Sunday, March 4, 2012

DeLiRiouS NY......part 1

Those trucks in the street
Is it really Monday?
Time to find some trouble again
Make a bid for romance while the dollar stands a chance.
Dumb love in the city at century’s end

Those trucks in the street…

Opening lines patently familiar to a New Yorker - clarion call signalling it's time to get up and slog through yet another week.  Taken from the theme song for the movie "Bright Lights, Big City" (United Artists, 1988). The movie is based on Jay McInerney’s novel of the same name (NY:1984) about an unnamed protagonist seeking escape from his reality in mid-1980s postmodernist New York City. Not only was he living in postmodernist New York City, his story is contextualised in a timeframe in which postmodernist aesthetic and thought was coming to a festering, carbunclous head.

I found myself singing that song as my subconscious yet again registered images of pop culture peeps and storefront mannequins adorned with fluorescent costume jewellery and accessories, stud belts, leg warmers, electric blue shoes and eyeliner, skinny jeans, stiffly moussed/gelled big hair, neon clothing…and that’s just the guys.

OMG…is society now undergoing an 80s redoux?? (groan!)

Is that what’s responsible for the Footloose remake and ‘Greed is Good’ Wall Street 2? (sigh!)

Will 80s nostalgia kickstart round 2 of the Postmodernist movement? (sound of me slitting my wrists...ok not really)

Postmodernism is a portmanteau of ‘Postwar Modernism’. Postwar Modernism > Postmodernism > PoMo is a movement that began in America in the late 60’s - early 70’s. The ideologies that define the movement emerged as a reaction against the previous Modern era and its tenets, particularly those of functionalism and an adherence to tradition and clarity of function. Postmodernism rejects such rigidity and further, believes that Modernism failed to deliver on many of its promises, including that of creating utopia.

PoMo stretched across the turbulence of the 60s, the conflict and frustration of the 70s to the angst, cynicism, greed and excess of the 80s. It encompassed the visual arts (Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, Campbell’s Soup), the literary arts (McInerney’s novel, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot), architecture and music.

A snapshot of this tri-decade changing world distilled in the experiences of one man can be felt in the 4 minute run time of Steely Dan’s Kid Charlemagne which chronicles the rise and fall of uber iconic, counter-culture Bear (Owsley Stanley III): famous 60s “cook”, Grateful Dead audio engineer and unflappable LSD innovator and mass marketer:
        Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl
        You turned it on the world
        That’s when you turned the world around…
        Did you feel like Jesus?

The post Viet Nam conflict/psychedelic freewheeling 60s era of free love and free drugs (escapism) help define the threshold between Modernism and Postmodernism. Somewhere along this time line the party was over. Society changed. Post war boom led to double-digit inflation & rising unemployment:

        All those DayGlo freaks who used to paint the face
        They’ve joined the human race
        Some things will never change.

        Son you were mistaken
        You are obsolete
        Look at all the white men on the street.

Kid Charlemagne is the flagship track from the album Royal Scam, issued in 1976.  NB the album cover: 

Man, seen from a worm’s eye view, obviously down on his luck, he grabs a nap where he once would wait to board a train (that’s a bench you find in a train terminal) to go to work in a big skyscraper not unlike one of the four fearsome looking zoomorphed skyscrapers ready to make a meal of him.  The metaphor needs no explanation.

An eerily similar image is found in Rem Koolhaas’ retroactive manifesto, Delirious New York, 1978. (Dutchman Koolhaas studied architecture at Cornell in the early 1970s.) Here we see anthropomorphed Chrysler building (William Van Alen, 1930; Art Deco) in bed with Empire State Building (Shreve, Lamb, Harmon, 1931; Art Deco).

The zoomorphisation of NY skyscrapers is a psychological projection of human fear felt in the Postmodernist era.  It represents a certain trepidation of Man being swallowed up by them and what they represent (unbridled capitalism).  A portent of things to come.  Even the buildings themselves see the sick joke.  All brace for the paradigm shift.
[The worm’s eye view is a common meme used in photographs of people and buildings; especially NY shots.  Those who don’t really know what they’re looking at think it’s cool.]

In the PoMo world, Capitalism is now codified as ‘The Man’ who now controls society.  We all now work for The Man. 

Capitalism and Architecture

Many PoMo buildings serve as metaphors.  Much of it reflects a disenfranchisement with (International Style) Modernism and the failure of its manifesto: ie, to create utopia in the post war (WW2) era via designing better cities and better buildings wherein people would live.  PoMo archtecture was quickly adopted by corporations to serve as symbols of wealth and power.  The late 1980s brand of capitalism focussed on product information and images rather than the thing that the image represented.  Image was reality.  Art for commerce, no longer for art’s sake (Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup series).  This fostered a climate where buildings were fighting for their own identity which fuelled a return to ornament, which came in the form of weird cross references: eclecticisms and the real being substituted by simulacra.  To what end?
Philip Johnson's AT&T Building, 1984
Cabinet by Thomas Chippendale c 18thC
Elevation. AT&T Bldg
Two iconic PoMo buildings, both located in NYC, are Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building and his Lipstick Building.  Both reference typologies not found in architecture, especially the International Style which is modernist.  The former looks like an 18 century cabinet (see Thomas Chippendale) and the latter like an elliptical tube of lipstick (see woman’s make-up bag).
'Lipstick Building', Philip Johnson, 1986
The buildings are ambiguous (a hallmark of PoMo thought and architecture) and give no indication as to what types of functions are performed in them.  Form definitely does not follow function.  (ie, the AT&T building is not furniture headquarters, and the Lipstick Building is not a cosmetics headquarters, but boy do they stand out!)  This type ambiguity is a snub at the Modernist corporate aesthetic and famous Modernism axiom attributed to Bauhaus modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: "Form follows function". 
One might ask: Why design these type buildings? It’s what society wanted.  From architect Philip Johnson, self proclaimed corporate “whore”:
“I’m a whore.  I do what the developers pay me to do…while Mies would rather be good than interesting, I’d rather be interesting than good.”

What's that now, Philip??
Mies & PJ with a model of the Seagram
nb Mies 'claiming' his bldg by placing his hand on it
The Seagram Building, not two blocks up from the Lipstick building, is a classic example of the Modernist corporate aesthetic:  Rectilinear box, lack of ornamentation, self referential, use of industrial materials (the thin mullions - vertical strips that divide the windows - are in essence  I beams), economy of materials: columns, floor plates, glass curtain wall ‘skin or enclosures.  The interior of the building is travertine and even gold plate, but rendered in a non showy, non ornamental way. 

Seagram details
Seagram Building, 1958. MVDR & PJ

How many people would guess that the Seagram Building was done in 1958?  Good is timeless, Philip.

Though designed by both Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Seagram is essentially all Miesian in approach, form, look and feel (Mies was the king of the glass box). Johnson was primarily responsible for the interior architecture.  Incidentally, Mies and PJ parted ways after designing this building.  Clash of ideologies between the whore and the purist.

If one believes that the role of an architect is to articulate our environment enabling a literal comprehension  of society, then Postmodernist architecture succeeds at this.  If modernism wanted to underscore the fact that architecture must grapple with the society of its time, postmodernism highlighted that this too must include an articulation of societal flux and uncertainty.

Post war (WW2) environment led to pre war (WW3?) angst and anxiety. The political climate created a sense of unease and dread:  The Cold War was still being fought.  There was constant talk of nuclear war.  The word “superpowers” came into being.  Everywhere there seemed to be the feeling of an impending threat of total annihilation at the push of a red button, with the ‘lucky’ ones inheriting a blasted, pockmarked, toxic earth, or a cyber-punk world of degraded society littered with cool gadgets.  Common images of NYC in that era were of sidewalks thick with yuppies (a Postmodernist word), heads bobbing up and down as they marched en masse to or from work in their trench coats and sneakers & stockings (???); blank faces masking the loss of control and exuding disaffected, collective cynicism.

We cut to this blonde  
Dancing on a mirror
There’s no disbelief to suspend
It’s the dance it’s the dress
She’s a concept more or less
Dumb love in the city at century’s end
Back to our Postmodernist protagonist.  The dust cover of the novel shows the protagonist headed in the direction of the Odeon cinema.  ‘ODEON'  marquee is done in streamline moderne  – the tail end of the art deco movement (WW2…1945). This type architecture is juxtaposed on the other side with Minoru Yamasaki’s and Emery Roth & Sons’ large, looming gothic modernist World Trade Centre twin towers (completed 1970 – 1971). The skyscrapers dominate the right side of the book’s cover.  Midground we see a tiny little Beaux Arts building (representing the Classical architecture of the Greeks and Romans and its insignificance to the Postmodernist era).  Back turned to the audience, thus effaced (it’s a historical no-no to have one’s back to the audience), we get the sense of following him.  Following him in his trench coat.  Following him around in his little NYC world.  Following and watching.  As we all know, the sense of being followed or of being watched produces a fair amount of angst.  We the reader, therefore engage in producing this angst that overshadows his life.
Weighted down with the death of his mother, his wife leaving him, and a seemingly illogical emotive reaction to a stranger: a pregnant woman in a coma, the protagonist struggles to balance his day job at a New York lifestyle magazine as a fact checker (juxtapose this with Orwell’s protagonist in Nineteen Eighty-four who is a ‘fact eraser’ for the State newspaper) with his escapism played out on the nighttime club scene, which includes lots of girls and ‘lifestyle' or 'recreational' drug usage. 

Nobody’s holding out for heaven
It’s not for creatures here below
We just suit up for the game
The name of which we used to know
It might be careless rapture

He is centrally located between symbols of work (big corporation embodied by the Twin Towers) and play (embodied by the cinema, which is also a means of escapism).  How does one achieve Homo Ludens in a Postmodernist society? Though it may seem like it, peel back the layers and one realises that the protagonist's recreation is not fun

While we become acquainted with him and get a peek into his life I’m sure it escapes some readers’ attention that he has no name!  He is effaced and self-effacing, as the novel is written in second-person narrative; a Postmodernist (rehashed) literary tradition:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of morning.  But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.  You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.  The club is either Heartbreak or The Lizard Lounge.  All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder.  Then again it might not.

                                       Bright Lights, Big City. NY: 1984, p 1.

He tries to look for escape from within the very environment from which he wants to escape.  As he attempts this he (we) realise that his situation isn’t singular.  It is Postmodernist zeitgeist, which in many ways could be interpreted as dystopic (yet another parallel to Orwell's novel). 

I too have felt the discomfort and sense of unease and of not belonging; a lack of a sense of identity whilst studying in NY during the tail end of the Postmodernist era.  Though primarily based outside NYC, forays into the city would sometimes produce this sensation.  Sometimes.  I always thought this was the result of being a stranger in a strange land.  Decades later I now realise that even ‘native’ New Yorkers felt this way.  Postmodernist zeitgeist.

Obsessed with the Male-female paradigms of love (of all things: LOVE?!?!): mother/wife/expectant mother, our protagonist keeps moving, travelling through this architectural landscape going through the motions of work-consumption-work-recreation-escape-work-consumption-escape-…aware of his disconnect and his inability to get it right, proceeding in an unending cycle of cynicism and resignation to his perceived lack of control over his life and its regnant ambiguities.

Scratch the cab
We can grab the local
Let’s get to the love scene my friend
Which means look, maybe touch
But beyond that not too much
Dumb love in the city at century’s end.

Dumb love in the city… .

       - Torsdag

YouTube video of Century's End.  Soundtrack to 'Bright Lights, Big City'. DonaldFagan, 1988.

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