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Park La Brea, Corbusier, and Planning the City of the Future

Park La Brea, the largest housing project west of the Mississippi, is one of a great many  high-density housing projects built across the country in the first half of the twentieth century. Located west of downtown Los Angeles, the complex is an assembly of low garden-apartments and thirteen story towers, the latter of which make it something of an anomaly in the low-rise environment of Los Angeles. It and its fellows were the product of half a century of thought regarding the state of the city and the question of how to define its future. The schemes  which birthed it—from Ebenezer Howard’s garden city to Le Corbusier’s City of To-morrow— have been roundly and often justifiably criticized since their inception and even more vociferously from the 50’s onward, when the tracts and projects which had been built in their name began to decline. However, Park La Brea stands out as an instance of one of these projects which did not decline and, furthermore, shows no signs of doing so. Rather, Park La Brea has, in its now more than 75 year history, enjoyed unprecedented success, remaining attractive to Angeleno home buyers (there is always a list to get in) and succeeding in creating a diverse and vibrant community, despite all odds. As such, Park La Brea, anomalous though it may seem, seems to offer something of a vindication of so-often criticized utopian designs of early twentieth century planners, perhaps indicating that at their cores, those utopian plans were not so far off-base. Read More

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Screen Shot 2017-11-04 at 1.38.39 PMThe Collision of the Miniature and Immense in the Construction of Self

The dining table of the house I grew up in wasn’t a particularly enormous one, but it was big enough that, when it was spread with the far-too-large tablecloth my mother used for Christmas parties, the space enclosed by the walls of heavy fabric was more than enough for a brother and sister to hide away in. Every year, as soon as this tablecloth came out for the Christmas party, my younger brother and I were in and out from underneath it, burrowing under the folds of fabric which pooled on the floor around the table’s edge, sitting in the semi-darkness together or alone, playing at spies or detectives or cavemen or else just existing within the space we felt we’d made—in helping to lay the table cloth—and discovered—in crawling beneath its folds. This was not the only such space we created or appropriated; we made pillow forts and tree-houses (some more successful than others), took over the tiny triangular space behind the winter coats in the closet under the stairs where the ceiling sloped to meet the floor, built huts of fallen palm fronds in recesses of the backyard, and appropriated the little shed that housed the back-up generator at the side of the house in the day or two when it was empty and awaiting an newer model. The two of us, only fifteen months apart, pushed and wormed our way into every nook and cranny we could find and made them ours—despite having our great-grandmother’s little wooden playhouse available to us in the backyard. Many of the memories I have of the house I grew up in (which we left nearly ten years ago) are grounded in images of these places—small, physically enclosed spaces, which were, because we found and created them, ours.

Our engagement with miniature space did not stop at inhabiting any nook we could discover or make, though; both of us  spent hours constructing spaces too small for anyone but fairies or Alice after she’d drunk the shrinking potion. American Bricks, Girder and Panel, Erector, and Lego were staples in our house growing up, but they were more the domain of my brother. My building materials were whatever I could get my hands on, constructing cities and buildings on my bedroom floor from books and dominoes and boxes and blocks and anything else I fancied. In the backyard (or anywhere we went, really), I made houses and huts of twigs and grass, leaves and berries, moss and flowers. Somewhere around the house, there was always bound to be some such construction project underway and I could sit for hours building and staring at my creations, imagining life into them, imagining myself into them. Looking at the photos of myself in the midst of constructing one of these miniature worlds—whether on the floor of my room, in the backyard, or by a lake—I am struck always by the look of concentration on my face and by the size of the thing I am building, which, though logically I know the scale I must have been working with, always surprises me by its smallness in the photograph. For in my imagination then and in the vestiges of my memory now, those cities and buildings were somehow infinitely vast, transgressing their physical boundaries and swallowing me. Read More

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The Garden of Eden, Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Breughel (1615)

Understanding Eden through Place, Environment, and Landscape in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Milton dreamed all his life of seeing the Earth from the air. Flight and the imagining of an aerial perspective obsessed him and, as a result, his many descriptions of flight and of what he imagined the world would look like from the air are some of Paradise Lost’s most sublime passages. In flight, Milton saw something daring and rebellious—to dream of it symbolized for him a reaching beyond man’s capacity to something greater in an impossible striving to transcend his own being. When, in Book Five, Eve describes her dream to Adam, it is her feeling of flight and the look of the world below her that sticks with both her and the reader: “Forthwith up to the clouds / With him I flew and underneath beheld / The earth outstretched immense, a prospect wide / And various, won’dring at my flight and change / To this high exultation” (5.86-90). Eve cannot quite shake the awe of the feeling of flight, despite Adam’s warning against heeding dreams. So desperately did Milton wish to feel that soaring he imagined, that he configured his lofty ambitions in terms of it, opening Paradise Lost by declaring his intention to write a poem which will “with no middle flight. . . soar / Above the Aonian mount while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (1.14-16). If Milton cannot soar with the same ease that Satan’s “sail-broad” wings allow, he will content himself with a parallel audacious striving: the writing of this very poem, by which he will simultaneously imitate flight and attempt to understand the world. It is this last which accounts for the extent to which the geography and environment of Paradise Lost are so memorable and sublime. As John Stilgoe notes in his What is Landscape?, the aerial view obsessed people curious about the would around them for centuries before it became possible for that view to be achieved, let alone for it to become achievable for the average person. Milton was just such one of those people. Had he been a young man in 1897, I do not doubt Century Magazine’s articles on how to send a camera aloft on a kite and how to build a kite which would lift a person would have found an eager reader in him (What is Landscape?, 23). In lieu of these exploits, Milton performs his exploration of place, environment, and landscape imaginatively in the creation of a poem in which place and environment are crucial at every stage, often playing roles in and of themselves.

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Satan Descends upon Earth, Gustave Doré (1866)

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Secret Space and the Child in English Children’s Literature of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries

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Jessie Willcox Smith, 1905.

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 12.56.02 PMRobert Louis Stevenson, “My Kingdom,” 1885

I. Kindergarten

A little girl, looking for a place to hide in a game with her siblings, steps into a wardrobe and stumbles into another world. A child wandering about before tea finds a hidden dell and transforms it into a secret kingdom. A displaced orphan discovers a buried key and a hidden door which lead her into a place all her own. Children spending their summer holidays in the Lake District make a secret camp on a deserted island. And a lonely boy in a big house builds himself a miniature city and disappears into it every night, escaping a nasty nurse. Space is explored, hidden, and discovered; tumbled into, transformed, claimed, and rescaled. Imagination is power as it rewrites the world for its wielders; children become kings and queens, explorers and gardeners, saviors and gods—never simply “children,” never only themselves. And yet, through their imaginative interactions with space—their transformations of their surroundings, their discoveries and creations of secret spaces all their own—literary children discover and become themselves, throwing off the strictures that limited the Victorian child (and child protagonist) to become people—and selves—in their own right.  Read More

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Anatoly Solonitsyn as Andrei Rublev

Silence and Speech in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and Buida’s Sinbad the Sailor

Speech, as our means of interpersonal communication, is fundamentally an action of faith. In speaking, we express our faith both in language, trusting its expressive power, and in the people around us, whom we believe will listen. In the film Andrei Rublev and short story “Sinbad the Sailor,” Andrei Tarkovsky and Yury Buida explore the nature of the act of faith that is speech, exposing the pitfalls and imperfections of speech and language as a means for communication, and yet ultimately affirming their necessity via the perfected language of art.

In Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, the connection between speech and art is made apparent in Andrei’s decision to renounce both speech and painting following his experience of the violence of the Tartar raids. Faced with humanity’s—and his own—capacity for violence, Andrei is completely disillusioned with the world and all of mankind and decides to attempt to renounce his humanity via a vow of silence—both linguistic and artistic—rather than work to improve himself or mankind. In doing this, he commits “a grave sin,” in the words of Theophanes, for he gives up his faith in himself, in mankind, in the power of art to play out a penance that is an entirely negative presence within the film. While silent, Andrei is inhuman both in his refusal to communicate and in his absoluteness. He allows the holy fool to leave with the Tartars though he knows it will end badly for her simply because he refuses to break his vow of silence. He will not even speak up for himself, as, when the buffoon accuses him of having reported on him years before, Andrei remains mute, denying his humanity in his unwillingness to break his inhuman vow and defend himself. But even as he tries to excise his humanity from himself, we see that deep down he still clings to it, believing that to separate himself from his impulse towards connection is a productive form of penance, rather than a negative, destructive absolute. Throughout his silence, the camera focuses on the pain in Andrei’s eyes as he moves through the world convinced of his inability—acted out in his self-imposed silence—to affect the world and the people around him. His vow of silence, his renunciation of language and speech, becomes an emblem of his lack of faith in his own ability to affect any of the change he wishes to achieve. Read More

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Stealing some Howard Pyle.

Music and the Sustenance of Illusion in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King

Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is an intensely aural text, permeated by the voices of Arthur and his men; the music and songs of the knights and ladies; the clash of battle-axe, sword, and cup; shrill “wandering wind”; and the “carolling” of fountains. The poem itself is, to borrow George Eliot’s phrase, “a structure of tones,” and thus it is hardly surprising when, in Gareth and Lynette, Tennyson provides his own image for the text itself in Merlin’s description of Camelot as “a city built to music.”¹ However, the image of Camelot as a city built in and of music does more than provide a neat image of Tennyson’s own project; indeed it is central to his exploration of the seed of destruction inherent in Arthur’s creation of an ideal realm. Music, in the Idylls, is far from a fixed category: always at the edge of the passion, camaraderie, and harmony it has the power to inspire is the threat of unruly destruction and discord, the products of senseless, irrational, spontaneous response to music. And yet, music, unceasingly, is the image through which Tennyson conveys Arthur’s illusory project, presenting music again and again as a force for unity and cohesion, as inspiration for and expression of the love Arthur’s knights bear one another, their king, and his realm, despite the increasing presence of warring strains of music which seek to expose the illusion of Camelot and sew discord among Arthur’s knights. Read More

Bien qu’il puisse paraître que la société que Diderot décrit dans le Supplement au voyage de Bougainville est une sorte d’utopie—un endroit idyllique où règnent la liberté et l’égalité—en réalité, ce que Diderot fait dans le Supplement est de présenter seulement l’image d’une utopie et ensuite de montrer que ce “paradis” a autant de problèmes que la société il est supposé de s’opposer.

Sur la surface, le Tahiti est décrit comme quelque part qui approche l’état parfait de Rousseau: l’age d’or au début d’histoire d’homme. En Tahiti, il n’y a pas des lois arbitraires et contre la nature. Tous les gens peuvent faire ce qu’ils veulent. Les Tahitiens, dans les mots du vieillard, sont “innocents… heureux” et ils “suiv[ent] le pur instinct de la nature” (148). “[En Tahiti]” il continue, “tout est à tous.” Si on prend ces déclarations comme la vérité, le cas est simple: le Tahiti est une vestige de l’état dont parle Rousseau. Il est libre, juste, et aligné avec la nature. Et il fournit un point de contraste concrète avec la société Européenne qui est corrompu à cause des forces de la civilisation. Mais, en fait, le projet de Diderot et plus compliqué que ça: son Tahiti n’est pas une utopie, mais une société qui est aussi convaincu de sa supériorité que celle de Bougainville et l’aumonier. Read More