus an introduction to the great local works of Henrik van der Velde, the Belgian Jugendstil genius who ran the applied art school that preceded the Bauhaus.Then down Karl Liebknect Strasse where he showed me the local high school with a legendary Big Band. Then the old Landesmuseum in the process of becoming a Contemporary Art Museum. He pointed out behind it at Rathenau Platz the Thuringer Design Center where the social idealism plus techno savvy of the Bauhaus tradition is alive and kicking.

There, Karl Liebknecht gives way to Carl August Allee (Leninallee until the fall of the DDR!) Carl August was the Duke who presided over the Golden Age of Goethe and Schiller at the turn of the 19th century, after his mother, the regent Ana Amalia got the salon fever started.

We dropped into the C1 club, the freshest pop music venue in Weimar, where one noisy July night I lost my hatred of rock music. (I had already been softened up by the marvelous jazz groups performing there.) We ended up at the bar of the InterCity Hotel across from the train station. He asked me if I'd like to meet some architecture students from Bauhaus UNI (the efflorescence of Denglish has created the linguistic tic of clipping words in what is mistakenly assumed to be verrrry American--crime series on TV are Krimi's, prominent celebs are Promi's, respected professionals Profi's).

Six of them, all female, had rented the top floor of an apartment to spend the wee hours finishing their diploma projects. One, for example, was a new hotel capitalizing but not negating the Neuschwanstein folly of Mad Ludwig. I swear every other person in Weimar seems to me to be studying architecture. I swear, their enthusiasm and openness won me over on the spot.

Weimar might be a virtual mess at the moment, but the almost billion Deutschmarks already ponied up would surely save the day. The excuse for picking Weimar allegedly was to celebrate Goethe's 250th birthday (August 28), but its secret agenda was to show the East Germans that their areas could be retrieved from twelve years of Nazi abuse and almost a half century of socialist neglect.

I vowed to come back in May, and stayed at the InterCity for four months as I got acquainted with the city and its Kreis (Weimar is encircled by fascinating villages, towns, and cities--Bad Berka, Apolda, Erfurt, and you should plan to use the fine mass trans network to relish them.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Gingko Biloba/Goethe

Dieses Baums Blatt, der von Osten
This Gingko's leaf from far away
Meinen Garten anvertraut
entrusted to my garden,
Gibt geheimen Sinn zu kosten
let's us taste the secret sense
Wie's den Wissenden erbaut.
from which wisdom is nurtured.
Ist es ein lebendig Wesen
Is it a living creature
Das sich in sich selbst getrennt
that can so divide itself
Sind es zwei, die sich erlesen,
to be twice as exquisite
Dass man sie als eines kennt?
that we only know as one?
Solche Fragen zu erwidern,
to answer such questions,
Fand ich wohl den rechten Sinn,
I would have to find the right feeling,
Fuehlst du nicht an meinen Liedern,
Don't you find in my songs
Dass ich eins und doppelt bin?
the same two in one mystery?

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Weimar Redux Nine

POSTCARD to Father Bernie McGoldrick, S.J.:

Hi Father, you remember that strange Cold War novel I wrote you about, by the daughter of Ambassador to Berlin? Well, I found just enough more about her that I want you to scan her on the InterNet for me? PULEEZ. "Sowing the Wind" came out in the U.S. in 1945 and was translated in several European languages--but not in West Germany "since the U.S.A. has already forbidden the publication there of my last novel (The Searching Light, 1955). . ."

Then she really lets go:"On the personal side, my family and I know well the lash of American reaction. My mother, father and my brother, all prematurely dead, were slandered, hounded and persecuted for their convictions and activities. Latterly, my husband and I, and our young son, were first driven out of the United States and then out of Mexico. We were reviled, pursued and threatened, even to death, in so melodramatic and fantastic a manner that one might find its equal only in cheap detective fiction or in the anti-Communist, anti-Jewish exhibits which were formerly seen in Berlin and were so enthusiastically supported by the Hitler gang."

What follows is an hysterical rant, but I must try to find out what happened to her and her family when her father's term was over (1938) she went back to the U.S. and wrote a family memoir,"Through Embassy Eyes", and then with her brother edited her father's diary as an ambassador." Her dateline for this was Prague, 1959. Remember, Padre, you used to tell us the greatest historical stories can creep up on you. Only the morbidly curious you argued would make important discoveries. Heh, old Teach, I plead GUILTY, as discharged. God how I miss interlibrary loans.

The Dodd plot thickens! In the Ana Amalia Library today I checked the German edition of his diaries as ambassador to Berlin. The forward is written by our hero, Charles Beard! Dodd was born in Clayton, North Carolina in l869, graduated from Virginia Poly, then took his Ph.D. (are you ready for this) at the University of Leipzig--in l900 with a dissertation on Thomas Jefferson's "Return to Politics in 1796." After teaching for eight years at Randolph-Macon College he was appointed to the University of Chicago.

When that fateful phone call from FDR came to his office on June 8, 1933 he had just been elected president of the American Historical Association for 1934. He asked the President for time to think it over. FDR: "Two hours. Can you decide in that time?" Dodd replied that he thought he could but had to check with the University administration and wondered whether the German government would take offense at his Woodrow Wilson "Anstoss".

Then FDR really turned on the charm: "I'm sure that won't be a problem. Your book, your entire work as a liberal and a professor as well as your education at a German university are the basis reasons for my calling you to Berlin. It's a difficult post and you
have the required qualifications. I want for Germany a man with liberal convictions who would be a living example of what being an American. I want someone there to call and find out what they're thinking over there."

The first thing Dodd did was call his wife. Then President Hutchins. He wasn't in, but Dean Woodward told him he ought to take it and would right away look for substitutes for summer and winter terms. (FDR had said he could come back in a year if the University insisted on it.) He talked it over with his wife over lunch, and at two thirty was connected to the White House, where the Cabinet was in session.

Later his Chicago friend Harold Ickes said there was nary an objection there. The German ambassador, Dr. Hans Luther, cleared it with his home office, and on June 12, Dodd was unanimously approved by the Senate. The AAB has applied to Leipzig for an interlibrary loan (fernleihung) of his dissertation, to Hamburg for the English edition of the diaries, and to Osnabruck for the 1981 edition of William L. Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich".

Each loan costs three marks which includes a postcard to say it's arrived--two to eight weeks to fetch it. The auskunft "INFO'" lady even showed me how to use the electronic catalog. Later she will check me out on their INTERNET.

(And there's a language school nearby where I can send e-mail for 5DM a half hour. Now if I couldn't only learn how to really use my Toshiba laptop, I'd be in CyberHimmel. Heh, Padre, do me a big flavor and fax me the DAB entry on Dodd. That's a good overworked professor!)

POSTCARD to Ute: Heh, remember how I invited you to a Bratwurst Fest at the stand behind the InterCity Hotel, die Beste is Irhre Wurste? Well, there's a serious cultural side to this. Word freaks at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) have been working on an "Etymologischen Woerterbuches des Althochdeutschen" since 1978 (it's a collab with Friedrich Schiller-Uni in Jena).

They have determined that the word "Bratwurst" is over a thousand years old. (The bad news is they haven't a clue for knowing what those old guys actually were eating when they used that word.) Isn't that just like scholarship. Just when you need them, they go to black. (TA, 2/6/99, p.3,c.7.)

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Weimar Redux Eight

LETTER to Petra: The Martin Walser brouhaha gets more and more tangled. Yesterday, the German Booksellers Association gave him their Author of the Year award.

I've never seen a country with more art and literature awards. Maybe I'm just brainwashed by my contempt for Pop Cult honors--Grammies, Addies, Oscars, Emmies, most of them ending in diminutives to suggest the irrelevance of honors in an allegedly egalitarian culture. But I never pick up the daily Weimar Nachricten or Allgemeine without reading about serious award, usually with a cash prize not to be sneezed at.

Was this always so, or is part of Germany's restoring its pride in itself? Yesterday, for example, MDR Kultur Kafe at the Dorint Hotel did a live discussion under the peculiar rubric, "German or Happy?" The heaviest thinker was the director of the Buchenwald memorial who said his first awareness of being "different" as a German was when the parents of his first girlfriend in Paris wouldn't let him into their house because he was a "Bosch"!

That World War I sneer must have sounded strange to a man born in 1950! And a political editor from Berliner Tagespiegel recounted about how his Interrail tickets to diverse parts of Europe (he cited Italy and Denmark) brought him into contacts with students who just assumed as a German he would be dour and boring, too serious. What a chore to be always worrying about what the rest of the world thinks of you.

I think I'd be on Walser's side when it comes to Holocaust overload. The twentieth century is rife with tragedies: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, to just start an endless litany. Leninism, Maoism.

And as for anti-Semitism I find Germans, especially university students and graduates, freer than most of the other countries I've come in contact with. There used to be a ritual frenzy from the American Jewish Committee about UN third world countries accusing Israel of "racism".

From the Arab's perspective, Israelis are racist. They keep harping on their being a "chosen people" and secretly (for the most part) despise Palestinians as "sand niggers". (I didn't invent that despicable sneer.) And now the Orthodox Jewish students in Israel are reported (IHT, 2/2/99,p.6) as yelling at American Reform rabbis attempting to pray at the Wailing Wall that they should go back to Germany to be exterminated! Because they allow women to wear kippas and pray with their men.

"Never again" is the way I feel when I read about such religious extremists. In the same issue there is a story about how pregnant unmarried women are outcasts in Muslim Algeria. One pathetic creature was raped by her employer's son. He goes Scot-free and she is thrown into the street. When the archbishop of San Francisco lobbies before the Board of Supervisors against equal partnership legislation, I feel the same fury at the survival of foolish theological doctrines.

And here's the latest wrinkle in the Berlin Holocaust Memorial industry. David Liebeskind is accusing Peter Eisenman of plagiarism in his toned down revised design! And it's becoming an open secret that more and more German editorialists are wondering out loud why two American Jews hold a monopoly on the Berlin memorials. Oh vey. It reminds me of Richard Meier's Uriah Heapy thanks to the Frankfurt burgers at the dedication of his Museum of Decorative Arts for giving the commission to me (a poor little old ) Jew.

The only thing worse than the Holocaust is Holocaust Hustling. Finally, it ought to be added, the Swiss, German, and Austrian banks and insurance companies are owning up to their thievery. But the same ideologues who chant Fairness and Equity for Jewish victims laugh at the notion that American blacks are owed reparations. What a mess. Of course the Poles went bananas with their sorcerer's apprentice plethora of crosses at Auschwitz. On the other hand was it kosher to kick out the nuns who wanted to pray there.

I think Jews ought to remember the obverse of Shylock's plaint about bleeding. Jews are not the only people who have suffered in history. They are just better organized in their complaints. And more intelligent in their maneuverings. Did you ever read "The Jewish Mystique" by the conservative American philosopher Ernst van den Haag.

He speculates that the reason Jews are so much more gifted than the rest of us stems from the fact that for a thousand years Jewish rabbis had the pick of the village's maidens for wives whilst their Catholic counterparts were dysgenically celibate! As an agnostic I can't believe the Jehovah/Moses explanation. But you've got to admit, you guys are on the average smarter. Right?

Monday, 18 May 2009

Weimar Redux Seven

Speaking of which, Petra is a fortyish librarian at the Ana Amalia who has reminded me after a decade of no sex at all that I haven't forgotten how to ride a bicycle. She teaches me German when she isn't bringing me to climax.

Unfortunately, the vocabulary I'm learning isn't fit for public discourse. But the syntax is--make that sin tax. She is something of a German nationalist. Last weekend she sandwiched Tubingen (Holderlin) and Marbach (Schiller) over the meat of Stuttgart. German romanticism is not my cup of tea: she dragged me to the tower where the poor guy spent his last decades off his rocker.

The Krone hotel where we stayed,however, was an old fashioned break from Name Brand Sameness. And there was a delicious exhibition of the so-called Blaue Reiter school at the local Kunstgallerie. Marc and Kandinsky I know, but not so much August Macke. Back in Weimar I checked out several books on him--he was wiped out in WWI after a few months at the front, less than 30 years old. Ugh.

There were several Gabriele Munter's (You know my idee fixe that she is a much better painter than Kandinsky, who dumped her after sniveling around with her in Munich before he was divorced: I don't which bugs me more). And there were a few Marianne Werefkind's cheek by jowl with Jawlensky's, who dumped her after getting her fifteen year old charge pregnant!)

What a sleazy bunch of patriarchs those Murnau meanies were. I hope you get some brilliant young Stella Maris grad from the Richmond to write a Ph.D. thesis on the scandal of the wives and mistresses of "major" male painters not getting their fair share of fame and attention. She should start with Sonia Delaunay who was so much greater than her manic depressive Robert as to infuriate me every time I see a museum with a Robert but no Sonia!

Marbach was better. A cousin of Petra's is a Mss curator there, and after lunch at a local Greek restaurant, he showed us an original Kafka Ms. I know you get incensed at such relic worship, like cottoning up to splinters of the True Cross. But it was a kick nevertheless.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Weimar Redux Six

I got so hungry for English language reading materials I checked out Hungarian short stories before the Dodd. Actually quite tasty. Petra took me to Stuttgart last week where her nephew was getting christened--not really, Father, at a Lutheran Church! Afraid of excommunication I wandered off to the highly touted Staatsgallerie (it's the capital of Baden-Wurtemberg, squeezed between Hesse and Bavaria) by the British showboat architect James Stirling.

They had a rich special exhibition on Eugene Atget. Knowing how you like old photos it would have knocked you out. Me, ho hum. Actually, when Man Ray asked EA's help on a Dadaist exhibition, he grimly consented only if MR would never refer to him as an "artist"--just a little old documenter. Atget was right.

John Szarkowski must have gone intellectually blind looking at all his stuff. The old geezer was benignly obsessed, but he was just a tourist in his own home town. They're all framed correctly and in focus (except where the slow exposure time blooms light at windows), but A-R-T they ain't. And not one person in the whole kit and caboodle.

He deserves a merit badge for lugging that 40 pounds of equipment around the streets of not so gay Paree. The only artistic photo in the whole show is Berenice Abbott's sidewinder portrait of hisself (1927). Yes, Father, I took it down--for "1927: A Festschrift for Myself", that goofy idea you laid on the history majors in 101.

(Figure out what was going on in the world the year you were born, you intoned from your imperial podium.)

And get this gem--the new Dorint hotel on Beethoven Platz across from my flat at Ackerwand 19--is after a 1927 design the Austrian modernist Adolf Loos did for banana shaker Josephine Baker in Paris. I must find out why she never sprung for it. And sharing your onomastic fervor, please be advised that the name of my street derives from its being the village's limits at the end of the eighteenth century: Acker for "field", Wand for "wall".

Henry has started to twit me with his half-aphorism "Etymology is geriatric sex".

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Weimar Redux Five

LETTER to Professor Bernie McGoldrick, History Department, University of San Francisco:

Yo, Bernie: I feel I've finally settled into Weimar: Yesterday Petra helped me thread through the red tape of getting three (!!!) library cards. You remember your joke in History 101 that you didn't become a citizen until you had library cards. So I got ones at Bauhaus Uni (for serious architecture and design books), one at the elegant Rococo Ana Amalia Bibliothek (she was the eighteenth century regent/duchess who inveigled Goethe into settling in Weimar), and finally at the City Library.

It's just reopened, splendidly refurbished, computers, Internet, the woiks, part of the city's boodle as the Cultural Capital of Europe, 1999. CD's (I'm giving myself a crash course in German classical music--Johann Sebastian actually lived here between 1807-14), CD Roms on how to learn German. (Man, at 72 that is a drag--I read the Herald Trib and Bild (a tabloid with usually a boobily exposed Madchen on the front page and a vocabulary and syntax that fit my increasingly senescent mind.)

But the English language collection is absurd. Mostly DDR relics, Seven Seas Books, which translates into Russian or other left wing writers. But every once in a while, a marvelous freak, such as the one I'm reading right now, Martha Dodd's novel, "Sowing the Wind" (1941). It's about a working class fly boy who gradually loses his anti-Nazi convictions as he rises in the hierarchy of Goering's Luftwaffe. No great shakes as art, but what a gloss on the author's life: as a twenty-year-old American innocent she joins her father William E. Dodd, in Berlin when he becomes FDR's ambassador to Germany (1933-38).

Later, she and her brother, William, Jr. edit their father's diary, and inevitably become personae non gratae to the State Department, which refuses them visas to cover the war on the Eastern front. I immediately clicked on my CD rom Encyclopedia Britannica (son Walt gave it to me for Xmas) to get some perspective on the Dodd's. Not a word. But it's very good on Nazism. Dodd was a professor of history at the University of Chicago before going to Berlin.

I wonder if he didn't get along with William Benton who eventually bought the EB from the university. I run it on the Toshiba laptop I bought in San Jose last summer at COMP USA. If faxes could kill they would have many fewer personnel at that store. In spite of $300 for three years service (the Satellite set me back $1500), they haven't answered one of my problems.

After ten years with my trusty but unportable MAC (You remember son Hank tried to clean up my sloppy Mss reputation with a spare Macintosh from his advertising office) I'd dump this damn Toshiba (Its arrogant motto THE WORLD'S BEST SELLING PORTABLE COMPUTERS--emblazoned right under the computer's screen) if I weren't an ornery cuss.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Weimar Redux Four

Wow! I've been listening to the Bach B Minor Mass on my CD player and discovered an amazing thing about its creation. Bach was pissed at the respect he felt he wasn't getting in Leipzig and sent a Kyrie and a Gloria to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. (He had just succeeded to his throne at the St. Nicolai Kirche in Leipzig where Bach also served.)

They speculate that he was angling to become the court composer in Dresden, which would make the Leipzigers realize how shabbily they had been treating him. No Go in Dresden. Nobody knows how the Protestant Mass (K & G) became a full blown Catholic Mass. Indeed, it wasn't even published until 1856. So much for one of the world's greatest masterpieces. A FLUKE!!!

See you soon (when I get Bach.)

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Weimar Redux Three

Boy, watching rehearsals exhausted me. There's a big power struggle going on now between the troupes in Weimar and in the much bigger neighbor, Erfurt. Weimar is afraid that its bigger, duller neighbor is going to move for a merger of the two troupes, leaving the smaller city out in the cold. Weimar finds this merger talk particularly unsettling on the eve of our year in the sun as the Cultural Capital of Europe. We'll see."

We got into his VW, and he pulled away carefully,"I want you begin where the Bauhaus ended. When the provincial government got tired of their unreasonable "artistic" personalities, they decided to split for Dessau, about two hours by train on the way to Berlin. It's a small lovely stube with an outdoor terrace overlooking the Ilm River which runs through Weimar. The small village is called Oberweimar."

As he slowed down to park, he pointed to a barracksy-looking apartment complex. "That's DDRchitecture. We call it narchitecture it's so ugly. But notice the one on the left is being 'restored'. Not as ugly as the derelict one next to it. Eh? There's a lot of that "saving" going on in Weimar these days. A dozen years of Nazi architecture plus almost fifty more of socialist good works have left us with a big mess. That is why Kohl felt it was so important to get Weimar the Cultural Capital focus on Goethe's 250th birthday. We've got to show ourselves in the East that the long term disaster is not necessarily permanent."

The house we entered suddenly became a noisy neighborhood bar, with a local brew advertising itself with a lounging Goethe downing a long draft. "Guten Abend, Christiane. Ich habe eine Reporter von San Francisco wer Bauhaus liebt. Can we sit in the corner table if it's free?" The amiable grandmotherly type replied, "Ja, naturlich, Herr Lehmann. Follow me." And she threaded her way carefully through the joyfully carousing tables full of people in work clothes, relaxing after a hard day somewhere nearby.

She took us to the far left corner of the room where a curving Jugendstil bench was to be our prize. I only reluctantly sat down, the patterned wood was such a joy to my eyes. On the two walls forming the corner were old framed photos, except for one gloriously inscribed image, BAUHAUS ABENDE!

"You love the Bauhaus, Jake?" Christian pointed at the photos."Well, now you can relive the last sorrowful moments of the Bauhaus in Weimar." There was a copy of the invitation to that two day bash for the 28th and 29th of March, 1925. LETZER TANZE it read, with a small notice that there would be a lottery where the luckiest dancers could get a Feininger, a Klee, a Kandisky--"und anderes"--some classy dancing! For a measly five Reichsmarks. And there was more. A run through of Oskar Schlemmers' "META" Ausfuhrung, complete with his saucily geometric costumes. The amateur actors posed stiffly with their signs LUSTKRAFT, HOCHPUNKT, among others. What a sad and thrilling night that must have been.

"Heh, it must have been a crowded dance floor," I parried, wondering how those happy Kunstlers could ever have moved at all in this crowded room. "Oh no," Christian explained, "Their Ball Saal was next door. It's now been demoted to a lowly floor installing service." Frau Klostermann handed us menus, where I was distracted from ordering by reading the history of the house.

Her great-grandfather had opened it in 1914. They modernized it in 1993--but kept the old World War I furniture. "I'm glad they didn't furnish it with Bauhaus stuff. I can't imagine myself enjoying getting loaded on a Marcel Breuer bent aluminum stool." "Granted," Chris smiled, "Most modern chairs were meant to be looked at not sat on." "You can say that again," I added, "When I went to the Basel Art Fair last year, I took their free shuttle out to the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein. They have a modern chair Hall of Fame next to the factory, and I swear of the 84 winners I wouldn't sit on but ten of them. I'm of the painfully acquired opinion that every chair, modern or not, must be judged a posteriori, by putting one judging rear end on some designer's fantasy."

"Let's get down to business, Jake. I want you to see some architectural students from the Bauhaus Uni who have rented an apartment to finish their diploma projects. They're a lively bunch. Some of them are even beautiful. And, of course, they're eager to carry on the Bauhaus traditions in their own sweet ways." I looked dumbly at the menu, with nary a word in English. "Can we start with a beer while I try to psych out this SPEISEKARTE. What the hell is that?" "Easy, speise for 'eats', karte for "'card'. At McDonald's you'd call it a menu! Why don't you try the Soljanka soup--only the Russian name is a relic of the DDR times--it's a German translation of Borscht which really tastes more like wild game soup. I think they recycle their old meat and veggies in making it. And the Radeberg goulash has local dumplings you'll love. Everybody goes for that local dish."

"You said Bauhaus Uni. I take OO-KNEE is kraut for University."

"Yessir. Just another big of Denglish, a sometimes confusing German/English blend. Clipped is faster, faster is Amerikanischer. So crime shows on TV are Krimis and prominent celebrities are Promis and professionals are Profis. The professors hate it, but they whine in vain."

"And there's still a Bauhaus?"

He laughed, "No, that's a recent aberration. There's are hundreds of so-called Hochschule in Germany competing for students and budgets. And what's a run down old East German village (there are only 60,000 people here when the wind is blowing off Buchenwald in our direction) to do. Sell its past: Goethe and Schiller in the early 19th century, Lizst and his retinue in the middle, and nutty Nietzsche at the end. And there's the splendid Belgian Henrik van der Velde, who was a kind of forerunner of the Staatliches Bauhaus (and in my humble non-professional opinion a much greater architect--you must see the buildings he made in the early twentieth century, the Bauhaus teaches in one and is restoring the other--and his villas, much the best architecture in all of Thuringia).

Anyway a few years ago a few hot shot academic administrators resurrected the Bauhaus name. It was a smart, if cynical, move. For one thing, they get a lot of Bauhaus schmoozers to come and lecture for peanuts. If you're here for a few days there's a really tasty architect/historian from Leicester, England coming to lecture on the Alvar Aalto centennial."

"Tell me, Christian, how come you speak such street English? You sure didn't learn it like most Germans by taking BBC courses."

"Right you are, Jake. I was exchange student in Detroit when was a junior in high school. Kingswood Academy in Cranbrook, a ritzy suburb North of Detroit. That's where I picked up my passion for architecture. Do you know the stuff of Eliel Saarinen?"

"Sure do. I'm a fanatic for his son Eero's work."

"Ho, ho. General Motors Tech Center. Dulles Airport. TWA Terminal. Milwaukee Art Museum. There's one son who knew what his father was doing."

"And that explains the mysterious Canadian 'eh' in your speech? Went slumming in Windsor, eh?"

"Eggactly. And how is the Soljanka? To judge from your slurping, it appears agreeable."

"Beats Campbells by a mile. And the goulash could be Budapest's best. And those dumplings are strangely delicious. I should have been a peasant, if this is how they ate."

"I take that as UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER from the Burger Kingdom."

"Ratified. But remember I'm no fast foodnik. I'm from San Francisco.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Weimar Redux Two

Christian Lehman, for that was his proper name under the demotic Dayton exterior, proceeded to load me down with documents outlining the two kinds of changes needed to make Weimar shine again--renewed infrastructure and retrieving as many of the run down buildings as the budget would allow. "How much time do you have?" "Look, I'm retired. My time is my own. I'd like at least to see where the Bauhaus started. Is that still around?"

"Not exactly. But the tradition definitely is. Gropius didn't start a new building here when he came in 1919. That came later in Dessau. He used the marvelous buildings the Belgian architect Henrik van de Velde built between 1906 and 1911 for the art school in town. That's only a ten minute walk away and I love to show it off, especially the Oskar Schlemmer murals and other decorations.

And there's a marvelous Bauhaus Museum just down the street, in the Theatre Platz. But if you're going to stay for a couple of days, you'll need a hotel room. Your best bet is the InterCity Hotel right across from the Hauptbahnhoff. We've got a deal with them for visiting brass and media. Not free, but dirt cheap for a three star hotel. Let me get them on the line."

He took his Handy (the bizarre German name for a mobile telephone) out of his back pocket, and punched in the numbers. "Hi! InterCity? This is Christian Lehman at the KulturHauptstadt press bureau. We've got a journalist from San Francisco who needs a room with a phone and TV for a couple of days. Can you give him a good deal?" He paused while they calculated at the other end of the phone."Forty-four DM, buffet breakfast included?" Chris covered the mouthpiece, and giggled. "Heh, that's less than twice what the Youth Hostel in town charges, and the breakfast will last you most of the day."

I nodded acquiescence. "O.K. His name is Jake (J-A-K-E) McBride,and he'll show up after we show him a few things and give him a welcome dinner at the Ilmschlosschen. O.K.?" You'll like the InterCity. Not only is it across from the main train station, but they have a gimmick I wish every hotel would pick up--they give you a free ticket to the twelve buses that converge at the train station.

I wish someone would write a guidebook to Weimar using this mass trans network. Take Line 6. At the Northern end is Buchenwald which all serious travelers make a point to visit. And at the Southern end is the church in Gelmeroda which the German American painter (and Bauhaus professor) became obsessed with, and made image after image of it throughout his career. The local architect Peter Mittman has created a light show sculpture at the church. We should call him while you're here to see if he's in town (his firm is based in Koeln, but he has a second office here.)

He's just bought the oldest house (1804) in the village and designed a balcony for the best possible viewing of his 10 p.m. "exhibition". You'll really find Mittmann interesting. One of his partners, Neufort, is the grandson of the first Bauhaus professor to build a prototype house in 1925, and they use that house as their office/showplace in Gelmerodal.

Ernest Neufort, like his contemporary Egon Eiermann, have been under a cloud since World War II because, unlike Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, they didn't flee Nazism to America. They stayed put and now suffer under the onus of being "nice Nazis". But since the "Wende" (change that came with unifying the two Germany's it looks like they may finally get the architectural recognition they've long deserved."

"But come, enough of the blather. Let's go and have a good dinner and talk about what you want to see and learn". We walked a few steps to the Market Square. He pointed out City Hall, the tourist office in a marvelous light green with curious gables that recalled Flemish buildings. "Next to the tourist office is Cranach where the painter lived for several years. You'll want some day to visit Sts. Peter and Paul Church--the so-called Herder Church (he ran things there for decades) to see the Cranach triptych altarpiece. It's one of the finest things in Weimar. Everybody yaks Goethe and Schiller, but Weimar is far more than those two.

There's a great National Theatre troupe here with major performances at the Redoute just North of the main train station, an experimental workshop where they're about to do an Urfaust that will test your avant garde spirit--Mephisto is a transexual who first appears as a Marlene Dietrich figure than morphs into a dwarf hobbling after Faust and then suddenly is a ravening beast biting her own bloody tail and spewing gore all around Hell, which is an industrial steel box which flames and groans at the devil's whims.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Weimar Redux One

My obsession with Weimar was a sheer fluke. It began with a sneer and a party. On the press tour for Stockholm as the Cultural Capital of Europe in January 1998, the architecture critic of Berliner Morgenpost sneered that next year would be a big comedown because "that little Ossie wreck of a town, Weimar, was to be the Cultural Capital".

He sounded so snide (I didn't yet know about the phenomenon of Wessie arrogance) that my underdog sentiments snapped to attention. "Weimar," I asked him, "isn't that where the Bauhaus was founded? And where the ill-fated Weimar Republic started?" "Yes," he conceded,"but that was before twelve years of Nazi and almost fifty years of Communist corruption." What a hip shit, I fumed quietly. I vowed on the spot to take a detour through Weimar on my way back home to San Francisco.

The party was the highlight of that first visit. I walked from the main train station to the center of the city at Theatreplatz in fifteen minutes. I was appalled. The place was a wreck. A few attractive buildings or renovations just made the overall impression worse, like a few gold teeth in a mouth full of decay. So the snotty Berlin critic was right, after all, I concluded. But luckily I decided to visit the headquarters of KulturHaupstadt Europas in a glorious Jugendstil bank, rusticated red sandstone dominating the end of Schillerstrasse.

I buzzed the secure door on the third floor, distracted up all those stairs by the splendid tulip floral decorations on the walls. A twenty something in very American looking gear opened the door, and I stumbled through my well rehearsed opener: "Ich bin Jake McBride von San Francisco." He smiled easily, extended a hand, and replied in idiomatic American. "Hi! I'm Chris...from Weimar." Astonished at his casual style, I asked him where he learned to speak English so fluently. "Simple," he explained, "I spent a year in Dayton, Ohio as a junior in high school. Cultural exchange. You know the number."

He sat me down opposite his desk, as I identified myself. "I write a weekly column for an alternative paper called the San Francisco Eye, and in Stockholm on the press tour for their being the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1998, a smart ass architecture critic from Berliner Morgenpost made some demeaning remarks about Weimar being the next capital and that it was bound to be a mess, given almost six decades of Nazi and Stasi abuse.

I resented his glibness, and remembered some good things about Weimar--the Bauhaus and the Republic--so I decided to check it out for myself. On my way back to San Francisco. I must say, if what I saw just now walking from the Hauptbahnhof is typical, the snotty Berlin critic may be right. It was a mess, from start to finish."

"Heh, don't jump to conclusions. Bonn has ponied up almost a billion Deutschmarks to bring it back from the disaster the GDR left us in. The official reason for our being the Cultural Capital is that 1999 is Goethe's 250th birthday, and Johann Wolfgang is King around here. The cynical among us like to kid that he and his buddy Schiller have pissed in every corner of Weimar. It's for sure without their presence tourism wouldn't amount to much. But that's only the cover story. What Helmut Kohl wanted to do was to give the Ossiesan example of how the spiritual center of Germany could be retrieved from sadness and despair.

When he declared the two Germany's one (Einheit, as he called it), it was assumed that the billions of DM's poured into the obsolescent East would quickly bring the Ossies up to parity with the Wessies. That didn't happen. In fact, twenty percent unemployment is still the norm. And the Ossies feel doubly cheated. Wessies in droves moved in, taking over leadership jobs, and in addition to the injury of displacement was the insult of losing all the security of the socialist welfare system. There are thousands of men in their forties and fifties who feel they've been dealt a deck of jokers. It's very sad to watch my father and his friends, unable to join in the new initiatives and despondent over what they lost."

(To be continued: This is the first of nine parts of a fictional account.)

Monday, 11 May 2009

Globalization's Hidden Agendas

Former Commerce Department official David J. Rothkopf reveals a disconcerting ambiguity in the domestic politics of countries affected by America's economic domination. He recounts the tale of Chile presidential candidate Ricardo Lagos' appearance before his Wall Street constituency. "A Socialist, he made sure to meet with George Soros, David Rockefeller, Steve Forbes and other members of the American financial elite. Call this the dual-constituency conundrum--the dilemma faced today by many political leaders who must balance the demands of two diametrically opposed groups."

One is the voters who elect the government in a given country. The other is the 30,000 or so traders and fund managers who conduct "instant referendums on the policies made by the world's governments."

A political leader can have broad support at home and run afoul of the men and women who vote with their money. When investors pull their money out, local economies flounder, policies are derailed and support at home can erode quickly.

This happens with dismaying frequency because Wall Street voters are not much interested in the long-term well-being of the countries they judge. What they want to know is whether their money will grow now or in the cycles during which their bonuses are being calculated.

Rothkopf concludes his fresh analysis of this paradox in the process of globalization by urging America's financial elite to be cognizant of the dual constituencies of the developing world. "A far-sighted leader like Ricardo Lagos will try to strike a balance that takes advantage of the opportunities created by this situation. Wall Street 'voters' need to realize that it is in their interest to support policies that are both politically and economically sustainable in the countries where they invest." ("So the Chilean Socialist Has to Campaign on Wall Street," IHT, 3/11/99, p.8.)

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Expectations Gap

For every indictment of America there appears to be an equal and opposite reaction. Geneva Overholser of the Washington Post used the Cato Institute's study, "Is Our Culture in Decline?" ("U.S.Culture Is Thriving Despite All the Junk," IHT, 2/11/99, p. 9, c. 6.) to reassure gloom and doomers. She observes that Summer 1998, nineteen nations including some of America's best friends (but America was uninvited!) met in Ottawa to ponder how they could protect themselves and their culture from the United States and its culture.

She mocks: "Loathing the culture is as American as apple pie. Americans loathe it from the right, decrying rents in the nation's social and moral fabric, and yearning for traditions lost. Americans also loathe it from the left, bemoaning the distorting grip of capitalism and yearning for more government funding."

So how does this "moral rot" smell? She advises her readers to start with young people. "After two decades of increase, the proportion of high school students who have had sex has fallen 11 percent in the 1990's. . . .For the first time this decade, fewer than half reported having sex;among boys, the decline was particularly striking--49 percent, versus 57 percent in 1991." Notice the assumption that not having sex is a good thing. Scandinavian teenagers might have another take on this "improvement".

"Or take alcohol. In 1980, 72 percent of high school seniors said they had consumed alcohol recently, compared with 51 percent in 1996. In 1985, 17 percent of students said they had tried cocaine, compared with 7 percent in 1996. Violent crime is at its lowest point in 25 years." Notice the glib conflation of alcohol consumption with cocaine as valid indices of mature behavior. Surely German students would have a different take on beer consumption; French ones on wine. That's supposedly the not-bad news.

The really good news is the Culture Explosion: The average American buys twice and many books today as in 1947. "Television and the Internet have clearly not vanquished the book." Without knowing what "book" means in specific terms, this is a meaningless datum. All we so-called book-lovers know is that independent bookstores increasingly feel themselves up against the wall of insolvency. "From 1965-1990, the number of symphony orchestras in the United States grew from 58 to nearly 300, opera companies from 27 to more than 150, regional theatres from 22 to 500. Theater ticket sales are up. More Americans are studying abroad."

(As a professor who directed an overseas program in London 1967-8, I remain skeptical about how much of those visitors learn and how much they merely play.) And while the proliferation of sketchily supported cultural organizations gives many more amateurs the thrill and challenges of becoming part-time professionals, I still find it odd that the Scandinavian countries provide more support for the American art of jazz than we do.

Numbers, when pressed, mean very little. As a native of Philadelphia I revel in the glories of the Philadelphia Art Museum but find it frustrating to have to worry about which public transport I should take to avoid harassment. What profiteth a city or a culture if its upperbrow cultural institutions "thrive" while the city itself shows signs of rigor mortis.

Overholser stresses the diversity of American culture, "a fact that enriches or diminishes it, depending on your view." She concedes that some of the "greatest cultural debates rage over the quick embrace of fleeting trends and the lack of respect for the great voices of the past. But Americans seem in fact to be blessed with a culture that can appreciate Mozart even as it enables women songwriters and singers to soar."

I'm increasingly convinced that cultural statistics can lie, confuse, and mislead even more than their economic brothers. I want to know, not how many attend concerts, but how many parents nurture their children faithfully and imaginatively, how consistent their schools put all children on a rising gradient of self-awareness and autonomy, whether their architects and planners build spectacular museums or good solid affordable houses and clean, attractive, and safe public spaces.

American identity has been beleaguered by the Expectations Gap ever since our Founding Fathers, a clever and perceptive aristocratic lot, saw how far our realities fell short of our high ideals. John Adams, in a letter from Paris to Abigail in the 1790's, couldn't help but try to justify how mean and savage Boston seemed in comparison to the City of Light. He argued that it would be the task of their generation to lay sound political foundations so their their sons could develop an economy productive enough to let their grandsons pursue culture with the panache of the French.

The Adams Family is instructive in its own history on this paradigm of Expectations. Surely it was not at least until 1828 after John Quincy Adams had stolen the 1824 election that Andrew Jackson showed the direction politics had to take if America was to mature. And Charles Francis Adams' work for the Erie Railroad moved the culture closer to the economic level needed to fulfill John's Dream.

I date economic maturity to 1915 when Henry Ford perceived that only a well paid workforce could afford to buy what they manufacture on his assembly lines. Doubling their pay drove the Detroit moguls to wonder if he had lost his mind.

I date the cultural take off point to 1927 when General Motors made styling the focal point of its marketing strategy.

We know that the Adams' grandsons, Henry and Brooks, lost track of John's Dream--Henry retreating to the incontrovertible glories of Mt. San Michel and Chartres while Brooks became the house egghead for the new American Imperialism of Admiral Mahan and Teddy Roosevelt.